The Republic of Malta has always been a close cousin of Egypt, given that they have similar origins in language, lifestyle and habits. Popularly known as a tropical Mediterranean island, Malta has made its way onto the map as a picturesque touristic destination. However, there is more to Malta than just scenic sights. On the first of January, for the first time since its accession in 2004, Malta took up the Presidency of the Council of the European Union and consequently put on the table, for Europe’s member states, an agenda for economic and democratic prosperity. His Excellency Mr. Charles Sultana, the Ambassador of Malta in Egypt, tells us more about the Maltese Presidency and shares his views on culture, similarities and differences between Malta and Egypt.
Have you had any previous posts before Egypt?
This is my first posting to Egypt. Previously, I was stationed in Brussels, Beijing, Canberra, Toronto, and as an Ambassador in Kuwait. So Cairo is my second Ambassadorial position, but my sixth posting.
What are Malta’s plans in Egypt?
The importance of the relationship with Egypt as a neighbouring country for Malta is set firmly in Malta’s foreign policy objectives. As a member of the EU, Malta can add further value as a partner for Egypt particularly, but not exclusively, within the context of the EU Neighbourhood Policy and consequent Action Plans. Malta joined the EU with a valuable and positive Mediterranean background. We share with Egypt, as with others, a Mediterranean identity that extends to language and historical roots. We are a country that has shown consistent sensitivity to the issues of the Arab World and challenges faced by our Arab partners. The excellent nature of our bilateral relations was reflected in the comments by foreign Minister Vella, Foreign Minister Shoukry and President Sisi, during Minister Vella’s visit to Egypt last December. Apart from its growing bilateral relevance, Malta cannot help but recognize and work upon Egypt’s committed engagement, with Libya and the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am confident that our bilateral relations will continue to grow.
How is the Maltese community here?
The proximity between the two countries and the similarity between the Maltese and Arabic languages led many Maltese to settle in Egypt in the past, mainly in Alexandria. The Egyptian-born Maltese also constitute a portion of Egypt’s Roman Catholic community. The Egyptian-Maltese are nowadays a small minority group in Egypt. They are immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, from Malta, who settled in Egypt largely during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century and intermarried heavily with Italians, French and other Europeans. I believe that some Maltese had been present in the country as early as the era of Napoleon in Egypt and the community was around 20,000 in the late 1930s. This number was greatly reduced by emigration years after, and almost completely wiped out in 1956 due to the Maltese being British nationals. Most of the Egyptian-Maltese settled in Australia, Canada or Britain while those with French citizenship were repatriated to France. Nowadays, there is a small Maltese community in Egypt, many of whom are affiliated with religious orders and Catholic schools.
How is the relationship between Egyptians and Maltese people, noting that we have similar backgrounds, cultures and language?
We are both Mediterranean, with a strong attachment to family and the community, and we are both blessed with beautiful climates and distinct cultural heritage. The Maltese language has influences from Arabic particularly in the grammatical structure; a remnant of the two hundred-year Arab presence starting in 800AD. Maltese is in fact the only European language of semitic origin written in Latin script. Although its closest relationships are with the forms of Arabic spoken in Libya and Tunisia, its vocabulary has been strongly influenced by Sicilian. Written with a twenty-nine-letter alphabet, Maltese is universally understood by its citizens. Taking the influence of Arabic in Maltese, I find the language connection rather entertaining for me, because I understand quite a few things in a daily conversation, but there are some clear discrepancies. In this light, I think an Egyptian in Malta can be refreshingly surprised by the idea that he or she can understand what is going on in the country, especially when it comes to numbers and calculations. In any case, English is also an official language of Malta and Italian and French are popular, so in this light, Egyptians would be spoilt for choice.
Because of Malta’s strong culture, has anything been arranged where we can invite entertainers to Egypt to perform at the Opera House, for example?
We have been trying to identify entertainers and venues to perform in Egypt. It is a work in progress and there is definitely an interest for people to come and perform. At the moment we are working on a concert titled “Filmed in Malta: Music from 90 years of Film Making”, which is similar to a concert organized last year by our High Commission in London. Also, our Embassy is in contact with Misr International concerning Malta’s possible participation in the Panorama of European Film Festival, scheduled to be held in November 2017, as well as the possible screening of a Maltese film at a cinema in Cairo.
Apart from the performing arts, Malta like Egypt, has a long artistic tradition that includes the making of furniture, jewelry in gold and silver, glass, sculpture, lace, ceramics, brassware, copperware as well as painting. From a literature perspective, oral literature exists in the form of proverbs, folktales, and folk songs.
The earliest known written literary work in Maltese is a poem entitled “Cantilena”, which was composed in the fifteenth century; a tradition of written literature emerged in the seventeenth century. It is also worth noting that just a few weeks ago, the Embassy of Malta in Egypt participated in an event held at the Cairo International Book Fair to launch the Arabic translation of two poetry books by Maltese author Dr. Adrian Grima, “Rakkmu” and “Klin u Kapricci Ohra”. This Arabic translation, which was carried out by Mr. Walid Nabhan and funded by the Arts Council, Malta’s Cultural Export Fund, has been published here in Cairo. We hope to see more translations in the future.
How would you describe living in Malta?
It is very easy going yet very dynamic and modern. Distances are small, making it easy to get from one place to another. When you go for a holiday in Malta you get a little bit of everything — history, sun and sea, food and a vibrant night life. This variety not only makes Malta a popular tourist destination but it makes it an excellent location for meetings and conferences. Everyone that I know that has visited Malta has been pleasantly surprised.
We particularly enjoy and take pride in our food. Being a Mediterranean country, one can find some similarities to Egyptian food, however, Maltese cuisine tends to be more on the Italian side. The Italian culture has influenced us and due to its very close proximity, particularly to Sicily, the Sicilian influence can be felt in both our food and language. For anyone wanting to experience Malta in its full glory, they should do so in 2018, as Valletta was declared as the European Capital of Culture for the first six months of the year, and the cultural program is impressive and extensive. This varied cultural programme aims to promote a European dimension and encourage citizen participation, and I think culturally, Egyptians would really find it fun.
Have you been anywhere else other than Cairo? What stood out to you the most during your one-year stay so far?
I have visited Alexandria and I can see why so many Maltese lived there in the past. In fact, I think a fair comparison to Malta would be Alexandria, especially weather-wise. As soon as I arrived, I felt like I was in Malta’s version of Alexandria, Sliema — though Sliema is much smaller. I have been to the library there, and it is very impressive — I love its architecture. I also very much appreciate the Stanley Bridge and beach. The bridge is a proud Egyptian, modern monument. It is a great place to walk along the corniche, sample the Alexandrian lifestyle, see old men playing backgammon and youngsters enjoying the Alexandrian night’s skyline from nearby. Also, I went to Aswan and Abu Simbel and some of your older hotels, the traditional ones, are amazing. There were many things that surprised me on the way up to Luxor, like Edfu. I was not expecting it to be so intact.
To date, my favourite place has been Soma Bay in Hurghada. I love it there as the water is always warm, even during the winter. It is incredibly peaceful and largely unspoilt. We have a different type of beach in Malta. Our sandy beaches are smaller, and in this light, our rocky beaches are very popular, also mainly because of its incredibly blue and crystal clear waters.
As of January, the Republic of Malta assumed the Presidency of the EU; so how crucial would you say these six months are?
The priorities of the Maltese Presidency are driven by the objective to reunite the EU in these unprecedented times. The need for a dialogue and reflection on the EU’s future as well as the pertinent issues relating to migration, security and economy will be at the top of the Agenda. Malta has already hosted an Informal Summit of EU Heads of State and Government where the future of the EU as well as the EU’s roadmap on migration were discussed. The months ahead until the end of the Maltese Presidency will continue to focus on six key areas: migration, single market, security, social inclusion, Europe’s neighbourhood and maritime sector.
Given the EU situation, and given that some countries have stopped accepting refugees, does that put a bigger pressure on the EU, or Malta specifically?
The EU can make a difference and is determined to act in full respect of human rights, international law and European values, and in conjunction with UNHCR and IOM. Illegal immigration and asylum is high on the agenda during the Maltese Presidency, which will endeavour to proceed with the implementation of the European Agenda on Migration presented in May 2015 and the associated packages of measures presented by the Commission. The Maltese Presidency will take forward, as a matter of priority, the work on the proposals revising the Common European Asylum System with the aim of achieving consensus on the EU’s asylum policy in line with the December 2016 European Council conclusions. Particular focus will be placed on the measures aimed at the effective application of the principles of solidarity and responsibility and the Dublin Regulation, the proposal on the establishment of the European Agency for Asylum.
The Maltese Presidency will take forward, as a matter of priority, the work on the proposals revising the Common European Asylum System. It will give due importance to the external dimension of immigration and asylum within the framework of the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility. The Valletta Summit on Migration in November 2015 created a good platform for cooperation with African countries of origin and transit. It was an important step and we need to make sure that the spirit around the Summit is maintained throughout the implementation of the Action Plan. The Partnership Framework and the Valletta Action Plan has already allowed the EU to deepen long-term cooperation with a number of partner countries, including causes of migration, through a solid partnership based on mutual trust. The Maltese Presidency will also take forward discussions on the Global Compacts on Migration and on Refugees following the outcome of the UN Summit in September 2016.
It must be said that Malta is concerned about the reactivation of the Central Mediterranean route as reiterated in the Malta Declaration on February 3, 2017 by the members of the European Council on the external aspects of migration: addressing the Central Mediterranean route. It is important that the Valletta follow-up Senior Officials Meeting in Malta on February 8–9, 2017 brings to forth the positive results regarding the implementation of the Action Plan during its first year, to further cement this cooperation between the countries of the two continents.