Malta, rightly, paid tribute to Oliver Friggieri today. He was never my teacher but for some months he used to be on the radio back in the time when talk-shows on radio existed and were something to look forward to. Oliver Friggieri was not good with technology. My children will find it difficult to believe now but when I was 17 I was something of a whizzkid so I used to man the equipment for him while he focussed on his job: thinking and speaking.
I used to listen to the man awestruck by just how intense his ideas were. I know it sounds obtuse to say this and I don’t mean to hurt anyone, but I remember being surprised that such complexity and elegance could be expressed so effortlessly in the Maltese language. The problem, of course, is not so much the language. The problem is that the statistical likelihood of meeting more than one Oliver Friggieri in a single life-time is very dim indeed.
He never learnt my name. He used to call me ‘Michael’ all the time, no matter how many times I corrected him. Until I stopped trying. It did not matter. What mattered was that I could listen.
It is not for me to use words to pay tribute to a man so extraordinary in his eloquence. But someone today sent me a copy of a speech he had given on graduation day in 1991. I know some readers of this website cannot read Maltese so I have had the audacity to attempt a translation. But if you can, please ignore this version and click the little Maltese flag to read his speech in the original.
It was first published in the University of Malta Gazette (Volume 23/4 of December 1991). I have not asked for their permission to reproduce it. I hope they don’t mind. Hold tight.
SPEECH DELIVERED BY PROFESSOR OLIVER FRIGGIERI, HEAD OF THE DEPARTMENT OF MALTESE ON GRADUATION DAY ON 22 NOVEMBER, 1991
Chancellor, Honourable Minister, Rector, ladies and gentlemen,
Today belongs to students. It is right that these words are about and for them. We recall the learning we have passed on to them. But I must speak of how much I have learnt from them.
I have learnt from you, today’s new graduates, that you are not spoiled by our interests and the ambitions of those who are older than you, though you are very much in time to imitate us. I learnt that you teach us what we failed to teach you: how to rise above what our educational system may have urged you to think and love instead, your country without a sense of inferiority.
I learnt that you are endowed with a new environmental conscience. We, the older ones, are irreversibly destroying the environment for money. I learnt that you can see this is a mad self-destroying country and that you know how to mourn this loss. The smaller small Malta becomes, the greater the desire for openness, for escape, even using drugs; nerves will fray and claustrophobia will be channelled into violence. Crime is no longer the monopoly of adults. That is true in Malta as well.
I learnt that you have set up organisations to benefit others rather than yourselves. I learnt how well you know nature, the strength of your courage when defending abused animals, for whom no institution speaks: neither the government nor even the church that often blesses cruelty to animals in festas. I learnt how much you know about the island’s flora and fauna. I learnt how you feel it is your duty to help the third world, and that you fulfil it without the recognition and the help you deserve. I learnt other things.
I feel that today, I too am graduating.
I would ask you not to step into the stagnant pool that is this society. You must be the ones to wake dormant thinking, to move unfeeling hearts, to grab the helm and sail us towards a new day.
I am much struck by the scepticism of many of you, the cynicism with which you view society and your dismissive laughter at the fireworks of meaningless words blowing up around us. In a country of confusing words, where the word is rarely respected or well-explained, you can be the ones to speak a new word. Say the word. Fear nothing but your conscience. Walk alone but for your God. Expect praise from nowhere but from your inner voice. Make sure you do not please everyone and seek to have enemies. Do not be people for all seasons, a bazaar that sells everything.
My students and the students I was lucky enough to get to know, will recall our conversations about the fakeness of our country, the accelerated destruction of anything Maltese, the vices of calm, peace, tolerance, apathy and quiet.
I ask graduates in religious studies to take us back to the trouble of Bethlehem, not the hollow decor of Rome.
I ask notaries to teach us how law and justice are often far apart, and how law can be the triumph of injustice.
I ask diplomats to teach us how truth and etiquette are often each other’s foes, how caution and loyalty are often criminal vices.
I ask graduates of applied social sciences to think of all the suffering and silenced people in our society where institutions speak loudly and drown out everyone else; I ask them to remember that social problems come directly from education, culture, and the political, racial and religious prejudices that crush us. I ask them to look for the people who fell and are walked over.
I call on arts graduates to recite some poetry in this ever duller country; I ask them to emerge onto the streets and the squares, as young people from other countries would, and sing songs that reach our hearts, recite poems that move us. Bring out your guitars and your musical instruments and sing for us a country that believes in something more than merely the law of profit.
Something is restraining the Maltese soul. Maybe we forgot we are Mediterraneans like our Arab and European brothers. Maybe we still do not know who we are and we still cannot recognise others.
I ask you not to believe in peace until the slave tells you they are free. I ask you to laugh off the calls for peace and unity because there will only be peace and unity after radical changes, not after someone who has not suffered speaks some words. I ask you not to believe in justice before we go to heaven.
I ask you not to believe we have become a state before we first become a nation. I ask you not to believe the people of Malta are sovereign before they grasp the microphone and speak. I ask you not to become fanatical partisans, but to teach us how to be complete women and men.
I ask you to laugh at the toys of Maltese society, to break wrong rules, to defy doubtful orders. I ask you to challenge unsuitable social structures. I ask you to worry a lot, to feel intensely and to be very angry.
I hope you have realised that the maturity you acquire in University amounts to the ability to question, to doubt, to criticise wisely, to investigate and to be slow to believe; maturity is also the ability to be inconvenient, even, when necessary, to be embarrassing. Maturity is often the opposite of caution. I wish for you to be submitted to scrutiny and to find yourself in trouble whenever that is just what a good cause needs.
All of you, theologians, notaries, diplomats, sociologists, people of letters, can look at people beneath your feet. There are many downtrodden on this small patch of ground.
You can lift up those who have fallen, you can give a voice to those who have been silenced, you can steel with courage those whom society has robbed of confidence.
Malta too has deserts and forests and caves where people go to hide. Malta looks red and blue but is often green. Paint it green, the colour of your youth. Expect to be hurt. And when you are hurt it will be the day for you to say: I have become a woman, I have become a man.
All this sounds like another lesson. It isn’t. You had not realised you were teaching me this during all these years and today I want to give it back to you.