Webster’s Spanish Histories

LAST UPDATED: 21 Jun, 2007 @ 10:36
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The Olive Press sent Daniel Mac Auley to the mountains of Castellon to talk to Jason Websterauthor Jason Webster, who claims many countries can learn from Spain’s past experiences

MANY of us have reasons to leave safe havens for exotic shores and Jason Webster, best-selling author of three books about Spain (Duende, Andalus and Guerra), is no different.

“Spain entered my imagination as a boy after I stumbled across some photographs of the Alhambra in a book. I simply thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and immediately wanted to know more about the culture that had been able to create such a masterpiece,” he says.
Born in San Francisco 36 years ago, he grew up in the US, England and Germany before moving to Spain in 1993.

With the intention of learning to play flamenco guitar, Webster spent his early 20s in pursuit of an inner power, the mythical Duende, that when tapped, can move audiences to rapture.

His debut book, first published in 2002, received rave reviews. Based on his memoirs, he revealed a Spain far from popular imagination.

More passion quest than travelogue, Duende provides an insight into the mysterious, inaccessible culture of flamenco. From guitar lessons with the nail-fixated Juan (“we filed, glued, varnished, re-filed, sprayed, blew and generally pampered ourselves like a couple of tarts on pay day”) to falling in love with a married dancer, Webster becomes obsessed with all things flamenco.

Through pacy narrative and crisp dialogue, he creates a sense of place in the conversations between characters. There is humour in unlikely situations and Webster succeeds in depicting flamenco as a way of life, even a way of thinking.

Duende is not only a portrait of an urban Spain in the throes of modernisation, the book also harmonises as a rite of passage for the writer.

The most dramatic passages take place in the capital, Madrid, where Webster falls in with gypsies. Initially seen as a guiri (foreigner), he is unwelcome although his guitar-playing eventually endears him to these outcasts.

He immerses himself in their squalor, drugs and car theft. The realisation this is not real flamenco but simply its dark side is slow to dawn.


“We all ate together, played together, woke up together, slept the same hours, turning ourselves into some sort of collective creature, a unit in which all individuality was lost,” he tells me.

It ends traumatically for Webster as he flees to Granada. Safe from the drugs and crime, he meets a flamenco dancer called Salud (health), who remains his partner today on their mountain farm in the hills above Castellón.

Although relishing his experiences, Webster is quick to counter only the tortured can truly evoke flamenco. “This is a fallacy that has led many flamenco performers into serious drug abuse, as though only by pushing themselves to the edge emotionally and psychologically can they produce the strange ‘magic’ of flamenco people often call Duende.” He has cantaor (singer) Camerón de la Isla in mind, who died in 1992 at the age of 42 after years of drug abuse.

“True flamenco has a kind of power that might be described as morally neutral: it can be used to explore darker aspects of existence, or it can be totally life-affirming. The choice depends much on the performers themselves. But that power comes from something within the person, perhaps a deeper and more intense connection to life than the norm,” he believes.

Islamic past

At the start of Andalus, Webster’s second book, he finds his life in jeopardy once again. While investigating conditions of North African immigrants working illegally in the vast greenhouses of Valencia, he uncovers a slave labour force, exploited, underfed and unpaid.

He is discovered and set upon by violent farmers, only to be rescued by a young Moroccan called Zine. Together the unlikely nomads travel the breadth of Spain with Webster, the historian, in search of the country’s hidden Moorish legacy and Zine, the outsider, seeking employment and romance.

Driven by the belief almost a thousand years of Islamic rule had left more than just an architectural footprint, Webster claims many modern Spanish phrases are derived from Arabic. Hola or hala -an expression of surprise – were adapted from ojalá (roughly meaning “let’s hope so”), which in turn originates from the Arabic phrase in sha’ Allah (God is great).

Similarly, ole and olé (heard at flamenco shows and bullfights respectively) come from wallah, (“By God!”). In Andalucian churches, he tells me, Christians still call out ole, unknowingly invoking Allah.

Published in 2005, Andalus is a timely read. Following the Madrid massacres and recent aborted bombings in Morocco, it is the politics of difference that are in the ascendancy. Now, the North African, if not feared, is certainly viewed with suspicion. In this climate, it comes as no surprise many prefer the daze of accepted wisdom rather than swallow the bitter pill of their true heritage.

“A large proportion of Spaniards want nothing more than to fit squarely into modern, ‘Enlightened’ Europe, and so reject anything that stands in the way of that. For some it’s a rejection of anything ‘Arab’ or ‘North African’ – a kind of racism, really,” he tells me.

Although such denial may have merit as a security measure, in the long-term it is alienating the Muslim minority, who isolate themselves in communities. Here, the contagion of extremism can spread rapidly. Racism is mounting. You can see it in the graffiti of the cities and hear it in the offhand remarks of a people living under threat. Whether real or perceived, there is another way.

Webster explains to me the benefits of a shared religious past, not just for Spain but for other multi-creed countries like the UK.

There are so many lessons for our society to learn from the Spanish experience of living with large Muslim communities. It is scandalous mainstream culture does not pay more attention to this.

“A very similar situation to the one that exists today in many European countries already existed hundreds of years ago, right here. There were good times when the mixture of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures worked very well – and created an environment of intellectual and artistic exploration and innovation that was a direct influence on the development of the European Renaissance.”

He is fully aware that it was not all roses. There were bad times, sectarian violence and forced conversion. Ultimately, the belief Spanish Muslims would support an invasion by an ever powerful Turkey prompted the expulsion of more than 300,000 people in 1609.

“The echoes with our own times, with al-Qaeda and home-grown bombers from British cities could not be more striking.

“We need to learn what went right, what worked for Spain in its past experience, and what went wrong. Otherwise we are very likely to end up making the same mistakes.”

National divisions

Another dualistic conflict that runs like a deep malaise through Spanish history is the subject of Jason’s most recent book – the Civil War.

“What drove me to write Guerra was far more to do with something personal. It was a need to explore the darker aspects of a country I have made my home, to understand Spain better.”

The country in the mid 1930s was fractured. The democratically elected government – a coalition of left wing and centre right parties – fighting for an equal, Republican society on one side; breakaway factions of the army, monarchists, fascists and Nationalists on the other.

The subsequent coup d’etat tore Spain apart.

Near his home, Webster finds a mass grave that triggers another quest through a Spain less than willing to confront its bloody past.

Forced to forget under 40 years of Franco’s dictatorial rule, he questions if the deadly passions of the past have been laid to rest. Or do they remain unresolved, simmering just below the surface? It is an exhilarating read and exposes an era rarely discussed today in Spain.

Critical of Catholicism and politics, Webster still finds consolation in the common man, “The Church still swaggers about as though it had a God-given right to involve itself in everyday affairs. This is a direct hangover from the National-Catholicism of Franco’s rule.

“But it is important to realise the best of Spanish life and culture does not come from its leaders or from the top echelons of society; this is very much a grass-roots kind of place.

“The Spanish share a characteristic common to many Mediterranean peoples: you get on with your life, sneering at the politicians and the authorities, while avoiding them as best you can.”

Three books and 14 years later, I ask Jason what his conclusive impressions of a country he now called home are. He replies: “I feel you could spend a lifetime here exploring and getting to know the place. Spain is a vast, complex and fascinating country. I see it more and more as a kind of mini sub-continent. And the wonderful thing is, there is no definitive account of what Spain means or what it is all about.

“Spain is there to be discovered and enjoyed and everyone’s experience will be different.”

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  1. i have just finished reading Andalus and loved it. I’m something of a Morrocophile myself and am very interested in Moorish Spain. I learned so much from the book including some useful Arabic words and Spanish phrases. I’d like to draw Jason’s attention to The Olive Press issue 62 page 4 where there is an article about a proposed Islamic primary school opening in Granada. Seems encouraging that this tolerance is occurring today in a former Muslim city that has a reportedly intolerant Christian bishop in power. Thanks for an excellent book Jason. Best wishes Mandy, Las Alpujarras.

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