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 Ħamrunduring 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 Africanman 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.