Letter from Malta

If what you want are the facts, and nothing but the facts, you’ve come to the wrong place. But, be warned, if you are Greek, or a classics scholar who hates it when filmmakers take a few liberties with the story as told by Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare – in «Troilus and Cressida» – or whomever, then if somehow you get through this column, I bet you’ll be sorry. Because this article is not just about Malta, a country I was in 10 days ago, one of the 10 countries that have been formally invited to join the EU in 2004, but also about the – rebuilt – city of Troy, about Menelaus, the wooden Trojan Horse and about that legendary Greek hero Achilles, as interpreted by heart-throb Brad Pitt, in a film titled «Troy» which brings the glory of Homer’s «Iliad» to life. There are some international films already shot in Malta. The fishing village of Sweethaven where «Popeye,» starring Robin Williams, is still – 24 years later! – visited by tourists. And if you remember the Turkish prison scenes in the 1978 film «Midnight Express» you can rediscover them in a fort built by the knights in 1552. German film director Wolfgang Petersen, 61 («Das Boot,» «Air Force One»), has already conceded that he has taken liberties with Homer, deleting some of the more arcane bits, such as the transformation of Greek gods into human form. His credo could be described as «Man is near, Heaven is far.» They were shooting on location in Malta while I happened to be there. The film director mentioned that his – Hollywood-financed – film will not be to US President George W. Bush’s liking. «The black-and-white mentality of a George W. Bush is totally inappropriate for this film,» the German director said in an interview with Die Welt newspaper. He made clear that «I want the audience to be able to identify with both sides. This is not a Bush-style war of good versus evil.» He added: «Our goal is that of the classical Greek tragedies. They allow the audience to experience the tragedy of the world and draw their own conclusions.» When the production was first announced a year ago, I recall troubled commentaries in the Greek media as to whether Achilles was going to be shown as a gay hero or not. In Valetta I was told that nothing of the sort will happen. The picture will not tend to focus on this element of Achilles’ character. Thus, the Greek «silent majority» – a phrase which Homer used to describe the dead – can be reassured. At least in this case Greek myth will not be ruined, and «these meanings» will not be put to the good old heroic friendship of Patroclus and Achilles. «Over the centuries the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Barbary pirates, Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, Napoleon and the British have all cast covetous eyes on this island so strategically situated between Europe and Africa,» I was told by Captain P. Mairangas – who represents Greece in Malta as a Honorary (meaning unsalaried) Consul on Zachary Street in Valletta. He was married to a Maltese woman and has remained here as a merchant for some 30 years. Paradoxically, with a population of hardly 400,000 and only 196 square miles in size, the three islands, Malta, Gozo, and Comino that make the Maltese Republic are a treasure chest of sites and all sorts of different cultures. An EU-candidate country – it applied to join in 1990 – with a GDP of about 50 percent of the average among the 15 member states, Malta has a «history encased in golden stone.» In a referendum last March, the island’s population voted in favor of membership. The result was confirmed when, the following month, the conservative prime minister, Eddie Fenech Adami, won a general election in which EU membership was the crucial issue. Now, if «Malta» popped up on a free-association test, most Greeks would respond with «Malta Yok!» after the alleged story of the Turkish navy unable to find Malta, and also with «The Maltese Falcon» (1941) one of the best classic detective films ever made. It’s a film noir by John Huston, shot after another classic: Dashiell Hammet’s 1929 novel. It is one of the most memorable films, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre. A description of the mysterious legend of the fabled, treasured statuette appears on the screen to set the stage. It reads: «In 1539, the Knights Templar of Malta paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon, encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels, but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token, and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.» There’s an interesting book on the same subject by Thessalonian journalist Thodoros Ioannidis. The legendary knights of Malta were usually the second sons of European aristocracy. «Second» meaning that they inherited little or nothing. They therefore had to emigrate. They became the pious crusaders we – through Byzantine history – know only too well about. Believing in a totalitarian sky-god, they went to Jerusalem – via Constantinople – in order to kill those who refused to worship him. Once in Malta, they also defended the islands against invading Ottoman Turks. Malta must be the most heavily fortified nation in the world, relative to its size. Officially, the objective of the Order of the Knights of St John was «the service of the poor, and the defense of the Catholic faith.» «After the fall of Constantinople (also after the destruction of Smyrna in 1922) some Greeks emigrated here. I still remember three Greeks churches in Floriana, some 40 years ago when I first came here,» says the Latin Orthodox priest of Albanian descent who lives behind the Catholic Orthodox church of Our Lady of Damascus («The knights brought the icon from Syria, first to Rhodes and then here,» he says). The knights built theaters too. The incredible baroque-decorated Manoel Theater, built in 1731 by Grand Master de Vilhena, is said to be the second-oldest European theater still in use. «We have two important festivals here every year,» I was told by its artistic director, Tony Cassar Darien. «An opera festival, and a baroque music festival. Both very successful.» On the island of Gozo, which is about one-third the size of the bigger island of Malta and has less than one-tenth of the population, in Victoria there are two theaters – extraordinary! – also staging opera and ballet, to Valletta’s one. This is indeed remarkable, considering the size of the country and the number of its inhabitants.

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