There is more to it than stereotypes ~8 minutes read~
The first few words of Maltese any foreigner learns soon after having moved to Malta inevitably include swearwords as well as some specific ones – ħamalli and pepè – whose meaning is not at all clear despite their popularity. Although considerable volumes of writing have been dedicated to the subject, here is a take on it from an outsider’s perspective.
In a nutshell: if you are fond of oriental philosophy then you’ve come to the right place since Malta has its own yin and yang elements too. No matter how opposite ħamalli and pepè are perceived to be, they are entirely inseparable at the core. The more detailed description of Malta’s best known social species might also serve for better understanding of the country.
Noun and adjective: ħamallu (masculine singular), ħamalla (feminine singular), ħamalli (plural)
Adjective: ħamallata (something that has attributes of ħamalli). Example: this car is a bit of a ħamallata.
For the rest of the country, ħamallu regular (latin: Ħamallus miletensis or Ħamallus vulgaris) is a separate species they try to dissociate from as much as possible and that makes Ħamallus vulgaris a keystone figure of Maltese society. The curious fact about Ħ. vulgaris is that, despite the fear to resemble him, nobody quite knows what it means to be one. Some might tell you it’s the bad manners and vulgar clothes, others are convinced it’s the lack of education and culture awareness while some would insist Ħ. vulgaris originates from certain localities and family backgrounds. All of them are partially true yet still miss the core indication of a true ħamallu regular – their profound disrespect and hostility to anything outside their little world. Whether they are genuinely clueless about the outer world or deliberately ignorant of it, ħamalli refuse to consider anything that does not concern themselves, their house, their band club or, maximum, their locality.
Ħamallu blasts the sound in his car or house, parks on two parking bays, occupies as much space as he can at the beach, builds a boat house on public land, disturbs his neighbours with outbursts of loudness and his neighbourhood – with gunshots because he recognizes no authority higher than himself.
Ħammali is not even a class phenomenon since recognizing certain class solidarity already broadens one’s perspective. On the other hand, a fisherman or a farmer is seldom ħamallu since he is humbled by the force much greater than himself – nature. Ħamallu regular is not thrilled by nature. His approach to anything is utilitarian. If he ever notices anything beautiful and delicate it is only for the sake of his pocket.
Someone might say ħamallu regular is not unique to Malta but widely spread across the globe. Well, similar varieties might be present in all countries yet Ħamallu miletensis is endemic to Malta because:
- he evolved in the specific conditions of post-colonial country environment, where higher education was a privilege originally available to the few;
- the absence of such great landscape features as mountains combined with the warm Mediterranean climate favour ħamallu power since there is nothing to keep the human ego in check. Not even the giant of Catholic church has managed to humble him down;
- he influences the absolute majority of social interactions in Malta. Be it the cases where ħamallu is the initiator or where the rest counteract his misdeeds, he still remains a centrepiece.
Another variation of ħamallu is ħamallu advanced (Ħamallus pergrandis). While still bearing the main characteristics of ħamallu regular (i.e. profound disrespect to anything outside his little world) he enjoys quite a bit of power and has access to the decision-making procedures at the national (sometimes international) level. He might not be of royal origin yet he shares Louis XIV of France’s maxim “I am the state” and expands his little world to as far as he can get. Ħamallu advanced is a dangerous species, for his financial assets allow him to implement his maxim without much resistance. Sadly, he truly is an international kind.
Noun: pepè (masculine singular, feminine singular, plural)
Ironically, pepé phenomenon is intertwined with the one of ħamallu since the main struggle of the former is to distinguish himself from the latter. Definitions of ħamallu/a/i vary and so do definitions of pepé. Pepé regular (Pepé vulgaris) sees himself a civilized, cultured, distinguished kind and makes sure everybody gets to notice his polish. To the rest of the population who is fortunate not to belong to either of ħamalli or pepé species, pepé regular is a smug philistine, a snob who craves to be recognized as pedigree. Pepé’s main life achievement is to be of a non-ħamallu bunch and he simply can’t get enough of his bliss.
The saddest fact for pepé would be to recognize he is not authentic. Whatever pepe regular does, it is a reaction to his definition of ħamalli:
- If his idea of ħamalli is “ċwieċ ta (fools from ) [fill in the blank]”, he prides himself for growing up in “Sliema, the way it was in the older days”;
- Pepé prefers English because ħamallu is not fluent with it. For same reason, he also tends to be a grammar nazi;
- Pepé travels because ħamallu does not see beyond his village;
- Pepé carefully selects his clothes not to resemble ħamallu dressing style;
- Even though pepé is secretly indifferent to culture, he has to emphasise his literacy by “reading books”, “loving culture” and “watching films” because, by doing so, he underlines his non-ħamallu nature. To pepé, books are countable physical objects that can be displayed on shelves or whose titles can be flashed for sake of prestige;
- Pepé often adopts a double-barrelled surname for his children to hint at their superior origin;
- Pepé craves titles, degrees and privileged jobs. He firmly believes he’s in great service to humanity;
- Pepé cannot be relaxed, he’s always on alert. He has to prove his excessive genteelness, proper manners and “good breed” behaviour. He simply is too afraid to be playful or humorous, again, not to be mistaken for ħamallu. His pseudo-sophistication and snobbism are suffocating;
- Just as when you are afraid of spiders they all come to you, pepé suspects there is ħamallu in every corner. He is so frustrated of a ħamallu encounter that goes all the way to develop his own set of indicators to spot them from afar;
- He avoids locations particularly rich in ħamalli yet, still, firmly believes Malta is infested with them so it’s time to leave the country for good;
- His main issue with political might of ħamallu advanced is that the latter dares to be corrupt while wearing those horrible shoes and necktie. From pepé’s political perspective, elegant clothes and sense of style justify a few misdeeds.
- Finally, pepé wastes so much time and energy to distinguish himself from ħamallu that does not even know what he likes. Mistaking ħamalli for a class, he sees everything through thick glasses of class symbolism and is unable to form a genuine interest of his own.
“Is there hope?” you’d ask. Is there anybody else apart from ħamalli and pepé in the country? The answer is yes. Do not despair. There is a fair number of independent thinkers in Malta. Squeezed between ħamalli and pepé, they have no choice than hiding away and keeping to their bubbles – that’s why navigating around Malta is much easier for a foreigner than a local.
Breaking from the stagnant dualism is impossible without creating new combinations. The universal principle of evolution, be it biological or social, is that the new combinations result from mixing. Recently, more and more attempts are being made to stir up that mixing among the young generation who see these clichés outdated. Civil Society Network, Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent, LovinMalta, Terraferma Collective do their bit to eliminate “ħamalli” vs “pepé” misconceptions. There will be light.
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