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An iconic city in a secession drama

IT MAY APPEAR for now that the crisis in Spain has been resolved and the drama of the last few weeks has moved into its epilogue. The Spanish Prime Minister has asserted control, and the separatist Carles Puigdemont, until recently the Catalan President, has fled to Brussels. But the storm, quieter now, is still in evidence. Catalonia has lost its autonomy, something even those in the region who wish to remain a part of Spanish cherished. And the country, and in particular the region of Catalonia, is now bitterly divided.

And caught in this storm is the city of Barcelona.

As cities go, Barcelona is one of the great cities of the world. It is a place where history, art and culture intersects with modern economics and global finance, and gives it its distinctive glow. It is home to one of the most impressive man-made structures in the world, the Sagrada Familia (the unfinished church slated for completion in 2026, whose famous chief architect Antonio Gaudi is believed to have remarked back in the 1880s, when asked about the length of the project, “My client”—God—“is not in a hurry”). In his description of the famed Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats) cafe, the narrator of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind says, “Inside, voices seemed to echo with shadows of other times. Accountants, dreamers, and would-be geniuses shared tables with the spectres of Pablo Picasso, Isaac Albéniz, Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí. There any poor devil could pass for a historical figure for the price of a small coffee.”

This modern city of youths and their aspirations, however, is also the capital of Catalonia, and the epicentre of the current separatist movement. And as the events of the last few weeks have presented themselves, it has pushed the city to look deep within itself to identify who it really is and who it belongs to.

The streets have been filled with demonstrations. Large crowds have filled small squares, sometimes demanding an independent Catalonia and sometimes a unified Spain. The rallies against secession, with people waving the Spanish national flag, is somewhat unusual, because in the rest of Catalonia, as reports point out, even spotting a Spanish national flag on an ordinary day is rare.

During the acrimonious debate within the Catalan parliament where lawmakers voted for cessation, a New York Times report described how crowds gathered around TV screens,whooping as every pro-independence lawmaker voted ‘yes’, and booing when someone said ‘no’: ‘Then they erupted with cheers as the declaration was finally made. People cried. Couples kissed. Friends hugged.’ Some of them melted back into the city, and others joined crowds. But as the night wore on, Barcelona became subdued. Antoni Segura, a history professor at Barcelona University was quoted in the report saying, “If you compare it to revolutions in the Middle East, where people went out into the streets to express themselves, it’s a very different atmosphere. There is a feeling of: what’s next?”

The referendum was deemed illegal by the Spanish government, but about 43 per cent of the Catalan electorate took part in it, 90 per cent of them opting for independence. In the Barcelona metropolitan area, according to reports, 9.8 per cent did not want to break away, more than twice the 4.7 per cent who voted ‘no’ outside the city. Barcelona, it appears, is not as openly supportive of independence as the rest of Catalonia, nor dismissive of it like the rest of Spain.

It finds itself in a position not unlike that of the jewel in its crown, its famed football club, FC Barcelona. The club has always had a strong connection with Catalan identity. During all home games, for instance, pro-independence supporters are known to begin chanting at exactly 17 minutes 14 seconds at each halfof the game to mark the year 1714 when Catalonia lost its autonomy.

But while the club supported Catalonia’s right to choose this time, it stayed clear of openly backing the region’s independence. For pro-independence supporters in Catalonia, it isn’t enough. For those elsewhere in Spain, it is already too much.