Barcelona Welcomes You

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Manuel, the bumbling waiter in Fawlty Towers, is from Barcelona. We know this, you will recall, on the strength of a remark Basil Fawlty made in an episode of the Seventies television series. Seeking to elicit the understanding of a client who had fallen foul of Manuel's customary buffoonery, the John Cleese character apologises with a what-else-can- you-expect commentary on his employee's city of birth.

Were the BBC making that episode now it is possible that someone in the politically correct censorship department might deem such racial - or, at any rate, national - caricaturing to be a little out of line. But it is unlikely that the issue would arise at all. Barcelona today is a byword for cool, taste, high civilisation. The best of old Europe.

Ian Jack, in an admiring piece published in this newspaper a few months ago, contrasted London's crassness with Barcelona's class. A poster greeting arriving passengers at Glasgow airport boasts that the city has "the latitude of Smolensk and the attitude of Barcelona". The Economist recently reported, under the headline "Homage to Catalonia", that Manchester and Leeds are also consciously seeking to emulate the architectural brio and imaginative urban planning of Spain's second city. Last month, the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded its annual gold medal to Barcelona, the first time it had given the internationally coveted prize to a place rather than an individual.

The good burghers of Barcelona, and the proudly nationalist Catalan people as a whole, have long nurtured a smug sense of superiority towards the rest of Spain. Visiting foreigners are continually reminded that Catalans are ms europeos, more European, than the neighbouring barbarians to the south and west - a claim bolstered by the fact that Catalonia, whose jewel and capital Barcelona is, enjoys a standard of living closer to that of Holland than to any other region of Spain.

But all of a sudden, in the last 10 days, all this Catalan complacency has been brusquely rattled. Racism, the disease of the Americans and the brutish nations of the north, has reared its nasty head. It started with an outbreak of violence in an immigrant neighbourhood in Terrassa, just north of Barcelona. It spread to Catalonia's venerable second city, Girona, on Monday. And now it turns out that a number of fashionable drinking and dancing establishments in the heart of Barcelona stand accused of denying entry to people whose skin is a shade or two darker than the local norm.

The weekend before last, long-simmering resentment among a number of locals in Terrassa towards the growing population of north Africans gave way to street protests, to calls for los magrebes to go home, to the stoning of immigrants' homes, to a sinister new sport - or rather to the revival of an ancient one - known as la caza de los moros, Moor-hunting. Inflamed by the pagan-crushing spirit of El Cid, better known in modern times as Charlton Heston, local youths armed with knives roamed the back alleys of Terrassa in search of cowering infidels. One such, identified by the police as Mohammad G, was stabbed within an inch of his life. Another was beaten to unconsciousness with clubs and motorcycle helmets.

The worst of the perpetrators, 15 of whom have been arrested and now face jail sentences for assault or inciting racial hatred, have been labelled by the local press los skins - after a type of Spanish youth who models himself on the good old-fashioned English "skinhead". The lynch-mob demonstrations and sporadic clashes continued in Terrassa throughout last week, eventually being brought under control after the deployment of 100 riot policemen. But hardly had the Catalan bourgeoisie got over this affront to its pleasurable self-image than news came through on Monday of another outrage. An overnight fire had destroyed the door of a city mosque in Girona. Later that same day, down the road from Girona in Banyoles, there was an arson attack on the home not of moros this time, but of a family from Gambia. One woman suffered a broken leg and two broken arms after leaping from a window to escape the fire and another woman, who was pregnant, remains in hospital, with less serious injuries.

Then on Tuesday a report appeared in the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia saying that a group called SOS Racisme had denounced four trendy bars in Maremagnum, a leisure complex on the city waterfront built for the occasion of the 1992 Olympic games, for allegedly having a policy of excluding "magrebes, blacks and gypsies" from mingling with the predominantly white clientele. A spokesman for SOS Racisme, who announced a campaign to persuade people to boycott the bars, said they had the sworn testimony of a security guard to back up their claims.

In a sense, the allegation that such crass discrimination is going on in fashionable Barcelona bars is more shocking even than the violence itself. Similarly, some of the comments made in the last few days by ordinary citizens of Terrassa have been perhaps more shocking - because of the profound social attitudes they reveal - than the physical attacks by the hooligan "skins".

Terrassa housewives were going public, on TV and radio - and in all seriousness - with statements such as, "We're not racists but we want the Moors to go back to their countries.". A rumour has been doing the rounds, that old witch-hunter's favourite, about Moorish attempts to soil the virtue of "our daughters". One middle-aged Terrassa paterfamilias informed the police that he was worried about letting his children play on the swings at the local park. "If a Moor touches my daughter," the indignant father said, "I'll chop him up with an axe."

The reaction of the Barcelona-based Catalan establishment has been, in some instances, hardly more encouraging. The modern, post-Franco, self- consciously super-democratic Spaniards have liked to believe that they are not assailed by the disease of racism in the manner of folk in less tolerant climes. They base this belief, among other things, on opinion surveys in which people are asked questions like "Are you a racist?" or "Are you a xenophobe?" and - surprise - the vast majority say they are not.

Faced with the incontrovertible evidence of the last 10 days that the Spanish are just as prone to racism as anyone else, numerous Catalan commentators, as well as ordinary people in polite Barcelona society, have hit upon an ingenious, and once again typically smug, conscience-salving stratagem. They have seized gratefully - gleefully even - on reports that the area of Terrassa where the racist incidents have taken place is inhabited to a large degree by immigrants from other parts of Spain. From poorer regions like Andalucia and Extremadura. If you look at the small print of the relief-ridden newspaper columns that make this case you will find that these Spanish "immigrants" arrived for the most part in the Fifties and Sixties.

The sorry spectacle that confronts you, therefore, is of the liberal- minded, supremely civilised Barcelona right-thinkers suavely distancing themselves from acts of barbarism perpetrated by - well, we knew it all along - the inferior tribes of the rest of Spain. Racism under the banner of Catalan nationalism is all right, then. And to be distinguished from the crude, inferior variety of racism practised against people who, also by accident of birth, happen to have skin of a different colour.

Although this has been the most common, knee-jerk response to the new problem, it would be unfair to say that it has been unanimous. A small number of newspaper columnists have gone to extremes of self-flagellation, drawing analogies between the events in Terrassa and the recent history of the American Deep South. The autonomous Catalan government and the national government in Madrid, for their part, have been at pains to urge the public and the media to treat the issue with extreme delicacy, warning that future prospects look grim if racism is not addressed seriously and intelligently today.

Government officials know that if Spain has been relatively free of racist problems in the past it is because the country has a much smaller percentage of racially distinct immigrants living in its midst than most European nations. But more legal immigrants are coming over, to join their families, and the number of illegal African immigrants ready to face the perils of the Gibraltar straits can only grow.

The lesson is clear. For all the urbanity and style on display, on the matter of race, Catalonia, and Spain as a whole, has some growing up to do in the coming years. Attitudes must change and they must do so fast. The Catalan television station, based in Barcelona, continues to this day to broadcast repeats of Fawlty Towers. Manuel is not from Barcelona in the dubbed Catalan version. He is not even Spanish. He is Mexican. And he speaks Catalan in a very silly Mexican accent.