Sunday, September 4, 2011

Letters from Lisbon: Of Gates and Cyclical Time

Lisbon used to be an Arab city once. At any rate it was ruled by Arabic speakers. Some time in the tenth century, the Portuguese King supported by Frankish crusaders began their attack on the Arab kingdoms in the region and captured the city from the Arabs after a successful siege of the city in 1147.

Given the importance that Lisbon would assume for Portugal, a number of legends grew around the capture of the city. One of these legends surrounds the figure of Martim Moniz. A Frankish noble, Moniz is said to thrust himself into the gates of the castle as they were being shut by the defending Arabs. As per the legend, Moniz was either jammed by the doors or cut down in the course of his valiant attempt. His attempt however, resulted in the gate eventually being overwhelmed, allowing the Crusaders entry into the castle and eventual victory.

Moniz was immortalized by naming one of the gates of the castle after him and later by the naming of a square, Praça Martim Moniz in the city below. Today the Praça Martim Moniz is an interesting space, giving its name to the neighbourhood around it. Architecturally, it is a huge, horrifically ugly modernist nightmare. The square in its current formation is the result of the Estado Novo’s attempts to modernise the city. In the process of that modernization attempt, large portions of the Mouraria (the old Moorish quarter) had been destroyed. Today we would mourn the destruction of that loss, given that it is the Arabic feel of the old city, its narrow lanes, the buildings clinging tightly, together that draws the tourist sighs, and more importantly their Euros. But perhaps the damage to the Mouraria had already been too far gone, and the only option was to push forward with the modernist experiment. The ugliness of some of the buildings that skirt the Praça must be seen to be believed. These monstrosities could only have come from hell!

Almost ironically though, if Martim Moniz jammed the gates of the castle to drive out the Arabs and fashion the city as a decidedly Christian space, his memory seems to be playing the same role all over again. The neighbourhoods around Praça Martim Moniz, today play host to large portions of the lower income migrants to Portugal. These migrants come from the Punjab (both Pakistani and Indian), Bangladesh, Brazil, Angola and Moçambique, and almost amusingly, from the same Muslim North Africa whose people Moniz originally fought against. Around the Praça one finds Chinese stores selling fashion for the thrifty, South-Asian stores that allow you to breathe in the scents of home, and restaurants (both legal and illegal) offering Africa and Chinese food. Descend into the two commercial centres that stand on the square and you could sometimes imagine yourself in an oriental bazaar and encourage the idea that the Arabs never left Al-Isbuna. Some of the more secure Lisboetas celebrate Martim Moniz as their own centre of multiculturalism.

The red and green republican flag of Portugal flutters over the castle Moniz’s sacrifice won. There are times when in the Praça Martim Moniz, playing on the Islamic confession of the migrants, I joke with friends; ‘You see that flag fluttering up there on the hill? Someday, inshallah, that flag will be all green. And ‘we’ shall have returned’.

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