Malta Diary “L-Imnarja”, clinging to old traditions – but for how long?
“For the world is achangin’” sang the legend Bob Dylan so many years ago and we sang the words and took them with a pinch of salt. Well, no longer because our world is “really achangin’” and has “achanged” and none more rapidly than in Malta and Gozo, so changed that if my grandparent forebears were to rise from their graves they would find great difficulty in recognising their island homes, not only environmentally but in every which other way.
Over the last five years changes have come in leaps and bounds in what one must point out was probably the most conservative country in Europe, shackled for many centuries by a strict code of religious morality heavily imposed by the Church Authorities who as recently as 60 years ago declared that those who supported the Malta Labour Party would be eternally castigated with “mortal sin”, in Roman Catholicism meaning death in a state of mortal sin being a direct path to hell for an eternity.
Well, that was of course tempered in later years and the “interdict” status withdrawn and never heard of again. For the Church and the conservative element it was however bound to be a losing battle. Malta and Gozo may be isolated territorially, surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, but galloping strides in communications and thus news and current affairs and in recent years further spurred by technology that changes every 24 hours, ensured a continual current of changed development and changed attitudes.
Additionally, commercially necessary travel needs and mass emigration of heavily populated islands, a British more liberal presence for 150 years, annually increasing incoming tourism as well as Maltese outgoing and in recent years a mass influx of foreign labour, whether through illegal immigration or mainly EU nationals taking up Malta employment opportunities has seen a quick-pace introduction of a blend of new ideas, new mentalities and new attitudes.
All these continually ongoing changes have steadily fuelled national consternation that the Maltese Islands are in grave danger of completely losing their national identity, including centuries’ old traditions that have augmented the Maltese identity.
The reaction has been that certain events of lengthy traditional value have been heavily bolstered to prevent further deterioration and although largely irrelevant to modern-day living they are being more heavily embraced with increased community participation and attendance.
One particular sector is that of religious festas, mainly at parochial levels but also at national levels and surprisingly enough the sector has retained its vibrancy by increased youthful preparation, not only in the celebration stages where swinging band march music and binge drinking are heavily pronounced, but also in lengthy preparation work to ensure all the accompanying trappings such as fireworks, festive street decorations and restorations of various local monuments as well as the upkeep of band clubs and an influx of youthful musicians.
Every year, 29th June marks a national festivity that has been ever-popular. This is ‘L-Imnarja’ held to mark the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, worldwide celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church. The Maltese ‘Imnarja’ is a corruption of its original Italian name, ‘Luminaria’, meaning light or lighting up because in the past hundreds of bonfires were lit throughout Malta and Gozo to celebrate the day.
The event is split into two particular phases. The eve of the feast is centred around Buskett Gardens (another corrupted word, Buskett being Boschetto in Italian i.e. a small wood) near Rabat, the town being one of Malta’s long-established communal centres originally founded by the Phoenicians in about 1,500 BC. The Gardens themselves were largely cultivated by the Grandmasters of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem in the 16th and 17th Centuries as their favoured haunts for hunting lodges but also as a cooler locality from the blazing summer sun.
The mass activity at Buskett is an eating bonanza of the traditional Maltese ‘fenkata’, rabbit fried in oil and sprinkled with loads of garlic and heavily spiced with pepper and salt, or alternatively friend rabbit stewed in a slow-cooked tomato sauce, accompanied by roast or fried potatoes.
As a background, there is traditional Maltese folklore music known as “ghana” which is a mixture of strummed guitars and an impromptu rhyming narrative with a story, often a slanging match between two individuals boasting their prowess and their accomplishments or alternatively, a man being brow-beaten by an angry wife.
To the unfamiliar ear this may sound like wailing but in reality a mixture of Arabic, Sicilian and Greek music and a source of great amusement to those familiar with it.
The day itself unfurls with a large agricultural show of fruits and vegetables – also held at Buskett – as well as competitions for ‘best in show’ domestic animals. A similar show is held in Victoria and Nadur in Gozo, the village of Nadur having the two saints as their patron saints, together with traditional horse-races.
One curiosity – in days of yore it was an understood part of the marriage bond that during the marriage ceremony the husband would promise to ensure to take his wife to visit Buskett for the eve of ‘Imnarja’.
Well, that has died out now although still well remembered but one can see the strong efforts being made to cling to these old traditions. Sadly, one has to ask, for how long?