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The Long View in Granada

There are many forms of triumph in an ancient city

The front courtyard commands a majestic view. Across the valley of the River Darro, at the summit of the next hill, stands the magnificent Alhambra Palace, its red-toned hues glowing in the late evening sun. Granada’s famous Saint Nicholas Square is just a stone’s throw away but the view is even better from here, the courtyard in front of the Mosque of Granada. Tourists mill around, the tour groups outnumbering the Muslims who have come to pray the dusk prayer. The little shop operated by the mosque does a bit of business. I overhear one tour operator saying that this land was donated by the Saudis; it’s a sort of explanation of how Muslims, who are poor in Granada, could have gotten such a choice piece of property.

It is not in fact true. What is true is that this little mosque, which required more than fifteen years to be approved and completed, is the only one built in Granada in five hundred years. It is this that should seem odd to tourists and visitors. How could it be that in Granada, a city known for its Islamic architecture and for the resplendent Alhambra, mosques would be so disfavored? (There are other mosques that operate quietly in existing buildings; but none others built from the ground up.) It seems an oddity that archaic hatreds could prevail in this place that is legendary for a sophisticated, medieval multiculturalism, for centuries-long harmony between faith and culture.

Standing in the courtyard of the mosque, the air fragrant with orange blossoms and purple wisteria blooms on every trellis and doorway, I feel that Islam, the sensual Islam of lush gardens and intricate architecture, of delicate columns and carved canopies, is everywhere, surrounding all who visit. Within the monuments themselves, it is carefully preserved; tourism is a mainstay for too many here. It is also recreated in expensive souvenirs sold all along the city’s winding and hilly streets. The entire Albaicín quarter, where this new mosque is located, was home to the most intense intrigues that led to the expulsion of the city’s Jews in 1492, when the last stronghold of Spain’s Moors fell to the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. The expulsion or forced conversion of Muslims throughout Spain came over the following decades. Even today, the medieval streets of Albaicín are a wonder of persistence and perpetual human habitation. The mingling of faiths that was then, one wants to believe, is also now. If interfaith harmony could exist for seven hundred years until 1492, then surely it can be resurrected now in a far less religious, secular Spain.

The mingling of faiths that once existed, one wants to believe, could exist even more easily today.

That is not the renaissance that is happening in Granada today. The day after I visit the mosque and take in its breathtaking view, I meet Iman Alyauhariah at the café across from the hotel where I have been staying. Alyauhariah is a regular at the mosque. She is prim and in her late fifties, her hair in a headscarf tied behind her neck, in the Moroccan style. Her blue eyes are earnest as she tells me the story of the mosque I saw the day before. “It was very hard to build it,” she says as she spreads the tomato and orange spread, a staple of the Andalucian breakfast, on her piece of baguette. “When the mosque was opened in 2003, it was after years and years of trying and failing.”

Alyauhariah moved to the Albaicín quarter, most of which commands views of the palace, over thirty-five years ago. It was not so pretty then; the gentrifying forces that would swoop in to “restore” the area and eventually make it the realm of carefully tended gardens and pricey Airbnb’s were decades away. The neighborhood that Alyauhariah moved to was a working-class neighborhood, much of it decrepit because inhabitants had little money to fix the homes, many of which dated from long before 1492. Land was cheap and much of it was abandoned. The Muslims who lived in the quarter, many of them converts who had come to Granada for its history and its legacy of tolerance, were able to buy a plot quite cheaply.

Then they began to think of building a mosque, a permanent place for Granada’s Muslims to pray, sometime in the late eighties. They hired an architect who drew up the plans and submitted them to the city’s municipal council. Alyauhariah’s husband was part of this original group. The plan was rejected. According to Alyauhariah, some of the Catholic families, including many who trace ownership of their land all the way back to the expulsion of the Jews, had raised objections. On paper, the municipal council said that the problem was with the minaret. It would not fit into the architecture of the area.

Mosque of Granada. / Rafia Zakaria

There would be two more plans developed in the following years that would meet the same fate. They, too, would be rejected for various reasons that made little sense; the addition or subtraction of a minaret did not seem to matter, nor did close attention to fitting in with the dominant Moorish Islamic aesthetic. In the meantime, the value of the land was increasing, causing further consternation against the opponents of the building, suspicions that they were able to convert into further denials. Ultimately, the Muslims pressing for construction came up with a new strategy. In a last-ditch effort, they hired the chairman of the Architecture Department at the University of Granada to lead the project. This would be the winning move. The chairman, with his own contacts inside the local government, was able to get a plan approved and the mosque was built. It opened for worshippers in the summer of 2003.

The opposition was never really about the mosque’s design, of course. As the Muslims—both converts, like Alyauhariah, who had moved to Granada to be part of an intentional faith community, and the many Moroccan immigrants who lived in the city’s outskirts—became a visible presence, opposition to them and their religious observance mounted. Unsurprisingly, women with headscarves feel it most acutely as they walk about the streets of Granada. At a meeting with some of them, held at a meeting room at a local NGO, one named Zohra confessed that she had been spat upon because she wears the headscarf. Her friend, an older Muslim convert named Halima, said that she just took off her headscarf when she had any institutional business to do. “My neighbors don’t mind,” she said, “but everyone else looks at me with suspicion.” Younger women shared similar travails; Sarah, a twenty-year-old half-Palestinian, half-Moroccan university student, who had been born and raised in Granada, told of an “experiment” in which she wore a headscarf for a few days (she doesn’t normally wear it). One of her good friends, a person she chatted with nearly every day, refused to speak to her. Others looked away; some, she learned through the grapevine, wondered if she was getting radicalized. She was angry but she took it off.

A lot of these simmering tensions came to a head last year in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Hoping to show that they, too, belonged in Granada and that they were interested in sharing their faith and traditions with others, the Muslim community decided to hold a public Iftar, the dusk feast when Muslims break their daily fast. They chose the Jardines del Triunfo, a public garden that would be in full summer bloom, making a lovely backdrop for the event. It was a good distance from the more contested realm of the Albaicín or the shadow of the Alhambra itself. Those who knew little of Islam could break fast with them, see them as people and long-time residents of Granada, rather than suspicious strangers.

The intent backfired. On hearing of the event, some of the most right-wing extremist Catholics, some of them part of the far-right VOX party, staged a protest, implying that this was no benign Iftar in a plaza in Granada but an attempt at re-conquest. The Muslims, there with their potluck items and plates of dates and children’s activities, were flummoxed. They had prepared only for an evening of religious and cultural interchange and not for this sort of opposition. The shock of it was still visible on Alyauhariah’s face when she recounted the episode a year later, days before the beginning of the next Ramadan. “We never expected it,” she said, adjusting her hijab, “not in this way. The Catholics alleged that we were ‘occupying the public square,’ that we were going to ‘take it over’ and that our prayer had desecrated the place.”

Granada’s Virgen del Triunfo. / Scott Sherrill-Mix

When the Catholics who had objected to the Iftar were interviewed, they insisted that the selection of the venue, the Jardines del Triunfo, had been deliberate. The statue of the Virgen del Triunfo (one of many in Southern Spain), they noted, marked victory over the Muslims. It was only then that Iman Alyauhariah noted the details on the statue, which she must have walked by hundreds, even thousands of times. Under the feet of the Virgen that stands high above the Plaza is a crescent representing the vanquishing of the Muslims so many hundred years ago.

On June 13 last year, another event was held at the site where the Muslims had broken fast and said their prayers. It was organized by VOX and invited Catholics to come and pray and participate in the re-purification of the Jardines around the statue of the Virgen “and to protest against the council of this municipality who, by action or omission, have given permission and consent to a symbolic public space being taken over by the Muslim community.” One Catholic attendee said to a television crew that had arrived to film the event, “We are here because we can’t allow that to happen. They can’t do it in Granada. They can do so in their place, but not in the Jardines del Triunfo that has been ours for so long.”

The question of whose presence predates whose, is, of course, at the heart of the matter, an unresolved issue that lingers like a bitter cloud and flavors attempts at resurrecting Granada’s storied multiculturalism. The hate that came after, that led to the expulsion or repression of everyone but Spanish Catholics, is still a real emotion, as real as the Alhambra and all the medieval streets. As for the Muslim community of Granada, they had no plans of holding another public Iftar this Ramadan, which began this week. “It was a disaster,” Zohra told me; it had not made things any better for them.