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Construction and identity - Ranier Fsadni

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

The Nationalist Party has picked up the issue of national identity and begun to make it its own. The general rhetoric is about “preserving” identity – the country must remain recognisably “our own” and so forth. But while the PN has picked up on an issue that is nagging ordinary people’s conversations, it is ignoring one of the major factors.

PN leader Adrian Delia has attracted much criticism for linking identity issues to immigration, legal as much as irregular. In general, the problem has not been what he has said – he tends to put in the right caveats – as much as the incongruence between the wording and the angry tone. It’s the tone that outlasts the words and changes their meaning.

The anger is remembered as being directed towards immigrants, rather than lack of government planning. The problem is that the rhetoric is taken to be a dog-whistle to the real bigots. There will always be people ready to twist words but a leader has a responsibility to make sure his rhetoric is not misunderstood by his own followers.

But, while there is no doubt that labour immigration is something that requires much greater institutional planning than we’re currently seeing, it is not the most salient factor in the kind of identity issues that are making many Maltese ask themselves – in casual conversation with family and friends, each with their own telling anecdotes – whether Malta is ‘their country’ any more.

Identity isn’t a kind of mental armour or that part of ourselves that is most resistant to change, even if it’s often spoken of in that way. It is the manner in which we make sense of ourselves and our lives. It’s what enables us to say that we’re still the same person, or family, or community, that we were a few years ago.

In this process, the telling of stories – the anecdotes or chapters that make up the overarching story of our lives – is essential. Explaining ourselves by telling a story helps us see what role we see ourselves playing.

The story gives meaning to our role. The story itself – full of challenges and struggles – has us face numerous changes. The story form allows us to develop as characters. But since it’s ‘our story’, it also gives us a sense of ownership – some control over events, some ability to manage change.

If we didn’t have a sense of ownership, then it wouldn’t be our story. As characters we would be spectators in someone else’s tale. We might not even get a word in. We’d be part of a crowd, not a cast of characters.

It’s my view that if there is one thing that is currently undermining people’s sense of being authors of their lives, of being able to tell a story that makes sense of themselves, it is the current state of rampant construction led by developers and speculators.

Think about it. Stories are about people but they are rooted in places and settings. Childhood memories, family stories, adolescent pranks, and adult ambition always have a topography. The playground, the school, the veranda, the garden, the view into the neighbour’s courtyard from the roof, the neighbourhood, the piazza, the beach, the plot of land to be turned into a family home…

With the felling of houses and building of apartment blocks, these very places are disappearing. To the new street, actually just beside ours, whose names we do not know when a passing driver asks for directions, we must add neighbours whose names we do not know. Not foreigners – internal migrants, moving from other parts of Malta given the market prices.

In such places, no memories can form out of which stories can be told. Paul Connerton, a leading expert on social memory, has called them topographies of forgetting. What story is there to tell about a building that went up only a few years ago, and whose adjoining buildings are being pulled down right now?

With shopping centres sprouting up, replacing or transforming former village cores, even the way of passing through a square changes. Fewer people sit outside, more people drive past, rather than walk.

Thus far, I could be recounting a process that has been underway in many parts of Malta for over 30 years. Speculators and developers were part of it but only a part. But now the process is accelerating exponentially.

With the mega projects planned – not all the same kind of project by any means – entire communities are braced for huge change they have not asked for and do not want

With the mega project planned for Paceville, and others in Mrieħel, Sliema, Naxxar and Attard – not all the same kind of project by any means – entire neighbourhoods and communities are braced for huge change they have not asked for and do not want. Yet it will affect the very tissue of their lives – quite literally, since such change will affect sunlight and air quality, and not just the character of private and public spaces, let alone the value of their properties.

Such change displaces people from the role they thought they had in the story of their lives. Now they are spectators of things being done to them. Previous elements in their life stories – investing in a home, seeing its value rise, building relationships in the neighbourhood – these now seem like illusions. If the mega projects sell themselves as Dreamland, down below, people feel as though they have been living a lie – told by someone else.

It’s as though they believed they were in one kind of story but found they were in another. That’s assuming, they still can make enough sense of what’s happening to be able to tell it in story form, and not just as a series of anecdotes that don’t add up.

For how do you tell your own story – as one of hard work being rewarded, of reaching one milestone after another – when you can’t afford to reach that crucial milestone: the buying of a family home? What new photos do you display, what new memories do you enjoy storing, if you come home every day to a neighbourhood where every crane reminds you that you’ve been cheated?

And how do you even construct a story like that when it flies against the grain of the glib stories of booming economy and progress? There is disconnect between experience and the cultural ways of making sense of them.

With such a gap between personal experience and official narratives, anyone’s established sense of identity is bound to enter a crisis.

Political parties don’t exist to empathise. They’re there to recognise experience, diagnose the public issues shaping the private troubles, and offer policies to resolve the conflicts.

So if the PN, or any other party for that matter, is really serious about issues of identity, there are two steps that must be taken.

First, the construction industry cannot be seen simply in terms of trickle-down economics. That’s voodoo economics in other economic sectors. Construction is no exception.

Second, there’s no need to make an enemy of the construction industry. But the market it operates in must be civilised. A real political party would offer policies concerning the extensive public spaces any such project should include for the wider community, as well as a basic policy on when private land may be bought by government to restore as a public good.

It is policies like these that give a political party its soul. There’s no point saying the country is losing its soul if you don’t bother to save your own.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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