When Americans go to Europe for the first time, they are often amazed by just how old everything is. I’ll count myself among the tourists whose initial thoughts on Spain included: “Wow, this place has so much more history than the States!”
It’s true that many of the cities, streets, schools and buildings here are at least twice as old as their counterparts in the United States, but it’s wrong to assume this means Europe has more history.
I’m not sure whether or not the past needs to be preserved to be considered a part of history, but I like to think that everything that happened in the past can be labeled as such. If we only preserve the times, people and places that are labeled as historical, we might ignore everything that the dominant cultural narrative hasn’t considered important.
People have lived in the Americas for thousands of years and as a byproduct of living, they have created their own history. We just choose to regard the history of Europe and European imperialists as more important.
But I digress. In the city of Granada, where I am currently living and studying, it is easier to see the history because it has been well-preserved. Some of the streets in the older neighborhoods are around 1,000 years old, and the political graffiti on the ancient neighborhood walls show that the history is not only preserved, but is continuing to develop.
Interestingly, not all of the well-preserved and revered history here is Christian or European. The city’s most popular tourist destination is the Alhambra, an Islamic palace originally built by Moors in the 11th century. Even after Granada became very Catholic and simultaneously hostile to Muslims, the palace was maintained for Christian rulers and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site revered by tourists and scholars for its Islamic architecture.
Granada’s Islamic history plays a huge role in its tourism and in its larger economy as well. However, in 2010, Muslims only made up about 2.3% of Spain’s population.
Considering Spain’s history also includes the Spanish Inquisition and a fascist regime that refused to recognize any religion other than Catholicism, this small statistic isn’t very surprising.
Since Islam plays such an important role in Spain’s history, I wondered if I would see the same streak of Islamophobia that has penetrated many other western and predominantly Christian countries.
To be fair, I haven’t seen or heard of any specific instances of recent Islamophobia in Spain. Yet nearly everyone I have spoken to said that even if they personally don’t have a problem with Muslims, Muslims are generally not well-liked. They do not integrate well with the rest of society. It is necessary to be cautious about ISIS right now.
I constantly hear that Spain is a very welcoming place, besides its occasional Islamophobia and homophobia. Whenever I hear this, I have to wonder who exactly Spain is welcoming. Even compared to Storrs, the city I live in feels fairly homogenous.
There are Gitanos (Romani/Gypsies) and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, but they are not integrated into the regular workforce. Even when they could play a role in celebrating Spanish history and culture, they aren’t included.
For instance, one of my professors told me that when the travels of the Three Kings are reenacted in a procession every January, it is not uncommon to see the African king portrayed by a white man in blackface.
I did not write this to knock Spain, but rather to provide myself with an opportunity to reflect on the treatment of minorities and history in the United States. While Spain is not perfect, it will at least acknowledge (even if only for the sake of tourism) the important role that Muslims played in influencing their art, architecture, food and language.
Molly Miller is a staff writer for The Daily Campus currently studying abroad in Granada, Spain. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.