Mahanoor Abbas: Exploring Cultural Norms España Vuelta 2019

Mahanoor Abbas of FIU in Sitges (Photo taken by Sofia Scotti)

Cultural Norms and Customs in Spain and the Americas

Traveling to Spain for the first time was an eye-opening experience for me. Not only was it my first time traveling alone, but it was also my first time being in another country without my family. I was not sure what to expect from this experience, which I would now describe as life changing. I always rolled my eyes at people who said “study abroad changed my life” or “study abroad changed me as a person.” Now I am proud to be one of those people. The amount of rich culture I was immediately immersed into was and is still unbelievable to me. Being a person of Pakistani descent who was born and raised in the United States of America, the concept of being multicultural is very familiar to me. Interested in studying different cultures, I decided to analyze the similarities and differences in the cultural norms of Spain and the Americas. Not only did my research for this project help me gain a deeper understanding of Spanish culture, but it also made me appreciate all the similarities and differences between the culture that I have experienced my entire life and the one I was introduced to this summer.

Acceptance of All Sexual Orientations (Chueca)

The neighborhood of Chueca, located in the center of Madrid, is famously known as Madrid’s gay neighborhood. It is inclusive of all sexual orientations making it a great place to have fun and hang out in. This barrio, or neighborhood, whose streets are adorned with big and small pride flags, welcomes all to experience its liveliness and culture. Similarly, the U.S. has many gay neighborhoods throughout different states. I do see a difference in the acceptance of different sexualities in Spain and the Americas. All across Spain people are just as accepting of different sexual orientations as they are in Chueca. It is different in the Americas because many places and its people condemn and criticize those who are not like them, making it difficult for people of the LGBTQ community to feel accepted. It was not until 2005 that Spain legalized same-sex marriage, which is way earlier than the United States where it only recently became legal in 2015. The Americas have been on their way, slowly but surely, of becoming more accepting of different sexual orientations. Legalizing same-sex marriages and developing gay neighborhoods where people feel comfortable and at home are a great sign of this.

Bullfighting (Sevilla)
Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería

In the United States, animal fighting such as cockfighting, dogfighting, and hog-dog fighting is illegal whether it is hosted as a sport, for entertainment, or for betting because of how inhumane it is. Since it is illegal and can be charged as a felony offense in many states, the fights are held very secretly in private locations just like other illegal underground activity.

On the other hand, bullfighting is one of the most popular sports in Spain that thousands of people attend daily from locals to tourists. Open 7 days a week for people to attend, the enormous bullrings where the fights take place seat thousands of people who are eager to see the fight whether it’s their first time or 50th time watching. 

The oldest bullring in Spain is the Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería located in the city of Sevilla. The heart of Sevillano culture, bullfighting is said to be one of the main attractions where Sevilla’s culture can be seen. In April, an annual fair is held by the city of Sevilla called the Feria de Abril that goes on for a week. During this week, the bullfights are packed and as a result, create a completely different atmosphere and experience that is unlike any other. Since I was not in Spain until June, I unfortunately did not get to experience watching a bullfight during its peak.

Bullfighting is opposed by animal activists everywhere as they hold protests against this Spanish sport. In May of 2018, more than 40,000 people rallied in Madrid for a ban to be placed on the popular sport. Some cities in Spain have banned the sport calling it cruel and inhumane, including all the provinces in Catalonia and the Canary Islands. The European Union has been trying to ban bullfighting in all of Spain for years but has had no success. What I find interesting is that the first bullfight that was held in Spain can be traced back to 1158 in honor of King Alfonso VIII for his crowning as king. Bullfighting undoubtedly continues to remain a huge part of the country’s culture and heritage. 

I’m torn between the different views people have about it after watching the bullfight for myself in Madrid’s Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas. I do believe it is animal cruelty, the way they make the bull suffer and I most definitely teared up watching the bull in pain. But at the end of the day, I understand that it is a big part of the Sevillano culture and the Spanish culture as a whole and even though I do not agree with it, I do respect it. 

Public Nudity (Barcelona)
FIU Espana Group 2019 at Playa de la Barceloneta

In Spain, it is normal for men and women to be topless or completely nude at public beaches. However, nudism in public places other than the beach is still a very controversial topic. The Supreme Court of Spain ruled that nudism is not a fundamental right; therefore, towns that want to ban it have the right to do so. The town of Castell-Platja d’Aro, which is north of Barcelona, has banned nudity on its beaches and has imposed a fine for those who break the rule. 

In contrast, it is prohibited in the majority of states in the U.S. by state law for women to show their nipples and men to show their genitalia in a public place including beaches unless it is specifically a nude beach. This just goes to show how open-minded and liberal Spain is for allowing people to show off their sexuality, but the Americas are more conservative when it comes to matters like these. It is also clear that it is culturally normal for both men and women to have a lot more sexual freedom in terms of nudity in Spain than those living in the Americas. While it is culturally normal to be nude at most of the beaches in Spain and not be judged for it, it is culturally abnormal to do the same in the Americas. This certainly shows that many Americans are not as accepting as they try to make themselves out to be. 

My first experience seeing a topless woman at the beach in Spain was in Barcelona at Playa de la Barceloneta. I noticed a woman walking towards me with no bikini top on and her nude breasts showing, which was very unexpected and caught me off guard. Shortly after, I sat down on the sand and looked around and that is when I noticed there were more women laying down without tops on. Seeing that first topless woman made me feel pretty uncomfortable, but as I saw more and more women dressed similarly, I started to feel less and less uneasy. I would not go as far as to say that by the end of the day I was completely comfortable with the nudity, but I can say that I was more accepting of it. I pondered on why I felt so uncomfortable and I came to the conclusion that it was because I was not used to public nudity. When we took a day trip to Sitges and went to the beach, I saw topless women again, but this time I was expecting it so it did not catch me by surprise and because of that, I did not feel any sort of discomfort. That day I realized that I was getting accustomed to the culture and the nudity was growing on me.

Shopping and Dining (El Born and Malasaña)

El Born, what I consider the Wynwood of Barcelona, is the place to be at nighttime whether you are a tourist or a local. The artisanal bars, wide range of diverse restaurants, and chic boutiques attract mostly the young crowd. 

The barrio of Malasaña in Madrid is quite similar to Barcelona’s El Born. This trendy neighborhood is home to great restaurants, bars, and stores. The difference between the boutiques in El Born and the stores in Malasaña is pretty big. The boutiques in El Born are not chain stores; however, well-known brand names like Lush, Superdry, North Face, and many more line the street of Malasaña. 

The culture in the Americas as well as Spain is to drink and dine and shopping just adds the cherry on top. El Born is not only known for its nightlife, but also for its culture in the day time. Just as one can visit the art exhibits in Wynwood during the day, one can visit the Picasso Museum or state of the art modernisme concert hall and opera house, the Palau de la Música in El Born. In Malasaña, tourists can visit the Museo de Historia de Madrid, Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo, or the Plaza del Dos de Mayo, the heart of the barrio. These cultural hotspots, El Born and Malasaña, stay busy day and night, as people eat tapas and enjoy their day. Overall, it is very interesting that the barrio of El Born and Malasaña, both in completely different cities in Spain, are very similar to other popular cities and neighborhoods in the Americas where people can just go out to have a good time with friends.

Tipping

Tipping, even though not mandatory, is a huge custom in the Americas and is much expected by those providing the service. It is completely normal in America to tip someone who carried out a service for you and quite frowned upon when one is not left. Waiters, for the most part, earn way below the minimum wage and therefore really need tips to make ends meet. For this reason, many people tip well at restaurants. Matter of fact, if there are 5 or more people dining together, usually a 15% tip is automatically added to the total amount on the bill. There is not one time that I can think of where I did not leave a tip after eating at a restaurant or getting my nails done, no matter how bad the service was. Tipping is not common at all in Spain. Since it is not generally normal for people to tip, the people who provide the service do not expect one. When they are tipped, you can expect to find them surprised and very happy. 

I think it should be a custom in Spain to tip just like it is in the Americas. I noticed that people tend not to tip in Spain even after great service because they feel that they do not have to since it is not a custom. If people started tipping these hardworking people that deserve tips for their excellent service, others would follow and do the same. 

Works Cited

“40,000 Rally in Madrid to Protest Spain’s Bullfighting Tradition.” DailySabah, 27 May 2018, www.dailysabah.com/europe/2018/05/27/40000-rally-in-madrid-to-protest-spains-bullfighting-tradition.

“A Closer Look at Dogfighting.” ASPCA, www.aspca.org/animal-cruelty/dogfighting/closer-look-dogfighting.

“Animal Fighting Facts.” Animal Legal Defense Fund, aldf.org/article/animal-fighting-facts/.

Bohannan, Britt. “Spain and Sexuality.” Expatica, 28 Feb. 2019, www.expatica.com/es/about/culture-history/sexuality-107367/.

Carrel, Francine. “Sex & Sexuality in Spain.” Guides Global, 3 Sept. 2018, www.guidesglobal.com/sex-sexuality-in-spain/.

Guy, Jack. “Bullfighting Is Latest Battleground in Spanish Politics.” CNN, Cable News Network, 12 Jan. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/01/12/europe/bullfighting-spain-politics-scli-intl/index.html?no-st=1563673325.

Nayler, Mark. “A Brief History of Bullfighting in Seville.” The Culture Trip, 12 June 2017, theculturetrip.com/europe/spain/articles/a-brief-history-of-bullfighting-in-seville/.Thyberg, David. “Culture & Customs in Spain.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 15 Jan. 2019, traveltips.usatoday.com/culture-customs-spain-14450.html.

Mahanoor Abbas: España as Text 2019

My name is Mahanoor Abbas and I’m graduating in Spring 2020 from the Honors College at Florida International University with a double major in International Business and Marketing. 

Madrid as Text

Atocha Tandoori Felt Like Home by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU in Atocha Tandoori Indian Restaurant on June 13, 2019.

<<Atocha Tandoori>> by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU

Coming to Madrid, I honestly did not know what to expect. Not only was it my first time traveling without family, but it was also my first time living with people I did not know. The food I had during the first few days gave me stomach aches and made me feel nauseous all together. I was overall overwhelmed to say the least. There was a restaurant on Paseo de Santa María de la Cabeza that caught my attention. It was an Indian restaurant called Atocha Tandoori. I decided to go out and try the restaurant with the group of girls I was staying with. As a person who eats halal meat, my food options are pretty limited. I walked into the restaurant thinking of the vegetarian options I could go with. When the waiter came to take our order, I asked him if he served halal meat even though I was expecting him to say no. I was wrong because his answer was “Yes, our chicken is halal. I’m a Muslim myself and I eat this halal chicken.” His response made me feel content.

After all, I would finally get to eat meat after a week without it. After we finished our meal, the waiter approached our table and started to converse with me in my mother tongue, Urdu. This made me feel like I finally belonged, and although Spain was different than home, it had food available that made me feel like I was a little closer to home. What I found most interesting however, was the difference in the food. For example, I ordered a chicken tikka masala, a very popular Indian dish. At all the different restaurants I’ve eaten it in Florida, it has pretty much tasted the same. At Atocha Tandoori, it tasted very sweet with very little spice, something I wasn’t used to. When I asked the waiter about this, he said they had to adapt the taste to the locals eating at the restaurants and they preferred it like this. While many people may believe that adapting to local tastes makes the food less authentic, I would have to disagree. It’s really interesting to me that different cultures adapt to the locals surrounding them and how this varies from country to country.

The meal that I enjoyed inspired me to investigate the Indian and Pakistani culture in Madrid. After research I found that there are around 35,000 Indians and 82,000 Pakistanis living in Spain. While they make up a small part of the population, they definitely have integrated themselves with the rest and made a nice community for themselves. Having a little piece of home here has helped me cope with the culture shock and overall enhanced my experience in Madrid.

Toledo as Text

Toledo’s Neo-Mudéjar Railway Station by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU in Toledo Railway Station on June 13, 2019.

<<Toledo Railway Station>> by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU
<<Inside of Toledo Railway Station>> by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU

I was very excited for our day trip to Toledo after hearing about the different cultures that integrated there. We took a train to the city of Toledo since it is a bit far from Madrid. Right when we arrived at the railway station in Toledo, I noticed the Moorish inspired architecture, which I found out was called Mudéjar art. After looking more into the architecture of the railway station, I found that it was Neo-Mudéjar. Neo-Mudéjar is a type of architecture that began in the 19th century, influenced by Mudéjar(Moorish) architecture. In Arabic, the word Mudéjar means “permitted to remain.” This was the name given to Moors who remained in Spain after Christians took it back over.

I find it hypocritical how both Mudéjar and Neo-Mudéjar styles of art are still used in Spain and embraced by Spaniards after many Moors were expelled from the country. Despite this, I find it fascinating that they kept a lot of the Moorish influence across Spain because it’s honestly so mesmerizing and different from Spanish architecture, while also being a huge part of its history. At the time Florida was conquered by Spaniards, Spain’s capital was Toledo, a city very much influenced by Moors. Therefore, I find it weird that you don’t see any Moorish influence in Florida. I suppose it could be due to the Spaniards wanting to spread the Christian identity to the New World and it was a perfect fresh start for them.

Sevilla as Text

House of God by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU in The Cathedral of Sevilla on June 22, 2019.

<<La Giralda>> by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU

I walked into the house of God and I was confused with the way I felt. The perception of what I thought I would have felt and what I actually felt were in contrast with one another. Considering that the vast majority of my classmates are Christians, I felt disconnected from the group in terms of religion. When I stepped into the Cathedral of Sevilla I didn’t become Christian for the day. I didn’t have to. As I wandered around the cathedral, I realized that my Islamic roots were not so different from Christianity after all. The same story of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus Christ that I grew up hearing was portrayed in the mesmerizing altarpiece. 

I was quite surprised to find that it was built on the site of The Almohad Mosque, which was in place until 1248 and then turned into a gothic church in only 72 years. Being the largest gothic cathedral in the world, it has a bell tower called La Giralda that was first constructed as a minaret to go along with the mosque, but later turned into a bell tower for the cathedral. Its foundation is made from Roman stones, making it centuries old. I feel as though the mosque and minaret were swallowed by the church, and I was somewhat disappointed both as a Muslim and a tourist. If they had preserved the mosque and built the Cathedral of Sevilla in another location, we would have gotten to see two different but very similar, beautiful places of worship. 

Granada as Text

7 Levels of Heaven by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU in Alhambra on June 22, 2019.

<<Allah>> by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU
<<Hall of Ambassadors>> by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU

As a Muslim, I was completely and utterly speechless as I walked through the Alhambra. I had never seen Islamic architecture this beautiful in my life. Although I can read Arabic, it was hard for me to read the writing that was placed all across the palace. The one word that stood out to me most was Allah, meaning god in Arabic. 

One of my favorite parts of the Alhambra has to be the Hall of Ambassadors. Its ceiling is supposed to represent the 7 layers of heaven that Prophet Muhammad visited. In Islam, we refer to his journey as the “Mi’raj”. During his journey, he meets the following prophets: Joseph, Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Aaron, and John. Prophet Moses tells Prophet Muhammad that God says that Muhammad and his followers must pray 50 times a day. Muhammad pleads for its reduction because he says it’ll be to much for the followers, therefore God agrees to bring it down to 5 times a day. This is the reason why Muslims around the world pray 5 times a day. Seeing the 7 layers of heaven on the ceiling reminded me of the stories of “Mi’raj” that I have heard my whole life. 

The colossal palace of Alhambra showcases the beautifully intricate Islamic art and architecture. Not only was it used as a palace, but also as a mosque and as a fortress. The only reason we can see it today is because of a poet named Washington Irving, who stayed there while it was abandoned. He was crucial to why Alhambra still stands because he wrote a book about it, which is what intrigued people to come and visit it. The world Alhambra derives from the Arabic word Al-Hamra meaning “the red one,” which makes complete sense because the building is red from the outside. 

Sitges as Text

Home of Rusiñol by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU in Museu del Cau Ferrat on July 5, 2019.

<<Fountain of Cau Ferrat>> by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU

After visiting the Cau Ferrat, it is very clear to me as to why Charles Deering fell in love with Santiago Rusiñol’s home and studio at first glance. Not only did Deering fall in love with the beauty of the house itself, but he also fell in love with the collection of art that Rusiñol had inside of it. He was mesmerized by the Modernisme artists and El Greco paintings. Charles Deering, captivated by Cau Ferrat, proposed that he would like to purchase it as well as the art pieces inside, to which Rusiñol refused. Deering, with the help of Miquel Utrillo, converted the hospital in Sitges into his residence inspired by Cau Ferrat. Utrillo also helped Deering purchase many pieces of art and furniture throughout Europe that he eventually took back to the U.S., even though Utrillo opposed.

Now looking back at it, Rusiñol saved a big part of the Catalan identity by not selling the house and art collections to Deering because they would have ended up in the U.S. Converted into a public museum in 1933 as wished by Rusiñol, Museu del Cau Ferrat is widely known as the “Temple of Modernisme” because of all the ancient and modern art collections it holds that were handpicked by Santiago Rusiñol himself. Cau Ferrat holds 2 paintings by El Greco as well as works by Pablo Picasso, Ramon Casas, and many more that are only still there because Rusiñol’s smart decision to keep his home and studio for himself. They are what make the museum a symbol for Catalan identity.

Barcelona as Text

Trencadís by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU in Park Güell on July 5, 2019

<<Trencadis>> by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU

As I walked through Park Güell, I could not help but notice the architecture of it. The public park that was originally meant for wealthy families was designed by the famous Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí. Eusebi Güell, a friend of Gaudí’s, wanted Gaudí to construct a private community for the wealthy families that consisted of 60 houses. Located on top of a mountain, the community was supposed to offer spectacular views of the city of Barcelona to the people that would live there, but only two houses were built as it turned out to be an unsuccessful project. The sustainable architecture used by Gaudí was more than impressive for its time. For example, the irrigation system he designed had pipes running inside the pillars of the park, which constantly collected and stored rainwater so not one drop went to waste.

The most beautiful and intricate part of Park Güell has to be the long bench covered with colorful trencadís. The bench stands out from the rest of the park because of the unique colors that are incorporated into it and bring the park together as a whole in the middle. Trencadís is the smashing of ceramic tile and then piecing the shards together to create a mosaic. Many believe that Gaudí created the trencadís style, but it can be traced back to the Moors who actually invented the style. 

EX as Text: Bullfighting

Bull Fight by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU in Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas on July 5, 2019

<<Plaza de Toros>> by Mahanoor Abbas of FIU

I am not sure where to begin, should I start with the way I felt when I saw bull after bull die or when I saw a matador get rammed in the leg by one of the bulls. The bullfight I went to in Madrid at Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas was definitely an eye opener. I would always hear about bullfighting and thought it was so cool, that is up until I witnessed it first hand. To say it was gruesome is an understatement. I am glad that I went to see it because now I can say that I think it is wrong. I honestly believe that if I had not seen it I would still be a naive little girl thinking it was not a bad thing. To me it just felt like it was inhumane the way they made the bulls suffer.

After doing some research, I found that it was most likely the Moors who introduced bullfighting in Spain as a sport around the 11th century. Although it can also be traced back earlier to gladiator games during Roman times. It is said that the first official bullfight in Spain was organized in honor to crown King Alfonso VIII. Even though I felt queasy and cried watching the blood spew out of the poor bull, I do not regret going. At the end of the day, it is a part of the Spanish culture and heritage that I believe one must personally witness before forming an opinion about.