Easter is a strange time of year in Spain.
As a puzzled young mother said to me: How do you explain what all the chocolate bunnies, crucifixions and fireworks mean to a two year old boy. How do you? I suggested she crucifies the chocolate bunny and sends him up in a rocket. He’d understand that – sorry that’s rather macabre. No seriously, of the Spanish fiestas, and there is enough of them in Spain, Semana Santa or Holy Week is the biggest orgy of all, celebrated throughout Spain. An orgy of public penitence, street processions, white pointed hoods and giant wooden effigies of the crucified Christ figure, tears of blood dripping from his agonised face or alternatively the brightly statued images of the Virgin Mary and Child, carried by dozens of inebriated men shuffling down narrow streets, accompanied by heavy drums and trumpets with the occasional outburst of a solo flamenco singer – and it is very dramatic. Let’s not forget the obligatory and enormously expensive firework displays – the biggest bangs you will hear outside war time and billows of smoke, as if a bomb had just gone off in a Beirut street.
It’s an odd cultural and religious mishmash and hard to unravel. The hoods of penitents is a throwback, not the KKK on a European holiday, a celebration of public penitence with an echo of the Inquisition. But other parts of the processions, like the outbursts of flamenco singing (in some places in Andalusia) seems more to do with Spain’s moorish and muslim past – possibly. And what are the fireworks for if not just excitement? – no religious significance at all. The fiestas tend to vary from town to town and village to village. I know of one ancient fiesta in a mountain peublo where we lived around Christmas time when some local musicians would go round the houses playing really bad music collecting money (you paid them to go away) which went into a village fund for the poor of the community. I was assured the age old activity had nothing to do with the church and might have been inherited from the time of the bayt al mal in Muslim times. But from so long ago that no-one really knows. Right now, the fiestas stop people thinking too much about the economic crisis. Or as they call it, the “creesis”. It’s such a feature of Spanish life now, you even see Anti-Crisis bread i.e. cheap. I misread it as Anti-Christ bread
The Spanish are slaves to tradition which, like it or not, does help to keep rampant modernity at arms length but their traditions like bullfighting are grotesque, to put it mildly, and there is constant political pressure to abolish it. Catalonia has made it illegal but nowhere else yet. I suspect more for financial reasons than cultural. The bullfighting business admit the twitter generation just isn’t interested. In an earlier post I mentioned how if Islam had emerged in Christian lands it might have adopted some Christian festivals as its own. But I could not see Easter as being one of them. The resurrection of the crucified Jesus appears to me to be a pagan metaphor for the re-emergence of life from the dead earth, a repeating Quranic theme in fact, but devoid in Spain of any divine causation and basically a fertility rite. But despite all this, the human soul is able to bubble through the bewildering mysteries of Christianity and traverse the thin bridge into Islam.
I say this because recently I came across an interesting blog of an American Quaker who professed to be a sufi (?) and who regularly prayed five times a day and fasted – something more than many muslims do I suspect. But coming from a Quaker background myself I see a natural connection between the two. The Quakers emerged in the 17th century in Britain as one of the many dissenting Christian groups like the Ranters and the Muggletonians who were reacting against the established church who persecuted them one way or another. The Quakers abhored idols and, in most cases, the trinity and refused to take oaths. Their meeting houses were plain rooms with no altars, images or crucifixes of any sort, no liturgy and in England not even hymns. Take out the pews and you have a mosque. They were always pacifists and against slavery. They spoke always of the inner light and the equality of all people. Because they were the most trusted in their communities they began all the big chocolate businesses like Fry’s, Rowntrees and Cadbury’s and also banks like Barclay’s. In other words, trustworthy people of faith but with no protective shell of doctrine – something which they actively opposed. The Quaker community I lived in just didn’t have answers to the questions I was asking as a teenager.
Left: George Fox who came from Leicester, who founded the Quakers.
Transition from a Quaker upbringing c.1970 to Islam meant having to put some of my pressing questions of holy war and the repression of women to sleep. At that time in 1970, the issue of terrorism hadn’t arisen. There was only one official custom-built mosque in the UK (Woking) and the word ‘muslim’ most people thought was a kind of cloth (muslin). Others with similar backgrounds to me have made this exact transition for the same reasons. But the final obstacle for me was something much subtler and to do with the veil of doubt inside the heart which I believe began with the massive propaganda campaign against the Turks and Islam by that original neocon Lloyd George, prime minister of Britain at the time of the first world war and which must have influenced my parents’ generation deeply. Lloyd George brought in the writer John Buchan from South Africa who worked in military intelligence there, to create loathing of the Turks who had allied themselves with Germany. His famous books, The 39 Steps and Greenmantle were designed to seep fear and hatred of an unseen foreign power deep into the British psyche to support Lloyd George’s war plans. Blatant propaganda.
Buchan (left) also came up with the slogan The Turk Must Go! (see Fromkin’s book, A Peace to End All Peace) It was convenient for the Empire to portray Africans, Indians, Chinese and Arabs as “the other”, including Jews – not us, and therefore inferior. I think I, and most British people of my generation grew up with the echo of this and it was a strong hurdle, a very subtle hurdle, that had to be overcome. These were the working cogs of Empire which were still cranking on at that time with monstrous colonialists like Cecil Rhodes doing their worst, unhindered by law or morality flying the twin flags of Christianity and trade (ie exploitation) up and down Africa.
Quakerism was proof to me that Christianity could produce noble people who had little or nothing to do with the Semana Santa, the self-crucifiying Phillipinos or the extreme right wing fundamentalists in the USA. No wonder Monty Pythons’s The Life of Brian struck a chord with the public. But seeing the need for sacred law (ie doctrine) is the hardest part of the bargain for the Quakers, but if only they knew how it would strengthen and complete their belief and elevate their lives they might well change their minds. After Quakerism there is only one place to go.•
Spanish culture (especially as you move south) has more in common with North Africa, Southern Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Levant than with other parts of Western Europe. Suffice it to say that one of the most common musical scales used (the flamenco dórico/Ahava Raba/Phrygian dominant) is spread all over the Balkans, the Levant and Asia Minor. The Spanish are about as Catholic as the Berbers are Arabs — in both cultures the older strata persist and break through the acculturation of centuries.