A: il Ma(m)ma

The word mamma in Maltese carries a variety of overlapping meanings. All students of the Maltese language know of its use in the understanding of Maltese verbs, where it refers to the base form upon which consonant radicals of verb roots are constructed. The masculine-sounding article il- is used with both masculine and feminine nouns in Maltese.

In other contexts, the word mamma can mean model, matrix, master, original, or counterfoil. Or simply the Italian word for mum (mother), which in Maltese would be mama. In Maltese streets, kids and grownups alike often shout “MAAAAA!” to get their mother’s attention. Both matriarchy and patriarchy reign in Malta.

The word il-mamma simultaneously imparts the idea of a common genetic denominator—the so-called Maltese genome. Is there a matrix that makes the Maltese retain their Maltese character, even when they migrate? Or is Maltese identity forged by living within a specific territory, or belonging to a common “motherland,” such as is alluded to in the first verse of the country’s national anthem, penned by its national poet, Dun Karm Psaila: “Lil din l-art ħelwa, l-Omm li tatna isimha” (This motherland so dear whose name we bear)?

David Pisani, Procession of Our Lady of Sorrows, Valletta, Malta, 2007. Selenium-toned silver gelatin print, 35 × 24 cm. Courtesy the artist

The feast of our Lady of Sorrows is held on the Friday before Good Friday and is very popular among the faithful, particularly in Valletta. Here, the large cross being carried in the background is upstaged by the photographer’s focus on the social context of the feast. Our Lady of Sorrows – this ancient symbol of maternity and suffering – is replaced by a contemporary face that appears to bring to life the qualities of that symbol.

Bread basket and rope, often lowered to street level from a balcony in Maltese towns.
Photo: Alexandra Pace

White-and-red flag of Malta, with a representation of the George Cross, which King George VI awarded to Malta in 1942 to “honour her brave people”.