An outsider’s glimpse of the Basque cause [Part I: What I experienced of it]

I’d like to say first off that despite my month-long stay in San Sebastian, I feel that I’ve only gotten the tiniest scrape at understanding something more about the Basque cause. To be sure I definitely had intentions of finding out more. Although my primary reasons for choosing San Sebastian as my base for language learning were the easy access to surf, good reputation of the school and apparent loveliness of the city, there was also a little voice in my head whispering “Ooooh, Basque country! Maybe you can find out what more there is past the term “Basque separatists”… Oooooooh.”

All I can do then is report what I have learnt. I’ve decided to break this up into subheadings in order to foster some clarity through the tangled mass of thoughts and questions that is how this subject is currently being stored in my head. I also did this because I didn’t think that the content could naturally direct itself into meaningful structure, seeing as what I discovered through my impressions and the words of others were really only tidbits that might be too small and random to put together to form a real story of the Basque call for independence.

What I experienced of it

As I’ve quite crudely tried to demonstrate through my photos, Basque activism is ubiquitous in San Sebastian. It is entirely normal to spy banners, posters, placards and flags – either the Basque country flag (looks like that of Great Britain except with the colour scheme of red, white and green) or the flag calling for independence (as shown above) – around town. They’re hung and posted up on the side of buildings, on a rotunda in a plaza, on the balcony of an apartment or non-residential building. Some of these are thus displays of pride and defiance, while others are informational – posters giving the dates for events celebrating days of significance to the Basque fight, or placards recounting the backgrounds and stories of kidnapped persons.

One afternoon some few days after arriving in Donostia, I was sitting in the living room when a soulful, melancholic melody filtered through into my airspace. I was pleased and excited to be privy to such nice music, and supposed that it was buskers set up camp in the plaza at the front of our neighbouring church. I got up to look out the window half an hour after it had started, and was surprised to see that there were no buskers. What there was was 15 or so people standing in a row against the facing building, holding a long banner across their bodies as well as placards with slogans and photos of people’s faces pasted onto them. Each person with a placard had their own photo of one person. The music, I was embarrassed to discover, came from a stereo placed on a fold-out chair next to them. They stood there resolutely, the expression on their faces showing that they were calm and had done this before, and would continue to as many times as they thought necessary. Other students have commented on how unbearably sad the music is, music that I think are Basque compositions. It was a striking experience. When I first heard the music I felt more of a connection to its beauty than to its sorrow. Further, although the quiet insistence of the demonstrators and the strangers’ faces on the placards did stop time for me as well as delay my heartbeat, the relaxation in their bodies as they demonstrated, the comfort they got from being together, and the long length of time they remained there left me with an overall feeling that could not reach sadness.

There are losses but there are also wins. A day or two after that solemn demonstration, a friend and I ventured out into the bar scene on our own with the hope of practising Spanish with some locals. We were still pretty green at that stage so it was probably the heinously early hour of 9-10pm. (The absolute earliest for going out there is 12am, in my opinion.) As we were in the middle of getting lost in Parte Vieja, we heard a fantastic growl, rumble and throb of drums from somewhere close by. Following the music we headed deeper into the barrio and rounded a corner to find an impromptu street celebration going on, centered around about 5 young guys pounding large round drums. Other people had had the same instinct as we did, random people young and older trailed behind the noisemakers, the energy carrying some to whole body dancing and stomping while others had to let their feet tap and their heads bob as all of us shuffled forward with the procession. Eventually the drummers stopped walking in the middle of an obscure street in the heart of Parte Vieja, and started drumming with increased intensity as they lowered themselves to squat down on the ground. As they did this I realised that I had seen several of the drummers before, they were the same young guys who had been performing Basque dancing and other shenanigans in my plaza some days before. This had also been a random show, and had nothing to do with trying to pick up money. They continued this frenzied drumming, squatting in a circle in the middle of the calle, for ten minutes more and then stopped, and it was apparently all over. The crowd thinned out as people walked away or disappeared into bars on the street, which is where most of the drummers went after their work/play. As for us, we dropped into what turned out to be a small Irish bar and had some cañas. The drummer guys turned up a short while later, and we soon realised that we had found the street where “real Basque” people go to have a drink.

The day after when I told the woman I was staying with about this fantastic but seemingly inexplicable mobile percussion fiesta, she at first had no ideas either as to why it had taken place. Some further thinking brought up the possibility that it was because on that same day a judge had dropped the trial of a Basque man, purportedly arrested for having publicly voiced his support for independence. It was dropped on the grounds that there was no real evidence against him, that there had never been much behind the charges in the first place. Pretty incredible that even with the obvious disapproval of the Basque activists, that the police would waste the court’s time like that… I mean aren’t they on the same team? I can only explain it to myself by reasoning that the police and the legal system aren’t always the best of friends; or else by guessing that maybe there was something to be gained by stealing the activist’s time in the first place. Or maybe they had just really hoped something would turn up later? At any rate, it was explained to me that generally when someone is released from prison or a courtcase, people will throw fiestas in the street.

While we’re on the subject of the policía, they are crawling all over the place. I’ve been told that this is true in the rest of Spain as well however. All the same, one time on my way to school around 9:20 in the morning I saw three men clad head-to-toe in protective black gear running down into a regional train station, very large guns in hand. By very large guns I mean objects that look like something a kid’s figurine would be holding, but a gun suitable for a transformer rather than GI Joe. It is entirely possible that this was nothing “Basque vs. Spain”-related, of course. It just made me wonder if the police presence in the other parts of the country was as ready for action as it seemed to be in San Sebastian.

To wrap this up on a general note, what I experienced directly as a foreigner in one of the most important cities in the Basque Country is political self-expression through active and creative demonstrations, and what’s more self-expression that is highly emotive and personal. Keep in mind that this is only Part I, and that I haven’t intended on colouring any one side good or bad as of yet. But something I have felt from very early on in my stay in Donostia/San Sebastian is… that its people has an incredible energy. I think human beings have a tendancy to follow anyway, and what’s sad in a lot of western cities is that there are many people following things that actually touch nothing in their minds. Belief is pointless, or childish, or simply wrong. So we follow things anyway, non-believers but followers all the same. What I loved about being in San Sebastian is that you could feel the passion of the people. For the direction of their lives, of their culture and of the world that will guide their children’s lives. They are believers, they will dance and talk and mourn together in the name of their belief, and they are not foolish or stupid because what they believe in is themselves. And it goes without saying that a good majority of people have this passion without feeling at the same time that violence and murder are necessary components of the struggle.

With respect to the security issue, I think you would be hard-pressed to find those locals and tourists who are concerned for their safety. It might be a different story in summer due to the anonymity opportunistic petty criminals might feel within the hoardes of European tourists, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so secure and free in a city as I did in San Sebastian. Not even in safe, peaceful little New Zealand…


2 thoughts on “An outsider’s glimpse of the Basque cause [Part I: What I experienced of it]

  1. The ‘flag’ in your picture, the one painted on a rock is not an ‘independence flag’. It’s a protest flag calling for the return of the basque prisoners to the basque country. Spain sends basques prisoners to any far flung spanish colony around the world. The further the better is there thinking. It is inhumane and wicked to send people away, they cannot have visitors, they could be on an island in the middle the atlantic. They have been effectively banished. That is the meaning of the arrows, its just a protest saying “at least let the prisoners be in the basque country”. If you want any details about the history of the basque country or the reason behind the current situation just ask, my husband is from there. You will not find out reading the BBC that’s for sure they do not cover any of what goes on there. They are completely pro spanish as far as I am concerned.

  2. Thanks a lot carol, I appreciate you clarifying the message behind the flag and letting me know more about this. I’m definitely interested in learning more details from you.

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