Valencia The birthplace of paella is now home to a vibrant North African community – which right-wingers find difficult to swallow and others relish. Jason Webster reports On my way to the local market the other day to buy the ingredients for our Saturday paella – Valencia's signature dish – my route was blocked by a far-right group staging a rally. About a hundred muscular men in tight T-shirts and flat caps worn back to front on their closely-shaven heads gathered outside the church, waving bright red-and-yellow flags. An elderly woman with hair and eyebrows dyed orange danced in and out among them, placing kisses on their reluctant cheeks and singing Viva Espana', like an excited child at a fairground.
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Hay que meter caha', she screamed between verses We've gotta show ‘em'. Wagnerian music blared out from a big sound-system, giving a false sense of drama to the event; they say Hitler only agreed to help Franco at the start of the Spanish Civil War because he was so moved by a performance of Furtwangler conducting Siegfried.
Such a demonstration might not ordinarily raise many eyebrows but staging it in this part of town was provocative. The Ruzafa district is rapidly turning into a new oasis of North Africa in Valencia, and the right-wingers' rally sought to appeal to a deep-felt hatred of moros across the country; in a recent survey, over half of Spaniards admitted to not liking and distrusting.
Moroccans. Ecuadoreans and Chinese share this vibrant little barrio, but the dominant note comes from North Africans, with their closely cropped hair and sloping shoulders clad in thin black-leather jackets, their high-pitched voices jabbering in their characteristic singsong way. Shops advertise halal meat and couscous in Arabic script; little metal pots for making mint tea shine in rows from their windows, alongside earthenware tagines, the sharp scent of fermented olives spills out into the street whenever you open the door.
The arrival of so many different peoples has brought a new buzz to the area and is one of the reasons I chose to live here. This is also the best part of town for finding out-of-the-ordinary food ingredients. A group of Spanish converts to Islam have opened up a tea-house where you feel like you're in the middle of old Marrakech. A turn-of-the-century block is being turned into new boutique hotel. In brightly painted bars you find Spaniards, Moroccans, Algerians and sub-Saharan Africans all mixing freely – a rare sight in Spain.
But this pluralism has not come without a price: there have been stabbings and beatings, two resulting in deaths.
The demonstrators I saw want Moroccans and Algerians to be expelled – there Street scenes in the Ruzafa barrio of Valencia, where Arabic script is as common as Spanish are close to half a million of them now just as Phillip III once threw out all the Moriscos (the Moors who had converted to Christianity) back in 1609. The result back then was to destroy the Valencian economy. At best, a new and vibrant neighbourhood would be destroyed if they had their way today.
It runs much deeper than this, ' an elderly doctor friend told me when we met for a drink afterwards. He too had seen the rally. The police are all friends with these fascists.
I remembered seeing a policeman warmly embracing one of the marchers before telling a black woman, who was innocently just about to cross the street, to go round another way. For many Spaniards, it seemed, the spirit of the Reconquest still ran deep.
I managed to get my ingredients in the end, after the skinheads had marched off. Few of them knew, I imagined, that paella – a dish so important here it is treated with an almost religious reverence.