Thursday, Jul. 21, 2011

Spain's Identity Crisis

For the past 24 years, José Antonio González has risen early one morning in June and carefully applied black eyeliner to the creases behind his lashes. Instead of the Oxford shirt and pressed trousers the 45-year-old accountant usually wears, he slips on a satin blouse and shimmery pantaloons. And then, dangling a scabbard from his waist and planting a turban on his head, González goes out and joins hundreds of other Moors in the southern Spanish town of Mojácar as they make their last stand against the Christians.

There may be no more curious remnant of the Muslim kingdom that Ibn Battuta knew as al-Andalus than the festival of Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians). Commemorated in towns throughout Spain, it enlists entire populations into elaborately costumed "battalions" to re-enact the medieval surrender of Spain's last Muslim rulers to the conquering Catholic kings. But Moros y Cristianos is hardly the only trace of Spain's 800 years of Islamic rule. From architecture to cuisine to the most common vocabulary — including the ubiquitous olé, a distant relative of Allah — the country's Muslim past is deeply woven into its present. For centuries, this was a characteristic to be denied, an almost shameful identity against which "true" (read: Catholic) Spaniards defined themselves.

In today's Spain, physical and symbolic remnants of the glorious civilization that was once al-Andalus are celebrated as tourist attractions and, more important, as a part of Spain's newly heralded multiculturalism. But Spain has a more complicated relationship with real Muslims — the ones who pick Europe's vegetables and open schools and businesses and build mosques.

Immigration came later to Spain than to Britain, France or Germany; indeed, most Muslims in Spain are first-generation arrivals. Only when the Spanish economy took off after the country joined the E.U. did Muslims, particularly from Morocco, begin migrating in significant numbers. Now there are an estimated 1.5 million Muslims in Spain, and they are not always easily assimilated into a culture that characterizes itself as conservative, homogeneous and very, very Catholic. Already, the city of Lleida, along with several other towns in the eastern province of Catalonia, has moved to ban the veil. And in local elections on May 22, anti-immigrant parties won seats in both regional and municipal governments. In today's Spain, the imagined past is always rubbing up against the conflicted present.

Back to the Future
You could start at the beginning, with Córdoba, the seat of the Moorish caliphate. When Abderrahman I came to power in 756, he remade this city into a vision of earthly paradise. In subsequent decades, Córdoba's poets would pen exquisite odes to romantic love, its astrologers would track the heavens more accurately than ever before, and sewage — shockingly — would run through neatly enclosed pipes. But of all the accomplishments of the Umayyad dynasty, none was so breathtaking as the Mezquita, the stunning mosque built on the remains of a Visigoth church (and a pagan temple before that). Eight hundred striped arches ran through its 24,000 sq m, tricking the eye into thinking they were an endless forest of red and white. After the success of his 16th century reconquest, the Habsburg Emperor Charles V had the Mezquita's center arches ripped out and replaced with a heavy, carved nave appropriate to the building's new status as Córdoba's cathedral — a status it retains to this day.

To reach the cathedral, Demetrio Fernández crosses the Moorish-style patio of the Bishop's Palace. He is a heavyset man, but elegant in his bearing as he strolls past stands selling filigree hands of Our Lady of Fátima and restaurants serving gazpacho, then walks under orange trees irrigated with canals built more than a millennium ago. All this before he passes under those rows of striped Islamic archways. And yet, the bishop of Córdoba harbors no ambivalence about the structure's meaning. "Why should Muslims be allowed to pray there?" Fernández asks. "The real question is, Why do people find it strange that they shouldn't be? It's a cathedral."

He is referring to a campaign begun years ago by the Junta Islámica, a group of mostly Spanish converts to Islam. Arguing that the Mezquita, with its glittering mihrab and intricately carved choir stalls, could serve as an important example of convivencia (social harmony) in an age of cultural conflict, the Junta Islámica requested that it be opened to Muslim prayer. Córdoba's bishopric refused. When 120 Muslims from Austria entered the building in 2010 and began to pray, the Mezquita's security guards, who work for the diocese, moved to eject them, and a scuffle ensued.

More recently, Fernández has argued that the building itself should be referred to as the catedral and not the mezquita, and asked the municipal government to rewrite street signs identifying it as such. Junta spokesperson Isabel Romero is against that effort: "To try to erase history is a great error." Bishop Fernández deploys the same tactic, noting that the building was a Visigoth church before it was a mosque, that Christian architects imported from Constantinople helped transform it into the Mezquita. Most important, he says, it's been a cathedral for the past four centuries: "It's an anachronism to call it anything else."

The wrangling over the past is of course merely a means of talking about the present. For Romero, the bishop's concern for the building's name is motivated by a fear of Islam, a fear that has risen in Spain since the March 2004 train bombing in Madrid by Muslim extremists. Fernández points out that simply having the debate is a sign of the Church's openness. "Would activists in Saudi Arabia be allowed to demand that a mosque be opened to Christian prayer?" he asks. "The fact that these discussions take place in Spain, which was and is a Christian country, is an indication of Christianity's tolerance."

A Matter of Faith
Is Spain still a fundamentally Christian place? The percentage of practicing Catholics is at its lowest in history (57.8% say they never or almost never attend Mass) while religious observance among Muslims continues to rise. Though Muslims currently make up a tiny portion of Spain's population (estimates run from 1% to 3%), in places like El Ejido in Andalusia in southern Spain, they are rapidly displacing those born Catholic.

Some 40 years ago, El Ejido barely existed. But that was before farmers in the surrounding region of Almería developed makeshift plastic greenhouses allowing them to grow vegetables in the area's poor soils year-round. Now the region supplies more produce to Europe than any other on the continent. And that has made Almería a major draw for migrant labor. More than a third of the city's 85,000 residents are immigrants; of those, a full 65% are from Morocco.

"I came to improve my life," says Azouz Damani, 27, who left his home in Nador, Morocco, seven years ago. For the first four years in Spain, he worked in the greenhouses, earning about $43 for a 10-hour day spent picking peppers and tomatoes in temperatures that routinely rounded 48°C. "It was a really awful job," he says. "But I wish I had it now." He has been unemployed since Spain's recession began in 2008 and lives now off welfare and odd jobs.

From his bench in a rundown neighborhood of El Ejido, Damani oozes resentment. He knows that in El Ejido's center, the broad, shady boulevards are tended daily by gardeners and street sweepers, but here, he says, gesturing sharply, no one comes to clean. "Look at this place! The city doesn't care about it. No one comes to get the trash; all the trees are dead." He is angry at the municipal government that, he says, refused to license the mosque where he prays, and he is angry at Andalusians who, he says, are "more racist than people in Madrid."

Eleven years ago, El Ejido was home to the worst race riots in Spain's history. After a Moroccan man was arrested in the stabbing death of a Spanish woman, hundreds of longtime residents, fed up with that attack as well as the growing incidence of petty crime, marched through the city, shouting racist slogans, destroying Moroccan-owned property, and throwing stones at immigrants. The violence lasted several days, yet neither that outburst nor the dangers of the crossing nor attempts by the E.U. to strengthen its borders has reduced the number of new immigrants. While the economic crisis has slowed the flow, it has not halted it for the simple reason that, however hard the conditions in Spain, the country still offers more opportunities to industrious migrants than they would get back home.

Since the riots, El Ejido has maintained an uneasy peace. Improved working conditions have helped, as have better social services. "We've achieved convivencia," says Manuel Ariza, head of social services for the city. "Just not integration." There are still separate Moroccan neighborhoods, and apartment buildings that — despite municipal attempts to create mixed residencies — are filled entirely by Moroccan families. Few Muslim immigrants have married native Spaniards. And some of El Ejido's schools remain voluntarily segregated. "What we've learned is that you can affect the peripheral elements — the policies, the economic opportunities," says Ariza. "But core things — religion, family values — those are very difficult to change." It's a sentiment with which Damani instinctively agrees. Asked whether he could imagine himself ever identifying with his new home, he shakes his head dismissively. "No way," he says. "I don't think I'll ever consider myself Spanish."

Blending Beliefs
Ramón Rubio feels an affinity for Islam as he works on the lacy plasterwork of the Alhambra's Salon of Kings in Granada. Built around the 13th century, the Alhambra was once the palace city for the Nasrids, Spain's last Muslim dynasty. Today it draws about 3 million tourists annually, making it Spain's most popular attraction. All those years and people have taken a toll, which is why the complex is undergoing a major restoration. Rubio, director of the Alhambra's tile and plaster workshops, spends his days pressed close to the ceilings, delicately repairing the polychrome domes that Nazari artisans adorned with tiny designs, hand painted in lapis lazuli, even though no one would see them from the ground. "Working here, you start to identify with them, even though they lived seven centuries ago," he says. "I'm not Arab, but I am Granadino, so there's this bond."

Across the river from the Alhambra, another Islamic complex has risen on another hill. It is a gleaming white mosque, the first purpose-built one in Granada in 500 years. Its construction took more than 22 years, a delay prompted in part by the resistance of many residents who — especially after 9/11 — worried that it represented an effort, both by local Muslims, and by the United Arab Emirates that helped fund it, to "reclaim al-Andalus." But eight years after its inauguration, the new mosque seems an integral part of the landscape of Albaicín, Granada's old Moorish quarter. Tourists flood its bloom-filled patio to get a better view of the Alhambra across the way, while worshippers enter through their own portals, divided by gender.

The Muslims who built the mosque, and staff it still, are Spaniards who have converted to Islam. They owe their origins to a Scottish convert who arrived in Granada in 1975, just as the dictator Francisco Franco was dying, and began reintroducing Spain to the Islam it had suppressed. Today, there are roughly 20,000 Muslim converts in Spain. Although they have long since fractured into different ideological groups, the importance of al-Andalus — not as a land to be reconquered, but as an example to be emulated — unites them. "We recognize ourselves as members of a community that managed to give to the world one of the most beautiful civilizations that man has known," convert Mehdi Flores has written. "A civilization that, with its light and shadows, was able to reach levels of humanity that still serve today as an example in our quest for models of how to live and live together."

Granada's convert community soon drew native-born Muslims as well. "We started here because Granada was more emblematic, the flavor of Andalusian culture was fresher, more recent," says Zakarias Maza, a schoolteacher who converted 30 years ago. "But then North African immigrants started coming here from the coast because they heard there was a community, because we had a mosque." Today it has three, including the new one on the hill. Maza still prays at the first one, inside an apartment building in the center of town (a sign advises worshippers not to disturb the "Christian family" living above it). "The upper one is mostly Spanish, and maybe more liberal," he says. "Mine, the lower one, is mixed."

Religious variation isn't the only sign that Granada's Muslim community is one of the most developed in Spain. There is a EuroArab management school here; the country's first "Islamically inspired" political party, the Party of Spanish Renaissance and Unity, was founded here in 2009. And then there are the sloping streets behind the Plaza Nueva, given over largely to Muslim-owned businesses.

A Nation Divided
To travel today through Andalusia is to come face to face with a peculiar brand of schizophrenia. Historic Islam is reflected by the monuments from the days of the caliphate that have been restored to splendor, by the old quarters in all the major cities that have been given over to tearooms and "Arab" baths, and by a romanticized image of an al-Andalus in which Muslims lived peacefully with people of other faiths. All this is embraced and even held out as a model for society. But contemporary Islam — of immigrants from North Africa who start their own businesses or huddle in makeshift huts; of women who wear veils but aren't nuns; of varieties that run from Sufi-inflected mysticism to Salafist puritanism — that living Islam remains unassimilated, and unresolved.

In Mojácar, José Antonio González jokes that he chose to join the Moors over the Christians because they had better costumes. But he also admits to a more serious affinity. "I'm a great defender of Arab culture," he says. "What al-Andalus gave us was a lighthouse that illuminated the world." Still, he doesn't agree with the efforts to open Córdoba's Mezquita to Muslim prayer, and he was as bothered as anyone when complaints of insensitivity forced another town to remove its Muhammed statue from its own Moros y Cristianos celebration. "I love what Arabic culture has given us in the good sense. But the culture they're trying to impose now? That I don't like."

One of his neighbors, Kachina Ghaddaf, strikes a similarly complicated balance. Half Egyptian, half Moroccan and a practicing Muslim, she and her husband arrived in Spain less than a year ago, and recently opened a jewelry store in Mojácar. She has never attended Moros y Cristianos, but she has heard about the spectacular pageantry and is eagerly looking forward to the festivities. "Oh yes, my neighbor has said she'll help with my costume," she gushes. "I'll be one of the Christians."