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Selha fis-sejjiegh

“Marija, mur hemm dik
is-selha ghamilha!”

In English terminology, when a dry-stone wall crumbles or collapses, heritage wardens and farmers are prompt to repair what they term 'gaps'.

Marija Said ma' Steve Borg

Marija's family photographs

il-bieb ta' taht it-Torri
Tower basement
(used as a bomb-shelter)

Karmenu Said -- RMA
Maria's brother
Hondoq ir-Rummien
chapel on Gozo

Hondoq ir-Rummien
view from Gozo

Fuming Mount Etna
in Nov 2002
its plume overhead

Important Note is privileged to have met Marija Said, one of the four remaining residents on Comino. This interview was primarily conducted for your benefit, in order to bring you, through the following oral testimony, a first hand account of life on this island. Marija was kind enough to allow us to reproduce treasured family photographs and to share with us her memories of a lifestyle that shall come to an end with the residents’ demise. Her kind acceptance to give us some of her time should not in any way be interpreted as a willingness on her part to meet visitors on the island.

We urge you to respect her right of privacy and not to trespass or linger around her residence. All verbal communication was conducted in Maltese. What follows is a loose English translation.

Marija’s abode is in a wing of the Edwardian hospital, in Congreve Street. Today the street is all but deserted. There are no recovering soldiers from the Dardanelles in the hospital, nor any military personnel in the Comino Tower. The wind blowing up from Ras l-Irqieqa is a silent partner. We tap lightly on the slightly ajar door, eager to find refuge from the wind and persisting rain. She is expecting us.

Marija's home Marija: “I am definitely a Cominan, even though my parents were both from Malta. My father Guzeppi was a Rabat-man, my mother Vangiela was from Mosta. They came here to work on the land hired to Mr. Zammit Cutajar. We are talking about the twenties, well before the war. Comino was very agricultural then. Would you believe that there were 90 modd of land [appx. 162 hectares] under cultivation?   Of course you won’t, because most of it is gone now, and the fields have been run over by wild thyme and other garigue vegetation. Amongst the crops we grew there were onions, potatoes and watermelons. We even grew barley and wheat. All the land from here going downwards until you reach the tamarisk trees at Santa Maria bay were always tended by farmers.

SB: “Marija, you mention all these crops. Now, we know that, other than il-Wied l-Ahmar, there aren’t really any water catchments areas. You had no windmills or water pumps. Considering that the reservoir was meant for the military, what were your water sources?”

Marija: “We had pumps that brought up water from bore-holes. We also had livestock and steed to help plow the land. The cows or the horses plowing furrow after furrow until the small motors came. And then there was no more need for the horses. My father Guzeppi was so finicky about maintaining the farmstead as best as he could, that he wouldn’t tolerate any lack of attention. You may think this is a laid back place, but didn’t we work hard!? Even Mr. Zammit Cutajar was ever so attentive. After rainstorms, my father would inspect our hold to assess the damage. On noticing that some stones had come loose and crumbled from the dry stone walls, il-hitan tas-sejjiegh, you would hear him tell me:

“Marija, mur hemm dik is-selha ghamilha!”

“And off I would go, repairing the dry stone walls. My brother Salvu was an expert hand at repairing these walls. He would not leave one stone out of place. Yes, not even one stone. Look at the walls of Comino today; they are crumbling, not because of the elements, but rather through the unthoughtfulness of some day-trippers who pull them down. Some come here thinking that this place is abandoned.”

Oqsma tar-raba f'Wied Ernu

The ringing telephone transposes us back to the modern world. She is talking to Mr. Zammit Cutajar’s son calling from Malta. He is perturbed if the thunderstorm is preoccupying her. “Well no”, she replies. “How can we have crops without water?”

She still maintains some vegetable patches here and there, growing enough for home use. No pesticides are used, so they must be organically grown. She moves into the kitchen, slowly stirs the minestrone being stewed on the hob plate and returns.

Marija: “We even have some olive trees at Il-Hazina. We salt the olives ... to make them edible.”

SB: “Do you recall if anyone every pressed olives for oil on Comino?”

Marija: “No, no one did. What I do remember is the grinding of wheat. There were no millers on this island so Mr. Zammit Cutajar brought us a machine to grind the ears of wheat. Everyone baked his own loaves. We baked various kinds of loaves. But they weighed two rotolos [approx. 1.6 kilograms]. Every baking lasted us eight days. The marvelous thing is that the bread didn’t go stale. No sir, it remained ever so fresh and appetizing.”

SB: “What was the war like, living here on Comino, while Malta was being so badly mauled by the enemy?”

Marija: “The war affected us as well. When the Germans or Italians would be approaching to bomb the islands, we would obviously be informed by a telephone call from Gozo to take shelter. In the beginning we used to take shelter in the basement of the Comino Tower, but later on we had a shelter dug next to my home, just outside by the black mulberry tree. It is blocked now.”

SB: “Yesterday after mass you told me that your brother Karmenu enlisted as a soldier with the army. Was he with the Royal Malta Artillery or the Kings’ Own Malta Regiment?”

Marija: “I don’t know. All I know was that he was stationed at a place called Hompesch Battery and that he came here on his rest days. He was the only soldier from Comino fighting in the war. Here, look at his photo. I know he was on the guns, firing on the enemy. Let me tell you this. He used to come to Comino on his off days. One day he took back with him a sack full of loaves we had baked. Remember that Malta was starving at the time.”

SB: “Marija, Hompesch Battery was in Zabbar, in southern Malta. He must have been with the RMA.”

Marija: “After the war he married a Maltese girl and emigrated to Britain. Karmenu was always thinking about Comino. And you know what, six years ago he came here for a fortnight’s rest. By then he was 73 years old. After a few days he felt very poorly and passed away. Right here, in the same bed where he was born. He was then buried on Gozo. As you know, there are no more burials being made on Comino.”

SB: “You hear mass here at the Santa Maria chapel. Obviously you do not need to hear the bells toll. But did you hear the bells of the Hondoq ir-Rummien chapel [in Gozo]?”

Marija: “Yes, we did. In those days there was no noise on the island. Not that there is today. On Sunday mornings we would hear the bells before mass is celebrated. The community would then set on foot to Tal-Hmara, the nearest point to Gozo and stay perched there on the rocks. We would then hear the mass being celebrated across the water, on the other island. How did we follow what was going on? They devised a flag code and through that we would know how the mass was progressing. Since we couldn’t receive the Holy Communion, we were blessed.”

Hondoq chapel across from tal-Hmara

I had read in Sara Wheeler’s fascinating book, An island apart: travels in Evia, that in Greece, when priests do not turn up in remote localities, the faithful chant the tipikon, the liturgy without the sacerdotal elements. This must have been the closest example to the situation.

SB: “You had some foreigner s living here in the sixties. What do you recall of them?”

Marija: “We had some Sicilians who came here, in order to work the land for Mr. Zammit Cutajar. I remember Salvatore Magniafico, Guzeppe Implatni and Felice Capitta. They came here with their wives. Magniafico introduced a new way of how to cultivate tomatoes, by crossing canes and growing the tomato plant as a climber.”

I had heard this story somewhere else. Initially, Gozitan and Maltese farmers laughed away his growing technique, comparing his cane sticks to Native American wigwams. But then the sneers stopped once they saw the plants producing abundant bunches of tomatoes. And they then began applying the technique themselves.

When looking to the East from her doorstep our host has a commanding view that encapsulates Santa Maria bay and eastern Gozo. Other than on the hotel jetty and the Comino Tower floodlighting system, there are barely any streetlights on the island, thereby checking excessive light pollution. I wonder, how far out can she see?

Marija: “When in winter there are the northerly or westerly winds blowing, I can see the island of Sicily. When I was a child, I could easily see their coastline and Etna during daytime. Now the atmosphere isn’t as clean, and instead I can see the lights of the cars on the Sicilian shores at night. When the volcano was smoking a few days ago I could easily see it from here.” She walks out to the doorstep and points out towards the direction of Mount Etna.

SB: “Marija, Comino has remained to be your home, your rock. But what has become of your relatives?”

Marija: “They’re gone. Most of them emigrated, some to Australia and Britain, others to Gozo and Malta. ”

As we walked out I could feel the spiritual dimension in which Marija lives. The more modernized people tend to be, the more detracted they become from the spiritual world. In my interviewing exploits I have met scores of people. In Marija I had just witnessed the morals of a countrywoman who has retained her original purity.

Steve Borg

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