Political Fortresses, Historical and Contemporary

Trip Start Sep 02, 2010
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Trip End Jun 13, 2011


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Flag of Spain  , Andalusia,
Sunday, May 29, 2011

We were only in Granada for a short 24 hours, but we saw and learned a whole lot about Spain's history of political upheaval: thanks to her multiple familial dynasties, her religious wars, and her proximity between Africa and the rest of Europe. 

We also learned a whole lot about Spain's current state of political and economic upheaval. 
 
I'd previously understood just a bit about the Moors' presence in Spain, but visiting the Alhambra and Generalife palaces in Granada gave me a much better picture of their history. While we walked around the Alhambra (not just a palace, but a fortress as well), we could carefully inspect the beautiful features of the Moorish architectural style--contrasted with those (which were not so detailed or elegant) which were added later by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. It was so interesting to learn about how Arab culture influenced the Moors' architectural choices. The palace's external facade was plain relative to its highly decorative interior, and the theory is that such beauty should be reserved for the sultan and his family--that, and they wanted to appear modest to their subjects, who lived down the hill. But under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's reign, the facade (along with the new buildings they constructed) became more decorative, so their (newly converted) God-fearing subjects would know precisely to whom they were to pay their respects. 
 
Walking from room to room--and from one little courtyard to another--was magical. As we moved through the doorways (which were so sculptural, so intricate), our steps would trace the little channels of water that connected two fountains. Our movement mirrored the flow of water throughout the palace. And on such a hot day, dipping our hands in the water was so soothing...as was the smell of the orange trees in the courtyards.
 
The peaceful atmosphere at the Alhambra and Generalife (which translates to "garden of lofty paradise"; it was the sultan's country palace) belied the place's violent history. It may seem now like a place which celebrates the attractive duality of its Moorish and Catholic traditions, but it was not always so. During the Reconquest, Granada was the last strong-hold for the Moors--and also a sort of "ground zero" during the Inquisition. Also, supposedly the Alhambra was the location where Queen Isabella granted Columbus his exploratory passage which led him to "discover" the New World. Such a discovery may have brought Spain great riches, though only at an enormous, horrible expense for those whose land was stolen. 
 
Remembering Spain's dark past made us think a bit more carefully about its current political and economic state. As we've been moving from city to city--from Spain's west coast to its east coast and down south--we've seen the town plazas swarming with young protestors. Many of them camp out in tents or under communal tarps: their own little political "fortresses." As you all may have been reading in the news back at home, the people's main concern is Spain's high unemployment rate (hovering around 21%--and closer to 40% among young people). Most of their grievances are directed toward Spain's federal government officials, who just a few months back had to suspend the public works projects they'd just created. (One of Dan's relatives said that really, Spain can't be blamed for such cuts--they're under pressure from the EU.) Others say the main problem is mistrust and greed; they claim there's no transparency for the government workers, many of whom earn ridiculously high salaries or who have milked their bureaucratic positions for too long. 
 
On the one hand, it seems admirable and inspiring that so many young people are taking to the streets, especially since most of the protests in Spain's recent history have been organized by specific unions--and most of the time, they request longer vacation time or shorter work weeks. The spontaneous demonstrations going on now seem, to me, more inspiring and more legit. (Of course people need jobs! But 35-hour work weeks...no.) 

On the other hand, the young people we spoke with told us that they are given an unemployment handout from the government--and they get it as soon as they graduate from college. They also admitted that it's common for people to take jobs under the table--so they can still get their monthly welfare package. Hearing numerous people admit to receiving such dual "handouts"--and walking by the protest places, which look like fancy hippy communes, with the tarps juxtaposed with iPhones and laptops--made me feel sad. But not so much for these young folks. Sad for other protesters we saw in other countries we visited--Laos, Tanzania, South Africa. In many of these countries, the people's concern is not only their high unemployment rates, but their poor standard of living. The protests we saw in Cape Town were focused on getting better sanitation (such as Port-o-Potties) out to the townships. And in Peru (which, we all remember, bears its own burden of Spanish history), people were rallying to just get running water to their towns. And actually, I recall being so inspired there because the "protests" weren't angry; they were celebratory. They were pleas made by people with smiles on their faces. Not young people with fancy iPods and spray-paint bottles in their hands.
 
And what about everyone in Egypt? Or Libya? They can't even protest without fearing for their safety.
 
I suppose I really can't draw these comparisons or assume that one group's protest is more "worthy" of our attention than another's. People's grievances are obviously relative, and these are tough times all around the world. And I also recognize the position I'm writing from: I am very, very lucky to have a job that I'll return to back home. (Not to mention my good fortune at having had access to clean food, a warm home, and a supportive family as well as various educational opportunities.) And let's be honest, what am I going to protest for back home? Probably not much. We all know that young people in other countries are far more politically active than those in the U.S. So at least these young Spaniards are engaged and are fighting for what they want. 
 
As Spain nowadays honors the beauty and ingenuity of its Moorish cultural history alongside its Catholic religious history, hopefully, it will also soon honor the needs of both the old and the young, the rich and the poor. 

But I also hope other people around the world--those who can't afford to broadcast their grievances on YouTube and Facebook--will get the attention and the help that they deserve.

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