My ticket stated I would be travelling to Spain; so did the visa stamped (after an arduous application process) in my passport. But when I landed at Barcelona–El Prat Airport, it didn’t take too long to have the feeling sink in that I was in a different country, a different place. My taxi driver, Ernest, corrected any sense of unreality I may have had about being in Spain the minute he waved me over with a smile and a jovial, “Welcome to Catalonia!”
He told me that Catalonia, as the most economically wealthy of Spain’s 17 regions, believed an unfair proportion of its resources were being utilised for more impoverished parts of Spain, rather than on improving its own economy.
This sentiment was echoed by many other people I met, both young and old. Some in fact were so adamant about the situation they insisted I use the Catalan rail line rather than the Spanish one to reach Barcelona from Sabadell – a small town where I spent my first few days in Spain – even though this meant a longer journey with more stops. But perhaps I wouldn’t have wanted to opt for the more convenient Spanish line since the Catalonian people were astonishingly friendly and hospitable to me – a mainly single female traveller, going out of their way to make sure I was well looked after.
Their quest for independence, or at least greater autonomy, is also not entirely without logic or historical background. The right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, after coming to power in 1939, had crushed autonomy in all of Spain’s regions including Catalonia. The Catalonian quest for an independent identity in fact dates back to the 1700s, when the then Spanish monarch annexed the territory. Barcelona also became a centre for the Republican armies engaged in the Spanish civil war and fighting to overthrow Franco. These armies included brigades who came in from many parts of the world.
When Franco died in 1975, the independence movement was sparked again and in 2015 and 2017, after the Spanish Supreme Court in 2010 had crushed the autonomy granted briefly to Catalonia, the majority voted for independence or at least far greater autonomy, but the results of the unofficial elections were not recognised by the Spanish government.
However, many Catalonians ardently aver that they will win independence in the months and years ahead.
The victory of left-wing President Pedro Sanchez after a vote of confidence in the Madrid Parliament in June 2018 provides hope to Catalonians. The posters I saw everywhere seeking freedom for Catalonian prisoners and proclaiming demands for a free democracy in some way reminded me of home and my own country, where there are also a large number of prisoners or people who have gone missing, sometimes because of their search for regional autonomy.
There is also much else in Barcelona which acts as a reminder of home. In street corners of the surreal city designed by architect Antoni Gaudi with its whimsical, fairytale-like buildings and flamboyant structures, such as the still incomplete Sagrada Familia stand groups of shalwar kameez-clad men, speaking Punjabi among themselves, and selling bottles of water to tourists as they walk the sun-baked streets.
A surprisingly high proportion of these men originate from Gujrat. This Pakistani diaspora to Barcelona began in the 1970s. More and more immigrants have moved into the city since then, including a number of women notably since the 2000s, who live curious lives. They are often kept hidden away in homes by the men, who do not want their wives and daughters to be influenced by the western culture around them. In some cases, even though Spanish law dictates compulsory education till the age of 16, Pakistani families are said to have hidden their daughters away in homes. One woman I spoke to as she entered a shop, a dupatta over her head, barely spoke a few words of English, and no Catalan or Spanish. She told me in Urdu, “I hardly meet anyone except members of my own family and other women in the neighbourhood, where many Pakistani families live”.
There are said to be around 50,000 Pakistanis living legally in Barcelona. There are probably many others who are there illegally, waiting for asylum. The local people, who have taken to the samosas and the convenience of small grocery shops that remain open even on Sundays, are somewhat hostile towards the Pakistanis, although writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid and Bapsi Sidhwa, who have spoken in Barcelona, have helped improve the image.
The language poses its own difficulties, with few immigrants speaking more than a few phrases in Catalan. A Pakistani man I spoke to in a park laughed as he told me, “Why would I want to make friends with the goras when I have all my Pakistani brothers and sisters surrounding me?” The language barrier effectively isolates them, creating a different country within Catalonia, which itself is seeking a separate identity in Spain. The three ‘countries’ all jostle to create space and greater comfort for themselves.
The dominance of the Catalan language creates its own problems for the average traveller. I had diligently looked up a few phrases in Spanish before leaving, only to discover that almost everyone I met at hotels, cafes, shops or the many parks I visited, including the colourful, dream-like Park Guell designed by Gaudi, preferred Catalan. The language is similar to Spanish, but the difference is distinct enough to leave me relying heavily on my Google Translate app to decipher menus or to communicate.
But these political problems, the issues of immigration and the current uncertainty over the future, both for Pakistanis and Catalonians, could not take anything away from the wonderful experience of being in Barcelona and smaller cities and villages nearby. Everything seemed to be happening at once — there were music festivals featuring leading performers and artistes happening almost daily, posters pasted around walls covered with skillfully drawn graffiti announcing a myriad of exciting, unique events ranging from participating in a pillow fight with thousands of others to learning to cook (and eat) blindfolded. There was never a quiet moment in this youthful, vibrant city.
The experiences made me think harder about a lot of things: about why people seek territories of their own; about why Pakistanis and other communities such as the Africans I saw selling items on the streets must move so far from home in the hope of a better life; how it is possible for the world to come together in a single city over and over again through a range of cultural, artistic and sporting events. There are no answers. But then, I was not actively seeking them. They simply opened up spheres for thought just as the colours of the city opened up a new corner of the world for me.