Interviews as Cross-cultural Encounters in Malta

Gerold Gerber

European University Institute, Florence, Italy and University of Konstanz, Germany
Paper presented at the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Conference in Copenhagen, 14-17 August 2002, in the workshop "Stuck Between Inside and Outside - Hybrid Identities and Anthropological Methodology"

To download, print, or bookmark, click:
To cite, quote this address and the download date. Not for commercial use.
© 2002 Gerold Gerber. Distributed with permission, by
Do not remove this notice from digital or paper copies of this text.


Table of contents

1 Prelude: just another encounter between two strangers
2 Identity as praxis
3 Research on Malta Drydocks
4 What about Malta’s Arab heritage?
5 From interviews to cross-cultural encounters
6 Postlude: just encounters between strangers


1 Prelude: just another encounter between two strangers

In this paper I will describe how, during my work, I have come to view interviews less as a source of information about identity than as cross-cultural encounters in which identity is done.[1] Let us have a look at the following twelve turns exchanged by G and M. We are not familiar with the context. Who is
G? And who is M? When did the encounter take place? And where? In Malta? We don’t know. And yet, this brief social drama might lead us to point out a number of things.



[to M, the man sitting next to him] Are you from Malta?









— —



Are you German?



Ye! Do you=Can you see it? [smiles]



Ye! [laughs] Hehe.



[laughs] He.



You like the sun, ey? °You are staying in the sun.°


ëA::h. — A bit, ye::. — To get used to it. Because in Malta it will be ...







... hotter!

What is happening here? In line 001 G asks M, the man sitting next to him, whether he is from Malta. After one second the man briefly affirms, saying “Yes”. Then G affirms M’s affirmation by saying “Ah, ye”. These three utterances constitute the smallest instance of what we call the social construction of reality (Berger & Luckmann 1966).[2] Which reality do the actors construct here? Well, the fact that M is from Malta. Since neither M nor G object to this idea, it is recognised by both actors as reality. Two seconds later, in line 006, M asks G whether he is German. G confirms, yet he shows his surprise that this is obvious to M. He smiles. The surprise and the smile indicate that G is a stranger in the area. Seemingly, it is not normal to recognise a person as German here. Yet, he is not so strange that M did not recognise him at all. In line 008 M utters “Ye!” and starts to laugh. Also G laughs. Then, M sees himself compelled to justify his astounding act of recognition. In line 010 he explains that he can see that G is German because of the fact that he is staying in the sun. M assumes to be common knowledge that Germans like the sun, that this is their identity marker. G accepts M’s account, uttering somewhat hesitatingly “A::h. A bit, ye::”, adding that he should better get used to the sun because in Malta it will be hotter. This is vividly confirmed by M who seems to share G’s knowledge about the Maltese climate. The fact that it will be hotter is a hint that the encounter does not take place in Malta. The actors are on their way to Malta, approaching the islands probably from the north, where temperature is still lower. Perhaps we are at some airport in Europe?

2 Identity as praxis

Contextual knowledge reveals that the encounter took place between me and a Maltese man in 1996 in the harbour of Catania, Sicily. I was waiting for the ferry to Malta with a group of Maltese travellers. The fact that I choose here as an example a cross-cultural encounter outside of Malta is to take note of a de-territorialised world (Featherstone 1991, King 1991, Featherstone & Lash & Robertson 1995). At that time I thought that I, the ethnographer, was going to my field, Malta, to do an inquiry into Maltese identity, and that the encounter had little to do with my actual fieldwork. After having done six months of fieldwork altogether (twice in 1992, in 1995, 1996, and in 1997) and some years of data interpretation I have reconsidered my research site. The ‘field’ I am now interested in is less Malta, or the Maltese people, but reality and identity as accomplishment, as construction (read as a verb), whoever is involved and wherever it happens (Garfinkel 1967, Moerman 1974, Barth 1993, Antaki & Widdicombe 1998). In fact, we are never out of the field (Gupta & Ferguson 1997:35).

What does it mean, identity as accomplishment? If our object of study is ‘identity’, and not culture, social structure, or economics, we have to explain how we conceptualise this object. When, where, and how does identity manifest itself? Where do we locate it? For constructivist approaches identity is not a timeless entity, a thing people have, for instance as opinion or as any given feature. Instead, they suggest that identity happens, that something we could call ‘identity’ appears under certain conditions, such as actors’ fragile impressions (Goffman 1959) or imaginations (Anderson 1983). Hence, in my work social reality is not seen as a ‘thing’, as suggested by Durkheim, but as permanently emerging and vanishing. In this sense, I look at identity as an ongoing negotiation (Giesen 1991, Gerber 2000).

The major implication of such processuality for ethnographic research is, according to Heinz Bude (1991:117), that we leave the fragmented quality of social reality and study concrete events.[3] As Clifford Geertz (1973:17-18) points out, “Behavior must be attended to, and with some exactness, because it is through the flow of behavior - or, more precisely, social action - that cultural forms find articulation. They find it as well, of course, in various sorts of artifacts, and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their ‘use’) in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to one another. It is what Cohen, the sheikh, and ‘Captain Dumari’ were doing when they tripped over one another’s purposes - pursuing trade, defending honor, establishing dominance - that created our pastoral drama, and that is what the drama is, therefore, ‘about’. Whatever, or wherever, symbol systems ‘in their own terms’ may be, we gain empirical access to them by inspecting events, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns. [...] If anthropological interpretation is constructing a reading of what happens, then to divorce it from what happens - from what, in this time, or that place, specific people say, what they do, what is done to them, from the whole vast business of the world - is to divorce it from its applications and render it vacant”. Consequently, praxis and practical knowledge have been recovered in the social sciences over the past years. We are witnessing an increasing interest in meaning-in-use, in the body, and in performances (e.g. Busby 2000, Haller 2000, Wulf et al. 2001). We are focussing on the oral instead of the written, the particular instead of the universal, the local instead of the general, the timely instead of the timeless (Toulmin 1990).[4] One way to put such reflections into practice, I advocate, is to analyse face-to-face interactions such as the introductory drama.

This drama further demonstrates that ‘natives’ react to the ethnographer. The Maltese man does not just passively respond to my question where he comes from. He also wants to know who I am. Since the man recognises me as a particular type of person, as a ‘German’, because I like to stay in the sun (which I don’t do, in fact), the encounter makes it clear that I am not a neutral being. Hard times for ethnographers who try to see the world “from the natives’ point of view”, a pipe dream I never had, in fact. What I suggest, therefore, is that we not only discuss our own cultural baggage but also what we are, or seem to be, in the natives’ eyes. Hence, the field I am fascinated by is not only the situational accomplishment of identity and truth but their interactive construction. Identity depends on mutual recognition. I recognise M as a ‘Maltese’, while M recognises me as a ‘German’. Such reciprocal constructions, however, are an ambivalent affair, as here lie also the dangers of stereotyping and of reifying identities and differences. This is particularly salient in a world which can less and less be divided into clear-cut boxes and groups, where we find ambivalence and hybridity instead of collective identity and coherence, where insides and outsides are blurred and “the pure products go crazy” (Clifford 1988, Stewart & Shaw 1994, Geertz 1996). This is not only the case for ethnographers who are increasingly becoming ‘halfies’. All people are increasingly stuck between inside and outside. I therefore propose Malta as an attractive case for our reflections on hybrid identities and methodology. Yet, to look at the Maltese as ‘halfies’ is not self-evident, at least not for Europeans. According to the official Maltese policy vis-à-vis the European Union, to what the Maltese tell the tourists who visit their islands, and to what we learn from the scientific literature written by Western scholars, the Maltese are “100 percent Europeans”, not hybrid and ambivalent. “That we are European is now a fact of life”, writes, for instance, Godfrey A. Pirotta (1994:111). The word ‘now’, of course, is an indication that this has not always been the case. To defend the suggestion that the Maltese exist ‘betwixt and between’ various categories and identities (V. Turner 1967), in particular between Europe and the Arab world, we have to go into the story of my somewhat unusual encounter with Maltese society via Malta Drydocks.

3 Research on Malta Drydocks

In March and October 1992 I did fieldwork at Malta Drydocks, the largest industry on the islands with a peculiar system of workers’ self-management. The “Three Cities”, the area around the docks where I stayed with a worker’s family, was, and still is, the stronghold of the Malta Labour Party, one of the two major political parties in Malta.[5] It was during this work that I became aware of Malta’s tense situation in the middle of the Mediterranean. In a meeting with former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, the outstanding politician of 20th century Malta[6], I learned about the connection between Malta and Qadhafi’s Libya, which was established in the seventies (and which is downplayed since the change of government in 1987).[7] Western media at the time called Malta even the “Libyan Trojan horse”. If the stable for that horse was anywhere, it was at Malta Drydocks, also known as “Mintoff’s baby”. The enterprise played a key role in the Maltese anti-colonialist struggle from the beginning. After independence, workers self-management gradually replaced the old colonial structures in the shipyard. Mintoff, the spiritus rector of self-management, has repeatedly stressed the importance of this “experiment”, even as a model for Maltese society at large (Zammit 1982:27-33). As far as Malta’s non-European heritage is concerned, it is interesting to note that the newly developed structures, apart from being influenced by the Yugoslav self-management system, strongly lean on Qadhafi’s Green Book in which the Libyan state structures are described (‘mahsabiyya’). When writing down the results of my work I concluded that Malta Drydocks should be less understood as an economic enterprise than as the attempt to reconcile the Arab and European influences upon Malta and to establish a kind of syncretistic mixture. This explains why the Drydocks are interpreted by many Maltese as a symbol of the Maltese’ ability to govern themselves, as against their century-long reliance on “foreign experts”.[8]

The fact that Malta Drydocks was Mintoff’s playground to turn Malta into an Arab society came as a surprise to me. It was even more surprising when I learned that the Maltese language is itself basically an Arabic dialect, a fact hardly known, at least not fully realised, by most Europeans. The Maltese are staunch Catholics, “more Catholic than the Pope”, as a popular saying suggests. And yet, they actually pray to “Allah”, simply because this is the Arabic word for God.[9] The biggest surprise, however, came when I realised that, despite of all that, Malta’s Arab and Islamic heritage, and what the Maltese make of it, has never been a topic of social research. The dominant view among intellectuals, both in Malta and abroad, suggests purity and coherence, not ambivalence and hybridity. Consequently, to raise the Arab question at all has to be seen as an exception in the literature.[10] The fact that I studied Maltese society in the “Three Cities” - the name simply being the translation of Tripoli into English by the way -, and not in Sliema, Valletta, or at the university in Msida, made me aware that the Arab heritage plays a role in Malta. Yet, I wasn’t sure what kind of role.

4 What about Malta’s Arab heritage?

When I started the research project on Malta and the European Union at the European University Institute in 1995 Malta had been applying for EU membership for five years. Until today, the Maltese people are split on this issue. Half of the population is in favour of such a step, the other half is against it. The “Three Cities” are the centre of the movement against EU membership, and the rhetoric there is still anti-colonialist.[11] Thus, Malta Drydocks has remained a “hot potato”, as the Maltese historian Henry Frendo once called them in an interview with me. Since anthropologists appreciate hot potatoes in order to understand the mood of a place, I decided to read more about the situation in the seventies and early eighties. The idea was to gain deeper insights into the fierce resistance against EU membership there.[12]

Under Mintoff’s socialist administration from 1971 to 1987 Malta turned her back on Great Britain and Europe and became a member of the Non-aligned Movement.[13] Moreover, she discovered her Arab roots. The narrative that Malta was European, the basic premise for EU membership, and that the Maltese have been Christians over the past 2,000 years, even during the Arab period, was countered by the subaltern narrative that the Maltese are actually “Arabs”, at least not purely Europeans. As one of few observers who understood the drastic nature of the changes in the seventies Jeremy Boissevain (1991:88) wrote that “the Labour government broke off relations with NATO and sought links with the Arab world. After 900 years of being linked to Europe, Malta began to look southward. Muslims, still remembered in folklore for savage pirate attacks, were redefined as blood brothers”. Maltese scholars challenged the until then undisputed foundation myths, for instance the arrival of Christianity on Malta through St Paul the Apostle in AD 60 (cf. Seppelfricke 1988), Maltese resistance against the Arab “invaders” in medieval times (Luttrell 1975, Wettinger 1986; cf. Brincat 1990), and the glory of the Order of St John as epitomised in their fight against “the Turks” in the Great Siege of 1565. It was pointed out that actually no Maltese was a “Knight of Malta”. As a result, the Nationalist government, when it was elected in 1987, saw itself confronted with the task of regaining Western trust in order to be accepted by the EU as one of its members. It downplayed the Mintoff/Qadhafi-episode as not reflecting the truth about the Maltese and tried to reconstruct the belief in “European Malta”. History was supposed to sustain this belief. The call that Malta was a legitimate candidate for membership was, again, based upon the ‘fact’ that Malta’s Christianity dates back to St Paul and that the Maltese saved European Christendom from Muslim aggression in the Great Siege.[14]

During my fieldwork in the nineties I not only realised that the Arab heritage played a role in Malta, I also had the impression that many Maltese were ashamed about it. For instance, the fact that Maltese is an Arabic dialect was often simply denied. The question was whether the construction of European Malta was mainly meant for a European audience, and whether people were reluctant to talk about the Arab heritage with me, a European. Was there a relationship between Malta Labour Party’s rejection of EU membership and the Maltese feeling that they were, at least in part, Arabs? I had no intention to partake in the construction of Malta’s past. I only knew that if I was to tackle the issue of Maltese identity, I could not leave out the Arab aspect and the attempt by Mintoff and his supporters to reconsider it (or, if you wish, to invent it). Maltese communications with Arabs had to carry the same weight in my research as the ones with Europeans, despite all the difficulties I had to expect. Under which conditions do the Maltese feel Arab? Are the Maltese also ashamed about the Arab elements in encounters with Arabs who know that Maltese is an Arabic dialect? Do the Maltese construct a different history for Arabs than for Europeans? In which way did I have to problematise my own role as ethnographer in order to deal with such questions? This was a methodological issue. After all, if we conceptualise identity as praxis, we have to ask what are adequate data and methods to analyse and to represent this praxis (Bergmann 1985, Soeffner 1989).[15] On the one hand, it was clear that I was not a neutral observer. And I could not turn into a Maltese, at least be accepted as such, to see how I would relate to Europeans and Arabs. It mattered that I was European, not only due to my cultural baggage, but also because I was perceived and treated as such. On the other hand, ‘confessional ethnography’ à la Nigel Barley was equally unsatisfactory to me. After all, my PhD was not only about myself. So, while I did not want to limit myself to writing on my experiences in the field, I did not want to deny that it was me who performed the fieldwork - a ‘European’, a ‘German’, a ‘man’, an ‘academic’. I was torn between various objectivist and subjectivist traps. In order to find a solution I decided to turn what seemed to be an obstacle to objectivity, my particularity, into an asset.

5 From interviews to cross-cultural encounters

In principle, we could study written and oral communications between Maltese, Arabs, and Europeans in order to understand better the situation of Malta ‘betwixt and between’. Yet only few written sources exist on the relationship between Maltese and Arabs. In fact, there seems to be no alternative historiography at all, which, for instance, considers also the workers or women[16], let alone the affinities of Maltese and Libyans. Hence, to find out more about the Maltese people’s attitudes on these matters in everyday life, and their reception of the dominant ideas published by (mainly Western-oriented) intellectuals, I had to focus on orality (Vansina 1985) and to collect primary data.[17] In order to tackle the question whether the Maltese construct different memories and identities depending on the audience they are addressing, the idea was to compare face-to-face encounters between Maltese and Arabs on the one side, and between Maltese and Europeans on the other side.[18] This meant to find other people from Europe and from the Arab world who would carry out interviews on my behalf. This experiment should allow for a comparative analysis of the construction of identities and differences in different contexts. In particular, it should answer the question whether the Maltese feel ‘European’ with Europeans and ‘Arab’ with Arabs, and whether this plays a role in rejecting EU membership. To do justice to the fact that the Maltese responded to me as a European I planned to make use of my role in the interviews as a European. Instead of empathetically downplaying my identity, a common practice in interviews, I wanted to perform as a typical European, for instance by turning up in a suit and tie and by stressing that I came from the European University Institute. Also the other interviewers were to be encouraged to present themselves as typical selves (Goffman 1959). For instance, the Arab interviewer could point out that he can easily understand the Maltese language. Like the German predilection for the sun, well-known identity markers were supposed to trigger typical reactions on the Maltese side (though not in a behavioural manner). Even though we, as constructivists, might know that identity happens here and now and has no essence, actors themselves tend to take it for granted. In fact, we would not be able to survive without codes, routines, and prejudices (Gadamer 1960, Schütz & Luckmann 1979, 1984, Giesen 1993, 1999).

Empirically, such data could be used as a microscope for reading more about macro-issues like the relationship between Malta, Libya, and the EU, as, for instance, Geertz used the cockfight to ‘read’ the Balinese society like a text. Methodologically, we can hope to get more empirical evidence for the ethnographer’s impact on the results of her study. So far, this is mainly theorised. The team work aspect of this approach reflects the conceptualisation of social reality as dialogically constructed.[19] It helps the ethnographer to go beyond his limited view and to bring in multiple perspectives, e.g. what the situation in Malta looks like from an Arab point of view, and, more importantly, how Maltese identity is constructed not only in the European but also in the Arab mirror. The theoretical aim of such work could be to develop an activity type of boundary construction (Schegloff 1996). In brief, we conceptualise and analyse identity and hybridity consequently as praxis and performance. Instead of trying to understand the Maltese ‘Other’ from inside or outside, the aim was now to understand the dynamic and intersubjective social reality from in-between the boundaries (Matthes 1992). If we, as ethnographers, partake in such intercultural dramas, we are no longer stuck between inside and outside. As all others, we flow between various insides and outsides.

The experiment took place in two sessions, from June to August 1996 and from October to December 1997. I had to decide who should meet, where, for how long, and which issues and topics the participants should converse about. First, whom did I want to contact on the Maltese side? Originally, the idea was to collect conversations of so-called ‘men in the street’ who meet for the first time. Yet, it proved to be impossible to find ‘ordinary’ Maltese who were ready to participate in such encounters. Not even the guarantee of anonymity could convince them. Unlike in other research sites, it is more demanding in Malta to get in touch with ordinary people than with high-ranking politicians and intellectuals. They do not, like officials, feel obliged to respond to the request by someone to talk to them. In addition, they are in any case convinced that what they would have to say could be better said by “experts”. The people I contacted could not understand why a foreigner was interested in their ideas. There is suspicion, even anxiety, in Malta, both vis-à-vis a European researcher and vis-à-vis people coming from the Arab world, especially from Libya.[20] The project proved to be even more challenging, as I wanted the actors to talk about sensitive issues like the EU or Libya, as the encounters were to be recorded on tape, and as third parties were to be involved in some of the encounters. Hence I had to direct my attention, for better or worse, to Maltese officials. In order to come as close as possible to ordinary life, however, I decided to approach persons who could be expected to have close contact to the people, and who represented the two political camps in a perfect manner: Maltese mayors from the Malta Labour Party and the Nationalist Party.[21] The ambitious plan was to find from five to ten mayors who would converse first with an Arab and then, after one year, with a European (or vice versa). This, to be sure, was without the mayors being aware that the entire project was organised by me.[22]

Since the idea was not only to vary the interviewee, which is normal in fieldwork, but also the interviewer, I also had to decide who should carry out the interviews with the mayors. Generally speaking, I looked for candidates who were in some way similar to me, apart from my nationality and, in the case of the Arabs, also from my religion. Hence, I was looking for males, preferably between 20 and 35 years and with an academic background. Finally, I found the following six collaborators, three Europeans and three Arabs, who agreed to participate in one or more encounters. From the Arab world it was Suleiman Said from Palestine (*1968), Abdul Alkilani from Libya (*1956), and Moustafa Marouk from Egypt (*1969). The interviewers from Europe were Fabrizio Fanti from Italy (*1963), John Jenkins from Great Britain (*1974), and myself, alias Heinrich Herbst, from Germany (*1967).[23] Also this search proved to be unexpectedly difficult, both in the case of the Arabs and the Europeans. It was particularly challenging to find a Libyan, because of the political tensions due to the UN-embargo as a result of the Lockerbie incident. Basically, the Libyans thought that I was a spy. And, since there are not many English students in Malta, it was also difficult to find an English interviewer. In several cases I tried in vain to convince a candidate to work for me, at times after weeks of negotiations. There were several reasons for their refusal. First of all, the interviewers had to be prepared to work as a kind of ‘tool’. Yet human beings are no tools. Some candidates had moral concerns about the project. They had the feeling that they were cheating the mayors, as they were not allowed to be open to them. Then, considerable time and effort had to be invested by the interviewers. Some candidates were simply too busy with their own work to become familiar with the experiment, with the tape-recorder, and with the issues to be raised in the encounters, to get in touch with the mayors, and to go to the local councils. Finally, even offering money proved to be a tricky business. The issue was not that the candidates wanted too much money. On the contrary, some Arabs felt offended when I wanted to pay them and refused because of that. In almost all cases it proved to be impossible to establish a business-like relationship with the candidates anyway. Instead, I had to build up a kind of “friendship”, with many private meetings and getting involved in a variety of life-stories. Before I could convince the interviewers to convince the mayors to talk to them, and to be allowed to use the tape-recorder, I had to win their confidence. After all, they were also strangers to me. My attitude towards them had to be flexible and open, as each relationship developed its own dynamic. It turned out to be a demanding and exhausting exercise to prepare mentally for the various meetings to organise the project, at times within a very short time span, with all those people from different cultures. The attitude of the interviewers to the experiment was rather mixed. While some of them were genuinely interested, even in the method, and made creative proposals, others were sceptical about the value of the project, or did not understand what it was all about, and yet decided to help me.

The main purpose of the experiment, as mentioned above, was to collect data where Maltese mayors would meet first with a European and then with an Arab (or vice versa). Finally, I succeeded to collect such material in six cases. The 12 interviews, listed below, were carried out by three mayors from the Malta Labour Party, three mayors from the Nationalist Party, three Arabs, and three Europeans.[24] They are particularly promising for the analysis of how the Maltese make sense of their existence ‘betwixt and between’ Europe and the Arab world in everyday life. I suggest that these ‘interviews’, which last from 30 minutes to more than two hours, and which were completely transcribed by me between August 1996 and September 1998, should be conceptualised as ‘cross-cultural encounters’.[25]



Maltese mayor

Arab / European interviewer



Brian Busuttil (MLP)

Heinrich Herbst (Ger)



Brian Busuttil (MLP)

Suleiman Said (Pal)



Frank Farrugia (MLP)

Suleiman Said (Pal)



Frank Farrugia (MLP)

John Jenkins (GB)



Simon Sammut (MLP)

Heinrich Herbst (Ger)



Simon Sammut (MLP)


Abdul Alkilani (Lib)



Emanuel Ellul (PN)

Fabrizio Fanti (I)



Emanuel Ellul (PN)

Moustafa Marouk (Egy)



Charles Cassola (PN)

Suleiman Said (Pal)



Charles Cassola (PN)

Heinrich Herbst (Ger)



Paul Pace (PN)

Heinrich Herbst (Ger)



13.11 1997

Mary Muscat (teacher)

Abdul Alkilani (Lib)

Now, as we know who the participants are, we have to briefly touch upon the issues and topics they were talking about. The actors needed to converse about something. Hence, even though I wanted the encounters to be open, it was indispensable to set up a list of issues and questions, since the encounters should, at least to some extent, be comparable. As it was clear to me that whatever was on tape would become the basis for interpretation afterwards, I spent time and effort to work out a semi-structured questionnaire. At first, I was insecure how to proceed, in particular because I felt that, even though other interviewers were to ask the questions, there was still a certain imposition of my own research interests. I could only move forward after realising that there was no correct questionnaire. In order to be less biased, however, I involved a number of Maltese and non-Maltese informants, also from the Arab world, in setting up the topics.[26] The aim was to produce an appealing input to be negotiated by the actors on stage (this acknowledges that reality is not constructed from scratch but permanently reconstructed). Since I also wanted to analyse how conflicts are managed in everyday life, it was not the aim to create an atmosphere of confidence in which the participants would tell each other the truth. After all, my aim was not to arrive at the reality behind the interactions but to take seriously what happened in the encounters. Hence, relevant was not so much what was actually talked about but rather how the actors made sense of the issues. The goal was to evoke social dramas, feelings of pride and shame, anger and sympathy. Therefore, the interviewers were encouraged to be even ‘aggressive’, if they wished. In total, six versions of the questionnaire were developed. Finally, we found about ten topics, ranging from general questions like ‘How do you see Malta’s situation at the moment?’, over events from history like St Paul’s shipwreck and the Great Siege, and more recent ones like the Malta-Libya saga and Malta’s application for EU membership, to issues like the Maltese constitution, the Maltese language, and the particular strengths of the Maltese. This questionnaire was used in the first fieldwork session in 1996. For the second session in 1997, of course, we had to slightly change it, since the same Maltese person could not be asked exactly the same questions, even after one year, without being suspicious. As the talks still had to be comparable, however, we simply reshuffled the questions and reduced them. In addition, the interviewers were encouraged to rephrase the questions a bit and to leave out some points, or to add additional ones. Whatever happened happened, and if, as in the case of Fabrizio Fanti, the interviewer himself starts to complain about the bad quality of a question, and the interviewee does not even get wary, then this was the result. Involving other interviewers means to give away control not only over the answers, but of the entire scene. This, however, is the spice of life in such an approach.

6 Postlude: just encounters between strangers

In this paper I can only hint at some tentative conclusions as regards the interpretation of the data. Basically, my assumptions about what the Maltese would tell the Arabs and what they would tell the Europeans about their Arab heritage were both confirmed and disproved. There are, indeed, instances in which the Maltese mayors are open about their feelings as Arabs in encounters with Arabs. Yet, we also find counter-examples. One mayor denies any affiliation to Arabs in an encounter with an Arab, and another mayor expresses sympathy for the Arabs when talking to a European. Thus, it is too simple to say that the Maltese feel ‘Arab’ with Arabs and ‘European’ with Europeans. Actors’ emotions change within the same interview, at times even within a few sequences. This ambivalence, of course, might still be interpreted as a motive to reject EU membership. The second surprise is that not even the Arab interviewers consider the Maltese always as Arabs, even though they tend to laugh about the Maltese who do not ‘admit’ that the Maltese language is an Arabic dialect. Hence, a major result of my work is that the difference between the collected cross-cultural encounters does not so much lie between Arabs and Europeans, that is along ethnic lines. Apart from the fact that the style in which the participants interact proves to be similar in Maltese-Arab and in Maltese-European communications[27], the participants of all the encounters negotiate various insides and outsides. Since human beings are all hybrid in the sense that they permanently shift categories and boundaries, there are, in fact, only cross-cultural encounters between ‘strangers’ in everyday life (Hahn 2000:80-96). Due to this aspect, I have become dissatisfied with the research design of my work, because it did what I actually wanted to avoid: it reified itself the boundary between Europeans and Arabs, and between Muslims and Christians. This has left me puzzled for some time.

Having a second look at my data, however, I made an interesting observation. In all encounters the participants encounter, and construct, various paradoxes, contradictions, and ambivalences. Yet, instead of trying to circumvent them at all costs they playfully cope with even the most bizarre situations. First, people often ‘lie’. What is socially constructed does not always correspond to the truth. Yet, this doesn’t bother the actors at all. On the contrary, we could not survive in a world in which we always tell us the truth. For instance, in the harbour of Catania G does not like the sun and still confirms M’s idea about this. Secondly, people often laugh about paradoxes and untruths. For instance, a Christian Maltese and a Muslim Arab make fun of the otherwise deadly serious matter of St Paul the Apostle in Malta (Gerber 2000:267). Also G and M laugh in the introductory drama, because M can see that G is German. Perhaps it is because they are dealing with a sensitive issue like identity, and, before a crisis occurs, they are displaying their ‘peace’ faces (V. Turner 1982:11). Laughter, in general, is an extremely powerful device to cope with otherness.

This observation brought me to the conclusion that, instead of comparing Arabs and Europeans, it is more promising to analyse the differences as far as the construction of either identity or hybridity, both understood as social constructs, in written and in oral discourses is concerned. While actors in everyday life are able to handle ambiguity, ambivalence, and hybridity with manifold strategies and tactics (De Certeau 1984), written discourses tend to construct rigid and clear-cut boundaries. Compare, for instance, the utterance “That we are European is now a fact of life” by Joseph M. Pirotta with the following fragment taken from the cross-cultural encounter between Mary Muscat (M), a Maltese teacher, and Abdul Alkilani (L), the Libyan interviewer, on 13 November 1997. L asks one of the questions from the questionnaire.



[reads] ‘Do you think Maltese culture has managed to absorb the various influences from the European and Arab cultures — and has found a balance between the two?’



‘A balance between the two?’ Yes!






ëI think, the Maltese are European, and the Maltese are Arab!







And they are perfectly normal people!







E::h, they have the hospitality and the warmth of the Arab people. The language - is Arabic. - E:hm, — they=e::h - are religious people as well. On the other hand, — e::h, they can be very:::: European, °in their ways::°. And sometimes they are very European indeed!

This brief episode speaks for itself. Hybridity can be seen as a solution in everyday life. If the task of the social sciences is to make sense of a world that is falling apart, and if we should not do it by creating new simplifications, for instance by comparing Arabs and Europeans and thereby reifying the boundary between the two groups, but, on the contrary, by sticking to the remaining pieces (Rabinow & Sullivan 1987:9, Geertz 1996:19), the analysis of interviews as cross-cultural encounters is certainly a tempting option also in other fields.


Antaki, Charles & Widdicombe, Sue (eds.): Identities in Talk, London et al.: Sage 1998

Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso 1983

Asad, Talal: The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology, in James Clifford &
George E. Marcus (eds.): Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Berkeley et al.:
University of California Press 1986:141-164

Barth, Fredrik: Balinese Worlds, Chicago-London: University of Chicago Press 1993

Bauman, Zygmunt: A Sociological Theory of Postmodernity, in Thesis Eleven, No.29, 1991:33-46

Berger, Peter L. & Luckmann, Thomas: The Social Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, New York 1966

Bergmann, Jörg R.: Flüchtigkeit und methodische Fixierung sozialer Wirklichkeit. Aufzeichnungen als Daten der interpretativen Soziologie, in Wolfgang Bonß & Heinz Hartmann (Hrsg.): Entzauberte Wissenschaft. Zur Relativität und Geltung soziologischer Forschung, Soziale Welt, Sonderband 3, Göttingen: Schwartz 1985:299-320

Bestler, Anita (Hrsg.): Malta Reviews. Kommentierte Bibliographie zur Malta-Forschung, Augsburg 1992

Boissevain, Jeremy: Saints and Fireworks. Religion and Politics in Rural Malta, London: The Athlone Press 1965

Boissevain, Jeremy: Ritual, Play, and Identity: Changing Patterns of Celebration in Maltese Villages, in Journal of Mediterranean Studies, Vol.1 (1), 1991:87-100

Brincat, Joseph M.: Malta 870-1054. Al-Himyari’s Account and its Linguistic Implications, Malta 1990

Busby, Cecilia: The Performance of Gender. An Anthropology of Everyday Life in a South Indian Fishing Village, London-New Brunswick, N.J.: The Athlone Press 2000

Cassar, Carmel: Witchcraft, Sorcery, and the Inquisition. A Study of Cultural Values in Early Modern Malta, Malta 1996

Cassar, Carmel: Malta. Language, Literacy and Identity in a Mediterranean Island Society, in National Identities, Vol.3 (3), 2001:257-275

Clifford, James: The Predicament of Culture. Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press 1988

De Certeau, Michel: The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley et al.: University of California Press 1984

Deppermann, Arnulf: Gespräche analysieren. Eine Einführung in konversationsanalytische Methoden, Opladen: Leske + Budrich 1999

Featherstone, Mike: Global Culture. An Introduction, in Theory, Culture & Society, Special Issue: Global Culture, Vol.7 (2-3), 1991:1-14

Featherstone, Mike & Lash, Scott & Robertson, Roland (eds.): Global Modernities, London et al.: Sage 1995

Frendo, Henry: Maltese Colonial Identity: Latin Mediterranean or British Empire?, in Victor Mallia-Milanes (ed.): The British Colonial Experience 1800-1964. The Impact on Maltese Society, Malta 1988:185-214

Gadamer, Hans-Georg: Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, Tübingen: Mohr 1960

Garfinkel, Harold: Studies in Ethnomethodology, Malden: Blackwell 1967

Geertz, Clifford: The Interpretation of Cultures. Selected Essays, New York: Basic Books 1973

Geertz, Clifford: Welt in Stücken. Kultur und Politik am Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts, Wien: Passagen Verlag 1996

Gerber, Gerold: Doing Christianity and Europe. An Inquiry into Memory, Boundary, and Truth Practices in Malta, in Bo Stråth (ed.): Europe and the Other and Europe as the Other, Brussels et al.: Peter Lang 2000:229-277

Giesen, Bernhard: Die Entdinglichung des Sozialen. Eine evolutionstheoretische Perspektive auf die Postmoderne, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1991

Giesen, Bernhard: Die Intellektuellen und die Nation. Eine deutsche Achsenzeit, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1993

Giesen, Bernhard: Kollektive Identität. Die Intellektuellen und die Nation 2, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1999

Glaser, Barney G. & Strauss, Anselm L.: The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for Qualitative Research, Chicago: Aldine 1967

Goffman, Erving: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Doubleday Anchor 1959

Gupta, Akhil & Ferguson, James (eds.): Anthropological Locations. Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, Berkeley et al.: University of California Press 1997

Hahn, Alois: Konstruktionen des Selbst, der Welt und der Geschichte, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 2000

Haller, Dieter: Gelebte Grenze Gibraltar. Transnationalismus, Lokalität und Identität in kulturanthropologischer Perspektive, Wiesbaden: Deutscher Universitäts-Verlag 2000

Katzner, Kenneth: The Languages of the World, London-New York: Routledge 1995

King, Anthony D. (ed.): Culture, Globalization and the World-System. Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, Houndmills-London: Macmillan 1991

Kontzi, Reinhold: The Maltese and the Arabic Dialects. An Approach from Linguistic Geography, in Journal of Maltese Studies, No.16, Malta 1986

Krämer, Sybille: Sprache, Sprechakt, Kommunikation. Sprachtheoretische Positionen des 20. Jahrhunderts, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 2001

Luttrell, Anthony T.: Approaches to Medieval Malta, London: The British School at Rome 1975

Mattes, Hanspeter: Aspekte der libyschen Außeninvestitionspolitik 1972-1985 (Fallbeispiel Malta), Mitteilungen des Deutschen Orient-Instituts, No.26, Hamburg 1985

Matthes, Joachim (Hrsg.): Zwischen den Kulturen? Die Sozialwissenschaften vor dem Problem des Kulturvergleichs, Soziale Welt, Sonderband 8, Göttingen: Schwartz 1992

Mitchell, Jon P.: Presenting the Past. Cultural Tour-Guides and the Sustaining of European Identity in Malta, in Lino Briguglio et al. (eds.): Sustainable Tourism in Islands and Small States. Case Studies, London: Pinter 1996

Mitchell, Jon P.: An Island In Between: Malta, Identity, and Anthropology, in South European Society & Politics, Vol.3 (1), 1998:142-149

Moerman, Michael: Accomplishing Ethnicity, in Roy Turner (ed.): Ethnomethodology. Selected Readings, Harmondsworth et al.: Penguin 1974:54-68

O’Reilly-Mizzi, Sibyl: Women in Senglea. The Changing Role of Urban, Working-Class Women in Malta, New York 1981

Pirotta, Godfrey A.: Maltese Political Parties and Political Modernization, in Ronald G. Sultana & Godfrey Baldacchino (eds.): Maltese Society. A Sociological Inquiry, Malta: Mireva 1994:95-112

Rabinow, Paul & Sullivan, William M.: The Interpretive Turn. A Second Look, Berkeley et al.: University of California Press 1987

Reimann, Horst: “Malta wies niemals Korn zurück”. Konstellationsanalyse der postkolonialen Phase der maltesischen Inselgruppe. Aus der Feldarbeit 1977-1979, in H. v. Alemann & H.P. Thurn (Hrsg.): Soziologie in weltbürgerlicher Absicht. Festschrift für René König zum 75. Geburtstag, Opladen 1981:200-216

Reimann, Horst (Hrsg.): Research on Malta. A German Perspective, Augsburg 1991

Reimann, Horst et al.: Malta-Projekt. Entscheidungsprozesse in Entwicklungsregionen. Abschlußbericht in 7 Bänden, Augsburg 1980

Sacks, Harvey & Schegloff, Emanuel A. & Jefferson, Gail: A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-taking for Conversation, in Language, Vol.50 (4), 1974:696-735

Sant Cassia, Paul: History, Anthropology, and Folklore in Malta, in Journal of Mediterranean Studies, Vol.3 (2), 1993:291-315

Schegloff, Emanuel A.: Confirming Allusions. Toward an Empirical Account of Action, in American Journal of Sociology, Vol.102 (1), 1996:161-216

Schneider, Wolfgang L.: Die Beobachtung von Kommunikation. Zur kommunikativen Konstruktion sozialen Handelns, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag 1994

Schütz, Alfred & Luckmann, Thomas: Strukturen der Lebenswelt, zwei Bände, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1979 und 1984

Seiffert, Helmut: Einführung in die Wissenschaftstheorie 1, München: Beck 1996

Seppelfricke, Agnes: Paulus war nie auf Malta, in Die Zeit, 23. Dezember 1988:33-34

Soeffner, Hans-Georg: Auslegung des Alltags - Der Alltag der Auslegung. Zur wissenssoziologischen Konzeption einer sozialwissenschaftlichen Hermeneutik, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1989

Stewart, Charles & Shaw, Rosalind (eds.): Syncretism / Anti-Syncretism. The Politics of Religious Synthesis, London-New York: Routledge 1994

Sultana, Ronald G. & Baldacchino, Godfrey (eds.): Maltese Society. A Sociological Inquiry, Malta: Mireva 1994

Tedlock, Dennis & Tyler, Stephen: Questions Concerning Dialogical Anthropology, in Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol.43 (3), 1987:325-344

Toulmin, Stephen: Cosmopolis. The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, New York: Free Press 1990

Turner, Victor: Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage, in The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1967

Turner, Victor: From Ritual to Theatre. The Human Seriousness of Play, New York: PAJ Publications 1982

Vansina, Jan: Oral Tradition as History, London: James Currey 1985

Vella Gauci, Joe: Christian-Muslim Relations as a Topos in Maltese Historiography, Literature, and Culture, Birmingham 1996

Wagner, Peter: Fest-Stellungen. Beobachtungen zur sozialwissenschaftlichen Diskussion über Identität, in Aleida Assmann & Heidrun Friese (Hrsg.): Identitäten. Erinnerung, Geschichte, Identität 3, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1998:44-72

Wettinger, Godfrey: The Arabs in Malta. Studies of its Heritage and History, Malta 1986:87-104

Wulf, Christoph et al.: Das Soziale als Ritual. Zur performativen Bildung von Gemeinschaften, Opladen: Leske + Budrich 2001

Zammit, Edward L.: Workers’ Participation in the Management of Malta Drydocks, Malta 1982


1 Let me express my gratitude to Sabine Appt, Shelley Berlowitz, and Andrew Grimm for reading versions of this paper. In addition, I thank all my colleagues and collaborators from Malta, Europe, and the Arab world who have been, more or less voluntarily, involved in this experiment which is supposed to become my PhD.

2 While conversation analysts point out that a sequence of two turns is required to construct social reality, against speech act theorists like John L. Austin and John R. Searle (cf. Sacks & Schegloff & Jefferson 1974), Schneider (1994:176) and Deppermann (1999:73) argue that even three turns are needed.

3 Or, as Bauman (1991:35) suggests, “randomly emerging, shifting and evanescent islands of order”; cf. also Wagner (1998:67).

4 Cf. the various turns in the social sciences: the linguistic turn and the pragmatic turn in the study of language (Wittgenstein, Rorty; cf. Krämer 2001), the interpretive turn, the postmodern turn, the cultural turn, and most recently the performative turn. Seiffert (1996:13) observes, in science in general, a movement away from formal logic, induction, deduction and “eine immer stärkere Hinwendung zur ‘Praxis’ […], der linguistischen ‘Pragmatik’, der Handlungstheorie, der Ethik”. So far, of course, written documents still enjoy a privileged position vis-à-vis oral data in ethnographies and historiographies.

5 The other party is the Nationalist Party. The Three Cities are, together with parts of Valletta, the poorest part of the Maltese islands. Apart from a small number of museums, the area is hardly equipped for tourism. There are no hotels and only a few bars and restaurants that are open to tourists. On problems like prostitution, drug abuse, and the widespread illiteracy among the population cf. Sultana & Baldacchino (1994).

6 Dom Mintoff (*1916) was the leader of the Malta Labour Party from 1949 to 1984, Prime Minister from 1955 to 1958 and from 1971 to 1984, and has, in all the elections for the Maltese parliament from 1947 to 1996, that is over a period of almost 50 years, received the highest number of votes. He has also received the most international attention of all Maltese politicians, especially during the seventies. “Malta is Mintoff, Mintoff is Malta” was a common slogan. Known as “Il-Perit”, i.e. “the architect”, sometimes called “Saviour of Crippled Malta”, he accused the European colonisers, the Knights and the British, of having enslaved the Maltese people. This, by the way, may explain why Mintoff rarely receives researchers from Europe or America at all.

7 There are striking parallels between Malta and Libya. Mintoff was the undisputed Maltese leader, a kind of ‘Maltese Qadhafi’, who did not appreciate disapproval of his ideas. Both countries fought against established structures (mainly the British). On more links between the two countries cf. Mattes (1985:88-126; 142-161): Libya repeatedly offered a union with Malta; a Libyan Cultural Institute (1974), the Libyan Arab Maltese Holding Company Ltd (1975), and an Islamic Centre with a mosque (1978) were set up; Qadhafi became honorary member of the Xirka (1976); the Malta-Libya Friendship and Cooperation Treaty was signed (1984); Arabic became compulsory in secondary schools. Yet, Maltese-Libyan relations were, and still are, ambivalent. Many Maltese despise the Libyans (Vella Gauci 1996).

8 Several British and German consultants have come to Malta Drydocks over the past decades and have systematically failed to account for the Maltese culture. This made me appreciate anthropology in my work.

9 On the Maltese language, which has a number of Romance and English words and a Latin orthography since 1931, cf., for instance, Kontzi (1986) and Katzner (1995).

10 Apart from the fact that in Malta “the key area of identity remains to be fully investigated” (Mitchell 1998:142), authors like Frendo (1988), Sant Cassia (1993), or Cassar (2001) completely neglect the Arab dimension. There are a few exceptions, like Vella Gauci (1996) or, earlier, Reimann (1981:213). On other research on Malta cf., for instance, Boissevain (1965) and O’Reilly-Mizzi (1981) for the Anglo-American countries and Reimann et al. (1980), Reimann (1991), and Bestler (1992) for Germany.

11 Between 1996 and 1998 Malta Labour Party was again in power. The application for EU membership was frozen. After the Nationalist Party regained power in early elections in 1998 it was reactivated again.

12 I focused on newspaper articles, as I could not find any scientific treatment of the Drydocks/Mintoff saga.

13 The last British soldiers under the NATO mandate left Malta on 31 March 1979 (“Freedom Day”).

14 In addition, the Cold War was officially ended in Malta in 1989, the Pope visited Malta for the first time in 1990, and tourism was, and still is, used to underline that Europe would not be complete without Malta as the cradle of its civilisation (cf. Mitchell 1996).

15 The background is that the reconsideration of concepts like ‘culture’, ‘society’, and ‘identity’ is not yet sufficiently reflected in methodology, as was pointed out by Fredrik Barth in a lecture in Florence in 1996.

16 Even though this kind of research has started, e.g. by Cassar (1996), a student of Peter Burke in Cambridge.

17 We often distinguish between data collection and the interpretation of data. In my case, however, the kind of data I collected, and the way I did it, should itself be seen as a result of my work (Glaser & Strauss 1967).

18 Such encounters could also be compared with written data to find out whether there are differences between official and unofficial discourses.

19 This is an alternative understanding of ‘dialogical ethnography’ (Asad 1986, Tedlock & Tyler 1987).

20 Interestingly enough, the Arab interviewers tended to avoid encounters with officials. They suggested to do the interviews with their “friends”, something I did not want because I was mostly interested in encounters between strangers. The interviewers from Europe, on the other hand, preferred to meet officials.

21 Local councils were introduced in Malta shortly before 1996.

22 In addition, I planned to collect various encounters between Maltese mayors and a Maltese interviewer, i.e. encounters among ‘insiders’.

23 The interviewer from Malta was Peter Buhagiar from Floriana (*1972). Note that all the names were changed for the reason of anonymity.

24 In the case of Paul Pace from the Nationalist Party I did not succeed in having him interviewed by an Arab in 1997. Instead, I use an encounter that took place between a Maltese English teacher and a Libyan. Some of the encounters are completely on record, others are fragmented. It is particularly relevant to focus on the opening sequences, since these are highly relevant for the analysis of the negotiation of frames, roles, and identities.

25 Whether these quasi-official encounters can be considered as everyday life depends on what we understand by ‘everyday life’. If we understand it as the ordinary life of men in the street, they cannot. If we understand it as praxis, as social reality as accomplishment, as life happening here and now, we can (Goffman 1959, Berger & Luckmann 1966, Garfinkel 1967, Schütz & Luckmann 1979 and 1984).

26 I had to be careful, of course, to whom I talked about the project. Considering Malta as a closely-knit community in which rumours and gossip spread like wildfire, there was a constant risk that information about the project would reach the mayors, which would have rendered the experiment impossible.

27 We have to analyse two levels, verbal communication, i.e. what actors say, and non-verbal communication, i.e. body language, gestures, prosody, what Umberto Eco calls ‘popular semiosis’, i.e. how they say it.