Harmony between Religions in Ceuta, whilst Separation Remains

Pilar Garcias’ Christian family joined the wedding to her Muslim husband – while none of his family went to the ceremony. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

‘Convivencia’ is very present in the Spanish enclave Ceuta on African soil – but is this ‘peaceful living together’ between the different religious groups reality or just illusion?

When Pilar Garcia talks about her husband and her family a warm smile spreads across her red lips. “I met him when I was young, at the age of 13,” she says. “I thought he was from South Africa, because of his skin colour.” But originally her husband was from the little Spanish enclave Ceuta like her. This could be the beginning of a love story – and in many regards it is. Only one problem still remains 25 years later: “His family didn’t accept me as a wife for their son,” Pilar says. “They don’t accept my two sons as their grandchildren.” According to the charismatic Pilar, for the family of her husband religion is first place – they follow Islam whilst she follows Christianity.

Four different religions live in the little Spanish enclave Ceuta, which shares one of the two only land borders of Europe with Africa. Whilst the Spanish constitution does not allow for the making of statistics about religious groups, Christians and Muslims live there in approximately equal numbers, with small Hindu and Jewish communities. The peaceful living together, which the Spaniards call ‘convivencia’, is not only visible in the city, but also widely discussed by the Ceutí people. “One of the main characteristics of the city is the ‘convivencia’ of the four cultures and there are many intermarriages between them,” says Roberto Franca, head of press of the government delegation in the little enclave. But examples like Pilars’ are not an exception – and socio-economics seems to play a role as well, besides all the good marketing of the city.

In the Oxford dictionary, the Spanish word ‘convivencia’ is translated to ‘coexistence’. Mariam Mohamed, coordinator in the Cultural Centre Al Idrissi, focusing on education of young Muslims in Ceuta, does not like this translation: “Coexistence is not living together, it’s living next to each other,” she says. It leaves a space in the middle between the different religious groups – and this space is not the self-proclaimed goal of the city. Rocio Salcedo, first vice president of the assembly in Ceuta (People’s Party), perceives Ceuta as a multicultural place and a very positive environment for all communities. “All the cultures and all the communities benefit from each other because we live in peace and harmony,” she says.

“It is an honour and privilege being born here, in such a diverse and rich city, which offers us the day-to-day opportunity to share and learn from other cultures, dialects, languages,” Salcedo says. “The different cultural communities have lived here together for a long time so all of them keep their own culture but also respect the beliefs and traditions of the others’.” Most visible for the eye is ‘convivencia’ while one of the communities celebrates their holidays, since the other communities are naturally invited to the festivities.

All religions are invited to the different religious festivities – following the Easter parade in Ceuta, seeing Muslims around is still a rare exception, in sharp contrast to a normal Sunday. Photo: Julia Weinzierler
All religions are invited to the different religious festivities – following the Easter parade in Ceuta, seeing Muslims around is still a rare exception, in sharp contrast to a normal Sunday. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

Born with the cultures

According to the Ceutí teacher of History, Geography and Art David Muñoz, the multiculturalism in Ceuta is nothing new. “Ceuta has had a very important Jewish and Arabic community since the mid-twentieth century,” says the adviser of the Ministry of Education in the enclave. Ceuta was linked to Morocco because before 1956 the country was a Spanish Protectorate. “The Ceutí personality has been shaped due to these reasons,” Muñoz says. “We are used to knowing that the history of Ceuta is related with other civilizations since our childhood.”

“We have been born with the four cultures in our heart,” says Alicia Barchilon, secretary at the Jewish community. “It’s our way of life, we see it as normal.”

Barchilon emphasizes how good the different communities work together. Sonia Mohandas from the Hindu community sees practical reasons as the key for the good ‘convivencia’: “I think the Jews and the Hindus get along well because of business.” In Ceuta acceptance flows naturally, nobody would talk badly about other religions, she says. For the head of the Hindu community Ramesh Chandiramani, respect is the key for the current status quo of the Indian inhabitants. “That’s why it was very easy for the Hindu community to participate in every culture from the very beginning,” he explains.

Four religions live in Ceuta – while the Hindus and Jews represent less than one percent of the inhabitants, the existence of both in the multicultural environment is emphasized. Photo: Julia Weinzierler
Four religions live in Ceuta – while the Hindus and Jews represent less than one percent of the inhabitants, the existence of both in the multicultural environment is emphasized. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

According to Ernesto Sáenz de Navarrete, coordinator of the Foundation of Convivencia, one cannot understand Ceuta without the cultural interchange between the communities. “Keeping this peculiar geographical situation as a door to the Mediterranean, Africa and Europe has  made ‘convivencia’ key,” he explains. The foundation brings together the different religious groups in the enclave and is managing an international award rewarding the values of ‘convivencia’, culture, multiculturalism and the relationship between different religions.

Identity and culture equals religion

Religion itself is still one of the strongest identity features in the enclave. “The process of secularisation is slower than on the mainland of Spain or in other parts of Europe,” Mariam Mohamed from the Cultural Centre Al Idrissi explains. Just a few decades ago, before Spain joined the European Community, Christianity was a requirement for the Spanish citizenship – therefore other religious groups were not allowed to possess citizenship. “Even though they were born here, they were not considered Spanish,” Mariam Mohamed says. This wound is still open and felt especially by the big Muslim community.

When rating ‘convivencia’ many people refer to (the absence of) conflict – a conflict that you should not deny in Mariam Mohamed’s opinion. “The key to have a real and effective ‘convivencia’ is to have the capacity to deal with conflict.” She gives the example of sharing a house with your family: There will always be conflict, but the essential part is to work it out.

“Living together is like milk on fire,” Mariam Mohamed says. “If you don’t watch it, the milk can destroy your cooker.”

For Ceuta conflict is implemented in the daily life. The geographical situation of the city, being a bordering enclave to Morocco, who is claiming Ceuta, being the door between Europe and Africa and therefore a immigration hotspot, makes the place not only unique but also vulnerable to conflict. “So if all that hasn’t made Ceuta explode, it’s because we have a good ‘convivencia’,” Mariam Mohamed says. “If here we would not be able to deal with conflict, this would be like Gaza.”

The perfect ‘convivencia’ is passed

Ceuta is unique: Being Spanish and European on African soil. Photo: Julia Weinzierler
Ceuta is unique: Being Spanish and European on African soil. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

“This is a unique union: We are Spanish, European and we are based in the Spanish Constitution with several rights,” the teacher Muñoz explains. “Our students are in the same school centres although you can find schools where the most of the students are Spanish-Muslims.” For Mariam Mohamed the shared memory is essential for a good ‘living together’.

“A long time ago that shared memory existed to a hundred percent and made living together easier and more expanded,” she explains. “Nowadays the geographical and demographic structure of the city has separated the communities.”

The Senior Lecturer and Assistant Director Dr. Gabriel Torres from the Vanderbilt University spent years of research on ‘convivencia’ in the autonomous city of Ceuta. The perfect ‘convivencia’ he explains simply: “If you go back in history, one of those romantic times where people say Christians and Muslims lived together, that was the time when everybody was pretty poor,” he says. “Christians and Muslims tend to do well as members of the same low class.” But today the Christians have caught up, while the Muslim community is still highly affected by high unemployment rates and school dropouts.

Muslims on the Edge

El Principe is on the edge of the city, close to the Moroccan border – but that’s not the only edge, inhabitants feel. Photo: Julia Weinzierler
El Principe is on the edge of the city, close to the Moroccan border – but that’s not the only edge, inhabitants feel. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

While in the city centre ‘convivencia’ is visible for everyone, taking a ride to the suburbs of the city paints a different picture. Whilst not being the only separated community, the deprived quarter of ‘El Príncipe’, close to the Moroccan border, displays a very different picture from the ‘convivencia’ seen in the centre. From the 8,600 registered people “99.9 percent are Muslim citizens, of which 85 percent are Spanish,” says Kamal Mohamed from the Neighbourhood Association in El Príncipe. “The ‘convivencia’ with the naked eye of a visitor is good, but looking closer one can see that there is a separation between the different cultures of this city.”

The separation is not only visible geographically; looking on the streets of El Príncipe one can also see a socio-economic downturn in comparison to the rich city centre. Walking through the quarter you meet children on quad-bikes without helmets, the smell of marijuana lies in the air while the rough life has curbed the faces of the dark-skinned men on the streets. The law seems to be out of order in El Principe, drug trafficking replaced normal working environments. For researcher Torres one of the main reasons is the different distribution of resources between the centre and the periphery of the city.

In El Principe problems affect the livelihoods of the inhabitants on a daily basis. Kamal Mohamed from the Neighbourhood Associations describes problems as lack of lightening, lack of ownership as well as lack of drinking water. Photo: Julia Weinzierler
In El Principe problems affect the livelihoods of the inhabitants on a daily basis. Kamal Mohamed from the Neighbourhood Associations describes problems as lack of lightening, lack of ownership as well as lack of drinking water. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

“The socio-economic situation seriously affects ‘convivencia’ since there is a lot of resentment for the lack of opportunities from the majority of the Muslim population,” Kamal Mohamed says. According to the sociologist Carlos Rontomé from the University of Ceuta, 65 percent of the Muslim population suffer from poverty – while an unequally a smaller 15 percent of the Christian population are affected.

Socio-economics determine ‘convivencia’

“El Príncipe used to be mixed, you have to keep that in mind,” researcher Torres says. “This observation is pretty modern, it’s pretty cosmopolitan.” ‘Convivencia’ was real – until the Christian population managed to climb up the career ladder and could afford to move out of El Príncipe. “As soon as you get some money, you leave those neighbourhoods,” Torres says. That’s what the Christian Spaniards did – leaving back an entirely Muslim community, not only segregated geographically, but also mentally.

“In Ceuta there are two well-differentiated communities, one of Western Christian traditions, including minorities such as Hindu or Jewish, and one of Muslim Arab-Berber tradition,” says Mohamed Mustafa from the Caballas party in Ceuta. According to him the Christians are in a dominant position – not only at a cultural or religious level, but also responding to socio-economic criteria. Mustafa says it is clearly evident looking at the distribution of jobs – while the dominant group holds the jobs in the administration, the Muslim population occupies mainly positions of medium-low responsibility.

‘Convivencia’ is emphasized, while the different religious groups often remain together. Source: Julia Weinzierler
‘Convivencia’ is emphasized, while the different religious groups often remain together. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

Mustafa goes on to explain that acute problems also mainly affect the Muslim population in Ceuta – being high levels of unemployment, school failure and levels of poverty. The most recent study made by the Social Affairs Department of the City concluded that Ceuta is divided into two population pools, which are on very different levels. “This polarization is also verified geographically,” Mustafa says.

“The fact that they cannot share things in their suburbs or in their schools, lead to the feeling of ‘This is yours and this is mine’ rather than a cultural exchange,” explains Mariam Mohamed from the Cultural Centre Al Idrissi. “Because the separation exists people have stopped knowing each other and if one person doesn’t know the other, there is fear.”

“The salary determines where you live,” press officer Franca says. “The Muslim population is the least qualified.” That’s also where for Franca ‘convivencia’ is affected: “It’s more difficult to establish communication between people who do not have any qualifications and a different religion, than with people who are qualified.”

Closing your mind by closing your community

Pilar and her husband used to live in Malaga, where they felt more accepted as a couple. Photo: Pilar Garcia

For Pilar and her husband ‘convivencia’ is something being affected by radical and extremist believers – from all religions. “I feel very sad and sometimes I get very angry, because I don’t understand that situation,” Pilar says. The couple moved back to Ceuta after living in Malaga due to her husband’s job. “When I travel to Malaga, I feel free,” Pilar says. “My husband as well.”

Being in another city is a different experience for the whole family. “In Malaga we were another ordinary couple,” Pilar says thinking back to the years spent in the town in the south of Spain. “Here in Ceuta it is different, in Ceuta my husband is a Moro.” Moro is a term for Arabic people living in Spain – and it’s never meant as a compliment. “People in Ceuta are very narrow-minded,” she concludes.

Different perceptions of ‘convivencia’

Still walking through the typical Spanish streets of Ceuta, people from all religions would emphasize the importance of ‘convivencia’ and how important it is for their city. “For a lot of Christians ‘convivencia’ is a way of recognizing the difference that they are stuck with in many ways,” explains researcher Torres. “They are a Spanish and European territory in northern Africa and they will leave it that way.” For the Christians it’s about being cosmopolitan, tolerant and unique – that’s why it’s important for their daily lives.

For the Muslims ‘convivencia’ is something that has not yet been achieved, Torres explains. “Convivencia is very much tied to the experience of discrimination.” Since today there is still no equity between the religious groups, for the Muslim community it is a working progress, but therefore equally important. “Sometimes ‘convivencia’ is a rhetorical device to avoid talking about serious problems in the two communities,” Torres says. Saying that it is there, often seems to be the easier way.

Knowing each other and education for one goal

One thing all communities do share, are the wishes for the future: Good education will automatically lead the way to ‘convivencia’. “Our children have to know about different cultures and they have to know about how they think about the different religions, so that they can easily understand that at the end of the day, there is not so much difference,” Chandiramani, head of the Hindu community says.

“It’s like a tree: The roots are all the same, but once the tree is growing you can see different paths. We have to understand that humanity has the same roots, it’s the same tree.”

Education plays an important role according to Chandiramani, being vital in getting to know each other and understand different cultures and ways of living.

Barchilon, secretary of the Jewish community agrees: “Children are the future and I think that they should learn more,” she says. “For me sharing and respect are the most important things, all this is related to education.” Mariam Mohamed from the Muslim community also emphasizes the importance of a shared memory to be able to deal with conflict. In her opinion there should be real spaces of ‘living together’, where people share and have a normal relationship independently of their beliefs, their religion or their background.

The youth should get in touch with each other at a very early age, to prevent confrontations between the religious groups. Photo: Julia Weinzierler
The youth should get in touch with each other at a very early age, to prevent confrontations between the religious groups. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

“Our wishes are to continue growing and working in improving the daily relation between cultures,” says Sáenz de Navarrete from the Convivencia Foundation in Ceuta. As everyone else he wishes to continue the ‘convivencia’ and at the same time improvement in the city and the society. For him the keys are presence of the religions in public spaces, learning experiences and activities in public and private areas. By learning from each other and the experiences, the foundation works on deepening the relationship between the religious groups.

The central government delegation in Ceuta is vital for this improvement, since they are responsible for education in the enclave. The press officer Roberto Franca believes that the only way to real equality is fighting the high number of school drop-outs, especially in the Muslim population. “In the future, they should have the same opportunity as the people who are qualified,” he says.

Getting used to each other

Besides the remaining problems, the current state of ‘convivencia’ is better than in other places in Europe, where the Muslim population is a minority. Mohandas from the Hindu community sees a rather pragmatic reason for this: “What is happening in other countries, I guess it’s new for them, but over here it’s been like that for ages,” she says. “When you get married, living with someone is difficult at the beginning, but then you get used to it.”

Pilar wishes to move back to Malaga already next year, despite the fact that Ceuta is her hometown. “That’s an exclusive,” she says laughing. “It is my escape; the reason is that I don’t feel comfortable here.” The pressure from the family of his husband and parts of the Muslim community do affect the daily lives of the citizens. A completed and desirable ‘convivencia’ might look different. Pilar and her husband would be the perfect example: “If I fall in love with you, I don’t think about your religion,” is her honest opinion about the difficulties the different communities are still facing today. Through education, secularization and an even closer ‘convivencia’ this could be the future.