Archive for the ‘Times of Malta’ Category

  • A CURIOUS DISCOVERY

    Times of Malta dating 15 April 1969 (Photo by Fiona Vella)Skeletons found in hidden Żejtun corridor reported the Times of Malta on Tuesday, 15 April 1969. A photo of sacristan Ġann Marì Debono holding a skull in his hand accompanied the news of this remarkable discovery which up to this day is still shrouded in mystery and imbued with controversy.

    I have been investigating and researching this find, often by interviewing persons who declared to have been involved in this discovery. My findings were discussed during a national symposium which was organized by Wirt iż-Żejtun in 2014 and later published in the book The Turkish Raid of 1614 which was issued by the same NGO.

    Charles Debono, the eldest son of Ġann Marì Debono (Photo by Fiona Vella)I never got the opportunity to talk to Ġann Marì Debono since he passed away in 2001, at the age of 78. Therefore, I accepted gladly the invitation of his eldest son Charles Debono who offered to share with me his father’s story.

    “My grandmother had many children and so my father was brought up by his uncle Pawlu and his wife Beneditta Fenech. Pawlu was the sacristan of the parish church of St Catherine in Żejtun and he often took my father with him while he was at work. Soon, my father got very fond of this job and he gave a hand to his uncle whenever he could. Eventually, when Pawlu died, my father took over his duties and he became the new sacristan.”

    Along the years, the old church of St Gregory which originally was the parish church of the village, had become neglected.

    St Gregory church Zejtun“There was nothing but a few farmhouses in the area. However, when a housing estate was built in proximity to this church, it made sense to revamp this building to provide service to the inhabitants who lived close by. Since my father was considering leaving his job at the parish church, Fr Ġwann Palmier, who was responsible for St Gregory’s church and also a friend of his, offered him a job there. Soon, my father was appointed as the sacristan of this church and together with Fr Palmier, they began to restore the place back to its glory.”

    On the right - Gan Mari Debono“My father was blessed with a curious nature and a strong determination. He had often listened to the rumours of the old villagers who insisted that there were some people that were buried around the dome of St Gregory’s church. He tried hard to locate this area, especially while doing maintenance work around the dome but he never succeeded.”

    Time would reveal that this was an impossible task since the human remains were actually buried around the roof and not around the dome.

    “There was a raised stone close to the exit of the stairway’s room which led to the roof. My father often commented that it looked unusual and out of place. He was convinced that there was something beneath it. One day, there were some men doing maintenance work on the roof and he asked them to try to remove it.”

    St Gregory's church in the 1960's - red arrow pointing to the raised stone on the roof (Photo by Johnny Vella)“Once the stone was removed, it was clear that it was covering an opening which led into the church. When my father entered into this space, he found his way to a small chamber which led to U-shaped passages that ran around the roof. Inside the corridors, he found several human remains. I remember him coming home on that day, full of excitement and telling us ‘I found them! I finally found them! I will take you to see them!’”

    When Charles visited the passages with his father, he noticed that the skeletons seemed to be lined up near each other along the corridors, as if someone had arranged them in that way. There was about 3 centimetres of dust which had collected in the corridors along the years during which the passages were blocked and closed away.

    Figura_14._Sezzjoni_mill_armarju_li_bhalissa_l_oggetti_misjuba_huma_mizmuma_fih.Within this dust, a wooden shoe sole with a high heel, a small gilded wooden cross of Byzantine design, odd bits of a gilded wooden frame (perhaps an icon), three coins: two bronze with the cross of the Order, the other gold, but very worn out that it cannot be deciphered, pieces of pottery of the 16-17th century, fragments of animal bones, and a part of a chain mail armour vest, were discovered.

    “My father found these passages in pitch darkness but soon he noticed that there were stones blocking five narrow loopholes in the thick walls. Once he removed these stones, he realized that three of them were pointing directly at St Thomas Bay and Marsascala while the other two looked out at Marsaxlokk and Birżebbuġa.”

    The skeletons which were discovered in the secret passages (Photo provided by Charles Debono)To avoid them being trodden, Debono picked up all the human bones and stacked them at the end of the third corridor. Yet the story does not end there….

    “My father was sure that there was another entrance to these passages within the church itself. He pondered this idea and made several attempts to trace it out. Eventually he came upon a wall cupboard which was situated in an area along the winding staircase and seemed to be of no use. He decided to ask his friend Ġanni Vella, who was known as Ġanni l-ġgant (Ġanni the giant), to bring one of his mason’s tools; a huge iron nail with which building stones were kept in place. He knocked on the wall cupboard with this tool and suddenly, this feature moved out of the wall, revealing another entrance to these passages. It is from this entrance that people get in to view these passages nowadays.”

    In 1978, paleopathological studies were done on these human remains by Seshadri Ramaswamy and Joseph Leslie Pace. These experts concluded that the bones appeared to have been exhumed from a cemetery and placed in the passages. However, others find this conclusion hard to believe and they insist that these remains possibly belong to a group of people who were trapped in these corridors whilst hiding there during an Ottoman attack on the village in 1614.

    Ġann Marì Debono (Photo provided by Charles Debono)Every Wednesday after Easter, the traditional feast of St Gregory is celebrated in this historical church in Żejtun. Probably few of those attending are aware of the secret passages and the human skeletons lying within.

    Considering that 49 years have passed from this discovery and that several scientific tools are now available to provide more conclusive results, including perhaps dna tests to trace family ancestry, isn’t it time to resolve this mystery by identifying who are these people and how they ended up in these passages?

     (This feature was published in the Sunday Times of Malta issued on 25 March 2018)

    2018.03.25 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • A THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE

    U3E members at the Archaeological Museum.It is never too late to learn something new. Evidence of the benefits of lifelong learning is overwhelming. Feeling connected to life and to others, being eager and motivated to explore different themes, keeping active intellectually, socially and physically are just some of the rewarding factors.

    Martin Diacono has been attending to lectures at the University of the Third Age for the past 10 years.

    “It is mostly my thirst for knowledge which urges me to follow these lectures. I even attend to the lectures which are offered to the general public by the University of Malta. I have a deep interest in art and these lectures provide me with the opportunity to acquire more information about this subject and to involve myself in related study tours abroad,” explains Diacono.

    The University of the Third Age which is also known as U3A was launched in Malta on 23 January 1993 under the auspices of the University of Malta.

    During a symposium with guest speaker Prof. Olga Mikhailova from Moscow.“The main aim of U3A is to promote a yearning for knowledge and creativity. Although the lectures are held at university, their purpose is different from those which are intended to coach students to obtain academic qualifications and find a job. There are no admission requirements and anyone above the age of sixty may apply, irrespective of the level of education. There are no assignments to work on and no exams to sit for. Lectures are there for the sheer pleasure of learning new things in the company of a group of people who nourish similar interests. The cost for the lectures covering from October to June is 12 euros.”

    U3A operates from four centres; three in Malta and one in Gozo.

    “The head centre is at the Catholic Institute in Floriana. Lectures are held from Monday to Thursday from 09:00am to 11:00am. The Sliema Centre is at the Salesian School of St. Patrick’s. Lectures are held from Tuesday to Thursday from 05:00pm to 7:00pm. The Cottonera Resource Centre is located in St Edwards Street, Vittoriosa (Birgu). Lectures are held every Thursday from 09:00am to 11:00am. The one in Gozo is at the Day Centre of Għajnsielem. Lectures are held every Friday from 09:00am to 11:00am.”

    10885162_1519852661618128_1789226735035724261_nShortly after the launching of the University of the Third Age, its first members felt the need to establish a Foundation in order to organize a number of social activities together.

    “This Foundation eventually turned into a formal Association which was named the Association of the Members of the U3E. A statute was set up to define it and a Commitee was elected democratically. The Commitee has a term of two years, after which an election is held to form a new one.”

    “The Association’s objectives are to promote and safeguard the aims and activities of the U3E, to establish a point of social contact and support to its members, and to organize extra-curriculum activities for its members. Moreover, the Association is responsible for the publishing of a quarterly newsletter and for the organisation of a biennial conference on third age learning.”

    Membership in the Association is only open to U3A members. The membership fee is 3 euros annually, however members will be asked to pay a nominal fee if they wish to attend to the activities which are organized by the Association.

    Since most lectures are held from Mondays to Thurdays, social activities take place on the first and third Fridays of each month.

    “On the first Friday of each month we attend to a mass followed by lunch. Each month we go to a different parish in order to give the opportunity to our members to visit various parishes. Lunch will be booked in a restaurant which is close to the particular area selected in that month.”

    U3E members at Ras il-Wardija overlooking Xlendi Bay, Gozo.“The third Friday of each month is dedicated to a cultural tour, again followed by lunch. The excursions generally consist of visits to sites of historical and cultural interest, both in Malta and Gozo. Guides accompany the members during such visits so that they can appreciate the full value of each place. Some of the places which we have visited in Valletta are St John’s Co-Cathedral, the Archaeological Museum, the War Museum and St Elmo, the Fine Arts Museum and Casa Rocca Piccola. Other sites include the Mdina Cathedral and its Museum, and Wignacourt Museum in Rabat, Malta.”

    “From Mondays to Thursdays, further activities are also organized throughout the academic year right after the lectures end. Fitness classes held by qualified persons take place from Mondays to Wednesdays and these consist of Keep Fit, Line Dancing and Ballroom Dancing. On Thursdays, members of the Association’s choir attend to rehearsals under the leadership of Dame Marie Therese Vassallo. This choir performs in the mass which is held on the first Friday of each month, at various care homes for elder persons, and also at the national event of the Active Ageing Awards.”

    U3E members on the Sicliy 2017 cultural tour.“Annual milestones for our Association are the Christmas buffet lunch, the Malta round trip boat cruise, and tours abroad. In 2015 and 2016 we organized a day trip to Sicily where we visited different places of interest. In 2017 we went for a five-day tour to Sicily where we visited Palermo and its surroundings. This year we intend to take our members to a five-day trip to Paris.”

    For the past 4 years, Mr Diacono was elected as the President of the Association of the Members of the U3E.

    “It is a privilege to be able to form part of the Committee of this Association which provides so much opportunity to elders to enrich their quality of life and their social development. From 1993 to 2017, this Association has worked very closely with Prof. Joseph Troisi who was the Director of the University of the Third Age. Since his retirement, we are now looking forward to establish a strong relationship with Prof. Marvin Formosa who is the new Director.”

    The outgoing Director U3A, Prof. Troisi presenting a donation of books to the U3E.Applications from persons who are interested to attend lectures at any of the Centres of the University of the Third Age, and to join the Association of the Members of the U3E open in September. However, one can also register throughout the academic year. Lectures cover a wide range of topics and each module consists of eight lectures. Between February and June 2018, the following modules will commence at:

    The Floriana Centre: Malta Marittima by Dr. Timmy Gambin, The British Period in Malta by Richard P Agius, Government systems in Malta and abroad by Lawrence Grech, Il-Folklor Malti bħala parti mill-wirt kulturali (Tieni Parti) by Marlene Mifsud Chircop, Interpretative Perspectives of Maltese History in Constructing National Identity by Dr Charles Xuereb, Voices of U3A members (sharing experiences), Għerf Missirijietna: riflessjonijiet filosofiċi fuq il-proverbji Maltin by Prof. Joe Friggieri, and Looking into art: How to discuss works of art from different standpoints by Dr. Christian Attard.

    The Sliema Centre: The Constitution of Malta by Prof. Kevin Aquilina, The Medieval Millennium by Vincent Zammit, Historical, Literary and Theological aspects of the Bible by Rev. Dr. Stefan Attard, and Understanding Dementia by Dr. Anthony Scerri.

    The Cottonera Centre: Malta During the 19th Century by Vincent Zammit, and Ħajti tiegħi – nagħżel jien! by Marica Mizzi.

    The Gozo Centre: L-Iżvilupp tal-Edukazzjoni f’Malta by Joseph Xerri, and Ġrajjiet Malta u Għawdex: Storja u Letteratura by Kav. Joe M Attard.

    For more information, one can contact the U3E head office at the Catholic Institute in Floriana on 2124 3202 or by email at diacstef@onvol.net .

     (This article was published in the Senior Times – January Issue issued with The Times of Malta on the 18th January 2018)

    2018.01.18 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • IBGĦATHIELI BIL-POSTA

    Saviour Busuttil - ritratt Fiona Vella“Il-Milied ta’ dari kien inqas kummerċjali minn dak ta’ llum u dan huwa saħansitra evidenti minn dak li tirċievi fil-posta,” għarrafni missieri Saviour Busuttil li qatta’ 37 sena jaħdem bħala pustier.

    Infatti f’dawn l-aħħar snin, hekk kif jibda joqrob il-Milied, il-kaxxi tal-posta tagħna jintlew b’għadd ta’ rivisti u riklami, b’kompetizzjoni bejniethom biex iħajjruk tixtri l-prodotti tagħhom. Ftit li xejn għadna nirċievu kartolini tal-Milied mingħand qrabatna u ħbiebna. Ġeneralment illum dawn l-awguri jaslu bil-fomm, bit-telefon, b’xi email jew b’xi sms fuq il-mobile.

    “Sa ftit tas-snin ilu kont għadni nibgħat il-kartolini tal-Milied lill-ġenituri tiegħi u lil ħuti kollha, avolja ħafna minnhom kienu joqogħdu viċin tiegħi. U naturalment jien ukoll kont nirċievi kartolina tal-Milied mingħand kull wieħed u waħda minnhom. Hekk kienet titlob l-użanza. Għaldaqstant tista’ timmaġina l-volum kbir ta’ posta li kien jinħoloq fi żmien il-Milied.”

    “Konna nkunu mifqugħin bix-xogħol, tant li wara li konna noħorġu nqassmu l-ittri matul il-ġurnata u nistrieħu ftit id-dar, konna nidħlu lura x-xogħol biex nissortjaw l-ittri. Ġieli domna sad-9.00pm għaddejjin sabiex insibu x-xogħol lest biex jitqassam għall-għada fil-għodu. Żmien il-Milied kien l-uniku perjodu li konna naħdmu l-overtime fih.”

    Saviour Busuttil mal-kollegi (it-tieni mil-lemin)“Biex inlaħħqu mal-kwantità tal-posta, fi żmien il-Milied konna noħorġu nqassmu mat-8.00am. Konna nippakkjaw il-barżakki tagħna sa ruħ ommhom u nerħulha nduru mat-triqat dar dar. Minbarra l-ittri konna nqassmu anki xi pakketti iżda f’każ li l-pakketti jkunu kbar wisq, konna nħallu avviż ħalli dak li jkun imur jiġborhom mill-uffiċċju tal-Posta.”

    “Matul il-bqija tas-sena, is-servizz tal-Posta kien jagħti garanzija li ittra li tintbagħat qabel is-7.00am kienet tasal għand ir-riċevitur dakinhar stess. Dan kien impossibbli li tiggarantih fi żmien il-Milied għalkemm konna nagħmlu ħilitna kollha biex il-posta tasal malajr kemm jista’ jkun. Konna nkunu konxji li ħafna kienu jkunu qed jistennewna bil-ħerqa. Sa 40 sena ilu, mhux kulħadd kellu telefon id-dar u l-posta kienet l-uniku mezz ta’ komunikazzjoni. Ngħidu aħna fost l-ittri ġieli kien ikun hemm noti tan-namrati li kienu jiktbu lil xulxin biex jifthemu fejn u fi x’ħin se jiltaqgħu. Mur fehmielhom din liż-żgħażagħ illum!”

    “Meta l-internet kien għadu ineżistenti, kollox bil-posta kien jasal u għalhekk in-nies kellhom ċerta relazzjoni ta’ ħbiberija mal-pustier. Hekk kif induru l-kantuniera konna ndoqqu l-qanpiena tar-rota ħalli n-nies jindunaw li wasalna. Imma kien ikun hemm ukoll min ikun qed jistenniena fil-bieb tad-dar tiegħu. Fil-Milied in-nies kienu jilqgħuna b’mod speċjali u jpattulna tas-servizz li konna nagħtuhom matul is-sena kollha. Ħafna kienu jippreparawlna xi grokk u jekk ma noqogħdux attenti, nispiċċaw immorru kuljum fis-sakra d-dar! Kien hemm min jagħtina wkoll xi ħaġa tal-flus u konna ndabbruha tajjeb f’dawk il-ġranet. Kont tħossok apprezzat u allura x-xogħol kien jagħtik aktar sodisfazzjon.”

    Saviour Busuttil mal-kollegi (it-tieni mil-lemin ringiela ta' quddiem)“Illum ċerti affarijiet inbidlu qatiegħ. Il-mezzi ta’ komunikazzjoni żdiedu u allura l-funzjoni tal-Posta ma baqgħetx daqshekk assoluta. Ħafna nies illum jaħdmu, inkluż in-nisa, u allura ssib inqas nies fid-djar filgħodu. Hemm ukoll il-fatt li llum meta jiżżewwġu ‘l ulied mhux neċessarjament qed jibqgħu joqogħdu fl-istess raħal jew belt fejn twieldu. Dan qed ninnutah fiż-Żejtun hekk kif m’għadux jikber bl-istess rata ta’ qabel. Inbidel ukoll it-tip ta’ bini u allura fejn dari il-pustier kien iħabbat bieb, bieb, dar, dar, illum jidħol ġol-entrata ta’ blokk ta’ appartamenti u jħalli l-ittri ġol-kaxxi mingħajr forsi qatt ma jara lir-riċevituri. B’hekk jista’ jkun li r-relazzjoni tan-nies mal-pustier ma baqgħetx li kienet. Madanakollu, jien li niftakar żminijiet oħra, għadni nilqa’ l-pustiera d-dar u ġieli noqgħod nitħaddet magħhom. Fi żmien il-Milied, kif ħaddieħor kien jagħmel miegħi, nagħtihom dik ix-xi ħaġa żgħira wkoll.”

    Missieri daħal jaħdem bħala pustier meta kellu 18 il-sena.

    “Iz-ziju Ċikku kien jaqra l-gazzetti kuljum u kien hu li qalli li kienu fetħu l-applikazzjonijiet għall-pustiera ġodda. Ta’ 16 il-sena temmejt l-edukazzjoni tiegħi u bħal għadd ta’ nies oħra spiċċajt nirreġistra. Kien ikun hemm ringieli sħaħ ta’ mijiet ta’ nies jirreġistraw għax ma tantx kien hemm xogħol. Biex tilħaq pustier kien ikollok toqgħod għall-eżamijiet bil-miktub fil-Matematika, l-Ingliż u l-Ġografija u ridt tiġi minn ta’ quddiem. Meta dħalt jien kienu applikaw madwar 170 u għażlu 50.”

    Saviour Busuttil fil-bidu tal-karriera tieghu (it-tieni mil-lemin ringiela ta' quddiem)“Dħalt naħdem fl-uffiċċju tal-Posta taż-Żejtun li dak iż-żmien kien ikopri wkoll lil Ħal-Għaxaq, il-Gudja, Marsaxlokk u Birżebbuġa. L-ewwel ħmistax kont tqattagħhom titgħallem ir-rotta li tkun ġiet assenjata lilek. Kont tmur issegwi pustier ieħor ħalli tara kif jaħdem. F’dawk il-ġranet kont mistenni titgħallem l-ismijiet tat-toroq u tkun taf fejn huma d-djar. Jien ma kelli l-ebda problema f’dan il-qasam peress li minn tfuliti kont nixtieq insir pustier. Kont affaxxinat bit-toroq u bl-ismijiet tagħhom u għalhekk kont diġà qbadt nitgħallimhom bl-amment. Imma xorta waħda kien hemm triqat jew sqaqien fiż-Żejtun li ssorprendewni għax qatt ma kont dħalt fihom qabel. Aktar il-quddiem imbagħad kelli l-opportunità li nsir naf it-triqat ta’ partijiet ta’ Ħal-Għaxaq u tal-Gudja peress li kont inqassam hemm ukoll.”

    “Ix-xogħol mill-ewwel għoġobni. Toqgħod iddur fit-toroq u l-isqaqien u tgħid ara das-sqaq qatt ma rajtu qabel! U n-nies kienu dħulin. Kienu jħobbuna ħafna u jafdaw ħafna fina. Uħud meta jirċievu xi ittra kienu jistaqsuni ‘Ta’ x’hiex inhi?’ U ngħidilhom tal-income tax jew tal-Awstralja per eżempju. Kif ngħidilhom tal-Awstralja kien ikun hemm min jistaqsini mingħand min għax kien ikollhom ħafna tfal hemm. U ġieli kien hemm min kien idaħħalni d-dar, jagħmilli belgħa tè, jpoġġi miegħi mal-mejda u joqgħod jismagħni naqralu l-ittra.”

    “Fil-bidu pustier ġdid ma kienx ikollu r-rotta tiegħu imma kien iservi bħala sostitut sabiex jagħmel tajjeb għal meta pustiera oħra jkollhom bżonn jieħdu l-leave jew ikunu ma jifilħux. Iż-Żejtun kien maqsum f’erbgħa sezzjonijiet u ftit ftit kont tasal sakemm titgħallem ir-rotot kollha. Wara 5 snin kont tieqaf tissostitwixxi u jkollok ir-rotta tiegħek.”

    Saviour Busuttil (it-tieni mil-lemin fit-tieni ringiela) mal-kollegi waqt zjara mill-On. Wistin Abela“Ix-xogħol ta’ pustier kien jinkludi li jinġabru l-ittri mill-kaxxi tal-ittri pubbliċi kollha taż-Żejtun, il-Gudja, Marsaxlokk u Birżebbuġa fis-7.00am u jittieħdu l-uffiċċju. Imbagħad l-ittri kollha kienu jitqassmu skont id-distrett tagħhom. Dawk l-ittri li kienu se jitqassmu mill-Posta taż-Żejtun kienu jinżammu filwaqt li l-oħrajn kienu jintbagħtu ma’ vann li jiġi jiġborhom biex jeħodhom fl-uffiċċju prinċipali tal-Belt. L-ittri li jinżammu kienu jiġu rranġati skont ir-rotot u kif inlestu noħorġu nqassmuhom fid-djar. Kollox kellu jitqassam dakinhar stess u kif tlesti stajt tmur lejn id-dar. Min kien imur idur bil-mixi u min bir-rota u għal dawk ir-residenti li kienu joqogħdu fl-imbiegħed, bħall-inħawi tal-bajja ta’ San Tumas u Ħal-Far, il-pustier kien imur bil-mutur. Għal xi l-10.00am kien jasal vann ieħor mill-Belt li kien iġib il-posta li jkunu rċevew l-uffiċċji tal-posta l-oħra.”

    “Qattgħajt 22 sena niġri bir-rota u nqassam l-ittri. Bħal kull xogħol hemm is-sabiħ u l-ikraħ tiegħu. Fis-sajf kont tbati mis-sħana u mill-qilla tax-xemx imma fix-xitwa kien wisq agħar għax kont tixxarrab jekk ikun il-maltemp u tirriskja li tlaqqgħat xi riħ. Kien hemm ukoll problema bil-klieb tan-nies li ġieli kienu jħebbu għalik kif jarawk riesaq. Darba minnhom gidimni kelb u ċarratli l-qalziet tal-uniformi.”

    “Wara 22 sena ngħatajt promozzjoni u lħaqt Mail Officer u xogħoli kien fuq ġewwa biss. Meta għaddew 10 snin oħra lħaqt Mail Inspector u hemm ġejt responsabbli mill-uffiċċju tal-Posta taż-Żejtun. Matul is-snin rajt diversi żviluppi jseħħu fosthom l-introduzzjoni ta’ pustiera nisa li qabel kienu jiġu evitati biex ma jkunx hemm taħlit bejn nisa u rġiel. Finalment ta’ 55 sena ħriġt bil-pensjoni.”

    Saviour Busuttil mal-kollegi waqt mument ta' mistrieh (l-ewwel mix-xellug)Illum missieri jgħodd is-70 sena iżda għalkemm għaddew 15 il-sena minn mindu waqaf mix-xogħol, għadu jiftakar ċar l-ismijiet kollha tat-triqat tal-inħawi li ħadem fihom, in-numri tad-djar u saħansitra l-kunjomijiet tas-sidien tagħhom ukoll.

    “Sal-bieraħ iltqajt ma’ waħda ġo ħanut li kellha madwar 40 sena. X’ħin ratni qaltli ‘Tiftakar kemm kont tagħtina posta?’ Għall-ewwel m’għarafthiex imma meta semmietli t-triq fejn kienet toqgħod, stajt ngħidilha n-numru tal-bieb tagħhom u l-kunjom tal-familja. Stagħġbet li kont għadni niftakar wara tant snin!”

    Meta tkun qattgħajt daqstant żmien taħdem bħala pustier diffiċli tinsa l-informazzjoni kollha li tkun immemorizzajt. Missieri jistqarr li kultant għadu joħlom li qiegħed idur bir-rota madwar it-toroq iqassam l-ittri lin-nies.

    (Dan l-artiklu ġie ppubblikat fis-suppliment Senior Times li ħareġ mal-ġurnal The Times of Malta tal-15 ta’ Diċembru 2017)

    2017.12.15 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • MAN ON A MISSION

    Angelo Zahra (Photo by Fiona Vella)“Ageing should not be a barrier in life but a further opportunity to excel,” insists 80-year-old Angelo Zahra who has recently been selected to receive the main prize in the award ‘Premju Anzjanità Attiva’ (Award for the Active Ageing) for his voluntary management of three homes for the disabled.

    Zahra studied mechanical engineering at the Dockyard Technical College and for several years, he served in managerial roles. Before his retirement, at age 63, he was the Director of the Manufacturing and Services Department with the Government of Malta.

    “I have known Fr Angelo Seychell since his priesthood and I have always admired his work. When he founded the Nazareth Foundation in 1995 and opened his house to provide a home for people with special needs, I supported his venture by collecting donations from my colleagues twice a year. However, I was not directly involved with Dar Nazareth.”

    Dar Nazareth (Photo provided by Angelo Zahra)Yet Fr Seychell had for long earmarked Zahra to help him develop his mission to create a warm family environment in which people with disabilities could lead a good and respectful life which gave them the possibility to be happy and to achieve their full potential.

    “As soon as I retired, Fr Seychell approached me and asked me to consider serving as the administrator of Dar Nazareth. I accepted on condition to start three months later since I had promised my wife that I would finally take a much-awaited break from work. In the meantime, my wife and I booked a tour to Lourdes and to our great surprise we found out that the group which we were going to travel with were none other than Fr Seychell, his volunteers and the residents at Dar Nazareth. This was a golden opportunity to get to know everyone better and soon, I was deeply involved with the Nazareth Foundation.”

    Workshop (Photo provided by Angelo Zahra)“In September 2000, when I joined in, there were only five residents at Dar Nazareth. However, in a short time, the house was elaborated to receive a further five residents where it reached its full capacity. A year later, the Foundation rented a workshop wherein our residents could attend daily to entertain themselves and to make crafts which could be sold to the public.”

    Dar Nazareth addressed a demand which had been stalled for several years. Soon, its success lead to the establishment of two other houses.

    “In 2004, the Foundation opened the second house, Dar l-Arċipriet Degabriele, which welcomed a further nine residents. Five years later, the third house, Dar Jean Vanier, opened its doors to another nine residents.”

    While in the beginning Dar Nazareth was operated by volunteers, the increase in residents and houses required the engagement of full-time workers.

    Photo by Jeremy Wonnacott - DOI“The funding of such projects is always one of the major stumbling blocks. The Foundation had succeeded to purchase two properties and develop them into residential homes. It also managed to acquire enough money to fund the salary of 30 full-time workers. Nevertheless, the sourcing of further income to sustain all the expenses required to keep these three homes functioning are a constant responsibility. Thankfully, in 2016, the Government signed an agreement with Nazareth Foundation through which it was given 1.4 million euro over a period of three years. This serves as a safety net for the Foundation’s administration to provide the best service possible to its residents.”

    For the past 17 years, Zahra has voluntarily taken in hand the management of these three homes and presently he also acts as President of the Nazareth Foundation Board.

    Residents (Photo provided by Angelo Zahra)“This work has become my mission to do something worthwhile with my available time. It gives me utter satisfaction to see our residents living in a friendly and family environment where they can feel safe, at ease, and loved. Their appreciation and happiness in return give me a sense of fulfilment and help me to feel much younger.”

    (This feature was published in the Senior Times supplement issued with The Times of Malta on 15 December 2017)

    2017.12.15 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • LIGHTS OUT FOR CHRISTMAS

    Christmas time and the days preceding it are generally associated with colour, light, optimism and fun. Yet this was not the case in 1939 when the Christmas season became synonymous with gloom, darkness, uncertainty and fear.

    On 18 September 1939, a table showing the duration of the ‘Official Night’ was published in Government Notice No. 459 in The Malta Government Gazette. This table included each day of each month and the beginning and end of what was to be considered as the official night hours. Such instructions formed part of the Malta Defence Regulations, 1939, which aimed to protect the Maltese Islands and its inhabitants as World War II ravaged in other countries.

    Black-Out (2) - (Photo by Fiona Vella)Two days later, on 20 September 1939, Government Notice No. 473 issued the Lights Restriction Order which was effective from that day. The directions of this Order had to be observed between midnight and 4:30am on every day of the week, and also between 10:00pm and midnight on Fridays. During these times, all lights in any building had to be masked to be invisible from the sea and from the air. No lights, other than lights authorised by the competent authority, were permitted in any open spaces whether private or public, in yards, roofs or open verandas. The use of illuminated lettering or signs in any shops were prohibited unless authorised by the Commissioner of Police or the competent authority. The traffic of motor vehicles during these hours was banned and any vehicles which did not comply with these provisions could be stopped and detained until 6:00am. Obviously, all fireworks were also prohibited.

    Black-Out Order, 1939 (1) (Photo by Fiona Vella)An Air-Raid Precautions Order was communicated in Government Notice No. 504 on 4 October 1939. Eventually on 9 December 1939, The Times of Malta published the provisions of The Black-Out Order, 1939, which had to be observed on every day of the week between midnight and the official sunrise. During these hours, all the lights on the Islands had to be extinguished or masked as to be rendered invisible from the sea and from the air. Special Black-Out hours could also be determined when necessary.

    As part of the Black-Out Order, from 14 December 1939, all motor vehicles which had to travel at night, other than those belonging to His Majesty’s service, had to have their bulbs removed from their lamps. Opaque cardboard discs were to be fixed to the lights of the vehicles and the reflectors’ surface had to be covered with a non-reflecting substance. A white disc had to be affixed at the back of all motor vehicles at a height of three feet from the ground to make them visible on the roads. Traffic of motor vehicles during the black-out was prohibited except for those who obtained permission from the Commissioner of Police or a competent authority.

    Another notice which appeared on The Times of Malta of the 9 December 1939 urged the inhabitants to comply with these regulations for their own safety. People were recommended to stay at home and to avoid going out in the darkness. Those who needed to get out were advised to walk on the right-hand side of the road to face oncoming traffic and to carry with them a white object to make them more visible to drivers. Owners of goats were informed to keep their animals off the road at night. On the other hand, drivers were cautioned to drive very slowly and with great care.

    Measures were being taken to prepare the people how to take the necessary precautions in preparation of an expected war. Black-outs intended to prevent crews of enemy aircraft from being able to identify their targets by sight. Nonetheless, these precautionary provisions proved to be one of the more unpleasant aspects of war, disrupting many civilian activities and causing widespread grumbling and lower morale.

    The Times of Malta of 13 December 1939 reports that some misapprehension had arisen among that section of the public who had to rise early for work and travel by early buses, since it was not clear at what time the bus service started. Indeed, all buses were to continue their usual service provided that they adhered to the regulations regarding headlights and lights, including the inside of the vehicles which had to remain in darkness.

    War-Time Xmas (Photo by Fiona Vella)Even though the Maltese Islands were not yet directly involved in war, a foreboding atmosphere crept its way into the lives of people. As if matters were not yet miserable enough, a Bishop’s Circular which was published on The Times of Malta of 17 December 1939 declared that the Christmas midnight function in the churches was to be suspended. The Novena and feast functions could be celebrated from 4:00am onwards provided that no lights were visible from the outside. Those churches which required singers and musicians from far places for the early Christmas function had to apply to the Commissioner of Police for the necessary permits to travel. While it was permissible to give a small sign to the faithful by the ringing of bells for the function of the Novena and Christmas Eve, this had to be done according to predetermined rules.

    Albeit the continuous warnings and pleas to adhere strictly to the black-out orders, it seemed that not everyone was following the rules. An announcement on The Times of Malta of the 20 December 1939 issued by the Lieutenant’s Government Office advised the public that the black-out on the night of December 15-16 was not entirely satisfactory, and that there were several lights showing in the Valletta, Sliema, Hamrun, Cospicua and Naxxar districts. Several lights were only put out as aircraft passed overhead. This notice pointed out also that a section of the public could still have been unaware of the black-out rules since they seemed to have been published only on The Times of Malta and Il-Berqa newspapers. Illiterate persons would therefore have had no way of being forewarned except by hearsay. Therefore, a siren warning which was different from the Air-Raid alarm signal, was recommended to be given throughout the islands at sunset.

    Letters by readers in the Correspondence section of The Times of Malta of the 20 and 21 December 1939 vent their frustration and contempt at those who were not taking these black-out precautions seriously:

    “Many people rather irresponsibly remark that they do not quite see the use of strict black-outs when Germany is at such a distance away. The reply is that precaution is better than cure. I am sure that these people will think very different if they find one day a German bomb dropping at their door-step or in their backyard, just because some stray lights guided an enemy to an objective.” Signed ‘Common-Sense’.

    “I am sure that a number of law-abiding citizens in these islands feel that the time has come for coercion to replace coaxing. Those people who scorn to comply with reasonable regulations are either knaves or fools and most dangerous to the community in war time; they should be under lock and key for the duration of the war: either in jail or in a lunatic asylum. The pathetic appeals made by the authorities are becoming nauseating.” Signed Lieutenant Colonel (retired) H. M Marshall.

    Xmas wishes on TOM (2) (Photo by Fiona Vella)Special Black-Out arrangements for Christmas and New Year, published on The Times of Malta of the 23 and 30 December 1939, informed the public that the black-out of buildings on the nights of 24 – 27 December and 30 December – 1 January were to be postponed for one and a half hours from midnight. On these nights, motor vehicles were allowed on the road without requiring special permission until 1:30am, and shops and places of entertainment could remain open until 1:00am.

    December breaks all records (2) (Photo by Fiona Vella)Possibly few had considered that light could be their enemy until it became essential to extinguish it. There was no mention of accidents or fatalities due to the black-out on the Islands in the December’s Times of Malta newspapers. However, reports from Great Britain relating to the high increase in road fatalities during the night were quite shocking. On 13 December 1939, the British Official Press stated that road fatalities had increased considerably from September to November. Yet the worst scenario took place in December, as reported by the Reuter’s Service on 16 January 1940, when 895 people were killed on the roads of Great Britain during the black-out hours. This was 212 more than those who were killed during December of the previous year.

    This was surely a strange Christmas to the Maltese people who are accustomed to celebrate these days in a profuse way. Although through no fault of their own, they were involved in war and they had to adapt to war conditions. Alas, much worse was yet to come.

    (This article was published in the Christmas Times magazine issued with The Times of Malta dated 13 December 2017)

     

    2017.12.13 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • KONTINENT IEĦOR

    Angela flimkien ma' huha fl-Awstralja“F’żogħżiti l-Awstralja kienet meqjusa bħala dinja tal-ħolm, dinja ta’ opportunitajiet li ma kellniex f’pajjiżna. Ironikament it-tmiem tat-Tieni Gwerra Dinjija nissel problema ta’ qgħad kbir fil-gżejjer Maltin u speċjalment iż-żgħażagħ bdew jaħarquhom saqajhom biex jitilqu minn fuq din l-art ħalli jfittxu xortihom x’imkien ieħor. Jien kont waħda minn dawk iż-żgħażagħ li flimkien ma’ żewġ ħuti erħejnielha lejn dan il-kontinent b’sens qawwi ta’ avventura. Imma ġaladarba sibt ruħi hemm irrealizzajt x’kont napprezza tassew f’ħajti u dan kollu kien qiegħed f’art twelidi.”

    Trabbejt nisma’ dawn ir-rakkonti t’ommi Angela Busuttil peress li spiss kienet issemmi ż-żminijiet li għexet fl-Awstralja. Barra minn hekk, minħabba li wieħed minn ħutha kien għadu jgħix hemmhekk, mhux darba u tnejn li n-nanna Fortunata Abela u z-zija Gracie Cilia talbuni biex niktbilhom xi ittra ħalli jibgħatuhielu. Niftakar li kienu ittri li kollha jibdew l-istess “Għażiż Ġużeppi, Vera u t-tfal, nispera li tinsabu tajbin bħal kif ninsabu aħna għall-grazzja t’Alla”.

    Kont tgħallimt nikteb l-introduzzjoni bl-amment u kont nitbissem meta nara li dejjem kienu jiktbulu l-istess ħaġa. Il-bqija tal-ittri kienu jikkonsistu f’dak li jkunu għaddew minnu matul dawk l-aħħar ġimgħat jew dwar xi ħaġa li kienu beħsiebhom jagħmlu. Ta’ tifla li kont, ftit stajt napprezza dawk l-ittri ripetittivi. Kellhom jgħaddu ħafna snin qabel fhimt kemm kienu jfissru għalihom dawk il-karti ċelesti li kont niktbilhom l-ittri fuqhom u għaliex kienu jistennew ir-risposti tagħhom tant b’ħerqa. Ir-raġuni kienet dejjem spjegata ċara fir-rakkonti t’ommi. Imma kultant jekk ma ġġarrabx, għajnejk ma jinfetħux. Illum li jiena sirt omm u li s-snin gerrbu fuq ommi wkoll, kapaċi nixtarr aktar.

    Guzeppi Abela fl-Awstralja“Kien ħija l-kbir Ġużeppi li beda jħeġġiġna biex immorru l-Awstralja. Hu kien diġà miżżewweġ u kellu l-familja tiegħu. Jien kien għad kelli 17 il-sena, ommi ma riditnix immur, u missieri ma ried jagħti b’xejn il-kunsens tiegħu biex insiefer. Imma meta għalaqt it-18 il-sena, Ġużeppi rnexxielu jikkonvinċi lil missieri li kien ser jieħu ħsiebi hu. Wegħdu li ser iġib ruħu daqs li kieku kien it-tieni missier tiegħi u kelmtu żammha għax id-dixxiplina tiegħu kienet iebsa mhux ħażin!”

    “Bilkemm niftakar kif saru l-preparazzjonijiet bil-ġenn li kelli biex nitlaq. Bsart li ser nimmissja lill-ġenituri tiegħi u lil ħuti l-oħra. Imma ta’ żagħżugħa li kont neħħejt dawk il-ħsibijiet minn quddiem għajnejja u minflok intfajt noħlom dwar dik l-opportunità sabiħa li ngħix u naħdem f’pajjiż ieħor. Dakinhar li tlaqna biex nibdew dan il-vjaġġ, ommi għafsitni magħha u reġgħet qaltli li ma xtaqitnix immur. Il-ħsieb tal-firda minni kien diġà qed ikiddha iżda meta ratni konvinta biex insiefer, talbitni biex ma ninsihiex u biex ma nibqax hemm. Madanakollu jien moħħi kien biss f’dak il-vapur sabiħ li kien qed jistenniena biex jeħodna lejn l-Awstralja.”

    “Għal dan il-vjaġġ konna jiena, ħija Indrì u ħija Ġużeppi bil-familja tiegħu. Morna b’vapur lussuż, l-Angelina Lauro. Il-kmamar kienu spazzjużi u komdi. Ħallasna biss Lm10 kull wieħed biex vjaġġajna għal xahar sħiħ fuqu. Kien hemm ħafna Maltin oħra u kollha konna stmati tajjeb ħafna. Il-vjaġġ kien interessanti u pjaċevoli sakemm wasalna f’Port Said fil-Baħar l-Aħmar u nqbadna f’maltemp kbir. F’daqqa waħda kollox beda jitkaxkar ‘l hawn u ‘l hemm: l-imwejjed, is-siġġijiet, is-sodod. Tal-biża’! Ħafna mill-passiġġieri kellhom jingħataw il-mediċini għax ħassewhom ma jifilħux. Lili kieku m’għamilli xejn il-baħar imma ħassejtni tterrorizzata. Wara dakinhar bosta kienu b’qalbhom imtaqtqa kif ser naslu l-Awstralja għax il-vjaġġ donnu ma ried jispiċċa qatt! Niftakar li l-klieb il-baħar baqgħu jsegwuna matul il-vjaġġ kollu, dejjem jistennew lill-ħaddiema ta’ fuq il-vapur biex jarmu l-fdalijiet tal-ikel fil-baħar.”

    Angela - ritratt tal-passaport ghall-Awstralja“Malli wasalna Melbourne laqagħna temp imsaħħab u xejn ma ħadt grazzja mal-post. Xi ħbieb li kienu qed jistennewna ħaduna Adelaide li kien jumejn bogħod bil-karozza. Hemmhekk għamilna ftit taż-żmien. Kien post kwiet u ma tantx kien hemm xogħol. Tlaqna u morna Sydney, niġru minn xogħol għall-ieħor. Niftakar li l-ewwel darba li mort għax-xogħol, tlajt fi tren u marret għajni bija, u t-tren baqgħet sejra bija f’post ieħor. Tgħidx kemm bżajt meta stenbaħt u ma kontx naf x’se naqbad nagħmel. Tinkwieta għax la ma tkunx taf il-post, ma tafx ma’ min tista’ tiltaqa’. Ħdimt f’żewġ fabbriki imma ma nista’ ninsa qatt kemm laqgħuni b’mod sabiħ fl-ewwel fabbrika li dħalt fiha. Kont ilni naħdem hemm ftit ġranet biss u hekk kif skoprew li kont għadni kif għalaqt it-18 il-sena għamluli surprise party u tgħidx kemm tawni rigali! Lanqas wara għaxar snin xogħol ma jagħmlulek hekk f’Malta!”

    “L-Awstralja kienet tgħaġġibni bil-kobor tagħha. Kienet sabiħa ħafna b’siġar twal u b’għelieqi spazzjużi u b’toroq li ma jispiċċaw qatt. Ġieli rajt ukoll xi annimali tal-post, l-aktar il-kangaroos kbar li mhux darba u tnejn fettlilhom jintasbu f’nofs ta’ triq u ma jkunu jridu jwarrbu b’xejn biex ngħaddu bil-karozza. Konna noqogħdu Greenacre fejn krejna dar pjuttost kbira. Ma tantx kien hemm Maltin. Kellna familja aboriġina fost il-ġirien tagħna u t-tfal tagħhom kienu jiġu jilgħabu magħna. Madwarna kienu joqgħodu nies minn kull pajjiż.”

    Angela ma' huha Guzeppi u l-familja tieghu“Kien hemm okkażżjonijiet fejn konna noħorġu xi ftit. Niftakar li ġieli morna naraw ir-wrestling. Kien ikollna l-ġellied favorit tagħna u erħilna ngħajjtu kemm nifilħu meta jibda jaqla’ xi daqqtejn sew mingħand l-ieħor. Konna nidħlu b’vuċi tajba u noħorġu maħnuqin imma konna nieħdu gost. Dejjem bqajt bil-kurżità jekk kienux ikunu qed jiġġieldu veru jew le. Tant kienu jaqilgħu li ma stajtx nemmen li kienu jagħtu bis-serjetà!”

    “Il-kobor tal-post kien jaqtgħalna qalbna biex nimirħu ‘l bogħod. U l-biċċa l-kbira minn ħajjitna kienet iddedikata biss għax-xogħol. Agħar minn hekk, ommna spiss kienet tibgħatilna l-ittri jew xi casette irrekordjatha bil-vuċi tagħha fejn kienet twissina biex noqogħdu attenti ħalli ma nweġġgħux u b’mod speċjali, biex ma niżżewġux hemmhekk. “Fittxu ejjew ‘l hawn, ejjew lura,” kienet dejjem tirrepeti. Kemm tiflaħ tisma’ kliem bħal dan?”

    “Ma domnix ma bdejna niddejqu u nixxenqu biex nirritornaw lejn pajjiżna fejn fiċ-ċokon tiegħu kellna dak kollu li ridna. Il-problema kienet li għalkemm biex morna l-Awstralja kellna nħallsu biss Lm10 kull wieħed, biex naqbdu vapur lura lejn Malta l-prezz kien Lm250 kull ras. Għamilna sentejn u nofs ngħixu hemm sakemm irnexxielna nfaddlu biżżejjed flus għalina kollha. Ġejna lura Malta bil-vapur Achille Lauro u mill-ġdid domna xahar nivvjaġġaw.”

    Mix-xellug - Fiona Vella, Angela Busuttil, Fortunata Abela - Copy“Kont kuntenta li rajt pajjiż ieħor imma ddispjaċini ħafna li tlaqt il-familja tiegħi. Ħadt ir-ruħ hekk kif wasalna lura Malta u rajthom kollha qawwijin u sħaħ. Tgħidx kemm għannaqthom u kien f’dak il-ħin li rrealizzajt kemm kont immissjajthom. “Ma nerġax nitla’ ma. Ma nerġax nitilqek,” wegħedt lil ommi hekk kif għafastha miegħi. U kelmti żammejtha.”

    Wara xi snin, ħuha Ġużeppi reġa’ tela’ l-Awstralja bil-familja tiegħu fejn dam għal żmien twil sakemm eventwalment, ta’ età kbira rritorna Malta. Illum m’għadnix nikteb l-ittri fuq il-karti ċelesti. In-nanna, iz-zija u z-ziju ħallewna u issa fadal biss il-memorja tagħhom.

    (Dan l-artiklu ġie ppubblikat fis-Senior Times li ħareġ mal-ġurnal The Times of Malta tas-17 ta’ Novembru 2017)

    2017.11.17 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • Walk this way

    When there is such a wide selection of travel destinations, why should one opt to go on a pilgrimage?

    Furelos“I did ask that question to myself on the first day of my Camino,” revealed Matthias Ebejer. “The walk to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain is not a travel holiday like many others. It can be quite a shock for those who are not used to outdoor activities such as hiking, trekking or camping. On the other hand, it can prove to be pretty challenging to find the real meaning of it all if one is regularly accustomed to such adventures.”

    Matthias was definitely not one of the latter. He was enticed to go on this pilgrimage by his girlfriend Deborah since she had already experienced it together with her family.

    “It did not take her much to convince me. As I began to look for information about this walk, I realized that this was the perfect way to get to know Spain closely. Such a pilgrimage gives you the opportunity to walk from one village to another, crossing different regions, meeting all sorts of people and learning about their culture and the places’s history. It is also very interesting to observe the changing architectural styles, cuisine forms, and people’s mentalities as you move along the rural areas which turn into urban locations as you get closer to the final destination.”

    The Cathedral of Portomarin.As a historian specializing in the history of the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John, Matthias had a further motive to try out this pilgrimage.

    “The Order was established to provide care for the sick, poor or injured pilgrims who visited the Holy Land. Yet eventually, these knights were also protecting the Christian pilgrims who travelled the St James’ Way to Santiago de Compostela. They constructed cathedrals, monasteries and pilgrims’ hostels along the route, some of which still exist today, such as the Cathedral of Portomarin, my favourite stop along the Camino. Portomarin was originally a Hospitaller commandery, and it indicated the part of the walk which was guarded by the Knights of St John. Pilgrim museums located in the various villages and towns along the Camino are quite informative and inspiring. A number of them are found within small churches or large cathedrals but one can also visit private houses which used to belong to wealthy pilgrims who donated their dwellings to become museums.”

    SantiagoAlthough Santiago de Compostela has been associated with spirituality since olden times, it was the miraculous discovery of the remains of the apostle James in the ninth century in this area which made this Galician town so popular. These remains were buried in the site upon which the renowned cathedral of this town was later built.

    “The authenticity of this legend has often created disputes in the Catholic Church since there are those who have their doubts about who is really buried in the crypt of this cathedral. Nevertheless, I believe that such controversy is superfluous because independently of who is buried within the silver box that lies at the heart of this holy site, the ultimate goal of each pilgrim is to stop there and meditate about the journey made and to liberate oneself from the troubling baggage of problems that one has carried along in order to come out as a new person.”

    Thousands of pilgrims have walked this path for the last one thousand years and yet ‘the way’ is a very personal journey.

    Matthias and Deborah posing with the 100 km milestone on their first visit together in 2012.“I am a Catholic, however I am not a religious person. I must admit that my original aim for this walk was more based on cultural interest rather than a spiritual one. Yet such pilgrimages are full of surprises and my walk ended up giving me much more than that.”

    The origin of such pilgrimages was generally based on sacrifice and repentance from one’s sins. Nowadays, things have changed and the aim for such an experience depends on each individual.

    “This pilgrimage is not necessarily meant to be a sacrifice. One is not expected to suffer or to be in pain. I must say that today such a pilgrimage is more a reaction to that universal urge to leave the safety of home in order to find oneself. One has several options from where to start this pilgrimage and each have different levels of difficulties. The longest and most popular route is the Camino Francés which stretches 780 km from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz in France to Santiago.”

    Matthew has participated two times in the Camino. The first time was 213 kms long, leaving from Ponferrada in Spain and taking 9 days to finish. The second one was 100 kms long, being the minimum distance, leaving from Sarria and taking 5 days to arrive to Santiago de Compostela.

    A sheperd along the Camino.“Each time I went with a group of friends. The Camino we chose was not difficult and we walked about 20 to 25 kms daily. Friends provide good company and they also help you to go on whenever you might feel discouraged or tempted to stop. The walk was always deeply moving and enriching. Travelling on foot provides you with the leisure to look around you, to feel the earth beneath your feet, to breathe the fresh air and enjoy the various scents of the surrounding landscapes, and to listen to the sounds or relish the silence. It also presents you with those significant moments wherein you are walking alone thinking about your life, the decisions you made or are about to make, and the meaning of living itself. Although initially one might start this pilgrimage as a mere tourist, at the end of it one will recognize a considerable change in oneself.”

    During his research, Matthew discovered that even the kings of Spain participated in the Camino as part of an old tradition. Later on, during the walk he was informed that up to the present days, prisoners who have a good conduct are offered the opportunity to spend the last six months of their sentence walking the Camino with a guardian instead of spending them in prison.

    almost_there“You meet several people along this pilgrimage and you get the privilege to listen to their stories about why they chose to do this walk. Some of these narratives are very touching such as that of the Scandinavian eighty-year old man who had lost his wife some years before. As he walked part of the way with me, he told me how he had become very depressed by her death and had given up on life, waiting for his end to come soon. Then one day, he decided to stop mourning and to regain the joy of life again. After seeking help from a travel agency, he was recommended to try out the Camino and there he was seeking a way to turn a new page in his life.”

    One can choose the level of comfort and also the means how to do this pilgrimage. Hostels, hotels, restaurants, bars and shops are available all along the route which one can travel by walking, cycling, horse riding or even by car, although the latter does not count much.

    Sarria“When you decide which route you are going to take, you can buy a guidebook online and prepare your journey beforehand. These guidebooks will provide you with all the required information and also with recommendations where to stop. We used to start walking very early in the morning when it was still dark. After a 3km walk, we would stop to eat breakfast and then continue along the way for a further 17kms until we reached the next village or town, generally at around 12:30pm. We chose to rest at municipal hostels wherein we could take a shower, cook some food in the kitchen, wash our clothes and sleep in the dormitory for the price of 5 euros. Such an arrangement gave us the opportunity to visit the village or town in which we stopped or to eat a good meal at a restaurant whenever we felt like it.”

    “The secret is to travel as light as possible and to learn to live with the barest minimum. To cater for the changing weather, one should carry basic layering of clothing and everything should be waterproof. A first-aid kit which includes talc, cream against sores and adhesive bandages is a must. A torch is necessary to find the way in the dark. One must not forget to take any required medicine and also a medical prescription in case something happens to it. Ear plugs could be helpful when sleeping in dormitories. However one of the most important items is a comfortable and sturdy pair of shoes.”

    Credencial2One should definitely not do this pilgrimage without carrying a pilgrim passport or credencial along with him.

    “We obtained our credencial from the Curia of Madrid. This is a blank passport which one stamps along the way in order to confirm one’s participation in the pilgrimage. Many places are equipped with their unique Camino stamps along the route and we loved to go in search of the most appealing ones. When presented duly stamped at Santiago de Compostela, each pilgrim is given a certificate and a plenary indulgence. Eventually, this credencial becomes a very dear memento of this journey.”

    horse“Two other things which should be obtained before starting the walk is the pilgrims’ scallop shell and walking stick. We also placed a Maltese flag on our backpack and this was always a good conversation starter with other pilgrims. At the end of our pilgrimage, we made it a point to arrive in Santiago in time for the noon pilgrims’ mass where we received the blessing. Although we had walked for 20 kms, this experience was so uplifting and emotional that we felt no fatigue even though we had to stand up for an hour and a half as the cathedral was packed with people.”

    Matthew’s first pilgrimage ended at Finisterre and the second at La Coruna.

    The cross at Finisterre“Pilgrims used to walk another three to five days to reach the shores of Finisterre and Muxia, at the extreme point of Spain facing the Atlantic, the edge of the known world. There they would collect the scallop shells as a sign that they had walked the Camino. Legend has it that the body of St James was brought back from Jerusalem from these shores.”

    “At Finisterre there is the tradition to throw away the walking stick which has accompanied you along your pilgrimage into the sea and then burn some of your clothes. This symbolically means that you have walked the way, that you have searched for answers and found them, and that now you are leaving the pilgrim’s life behind in order to go on with your life.”

    (This article was published in the Travel Supplement issued with The Times of Malta dated 29th March 2017)

    2017.03.29 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • A sea of profits

    A search through historical notarial deeds reveals how Maltese businesses exploited the cruel reality of war and slavery, maritime historian Dr Joan Abela tells Fiona Vella.

     

    joan abela“Even though there are people who might think that the human tragedy which we are experiencing today in the Mediterranean Sea may be something contemporary, in reality, the human element has always been an issue in this region,” Dr Joan Abela says as she refers me to some thick manuscripts that she had set aside at the Notarial Archives in Valletta.

    We had agreed to discuss the dreadful reality of slavery in the old days and these manuscripts are witness to this phenomenon which took place even in our islands.

    “Before the Knights of St John came to Malta in 1530, the Maltese Islands were already involved in the enslavement business and this was quite a legitimate affair at the time. People captured as slaves or captives were considered as commodities and their negotiations were regarded as valuable transactions, which when necessary, were also recorded in notarial deeds.”

    Dr Abela continued to inform me that in that era, the traffic of slaves occupied a prime place in the economic activity of maritime trade in the southern Mediterranean since it allowed the profitable exchange of monies and commodities.

    “Well aware of the strategic geographical location of Malta in the slave trade business, the Knights of St John established a strong infrastructure in order to attract more merchants and agents. Those who stopped at our islands would have been able to replenish their ships and to make use of the excellent and accomodating financial services which included the availability of notaries, agents, and money changers. Indeed, Braudel stated that Malta together with Livorno acted as a central hub for the slave trade.”

    One needed to have a special license to work as a corsair, otherwise he would be regarded as a pirate and could be hanged for capturing ships, cargo or people illegally.

    a sea of profits 1b“Since corsairing could render ample returns, people invested in it and received their respective shares from the bounty that the corsairs brought with them after they seized a ship. Investors consisted mainly of businessmen and knights. However, one would also find the Jerosolimitan Nuns of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John which were located in St Ursula Street, Valletta, forming part of these investors. Their share was due to them for their role in praying for the safe return of the corsairs.”

    As Dr Abela began to indicate various episodes from the displayed manuscripts, she admitted that she was often very touched by what she read in those pages.

    “Obviously when one looks at history in a collective manner, one would say that there was this particular circumstance taking place during that period and that is it. Yet when one looks into these documents and starts reading a deed about an individual life, one starts empathizing with that person and many questions will come to mind. For example, I came upon a deed wherein a priest was selling a slave together with her son to a Genovese merchant on condition that the latter would baptise the child on that same day. The merchant agreed and the deal was made. When you read something like this, how can you help not wonder who this woman was and from where she had come?”

    Corsairing was a high risk job but if all went well, those involved could become rich overnight.

    “Men craved for the opportunity to become corsairs and at one point, there were so many men leaving their jobs to join corsair ships that the Maltese Universitas requested the King of Spain to restrain this because the island was at a loss with the local workforce.”

    “Not all the captured ships delivered the same profits. A galley of the Sultan which would have been filled with riches and fine cloth, would be precious but not without issues and trouble. Other ships would be carrying worthy cargo such as sugar or wheat. Nonetheless, it was the human cargo which was considered the most profitable.”

    Captured people could be sold as slaves or held as captives until they were ransomed.

    “The whole process for redemption was very complicated. These contracts unravel all this system including how the involved parties went about to assure the best positive outcome from their deal. An agent would be requested to act as an intermediary between one party and the other, taking responsibility to collect a deposit from the captive and then to take him to an agreed destination in order to collect the rest of the money from his relatives and then release him.”

    “In April 1558, a slave, Busert Bin Hahmet de Casar concluded the following agreement with his master Giuseppe Baldagno. Busert was transferred to Antonio de Banda from Messina who was a patrone of a ship belonging to Marco Antonio Delixandro, also from Messina. The ship was equipped to undertake a voyage to the Tripolitan fortress of Barbaria. Antonio was to conduct the slave to Tripoli, and from there retrieve 80 gold ducats which was the stipulated price for redemption. This amount was to be remitted either in their value in dinars or in oil, wool or leather goods which the Arabs sold inside the Tripolitan fortress, which goods would be exempt from duty. Busert promised to pay Giuseppe within twenty days of his arrival at the fortress, on condition that the patrone was not to let him disembark unless he received the said payment or its value in goods. Once arrived at destination, the slave would need to make the necessary connection with an intermediary in his own country who would be in a position to acquire the redemption money or goods for him. Once the sum was settled, the slave would become a free man, but if the sum was not paid, he was to return with the same ship and consigned back to his master Giuseppe.”

    a sea of profits 2bAt times, the Grand Master had to issue a safe conduct certificate to enemy ships so that they might transfer the captives to the Tripoli port.

    “One such case was when Turgut Reis captured the ship Catharinet and took all her load to Djerba in 1548. Following this unfortunate capture for the Christian side, the Knight Augustino Spagno was sent as an envoy to negotiate redemption of the captives and once prices were fixed, a Muslim ship carrying these captives was to sail to the Order’s port in Tripoli.”

    Interestingly, although being amid a Holy War against each other, this flourishing trade saw the collaboration and interaction between Christian and Muslim merchants.

    “The capture of slaves did not only translate itself into financial rewards but acted also as a means to strengthen commercial ties between the various ethnic subjects of the cross and the crescent. Both Muslim and Christian merchants exploited this cruel reality and at times, this exploitation was so excessive that appeals were made to the local authorities to annul what plaintiffs described as usurious agreements which desperate souls had been forced to endorse in return for their freedom.”

    “The Catholic Church strongly prohibited any compensation on loans, whether being related to business or not. Interest was regarded as usury and was not allowed. Often, this situation created shortages of cash money, especially after the Jewish community was expelled from the Maltese Islands in 1492. Nevertheless, there were numerous ways of circumventing this prohibition, such as through the difference quoted in the rate of exchange which would incorporate an agreed rate of interest or by paying the value in other goods.”

    Besides ransom agents, there were also those agents who were summoned in order to make arrangements for the purchase of slaves to be delivered to Malta. Gender, age, ethnicity and price were agreed beforehand to eliminate any possible claims for additional payment.

    “Although prices of slaves varied considerably, various studies indicate that the average selling price for a slave during the sixtenth century was in the region of 46 scudi. The acquisition of infidel slaves from Tripoli as a commodity for re-sale was one of the most profitable economic activities through which Malta registered a boom in her commerce.”

    The arrival of Napoleon in 1798 abolished slavery in Malta and yet from litigation cases found in the Tribunal proceedings, during the early British Period, it is clear that the island’s association with slavery would not be terminated by a simple legislative enactment.

    “And yet, back in the eighteenth century, people had already realized that the raiding system was over and that it was not feasible anymore. A new system based on lawful commerce and trade began to emerge; the Pinto stores being evidence of such change.”

    (This article was published in the Family Business Supplement issued with The Times of Malta dated 24 February 2017)

    2017.02.26 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • Christmas inspiration

    the-sculpture-of-baby-jesus-at-il-muzew-tal-bambini-bkara-photo-fiona-vella-1Thousands of baby Jesus statues begged for my attention during a visit at Il-Mużew tal-Bambini in Birkirkara. However, I felt mostly intrigued by a particular terracotta figure which looked completely different from the rest. Its face had captivatingly unique features and the rest of the body was very life like. Yet it was only when I met its creator, sculptor Chris Ebejer, that I understood its real value, since that baby Jesus was not just a statue but a singular work of art.

    “My baby Jesus creations are not popular statues that are meant for domestic use or simply to act as a representation of the son of God. They have an added value because they are sculptures and not just statues,” explained Chris when I met him at his studio in Mqabba.

    “When I do such works, my aim is not only to reproduce the tenderness of a baby but also to relay an artistic style and a distinct message. Such art pieces are not restricted just to the Christmas season but they can be cherished all throughout the year due to their artistic significance.”

    An unfinished terracotta sculpture of a toddler Jesus lay waiting on a workbench. I couldn’t help noticing some subtle facial similarities between this work and the other one that I had viewed before. I was curious to know whether a sculptor would have a specific image in mind of how Jesus should be represented.

    “Before starting to work on something, an artist needs to have a vision of what he intends to create. One wouldn’t picture the exact image in mind but there would already be an idea of the shape, the composition, and the layout of the figure. Details will not be clear but each artist will subconsciously compose some particular features which are typical of his style.”

    “I must say that the facial features of this figure were inspired by those of my nephew. When he was a baby and later on a toddler, I studied closely his facial characteristics in order to explore the difference that exists between such a young face and that of an adult. For example, I observed that a toddler’s forehead is large when compared to the rest of the face, the upper lip is usually protruding, the cheeks are chubby and the neck is fleshy.”

    The sculpted figure of Jesus looked quite human and earthly and I wondered whether such work involved a spiritual process as well?

    “Whenever I am creating a sculpture, my foremost thought is always art. I am not motivated by any religious intentions and I do not aspire to encourage faith or to have people praying in front of my work. I have to admit that the subject is irrelevant to me.”

    Nonetheless, although creativity and originality are always his primary goals, Chris revealed that there is a limit on how much one can move out of the religious figures’ codified facial characteristics which our culture has learnt to decipher and expect.

    “No one has any idea how Jesus actually looked  like, neither as a baby or a child, nor as an adult. Indeed, both his face and the way in which he is represented have changed considerably along the centuries. The belief that some images such as the Veil of the Veronica and the Shroud of Turin could be historically authentic has influenced very much the present impression of Jesus’s face. Once such images are portrayed over and over again and are accepted by society, their characteristics become codified and this will help people to recognize immediately the figure of Jesus. Certainly, as an artist, there are ways and means of how to be creative when dealing with such a significant figure. However, one must know his limits so as not to come out with a profane work.”

    In earlier times, when art could reach out to people more than books, especially due to widespread illiteracy, the Catholic Church often used symbols within artistic works to deliver its messages.

    “There were various symbols that were portrayed with baby Jesus. In Botticelli’s artwork Madonna of the Pomegranate, Jesus is holding a pomegranate in representation of his suffering and resurrection. On the other hand, in the Madonna of the Carnation by Leonardo da Vinci, Jesus is reaching out to a carnation which is the symbol of Passion.”

    sculptor-chris-ebejer-in-his-studio-in-mqabba-photo-marthese-ebejerChris pointed out to his sculpture of toddler Jesus where he had also included such symbols.

    “Although in this sculpture, Jesus might look just like any child, there are a number of clues which will hint to the viewer that there is more to it than that. In fact, the child in sitting on a humble box draped in cloth in allusion to when the babies of ancient royal families were placed on thrones. The young figure is holding a miniature cross in his hand and three nails lie down beneath him on the ground. All these objects, together with the boy’s meditative expression as he looks far out beyond his tender age, create an effect which suggests  that the child is already seeing his mission for the future.”

    As he continues with some final touches on this latest sculpture, Chris reveals that the autumn and wintery seasons tend to inspire him to create new works.

    “I am deeply influenced by the change of seasons and by the transformation which they breed in the coloured landscape. Being from the rural village of Qrendi, I am very attracted to nature and my senses are intensely attuned to it.  As the leaves start turning orangey red, melting in with the aroma of wet brown soil and the liquorish scent of carobs, I feel stimulated to think about Christmas and the birth and life of Jesus, and it is mainly during this period when I come up with new ideas for works with religious themes. Moreover, the earlier approach of night during these days entices me to stay more indoors and this provides me with much more time to work.”

    A look at some of his finished works that were in his studio indicated that this sculptor had a particular preference to terracotta.

    “I do love working with terracotta as besides being a natural medium, it also has a pleasant warm colour. It is also more fluid and softer to handle than other materials and so it allows me to work in greater tranquillity. The fact that terracotta has been in use since ancient times enhances also in me that sublime feeling that by utilising this medium, I am helping to keep this traditional technique alive.”

    Apart from baby Jesus sculptures, during this season, Chris tends also to come out with new nativity creations.

    “Tenderness and the love for the family are the main messages imbued in these works.”

    (This article was published in Christmas Times magazine issued with The Times of Malta dated 8th December 2016)

    2016.12.09 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • Safety at sea

    Although the sea may be perceived as a barrier, in ancient times, when no infrastructure existed on land, it was actually the medium which connected one country to another. Travelling on the sea had its own risks and so eventually the idea of insuring a ship and its cargo developed. Traces of the first arrangements between merchants date back to the Roman Period, starting from contracts of sea loans and evolving through the centuries into more complex marine insurances.

    Along their history, the Maltese Islands often formed part of important trade routes and therefore local merchants were soon involved in this sector of underwriting risks. A wealth of information related to this aspect is available in old documents which show the development of insurance that was offered against particular risks on the sea. Nonetheless, till now, the origins and progress of marine insurance in Malta have been given little attention.

    Dr Joan Abela with the Notarial Archives' manuscripts (Photo - Fiona Vella)A visit to the Notarial Archives in Valletta where I met historian Dr Joan Abela introduced me to this interesting theme. Always ready to divulge enticing narratives from the valuable sources of these archives, Abela prepared for me a distinguished selection of thick manuscripts in order to help me explore the fine details available within.

    “In antiquity, before marine insurance originated, a sea loan was the only means of transferring risks in maritime transport from the shipper to another person. This consisted of two partners, a traveling and a sedentary one, who pooled their capital in order to invest and share the risk together. With such an agreement, the travelling partner would have more money in hand to work with, whereas the sedentary one would be able to make a profit while staying on land to continue with his work and at the same time avoid the perils that existed out at sea,” explained Abela.

    By the Late Middle Ages, as Italian merchants, particularly from Genoa, continued to experiment on these issues of securing vessels and their cargo, marine insurance gradually began to replace this type of agreement.

    Sources in Notarial Archives related to local history of marine insurance (Photo - Fiona Vella)“Since marine insurance was still in its early stages of development, contracts did not adopt a uniform pattern, but varied considerably according to the exigencies of the contractors. Insurance contracts were usually categorized as Securitas by the notary, and were generally divided into two parts.”

    “The first section listed the insurers’ names and the guaranteed premium which was calculated according to the routes, the prevailing conditions along these routes, the type of cargo, and also the type of ship being used. It also covered the kind of information which was regarded as essential for such a contract, that is, the name of the persons insured, specific details regarding the ship which was to undertake the venture, and other specifications regarding the merchandise and its destination. The second part of the contract usually listed the obligations of the insurers, the rights of those insured, and the method of payment.”

    An invocation of God’s blessing (Photo - Fiona Vella)Abela guided me through the Latin elegant black ink scripture which dated to centuries ago. Interestingly, at the beginning of some contracts, prior to the insertion of the usual stereotyped clauses, notaries included an invocation of God’s blessing for a safe trip.

    Al nome De Dio bon viaggio et salvamento Amen’ started a contract dated May 1558.

    “Divinity was also cited in other parts of the contracts,” revealed Abela. “In fact, the listing of the perils was often preceded by the phrase che Dio non voglia.

    Abela noted also that although at the time, mariners had a great devotion for the Virgin Mary which is evident from ex-voto paintings, Her name and also the names of saints were not usually mentioned when appealing for such spiritual protection in between legal phrases. This contrasted with the names given to ships that were often named after the Madonna and various saints.

    “Indeed these manuscripts can shed light on various subject matters. Amongst the wide data available, one can note the different vessels that were used during the different periods, the names of these ships, the ports to which they travelled, the type of cargo that was carried, and the amount of money which was being insured on it.”

    Malta Insurance Company (Photo - Fiona Vella)“An insurance contract which was concluded on 4 April 1536 stated that the insurance policy covered a shipment of 18 cantari of spun cotton that was going to be loaded from Birgu and shipped to Licata on the fusta of Giacomo Bonnichi. This fusta was to be captained by Paolo Xuejl or by any other captain appointed in his stead, and was secured to travel to any port which may have been deemed necessary for the purpose of the expedition.”

    Interestingly, a clause in the above contract stated that although being insured, the captain was expected to act prudently and to behave as if he was not being offered this protection, in order not to compromise the safety of the merchandise.

    “Should any damage or loss occur to the insured goods, the insurers were usually expected to pay the amount insured without any objection within four months from the incident. Yet as we can see from some documents, such as the petition that was put forward by Nob. Giacomo Bonichi against Mag. Pietro Ros and Giovanni Exatopolo in relation to a contract enrolled in the acts of notary Vincenzo Bonaventura de Bonetiis in 1560, the clients were not always satisfied with the way in which claims were met.”

    Abela pointed out to a most interesting contract which referred to an insurance of a consigment of apothecary products for the Order’s Infirmary. The list of products acted almost as a showcase of those ingredients which the Hospitallers used in order to produce the required medicine for their patients.

    Document with signatures of Antonio Habell and Giuliano Lombardo (Photo - Fiona Vella)“Those who succeeded to establish themselves in this sector had to have great entrepreneurial skills since this business was still in its infancy and there were lots of risks which one had to deal with. Antonio Habell and Giuliano Lombardo were two of the earliest local entrepreneurs who besides being merchants and traders, they also offered marine insurance services, as may be noted in an insurance contract which they endorsed in respect of the safe consignment of a shipment of timber from Licata in 1558.”

    Abela lead me to the book Trade and Port Activity in Malta 1750-1800 (2000) by John Debono where one can find detailed research related to aspects of marine insurance.

    “As Debono elucidates, marine risks involved were numerous and included: inconsistency in the weather, the questionable conduct of a crew which was generally poorly and irregularly paid and usually comprised men who could not find work ashore, plundering or being taken as a slave by pirates, the unreliability of basic sea charts and portolani which only showed the depth of the water, and the perils that war brought with it.”

    Thick manuscript with information on marine insurance in Notarial Archives (1) (Photo - Fiona Vella)This study underlines also that initially, undewriters operated on an individual basis up to circa 1771, and those notaries which succeeded did very well financially. From an examination of insurance policies between September 1754 and August 1755 drawn up by notary Agostino Marchese, who at the time was most renowned with underwriters and insured, reveals that no less than 109 marine underwiters during that period insured a total sum of 686, 385 scudi against marine risks. However, by the 1770s individual undewriters were being replaced by insurance firms and in 1771, we see the establishment of the first insurance company in Malta.

    A few years later, the Maltese Islands were in a state of turmoil as they were briefly occupied by the French and this led to a total collapse of the whole local insurance system. A new chapter in this sector initiated with the beginning of the British rule.

    (This article was published in the Shipping and Logistics Supplement which was issued with the Times of Malta on 30th March 2016)

    2016.03.30 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta