Wayne Flask

Author Translator Music Writer Public Annoyance

Demolishing Jerma is the first step in the Bugibbification of Marsascala

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There is no denying the referendum on spring hunting effectively marks a turnaround in government’s policy on the environment: Muscat was quick to say the environmentalist vote mattered. In fact, businessmen and developers around Malta took his words seriously and, eyes glimmering, intensified their volley of permit applications in ODZ areas at the speed of a German Panzer coloumn entering Warsaw.

Government itself decreed the open season on the environment with the well known debacle of a university campus on ODZ land. But protests from the very same environmentalist voters didn’t really matter. Government lapdogs like Ramona Frendo, who looks like she’s been edited out of a Vogue front cover from 1984, took to her lurid facebook wall to belittle the 3000 strong turnout (a record for every civil protest in Malta). Marsascala-mayor-turned-carnival-organiser Mario Calleja denounced the protestors later that evening, saying none of them knew where Żonqor is, and asked people to sign a petition in favour of the university project – a petition one could sign at the Summer Nights restaurant, whose owner Matthew Pace was kicked out of the MHRA presidency for tampering with the utilities meter.

The public spat I had with Calleja is well known to most – I had asked whether he had any interest in the project, he threatened to sue for libel, then we made peace as my lawyer sniggered at me for being a wussie. Whatever that means.

Yet I smell more trouble brewing for myself since I don’t take kindly to being fooled, unlike, apparently, the majority of my former townspeople in Marsascala. For one, it emerged that as part of the project, Sadeen (constructors who sell universities, just like drug pushers would sell Siamese cats) agreed to finance new offices for the local council and pay for infrastructural works. The public was never informed of all this, and why should it be? After all, transparency is a concept to be witnessed in action solely during the Maltasong festival. So, if the interest wasn’t personal (which I hadn’t implied in my article), on a “professional” level, it is undeniable that Calleja, or the council, stood to gain and did have an interest in seeing the project go through.

The Jerma Palace Hotel, just outside the Mayan Ruins in Tenochtitlan.

The Jerma Palace Hotel, just outside the Mayan Ruins in Tenochtitlan.

During the interview filmed a week later, Calleja also stated that his council did not want any further apartment blocks blighting the skyline, and wasn’t interested in having any boutique hotels in Marsascala.

Two things caught my eye during the last local council meeting, part of which was reported in Maltatoday. The council raised no objection to PA 4100/16, which envisages a boutique hotel in Marsascala and which, I’m informed, is bound to meet the objections of some of the residents in the area. Good to know the council has been elected to represent someone, and that someone, just like the lottery winner, is never you.

The second, of course, refers to PN councillors’ motion to restore the site of the Jerma ruins as a public space. All well and good, nice of the PN to think of open spaces in the south after so much time, but here I tread carefully.

Being born and bred in the South I can understand this divide very clearly. I once joined an AD protest (a press conference led by Carmel Cacopardo, sadly I wasn’t dressed for Halloween) against the lack of an EIA for the recycling plant. Once I did the unthinkable: I wrote about the state of the roads leading to town. Hell, in 2007/08 I even stood up from the midst of a sweaty audience to tell Lawrence Gonzi (and Calleja, receiving a nod of approval from a then small-time developer by the name of Sandro Chetcuti) that the politicised local councils were busier fighting internally than serving the residents.

Nobody can really lecture me about “kemm qlajna aħna tas-South.” I’ve endured, through no fault of mine for sure, years of “Laburist, illitterat u ħamallu” taunts from Balzan/Lija raised English-speaking, white-sock wearing lawyers-to-be at school, most of whom have now fallen into a depressing existence where their freedom of expression is limited for fear of upsetting corporate applecarts. (Nowadays I meet these people at weddings, dressed as they would for a day at the office, and watch them with complacent disdain as they nod admiringly yet nervously to my made-up, purely bullshit interpretations of Kafka and Dostoevsky).

Despite all this, I am battle hardened enough to realise that the North vs South divide is all part of a populist rhetoric which, to use an example in football, Jose Mourinho could ably drum up with phrases like “I can hear my enemies’ noises”. It allows (semi-)witty yet dishonest demagogues to control flocks of salivating followers and we all know where that leads to.

It is the same rhetoric used shamelessly by some of the lapdogs to defend the Council’s vote against the conversion of Jerma into a public space. Vice-mayor Desiree Attard couldn’t attend the vote but her declaration in favour of the PN motion was ignored during the meeting; again, a reminder that democracy in the Marsascala council is as malfunctioning as a rusty 1978 Gorenje fridge left to rot in the Albanian countryside.

Calleja, whose rift with Attard is wider than the Mariana trench, astoundingly told Maltatoday that “Marsascala has enough open spaces already and what we need are commercial opportunities.” Last time I checked (a Sunday ago) I saw full-ish restaurants, even those with tampered meters, and no restaurateurs busking or begging for alms. I also saw a town bereft of its identity, hideous apartment blocks sprouting out of every corner, a spate of planning application notices stuck everywhere, greedy estate agents larging it from their terrace overlooking the sea: a seaside town sold to the casual bidder. From its once picturesque higher points, Marsascala looks like a town designed by a toddler playing tetris after overdoing it with Calpol.

Indeed, Calleja’s assertion that “Marsascala is supposedly a tourist village” is a clear statement of intent: never mind what the residents think, we have too many open spaces and we need some more concrete to appease the business community. It jars, louder than a deaf fishmonger, with the council’s mission statement:

To halt the existing threats to the environment and to find ways and means to rehabilitate the locality’s characteristics as residential area through striking a balance between the need of the residents and the commercial community in an efficient manner.

Marsascala used to be a tourist village. I was brought up there: there were tranquil English pensioners, a dredger coming into bay everyday at 8, PickQuick, Chintz, Rożu and his obnoxious nephews, il-Konsu, and angry Mr Xerxen who didn’t want us playing outside his garage. We even had cinema once (that lasted long).

It is a small innocent town no more. I remember Calleja complaining to then PM Gonzi about the lack of a proper police force back in 2007/08, saying Marsascala has a population of 10000 and is no longer a fishing village or summer residence; I thought he was right, even if he was forced to state the mere obvious. Has there been a mass diaspora to Detroit since then? I doubt it, for there is even more housing.

Which brings me back to Jerma.

It’s true, it’s a massive shame to see a once glorious hotel laying comatose by the seaside, awaiting its coup de grace. But they’ve thought of this alright, after a death and years of vandalism and crack consumption, the PA will finally be enforcing the demolition of the premises. Jubilations, an eyesore’s gone, prompting the usual suspects to rush to their boardroom tables to meet their architects. More so after the PM in his Sunday sermon, assured by the gullibility of his audiences, equated this demolition to a better environment (ignoring the controversies related to ODZ and high-rises, but that’s another kettle of fish).

Vultures are notoriously quick to pounce onto dead meat. Nobody has money to buy Jerma, or nobody’s had it to date. Left to decompose to the stage of becoming a public hazard, its demolition has finally been green-lighted. Wheels are in motion alright, they just needed some grease.

Herein lies the catch. Opposite Jerma, in Żonqor, bathers are enjoying their last summer before the area falls under the slimy hand of Sadeen, and before, eventually, Calleja’s lebentraum of joining Marsascala to Xgħajra (another promenade, ostensibly with kiosks – I thought he said there are way too many open spaces in town) turns into a nightmarish reality for anyone who’s forked out big money, or sold his soul and time to a bank, to buy a property in the quiet environs of Żonqor.

Rumours of a yacht marina to complement Jerma have been abounding for years. Ask anyone in town and they’ll tell you the rumour is more alive than Elvis’ ghost in Freddie Portelli’s house. A yacht marina in Jerma will likely destroy the salt pans, a historical part of the town’s existence, and if it spreads to the right of Jerma it will take up public beach space. After all, we live in a country where our business class and their prized architects can go no further than the nauseating concept of an x-storeyed hotel (Marsascala is now a high-rise zone, a move opposed by Calleja’s council and ignored by MEPA), or x-storeyed residential block with underlying supermarket, gym, restaurants and parking at basement level.

Who will be there to oppose these plans? Nobody will, except maybe for Desiree Attard, whose bed has been made by her own party simply for standing up, on behalf of the residents, to be counted. Of course, with an unopposed boutique hotel springing here and later there, the rebirth of Jerma, the mockUniversity in Żonqor and more apartment blocks, there is one man whose febrile plan for a Buġibba in the South will have become reality. This man, though, isn’t Calleja.

Calleja plans to run for the election in 2018, for which I wish him the best of luck if it means he’ll have less influence on proceedings in Marsascala. He will go down in history books as the mayor who closed both eyes when it came to selling off Żonqor, who built a council office in the middle of a public garden (a real priority. Incidentally, will the present council offices be up for rent? Beautiful seaside spot you’ve got there) and Telegraph Road leading to Smartcityland. All this in the interest of the ailing business class in Marsascala, burghers who struggle to earn their income, so much so they are forced to tamper with their utility meters and lead a life of Rolexed poverty.

The old-time residents will meanwhile appreciate the heavy influx of traffic and its pollution, the decrease in public spaces, and look tearfully at sepia photos of days spent swimming off Żonqor Point, now firmly owned by some faceless people from Jordan, or days fishing at Siberia, now the exclusive remit of yachts leaking oil into the sea.

As both towns have just had their summer carnival – surely the masquerade parties last the whole year long – it might be time for the Skalini to organise exchange visits with Bugibba residents, get to know them, learn acupuncture and remedies for their headaches and noise-induced neuroses, maybe courses in Cockney.

I will mention one scourge that severely afflicts Bugibba residents: karaoke bars. Get used to high-pitched, slurry renditions of Sweet Dreams, sooner.