When I first arrived in Granada seventeen years ago, from a multicultural Britain where overt racism had long been socially unacceptable, I was shocked by the racism against Arabs that I found even amongst educated people. It struck me as ironic that while Granada and other towns in Andalucía were cashing in on their Moorish heritage (in particular the Alhambra) to attract thousands of tourists every year, they seemed unashamed of openly denigrating the moros who had settled in the city over the past twenty years or so, mainly from Morocco or Senegal. These people were labelled inmigrantes as opposed to guiris, the rather more affectionate term used for immigrants like me from northern Europe.
I wondered if this prejudice could be a historical hangover, a kind of inherited memory passed down the generations from the centuries of struggle between Muslims and Christians. Or whether it was simply due to the fact that immigration (still on a very small scale) was such a recent phenomenon in Spain. For decades the Spanish had emigrated to other countries – Latin America or northern Europe – either for political or economic reasons. Its people were not used to immigrants. Could it even have something to do with Franco’s use of Moroccan mercenaries against the Republican population during the Civil War?
When I wrote Secrets of the Pomegranate, prejudice and especially Islamophobia was one of my themes. Deborah, the central character in the novel, had a relationship with a Moroccan journalist and faced insults from some of her neighbours as a result. She fought alongside local Muslims (some of them European converts to Islam) for the right to build a mosque in the Albaicín, virulently opposed by many in the neighbourhood. (I remember being shocked by some of the racist graffiti I saw daubed on the walls of my barrio.) After 9/11, an al-Jazeera journalist in Granada was arrested and accused of having connections with terrorists. Something similar happened after the Madrid train bombings in 2004, with which the novel opens. My fictional character Hassan was one of those accused.
In depicting this background to the story, I was not suggesting that racism was worse in Spain, just more open and admissible. Deborah’s sister Alice, who had always lived in England, was also prejudiced, as was their mother. Their suspicion of Hassan was based purely on prejudice.
Now, after the ugly Brexit campaign in the UK with its blatant appeal to xenophobia and its not so subtle message that immigrants are to blame for all the country’s ills, it has suddenly become permissible in the UK too to insult foreigners. The campaign hardly even bothered to distinguish between European ‘economic migrants’ whose status would be affected if Britain left the EU, and desperate refugees from the wars in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, whose countries the West had been complicit in bombing.
Britain has in fact opened the door to precious few of these refugees, considering it is one of the richer countries of Europe. Instead, the flood gates (to use the type of expression employed in the Brexit campaign when talking about immigrants) have now been opened to hate and prejudice, which it seems was always lurking below the civilised surface. I thought Britain had embraced the richness and diversity of other cultures. Was it all just superficial? No more than a liking for Indian food, Jamaican reggae, hardworking Polish plumbers and the open-all-hours Pakistani corner shop? I’m horrified by how little it took to awaken the latent racism beneath. I feel deeply ashamed of my country. The sudden rise in racist incidents is shocking. Now, anyone ‘foreign’, whether born in Britain but the wrong colour, a recent refugee or a longstanding resident – maybe one of the many doctors, nurses and carers keeping the health and social services going – seems to be fair game for abuse.
I’m well aware that a vast number of my compatriots in Britain abhor what is happening as much as I do and are actively taking steps to show their support for those from other races and cultures, in particular helping refugees. Almost half the country voted to stay in Europe and of those who voted to leave, I would guess only a minority are racists. In Granada (and other parts of Spain) too, many are showing solidarity with refugees. The Spanish, after all, know only too well what it is to have to flee their country. Half a million did so as a result of the Civil War or its aftermath.
Prejudice and hatred are the result of division, of a ‘them and us’ mentality that denies humanity to ‘them’. Wars as well as individual acts of hostility result from creating enemies of those who are ‘other’, whether through religion, nationality, class, race, sexuality or whatever. My father, a (secular) Jew from Berlin, seeing the rise of fascism and what it might lead to, felt he had no choice but to leave his country and sacrifice a promising career in law. Fascism is now on the rise in several European countries. A far-right fanatic shouted Britain First as he shot and stabbed an MP known to support refugees. Could it really all happen again? Or can we take hope from the efforts of those moved to action by the negative fallout of the Brexit campaign and the plight of refugees?