Present Situation of Maltese of Algeria
Author: Pierre Dimech
Ladies, Gentlemen, dear Friends and Maltese Brethren scattered around the world,
First and foremost allow me to introduce myself. My name is Pierre Dimech. My family name is one of the oldest Maltese surnames. Going back to the times of my great-grand-parents, one would also find in my family, both from my maternal and paternal side, not only the Dimechs but also the Pisanis, the Vellas, the Mifsuds, the Caruanas, and also the Xuerebs, Angel, etc. etc. . . . This means that I am practically 100% of Maltese origin.
And yet . . . and yet, I am French and have been living in France for the past 40 years or so. I was born 64 years ago, in a territory, which was then French Algeria, where my father Marcel Dimech, and my mother Marguerite Pisani, were born and were themselves French and French grand-parents as well, except for my paternal grandfather, Joseph Dimech who was born in Floriana in 1858 . . . You may be interested to know that I have in my possession the marriage certificates of certain members of my family, who were Maltese, yet living in Algiers, and getting married there around 1850, that is to say, a century and a half ago.
If I am telling you all this, it is not because I want to give you a detailed account of my family history, but only to give you a typical example of the Maltese epic to North Africa, and in particular to Algeria. (Someone, who is more learned than I am on the subject, should in fact tackle Maltese migration to Tunisia). This branch of Maltese migration is today quite particular, since, genuinely Maltese in origin, it has led to the creation of a new community of people, which distinguishes itself more specifically by its language from the rest of the big global Maltese family. We are Francophones. Francophones and French, due to the migration of our forefathers, which is indeed very old in character, since it started way back in 1830. Towards the end of XIXth century, an irreversible process of naturalization and assimilation commenced. One cannot, therefore, compare this type of migration, with that which our beloved Maltese nation had to go through after the 2nd World War.
We belong to a world apart, but in spite of everything, we hope sincerely to be accepted by you, as you heart and soul brothers, even if the language barrier very often separates us. I myself, unfortunately, do not speak Maltese, because my parents did not speak the language. This is due to the fact that my father lost his parents at a very early age and they spoke Maltese between themselves around 1910–1915. But, in other Algerian towns, where there was a strong Maltese community, in places like Bone, Phillipville, Guelma, etc. … the passing on of the Maltese language was carried out without problems.
Thanks to the geographical position of Algeria, we have remained a people belonging to the Mediterranean basin, and this is very important from the point of view of culture and mentality. Like our parents, most of us have also retained our Catholic faith, at least during our stay in Algeria, and this lasted for a long span of time, until the tragic break away from France in 1962. Generally speaking, we managed to retain our Catholic faith, since in Algeria we succeeded in mixing with other "naturalized" French, of both Spanish and Italian origin, and these were mostly Catholic. Towards the end of the sixties, however, there was an evolution in France, unfortunately affecting the values of the Maltese Community. In all respects, the Roman Catholic faith in France is rapidly losing ground. Moreover, owing to the current family break up, family life has also been wholly transformed. Regrettably, one can no longer transmit those old family traditions. But this is not something, which is only particular to our Community.
Yet all is not lost. On the contrary, the revival of ties with our forefathers’ country could prove very beneficial to our children, since this will help them find their roots again, whereas we others have lost our Algerian roots altogether.
Malta has a particular and unique charm and the fact that we have been accepted without reservations within the universal Maltese fold, could serve as a significant refuge for us. From our part, we can furnish you with both the evidence and the experience of an extraordinary adventure in Algeria, which has taken place throughout this past century and a half. Fr Lawrence Attard has already written remarkably in his well-known works on the Maltese migration. Our forefathers have struggled with the only available means at the time, namely, discretion, perseverance, tenacity in their work, family values and Faith in the Lord. Initially, the Maltese Community was considered inferior in Algeria. However within only a few decades; they became successful not only in industry and commerce, but also in the academic and artistic spheres. Suffice it to mention people like Laurent Ropa and Fernand Grech, who were writers and Andre Greck, sculptor and winner of the "Grand Prix de Rome" in 1936. And many others who are less known . . .
Earlier on I spoke about the process of naturalization and assimilation. The former has prompted most of the Maltese living in Algeria, to become fully French. Thus, because of this naturalization process, individual or collective, the number of those belonging to the Maltese Community and registered as Maltese from Algeria, dwindled to such an extend that these were reduced to practically nothing, soon after the First World War.
In my opinion, it is the cultural question of assimilation and not the legal aspect of nationality, which is of utmost importance. This is not brought about merely by a decision taken by a particular administration, but by daily life and by marriages with persons belonging to other communities. In the beginning the Maltese inter-married, however, towards the end of XIXth century, they started advancing socially and thanks to their integration within the newly established French Community in Algeria, many Maltese started marrying more and more with people who were either Spanish, Italian, or even French.
Finally and above all, the determining factor was education. Public or private, the school was the preponderant element in the "Frenchifying" process of most of the European Community of Algeria. Moreover, this "neo-French" Community spoke a language, which is somewhat particular, integrating linguistic elements prevalent around the Mediterranean basin, and including a good number of words and phrases which are Arabic in form. This language had a particular accent as well, yet is was high-sounding and was spoken amongst the working classes. That aspect of the language, which was specifically Maltese and very close to Arabic, was minimal. Moreover, owing to social advancement, the manner of speaking was manifestly closer to French as it is spoken in France. What remained was only the characteristic Algerian accent.
One must also add another factor, which in my opinion was decisive, namely, the loss of direct ties with the families that remained in Malta. The rupture was not abrupt, however, unfortunately, as time passed on, there were no longer any personal contacts with them. One did not know whether there were still any relative (cousins) living in Malta. And then, how could one know? One no longer spoke the same (Maltese) language and this did not facilitate correspondence. One did not have the opportunity of travelling. Even if Malta was not that far away, it was then under British rule. It was said that Malta was a fortress. Moreover, in those days one could not travel much. And those who had the means to do so left, to discover France by taking a holiday there or go for health reasons . . .
Today, the descendants of those early Maltese from Algeria, considered as French for several generations, live in France since they could not stay in Algeria, after the country became an Arab and Islamic State, as a result of a terrible War. But, precisely, because they lost their ties with their birth place and the fact that they found themselves in a country, France, of which they are loyal citizens, but whose past is not quite theirs, they still remember their Maltese forefathers. In spite of the language barrier, they hope to be recognized as genuine children of Malta.
Given this reality, one must henceforth act quickly: a generation has gone by since the departure from Algeria, and with it, invaluable evidence of our Mediterranean past. I am, therefore, putting all my hope in this Convention in order to renew our ties with our Maltese roots.