21 March 2010

Manwel Dimech, Valletta, Malta

Manwel Dimech (1860-1921) is something of a hero in Malta, which by first appearances might seem a little strange for a person who, at a young age, was imprisoned for theft on eight occasions, and then, at the age of 17, sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for murder. But then, most things about Dimech's life are exceptional.

Dimech was born on 25 December 1860 in a slum dwelling in Triq San Ġwann, Valletta, where his family lived in one room, and the small building housed 60 people. The family moved house a few times before his father died at 37, leaving his mother to cope with a family of 10 children. Just two weeks after his father's death, in 1874 and at the age of 13, Dimech was imprisoned for his first theft. This established a pattern - petty theft and brief imprisonment - that would continue until his murder trial in 1878. Dimech left prison in 1890, only to return a few months later for counterfeiting money. Eventually, in July 1897, he was released at the age of 36, after spending 20 years in imprisonment.

Dimech had been illiterate before going to prison, but while there he educated himself and read promiscuously, teaching himself Maltese, English, French and Italian. At the beginning of 1898 he started his own language school, and published a weekly newspaper - Il-Bandiera tal-Maltin (The Flag of the Maltese) - as a voice for the oppressed, in which he criticized, among many other things, the abuse of prisoners, the strength of the Catholic Church, the oppression of the working classes, and campaigned for free education for all. He also wrote two books on language learning.

In 1904 he wrote a revolutionary novel, Ivan u Prascovia, about two Russian lovers under the Tzarist regime, although part of it was lost and it was published unfinished.

In 1911 he founded the philanthropic association Xirca tal-Imdawwlin (The Society of the Enlightened) - renamed Xirka Maltija - whose aim was to encourage support for his ideas on social reform. For a number of reasons - advocating the emancipation of women and criticizing the clergy among them - Dimech was excommunicated in the same year, and in 1914 the (British colonial) Maltese government arrested and exiled him for life for 'agitating the Dockyard workers against the government because he had anticlerical and socialist principles'. He left behind his wife and three children in Malta, and died a prisoner in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1921.

As a writer, he is probably remembered more for his journalism, although he also wrote two novels and some poetry. Unfortunately, nothing has been translated into English.

A statue of Manwel Dimech now stands prominently in Valletta in front of the Kastilja. Several streets and a bridge have also been named after him.

Dimech's statue stands prominently among trees in front of the Kastilja in Valletta.

Dimech's birthplace, 128 Triq San Gwann, Valletta.

And a broader view of the house and general environment, with Grand harbour in the background.

Dr. Mark Montebello, a Dominican friar, is Dimech's biographer, and also wrote a much more comprehensive book called, simply, Dimech. He has done a large amount of work regarding the interests of prisoners on Malta.

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