You will know when it exists -- Obscure journalism direct from our man on the ground.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Maltese Talkin' - Chapter 6 - An Immigrant With A Job

Chapter 6. 

Neville turns away to conceal his chuckling when I arrive at work.
He bangs his hands together twice then holds them there, palms out, volunteering himself for arrest.
I give him a confused look.
He huffs at not being instantly understood then begins talking “You remember the other night? Us drinking. Me talking to Steffania, the one with the burnt face.”
“Yeah I remember - Kylie’s friend.”
“She is young ta. Fifteen only.”
Again he mimics being handcuffed.
“Well you only talked to her.”
“Ah Allah, I took her number. I S.M.S.ed her. But now, no. No more.”
Then out of nowhere he squawks “STEFFANIA!”
Once he settles down I ask “Should I message Kylie? She is sixteen, so that’s OK right?”
Neville shrugs, then holds his wrists together again, silently laughing.
“But I am younger than you Neville. I’m only four years older than her.”
He doesn’t respond to me, he just leans on my shoulder as if I was built to be his arm rest. I contemplate how to ask Kylie out but my thoughts are interrupted by Neville shouting.
“I wannababba, I wannababba!” and laughing.

After a good few weeks at the job the paperwork had caught up with me - apparently I needed a Work Permit. Neil the manager muttered, “Just tell them you will start at the end of the month, OK?” in as casual a manner as he could muster. 

To pick up this permit I had to go, with my passport, to the ETC head office in Hal Far. The following day I left early…ish. It took two buses and a good while to get there, I arrived just as they closed the large rolling gates, desperately I explained I just needed to pick up a permit but “We close at twelve, man. You will have to come back tomorrow, we open at nine A.M.”

Feeling slightly stunned - who simply shuts at midday? - I meandered around a bit. Not much in the neighbourhood: a few workshops and warehouses, the sound of grinding steel and the dust from limestone blocks being cut. An army jeep drove slowly past followed by soldiers in formation quick marching after it; a road sign pointed the direction to The Base. In the vicinity, amid an overgrown evergreen hedge, was a sign stating PEACE LABORATORY that stood out as a welcome contradiction juxtaposed against the areas otherwise military trappings. Through the fence I saw some nice potted plants, some empty tents and some modest (though nude) statues. It looked like a disused Kumbayah summer camp. Perfect for an evening roughing it, as long as it remained empty of happy-clappers. 

I decide to walk down to Birzebugga, spend all day on the beach then come back to sleep stealthily in a vacant tent eliminating the hassle of taking all those buses home then back again.
In my backpack: a litre bottle of water, a snorkel and my passport.

The walk down to Birzebugga from Hal Far is solitary except for occasional butterflies along the rural side-roads. Passing a Boy Scouts H.Q. I see more vacant tents – seems I am in luck today!
Pretty Bay is a little strip of sand that sits in front of Birzebugga and is the most southerly beach in Malta. While snorkelling I talk to an old Canadian man who is prizing shells from the rocks and collecting spiky sea urchins called Rizzi, eating them as he goes. He opens a large Rizzi with his knife and offers it to me. Its deep orange core tastes of the ocean with just a hint of days gone by. I swim out and look at the Freeport; cargo ships come and go. I guess it was named Pretty Bay before the heavy industry moved in, either that or the naming committee got off on irony. But for all its aesthetic gloom the port adds an air of mystery to the otherwise banal idyllic headland. Swimming in the clear water I wonder what those cargo ship’s stories are and what freight is in all those large faceless containers. Unlike the sea that surrounds it the whole operation is anything but transparent, looming large like an family secret.

After drying myself with my T-shirt and letting it dry in turn in the sun, I shuffle into Birzebugga for lunch – pizza slice. I see a bunch of teens skateboarding and watch for a bit, then ask to have a go and soon I am skating with the group. The action takes place on a large semicircular concrete seat on the beachfront. We ollie on and off, then go and skate the steps outside of the church.

The day passes quickly, the sun starts dropping and the skate rats go home. I head back the way I came. The Scouts tents are full of muffled chit-chat and activity, it feels like my luck is diminishing along with the light. I continue past the ETC and it seems a much longer walk this time, in the half dark. 

The Peace Laboratory smells of a mish-mash of spices. There are lights on in a little cabin so I go in, I am greeted with confused looks from the three North African men sitting around a small table but those lying on the bunk beds don’t sit up to look. I ask if there is any room to stay in the tents and once I manage to explain it is just for one night one of the men goes to find someone he says can help. A couple of minutes later in he walks my saviour: a dark black man wearing a retro Manchester United home shirt, overflowing with energy and all conquering smiles. 

“You want to sleep here tonight my friend?”

“Yep, I have to go to the ETC tomorrow morning.”

“Ok no problem, follow me. My name is Beckham.” He laughs pulling the red football strip down at the back to showcase the white-stencilled surname. 

            We walk out of the Peace Lab and shortly get to an open gate in a compound enclosed with high fences. Piles of shoddy clothes are laid out on the floor near the entrance.

“Take some if you need” Black Beckham enthuses. 

I have a brief scour of the heap but it seems all the football kits are taken. There is a sort of security block: a pre-fab hut with its lights on. Beckham reassures me that we needn’t worry about informing them of my presence as I am only here for one night. Then as my eyes adjust to the darkness I see where we are. Many dozens of old military tents set up in long rows with a few fires burning in petrol cans here and there. It’s a refugee camp. 

We bounce through the makeshift neighbourhood and Beckham spots an aggravated man being very loud with arms flailing. Confiding in me, Beckham tells how this loud man hogs all the women. He advises me not to look at the nearby women and believe it or not I take his advice.

Beckham speaks to some people outside his cousin’s tent; two women are cleaning clothes in a bucket, twiddling my thumbs I watch, hoping they have nothing to do with Loud Flailing Man. I get shown into the tent. Inside is unlike anything I have seen before; isles of bunk beds turned into four person rooms by segregating them from the adjacent bunks with cardboard boxes. A lot of the people are out in the middle corridor and look like they are making the most of the cool evening that is slowly winding down. Seeing my dizzy white face amuses them all, as they carry on doing whatever they are doing. 

In a makeshift dorm I am assigned Beckham’s cousin’s vacant bed, its silky sheets are surprisingly comfortable. The man opposite offers me the only food he has which is a jar of mayonnaise, I refuse politely – shaking my head happily. I feel sorrow and respect for him. He tells me to sleep on top of my bag: again I take the advice given though it adds to my image of a wary child of the west. I lie down feeling warm from the generosity shown by these people who obviously have very little even for themselves.

I let tiredness command my thoughts, allowing them to run uncontrolled and to mingle organically with the whispers, shouts and laughter of this haphazard community.

I drift off to sleep to the sound of joyous singing.

Early morning. All is now quiet and motionless. I look at the picture pulled from a magazine of a Californian woman in a bikini posing sexually. Pinned onto the cardboard wall, here, in this setting, she looks more unobtainable than ever. Everyone else is asleep, I write a note that reads:

‘Thank you for your hospitality’ then leave quietly.

It is only 8am as I walk out of the camp, there is dew on the grass and the sky is a white shade of blue. I wait for the office to open as the sun rises. I see the first few people come out of the camp wearing heavy work boots covered in paint, and clothing that clashes so badly it begins to look like high fashion. The office opens and after sitting in the waiting room for over an hour I go in. After a signing a form I get my work permit. I walk out into the courtyard where pink flowers glow in the sunshine. Waiting at the bus stop I feel once again that luck is on my side. Now I have a work permit in my bag to go with that ever-important passport. 

            I hadn’t known anything about the immigrant situation in Malta before that night. Later I would read bits and pieces in the newspapers, turns out it was a hot topic. I heard people talk about the displaced Africans in scorn, where this scorn came from seemed entirely unfounded. Hysteric xenophobia had implicated migrants as the sole blame for every unsolved crime. A simple target means that any complications or uncertainty can be ignored, overlooked. I even heard the urban myths, which I expected were fallacies arising from bored suburbia. How “a Maltese man, on his stag do, naked except for a learner’s ‘L plate’ was handcuffed to a lamppost and left there overnight. When his friends returned for him in the morning he had been gang-raped by a group of ten or twelve savage immigrants.” 

            When I got back from Hal Far I went out in Paceville. As I walked into a nightclub I overheard the mercenary bouncer turning away a black guy saying “You don’t have an invite” I’m sure he didn’t but neither did I, neither did anybody.

            I didn’t know which African countries were currently gripped in civil war but I knew if war came knocking at my door step I would sure as hell up and leave. The situation was beyond my grasp. Who was I to say there should be no borders, allow everybody in and treat everyone as you would wish to be treated yourself. Malta is a small island and I’d heard of something called Economics. Newspapers reminded me that the country was one of the most densely populated in the world. Its a small island how can we deal with this many immigrants? All I know is saying there should be a cap on immigration it doesn’t put a smile on your face like when you sing:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
Sign was painted, said private property
But on the back side it didn't say nothin’
This land was made for you and me.[1]

Singing that song you feel something old, something powerful, something right. Some mad holistic worldwide perspective. Overpopulation may well be a real problem but issues surrounding man-made boundaries seem mere avoidance of the issue: assisting in foreign birth control might be worth thinking about instead, if that really is the worry. And if overcrowding was Malta’s reason to detain refugees then what could explain the decrepit vacant houses or all the half buildings whose construction had ceased at the critical juncture of adding windows? I’d considered squatting in them myself, if they didn’t give the impression of a mousetrap. 

One lesson I remembered from history is that the flow of people is nothing new and it is unstoppable.

At least the government gave refugees that made it past the boundary line some aid. But the prevailing unsavoury attitude that fueled unhealthy contempt towards these unwelcome, un-European guests was no help to anybody. 

[The best reportage I've since read on the matter is The Unwanted by Joe Sacco it is available in full in his book Journalism or abridged here for free]

 Malta was the safest place I’d ever visited. The whole country felt like one big playground. The country made it easy for Europeans to live what Neville called The Play-life. There were no areas that gave me an uneasy feeling. No small roads through ancient woodland whose overhanging branches block out the moonlight. No shadowy city streets, whose human walls constantly observe you, waiting for the first sign of weakness. No dubious characters tarnishing the wholesome, healthy Maltese street scenes. Not a single (white) homeless person to be seen on the whole island, not even in Valletta. I never even saw any fights. The only violence I ever fell privy to was when an American knocked me out while I sat on some steps – (our nations separated by a common language... and uncommon sense of humour). I was told he repeatedly punched my head against the corner of the step but I didn’t actually witness this either, I was too unconscious. 

            The San Giljan Police force could be seen sat around outside the Spinola station most days directing lost tourists to Paceville and unless I was imagining it half of The Force was made up of gorgeous women. The long legs of the law. You heard the wail of sirens about as often as the pitter-patter of rain. Parents stayed at home while their young children played in the parks long into the evening. I figured if I ever had kids this would be the place to raise them. But after hearing the racism from the bouncer, I wanted to be somewhere other than San Giljan, Sliema or Paceville for a bit. So I did what the Maltese do when they need to get away from it all:
 I went to Gozo.

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