‘Las Ramblas cries but it is alive’: Barcelona recovers historic defiance

Spain’s second city mourns the victims as the shock sinks in that the Catalan capital has joined the list of terrorism targets in Europe

From the death, confusion and fear of Thursday’s terrorist attack, the Barcelona boulevard of Las Ramblas has returned to its historic role as a centre of life, reflection and defiance.

The paving stones on which the victims died have been cleaned of blood and transformed into a shrine that widens by the hour as mourners bring more tokens of sympathy – flickering candles, bunches of flowers, soft toys and messages of solidarity, love and defiance from around the world.

The words are in Arabic, English, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, French and Hebrew. They come from individuals, embassies and business groups, from tour parties and religious groups.

“Las Ramblas cries, but it is still alive,” read one. “Stop Daesh. Stop fascism,” asserted another. “No words. Just love,” concluded another.

But the most common phrase was “No tinc por” – the Catalan expression for “We are not afraid”, which was also shouted out after a minute of silence on Friday at a memorial service attended by tens of thousands of people, including the king of Spain, the Spanish prime minister, the Barcelona mayor and the president of the Catalan government, who stood side by side in a rare display of unity for this fiercely independent region. The nation is in the midst of three days of mourning, but there is far more than grief on display on Las Ramblas, which has never been a place where time stands still.

Shortly before the Spanish civil war in 1936, the revolutionary poet Federico García Lorca described Barcelona’s main thoroughfare as the most joyful street in the world. It was he said, “the street where all the four seasons live together. The only street I wish would never end. Rich in sounds, abundant in breeze, beautiful in its encounters, old in its blood: Rambla de Barcelona.”

Two women hold placards that read ‘We suffered it too’ and ‘We are against any injustice’ at an impromptu memorial two days after a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona’
Two women hold placards that read ‘We suffered it too’ and ‘We are against any injustice’ at an impromptu memorial two days after a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona’ Photograph: Reuters

These words are now circulating as never before on social media, as more people are drawn physically to the space where 14 people were killed and dozens more injured by a van driven at high speed through the crowds by Moroccan jihadists.

Guillem Gargallo, a restaurant waiter who had come by motorcycle to light a candle, was in tears, but determined not to let sadness breed anger. “This is very hard for us Catalans. We love our city. We never thought this would happen here,” he said. “We must maintain our normal lives. If we dwell on it too much, it will pull us all down.”

Most of the kiosks in the centre of Las Ramblas are closed. Every 50-100 metres is a shrine. At night, hundreds of people gather around these glowing pools of remembrance. Some stop by on the way home from work. Others during a walk with their dogs or on the way back from shipping. Many were tourists, snapping sad-faced selfies against the latest backdrop of shared anxiety and anger.

The murderous route appears to have been chosen for maximum global impact. As well as being crammed with camera-carrying tourists hooked up to social networks around the world, the 500 metre stretch of killing started and ended on two of the city’s most famous and symbolic landmarks: the Canaletes fountain, where fans of Barcelona FC usually celebrate their team’s triumphs; and the Mosaico de Joan Miró – one of three artworks by the Catalan surrealist that the city commissioned to welcome overseas visitors arriving by air, sea and land.

At the former, one local football fan, Josep Gargallo turned up, as he has done countless times, in his team’s football shirt, but this time he was paying his respects and trying to salvage something positive from the loss. “It’s still sinking in, but I believe this will make our city a better place,” he said. “We are very united. It makes me proud the way people have responded with offers of help and hospitality.”

A few steps from here is the building where George Orwell first stayed when he came to join the International Brigade in the fight against fascism in the 1930s. Back then, Las Ramblas was a centre of socialist idealism, fluttering with red and black flags, More recently, the displays are more likely to be advertising and – until last Thursday – the major concerns were excessive tourism, gentrification and tensions over Catalan independence.

Already there are accusations that this tragedy is being exploited in the tussle between Madrid and Barcelona over that independence. Some locals grumbled at an El País editorial yesterday that suggested the city had dropped its guard because it was too focused on an upcoming referendum. The counter-argument here is that Madrid is responsible for the lack of coordination between the Catalan and Spanish police in counter-terrorism. But most people were at pains to keep such disputes at bay. There was a notable absence of flags from either side at the memorial ceremony and on the street.

“This is not the time to go into that issue. We’re all crying for the same reason. We’re all praying for the victims,” said Lucia Gil, a teacher from Salamanca, who sat in reflection beside the Mosaico de Joan Miró, now entirely covered by candles and flowers. “I was thinking about the blood that was on this spot. I was thinking it could have been me. I was going to walk here at that time, but I stopped in a side street to get my nails done. That manicure saved my life.”

On another side-street, dozens of people fled into a tapas restaurant called Bo de Boqueria. They closed the door and took everyone to a terrace at the back of the building. “We thought we were going to be killed. People were shouting and crying,” recalls waiter Imran Sajid. “For the first 10 minutes it was total confusion. Then we put on the TV and saw what had happened.”

A placard reading ‘Pray for Barcelona’ on Las Ramblas.
A placard reading ‘Pray for Barcelona’ on Las Ramblas. Photograph: Susana Vera/Reuters

While the immediate fear of an attack has abated, his longer-term concern is about the impact on business.

“This is going to affect us badly. I’m 100% sure of that. People will now think twice about coming to Barcelona,” said the Pakistan-born waiter. “It’ll be like France. Many people will not want to visit.”

Having lived in the city for 14 years, Sajid said he did not expect a backlash against the Muslim community. “The Spanish aren’t like that. They are very open-minded. They accept you no matter your nationality or religion. It’s a welcoming place for migrants compared to the US or UK,” he said. Others are not so sure.

Carmen Pasa, a Romanian who is married to a Moroccan, was one of very few in a headscarf to pay her respects at Las Ramblas. She said she had been crying on and off for a day. “I was too frightened to come at first,” she said. “Today, I wanted to put a candle but there are too many people here now so I have decided to do it tomorrow.” Her worries were not just related to acts of terrorism. “I have felt hostility before and don’t want to feel it again,” she said, breaking into tears.

Although Barcelona has long been a transit point between northern Africa and northern Europe, most of the city’s Muslim community have arrived since the 1960s. Most are Pakistanis and Moroccans, but there is a wide diversity of origins as well as divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Although there have been arrests of terrorists from Girona and Tarragona, until now jihadism was thought to have been relatively weak in Spain, from which 160 people are known to have joined Isis in Syria and Iraq, compared to more than 1,000 from France.

Intelligence chiefs say this is because Spain is better prepared to deal with terrorism, thanks to techniques developed during the four-decade conflict between the government and the Basque separatist group, Eta. But it is also because the Muslim population is smaller (2.1% of Spain’s 46 million people, compared with to the 7.5% of France’s 67 million, and 4.8% of Britain’s 65 million). Some believe that Muslims are also better integrated.

At a late-night kebab restaurant in the El Raval district, the chefs – all from Morocco – said Barcelona was a more welcoming place than most cities in Europe because it was easier to secure documentation to live and work. But many fear this could now change.

“I haven’t experienced any racism here in 12 years,” said a Moroccan, who gave only his first name, Omar. He said he feels more comfortable in Barcelona than in his own country. Chatting over a beer at a tapas restaurant, the 28-year-old chef said he had been encouraged by his Spanish friends, who posted messages of support on social networks. But he fears the attack – even though it was on international tourists rather than Barcelona itself – would stir up hostility to people like him.

“Some people are saying all Moroccans and Arabs are the same. Others differentiate,” he said. “But now I feel that the majority of people hate Arabs.”


Jonathan Watts

The GuardianTramp

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