Just as the pandemic was making its way to the shores of Malta, at a relatively late stage when compared to the rest of the world, we attended a protest organised in front of the crumbled remains of a house which claimed a woman’s life as it collapsed. Next to it, we could witness the terrifying chasm left behind by the construction crew, making way for a new edifice.
Nothing new here, sadly: this was not the first time that construction and excavation works, apart from intruding on the tranquility of the surroundings (of several surroundings) have violated walls, rooms, domestic intimacy and entire lives. We stood far apart from each other at the protest, even if the virus felt like a remote possibility at that point. Though in my case, as an Italian, it was a slightly different matter. I had already been experiencing the pandemic in line with inter-territorial rules and anxieties for a few days since.
But isn’t that precisely the lesson that a pandemic teaches? The collapse of any pretense at separation, of the sheer artifice of borders?
By the end of November 2019, when the virus was considered to be a far-away threat not just to Malta but Europe as a whole, a far-reaching protest exploded on the island, against a government known to have been corrupt for years. But the relevant names took a long time to rise explicitly to the surface, much like other guilty parties of previous political violence: a vague, shapeless mass.
A couple of years earlier, a journalist was blown up. During those days, strands which we previously only knew by intuition finally began to take a more tangible shape. The intrigues that led to her murder, so firmly bounded up with those which continue to massacre the island and its spaces. Each day, all throughout December, in Valletta, hundreds of people, and among them even those not usually known to frequent protests, would congregate by the Prime Minister’s residence or the parliament building to chant, among other things, “Barra! Barra!” Out, get out!
At that moment, as if it were a disturbing omen, Valletta was cordoned off by the police so that we may be kept apart, separate, distant.
And when the airport was finally closed in mid-March, with Malta finally joining in the global lockdown experience, a member of parliament reiterated that same word, barra, to all foreigners, albeit appended by various disclaimers. Leave, we cannot take care of you, we don’t need you anymore, he said, and barely between the lines. Repatriation flights were the only ones available. Many made use of them.
Those who stayed behind, because the possibility of a return was never an option, became even more isolated and ghettoised in migrant centres, which continue to serve as reference points for an institutional hypocrisy which is global… much like the pandemic, though unlike the pandemic, it has taught us nothing.
We returned to Valletta a few days ago, after quite a bit of time, to attend an exhibition opening. The barricades surrounding parliament remain in place, and perhaps that’s for the best. They are our objects of memory. Whenever I walk past them I still get the urge to whisper, “Barra, barra…”
I’ve stopped going to Valletta. With all the places I was now barred from visiting, over the past few months I found myself exploring those areas that were previously unfamiliar to me. Yes, even an island this small held unexplored places for me. Sometimes this is the result of a deliberate choice – to shore up the unknown nooks, particularly if they’re situated away from the noise, the traffic and cement. But while the list of unvisited places shrinks as you make your way towards them, the list of places you are no longer allowed to visit continues to increase.
The island is full of beautiful places which are brusquely interrupted: because someone has appropriated them, because they have dumped their refuse over them or because they have built a boundary wall and placed a ‘Private. No entry. Tidfiolx’ sign on top of it.
The island is also rich in beautiful places which, however, are no more. One of these places was, up until a year ago, a tree-lined road that led to Mdina. Another was an ancient house – peek through its keyhole and you could see a garden, overgrown but proud.
How can memory continue to function once its supports have been removed? Where do the memories escape to when they no longer have places on which to rest? How is a memory transmitted, subject by subject, when its traces have been destroyed? Does it find new supports, new places, new traces? Does it latch onto absence?
And what places, gestures and objects will the memory of these months filter through the windows, a bit of cloth face covering, and the flickering light of a screen?