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22 March 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

In Lavapies, multiculturalismo has gone pear-shaped

By Jeremy Hazlehurst

For many people, their first true glimpse of Madrid comes when they leave the Metro in the Puerta del Sol and look up at the vast TIo Pepe sherry advert, with the bottle dressed in the cape and hat of a matador. To the left is the statue of the bear climbing the strawberry tree, the city’s emblem, and to the right the plaque on the ground that marks the symbolic centre of Spain, Kilometro Zero. Just five minutes to the south of Sol is an area that fewer tourists visit, the 38 streets which make up the barrio of Lavapies. Once the stamping ground of Cervantes and a working-class district that gave many players to Real Madrid, the area has in recent years become better known for its artists and bohemians, its gay and lesbian bars, its squats – and its immigrants. Now it is destined to be known as home to the men suspected of the 3/11 atrocity.

As soon as Islamist extremists were put in the frame for the 11 March bombing, many in Spain must have thought that the trail would stop half a mile away from Atocha in Lavapies. The area has 10,000 immigrants and in some of the schools 70 per cent of the pupils are foreign. Many of the 10,000 are North African, most of these Moroccan, and many of them illegal residents. The Moroccans have the highest rates of unemployment and illiteracy of all the immigrants. The area has become a byword in Spain for “multiculturalismo” gone pear-shaped. It is certainly no haven of racial harmony and brotherly love.

When I lived there, a gang of 30-40 Moroccan kids terrorised the area – in a two-week period, there were said to be 200 break-ins or robberies. Old and terrified Spaniards who had lived in the area for decades were robbed, as were shops run by Chinese and Bangladeshis, and in one miserable episode thugs surrounded a dirt-poor flower seller in the street, beat him and stole the few cents he had made. Walking home one night around this time, I saw a group of kids with scarves around their faces smashing up a wheelie bin with baseball bats.

That took place in the Plaza de Cabestreros, the square that marked the point where my street crossed the Calle Tribulete, where the men suspected of involvement in the bombings were arrested. In the square, a Cuban cocaine dealer held court, while all day North African men sat about and smoked and sold cannabis.

The place was colourful, but in a bar right by Cabestreros an English friend and I discovered just how hostile it could be. We were sitting and quietly having an early evening coffee, brandy and a chat, when a woman started screaming abuse at us in a mixture of Arabic and Spanish. The words were strange, but the gist was clear: we weren’t welcome. The other people in the bar – all men playing cards and draughts and smoking – ignored the scene. We tried to carry on chatting, but we started getting ugly glances from the men. After a few minutes of this, we decided to leave. I really think that if we hadn’t, the woman would have attacked us physically. Our crime, I suppose, was to be English-speaking, white, nominally Christian – I don’t know, but it brought home that there were a lot of people around who didn’t like us. Whoever “we” were.

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No doubt resentment of that sort has many roots, and poverty is one. Another is that the Moroccans feel persecuted. Polls show that they are Spain’s least popular immigrants, and they are certainly treated heavy-handedly by the police. I got a glimpse of this when a dark-skinned friend of mine was stopped in the street while with his Spanish fiancee one night, and taken to a police station. His crime? In his words, “to look Moroccan”. Another friend, Kuldip – who speaks broad Bradford – was without fail asked “where she came from” when she flew into Madrid, and was routinely disbelieved, wheeled off and interrogated.

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No one thinks that all Madrid’s Moroccans are angels, but harassment does nothing to calm things. The Spanish papers have reported that some Lavapies Muslims said they felt too frightened to vote in the elections on 14 March, and that some had apparently been called “dirty Moors” in their own streets. It is just there that the efforts have to start.