Everyone who lived or worked in the vicinity of Ħamrun, Malta, around the time of the Second World War feared and avoided the man nicknamed “Iszus”, including the local police. Most people were terrified of him. Many people detested him. Some secretly fêted him. But all knew of his infamy.
Ħamrun at that time was a poor, tough, working class town. It lies about three kilometres further along the conurbation that spreads south-west along the main road from the capital city, Valletta, through the historic town of Floriana and past the area known as Blata L-Bajda (white rock). The locality mainly consists of small flats and maisonettes housed in narrow, two or three storey buildings of very similar appearance that are attached to each other, side-by-side. The whole area known as Ħamrun is around one square kilometre in area and around the time of the Second World War the municipality boasted 1 large parish church along with 2 smaller chapels, 2 band clubs, a police station located at the piazza and a bustling High Street lined with shops, bars and cafes.
The people of Ħamrun have an interesting traditional nickname.
Nicknames are popular and ubiquitous in Malta, probably because of the severely limited number of surnames and Christian names in circulation in the past (as recently as 2014, the most popular 100 surnames accounted for 75% of the population). Nicknames are assigned not only to individuals and families, but also to the populations of entire suburbs, villages and towns. Possibly stemming from the fact that many men from Ħamrun worked as stevedores on the nearby docks and carried a knife to work, or perhaps in reference to the community of Sicilians who settled there illegally in the 16th century, the people of Ħamrun are nicknamed Tas-Sikkina (literal meaning: “of the knife”) or Ta’ Werwer (literal meaning “of those who frighten”).
Perhaps the all-time scariest of them all was a large man in his forties with slightly greying hair known as Iszus, nicknamed after the all-powerful Greek god of thunder, king of all the gods.
Iszus was a huge and powerfully built man who towered over his compatriots. Well over six feet tall, muscular and barrel-chested, he resembled the archetypal 19th century circus strongman. Iszus walked with the slow, open gait of a dominant alpha-male. He always wore a traditional cloth cap and did not wear a normal collared shirt but instead, preferred a flannelette, sleeveless and button-less shirt that accentuated his powerful arms. It was said that there was no normal shirt that would fit him properly.
Iszus always had plenty of money even though he never seemed to have a job. He wore heavy gold chains around his neck as he roamed the streets of Ħamrun during the day and night, terrorising residents as well as local businesses. He would often stroll into a café or bar, order a meal or drinks and after having his fill, leave without paying. If any business owner dared to confront him about payment he would stare him down in a threatening way and order the foolhardy proprietor to put it on his tab- a tab that would never be paid. Iszus would do the same type of thing at family run grocery stores, fruit and vegetable barrows, the local barber and even lottery booths. Sometimes, he would stop people in the street and demand cash from them. There were also times when he visited the homes of people he knew and demanded a loan of money that would most likely never be repaid. People were too afraid to challenge him or report him to the police for fear of vicious retribution. Many had heard how violent he became when angered and about the brutal fights he had been involved in with other hooligans and bullies.
The most famous fight involving Iszus was with a dark skinned, North African man from Valletta who was known as Paulo il-Tork (Paul the Turk. In the Maltese vernacular “tork” signifies of dark skinned Arab origin rather than Turkish).
Paulo came to Ħamrun regularly, stirring up trouble and getting into fights. There had always been a strong, traditional dislike between the men of Valletta and Ħamrun due to the visceral rivalry between their respective football teams.
Iszus and Paulo encountered each other on the streets of Ħamrun one day and the inevitable happened. Both men finished up in hospital with significant injuries after a long and vicious marathon of a fistfight that lasted until both men were exhausted, bleeding profusely and held down by policemen.
The hapless Paulo was later involved in another incident in Ħamrun the day after the feast, one August. After an altercation with members of a gang of thugs known to all as “il-Halliga” (from the suburb of Halliga) and that included the brother of Iszus, Paulo il-Tork was chased down the streets of the neighbourhood until he slipped and fell, smashing his head against the pavement and dying of a fractured skull. Or so the story was told.
The only respite enjoyed by the local community from the appalling behaviour of Iszus was during regular but brief periods of his incarceration. Unavoidably, he would fall foul of the local constabulary who would periodically lock him up for short stretches, much to the relief of the community. Once released however, Iszus would continue with the intimidation and standover tactics that made him infamous far and wide. Each time he was arrested, it would take three or four burly and brave policemen to overpower him in order to apprehend him. This presented a deterrent to the police who, just like everyone else, were daunted by his strength and violent nature.
The hesitation of the police with regard to Iszus subsequently resulted in relative impunity for the self-confident thug. Iszus seemed to get away with a lot more than others in the community as the police tended to turn a “blind eye” to his bad behaviour in order to avoid him. The reluctance of the police to engage Iszus only served to embolden him further, much to the chagrin of the locals.
A young boy from Marsa named Harry was walking along the High Street in Ħamrun one sunny morning in June when he spotted Iszus on the other side of the street walking in the opposite direction. Iszus stopped and began to harass a karozzin driver who was standing beside his horse and carriage, waiting for fares. The driver was backing away and obviously intimidated by the grinning bully who was enjoying throwing his weight around.
Like all bullies, Iszus could easily sense fear in others and delighted in the anxiety he caused his victims. It gave him the feeling of power and control that he found so gratifyingly intoxicating. Iszus also knew that demonstrations of his cruelty along with displays of fear towards him in public enhanced his reputation and power.
Laughing out aloud, Iszus stepped up to the small horse and planted his feet firmly apart immediately in front of it. He then bent his knees, assumed a slightly crouched position similar to that of a boxer and with all of his strength and body weight behind him, swung an almighty punch into the chest of the unfortunate animal. The sickening slap-thud made by the heavy contact of the man’s bare fist against the smooth, dense flesh of the horse could be heard over the street noise by Harry from the other side of the road. The solid punch felled the ill-fated horse on the spot. It dropped to the ground in a heap as though it had been shot. Iszus walked away with a self-satisfied and confident swagger.
The horse could not be revived. It had suffered a heart attack from the physical shock of the blow to the chest and was dead.
Iszus regularly used the stage that was the annual feast in Ħamrun, that of San Gejtanu on the first Sunday after August 7th, as an opportunity to demonstrate his power and influence.
Following the traditional festive preliminaries, including noisy petards, fireworks and marches by the two local brass bands that occurred over the week before, the culminating procession would take place on the Sunday evening. Men of sound financial means who had successfully bid for the honour carried the statue of San Gejtanu kneeling at the feet of the Madonna and Child, on a platform supported by timber beams across their shoulders. They conveyed the platform supporting the statue in a procession from the parish church, through the neighbourhood streets and back again. The climax of the procession was when the statue bearers took a short run-up, quickly strode up the substantial flight of steps at the entrance to the church and returned the statue, inside. Just about the entire population of Ħamrun would take part in the final procession by marching behind the statue or would be out on the streets as cheering spectators.
Each year towards the end of the pageant, Iszus stepped out into the middle of the High Street, stopped the leaders of the procession just before they reached the parish church and made them wait until he ostentatiously placed a gold chain over the head and around the neck of the statue of the Madonna. It was his way of usurping proceedings. No one dared to question his right to stop and delay the solemn activities with his theatrics.
There was one famous procession that passed through Ħamrun towards the end of the war in1944 when Iszus managed to thrust himself into nationwide consciousness.
The heavy bombing Malta experienced during the middle period of WWII was concentrated around the dockyards of the Grand Harbour and spilled over into neighbouring towns. One town that suffered greatly due to its proximity to Dock No.1 was Cospicua, one of the ancient Three Cities that lie across the harbour from Valletta. The frequent air raids convinced the Cospicua parish church authorities to seek permission to move their prized statue of the Immaculate Conception, along with the church’s large titular painting, to the outlying town of Birkirkara in order to protect them in the event that the church was damaged or destroyed. Miraculously however, the parish church was one of only a handful of buildings in the central area of Cospicua that survived. After the Allied capture of Italy in September of 1943 brought the relentless bombing raids to an end, it was decided to complete the necessary formalities and make plans to bring both treasures back to their rightful home.
On the morning of November 19th, 1944, most of the good people of Cospicua had gathered in the main square of Birkirkara as part of a procession to respectfully accompany the beloved statue and painting back to their parish church. News of the pending ritual had spread by word of mouth across the entire island nation and the people of Cospicua were joined by thousands of other well-wishers from all over the country. The event had become something of a national celebration and an expression of gratitude to the Virgin Mary for delivering Malta from the war. The enduring church at Cospicua had become a metaphor for the survival of the nation.
All along the route between Birkirkara and Cospicua, the windows of dwellings were decorated with banners, framed holy pictures and flowers. Town bands from all over Malta joined the procession that was launched by the pealing bells of the parish church of Birkirkara.
The multitudinous procession slowly made its way down the High Street from Birkirkara accompanied by the music of brass bands. After proceeding for some time, the head of the procession, led by the statue of Our Lady held aloft on the shoulders of honoured men, reached alongside the front steps of the parish church of Ħamrun. At that moment, a huge man in a traditional cloth cap and sleeveless, button-less flannelette shirt strode out into the middle of the High Street and stopped the procession by raising his arms above his head and holding up the palms of his hands in a signal to stop.
It was Iszus.
He motioned to the men holding up the statue of the Immaculate Conception to lower the platform. Surprised and confused, the men who were now confronted by this imposing hulk of a man complied, lowered the platform and rested it onto the ground. Iszus pulled out a heavy gold chain from his pocket and placed it over the Virgin’s head and around her neck, then moved away to the side of the road. The men once again picked up the timber beams that supported the platform and statue, rested the beams on their shoulders and the procession recommenced its journey to Cospicua. The remarkable incident was publicised in all the newspapers of the time and Iszus became a nationally celebrity.
The ignominious end of the man known as Iszus came as a surprise, some years later. And at the hand of an unlikely protagonist.
Iszus had terrorised the quiet and unassuming owner of a local café for years. Ordering food and drinks the cost of which he demanded be placed on a tab that was never paid, as was his modus operandi. The owner of the café was a short, slightly built man who was by no stretch of the imagination a physical match for the domineering bully. Iszus saw his victim as no threat at all, even comical, when the inconsequential little man repeatedly requested payment. The tension had been building up for a long time when one day, the café owner psychologically snapped.
Iszus had ordered a meal and a beer and had consumed both. He got up from his table and turned his back to the counter as if to leave the café without paying one more time. The owner surreptitiously crept up to the bully and crouched behind him as he began to walk away. He then softly called out his name:
The big man turned around and looked over the top of the diminutive owner’s head. The café owner raised himself to his full height and in the same motion plunged a knife upwards, deep into his tormenter’s abdomen.
The astonished Iszus gasped. Wild-eyed, mouth open and with a bewildered expression on his face, Iszus looked down inquiringly into the face of his tiny assassin for a brief instant, then lowered his gaze further and observed the knife sticking out of his body. His eyes slowly rolled back into his head and Iszus collapsed onto the floor.
The bully of Tas-Sikkina was dead.