Malta. Another island. A year to the day after Lesbos. It seems some people never figure out what a holiday is. I needed one, very much so, but I always end up working, somehow. This time it had started like a proper vacation project, as I had looked up “sunny places in Europe in February”. Yet, as soon as the flights were booked I started to plan … various interviews with local activists helping refugees. Like I said in other posts, once you’ve opened your eyes on something so dramatic as the situation of the refugees, you can no longer close them. Literally, when I think about the state of the world, I can no longer sleep. Since they’re pretty good at that, I need Frontex guards to come close the borders of my mind so as to stop its flow of thoughts at 10pm each night and reopen them in the morning in order to allow me to feel like I’m awake and able to think straight again.
That’s the state of exhaustion I’m in when I land on Malta. Malta, a mysterious island between Sicily and Lampedusa. It has its own strange language, a latinized version of Arabic with huge chunks of Sicilian, Italian and some English that have matured through centuries to result in what is the only Semitic language in Europe. It is as unusual as it is pretty to hear. It makes me want to read Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo again, even if they have nothing to do with Malta.
There are churches, everywhere. You see them from the plane. Christian means charitable right? Christian culture is widespread in Europe. Charity not so much.
At the airport, I grab a taxi, just because I’m too lazy to wait for the bus. The way the driver drives makes me regret that decision and understand why so many people pray. Maybe I should have written a will of sorts before travelling here. I would have given my only earthly possessions, that is my books, to a school somewhere in the world. For the time being, we’re driving an open coffin , as we say in French, meaning way too fast and too close to other cars. I try to kill time by talking while the driver seems to try to kill us. As I let out a gasp, he laughs and asks whether I’m afraid. “No no…but you know, fellow drivers always feel nervous on the passenger seat”, I lie. Visibly amused, he laughs harder. Just as he does, on what is a two lanes road, two black men cross the road, running. I immediately know they’re the first two refugees I see on the island. Horn of Africa. That gives me the opportunity to question the taxi driver. In doing so, I always feel a bit like a cheap journo, they’re the blatant targets and always have something to say on nearly every subject. But I keep in mind that this might well be my last five minutes alive so I’d better get some of the answers I came here for. I don’t tell him I’m a journo but ask away: ” Those were refugees, right?”. “Yes, they were illegal migrants I think, there’s a center up the road”, he says. I ask him how is the situation regarding refugees on the island. I already know his lines, having heard them a dozen times before: ” This is bad, they’re too many of them. It’s bad for the economy…”. He sounds less vehement than plenty people I met who shared this opinion. He’s just an insular, never been out of his island and confronted to the unknown (nowadays, unknown is also known as islamophobia, it seems…).
That’s my first impression on refugees here. They’re here illegally, unwanted human beings. Which to me is here more than anywhere else a paradox, Malta having always been a place of asylum and in recent years become home of thousands of expats. It goes on to show the hypocrisy we use when we describe black and white people, basically. After all, it all seems to be that manichean. On the one hand, we have the white people called expats, on the other hand, the rest of them, here mostly black people from this big united country that is Africa, since people here seem to think every refugee has come from the very same place on the continent, having lived in very similar conditions and all looking the same, that is: different than us.
Being my usual emotional mop, I’m wandering in Valletta’s street in search of answers. The suburbs are idyllic with their olive trees and ripe oranges, tangerines and lemons galore, but in the city centre I can’t help but notice the shadows of those frail humans who wear worn out tracksuits way too big for them and don’t dare to look up. I might be wrong for some of them but I saw enough refugees back home to recognize the empty eyes of those who have seen toouch when I spot them. Emaciated faces, empty eyes, nothing to lose anymore. Busy locals in business suits and sophisticated women in heels and boots walk past me, phone glued to their ear. A few tourists pace the streets as well, with fancy sunglasses and selfie sticks. Couples stroll along, hand in hand, or looking at a city map. Three Asian women laugh in delight as they attempt to take a selfie with a local cat sleeping on a car roof. I noticed that Maltese people adore cats. Those are fat and well fed (the cats).
In front of Malta’s Parliament, a man from Africa is sitting on a bench. Upon my asking it turns out that he is filling out an application for asylum. I wish him good luck, ashamed of our inequality.
It pains me to realize that here again, human lives aren’t worth the sane whether you are mighty or miserable. Here, as well, animals seem to be treated better than fellow han beings. Lesbos, Athènes, Berlin, Calais. And now Malta, on the surface an island of Paradise. Different place, same situation.