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George Orwell and Mohammed Atta Were Here

By       Message Linh Dinh       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   6 comments

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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 cafe's 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.

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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.

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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.

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"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?"

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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