In 1937, Orwell was shot in the neck during the Spanish Civil War. Known mostly as a political allegorist, Orwell was also a master at describing all that is seen, heard and felt, so in Homage to Catalonia, you can read about his near death experience, “Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the center of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all around me, and I felt a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing. The sandbags in front of me receded into immense distance. I fancy you would feel much the same if you were struck by lightning. I knew immediately that I was hit, but because of the seeming bang and flash I thought it was a rifle nearby that had gone off accidentally and shot me. All this happened in a space of time much less than a second.”
After spending several days in Lerida, where he was tended to by sweet, well meaning yet incompetent nurses, Orwell was sent to Tarragona by train. He recovered in a hospital two blocks from where I’m typing this.
Orwell, “I was three or four days at Tarragona. My strength was coming back, and one day, by going slowly, I managed to walk down as far as the beach. It was queer to see the seaside life going on almost as usual; the smart cafés along the promenade and the plump local bourgeoisie bathing and sunning themselves in deck-chairs as though there had not been a war within a thousand miles. Nevertheless, as it happened, I saw a bather drowned, which one would have thought impossible in that shallow and tepid sea.”
The day I arrived in Tarragona, a 25-year-old Russian drowned, so the seemingly impossible keeps on happening. Retracing Orwell’s path down the Rambla, the city’s wide promenade, I ended up at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Among the handful of people milling about at this early hour, there was a portly Muslim lady in a head scarf. Ten percent of Tarragona are Muslims. Looking down a hundred feet, I noticed a large graffiti in Catalan, “el jovent construim alternatives.” The young build alternatives.
Often, the young also step on the same piles of manure and spout only a slightly different set of nonsense from previous generations. The young are also prone to be manipulated by their cynical and sinister elders. In short, there is rarely anything new in the jejune, just cute, at best, vanity. Artaud, “You are quite unnecessary, young man!”
As you could see, Catalan is at least half decipherable to Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or French speakers, unlike Euskera, the Basque language. Close enough to Castilians, Catalans still see themselves, quite naturally, as a distinct family, so all over Tarragona, there are Catalan flags hanging from balconies. Walking or riding for miles through just about every neighborhood, I have yet to spot a Spanish flag. Draped on any home, it would surely be perceived as a provocation. Shop and product signs are often in Catalan only, and bookstores carry volumes in both Spanish and Catalan, with the former still predominating, however, and the latter heavily subsidized.
On the block where I’m staying, there is a restaurant/bar, Apple, that’s run by a Chinese immigrant who’s been in Spain five years. From eight in the morning until eleven at night, there are always customers sitting at his tables, inside and out. A few feet away is the Tian An-Men restaurant, and around the corner, there is a kebab joint owned by Pakistani immigrants. As with most western European cities, Chinese and kebab eateries sprinkle Tarragona.
On the outskirt of town is City Wok, a huge Chinese-owned buffet that’s always packed with people stuffing their faces. Its employees are Chinese, Pakistanis and one Argentinian. Nearby is Merca China, a big box store selling made-in-China merchandises.
A seafood restaurant, Taller, is owned by a gay couple, with one of them a half Japanese Peruvian. The two waiters at Osteria del Lab are Ukrainian and a chatty dude from Torino. Italian run gelaterie and pizzerie are not uncommon, Pakistanis own many convenience stores and many of the venders at the weekly clothing flea market are Arabs. Nannies and caretakers for the elderly are often Latin Americans. My host, Jonathan Revusky, sometimes hires a Moroccan cleaning lady. Jon’s long-time girlfriend arrived in Spain with a Lithuanian passport, and his daughter’s best friend is Russian.
When Mimi asked Katia if she liked Putin, the 12-year-old answered, “Yes, I love chocolate pudding!”
Though quite cosmopolitan for a small city, Tarragona is still 80% Spanish, and Carlos, a 42-year-old high school math teacher, told me there are no problems with immigrants, for they are quickly assimilating. Many of his students are immigrants.
Carlos has only traveled to four nearby countries. More than Paris or London, his ultimate destination is New York.
Each Friday in Tarragona, there’s an English corner at a bar where expats and learners of English can chatter. At one, I got to know Leo, a middle-aged American who’s been in Tarragona for five years. Leo’s great-great-great grandfather came to America in 1615 from Reus, just 15 minutes from Tarragona, and his family never stopped speaking Castilian Spanish at home, so Leo grew up bilingual in Texas.
“So this is a home coming for you! How often do you return to the US?”
“I don’t want to go back there again!”
“Don’t you still have many relatives there?”
“They can come here to see me. Six of them already have. It’s so much nicer over here.”
“What was the last place you lived in the US?”
“Oh man!” I laughed. “The freeways, the traffic, Houston sucks!”
“Yes, it does.”
“I like other places in Texas, though.”
“I love Austin. It is one of my favorite cities.”
“Since you’re Spanish, were you ever annoyed at being confused for a Mexican growing up?”
“But I am also Mexican. Texas was Mexican!”
We were sitting at an outside table, in the shadow of the hulking ruins of a Roman wall. The square was filled with people eating and drinking. Half a dozen small kids kicked around a couple of plastic soccer balls. A middle-aged Gypsy played the accordion for tips. It was cool, breezy and quiet enough to talk comfortably.
As a seaside resort, Tarragona has plenty of foreign tourists, but not too many to make the place tacky. Thanks to compounding ineptitudes by Delta Airlines, my plane was more than three hours late leaving Philadelphia, so I ended up being rerouted through Amsterdam. My flight into Barcelona, then, was filled with mostly blonde Dutch vacationers, including many small children. People were literally giddy with laughter, jokes and general goofiness at the promise of being on a Spanish beach in a few hours. A mother sang one verse to her toddler. A twelve-year-old turned around and said “Hola!” to the Spanish young lady next to me.
Increasingly, Russians are also vacationing in Spain. Moreover, the Spanish government have been targeting rich Russians and Chinese as immigrants. In 2012, anyone who bought a house for 160,000 Euros was given residency. A year later, this was bumped up to half a million. At the Barcelona airport’s arrival terminal, there is a large ad in Chinese for Spanish real estate. With a birthrate of just 1.3 children per woman, Spain needs immigrants to sustain its economy.
Of the 19 Arab “terrorists” of 9/11, Mohammed Atta is the most recognized. Fingered as the suicide pilot of the first plane to hit the Twin Towers, Atta’s name and face have become famous. The Cairo-born Atta has been traced in the mainstream press to a Hamburg university, Brooklyn apartment, Maine public library, Oklahoma motel, Florida flight school, San Diego house, Kandahar house, Georgia payphone and Prague casino. There is a video of a smiling and laughing Atta supposedly declaring his suicide will in Afghanistan, but with no sound, it can be him saying just about anything, and nothing in the short clip even indicates that it was filmed in Afghanistan.
Two months before 9/11, Atta flew to Spain from Miami. Landing in the late afternoon in Madrid, Atta met up with Iqbal Afzal Admat, an Arab with an Irish passport, and they stayed in adjacent rooms at a hotel near the airport. The next morning, they rented a car and drove to Tarragona, where they met four more buddies. After 9/11, the Spanish police conducted a ten-month investigation of these Arabs’ movements in Spain, and the result is a 700-page report that documents no crimes, just a few guys checking in and out of hotel rooms. Several made calls overseas. Two drank vodka. One visited a theme park.
With nothing to sensationalize, El Pais still managed to publish on June 30, 2002, an article called “The Terrorist Summit Where 9/11 Was Prepared Took Place in Tarragona” [“La cumbre terrorista donde se preparó el 11-S se celebró en Tarragona”] Sprinkled throughout with pure inventions, it often reads like pulp fiction. A typical passage, “Atta, 33-years-old, born in Kafr el Shikh, showed his Egyptian passport to the customs control, and neither his glance nor pulse fluttered when the National Police agent looked him in the eyes and, with a faint gesture, ordered him forward. A man who two months later would trigger the worst attack against the United States since Pearl Harbor (1941) appeared quite a bit less than a suicide pilot. Dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, long pants and shoes, he held in his right hand an elegant leather wallet. Although his face was characteristically Arab, he appeared as a Western tourist.”
According to the official 9/11 version, there were supposed to be 20 suicide terrorists, but one man, the Yemeni Ramzi bin al-Shibh, could not gain entry to the US, so he stayed behind in Europe. Captured in Karachi, Pakistan on September 11, 2002, al-Shibh languishes in Guantanamo at age 42.
Al-Shibh was also in Tarragona Province in July of 2001. One afternoon, Jonathan Revusky and I drove to the Hotel in Cambrils, where al-Shibh had stayed. Just a block from the beach, the five-story hotel has a private pool, bar and low couches, Arab styled, in the reception area, with a Turkish samovar set. Unlike Selou down the road, Cambrils is not overrun by British, German, Russian and French tourists. With a historical core and several fine restaurants, Cambrils still has character and charms. There aren’t Irish pubs all over, as in Selou. Al-Shibh, my man, you have taste, and it’s a shame they’ve locked you up for nothing.
Why nothing? Simply because commercial planes cannot fly over 500 miles an hour at such a low altitude, around a thousand feet, then disappear completely into steel skyscrapers, so the acts for which al-Shibh and the other 19 Arabs are accused of simply didn’t happen. They did not cause any building to implode and pancake into its own footprint on 9/11, nor did any of them fly into the Pentagon. The only proof of a violent hijacking that day is a farcically unconvincing recording of a purported air stewardess, one Betty Ong, who talked quite casually for 23 minutes about murder and mayhem on a plane, but without any sounds of panic in the background, as if people were quite OK with their fellow passengers being murdered, and terrorists running amok. Oh Lord, the guy next to me just had his throat slashed with a box cutter. Let me finish this tiny cup of coffee.
Revusky, “There are facts, then there is story telling. What are presented as facts in the media these days are often just fiction, just bullshit. When I was in Marrakesh in 2001, I saw these professional story tellers mesmerizing crowds, and we have professional spinners of tales also, so a handful of Arabs hanging out on the Costa Daurada is spun into a terror summit. They can say that the notorious Vietnamese-American terrorist Linh Dinh suddenly showed up in Tarragona, an Al Queda hotbed, to hash out some plots with the deranged subversive, Jonathan Revusky. Locals could observe them swimming at various beaches, as if looking for weak spots in the city’s defense. Occasionally, some Slavic broad was seen to carouse with them.”
So there you have it. Though I’m sitting in this sun bathed apartment, with palm trees just outside, dark plots are being hatched, apparently, for on the wall, there’s a Putin calendar, and the music is the Algerian Cheb Hasni belting out “My Way,” then “Saddam,” an homage to the late Iraqi leader. Not quite believing my eyes, I stare at a plate of potato frittata and blood sausage. Oh, the endless terrors! The Mossad! The C.I.A.!