You won’t hear many Arab voices in Lisbon. But look beneath the skin, and Lisbon’s Arab history is all around.
In most parts of Portugal’s capital you’d struggle to tell you’re still in Europe. It’s easy to spot Arab skin – but I’m not in the ‘ethnic’ quarter you’ll find in most European capitals – the history of these people – who look Arab – stretches back centuries. They aren’t Arabs living in Portugal. Portugal is Arab. The reminents of 400 years of Arab rule are everywhere.
There’s the superficial – road names betray a connection with Arab world: Rua Monte Damasco, Vialle Jordan.
And there’s the Damascus jam on sale. ‘Damasco’ is a type of peach, named after the Syrian capital.
But the Arab connection is more fundamental. The Portuguese language is made up of hundreds of Arabic words.
And venture into quarters like Mouraria (the Moorish district of Lisbon), and it feels more like a Beirut suburb than neighbouring capitals of Madrid, or Paris or Rome.
Crumbling houses, washing hanging from balconies, old women talking to their neighbours across the street from rooftop to rooftop, bakeries packed with morning customers, men sitting lazily in their cramped shop selling olives, nuts, sweets, washing powder, brushes…
Climb up the hill a little (because this city has almost no flat land, every street is a hill…a very steep hill) and you’ll get to Se cathedral.
Arabs were in control of this city, and much of the Spanish peninsular until 1147. But the Europeans got their city back, eventually, and turned one of the mosques into a fabulous cathedral: the Se. A symbol of Christian dominance, the reverse, in many ways, of the Ummayid Mosque in Damascus (which used to be a church, and still houses the head of John the Baptist).
Down the other side of the hill is the cramped district of Alfama (the name comes from Al-Hama, the spring). It’s the most crowded part of the city. And one of the poorest places in central Lisbon. Rent control means the big old families haven’t been forced out, despite property developers desperate to get their hands on this prime location.
If Mouraria is like Beirut, Alfama is Damascus.
Close your eyes and you could almost…almost feel like you are in Damascus’s Old City.
The smell of jasmine…the melissa tea being slurped in doorways as old men chat…the children running through the streets with their mothers in pursuit…the narrow passageways…the sense of adventure as you turn a corner…the old houses turned into dramatic restaurants…the lack of tourists…the flags fluttering from balconies.
And then you hear it. It sounds a little like someone’s had too much to drink, and they’ve decided they can sing. The Fado ‘houses’ in Alfama are the birthplace of Lisbon’s music (they’re usually bars or restaurants, with an atmosphere reminiscent of the bars of Bab Sharqi).
Melancholy lyrics, often made up on the spur of the moment, are accompanied by the Arab oud (the lute).
The Arab history of this country is dotted all around Lisbon…in the sights, the smells, the people, but most importantly, in Lisbon’s culture. And it works the other way too – Damascus University has just started its first Portuguese course.