It’s midday. Not the 12 o’clock sandwich break at your desk that comes to mind nor the 2pm midday pause button that slows this entire country to a digestive halt for its civilized daily lunch break, but simply a natural breath in the equator of the long day.
A young man climbs a spiral set of stairs and takes in the privileged view that spreads out in the valley below him. He pauses, takes a deep breath and then something happens.
Something that hasn’t been heard on the skirts of these sometimes snowy mountains in more than 500 years, yet something that once rang out 5 times a day across most of this peninsula for almost 800 years.
The Islamic call to prayer.
The place is Granada and the privileged view is the Alhambra nestled in the flamenco dress skirts of the Sierra Nevada. A city so famous that it was already called the “bride of Al-Andalus” back in the 14th century when the great traveler Ibn Battutah described meeting residents from far off mystical silk road stops like Samarkand, Tabriz, Konya and India.
The traveler from Tangier therefore probably wouldn’t be surprised as up to 8000 visitors a day from all over the world tick off another of the 1000 places they must see before they die just across the valley, but sheltering under mossy clay tiles from the freezing winter rain, few people notice the lilting words that get lost under their rain drummed umbrellas.
Looking beyond the busloads of tourists on quickstop guided tours, I find that the city is still a place where cultures and people from all over the world meet and more importantly, interact.
I had come on a traveler’s pilgrimage to see what was left of Ibn Battutah’s 14th century Gharnatah (Granada) and to find out if there was any silk left on the lanes and roads that wind up the sides of this sharp valley.
A Surprising Encounter
Meandering through the Albaycin, the cardamom flavored neighborhood originally created to house Muslim refugees fleeing the advances of the Christian north, I see that this barrio still has a human pulse.
Just behind the stacks of postcards, dish soap and toilet paper are still on sale. Homey Moroccan restaurants, multinational guesthouses and multilingual signs are set to a soundtrack of buskers melding Hendrix infused flamenco under Moorish arches, all of which is punctuated 5 times a day at prayer time, not to forget the full stop of ringing church bells.
The Islamic call fades and the faithful few that have ventured out in the deluge, dart into the new mosque that has recently been added to the neighborhood’s mix.
Looking over to the few still desperately hoping for a break in the weather on the mirador San Nicolas, I notice that their umbrellas are slowly turning white as the rain changes its tempo. Not only have they missed their picture, but they missed the call that has brought Islam and with it, Battuta, back to Granada.
Walking down the Camino Nuevo de San Nicolas, a combination of the thickening sleet and the thought of Granada’s famous tapas drove me into the first bar that I came to on the right.
At first glance it seemed like the cookie cutter Spanish bar; a water beaded draft beer tap set before an illuminated glass display case showing off the dark greens of the olives and golden hues of the different cheeses waiting to accompany your glass of beer or wine…all while the omnipresent TV glowed up on the wall.
Shaking off the wet snow and stomping my ill-equipped shoes I realized that the murmer from the glow on the wall was not in the language of Don Quixote, but that of my Tangerine traveler, Ibn Battutah.
A closer look at the walls proved my ears correct as I noticed that the pictures on the walls weren’t of Madrid, but Chefchaouen, a beautiful blue Moroccan village just over the Mediterranean.
Voice In The Wind
Changing my ‘Buenos Dias’ for the more suitable, ‘Sabah Al-hair’, I came upon the welcoming smile of Najib, the owner of Manchachica, a delicious tribute to his native blue-walled city.
Easily sliding from Spanish to Arabic he told me, “I’ve been here for more than 25 years and working here in our restaurant almost as long.” In between serving beers, laying out tapas, dealing with neighborhood to-go orders and drinking tea he continued, “I’ve been here longer than I was in Morocco, this is my home now.”
Judging by the first name basis that most customers seem to go by, he’s not exaggerating, a welcome feature in the neighborhood.
The young man atop the stairs in the minaret himself is part of this mix, an Asian muezzin calling the resident faithful from Morocco, Algeria, and beyond. What is different about this call is that unlike the pumped up super amplification that roars from the slender minarets of Cairo, the crackly tape recorded versions heard across Iran or the 60+ competing voices that boom across the biblical valley in Sana’a, here it’s just a man, his voice and the wind.
Why the unplugged version in what is probably Europe’s noisiest country? Well, standing just below it was easy to see that the mosque has powerful neighbors and anything that might eclipse their clanging bells, literally or otherwise, is viewed with extreme suspicion.
Integrate, If You’re Quiet
Spurred by islamophobic sermoning, complaints filed against this mosque and others around the country range from the surreal to the flat out unbelievable.
From the supposed parking problems that it might cause in this largely pedestrian area to possible ‘conglomerations’ in public areas in a country that nearly lives in the street, the underlying message is clear: integrate, but only if you’re quiet about it.
The fact that the mosque itself was built is somewhat of a miracle. Across the country I had seen that permits to build mosques were routinely rejected by town councils and a small but vocal opposition, driving Muslims underground to pray in private homes and even garages. This rejection and ensuing secrecy creates the perfect environment for disgruntlement and anger, the antithesis of the wished for integration.
This overzealous protectionism seems counter productive in a country where secular voices demanding a clearer more well-defined separation between Church and State grow stronger everyday.
Young people with no living memory of the Catholic dictatorship that ruled the country for more than 40 years are asking why Catholic symbols are ubiquitously present in public spaces in an EU country whose constitution states that it is aconfessional.
At a time when the very presence of religion in public life is being questioned, inter-faith bickering seems to only divide the dwindling number of believers in 21st century Spain.
This second class treatment that Muslims face is not unique to Granada, nor even to Spain. The recent vote in Switzerland to ban the building of minarets reminds us that Islamophobia is rife across the some-called old continent.
Racial profiling at airports and extra security checks for citizens from certain Islamic countries only cements the dangerous notion held by some of a modern crusade. A worry for Muslims, but also a foreboding warning to other minority believers and non-believers alike.
Shadow Of Peace
Part of the solution to this suspicion might lie in the shadow of the minaret overlooking Spain’s most visited monument back in Granada.
Here I find Latin American immigrants who have converted to Islam easily rubbing shoulders with young Americans studying Spanish or the sounds of Flamenco that have also long echoed in these narrow winding streets, while natives of Granada buy their bread from Eastern Europeans working in Algerian bakeries. Ibn Battutah’s mix still holds true today.
The people who live here don’t seem to care whether the Pope grants Muslims in Cordoba the right to share a holy place equally or if a judge in Madrid thinks it’s against public interest for the call to prayer to be amplified over their Albaycin.
And if they do, it doesn’t seem to affect the cohesive atmosphere that is sometimes lacking in other neighborhood-turned-museums around the world.
There is a popular saying in Spain, “Las cosas de palacio van despacio” (government wheels turn slowly) and by the time those higher up realize that in the Albaycin there is a unique opportunity to learn from the past and skip other countries’ mistakes, it may be too late.
But until then, I’ll climb the zigzagging streets that lead up from the Darro river and search for the calm ring of the voice reminding all of us that there are other ways around confrontation.
Have you found pockets of peace in your travels? Share your thoughts in the comments!