by Zahra Iqbal
When we think of Spain, we think of sun, sangria and good food. ‘Oh, you’re living in Spain for a year, that’s amazing’ is something I heard a lot before moving out here. I’ve felt safer here, in Madrid, than I’ve ever felt walking through Hyde Park or just Leeds in general. The streets are alive all the time and the atmosphere here is electric. But I couldn’t have ever anticipated how much moving to Madrid would change me.
It’s easy to float along, stay in your year abroad bubble and ignore what’s going on around you. Naively, that’s what I was doing for the first months of my study abroad; going out, enjoying the never-ending Spanish sun and making new friends. After all, what is Erasmus for?
Fast forward to the week of the 14th of October, the weather finally got colder and packed into the local bar we realised that Catalonia had been rioting, for quite some time and that we had been completely oblivious to it. The Spanish government had sentenced the previous Catalonian leader to imprisonment, and he had consequently fled.
Stinking of cheap Spanish beer, we learnt that Barcelona was in flames, quite literally. Riots on every street corner, marches along the beach, cars on fire, water cannons, it was like something out of a film.
700 miles away, safe in our little Madrilenian bubbles my housemates and I shared our opinions on Catalonia, remarking on our outrage at the lack of freedom of speech in Spain. But we were so far out from the protests that we thought we could forge informed opinions about the riots. One comment was particularly poignant: ‘I support them but if they’re going to act like idiots then no one is going to take them seriously’.
A few days later, we took them seriously.
On Sunday 19th October, my street was on fire. But this time it wasn’t the atmosphere of central Madrid, that was long gone. Instead, my home was swallowed up by Catalan fire, hatred, years of oppression, years of being silenced. It was only then we realised that their fight for independence was real. Frantic phone calls from house mates, trees on fire, the bar opposite smashed up, riot police storming the streets, a police officer was stabbed outside my local Starbucks and then a warning shot was fired.
‘No one’s going to take them seriously if they behave like idiots.’ Well, we certainly did.
On the same day there were peaceful protests in London regarding a People’s Vote. My feed was filled with family and friends joining in the distinctively calmer marches in London. Meanwhile, I was scared to walk on the street, even after the police had cleared all the protesters away. My street was covered in shards of glass and burnt leaves. No amount of Spanish lessons at Leeds had prepared me for this moment.
Stood in Manchester airport waiting for my flight to Madrid in August, I didn’t realise that I would be so impacted by the Catalan movement. I feel as though I wasn’t taught much about it and assumed that I could remain oblivious to it, being so far away.
By no means do I agree with the violence, but we forget that people every day are still risking their lives for independence, for their nation and for recognition. We have the liberty to protest calmly and vote for change - whereas people in countries as close as Spain are deprived of this fundamental right. If anything, seeing the effects of the Catalan movement has made me feel more grateful, especially with the upcoming elections in the UK.
It is vital that we don’t judge countries and protesters from our positions of privilege, we’re so disconnected from what’s going on around us, that we unknowingly are ignorant to our privilege and our rights. When there are people as close as Catalonia still fighting for what we take for granted.
Study Abroad Columnist: Zahra Kiran Iqbal, 3rd Year BA English and Spanish Undergraduate. Currently studying abroad at Universidad Comillas Pontificia, Madrid. Former News Editor for the Gryphon and Former Web/ Publicity Secretary for Leeds Labour Students.