Europe’s immigration crisis has affected Malta, and as the smallest European Union nation closest to the conflicts we’ve helped to take in our share of refugees. When people make the treacherous journey over to Malta by boat in search of a better future, away from their war-torn or violent countries of origin, they often end up eventually living in the port town of Marsa.
C-Star opposed Prime Minister Joseph Muscat last week said that curbing the “ghettoisation” of Marsa will become a priority. With this in mind, Lovin Malta headed to Marsa for an afternoon to see what we could learn about the troubled location.
1. Marsa is multicultural
Entering Marsa by car you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled across another multicultural country; but once you see the church and the colourful old doors, gallariji and the local confectionary, it all feels more familiar. The migrants and refugees in Marsa that we met came from all over Africa. Each nationality has its own micro-community, and you’ll find different restaurants and bars for different types of food and cultures, although everyone’s welcome and they’re frequented by people of mixed nationalities and religions.
You’ll find all sorts of different types of clothing too. Hijabs, kaftans worn with trousers, headscarves, flat-top hats and all sorts of interesting fabrics. However, most people we saw were dressed in the Western classic: jeans and a t-shirt. The town itself could do with a lot of sprucing up, because the old buildings are lovely, though most were very run down. We did not see any modern buildings, there didn’t seem to be any flats, and definitely no council high-rises.
2. North-East African food is really nice
And Eritreans will kindly invite you to try it. It’s all about sharing, and eating together with friends, sat around a low table. It’s basically a huge plate with large, stodgy pancake-like things with saucy meat and salad piled onto the middle of them all. We learned that the spongy sourdough pancakes are called “taita”, also known as “injera”. As well as acting as a base for the toppings, they can be rolled up and used for scooping up the meat and absorbing all the delicious sauces and soups.
The flavours were fantastic, and we also really liked the Eritrean background music. Even the salad was tasty, down to a sharp olive oil and lemon juice dressing. Variations on this type of food are also native to Ethiopia and Somalia. Downstairs in the Arsenal Social Football Club, you’ll find the special of the day is pasta and rice with lamb on the bone, with the meat cooking juices poured over it all. It proved very popular as there was a big queue for lunch.
3. It’s full of able-bodied men
The working migrants in Malta mostly work in construction. One builder’s assistant said he was happy in his job. Another man we talked to was a professional translator, and another was a social worker, who spent time working at a camp set up in the Calais “jungle” where Syrian refugees could go to recoup, have a shower and something to eat. Everyone we spoke to was friendly and helpful. The people we got the chance to meet were mostly able to communicate in both English and Maltese, (as well as their native tongue), and we mixed it up where necessary, jumping from one language to the other.
When we first got there, we subconciously assumed that we should introduce ourselves and ask questions in English. However, in the Eritrean bar, one of the patrons told us with a smile that we should converse in Maltese, as they spoke the language fluently. It was quite a happy moment for all of us—we felt very welcomed and comfortable.
Unfortunately, some of the older people we met in other places could not speak a word of English or Maltese. Our guess is they must have arrived here more recently, or just haven’t got the chance to learn it yet.
4. Not all locals are as scared as you think
The biggest concerns of the Maltese locals we spoke to were outdoor drinking and antisocial behaviour. Unemployment, boredom, few education opportunities and lack of social mobility within the migrant communities contributes to this. We were told that arguments break out between some troublesome migrant groups. A young woman in her twenties said that she would definitely not go out at night alone in her hometown, which is a concern that should be taken very seriously. Another Maltese woman, 65, told us that her elderly father, in his 90s, still goes about his daily business as normal—goes to the grocer’s, goes to church… just like he’s always done.
We were told by one African migrant that ten years ago, people would cross the street when they saw him, a black man, or choose the furthest seat away from him on the bus. People are no longer as scared as they were ten years ago out of fear of the unknown he said, adding that he does not blame people that might act this way in Malta as it’s a small island, and if you’ve never travelled you might not have even ever seen a black person before until recently. Local Marsa residents are “used to” integration more than anywhere else in Malta, although there is a lack of problem-solving communication.
5. African grocery shops are amazing
You’ll find a hell of a lot of strange stuff in African grocers. Dried salted fish, large whole frozen fish, weird maize snacks, yams, plantains (which look like oversized green bananas and are a fantastic side when over-ripe and sliced thickly, then shallow fried on a low heat to a crisp golden brown). You’ll also find hard-to-find canned products like tahini, a sesame paste, and harissa, hot chilli paste, often used as liberally as kunserva, packets of plantain chips, rare spices and cassava flour.
There were bins full of dried beans and black eyed peas, and a vast range of Maggi seasoning mixes. You could also buy individual stock cubes for flavour on a tight budget. The most popular items which we saw being bought seemed to be bread, tinned fish and eggs. The food names are quite interesting too, we found “Bonga Fillets” quite funny. The Liberian shopkeeper, Johnathon, was really helpful and helped us decipher what the packets of snacks were. Fun fact, plantain chips are incredible!
6. New Tiger Bar is not that bad
I mean, I wouldn’t choose it over my local, but the notorious spot seemed pretty much like an African version of a każin or small-town bar. Patrons are quick to tell you that the police make an appearance there regularly day and night, day in day out, to keep things in check. It’s pretty basic, with high bar stools and chairs that the patrons will helpfully offer you. Lovely old Maltese tiles, and a sort of odd rickety “veranda” entrance. It’s painted grey, and from the outside it looks extremely depressing, (not to mention intimidating). But from what we saw in the daytime, it’s just a place where friends meet and hang out. Only a couple of people were actually drinking inside.
One man outside the bar was noticeably drunk, but everyone was nice to us, if a little confused to begin with. The patrons at New Tiger Bar were younger men in their twenties and thirties. Before you ask, as a woman, I did not feel any fear. Nobody made any “advances” towards me whatsoever. I would not go there at night, simply because I don’t go to bars in derelict shipyards at night.
7. The Shipyard has potential
At the moment it’s pretty much the bleakest place imaginable. Old abandoned warehouses with broken-in windows, rusty old ships, shacks for bars… on a rainy day it looked like something out of the apocalypse. But then again, so did Bormla waterfront up until a decade ago. If I was a property developer, or perhaps even the government council, I’d act fast and get in there—the warehouse would make a great modern art gallery or funky architecture offices on the water in years to come. At the moment it’s just standing there doing nothing, what a waste.
Chained to the waterfront railings next to the warehouse were a number of bicycles. We were told that you can rent some of them out by the hour from their owners. In all my years, I have never seen so many bikes in one place in Malta. In a warped way, it reminded me of Amsterdam.
8. Police presence is strong
If it ever crossed your mind that our boys in blue aren’t doing enough, you’d be very wrong. They regularly check up on the locality, making a point to break up groups of people gathering in numbers. A group of around 10 and you’ll be told to “walk, walk” and move along, said one Maltese resident. Three policemen pulled up to the Eritrean restaurant and asked for documentation from the barmaid and owner. Apparently it happens all the time so it didn’t phase the patrons; I think we were more scared than they were.
Ahmed, 21, who we met at New Tiger Bar and has been in Malta since 2013 said “the police come here for nothing. We meet here, we only have here and the other place across the dock to meet. On the weekends we can all come here to socialise; to talk, drink, eat together… The C.I.D come here and arrest you for nothing” he said. We didn’t see any arrests on our trip.
9. There’s not much to do in Marsa
From the little time we spent in Marsa, we didn’t find much to do. The activity du jour seemed to be hanging around in the street. It was a public holiday, so all the workers who’d normally be doing manual labour were off. While most of the Maltese were out and about elsewhere or chilling at home, the only signs of community life in Marsa was an underground canteen with cracked bare walls and Somali cable tv, playing dominos in a packed out snack bar in the dockyard, getting drunk outside New Tiger Bar or the literal definition of harmless “loitering”.
It could have just been a bad day, but there didn’t seem to be anything worth sticking around for. Even on a normal Friday, there was still no library, no community centre, no college, no African craft shops, no outdoor barbecues, no market, no charity shops, no…business. It was a shame really, because with a bit of money spent on it, it could be quite buzzing.