I met Samson, Martina, Maria and Serafine on 24th December at midnight. We, a group of Christians, were celebrating midnight mass in a parish in Santa Coloma de Gramanet, and as we began our meeting a group of Pakistanis arrived. Everyone kept looking at them because no one knew who they were, and it was surprising to see a group of people from their country at our church. They spoke English and one of them knew a little Italian. They attended the Christmas celebration with great devotion and when we had finished we embraced the interesting challenge of trying to communicate with each other. Whilst language can be a barrier, when people really make an effort to meet each other and communicate, in the end they manage to make themselves understood.
That meeting marked the beginning of a special relationship with this family. They continued to attend the church and we got closer. Although they were financially self-sufficient, they still had some degree of need and more than one of them still had to regularise their legal situation. Many people made an effort to help them feel settled and integrated in Santa Coloma de Gramanet, and especially within the religious community. And once they were settled more and more Pakistanis arrived. We could never be sure if the new arrivals were family or friends of the family, Christians who had had to leave their country for religious reasons, or what… This distinction was made even more difficult because they looked so alike to us physically. The fact is that we met many people and it was a very enriching time for us all.
I remember going to have lunch at Samson and Martina’s house one day. They lived in a flat in Fondo. One of those blocks that was built in the first wave of immigration in the 1960’s. As soon as I walked through the door it was as if I had changed countries. The way the house was decorated, the carpets, low tables, smells and above all, the language that they used to communicate with each other, which I didn’t understand a word of… Also, I couldn’t believe that so many people were able to fit under the one roof. There were a number of guests who they wanted to introduce me to, and they wanted to show me their appreciation for everything we had shared together. One of the things I remember most clearly is the spiciness of the food; they must have had some idea about this because they watched for my reaction. Luckily they showed me some mercy because they didn’t make the food too spicy; nonetheless that magnificent meal cost me a tear or two. As I left the house I remarked to myself “wow, I have been on a long journey without even leaving my hometown. It is as if I have been to Pakistan and learnt a little about the country. It is so wonderful that these people are able to live in a way that they know and want to live”. We have the right to live our lives in accordance with our ideas, our way of thinking, our consciousness. We must not forget that we have but one life and we have the right to live it right here and right now just as we think best, as long as we do not threaten the freedom of others or cause damage to others or ourselves.
I left Santa Coloma de Gramanet and went to live in Mataró. There I maintained contact with my new Pakistani friends albeit on a more sporadic basis. One day they came to visit me in Mataró to ask me if I could marry two family members who had recently arrived from Pakistan. I said that I would like to meet them first and we arranged a time for them to come round a few days later. We talked for a while over tea and coffee. Why do you want to get married? Because we want to have children. How did you meet? When we were young our parents decided that we should get married. And now the time has come for us to do so. But do you want to get married or are you simply doing as your parents say? Our parents know and love us and want what is best for us. Therefore we want to get married. But you are missing one very important factor here. Your freedom; if you get married because your parents say so this is a null marriage. There is no exception to this. Today in Europe it is unimaginable that two people should get married because their parents arrange it. Most people choose who to live with and if they have no freedom then they do not want to get married. In Europe you all do this, but there is no guarantee that things will work out, just look at all the marriages that break up and couples who can’t bare to stay together after a couple of years. Besides, even if most people do something a certain way it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for everyone else. Things aren’t so bad for our families, my parents got married in this way and they have had happy lives together. People who don’t agree with this way can always find other ways to commit to each other, even if it is tricky and does mean going against the grain. But do you at least love each other? I persisted. I don’t know what you mean by love, but we can honestly say we love each other. I didn’t dare ask any more questions, but once again I was witness to the huge cultural differences that exist between people from different continents and how we can use the same concepts to say such different things.
A few months later I did marry them. It was a strange celebration. It was a totally European event, apart from the people there, who were from a totally different context. The clothes they wore, the colour of their skin, their expressions…. And not to mention the reception party; the food; Once again I felt like I had been travelling without leaving my home. I have now lost touch with these friends, but some mutual friends tell me how they are doing. I know that they had some financial difficulties, they even had to change cities and that there was some kind of family dispute, that things were difficult for them. But I hope that they are well and that they can live in a dignified and happy way, as they and all human beings deserve to do, wherever and whoever they are.
All this makes me wonder, if this is possible on an intimate family level, then why shouldn’t it be possible at work, in society and even in politics? Sometimes we are obliged to live in a way we did not wish for or want. How can we free ourselves of this obligation of having to live as the majority say and instead live the way we want to, in line with our beliefs? We have made what other people say into some kind of idol that we have to accept and submit to. Can we not organise things differently? If all human beings have the right to live their lives in accordance with the way they think, then our democracy should make this possible. We must recognise that each individual and group must be allowed to live in line with their consciousness and carry out their life’s mission with a certain degree of independence and social responsibility and co-responsibility.
We must be able to take a step forwards, in other words, move from quantitative change to qualitative change. We cannot merely build our lives on a numerical quantitative framework, we have to make sure instead that different groups are able to turn their thoughts into reality, live in accordance with the customs and values that they believe give them their identity. Understood like this democracy is an institutional space where cultural and political pluralism can be recognised and each group can live in line with what they truly think. I suddenly felt as though I had been on another journey whilst remaining on the same spot. Where had I been? I wasn’t sure. This is a question I still don’t know the answer to, but hopefully I will soon.