I might not be an American citizen, nor raised in America but I can certainly relate to Spain in many aspects as I am a Muslim, born in Germany, raised by Turkish parents and now live in Miami. When it comes to identity and who I belong to, until this very day I am very uncertain about belonging. In Germany I am the Turkish/American, in Turkey the German/American and in America I have been called exotic or a mix or simply European. I would have thought going to Spain would be like Germany, but this journey has proven me otherwise. I had the opportunity to see Europe from a different perspective as well as Islam.
Starting in Madrid, besides the beautiful museums we got to see with famous paintings such as the Guernica by Picasso in the Museo Reina Sofia or Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez in the Museo del Prado, we also had the opportunity to see a beautiful park called El Retiro with many little details that make this park unique; a memorial with pine trees of the 191 who died in the terror attack including one for the police that sacrificed themselves, statue of a fallen angel called Fuente del Ángel Caído by Ricardo Bellver, Cuesta de Moyano book fair, an incredible Palacio de Cristal with different exhibitions of contemporary art, and a beautiful lake with boats.
In Madrid I focused on the neighborhood Sol, the heart of this city but not geographically, this area is popular for its stores and plaza mayor, a town square in which there used to be bull fights and executions. La Mallorquina, the most popular café in Sol founded in 1894 is a must go, from pastries to any type of coffee, and a known drink Café Granizado which is a coffee in slush ice texture. I could imagine myself sitting upstairs every morning, enjoying the view of Sol, and watching locals, tourists, gypsies walk by.
Sol is the hot spot for tourists, this is very recognizable by the many souvenirs stands offering bus tours through Madrid, lots of key chains and bracelets of Spain, Madrid or even their soccer team and many more touristic features such as Starbucks in every street you turn or even Taco Bell which are two major American companies that attracts tourists as it delivers them a sense of familiarity. There is a psychological aspect behind putting a familiar company in touristic areas, if an American visits a foreign city where everything around them is new and unknown, in a good way. If they see a familiar store or company like mentioned above, the chances of them going to a Starbucks for a drink they would back at home are very likely as I can speak for myself included. Sometimes next to all the new and amazing food we get to try, at the end you pick what is familiar to the eye.
I had the opportunity to watch a bull fight in Madrid in the famous Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, it was an amazing experience since it was a big cultural shock for me seeing Spaniards cheering up on the bull fighter provoking the bull and stabbing into the animal. If this would exist in America or Germany, it would be seen as morally wrong in many aspects, as it is a torture for the animal and not easy to watch for many people. The Spanish are very proud of this tradition, and I truly respect that.
My memory of Madrid is a comparison to New York City, I have lived in Brooklyn for a year and fell in love with the city, it was a hectic life, a city that never sleeps and full of different people, however it is very similar to Madrid, not culturally but the concept of the metro system, the structure of the city, a hot spot for tourists, a park with verities and very meaningful monuments as well as museums. A big aspect that Madrid has but New York never will is the Art and history, Guernica and Las Meninas, El Greco, Goya and Velázquez.
I have come to realize that even if Spain is in Europe, considering my background and the countries I have been to, it reminded me the most of Turkey, not just the streets and houses but also the people, the hills, the food and most importantly their connection to Islam. Spain’s history has influenced this country even if many monuments have tried to cover it with Christianity, it should be appreciated that the Moors shaped Spain as it was under Muslim rule for 800 years especially in the South, Andalusia, and made it to the country it is today. From architecture to culture and even traditions, Spain is a perfect example of a country that once had all monotheistic religions live in peace together. The media, and the way history is taught nowadays leaves a negative perspective towards Muslims in many people as they are represented as terrorists, however this trip has made it possible for all non-Muslims to have a positive outcome. The cities that made me realize this the most were Sevilla, Cordoba, and Granada. Three cities in Andalusia that kept the most of Islam as much as possible and has its most Arabic residents compared to more northern cities in Spain. In Cordoba we got to see the upmost beautiful Mosque that has been converted into a Church but is known as the great mosque in Cordoba and the magnet for tourists. When I first entered the Mosque – Cathedral of Córdoba, I had difficulties understanding how it became a Church as they kept the remaining structure and art of the former Mosque. I felt very welcomed and forgot that we are in Spain for a short moment, this place has touched my heart in positive and negative ways. I was so proud to know how tourists come to see a Mosque, how Arabic literature was kept, and it is appreciated to once have been a mosque, however I was very hurt and disappointed to see that Christianity was represented as above Islam by rebuilding an Altar in the middle of the mosque with a higher ceiling and in representation of power and victory, under stable but very hurtful. I observed my classmates a lot during our visits in the Islamic influenced parts of this trip and what I have realized is that they got lucky. They were able to see my religion from a different angle and I am very convinced that any fear towards it has been resolved thanks to this trip, a fear that only developed from media. After visiting the great Mosque and Alhambra, they approached me and my other two Muslims classmates asking more question about our religion and showing genuine interest.
Arriving in Barcelona was like arriving in a new country, apart from Spain since it is Cataluña. Besides Barcelona being Catalan, it resembles Miami a lot, the beach, the people and the art by Antoni Gaudi, an artist who was influenced by Islamic Architecture and the so called Mudejar art, however that is not really made known. Barcelona has a beautiful beach, an amazing night life and massive tourism. This city was Miami with a touch of Gaudi.
The cities we have visited were all unique in their own way, each city widened my perspective of Spain, I got closer to my religion, and I was able to feel a part of something a certain sense of belonging. The most beautiful part of this program were the people and the experiences we share, nothing can take this away from us. The hikes in El Escorial, Toledo and Montserrat will be my forever favorite memories, I have never felt more free in my life, the urge of wanting to reach to the top of the mountain, the struggles in between due to dehydration, incline or simply the heat and then the final, feeling of success and being proud of myself for making it every time and striving for even more, always looking for more places to climb on top. I have cried, laughed, and loved a lot during this trip, and I am so content that nothing and no one can take these memories and feelings away from me. I am proud of myself and lucky for this experience.
All information from walking lectures by John W. Bailly and baillylectures.com
All photos taken by Melis E. Gercek CC by 4.0