Travel Gui de to
Musl i m Europe
With travel writer and European Muslim heritage specialist Tharik Hussain
Europe’s only Arabic lang “Kayf int?” enquired the middle-aged Maltese woman as she greeted her friend. “There, did you hear it that time?” I ask in a hushed tone. My 7-year-old daughter looks up at me, her little eyes squinting behind a rather fetching pair of pink ‘Hello Kitty’ sunglasses. There is a puzzled look on her face she isn’t convinced. “Ok”, I say spotting a fruit and veg stall. “Ask that shopkeeper for three apples. …But ask for it using Arabic numbers.” “What?” Amani is even more confused now. “Trust me,” I say grabbing her tiny little hand and wandering over to the man sitting beside a series of large wicker baskets. The elderly man is wearing a grey flat cap to shade him from the sun and when he greets us, it is with a fantastically toothless grin. I watch as my little anthropologist, dressed in a sunny, lime-coloured dress, points to the pile of green apples in one of the baskets and shyly says, “thalatha, please”. There is a pause and the old man blinks. Is it the bright sunlight, or astonishment? He then repeats the number in his native language, holding up three fingers to confirm. “Tlieta?” Amani nods. “Aiwa” she whispers. The man smiles warmly, recognising the familiar phrase - almost phonetically
identical to the local ‘iva’ for ‘yes’. He hands my delighted daughter three of the shiniest apples he has and I pay him. “He understood!" Exclaims Amani in an excited half-whisper as we head back to mum and her sister Anaiya. “How did he know Arabic?” We are near Triq Villegaignon in the beautiful town of Mdina in central
Malta. ‘Triq’ is the prefix used for almost every Maltese street name - it comes from the Arabic ‘tariq’ to mean ‘way’ and of course ‘Mdina’ is the Arabic word for ‘city’. Around the corner is Triq Mesquita leading up to Misra Mesquita, where once upon a time there must have stood a mosque. Malta is home to one of Europe’s most fascinating remnants of Muslim heritage. However, unlike previous examples in the Travel Guide to Muslim Europe, this isn’t heritage you visit or see - unless you count street signs.
Malta’s Muslim heritage is something you hear on the tongue of its people. The tiny, Catholic Island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea has two official languages, and one of them, Maltese, is the only ‘Arabic’ language of the European Union, and the only one in the world written in the Latin script. This is why maps of Malta reveal names that will be highly familiar to Arab speakers like ‘Rabat’ and ‘Sliem’ and the coastal ‘Bahar ic-Caghaq’. Maltese comes from an ancient European Arabic known as SiculoArabic, or Sicilian-Arabic. Now extinct, Siculo-Arabic was a type of Arabic that developed on the Italian island of Sicily after it was conquered by the Fatimids in the ninth century. It continued to be used when the Normans arrived in
Published on Dec 30, 2017