Granada, Spain

The Moors Are in Fashion, Arabs Aren't

Tourists seek out Arabian flair in Granada's Albayzín district, yet local residents remain sceptical of the Arabs that live there today. Merten Worthmann talked to people of the district in which a new mosque has recently been built.

photo: AP
Granada: The Muslim heritage is cherished, much unlike the Muslims living there today

​​The Muslims already control Marbella. Granada is threatening to fall next. Sister Maria del Carmen and Sister Isabel are concerned. Although their lives are spent behind convent walls, they nonetheless hear what people around them are saying. They complain that the Christian world is failing to resist the Arab onslaught.

The sisters live in a historically important convent located in the center of the old Moorish district of Albayzín. Isabella the Catholic established the convent some 500 years ago, soon after her troops drove out the last Moorish king from Grenada in 1492.

A mosque in the Christian center of the district

It used to be the Christian center of the district. Nowadays, Christianity appears somewhat pallid in comparison to its former self. Things are quite different on the Islamic side. Only a few streets away stands the new Great Mosque, consecrated exactly one year ago by Spain's Muslim community.

The two Franciscan nuns speak from the other side of the wooden grating separating the visitors' room from the retreat wing of the Convento de Santa Isabel la Real.

Too much respect for "the Arabs"?

"Unfortunately, the Spanish are a bit foolish," said Maria del Carmen. "They are just handing everything over to the Arabs." Perhaps the Spanish are afraid of the Muslims, but, according to the nun, they treat them with too much respect.

The sisters remain convinced that their convent sets the tone in Albayzín, yet, perhaps they already suspect that they are quite alone in this belief.

It isn't as if a current wave of immigration is to blame, but rather that the district has experienced a long-running trend reversal. Although very few buildings from the time of the Moors have survived in Albayzín, its narrow and winding network of alleyways and corridors, the high walls around homes and gardens, and the small windows of the houses recall pre-Christian times.

This all serves as a necessary complement to the tourist magnet of Alhambra, the legendary palace of the Nasrid dynasty, which lies on a hill east of the Darro River. Whereas the royal chambers of Alhambra can only be viewed in groups and at predetermined times, the more modest surroundings of Albayzín on the western hill are free to visit at any time and on your own.

Newly found popularity of oriental folklore

Nonetheless, the district had to battle one step at a time for its well-deserved recognition. In 1984, Alhambra made it on to the World Cultural Heritage list – Albayzín managed this feat only ten years later.

The majority of Granada's inhabitants still regard the district as unsafe and poor. It would have previously been unthinkable for them to rave about its Moorish origins. In the meantime, the locals have been caught doubly unaware. It is not rare to find a tourist who has decided to put down roots in Albayzín, having purchased and renovated an old property.

Many immigrants from the Maghreb region have recognized the newly found popularity of oriental folklore and have responded by opening up teashops, Arabic bakeries, and leather and jewelry shops with goods and designs from Morocco.

Western names in Arabic calligraphy

Many restaurants have water pipes at the ready, and on the Mirador San Nicolás, a square with a panoramic view of the Alhambra, Western tourists can have their names written in Arabic calligraphy.

The growing popularity of Albayzín among visitors from around the world has finally brought the local population on side. The Fundación Albayzín, which was only established a few years ago and serves to preserve the district's cultural heritage as well as distributing funds from the EU, has begun to offer sightseeing tours to the local population.

The citizens of Granada are discovering with new pride that which they have always had at their own doorstep. Standing between cypresses and orange trees in the Moorish ornamental garden of Casas del Chapiz, one impressed elderly woman said to another, "We should act like tourists more often! What do we really know? Our shopping streets and that's it."

Xenophobic neighborhood

This new interest, however, cannot erase all of the old mistrust. Moorish culture may be highly praised on account of its historical achievements, yet there exists a great deal of apprehension with respect to Muslims of the present generation.

Even 500 years after the Reconquista, the two cultures are regarded as not really being compatible. The builders of the city's new mosque had to battle for years with xenophobic leaflets that originated from the neighborhood.

Even the city administration had to provide meticulous arguments to prove that the mosque wouldn't be completely out of place in the panorama of this Catholic district, even constructing one-to-one scale miniature models.

Veiled women are rarely seen

Malik A. Ruiz Callejas, the president of the Fundación Mezquita de Granada, the foundation that organized the construction of the mosque, hardly wastes a word on these difficulties. Ruiz, a Spaniard in his mid-forties who converted to Islam some ten years ago, simply glosses over the troubles and says, "The neighbors are enthusiastic." Together, inhabitants of the district have fought against a proposed traffic project and organized joint evening meals in the Islamic congregation hall.

Ruiz expressly advocates the policy of an "open mosque", and he also posts all Friday sermons on the Internet in Spanish. The garden of the mosque is freely accessible. The olive, pomegranate, and lemon trees are still young, and it will take a couple of decades before they will offer any shade.

It doesn't matter – the Muslims, filled with the patience and certainty that religion brings, can wait. And the view of the Alhambra is impeccable.

"The West has let its values gone astray"

Despite all the good will, Muslims remain firm in matters of faith. "Islam should not adapt to the norms of Western society, but rather the reverse. The West has let its values gone astray, not Islam," said Ruiz, and then goes off on a historical parallel. "In the Caliphate of Córdoba, Moorish society possessed such immense inner wealth that eighty percent of its citizens could recite poetry by heart, while in the rest of Europe, rats were feasting on the corpses of plague victims."

Ruiz' congregation consists primarily of converts. Arabs form a minority, as only very few immigrants can afford the high rents, let alone consider purchasing a home in Albayzín, a former problem district turned luxury playground. "The prices here keep away many Muslims," said Ruiz.

In fact, the only things truly oriental in the district are its atmosphere and facades. The mosque towers over Albayzín, because here, in the face of the Alhambra, the last Moorish bastion, the symbolic worth is particularly great.

Strictly speaking, Arab businesses are limited to only one and a half streets. Most of the vendors and waiters live in other city districts with far less speculative worth. One rarely sees a veiled woman in Albayzín.

Kamal al-Nawawi can afford his home, but he has lived here for a long time already, almost twenty years. "When people start talking about immigrants, I actually don't feel that I am being referred to," he said. Al-Nawawi is a doctor, but prefers performing as a musician. At an informal open-air concert on the Plaza de Nevot, he played Mediterranean traditional music together with Greeks, Germans, and Spaniards.

Repressed racism guised behind friendliness

A campfire blazed, illuminating the faces of the young and old hippies in the audience. Hardly any Albayzín locals were among the crowd. Al-Nawawi drinks alcohol. "I am pretty liberal in my beliefs. They are more esoteric than absolute," he said. It occasionally happens that a Spanish acquaintance says, "Hey! You come from Morocco. We never would have guessed!"

Behind the apparent praise of his culture and openness, Al-Nawawi senses a repressed racism. He is treated as a positive exception, whereas all other Arabs remain suspect. "The tourists are attracted by all things Arabic in Albayzín, but the local population remains suspicious of Arabs."

One hears rumors that the Aga Khan is looking for a property in the district. Even an emir has made inquiries, but decided against a purchase due to a lack of security. Everyone knows the story of an Algerian who wants to throw out his tenant.

"Many would prefer a German pensioner as a neighbor, but an Arab – heaven forbid!" said Fernando Acale, a young architect from Cádiz. Acale, a dyed in the wool Albayzíneiro for the last ten years, first lived for a time in the Casa Mascarones, a building converted into the district's first "carmen" by the well-known baroque poet and churchman Pedro Soto de Rojas.

Christians picking up on the Moors' traditions

Carmens are houses possessing an ornamental garden. They are an architectural specialty of Albayzín, orderly green oases that mostly lie hidden behind white walls. Often, it is only a few cypress trees that rise out over the walls. The gardens can trace their design back to the time of the Moors, although they were actually first built throughout the district by Christians after the expulsion of the Arabs.

"They regarded Albayzín as practically inaccessible with its narrow alleyways and its confusing array of houses rising almost organically from the ground," said Acale.

Soto de Rojas was one of the first to have created space here, although on the inside. Later, Acale, glancing at his own green space, spoke allegorically of "gardens, hidden behind closed doors" and "paradises, only open to the few."

When Fernando Acale moved in to the Casa Mascarones, Soto de Rojas' garden had long disappeared to make room for garages. The main house had been divided up into shared flats. The parceling up of former stately buildings benefited the poor – especially seeing as how the rich had turned their backs of Albayzín for a century.

The wind is currently blowing in the other direction.

Acale's street is populated by lawyers, professors, and other high earners. Those who can afford it are restoring their homes as authentically as possible. There are also new city guidelines, but Acale just shakes his head when thinking about them.

"They only deal with uniform facades, decorated patios, and whitewash." In fact, in former times, Albayzín wasn't even white. "That was just a silly idea from the 1950s." In the 18th century, the fashion was to paint houses blue. Today, this would be absolutely forbidden.

The cisterns from the Muslim period have been rebuilt

Juan Manuel Segura has survived the bureaucratic obstacle course. His recently restored manor house from the 16th century has regained its former splendor. He thinks back in horror at how he had to battle with the authorities – a fight that he finally won.

Now the gray-haired businessman presides over the Fundación Albayzín and helps decide which buildings in the district will be restored and how. The foundation has also rebuilt all for the cisterns from the Muslim period and, in the future, will set up a small museum to explain to young people the intricate knowledge the Moors had in the field of water distribution.

Despite his undoubtedly extraordinary battle to save the historic architecture of Albayzín, the foundation chairman still reflects the usual reservations heard among the locals.

"The Moors are not today's Arabs"

"Present day Arabs have nothing in common with those from the past. The Moors passed on to us some of their cultural wisdom. Today, we are the ones living in the more developed culture. Now it is up to us to show them the way."

Segura would first of all like to limit the Arab vendors who display their wares so far out onto the sidewalk that locals feel as if they are running a gauntlet. Yet, it is just this colorful bustle that attracts the tourists. Segura replies that it would be horrible if the city merely submitted to the will of tourists.

The Franciscan nuns should hear these words. Only a few months ago and at the insistence of the foundation, the convent first opened its doors to tourists (although advance notice is required). It was a difficult decision that took almost thirty years to reach. The tourists have money and the nuns need it.

Their garden, long closed to many, is finally open to the public. Whether this is really paradise or heaven on earth remains a matter of faith.

Merten Worthmann

previously published in Germany's weekly DIE ZEIT, 8 July 2004

Translation from German: John Bergeron

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