An American Poet in Spain

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The fifth in my series of articles for The Noise.

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“Everything cool, chico?” he asks me in Spanish with a heavy Arabic accent, his dark face poking out from under the shade of his umbrella. I’ve been eavesdropping on him for the last couple hours, understanding nothing, his voice blending with the sound of the small waves tumbling onto the rocky beach—but now he’s speaking directly to me. The sand that spreads between us is an ant’s Sahara.

“Yeah, bastante bien amigo,” I tell him, craning my head back over my shoulder toward where he’s sitting. He smiles, and a skinny arm extends from under the ink-dark shade of the ragged umbrella, beckoning me over. I pull myself up—already sun-drunk from the hours laying on this beach outside Barcelona—and stumble across the tiny desert between us, sitting down heavy next to him.

¿Qué tal?” he smiles, his teeth are like the nearby wharf at the end of the beach, built of cement pilings: angular and broken, tumbled down in a loose line. I imagine his teeth to be covered with the same bright graffiti as those giant cement blocks.

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Ay, muy bien, how could I not be, pasandolo suave here on the beach.” It’s true, after weeks of nonstop transport and mazes of brick cities, cheap rooms and heat, today is full of the glorious feeling of doing nothing. A group of three naked gay men are playing beach ping pong in the sand not far from our umbrella. They’re harmless and macho, strutting around.

There’s another man under the umbrella with us, he’s been mumbling nonstop in indecipherable Arabic since I sat down. He has a lighter complexion that has been burned repeatedly by the strong Spanish sun. There are a few beer cans half-stuck in the sand in front of him, next to the half-full vodka bottle.

“So where are you from?” I ask the first guy.

“Casablanca. Morocco,” he tells me, “though I’ve lived in Spain for almost fifteen years.” He notices that I’m looking at the bleary eyes of our companion. “He’s also from Morocco, but he’s drunk. I like España, it has a little of everything and is a very free country.” A topless old woman crosses between us and the hazy blue Mediterranean. I nod. The two men begin to talk in Arabic, lapsing into French at times. It all blends together.

“I like the sound of Arabic,” I tell him, “I’d love to learn it someday.”

Sí, it’s easy hermano. Go to a mosque, they’ll give you a Koran in Spanish and Arabic, you’ll learn easy.” I smile, thinking this guy is the most relaxed and effective evangelist I’ve ever met. We talk for a few more minutes. Just before I stand to leave, I ask him his name. “Mohammat,” he smiles as he extends his hand. Of course.

Like all countries, Spain is a nation of immigrants, but unlike any other country in western Europe, it was mostly controlled by Arabs for almost eight hundred years, ending in 1492. Just as we still carry the torrid legacy of 1492 with us here in las Américas, Spain too wears its past on its sleeve. In Andalucía, the southernmost province of Spain that was the last to be retaken from the Arabs, the mosques and catholic churches literally blend together.

For several centuries after the fall of its empire, it could be argued that Spain was the Mexico of western Europe. Isolated on the Iberian peninsula, its reputation in Europe held that it was a rural society of darker-skinned people, exotic in culture and sunny in weather.

Yet a far more relevant comparison in today’s world would be this: the United States is to Latin America what the European Union is to Africa. Spain, by extension, could be seen as the southwestern US, or even Arizona. Whereas our southern border is a sea of sand and rock, Andalucía is separated from Africa by a literal sea, less than 30 miles wide.

It’s estimated that in the last decade, over 3,000 people have lost their lives attempting to cross into the United States, most by dehydration. By comparison, the same number have died between Spain and Africa in the last seven months, most by drowning. It is immigration on a scale that no one in this country—on either side of the debate—can even fathom. The connection between the immigration issues effecting both continents is rarely made.

In Spain, immigration is framed much differently. Thanks to its many centuries of empire and current participation in the EU, Spain takes a much more complete view of the situation, seeing it more as a feature of globalization rather than simply “they want our jobs.” Likewise, the response is different. While there is a fair amount of wall-building and militarization, groups such as the pro-immigrant Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de Andalucía acknowledge that “in Africa [Europeans have] sowed poverty for centuries.”

In a way, the Spanish government recognizes this as well. Its plan includes not just reforming its own immigration system, but also economic aide for North African countries such as Morocco. The thinking is that if economic conditions improve in Africa, Africans will have less reason to immigrate to the EU. Nothing in the US’s plan comes close, except for the creation of border factories on the Mexican side, the maquiladores that began in the 1960’s and have proven to be low-wage pits, spawning shantytowns outside of Nogales and femicide in Ciudad Juarez.

The comparison doesn’t end with immigration. In Spain, Catholicism meets Islam just as in Arizona, the Protestant North meets the Catholic South, and there’s a lot to be learned from the two. There’s something to be learned from Mohammat on that Barcelona beach as well: maybe the meeting of two religions can come down to a relaxed conversation between two people, after which they shake hands and go their separate ways. Wishful thinking, sure, but a little hope and a lot of thinking go a long way on either side of the Atlantic.