Malta Diary … even the walls have eyes…
Spying, peeping, overhearing, eavesdropping, listening in, seeing without being seen, coming into information you are not supposed to be privileged to know about and then in turn spreading the information gained by clandestine whispering, reporting, ‘spilling the beans’ and being ‘a font of information’, more often than not with malicious intent or to curry favour, are unfortunately a part and parcel of the dark human psyche.
Plotting, counter-plotting, scheming and gaining favour and advantage as well as plagiarising and copying to obtain credit form the backbone of illicit human activity to satisfy a dark inner ego.
William Shakespeare summed it all up in his play ‘Julius Caesar’ with his famous phrase that ‘even the walls have ears’, a catch-phrase that eventually became one of his trademarks and formed the backbone of his work in portraying the atmosphere during Julius’s Roman times where treachery and counter-plots finally led to his downfall.
This was largely reflected in a part of Britain’s World War II propaganda with hundreds of thousands of posters being printed and prominently displayed stating “Loose Talk Costs Lives”, urging caution in disbursing information as one never knew who was listening or over-hearing and thence divulging the information to interested third parties with damaging and malicious intent.
In Malta and Gozo, visual spying became a fine and perfected art over many centuries and is known to have become largely manifest in the early years of the Middle Ages and as as early as the seventh century. With their geographical proximity to the Arab world and on a wider-ranging panorama the Middle East, it was perhaps inevitable that certain aspects of Arab culture and architecture should spread to the islands, further emphasised by a 200-year Arab sojourn with the islands being incorporated into ‘the Arab Caliphate’, the forerunner of today’s Islamic State (ISIS) – with less devastating results I hasten to add.
Hence the arrival of the ‘muxrabija’ in Malta (pronounced mush-rab-iya), a clever architectural design that had two prominent features, that of enabling the ventilation and the cycling of fresh air in a house or building, the other being of a more Islamic religious founding. Under Koranic scripture, women were forbidden to have contact with the outside world and had perforce to remain cloistered.
To alleviate part of their internal boredom, a ‘muxrabija’ was constructed and enshrined in a building’s facade enabling women to look out on the external world while keeping closely obscured from being seen externally.
In essence this was a modest-sized window with slits or shutters through which one could look out without one being able to look in and the ‘muxrabija’ is the obvious forerunner of later wooden shutters that followed as well as Venetian Blinds through which one could peer clandestinely without being perceived, as well as their function of acting as sun screens.
Going back to my boyhood days I distinctly remember an era when women rarely left their home not for any specific religious reason but because of having vast amounts of children, vast amounts of household chores, vast amounts of cooking and vast amounts of hand-washed clothes, their sole access to the outside world being through shuttered windows in an era when many grocery services (bread, milk, vegetables etc) were distributed by travelling vendors with horse drawn carts.
A number of ‘muxrabija’ (36 in total) are still to be found in Malta and other parts of the Mediterranean and their historical and cultural inheritance has now been recognised by Malta’s Planning Authority which has listed them as Grade Two on the preservation scale.
Surprisingly, they are still evident in a number of localities throughout Malta and Gozo, mainly in old village areas at Balzan, Birkirkara, Lija, Marsascala, Naxxar, Qrendi, Qormi, Rabat, Siggiewi, Zabbar, Zebbug and Zejtun in Malta as well as in Victoria, Ghasri, Gharb and San Lawrenz in Gozo.
As the virtually concealed window also included an element of security, these were mostly found in villages distant from the safety being offered by the then capital city of Mdina and its bastioned walls. This is evident in their geographical distribution. Small in size, these windows were constructed to be simplistic so as not to be obviously conspicuous.
In the Arab world, the almost identical word ‘mashrabiyah’ mainly refers to balconies with intricately designed screens and are mainly found in Egypt where they were seen as a sign of wealth and affluence and therefore a status symbol for the house owner.
Peering out of a closed window from behind veiled window curtains – often detected by the slight rippling of the curtain – with a view to spying on a neighbour or the world in general is amply mentioned in English literature. In Malta and the Mediterranean in general, this function could be carried out by the ‘muxrabija’.