Ġ: Subjects To Avoid When Talking To Strangers

Small talk with strangers is generally expected to revolve around harmless, lightweight material, especially if one is in the company of an unknown barrani (Maltese for “foreigner,” literally “outsider”). Political correctness controls conversations and throws a self-censoring veil even over the cultural sphere. However, some practices, such as swearing, push accepted boundaries to reveal a deeper imaginative fluency. Swearing is an old and rather common Maltese practice that breaks through orthodoxy at the same time that it succumbs to the need to win arguments aggressively rather than rationally. Maltese foul language tends to play with the resourceful use of absurd com- binations of sacred figures, mothers, and genitals, resulting in lengthy and often absurd sentences.

Unlike taboos, which are traditionally thought of as forbidden practices, subjects to avoid when talking to strangers may very well be permissible or even expected in more familiar contexts such as home, a political party club, a men’s village bar, and so on. One would be expected to talk about the poor hunting season at a meeting organized by the Maltese National Association of Hunters and Trappers, but few might be prepared to make their views on bird hunting public in the company of strangers. Divorce and abortion usually are topics to avoid; in fact, Malta is the only country in the European Union to prohibit abortion entirely, which does not mean it does not exist. “Hush-hush” attitudes of social communication coexist with a solid gossip regime. Today, on paper, Malta has some of the most liberal censorship laws in the European Union.

Some topics shift with time. An unmentionable place like Strait Street in Valletta, notorious for prostitution during the British colonial period, has now been transformed into a fash- ionable dining area, tourist mecca, and even a popular television series that looks wistfully at an imagined, Hollywood-like past that never existed.

“Kristu Iva Divorzju Le” (Yes to Christ No to Divorce), flyer produced by anti-divorce campaign for Malta divorce referendum, 2011.

Roxman Gatt, 2015, still from Virgin Mary’s Love Juice, 1:28 min. Courtesy the artist
This animated piece comes to terms with an awkward act of translation: How does one translate and convert into images the obscene combinations of religious iconography, sex, and food that come together in the Maltese “tradition” of swearing?
By illustrating expressions used by Maltese men in the most candid way possible, the artist weaves blasphemy into humour and makes one wonder: Should I even be laughing at this?

Decoy birds used for hunting, plastic.