Walter Zahra, 1912-2003
by Sergio Grech
published by Wirt iż-Żejtun, 2022
The treasures of Malta’s cities, towns and villages often remain unknown to non-residents. In recent years, organizations such as Wirt iż-Żejtun raise awareness of this “hidden” heritage and present it to a wider audience.
Fortunately, Wirt iż-Żejtun believes that such a heritage is not just limited to aesthetic experience; there are several remarkable lives that deserve to be remembered and celebrated. In recent years he has published several publications recalling the achievements of the architect and military engineer Michele Cachia and the composer Carlo Diacono, among others.
This year, the same organization launched a book by historian Sergio Grech on the life of trade unionist, activist and author Walter Zahra (1912-2003).
Zahra – the father of author Trevor Zahra – lived a remarkable life which coincides with the period when the idea of the Maltese nation was cemented and developed. In this, as Grech amply demonstrates, Zahra was no mere spectator.
Born in December 1912, Walter Zahra showed academic promise from an early age. Some of his high school colleagues will make a name for themselves. Among them were Justice Wallace Gulia and Bishop Emanuel Gerada.
There were some shortcomings in high school. Studying at the height of the “language question” was not easy: Maltese was not taught, so Zahra had to learn Maltese herself.
Likewise, history was a controversial subject – the curriculum veered between British history and Roman history at the expense of Maltese history.
In his day, Zahra was active in the Catholic Social Guild. This whetted his appetite for learning in different fields, including ethics, sociology, and public administration. It also imbued in him an appreciation and love for Catholic social teaching, which ultimately inspired his Catholic-inspired sociology.
His employment in the British services in Malta led to his transfer to Alexandria in Egypt in May 1940. He remained there until 1944.
While in Egypt, Zahra actively participated in the activities of the then large Maltese community. He was secretary of Il-Qawmien Malta – a movement created to promote Maltese culture and publish books in Maltese. He was a representative of the Alexandria base Xirka għat-Tixrid tal-Qari Maltiwhich had the motto:F’Ilsien artna l-għaqda tal-Maltin, Is-saħħa u l-qawwa ta’ nazzjon żagħżugħa(In our mother tongue lies the unity of the Maltese, the strength of a young nation).
This organization combined the promotion of Maltese literature with the encouragement of a national conscience. He was also editor for Il-Qari tal-Malti (based in Port Said) and a correspondent for Il-Ħabbar Malta (based in Cairo).
Zahra is currently not commemorated in her hometown
Upon his return to Malta, Zahra became active in political and trade union circles. He was a close friend of Sir Paul Boffa, whom he had known and admired for some time because of his support for the Maltese language. Zahra was initially also an active member of the General Workers’ Union.
However, he cut off contact with this union when he got involved in non-industrial matters. This did not, however, prevent Zahra from being an active trade unionist, founding unions for artists, fishermen and quarries, among others.
When the Labor Party split in 1949, Zahra followed Boffa rather than Mintoff. He was on the executive of the New Malta Workers’ Party and edited the party’s newspaper Leħen il-Ħaddiem between 1950 and 1951. He also contested the 1950 election, although he only managed to garner 128 votes.
Grech’s book offers some interesting insights into the character of Sir Paul Boffa. As a close associate, Zahra was able to provide some insightful observations. First, Zahra believed the war had helped Boffa mature to the point that his first government had a more Christian-Democratic tone. Second, Zahra thought Boffa was not an extremist.
The encyclical Rerum Novarum deeply inspired him. Unlike other socialists, his concern was not with waging class wars against private property and enterprise, but with ensuring that wealth was properly distributed.
In 1950, there were attempts to reconcile the two parties. In 1951, there was a tacit agreement that the two sides were not to attack each other. However, despite mediation from various quarters, the merger failed.
His second active period in politics was in the 1960s, at the height of the crisis between the Church and the Labor Party. Zahra was an active member of the Christian Workers’ Party led by Toni Pellegrini. Again, Zahra was a member of the executive and editor of the party newspaper Ca-Tarka. The editorial line was fiercely anti-communist and opposed to Mintoff and Borg Olivier, while being sympathetic to Archbishop Gonzi.
Despite her foray into politics, Zahra’s love for the written word and the Maltese language has never left her. Neither does his passion for his hometown. He was active in heritage circles. He wrote several books about Żejtun, including one about the parish church of St. Catherine, the old parish church of St. Gregory, and a volume about the history of Żejtun until 1798.
He has translated several books into Maltese and has been involved in publishing projects with the Klabb Qari Nisrani. Several of his manuscripts unfortunately remain unpublished. He also maintained a healthy correspondence with various authors, including the national poet Dun Karm Psaila.
He also ensured that many of his fellow citizens were adequately commemorated. Paradoxically, Zahra is currently not commemorated in her hometown. Nevertheless, Grech’s Book helps ensure that this is rectified. His book ensures that this prolific writer and citizen inspired by Catholic social teaching will not be forgotten.
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