The story of Perejil: Between a rock and a hard place

A chunk of rock 200 yards off the coast of Morocco, used only by grazing goats, has been the scene of a farcical fight for occupation. But, reports John Carlin, the little battle has big implications for Europe's relationship with Islam
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There's a certain point along the N340, the highway that runs along the southern coast of Spain, where the road twists and turns and climbs so dizzyingly that it becomes almost impossible not to lose your bearings. That's what happened to me, at any rate, on a precipitously high stretch a few miles past Cape Trafalgar, on a drive east towards Algeciras and Gibraltar. Out of my right window, where I had expected to see the Atlantic Ocean, I beheld a vast and shockingly unexpected wall of mountain. Looking down, straight down and very far, I saw a sliver of sea and I understood that the wall obscuring my view – dusty brown rock so close I imagined I could touch it – belonged not to Western Europe but to Islamic Africa.

There's a certain point along the N340, the highway that runs along the southern coast of Spain, where the road twists and turns and climbs so dizzyingly that it becomes almost impossible not to lose your bearings. That's what happened to me, at any rate, on a precipitously high stretch a few miles past Cape Trafalgar, on a drive east towards Algeciras and Gibraltar. Out of my right window, where I had expected to see the Atlantic Ocean, I beheld a vast and shockingly unexpected wall of mountain. Looking down, straight down and very far, I saw a sliver of sea and I understood that the wall obscuring my view – dusty brown rock so close I imagined I could touch it – belonged not to Western Europe but to Islamic Africa.

Nowhere in the world are the two ancient civilisations, still competing after all these years, in closer geographical proximity. The seven miles of the Straits of Gibraltar are all that separate Spain – profane, affluent, democratic Spain, on whose beaches, right now, millions of men and women are exposing their legs and torsos to one another – and monarchic, medieval Morocco, where Mohammed VI married a person last weekend whose face and shape were hidden behind a green and gold and silver burka. Exactly a week ago, down on that sliver of sea, Morocco struck a righteous blow against the infidels. To outraged cries from the EU, Nato and Madrid, a dozen Moroccan troops stormed and seized Perejil Island, a rocky outcrop 200 yards from the African mainland inhabited only by goats since since the Spanish Civil Guard upped sticks back in 1963. Perejil, which means "parsley" in Spanish, had belonged to the Spanish crown for more than three centuries. For six days the flag of Morocco flew over the island. Mohammed VI's nuptial delights were embellished by the knowledge that he had added a new jewel to his empire. Parsley was no more. From now on and in perpetuity, so Mohammed thought, the island would be known as "Leila".

Little did the king, his ministers and the daring dozen who had secured the famous victory suspect that the Crown of Spain would strike back as swiftly as it did. Prime Minister José María Aznar, who has less of the panache but much of the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, dispatched "elite troops" to the island at dawn yesterday. The king of Spain, Juan Carlos, was kept abreast of every detail of the operation; a not-particularly time-consuming ordeal, as it turned out, the heirs of Idris – founder of the Arab dynasty that first ruled Morocco – having surrendered Leila without a shot.

If only all wars were as bloodless and as neat. By contrast, even that first Argentine assault 20 years ago on South Georgia, defended as it was by a dozen or so British soldiers, appears as grand an affair as the Battle of Waterloo. Jorge Luis Borges's definition of the war that ensued as "two bald men fighting over a comb" seems all the more appropriate to describe a southern Mediterranean spat that appears to have disrupted the daily life of only one person: the toothless old lady who owns the goats that feed on the greens that give the island its name. Rajma Lachili, who lives in poverty in the nearby Moroccan hamlet of Tsaura, does not appear to have had much of a patriotic stake either way, but she may now be regretting the haste of the Spanish reconquista. She had seen her income dramatically increased by the arrival of her armed compatriots, for it had fallen upon her to feed the new garrison, to supply their daily rations of cous-cous. Asked two days ago by a Spanish journalist to whom she believed the island truly belonged, Rajma Lachili fell about laughing and, spluttering, replied: "To my goats."

The delicious farce of it all, Ealing comedy meets Almodovar, does mask some seriously pertinent matters, however. Matters that reach beyond the uncomplicated world of Mrs Lachili and worry the minds these days of those who inhabit the mighty nations of the earth: the tensions between Islam and the West; and the mass migrations from poor countries to the rich.

Those who have been exciting themselves since 11 September at the prospect of a great "clash of civilisations" may have anticipated something on a grander scale than the Battle of Parsley Island. But, first, it is too early to say what the fall-out may be from this latest blow to Arab pride, this further indignity suffered by the sons and daughters of Islam at the hands of the perfidious West. And, second, what we can say for sure is that the intrinsically harmless little drama played out on the Straits of Gibraltar has raised closer to the surface the ill feeling that stews in many Western minds towards the Muslim world.

On racial matters, Spain has possibly been the most politically correct nation in Western Europe these past 20 years. In contrast to France or the Netherlands or Austria, or even Britain, there has been nothing to suggest that a political party of the xenophobic right might strike a remotely significant national chord; nothing to suggest the emergence in Spain of a Le Pen, or a Haider, or a Fortuyn or even something resembling the British National Party. Moroccan leaders in Spain to whom I have spoken – people who make it their business to denounce abuses and racist incidents against their people – have acknowledged this, which may have less to do with the innate tolerance of the Spanish than with their abhorrence of anything that revives the still-fresh memories of the dark days of Franco.

Something is rumbling, however. Something is stirring in the Western European country that has had the closest historical ties with Islam; the Christian nation that endured the longest Arab occupation. The Moros, the Moors, held the greater part of what is now Spain for close to 700 years. The Alhambra at Granada and the no-less-magnificent mosque of Cordoba bear testimony to the glory and might of the ancient Moorish empire. But it is no longer gratitude that many Spaniards feel towards the heirs of those who bequeathed them such wonders. Increasingly, it is suspicion, resentment and a desire to be rid of them.

Until a dozen years ago, Spain was a net exporter of people, a poor country whose inhabitants gratefully accepted menial jobs in Germany, Britain or sought a better life in Latin America. That has changed. Spain, prosperous and stable, has seen itself abruptly transformed from the most racially and religiously homogeneous large nation in Europe into a multi-coloured, multi-ethnic melting pot. People are pouring in, most of them without legal papers, from Eastern Europe, Latin America and North and West Africa. The surprising thing – surprising at first glance, at any rate – is that survey after survey during the past five years has shown that the immigrants whom the Spanish most reject are the ones that come from their southern neighbours from the Magreb, meaning principally Morocco. The reason this is surprising is that the Moros look almost identical to half the Spanish population. Dress up your average Andalucian and your average Moroccan in identical clothes and there will be no way of telling which is which. The men and women of West Africa, on the other hand, are racially visibly different; yet surveys and day-to-day experience show that they stir far less unease among the native Spanish.

For a period of a year, between August 2000 and August 2001, something like 200 illegal immigrants from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana took up permanent residence on Barcelona's Plaza de Catalunya. These impoverished black men, none of whom could speak even a smattering of Spanish when they arrived, spent their days and nights on the Catalan capital's equivalent of Trafalgar Square and hardly anyone uttered a cheep of protest. Had the 200 been Moros, many of whom speak reasonable Spanish when they first arrive, one may state with confidence that there would have been a public outcry. The police would have had to step in and evict them – Perejil-style – within a week.

Why the anti-Moor sentiment? Partly it is historical. While the younger generation have been taught in school to value the contribution of their Islamic forebears, all generations before that – since Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Moors from Spain in 1492 – were indoctrinated in the Catholic view of the Moros as vicious, treacherous and, of course, dangerously heretical. But a much larger problem has been the more common one elsewhere of the difficulty of reconciling the two lifestyles. In Spain, the clash of cultures has tended to be all the sharper because of the tendency of North African labourers and their families to settle in the kind of small rural towns whose inhabitants, in Spain as everywhere else in the world, tend to be very conservative. They go to these towns because, as in California, the best opportunities of work for undocumented immigrants lie in the agricultural sector: picking fruit and vegetables. Thus it is that, in so far as there have been racial clashes in Spain (and so far there have not been much to speak of), they have tended to be concentrated in the southern province of Almeria, a giant greenhouse on the Mediterranean that supplies many of the greengrocery needs of not just Spain but all of Europe in winter and in summer.

Black Africans also do these jobs, but they mix with Spaniards socially, at the bar, at the disco, at the football stadium. They dress alike, they talk about the same things, they inter-marry and inter-mate. The North Africans stick to themselves, they pray rather than drink, marry within their own group, request special dispensations for their children at school. All of which, in a country as new to this type of immigration as Spain, causes unease. And, as standards in school are perceived to fall, as property prices in the areas inhabited by the Moroccans drop, and as the perception takes root also that increasing crime is directly connected with increasing immigration (and, as most Spaniards see it, with Moro rather than "Negro" immigrants), so a murmur rises in the press for something to be done, local right-wing leaders start to emerge in small towns, and the government takes more protectionist stances against immigration from North Africa – while noting, as Aznar did only this week, that fewer barriers would be placed in the way of immigrants from "Ibero-America".

Nor has Aznar hesitated to define precisely where Spain stands in the broader clash – call it of civilisations, call it what you will – since the destruction of New York's Twin Towers. With the possible exception of Tony Blair, no Western leader has responded more unequivocally to President Bush's challenge, "you're either with us or against us". The United States may have more powerful allies in its global "war on terrorism" but none is more enthusiastic than Aznar's Spain. The latest of numerous concrete actions taken by the Spanish police against suspected anti-US terrorists was the arrest only this week of three men thought to belong to Al-Qa'ida. And whether the two things are related or not, the fact is that during this period relations between Spain and its Islamic neighbour have steadily deteriorated: over fishing rights, over sovereignty in western Sahara, over this, over that – with the upshot that the Moroccan ambassador withdrew from Madrid last November and has not returned since.

Moroccans in Spain – the vast majority of whom are blamelessly endeavouring to give their families a better life and wish for no more than to get on in peace with their Spanish neighbours – are having an unhappy time of it these days. Having been viewed, first with unease, then – following 11 September – with suspicion, they are now – since the Moroccan invasion of Perejil – beginning to feel like enemies. No one knows yet what the consequences will be of Spain's brusque response to Morocco's silly action last week. But, with the approval of Nato, the EU and the US, a line has been sharply drawn on the rock on that sliver of sea separating the West from the Arab world, and relations between the two are now that little bit worse than they were before.

Comments