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Spain's Little Piece of Africa

The enclave of Melilla considers itself a model of multiculturalism. But some say blissful coexistence is a myth amid tension and fear.

January 11, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MELILLA, Spain — As evening descends along King Juan Carlos Avenue, shopkeepers shutter their stores and people stroll and chat amiably, some in Spanish, and just as many in Tamazight, a Berber dialect.

On a nearby two-block stretch, sparkly Christmas decorations have been strung across the street from Mohammed's Gift Store, around the corner from the Hindu temple and a couple of doors from the 80-year-old synagogue. The Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church tolls its bells for evening prayers.

And a few steps away, the Cervantes Cafe is halal, in accordance with Islamic dietary law.

For half a millennium, the Spanish have held on to this little piece of Africa, an enclave carved by conquistadors chasing the last Moors from Catholic Spain. Melilla and its sister enclave, Ceuta, are sovereign Spanish territory with Spanish citizens and flag, geographically in what is today Morocco: the last remnants of Europe in Africa.

The city's leaders hold up Melilla, the more remote of the two enclaves, as a shining example of ethnic coexistence that can serve as a model for an increasingly divided world. The Melilla mantra, repeated faithfully by politicians and community leaders, goes like this: four religions living side by side in harmony sharing less than 5 square miles and 500 years of history.

Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Hindus do get along better here than in most places these days. But just below the surface, there is tension, latent mistrust and uncertainty over Melilla's identity, economic well-being and future.

Melilla's Christian majority is losing ground to a fast-growing, younger Muslim community that will one day surpass it. Jews have been leaving steadily for years. The Muslims, while making economic gains, still lag behind in their share of political power.

These changes feed a debate over the "Spanishness" of the place and its people, and whether Melilla will survive as a successful experiment in multiculturalism, or descend into dangerous fragmentation.

"Melilla is like a married couple that lives together, they have their suspicions about one another, but they keep quiet," local historian Vicente Moga Romero said. "Then the moment arrives when it all breaks apart."

This strategically significant geographic anomaly also serves as the gateway to Europe for tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from Africa and elsewhere.

Hugging the Mediterranean and hemmed in by Morocco, Melilla can be reached from mainland Spain only by airplane or an eight-hour boat ride. Looking at an official map of Spain, Melilla and Ceuta are like crumbs that fell off the table and are sitting on the floor.

Just about all the people who live in this relatively well-off city of 65,000 identify themselves first as Spaniards. Many of the Muslims, who were born in Morocco or have parents who were, also call themselves Berbers; some of the Christians refer to themselves as Spaniards "of peninsular origin."

"This is a special city," said Jonaida Sel-lam, 28, a Melilla social worker born to a Tunisian mother and Moroccan father. A secular Muslim, she figures she can be Spanish and Berber the way people in Barcelona can be Spanish and Catalan. "Given our unique and I would say privileged geography, the role we should play is that of the bridge between Morocco and Europe, between the First and Third Worlds."

The reality is quite different, she says. Life in Melilla as harmonious bliss is a myth, she says, the slogans about coexistence empty. Muslim residents of Melilla experience the highest unemployment rates, largest number of high school flunk-outs, lowest representation within the well-paid city government.

The mother tongue of most, Tamazight, is relegated to a second-class status, she complains -- not taught in schools and infrequently heard on state TV. Most people of Moroccan ancestry, even if their families lived in Melilla for generations, could not hold Spanish citizenship until the mid-1980s.

Though few will talk about it openly, some Catholics view their Muslim neighbors as a potential fifth column.

"There is an uncertainty, a doubt, a kind of fear," said Joaquin Gonzalez, 61, a retired banker and local head of Caritas, the Catholic charity whose clientele in Melilla these days is nearly all Muslim.

"Melillianos wonder, if someone retains ties to Morocco, then, at the moment of truth, will they be a true Spaniard, or will they be Moroccan?"

Morocco periodically asserts a claim to Melilla. Sel-lam and others think politicians here use the threat of an attempted takeover by Morocco as a red herring to stoke anxiety in a Catholic population fearful of a threat to its Spanish identity -- and to keep the Berbers in their place.

Juan Jose Imbroda is the president of Melilla, a position actually closer to that of mayor or governor. Under Spanish law, Melilla and Ceuta have the unique political status of "autonomous city," which means they are a notch above a city but below an autonomous region such as Andalusia or Catalonia.

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