The Village by the Sea | Marsascala Under Attack (Again)

Having lived in Marsascala between 2015 and 2020 and seeing the sleepy-but-bustling former fishing village once again become a target for suffocating over-development, I’ve decided to look back on some of my impressions and memories of the town, partly motivated by simple nostalgia, partly by an urge to help myself understand just why the authorities and the business class so often make it a point to single out Marsascala in their ongoing drive towards uniform devastation. This is the third blog post in an erstwhile series.

So we had a sea view.

Sullied at the edges of your peripheral vision by clumsily placed solar panels, sure, but it was there. It greeted you each morning and provided a balm in the evening during summer – then, in all of the expected ways – and during winter it allowed for a showcase of nature’s fury as the waves crashed in violent foam over the promenade.

It remains the one undeniable perk we both miss very much now that we’ve relocated from Marsascala to Rabat a year ago. No longer being able to wake up and smell the sea, taking in its blue-on-blue hue, can’t be brushed off so easily. You can only be stoic about so much.

Thinking back on this, it’s the Marsascala dawn that really stands out in the memory. The sea view is the sea view, yes, but it really comes into its own in the morning, when it allows you to greet the day with a particular sense of accessible, graspable majesty. You visualise the opposite bay like a slowly-loading act of creation: the sight of the water hits you first, with the promenade and the dotted boats appearing gradually, replotting themselves into the scenery. A wide blue expanse, from eyeline to sublime horizon, would have its meditative perks too, of course.

But there’s something charming in the way the sea is stoppered by the twist of the promenade, at least viewed from our former spot in Zonqor. (One of my smallest – and so, most precious – delights was spotting buses work their way across the promenade road from our terrace. A miniature reminder of a system that somehow, with all its faults, still manages to work. To serve people.)

You realise it all the more when you actually go down and see for yourself – when you experience the promenade as a participant, not just a mere spectator. The slippy-slide of the moss-strewn walk down by what is a de facto boat yard… a brief shot of pure vernacular beauty, sadly interrupted too soon by the parked cars that insist on crowding you before you’re allowed to emerge to the main walk, facing the church.

But for a while, it’s like you’re transported into a scene redolent of the early 20th century: the promise of an effortlessly charming Mediterranean village fulfilled. Old houses fronted by streetlamp-flanked benches, for lovers to share pizza and beer purchased from very close by. Room for families to spread out a formica table and benches for a multi-generational gathering of card games and barbecues. And despite the independent flurry of boats that frame and flank it all, room enough for an old man with a bad leg to dull his pain with diligent exercise – a refreshing dip into the sea, after which he dries himself off seated upright by the wall, before working up the strength to head back home.

Regular sights for me, but morning and evening. But it all goes by in a few seconds: a pocket of fantasy, a near-literal blink of an eye. Because after that, you’re either back to the sea-view blocks by the road, where you’ll get to enjoy the more traditional pleasures of a rocky beach which will – eventually – be joined by the Zonqor fields we fought very hard to retain back in 2015. Or you’re more likely to head about your business in the opposite direction, marching your way to the promenade and its string of shops and restaurants, along with a nail technician and real estate agents’ office (or two. Pretty sure there were at least two).

This is where the true ‘life’ of Marsascala could be said to begin: the trigger of the daily churn of people and business. In the absence of a concentrated square, we get a stretched out one: the promenade serves as a gathering point for people and a stopping point for fruit & veg trucks, at least until it sheds the skin of a village square and becomes the ‘leisure’ promenade expected by convention.

The transition point for this is the small area by the traffic lights which lead to the bus terminus – or more accurately, to the recently-refurbished, multi-generational family restaurant Grabiel – where the barriers to the sea are briefly opened up; a place that serves as a small parking space and which in winter leaves plenty of leeway for flooding – you’re often forced so skip over and otherwise creatively manouevre through large puddles of pooled and brackish sea water.

From there forward, the communal spirit becomes more solitary and leisurely. You grab an ice cream and march forward towards St Thomas Bay and its environs; an area of true sublime beauty very much compatible with tourist postcards. But it also exists in the shadow of a fallen ruin: the old Jerma Palace Hotel, now a crumbling reminder of mismanagement and institutional dithering, but also a pro-active breeding ground for some of the island’s more interesting street art, and the location for many a low-budget music video.

Its neighbour, the St Thomas Tower, taps into a similar vein of neglect and decadence: it’s thankfully no longer a pizzeria, but any historical glory it may boast feels diminished by its flaking exterior, and its proximity to the far more imposing Jerma ruin. Still, both structures are also notable for their cat colonies, often seen crossing indistriminately from one side of the street to the other, making this cat lover’s heart skip a beat each time.

If our walk from Zonqor is undertaken during the evening, this is the point at which we often begin to turn back home. That, or we extend our walk past St Thomas Bay itself – to overlook the beach during magic hour and forgive this island and its people its many shortcomings.

Read previous: Distance Does Not Mean Protection

Distance Does Not Mean Protection | Marsascala Under Attack (Again)

Having lived in Marsascala between 2015 and 2020 and seeing the sleepy-but-bustling former fishing village once again become a target for suffocating over-development, I’ve decided to look back on some of my impressions and memories of the town, partly motivated by simple nostalgia, partly by an urge to help myself understand just why the authorities and the business class so often make it a point to single out Marsascala in their ongoing drive towards uniform devastation. This is the second blog post in this erstwhile series.

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Marsascala always struck me as one of the few villages or towns in Malta whose borders are actively separated by clear distances.

Most of Malta’s localities exist on parallel and intersecting lines – like the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma in China Mieville’s fantasy-noir novel The City and the City. Plant yourself at any border on the island and you’ll likely find yourself facing or tailing a couple more. Not so with Marsascala.

The road that extends from its closest Southern cousin of Zabbar feels like a proper ‘highway’ between one town, city, village and the next. Neither is it terribly feasible to walk to nearby villages through its other end – a one-hour trek to its more decorated fishing village cousin of Marsaxlokk is certainly beautiful in the right conditions, but impractical in others; opting to walk to the equidistant Zejtun is neither a pretty nor safe proposition.

And trudging through the ‘pedestrian’ highway to Zabbar (and nearby Birgu) would be pointless – it’s a strip of land designed exclusively for cars, and all the ramblers would get out of it would be inhaled fumes.

But this isolation equals neither boredom nor tranquility, much as I sometimes wished that to be the case. Marsascala is ‘bustling’ in various senses of that loaded word. A fishing village turned summer-house location for local families turned expat haven turned half-hearted tourist spot.

A few decent restaurants have popped up in recent years, but the provision of overall services remains on the sketchy side. No need to pine for the mercilessly ‘sleek’ counterparts of Sliema and St Julian’s – which would be uncomfortable for a host of related or vaguely-related reasons – but moving to the more centralised and quieter area of Rabat has quite literally brought home the benefits of the more traditional village structure.

Marsascala, on the other hand, is marked by long stretches and disproportionate distances, only to be stoppered by sprawl on its edges and contours. The long promenade cuts a swathe across Zonqor Point and St Thomas Bay on either end, and both of them are then burdened by apartment blocks – snails carrying a shell of cramped-together dwellings. In between are the shops, restaurants and yes, some villas with ‘unobstructed views’ for those who can afford them.

It’s a mish-mash rearing for change – or rather, for streamlining and ‘completion’ – a completion which in Malta signals only oblivion.

This is why a raggedly hybrid place like Marsascala is so vulnerable to attacks of ‘development’. Its liminal state – between warm summer dwelling and tourist hub, between fishing village and cool hangout – is an affront, an offence.

And its edges must be smoothened into the choking nothingness that Transport Malta, the Planning Authority and – crucially – the status-hungry populace want. Anything that just “sits there” is a waste of time and resources.

The poverty of the Maltese school system – a reheated version of utiliatrian British methods based on rote learning and mechanised exams – means there is no oxygen left to cultivate a sense of enrichment and belonging in leaving things just as they are, and enjoying them as such.

Which is why we are left to suffer under the yoke of public officials such as the Planning Authority’s executive chairperson Martin Saliba, who equate the zombie-brained expansion of ugly urban sprawl with an inevitable drive towards a vaguely-defined “modern era” for Malta.

Distance is what isolates Marsascala, and what makes it vulnerable. You reach it after a long stretch, and you find it to be all alone. You imagine it cupped in the palm of a distracted sea-goddess.

No UNESCO-protected fortifications defend it from attack, alas.

Read more: Resistance & Self-Compassion: The Case of (and for) Marsascala

Resistance & Self-Compassion: The Case of (and for) Marsascala

The seaside village of Marsascala which served as my home for roughly six years up until recently has once again become a beacon of environmental resistance in Malta, after a government-sponsored proposal to choke its bay with a vulgarly gigantic yacht marina has led to a near-unanimous uproar among both activists and locals.

If the root of the complaint were not so depressing, such a united front would have been inspiring to witness. After all, it’s a ripple that follows on from a similar wave or organised dissent back in 2015, when the ‘American University of Malta’ was proposed on the same village’s outskirts.

This was to be a beacon legacy project for disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat and his chosen coterie of movers and shakers in the political and business world – a Malta-Jordan collaboration built on virgin land with a pre-packaged, pre-purchased American university syllabus aiming to attract further ‘high net worth’ individuals to spend their money in Malta and Gozo.

That the project is now little more than a shadow of its proposed self stands as something of a feather in the cap of the same environmentally-conscious protestors who took to the streets to fight it tooth and nail.

We should remember this. We often denigrade ourselves for not doing enough, or for doing too little, too late. Or for not accepting that the status quo will carry on in its usual churn regardless, and give into apathy and a sense of futility as a consequence.

But the long view is that while short-term battles may be lost and while, on the environmental front at least, the political and business hegemony may continue to treat us with utter contempt (whose unholy alliance is still not taboo, even after it was a direct contributor to the murder of a journalist), taking a stand still matters.

There’s a lot to scoff at in the current generation’s earnest, somewhat pat ideas on how to make life marginally more tolerable – as was the case for generations past. But I would insist on encouraging everyone involved in this ‘resistance’ to exercise a degree of self-compassion.


Following the concerted uproar, the American University of Malta was set to be split into two campuses – one ostensibly to remain in a ‘reduced’ capacity on Marsascala’s Zonqor Point, the other to occupy an historic colonial building at the harbour town of Bormla. The extension back to Zonqor will only happen if the Bormla campus fills up. This remains an unlikely outcome, given how student count amounted to under 100 by late 2019.

Activists should allow themselves not just self-compassion here, but an enlivening jolt of sadism too. This is a call to laugh at the critically wounded near-corpse of a mortal enemy. To cackle in the face of at least one of these offenders – who cackle at our earnest attempts to counter them nearly 24/7, as more and more obscenities crop up at every corner.
It may not be the most noble emotion to indulge, but we deserve it. If anything, it will give us fuel for the next fight… which will always be around the corner.

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I’ll be putting out some follow-up posts to this one, in which I’ll finally be dumping some memories and impressions of the town. Don’t expect amusing trivia and historical rigour. But feel free to expect pretty much anything else. I know I am.

Central Link Project: A Quick and Dirty Resistance Guide

The Central Link Project is only the latest assault on Malta’s natural environment, heritage and collective memory. Animated by a destructive populist zeal, its main aim is to further entrench the idea that private cars are the only way to get around in this tiny, overbuilt and over-polluted island.

The salt in the wound is the attitude of a government which, instead of at least acknowledging people’s concerns about the project, mocks them in tones that can only be described as ‘passive aggressive Kim Jong-Un’.

Thankfully, a steady momentum of resistance is building up in opposition to this additional bulldozing blow to the few pockets of greenery we have left. As ever, success is never a guarantee. It may not even be a possibility. But at the very least, those who care a smidge for how future generations will perceive us can at least take comfort in the knowledge that something WAS done when push came to shove.

Direct action

‘For Our Trees’ Protest – July 28th

I’ve expressed my reservations about some of the strategic choices proposed for this particular protest, but that certainly doesn’t mean I won’t be attending, nor that I’m not glad that something is actually happening to demonstrate on-the-ground resistance. Exact time and venue to be announced.

Fundraiser for Court Appeal

Together with the Bicycle Advocacy Group and a number of other environmental NGOs, Moviment Graffitti have come through with a sensitive, pin-sharp and serious approach to the matter. They aim to raise €20,000 to cover the necessary legal costs. Click here for donation options.

Further Reading

First, the sober stuff…

‘Will Malta End Up With More of Fewer Trees?’

Tim Diacono (Lovin Malta) cuts through government spin (never more vile than what appeared on ONE.com.mt) and the understandable-but-sometimes-deafening outrage to get at the ominous truth behind the promises of the Central Link Project.

‘A recipe for traffic induced disaster’

The MaltaToday editorial leader from last Sunday is sober but unequivocal in its condemnation for the project:

“Meanwhile, road-widening in various areas of Malta has already resulted in the permanent loss of around 40,000sq.m of agricultural land in various areas. But in this case, a staggering 19,000sq.m will be taken up by the new bypass, and other roads feeding it.”

[…]

“And yet, the new infrastructure is not primarily meant to accommodate bus lanes, but only cars. Even bike lanes have come as an afterthought, with the proposed lanes failing short of a real network which makes it possible for cyclists to travel uninterruptedly along the new route.”

[…]

“Clearly, the regulatory authorities are not doing their job properly. Equally clearly, the Transport Ministry is motivated by short-term strategies that will only exacerbate existing problems in the near future. This is a recipe for disaster.”

‘Cutting down trees to widen roads is not just wrong. It is evil’

With characteristic verve, wit and a dependably healthy dollop of righteous anger, Raphael Vassallo also steps in to condemn the project in no uncertain terms:

“I rather suspect that they will look back at us today, and conclude that we must truly have been an evil bunch of criminally delinquent monsters, to have wilfully embarked on a course of action that we knew would make their own lives hell.”

Then, some satirical respite…

Finally, The satirical pen of Karl Stennienibarra of Bis-Serjeta’ is also worth noting here since, like the best satire often does, his perspective lifts the lid on the underlying absurdities of the thing in a way that rational discourse never could.

Morbidly obese Maltese man expands stomach to allow more food to pass through

…I wonder what this article could possibly be allegorising about?

“Dr Grixti stressed that for every burger, pizza and cake that Mr Cutajar will shove down his newly widened oesophagus, he will also eat one piece of broccoli.

“Before the operation, concerned friends of Mr Cutajar pointed that 549 hairs would need to be shaved as part of the procedure. However, Dr Grixti dismissed their worries in an emoji-filled Facebook post.”

People in Malta must evolve to breathe dust & fumes, says Muscat

“Muscat said the government had considered the possibility of subsidising oxygen masks, but had deemed the idea too unrealistic.”

“Instead, we need people to be self-sufficient and evolve lungs that can filter out excess progress powder. In the words of Charles Darwin: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, boutique hotels, directly follows.”

The quality of my lies is improving, says Muscat

“For example, instead of telling you all the truth – that Malta can’t be a one-car-per-person country anymore and that we desperately need to reduce car use, which would lose me both votes and corporate donors – I feed you a load of bullshit about road widening, while impressing you with big numbers, half-truths and far-off hypotheticals that may or may not become reality,” [Muscat] said to applause.

Updates | Camilla at Malta Comic Con & Losing [Our] Space on YouTube

My last update was about the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival (MMLF), and this one is sort of about that too. We took a quick trip up to the in-laws soon after the event ended and got something of a breather from this stuffy, overcrowded and practically air-less island. It’s a trip that usually lasts quite a bit longer and is sometimes undertaken in different countries… whatever it takes to escape the July-August swelter of Malta.

The weather is still insufferable, the tourists and AirBnB-ers still crowd us and sometimes bar us from getting a proper night’s sleep, but on the whole — I say this with figurative fingers firmly crossed — it all seems to be thinning out, with the evenings even regaling us with the odd breeze to sleep through every now and then.

It’s a reminder that easier times should be just about ahead, and exciting ones too. It may be the flavour of pumpkin spice latte or crunchy leaves that announces the onset of Autumn pleasures to some… I’m just grateful for a mellowing out of the general atmosphere. But coupled with the fact that yes, Halloween (and horror) is also something I enjoy indulging in quite a bit, there’s very geeky pleasures to be had during autumn on our island too.

But, first things first

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Losing My Space‘ – round-table discussion and MMLF pre-event – now on YouTube

Losing My Space Giola Cassar

Losing My Space‘. Moderated by Immanuel Mifsud (far left) and featuring Teodor Reljic and Roger West. Photo by Giola Cassar for Inizjamed

Taking place on August 19, Losing My Space was a well-attended and well-received discussion on just what writing can possibly do in the face of pervasive environmental devastation and urban/corporate overdevlopment, and in a lot of ways ushered in the Festival itself, because the ensuing discussion — undertaken by poet Roger West and myself and moderated by established Maltese author Immanuel Mifsud — reflected both the festival’s artistic sensitivity and political urgency.

But the warmth and wit of the audience is also a bit part of that experience, and I thought it was reflected with an apposite grace here. Either way, you can now see for yourself on YouTube. Be sure to also check out the Festival’s other big — bigger, even — round-table pre-event, ‘Writing Fragile‘. Kudos to Inizjamed for being so efficient with putting these recordings up — it’s a great way to ensure both outreach and posterity as well as, once again, prolonging the wonderful experience at the heart of this event.

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Creating the Maltese Gothic: ‘Camilla’ at Malta Comic Con

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Happily, one of my favourite annual appointments on the island will be just-about coinciding with Halloween this year, as the Malta Comic Con gets bumped up a month ahead of its usual December slot to take place on November 3 and 4 this year at the MFCC in Ta’ Qali.

Apart from sharing a table with my very talented sister-in-law (I’ll be the guy peddling prose books); I’ll also be delivering a talk on ‘Camilla’ with the project’s co-writer and director Stephanie Sant, on November 3 at 15:00.

This would be just a week or so shy of the short film’s official premiere at the Malta Book Festival on November 10. Find out more about the event here; and click here to learn more about the project — a work of Gothic horror that adapts a short story by one of Malta’s leading literary voices by injecting it with a bit of Sheridan Le Fanu.

 

The education of animals | Okja and Spoor

In the Polish-Czech co-production Spoor (Pokot), released earlier this year and directed by the acclaimed Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (who also serves as co-writer), Janina (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka) an animal-loving former engineer living on the Czech-Polish border starts to see her dreadful poacher neighbours disappear one by one, soon after she loses her beloved dogs.

In Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho and released by Netflix earlier this year, a young girl from the Korean wilderness, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), has her GMO-enhanced ‘superpig’ Okja taken away from her by the corporation that made it in the first place (the ‘Mirando Corporation’, fronted by the creepily upbeat and aching-to-be-hip Lucy Mirando, played with typical aplomb by Tilda Swinton). Being the biggest and most beautiful of its lot, Okja will be paraded around in New York before being sliced up into sausages and other treats.

VIDA FILMS AUG 2017 Okja 2

A girl and her pig: Ahn Seo-hyun in Okja (2017)

Both films are inspired genre mashups operating to varying degrees of success — with Okja’s maddened but heartfelt modern fable coming up tops by a wide margin — and both have female protagonists on the opposite side of the age spectrum who are made to struggle with the brittle fault-line between the ‘animal’ and the ‘human’.

In Mija’s case, the girl forces herself out of her comfort zone in a foolhardy mission to America — where she is helped along by the Animal Liberation Front, a group of rag-tag animal rights activists who make Okja’s cause their mission… only to later reveal their true mission is to use Mija’s best friend as a mole to help them reveal the extent of the Mirando Corporation’s callous exploitation of the natural world.

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka and Miroslav Krobot in Spoor (2017)

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka and Miroslav Krobot in Spoor (2017)

Janina, on the other hand, is the village eccentric — the loony or idiot, if you want to be less generous, and the poachers who ring her existence and make her life a living hell — all the more because they’re aided and abetted by the legal, commercial and clerical strands of her community — are certainly happy to view her as a pitiable nuisance, at best.

Holland’s film — co-written by the source novel’s writer Olga Tokarczuk — muddles some of its narrative and thematic targets along the way, but its most interesting strand is the positioning of Janina herself. Hiding the main secret of the film in plain sight for a long stretch of its running time — it is finally revealed that Janina herself is the mysterious hunter-killer — she is presented as the ultimate unhinged ‘do-gooder’. Lacking perspective and a convincing way to make her case — her unquestioning belief in astrology is likely to alienate her from the bulk of the audience’s sympathies — her questionable mission only gains a truly humane backbone when she lets in some ‘allies’ into it.

Indeed, both Mija and Janina gain their small environmental victories by finally leveraging their ambitions with the realities of the world. There are crucial differences between the two, however. While Mija starts off as naive, learning that Okja is only one small part of a wider ‘family’ of superpigs, and whose very origin — and, sadly, fate — is a deeply disturbing matter, Janina’s starting point — and main psychological obstacle throughout — is a generally ‘cracked’ view of the world.

Cruel pens: Spoor (2017)

Cruel pens: Spoor (2017)

In some ways, it’s easy to imagine that Mija could easily have become Janina in a future iteration. Somebody whose love of a seemingly innocent natural creature — a love that, crucially, blossoms in an idyllic rural environment — is eventually corrupted into a resentment that gives way to a form of insanity. But it’s also worth noting that both films end on similar beats: with both ‘families’ — Mija, Okja and her grandfather; Janina and her allies in a secluded farmhouse commune — finding some form of solace after having accomplished their respective ‘missions’, to varying degrees of success.

Once again, Okja proves itself the more elegant film. The ending is not a pat reward for both the audience and Mija herself. While an inner peace may just radiate from the scene — the oblique benefits of Mija gaining wisdom from the experience, her slowly-curling smile as Okja conspiratorially whispers into her ear — it is also unquestionably dripping with melancholy. She is “sadder and wiser” for having undergone the ordeal of getting Okja back, and of learning that it was all just a tip of a very nasty iceberg. It is a fitting end for a true hero’s journey: a coming-of-age story where the sudden onset of ‘age’ is actually felt in Mija’s muted enthusiasm in those final scenes.

VIDA FILMS AUG 2017 Okja 3

Okja (2017)

Spoor is, true to form, clumsier in this regard; rewarding Janina with a commune for her vigilante efforts (and it’s a full-blown commune indeed, as Dyzio and Dobra are shown to have had kids so as to ensure the little society’s propagation). But in both films, what shines through is the necessity of searching for communal solutions to problems caused by individualism. The do-gooders of both films — Janina, and the Animal Liberation Front — are both shown as deeply flawed. But their efforts yield results precisely because they veer away from the individualistic approach to life we’re all encouraged to participate in.

We are trained to believe that the inherent problems of a set up like the Animal Liberation Front are enough to nip such an effort in the bud. And while it’s impossible to condone Janina’s murderous rampage — save for the emotional catharsis it provides to the viewer in the immediate term — it is the oppressive and fully sanctioned logic of murder for sport that the poachers engage in which have in fact pusher her over the edge. It is then up to her cluster of support — similarly sidelined kindred spirits — to rehabilitate her into a society that offers a better alternative.

A society — a commune — whose presentation may come off as being a tad contrived, but which remains a testament to how fiction can be useful in helping us lay down a blueprint for something better.

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Human hypocrisy and short-sightedness should never be the last word on any phenomenon that exists on this world — be it natural or social. We will always make mistakes and blunders along the way; and we’ll tend to either forget some of the more vaunted commitments we may make in our quest to create the conditions for a better, more equal and overall ‘healthier’ world.

But while this does not mean letting the most egregious offenders of the hook, as both of these films show, the ambiguities of the situation should not be ignored, or brushed off as weaknesses or irredeemable shortcomings.

Success is a totem often built of smaller, chipped and cracking versions of the same, and we can only really achieve true progress by not giving these smaller bits a hard time along the way.