BARCELONA: El Raval is in el centro of town but it’s the one area avoided by tourists in Barcelona. What a timid creature is the modern sightseer, for El Raval is a fascination, packed as it is with pimps, prostitutes, peddlers of drugs and doner kebabs, and Pakistanis.
Of this last sector, official statistics put the number between 15,000 and 35,000. Either way, this gives Barcelona the largest Pakistani population in any city in Europe outside the UK. Most of them live or work (or both) in El Raval and their main businesses are barbershops, fast food, mobile phones, net cafes and minimarts.
The pimping and peddling of less halal services is done by everyone else: the Morrocans, East Europeans, Romanians and others of seemingly untraceable origin. Not everyone is an immigrant; on the pavement outside a Pakistani butcher stood a Spanish woman. She was also in the meat business, advertising her goods to all male passersby with a word and a wink.
Ehsan Butt, 42, says that despite different attitudes to work, life, love and the universe, everyone gets along in El Raval. He says that there was more local violence five years ago, but tougher policing has forced it out. Butt feels there is ‘thora bohut’ racism in Barcelona, but passes this off as something you’ll find in every country – in fact, much more so in Pakistan, he admits.
Butt has just set up his own doner kebab shop and been in Spain for almost a decade, yet he still feels his destiny is joined to Pakistan. He spends all his leisure time watching news channels from back home on satellite TV. “Inshallah we will go back to Pakistan one day,” he says, before unleashing a well-rehearsed tongue-lashing against the Pakistani media for sensationalism and manipulation. He then moves on to the politicians and the army and, naturalmente, the cricket team. You can take the Pakistani out of Pakistan … and so on.
Margarita, an interpreter who said adios to her native Sweden 30 years ago after falling instantly for Barcelona’s numerous charms, thinks Pakistanis are much-loved by everyone in the city. Her reason is far from romantic, though it is credible for its honesty: “They keep their shops open even on Sundays, all day, when there’s nowhere else to buy bread and milk.” Ehsan Butt substantiated her praise, saying his countrymen also opened for business on Eid. You can take the Pakistani out of Pakistan … and very often he will thrive.
Mohammad Arif, 38, seems to be doing just that. His MSc in Physics and MBA from colleges in Lahore couldn’t land him a decent job in Pakistan. In Barcelona life has been better for the Gujrat native, judging from the steady stream of customers in and out of his mobile phone shop.
Asked about his location, Arif says the rent is relatively cheap and its proximity to the centre is an advantage. Although this is a bright mid-afternoon, a lady of the night totters by with a dishevelled customer hurrying behind her. “Where there is gandi there is opportunity,” Arif says.
He then turns to a Spanish man attempting an unreasonable bargain with one of the shop assistants. Arif says Que pasa, tio? (what’s happening, uncle?) with an aggressive laugh and the price is soon fixed.
Arif’s motive for moving is shared by all. “We came here out of necessity,” a young barber says. He is unmarried but those with families are facing tougher times. “The costs of living have gone up but we are earning less, so many who wanted to bring their children now cannot, as it will be too expensive,” says S Ali, 25, in a thick Punjabi accent.
Most of the Pakistanis in Barcelona are Punjabis. And most of these are from the district of Gujrat. The spirit of community is strong. In the barbershop, a white man with a dirt-covered face and tattered clothes poked his head around the door and asked if anyone had a cigarette. By the time the Pakistanis had all said no the man had found a discarded cigarette on the floor and lit up, grinning. The broad, proud, moustachioed 58-year-old barbershop owner said that “our people would never do this. Whatever happens, our people help each other out and we stay dignified.”
In tomorrow’s concluding part, we will see how that dignity was tested during raids in El Raval for suspected al Qaeda terrorists in 2008. We will also hear complaints about the Pakistani Consulate, a Spanish café owner’s lament that the community sticks to itself, and why a furious young man wants all of us here to know that PIA, who fly direct to Barcelona twice a week, “are a bunch of terrible, terrible people.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 5th, 2012.