by Puzzled Reader
Could someone rewrite the modern history of Gozo? It increasingly reads like a tourist brochure possibly because most books about the Maltese Islands are travel books. Travel books sell sea, sun, and beer. As a result, foreign historians who need a quick chapter or two about the islands readily find travel books to tap into. The marketing of modern Gozo is rehashed as the modern-day history of Gozo. It’s a false history.
One of Gozo’s burdens is that it’s always compared to Malta. Malta is the big sister and Gozo is the little sibling that never comes of age, forever in the shadows. Yet not only has Gozo come of age, it’s probably ripe for an old people’s home in its current state of dilapidation and overgrowth.
I just read Nuria Rehn and Elinar Felix Hansen’s “The History of Malta: A Mediterranean Gem of History and Culture” which went into print a few weeks ago. The book’s chapters are short, ideal for a quick read, perhaps for a first-time tourist on the way to Malta. It has a chapter on Gozo. Gozo, it says, has a rich tapestry of legends and folklore. I assure you that if you could go around the island asking most Gozitans for legends and folklore, all you’ll get would be stares. If you’re so desperate to search for a legend in modern day Gozo, it’s probably Joseph Portelli, the go-between who represents the political elite, fronting their real estate transactions, shielding them from accusations of conflict. There was a time when another Portelli, Johnny Portelli to be precise, was considered a legend, building the Hotel Calypso, and a fully mechanised bakery, the first of its kind in Gozo. Later he took on other hospitality projects. After losing his shirt to bankruptcy, he lost his luster.
Rehn and Hansen tell us that “Gozo means ‘joy’ in Maltese.” I never knew that Gozo is even a Maltese word. I always thought that the Maltese equivalent was “Għawdex” which means “turn around,” expressing unbridled frustration rather than joy. No, there is no joy in Gozo. This is why cannabis shops are springing up everywhere. Like Mick Jagger, many implacable Gozitans “can get no satisfaction.” So, they opt for the weed which is marketed as “medicinal” when it’s exactly the opposite. It’s the path to a lifelong addiction and hallucinations. Christianity is a lifelong journey to eternal glory while the weed is the road to slavery fertilized with addictive chemicals.
Gozo, the two authors further tell us, is “a tranquil and idyllic escape from the bustling energy of Malta.” Once it was so but not anymore. From the moment one disembarks at Mġarr, cars and buses circle around trying to swoop up anyone they can. Bolt rules the roads. Actually, to be more precise, nobody rules the roads as everything grinds to a standstill every few streets. Gozo’s streets were built for donkeys. Then they asphalted them, tarmacked them, and thought that they were fit for cars. Donkeys cannot whiz past each other at a fast clip. Much less can cars in Gozo. The slowness is the antithesis to tranquility. There is no escape.
“Archaeological evidence suggests that the island was inhabited since Neolithic times.” We now know that there were times throughout human history when the island was completely desolate and forlorn. However, if you drop enough “…” in the history of the island, you can make it look like the show never stopped.
“Gozo’s landscape is a captivating blend of rolling hills [and] fertile valleys… Gozo [has a] reputation as an agricultural hub.” A hub of Eucalyptus trees they could have added. You see Eucalyptus trees (a.k.a., siġar tal-gamiem) everywhere. These trees grow quickly, ruin the fertile soil around them (including that of surrounding farmers), attract unsuspecting birds, and the hidden hunters open fire from below. What the tree growers sow, they reap from the clouds. The trees are the lethal “Welcome to Gozo” to the unsuspecting migratory birds.
The Azure Window is gone, they write, but the island “is dotted with… pristine beaches.” Beaches without sand, or the last strand of sand, I must add. And plastic deckchairs, fast food debris, hole-in-the-wall eateries, and garbage that overfills the bins by noon.
“Visitors can indulge in the island’s culinary delights, savoring the taste of locally sourced ingredients” such as tomato paste. Never mind that half the tomato paste canned in Gozo is imported in big blue plastic barrels and then packed into little cans for family consumption. Olive oil is heavily imported. So is honey. This is a fantasy island, one of illusion, where the historian either tries to find reality or passes on the illusion to the in-flight magazines. The authors marvel about the “juicy melons.” I hate to break it to them. The melons consume so much water that the only way many farmers can afford to bring them to market is by watering them with free-flowing drainage which they resourcefully tap into.
“Gozo… capture[es] the hearts and imaginations of those who visit.” This is why very few of them come back again. Just walking through Victoria is increasingly a health hazard.
Rehn and Hansen write that “The warm hospitality of the Gozitan people is an integral part of the island’s charm. Visitors are welcomed with open arms…” Yes, with open arms. Literally. Until the visitor’s wallet is cleaned out. Then the real Gozostands up and it’s “Turn around!”