26 October 2008

Lebanon got under my skin.

It was not the beauty of the place. Beirut is a city with little to discover for the classical tourist. One can walk along the Corniche – the boulevard along the Mediterranean coast. One can spend time getting lost in the shopping streets of Muslim West Beirut. One can eat in good French restaurants in the Christian quarter. On Saturday evening all the outdoor tables of the many restaurants in the rebuilt downtown are full with people, many smoking water pipes. All of this is nice, the weather in October is glorious, but the sights hardly compare with Istanbul or Thessaloniki: not the walks along the water, not the shops, not even the restaurants and cafes.

What transforms this city into something remarkable is not what one can see but the stories that cling to every building: it is discovering the downtown’s pre-war history, its war-time fate and the remarkable story of its reconstruction after 1990 (which is still ongoing), that turns sitting here into an exercise of rubbing Aladin’s lamp. Ghosts quickly appear, and take one on trips to the past and future.

First one finds oneself in the middle of a pleasing yet “sterile urban ideal of cobble-stoned streets, art galleries and boutiques” (Nicholas Blanford): the present. Then one sees oneself sitting on top of an archeological goldmine, with Roman roads, Greek mosaics, Phoenician burial chambers: the distant past. The next image is of this very same place looking like “a wasteland of shell-scarred ruins and overgrown streets, inhabited by families of destitute squatters and packs of prowling wild dogs”: the downtown two decades ago. Then “countless bullet holes pitted the sandstone facades of Ottoman-era houses lining streets named after First World War generals such as Foch, Weygand and Allenby” (Nicholas Blanford in his gripping “Killing Mr. Lebanon”). I look up and see that the elegant shopping street where I sit is still named after Allenby today.

On Saturday I drive to Byblos. This is one of the oldest towns in the world, on the coast north of Beirut. It was one of the obvious tourist attractions when a 2-day visit to Lebanon was still part of most package tours to the Middle East. Tourists would be shown the remains of a crusader castle and a 12th century church, some Ottoman buildings, and a little harbor going back to Phoenician times. A picturesque and interesting site, definitely worth an excursion but hardly warranting a special trip. Today there are very few tourists, however. I learn in Byblos that most EU embassies have put out a travel warning for Lebanon, so tour operators coming to Syria do not dare to come here at the moment.

What fascinates me more than the old remains is the drive from Beirut to Byblos (Jbeil in Arabic): the chaotic and dense construction along the coast, the obvious lack of urban planning, coinciding with the construction of shopping centres, casinos and nightclubs: a “glittering and shallow facade of ersatz Westernization for rich Arab tourists”, as one author unkindly calls it. The Beirut metropolitan area does not end north or south of the city itself. Kosovo is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, with some 2 million people living on 10,000 km2. However, in Lebanon there are 4 million people living in a territory of the same size as Kosovo. This is a very crowded place indeed.

The area north of Beirut is largely populated by Christians. Lebanon’s current president (who is always a Maronite Christian) comes from here (the Maronites are the largest Christian group). Here, as in East Beirut, one can see evidence of Christian life everywhere: pictures of the Virgin, statutes of saints, signs pointing to educational establishments run by religious orders.

Lebanon is not only crowded; its population is also – proverbially – extremely diverse. It was the strong presence of the Maronites in the region of Mount Lebanon which led the French to create Lebanon as a separate country, severing it from Syria when both were a French protectorate. This explains one cause of Lebanon’s recent turmoil: a Syrian reluctance to accept Lebanon as a fully sovereign neighbour. Damascus is only some 30 kilometers away from the Lebanese border, and friends tell me that it takes less than 2 hours to drive there from Beirut.

Lebanon’s diversity has been a source of tensions throughout its modern history. Who should be in charge? How is power to be divided between different sects, Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, Druze, Armenians, smaller Arab Christians groups and the very large number of Palestinian refugees? The formula found to share power was “confessionalism”, based on a very rough idea how many people of different faiths lived in the country. And since demographic balances change over time, it was decided early on to stop counting the ethnic make-up: ignorance was to be a solution where too much knowledge was dangerous.

In her book Bring down the Walls Carole H. Dagher describes the demographic evolution. The last official census was undertaken in 1932: then there were 32,4 percent Christian Maronites, 9.8 percent Greek Orthodox, 5.9 percent Greek Catholics as well as 22.4 percent Sunnis, 19.6 percent Shiites and 6.5 percent Druze (plus other smaller groups).

By 1990 the total number of Christians had fallen to 43 percent, plus another 29 percent Shiites, 24 percent Sunnis and 4 percent Druze. These figures do not include some three to four hundred thousand (mostly Muslim) Palestinian refugees, nor a large number of guest workers from Syria. It is due to this “fragile balance” that even the descendants of Palestinian refugees who arrived in 1948 have not been given citizenship or other basic rights (such as owning property) in Lebanon. This was an obvious second major cause of instability in recent decades: the uncertain relation between Lebanese society and these refugees, and the direct link this created between Lebanese politics and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict (triggering a number of Israeli interventions).

And yet, comparing population figures from the beginning and the end of the 20th century, one remarkable fact stands out: how little has changed.

By the standards of the early 20th century Beirut was a normal Ottoman town: a city with an ethnic variety similar to Istanbul, Izmir, Jerusalem or Thessaloniki. By today’s standards Beirut boasts an almost uniquely mixed Christian-Muslim population. In most other places, including Mediterranean Europe, such diversity was destroyed in the 20th century. In Beirut it survived.

Visiting this city today is thus to travel back in time to the communal organisation of Ottoman times. As Charles Winslow wrote: “People in the Middle East must not only learn to live with differences but also must institutionalise the means of doing so … the individual needs security at the communal level, something parallel to what the old Ottoman millet system used to provide.” Sectarianism remains very much alive today, even though the Taif accord, which ended the war in 1990, had called for the “phased abolition of political sectarianism.”

Walking through Beirut I begun to wonder: was this what Istanbul “felt” like one century ago, when it was still a city with a large Christian population? When villages along the Bosporus were populated by Greeks and Armenians and when today’s Bosphorus university was run by American protestants? When the legacies of the millet system were still visible?

It is difficult to feel romantic about Beirut’s diversity, even if it is impossible not to be fascinated by it. Everywhere there are reminders of a recent history of inter-religious conflict as much as of millenia of coexistence. Opening the English or French daily papers, one reads about continuing tensions which confound all easy categorisation: there is a history of Muslims fighting Muslims, of Christian militias fighting other Christians. The crisis of this moment is one pitting Salafist Sunnis near the Northern city of Tripoli against other, more moderate, Sunnis and the government (as one recent Carnegie Paper on “Lebanon’s Sunni Islamists” describes well). At the same time, throughout most recent conflicts, the large Armenian community in East Beirut also managed to stay neutral in the confessional battles of recent decades.

[As elsewhere, I wonder if Samuel Huntington has ever actually set foot in Lebanon: he could not have possibly have come up with his theory of the clash of civilisations in light of this particular complex story]

In fact, visiting today’s Lebanon is a bit like visiting a modern-day Al Andalus … only without the romanticism that comes with the distance of time. A place where the meeting and mingling of cultures and religions can be observed without any certainty about the next chapter in an open-ended story of coping with diversity. And as in the case of medieval Spain there is a sense that the fate of multi-confessional Lebanon, like that of multi-confessional Bosnia, matters in a wider sense.

Carole Dagher concludes her book Bring Down the Walls with a reference to the “mission” of Lebanon:

“Its challenge illustrates somehow the challenge of the entire region. The failure of the Lebanese would mean the failure of a meaningful experiment in the Arab world to manage religious pluralism and cultural diversity, and to institutionalize freedom, equality, respect and participation for all. It would deprive the Arab world of a model it could relate to, reminiscent of its lost Andalus.”

The history of medieval Spain was a history as much of interaction as of conflict. There were local struggles, manipulated and even instigated by outsiders; crusading Christians in the North and fanatical North African rulers in the South played their part in the eventual destruction of a unique culture. But today Andalus is a myth, no less than its hero, the mercenary El Cid.

Multiethnic Beirut is a reality; the fate and future of this modern millet system a matter of war and peace. Beirut is Mark Mazower’s Thessaloniki without being a city of ghosts: a place where different confessions continue to live together as they did a century ago. It is a mirror of a universal promise, and having looked into it, it becomes hard to tear oneself away.

It is on my way to the airport that I finish another little book, recommended by a friend: Mai Ghoussoub’s Leaving Beirut. If there is one book on Lebanon that I have come across these days and that I would recommend to you to read it is this one: an ingenious personal reflection by a Lebanese writer, artist and activist on the urge for revenge after horrendous crimes, on slippery notions such as honour and treason in times of conflict. It is a very rich book and I will return to it later, but let me conclude my description of what I saw in the mirror of Beirut with Ghassoub’s case study of Lebanese reconciliation:

“In Lebanon, in 1994, the victims of a massacre in the Chouf area were invited to participate in a three-day conference on Acknowledgement, Forgiveness and Reconciliation – Alternative approaches to conflict resolution in Lebanon. The village concerned, Maasir al-Chouf, a Christian enclave in a Druze-dominated area, had lived in peace for the major part of the civil war. So much so that a few days before the massacre, a number of French journalists, invited to visit this haven of civil coexistence between two rival communities, had rushed home to write articles under headlines such as “Peace is still possible in Lebanon”, illustrated with big pictures of hte local priest and the Druze sheikh shaking hands and smiling.”

The journalists wrote their articles on 7 March 1977. On 16 March, following the death of Kemal Jumblatt, Druze armed men opened fire on Christian houses in Maasir al Chouf. …

In this conference for reconciliation, designed to encourage the relocation of the Christian refugees in their village of Maasir, the victims of the violence made a statement: ‘We buried our dead with dignity, we transcended our wounds and we forgave … The state wants time to work towards a solution: time would weakend resentment, and the effect of forgetting would be that the demands for justice would recede. We, the victims , are not asking for the impossible. but we refuse to be ignored, neglected and subjected to a fait accompli. We insist on our right to return to our village and our land. … at the same time, we believe in the logic of coexistence.’”

And here it was: the echo of Bosnia’s displaced, one decade ago, asking to return to their homes in Central Bosnia, in Herzegovina, in Republika Srpska. The universal dilemma of forgiveness after conflict, of the struggle for justice, while trying to build a viable future at the same time.

Leaving Beirut this Sunday morning, I felt that I would soon be back.

And that, in fact, we have all been here before.

Filed under: Bosnia,Lebanon,Spain — Tags: , , , — Gerald @ 9:04 pm
10 August 2008

Toledo
Toledo – a story of translation

What does it take to sustain a “culture of tolerance” in a society marked by genuine differences? It is a question central to the issues discussed on this blog: from Kosovo to Kakheti, from Timisoara to Thessaloniki. Let me share impressions of one particularly interesting effort to answer it: Maria Rosa Menocal’s book The Ornament of the World – How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.

Menocal is an expert on the multireligious and multilinguistic world of medieval Spain. She decided to write her book after delivering presentations on “Medieval Europe and Authentic Multiculturalism” and noticing that her research had produced a “treasure trove of mostly unknown and unheared stories and characters.” This explains why her book is a very good read. But it is its relevance to current debates that makes it particularly gripping. As the author asks herself:

“Can Muslims be successfully integrated into contemporary and secular European nations? Should fundamentalist Christians have to expose their children to the teachings of reason as well as those of faith, to evolutionary theories as well as scriptural truth? Can Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosnians coexist in the Balkans? How can tolerance and intolerance coexist?”

Menocal describes a medieval society where “Muslims, Christians and Jews did not have separate cultures based on religious differences but rather were part of a broad and expansive culture that had incorporated elements of all their traditions, a culture that all could and did participate in regardless of their religion.”

In fact, despite its title – The Ornament of the World – the story Menocal tells is, in the end, one of defeat as much as triumph. The enemies of tolerance and cultural coexistence are always present and ultimately they triumph. There is the regent of the dying Kalifate of Cordoba, al-Mansur, leading a deadly and destructive raid into Santiago de Compostela in 997; there is the complete destruction, perpetrated by fundamentalist Berber fighters from North Africa, of the palace of Madinat-Al-Zahra outside of Cordoba in 1009, ending the golden age of Cordoba; there are the attacks on Jews by Muslims (the massacre of Jews in Muslim Granada in 1066) and Christians (their expulsion from Christian Toledo in 1391). Later, in 1492, all Jews were made to leave Spain following an order by Spains’ Catholic Kings, many resettling in the Ottoman Empire, in particular in Thessaloniki. Spanish Muslims met the same fate before long.

And yet, it was not religiously defined crusaders but intense exchange and interaction between Christian, Jews and Muslims that defined – and made great – medieval Spain. It was a tradition of exchange, of translation, of trying to reconcile reason and religion, of poetry. To grasp this it is probably easiest to do what Menocal does so well: to introduce some of the leading protagonists.

There is Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the Jewish foreign secretary of the Muslim caliphate called al-Andalus in Arabic and Sefarad in Hebrew. He was born in Cordoba in 915 and became a leader of the Jewish community in Cordoba as well as vizier of caliph Abd al-Rahman. He was proficient in the many languages of his native city – Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Mozarabic. He remained a devout Jew and was also thoroughly educated in Arab culture. In 949 he headed a delegation in delicate talks with a delegation from Greek speaking Byzantium, to discuss a possible alliance against the Abbasids in Bagdad.

One of the gifts the Byzantines brought was a book by Discorides, On Medecine. Hasdai immediately set out to put together a team of experts to have it translated into Arabic. Books mattered in the Cordoba of his time. The caliphal library had some four hundred thousand volumes “at a time when the largest libraries in Christian Europe probably held no more than four hundred manuscripts. Cordoba’s caliphal library was itself one of seventy libraries in the city.

Books also played a central role in the life of Arab poet Ibm Hazm, raised in a Cordoba harem in the last years of the first millenium, According to Menocal he produced some 400 of them, from law to philosophy, from religious studies to the sciences. His most famous work, though, was a handbook on love – The Neck-Ring of the Dove – whose 30 small chapters cover topics such as “on the Signs Given by the Eyes” and “On Those Who Fall in Love at First Sight.” It is a tribute to a courtly society, laying out the ways in which love can be an all-consuming illness that wastes the lover away, robs him of sleep, appetite, and tranquility – the sum of which creates and incomparable ecstasy and is also the very source of great poetry.” Poetry which appears as modern as this:

“I’ve a sickness doctors can’t cure,

Inexorably pulling me to the well of my destruction.

Consented to be a sacrifice, killed for her love,

Eager, like the drunk gulping wine mixed with poison

Shameless were those nights,

Yet my soul loved them beyond all passion.”

But these sensibilities would travel beyond Southern Spain. Menocal notes how Anadalusian Arabic “ring songs” of love poems made their way into France in the 11th century, together with new instruments that would rehape European music: guitars, drums, tambourines. In the siege of the Northern Spanish town of Barbastro in 1064 “the greatest treasure” taken back by Christian conquerors were Andalusian singers. Medieval French culture owed an obvious and visible debt to the poets of Andalus.

Or take Michael Scot, born in Scotoland, then living in Sicily. He travels to Toledo when that city is at the heart of European culture in the 13th century. One of the main activities in Toledo was the translation of texts into Latin from Arabic. When the Castilian king Alfonso VI took over Toledo from its Arab rulers, Menocal writes, he

“simultaneously aquired an immense wealth of books and, the greatest gift of all, whole communities of multilingual Toledans – Mozarabs and Jews prominent among them, who could serve as translators.”

And as more and more Arab-speaking Christians and Jews fled from increasingly intolerant cities in the South of Spain and settled in Toledo, the city became the European centre of translation:

“It was at this time that the translation of thousands of Arabic volumes into Latin began in earnest, and within fifty years, Latin readers throughout Christendom had at their displosal such once-unimagined wonders as the full body of Aristotle’s works, accompanied by extensive Muslim and Jewish commentaries … Michael Scot and many others went to Toledo to learn Arabic and to train in the special process of collaborative translation developed there. The common model was for a Jew to translate the Arabic text aloud into the shared Romance vernacular, Castilian, whereupon a Christian would take that oral version and write it out in Latin.”

In this way the translators of the Toledo school were not translating individual texts: they were “translating a culture”. They, like the scholars in Cordoba or poets like Ibn Hazm, were the avantguard of the intellectual revival of medieval Europe: its first true renaissance, belying the image of the “dark ages”.

So read this fascinating book! I have thought of its characters many times in recent months, in particular while working on two documentary films – one on Thessaloniki and one on Istanbul (more on these later). In both of these two great European cities one encounters a similar story of traditions of multiethnic, multireligious coexistence lasting for centuries, only to be destroyed in the end by forces of ferocious intolerance, by insistence on purity, by the will to “simplify” society.

As Menocal puts it, the challenge is for a culture to sustain “contradictions.” She never idealises the world she celebrates: there simply are too many accounts of exil, massacres, intolerance and warfare in her story. Her conclusion is that all three monotheistic faiths “have powerful strains of ferocity within them”. Her story concludes with the Spanish inquisition being set up to “cure the perceived ills created by five hundred years of a society that did tolerate contradictions of all sorts.” Thus the medieval world gives way to a new world, embracing the ideal of single-religion and single-language nations: an ideal which in some parts of the world is still with us today.

Menocal herself ends her scholarly meditation in the Balkans, with the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish book of prayers and stories that survived the shelling of the Sarajevo library in August 1992. The book had made it out of Spain in the exodus of 1492, taken to the Ottoman Empire by Sephardic Jews. It was rescued a second time during the second world war, when a Muslim curator in Sarajevo managed to hide it from the Nazis. And many decades later, a woman fleeing Kosovo, attacked by Serb forces in 1999, held among her possessions a paper her father had received from the Israeli government for saving not only the Sarajevo Haggadah but also Yugoslav Jews from the Nazis. Cordoba – Toledo – Thessaloniki – Sarajevo – Istanbul … How many more such chapters will European history write?

One last thought: the multicultural society Menocal describes lasted “for several hundreds of years – that’s a very long time for a good thing to last”. Indeed. But certainly not long enough.


Thessaloniki synagogue


Istanbul’s formerly Christian Pera area


Sarajevo’s National Library, shelled in 1992

Filed under: Bosnia,Europe,Spain — Tags: , , , — Gerald @ 12:06 pm
20 December 2007

Anybody who in their youth has read George Orwell’s book on the Spanish Civil war in Catalonia is likely to think of him when visiting Barcelona. Not that there is anything that reminds a visitor in November 2007 of the Spain in 1937 that Orwell evokes. His city was one in which armed guards roamed in the streets, in which bread was scarce, and in which people were arrested at random. An anarchist uprising had been defeated in 1937 and Stalinism was rearing its ugly head behind the Republican front-lines of the Spanish civil war: a dark moment in an even darker decade. As Orwell put it:

“It is not easy to convey the nightmare atmosphere of that time – the peculiar uneasiness produced by rumours that were always changing, by censored newspapers, and the constant presence of armed men. It is not easy to convey it because, at the moment, the thing essential to such an atmosphere does not exist in England. … the notion of ‘liquidating’ or ‘eliminating’ everyone who happens to disagree with you does not yet seem natural. It seemed only to natural in Barcelona.”

In fact, one can still walk down the tree-lined ramblas boulevard (today packed with tourists) to the Cafe de l’Opera which Orwell describes. One can also go in search of bullet holes in the walls in some hidden courtyards in the old town that (I was told) go back to the Spanish civil war.

When I worked here as a guide for Austrian tourists in the early 1990s I would present this beautiful city as the stage for a succession of bitter struggles throughout history, an epic story of its rise, fall, rise and fall (again) leading up to the 1930s. There are the monuments of the great medieval merchant city, centre of a Mediterranean Empire; the drama of Barcelona loosing its preeminence and prosperity at the beginning of the modern era (the destruction of its Jewish community being one of the reasons); repeated defeats in its struggles against the centralising Spanish crown; the 19th century rise of a new industrial power-house and the flourishing of Catalan modernity (the Barcelona modernista described by Cristina and Eduardo Mendoza); and then the bitter struggles, from anarchist terrorism to the confrontations in the Spanish civil war, ending in the deafening silence of another dictatorship. It is a riveting tale, worthy of the great epics. It also includes the most important element of a good Hollywood movie: a happy ending, sometime between the fall of Franco’s regime and the Olympic games in Barcelona in 1992.

For my tourists the dark shadows of Barcelona’s past were, of course, safely remote: even the most tragic history was ultimately info-tainment. Certainly gruesome stories of the Spanish civil war were no obstacle to feel good at the end of the day, to retire to a 4-star hotel and enjoy a good Spanish, sorry, Catalan dinner. Groups like the ones I would lead through Barcelona (at least 5 times in the early 90s) had themselves become part of a new Barcelona story: the reinvention of the city as a place of European cool and elegance, a truly post-modern place in which historical narratives were used to attract tourists.

Of course, there were also those who regarded the city’s rising popularity with foreigners as suspicious. Post-modern Barcelona is the “prototype of a factory-town”, one local anthropologist complained: too perfect to reflect any real life, too superficial, in a way dishonest, hiding its true self. Attracting 4.5 million tourists in 2005, Manuel Delgado writes, has come at the price of “destroying all spontaneity, all rebelliousness, no disobedience goes without punishment.” There is even a book to celebrate an alternative “city of rebellions”, la Barcelona rebelde. The book tells a story of uprisings and protests and celebrates the revolutionary spirit of the place, recalling times when the strength of local anarchism had given Barcelona the name rosa de foc (rose of fire), referring to the large number of arson attacks. One of the most striking quotes in that book refers to the anarchist uprising of 1937, which plays such a prominent role in Orwell’s book. It is presented as the highlight in a long tradition of revolts: “perhaps Barcelona has not been in the hands of its citizens ever since that 7 March 1937″ (the day the anarchist uprising was repressed).

1937 as the “good old times”? A narrative where everything has gone downhill since the 1930s and anarchism is a political philosophy worthy of admiration? Reading this made me realize how little I really knew about the Spanish debate. But I knew enough about Barcelona’s history to be skeptical: my walking tour on the ramblas always included an account of the anarchist who had thrown two bombs in the Liceu opera house in 1893, killing 22 people. In 1909 eighty churches, monasteries and convents were burned in one week when protests against a call-up of troops to go to war in North Africa got out of hand. How could anybody innocently celebrate a “culture of protest” in the early 20th century?

I also remember another disturbing experience. On one of my last trips as a tour guide I slipped out of the hotel one evening to watch a movie by Ken Loach (Land and Freedom) about the Spanish civil war. At one moment some people in the audience broke out into loud applause. The trigger for their joy was a scene where some unarmed Franco-supporters and clergy were shot. Some in the audience cheered the execution. Stepping out of the cinema I found myself again among the bars and pleasures of the beautiful Gracia quarter, disturbed and confused.

More than a decade has passed since then. What will the admires of Barcelona rebelde make of the fact that it is no longer George Orwell who most inspires young visitors from abroad but Xavier, a 25 year old French economy student looking for pleasure and distraction; not Homage to Calalonia but Xavier’s adventures in auberge espanole? Xavier and his film do not need an introduction, I assume? Judging by the huge number of foreign students I see in the streets and bars on this mild November day there is no shortage of young Europeans who seek to follow in his footsteps: unlike Orwell, they are not drawn by an ideological battle against evil. Instead they search for fun, friendship and amorous adventures in a Mediterranean setting.

I liked auberge espanole, but then I quite like happy endings. Those with a more tragic bent of mind will find the multi-national fraternity found there infinitely less worthy of interest than the multi-national army of fighters against fascism celebrated by Ken Loach. I do wonder, however, whether Orwell would not have been the first to welcome, rather than mourn, the recent transformation of Barcelona: the city which he left as a fugitive turning into a centre of innocent (and international) hedonism. Is this not another European miracle worthy of celebration? A city that has set aside its tragic history, turning it into a fairy tale of Barcelona modernista, Gaudi and Miro, Gothic churches and the FC Barcelona? Today websites discussing ‘”what is cool in Europe” no longer mention anarchism but coffee:

“barcelona is also fabulous, and the rambla is not really too dangerous – there’s just scammers. keep your wits about and you’ll have a great time. take the stairs in sagrada familia cathedral rather than the elevator, your legs will hurt but it’s worth it – like climbing a giant seashell with amazing views. the textile museum has a lovely cafe. the cafe del’opera bar is great for cava and people-watching. oh, and – spanish coffee is like crack. uno mas caffe con leche y sucre, por favor!”

It is a city – in a country – marked by material progress, a booming economy, a vigorous democracy, even a European model in terms of gender relations (as measured by the WEF’s gender gap index). If the price for all this is consumerism and some superficiality, so be it. A country, where even crazy people escaping from the mental asylum – Antonio Banderas kidnapping Victoria Abril in Tie me up! Tie me Down! – have a soft spot and a good heart is a civilised place indeed.

But the cheering in the cinema and the celebration of anarchism still made me wonder to what extent I understood what was going on. Had Spain really turned into the grand island of Circe so attractively depicted in auberge espanole? On one of my trips I had seen a book by Giles Remlett “The Ghosts of Spain – Travels through Spain and its silent past” which promised to offer some answers. I bought it to read it during an upcoming trip to Barcelona. An invitation in November 2007 to give a presentation on the Balkans provided the opportunity.

Ghosts of Spain

Cidob is one of the leading think-tanks in Spain, wonderfully located in an old town house in the centre of the city. It is close to the museum of modern art, surrounded by small boutique shops and cafes. My presentation is in the morning, the audience is a group of Catalan academics, journalists, business people. My host is the president of Cidob and former Spanish minister of defence, deputy prime minister and previous mayor of Barcelona, Narcis Serra. The topic is the future of the Balkans: Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia, and the fact that in the Balkans the transformation and Europeanisation that Spain has gone through remains far from completed.

I report on new research from Serbia and Bosnia; on the struggles to overcome the legacies of the past in these places; on the achievements of the people of Ahmici (the scene of a gruesome massacre in Central Bosnia in 1993) and on the risk that some brave individuals in Serbia are still running today as they try to confront the legacies of the murderous 90s.

As always there are some in the audience who have difficulty to image the Balkans as part of modern Europe, who believe that while the rest of Europe is able to banish its ghosts this very same feat is beyond the Balkans, which are somehow condemned to be part of a different world for ever. Others in the audience are well informed. Some have even worked in the region in the 1990s (there was a lot of solidarity in Barcelona for war-time Sarajevo, a fellow Olympic city, shelled when Barcelona held its games in 1992). Narcis Serra, of course, knows both the Balkans and the difficulties of transition, having first reformed civil-military relations in Spain and then advised a number of other governments on this matter, including Boris Tadic, when the latter was minister of defense in Belgrade.

Following the presentation I retreat to a cafe near Plaza Catalunya and open my book, “The Ghosts of Spain”. It is a strange experience: sitting in this cosmopolitan, joyful city on a sunny autumn day, having defended the Europeaness of the Balkans, delving into the secrets of Spain, and suddenly discovering unexpected connections between recent events in the Balkans and here.

Giles Tremlett, the author of this extremely well written book, sets out to describe what he calls the surprising Spanish “relationship with silence”: the pacto del olvido (the pact of forgetting) that has marked Spain’s transition from Franco’s authoritarianism to today’s democracy in the 1970s and since, as well as its (very recent) unraveling. Tremlett describes how in 2000 a Spanish journalist went to the village of his grandfather in Leon to find the roadside grave where his grandfather, a civilian shot by a death squad of France supporters, had been burried:

“DNA tests, carried out by Spanish forensic scientists with experience in digging up much more recent mass graves in Chile or Kosovo, finally enabled him to identify his grandfather …. Suddenly, it turned out, there were graves all over the place. Spain was sitting on what campaigners claimed were tens of thousands of such corpses.”

This experience triggered Tremlett interest:

“As history erupted from under the ground, I decided to turn my back on Spain’s glittering, entertaining and enticing surface. I wanted to undertake what one Italian writer called ‘that difficult voyage, to travel through time and space across the country.’”

In fact, until 2000 a pact of silence (whose legal expression was the Amnesty Law of 1977) concerning the civil war and the crimes immediately following it by the victors was largely respected. Even very recently, when the Spanish parliament in 2002 approved a motion that agreed that local authorities could, if they wanted, set aside funds for exhuming bodies, it also told them to avoid “reopening old wounds or stirring up the rescoldo, the embers, of civil confrontation.” As Tremlett notes:

“That a European parliament should, at the turn of the twenty-first century, be passing motions about a war that finished sixty-three years before may seem surprising. That it should include in one of those motions a stern warning about reviving the embers of that confrontation shows that the Civil war still had the power to provoke fear.”

Tremlett points out that there are “still thousands of bodies in unmarked graves. The highest estimates talk of 30,000 unidentified corpses. Around 300 have now been recovered.” And he quotes the Spanish author Isaias Lafuente:

“Can a democratic country allow thousands of citizens murdered like animals by a dictatorial regime to remain burried in its roadside ditches? Can it tolerate this while a man who allowed and encouraged the mass killings rests under the altar of a Christian basilica? The answer is so obvious that it is almost an offence to have to ask the question.”

Tremlett concludes that the Spanish Transicion “was a success because Spaniards made a supreme effort to find consensus.” At the same time the transition was still very violent, with more than a hundred demonstrators killed by the police in its first five years and many more killed by ETA and other left-wing terrorist groups.

As I set aside the book and look around at the affluent young crowd in this Barcelona cafe on this November day in 2007 my thoughts wander back to the Balkans. Why is so hard for outsiders to show respect for the achievements of people there? Have we forgotten how hard the road to a democratic consensus, to stability and prosperity, was in our own countries?

In fact, it did not take Bosnians decades to answer the question posed by Lafuente: a sign of European maturity that deserves some recognition. And if we expect Serbs (I believe rightly) to confront the crimes of their recent past, to openly address atrocities committed in their name in neighbouring states and in Kosovo and to hand over those responsible for mass killings: should we not at least be more aware of the enormity of this challenge under conditions of physical isolation, economic turmoil and social crisis? The outside world reprimands Kosovars (I believe rightly) for not setting aside all feelings of hatred against former oppressors, for not turning a page and moving on. However, why are we not more prepared to accord respect for those efforts that are made in this direction?

Tremlett notes that “Spain will probably not be fully ready to confront its most bloody episode until all those involved are dead.” The people of the Balkans do not have this choice: they try to build new forms of consensus, stable democracies and prosperous economies while at the same time confronting the ghosts of their pasts. In the long run I believe that this could well be to their advantage: but in the short term it certainly requires a modicum of understanding – if not empathy – by outsiders for the challenges faced by the people of the region.

Or is there another way to read the Spanish experience? Certainly if you are interested in how countries – in the Balkans, Turkey, elsewhere in Europe – deal with their past I highly recommend The Ghosts of Spain. And do let me know, once you have read it, what, if any, the lessons of Spain in your view might be for the countries of the Balkans.

Filed under: Bosnia,Europe,Spain — Tags: , , , — Gerald @ 12:06 am
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