Melilla is a curious place at the tip of North Africa that proves people with different cultural and religious backgrounds can get along perfectly well. One of two Spanish enclaves in Morocco, this multicultural city on the Mediterranean Sea hosts a melting pot of 70,000 Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims, who don’t fight each other, don’t blow stuff up and definitely don’t paste nasty posters on the walls.
Despite a long past of many conquests and bloody wars between fearsome Moors and Spanish forces, today each culture’s habits meshes in with the others, forming a distinctive group of peace-loving Melitanos.
Since being in Spain, I’m sure I’ve gained at least 10 pounds, and nine of them came from here.
Everything is just so good. Although the vast majority of Melitanos work for the state, and there is no industry here aside from a trash incinerator (recyclables are shipped to mainland Spain) and a desalination plant, most people live well.
Coffee, some grown locally, and churros or toast with olive oil are breakfast standards. Berber tea too. Lunch, at 2pm or so, is when most people have their main meal, and that carries them through their midday siesta and nightime work.
Dinner with friends at any one of the many restaurants in the industrial area, downtown, or in the old city is an elaborate affair of beer or wine served with plate after plate of shrimp, lobster, white fish, calamari, lamb, pork, ham, cheese and much more. It would take a month just to research the many kinds of dishes served and their socio-cultural roots.
A fading tradition on the Iberian peninsula now, every single establishment (except for the Chinese restaurants) serve free tapas with every beverage ordered, ensuring the consumption of more calories than one person ought to eat in a day, never mind one meal, and at the end of it all, a free bottle of some kind of liquor appears on the table.
The old city, a restored fortress that rises above the sea, is organized into several different districts that trace the various occupations since the 14th century. Locals are fond of pointing out that Spain claimed this territory nearly two hundred years before North America was a reflection in the Mayflower’s sail, in order to show off its long and illustrious history.
I’m staying at the Hotel Nacional, the cheapest in town with an internet connection, which is owned by a Jewish family. The Sephardic community has contributed a great deal to Melilla’s intellectual development and worship in no fewer than 12 synagogues; they get along well with the Arabs, whose ancestors are credited with turning what is now a free, autonomous port into a major landmark on the sea trade map.
Culture converges in many interesting ways. Recently at the Casa Juanito restaurant in the city’s industrial neighborhood, I shared drinks with two Moroccan grandfathers who came over from neighboring Nador. They have adopted European gastronomy, although they are still pious people who honor their religious obligations during Ramadan and other holy times.
Likewise, there are many Spanish locals who have converted to Islam. Downtown, at the Plaza de Culturas at the foot of Melilla Vieja, a shop called Arte Arabe is a craft and clothing store that sells Moroccan wares. It is run by a reticent Spanish Muslim woman who would not allow me to take her photograph.
Another girl, a qualified Muslim physiotherapist, explained that even though there is a Facebook group of people who claim to want to wrest Melilla back from Spain, they aren’t locals. Everyone gets along here and they want to keep it that way.
So, while political leaders and mainstream newspapers fan the fires of occasional mistrust between different religious groups, some people choose to ignore it all and enjoy life. Maybe it’s a bit like Pleasantville, and there are problems here as everywhere, but I’ve enjoyed this gentle reprieve from the rhetoric of hatred.
If you are intrigued and want to visit this fascinating city on the edge of the Mediterranean, take a ferry from Malaga on the south coast of Spain if you’re in Europe, or a train from Fez. Flights are available of course, but we’d be reneging our responsibility as green-minded travelers if we encouraged you to take one.
Images by Tafline Laylin