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MALTATODAY 13 March 2022

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3 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 13 MARCH 2022 NEWS Mario Azzopardi, 1944-2022 KARL SCHEMBRI HIS towering figure surrounded by stu- dents as he walked up and down the Sixth Form corridors in Msida demanded re- spect. Even before I met him as a teenage stu- dent, I looked up to him in awe for his audacious poetry and his enthusiasm to rock the boat. This was the literary giant who kicked up a literary storm in the six- ties and seventies, who dared question the politics of our national poet, and whose writings – both poetry and his newspaper columns – could cut like a knife. Meeting him pretty much defined a big part of my life, as I'm sure is the case with thousands of others. Talking to Mario al- ways gave me this sense of urgency to do something, to take a stand, to engage on the most pressing social and political is- sues, and to be critical just when everyone else seems to agree – because that's where thinking is even more needed. In a society whose nuts and bolts are lu- bricated by sycophancy, mediocrity and nepotism, Mario stood out as one of the few socially and politically engaged art- ists to call out the elephant in the room. He was at best in his anti-establishment mode precisely at the very centre of the establishment – be it directing the Dra- ma Centre or when he was the Nation- alist government's top culture adviser – challenged old practices in education and culture and made sure they are inti- mately linked to the country's democratic process. He was one of the dying breed of public intellectuals, actively engaged in our country's discourse without being distracted by the glossy bullshit. He was a powerhouse in the classroom. The way he empowered his students made him stand out as a teacher and mentor, egging them on to question au- thority, tradition, and education itself. Later on I would see him using theatre with some of the toughest school chil- dren of our educational system – some of whom were my mother's students – and getting them to engage on social is- sues like bullying, junk food and the de- struction of the environment. Being with Mario, engaging with him, whether in the classroom, in a discussion, or over a piece of work, always made us feel important and inspired. When I was at Sixth Form in the mid-nineties, Mario had just started as the editor of Spektrum, the Sunday cul- ture magazine that came out with Il-Mu- ment. He was writing one of the most con- troversial opinion columns at the time, Kontrokurrent, on the Nationalist Party's daily newspaper In-Nazzjon. Here again, Mario was at his best in speaking truth to power right in front of the emperor's throne. He would write on divorce, cor- ruption, bigoted Christian extremism and refugees' rights on the newspaper of the conservative party in government. Years later I jokingly asked him whether this was a form of perverse flirting with the establishment he denounced, or an intelligent Trojan horse through which he subverted it. "I like your metaphor about the Trojan horse and I have no qualms about your suggestion of subversion," he told me. I remember a whole generation of stu- dents being approached by Mario to write for his magazine. It was my first step into journalism – I owe it all to him. I owe to him too the confidence to write and stand up for my words, the conditioned reflex to question things that are accepted by the rest, to call out institutionalised frivolity – from the trash broadcast on public tele- vision to the mediocrity dished out by our brainless political leaders. He also taught me to embrace life's comic script, to turn misery into art. Life never makes sense except when it's written down, drawn on a canvas, or acted out in all its drama. "Write, Karl, write," he would tell me when I was going through some of my toughest moments. "This will pass, but make sure you write." When I wrote my first novel Il-Man- ifest tal-Killer, Mario was the only per- son whose opinion mattered to me. His endorsement and generous support was the only thing I needed to fill me with the confidence to fight for its publication when it looked almost impossible. He was my spiritual father, my mentor, and my lifelong inspiration. Over the last years, I had mentally pre- pared myself for Mario Azzopardi's im- pending death. We had lost him and his writings a while ago since his health de- clined. His first stroke nine years ago happened just on the night when he was meant to attend a poetry reading I had organised with friends. His absence then was the thing I remember most of that night. When he moved to Australia to be with his children, I thought that would be the last time I would see him, but we were lucky to have him come back and give us even more of his writings. It's all we are left with now – a vast ex- panse of work that keeps Mario Azzopar- di the poet, the prophet, alive among us, as rebellious as ever. Karl Schembri is a former editor of Malt- aToday and author of Il-Manifest tal-Kill- er (Merlin) In a society whose nuts and bolts are lubricated by sycophancy, mediocrity and nepotism, Mario Azzopardi stood out as one of the few socially and politically engaged artists to call out the elephant in the room. Karl Schembri pays tribute to the late master Farewell to my rebel mentor Mario Azzopardi (right) with the author, in Melbourne, in 2013

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