Photo by Sam Zucker
It all began a few months ago while eating a spectacular lamb curry, the secret ‘off the menu’ house speciality at Adil Tandoori, on the wise recommendation of a Pakistani-Canadian friend living in Barcelona. Tucked away on the quiet Carrer de l’Est in the Raval neighbourhood, facing a desolate square and boasting the standard-issue aluminium terrace furniture of a dive bar, Adil is not a place I would have ever put on my culinary bucket list. But, as is almost always the case, trusting the advice of a friend paid off.
Upon entering, your eye is drawn to a vast collage of yellowing photographs and curling newspaper clippings depicting decades of important moments in the local Pakistani community's proud collective history. The expression on my young waiter’s face when I ordered the ‘house speciality’ was a comical blend of surprise and amusement, and I was soon rewarded with a hearty bowl of braised lamb in a pungent green curry sauce, served with plenty of naan bread, hot and chewy and fresh from the searing tandoor oven. People often say that to eat a foreign cuisine is to know that culture, but I hope not to be that naive. Food is always at the forefront of my mind, but in the story of the substantial and active Pakistani population of Barcelona, it is history and culture that drive the narrative. As Dr. Huma Jamshed said bluntly, during our chat over coffee in a quiet cafe near her home in Plaça de la Universitat, “Eating spicy food does not mean you understand Pakistani culture.”
Dr. Jamshed first came to Spain in 1997 to earn her PhD in Chemistry at the Complutense University of Madrid. Back in Pakistan, she had been a lecturer at Dawood University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi. However, educational credentials held by immigrants often go unrecognised by the European Union, forcing many to start from scratch in order to claim their professional status in their field. “The average middle class Pakistani person needs to save money for around 10 years to be able to afford the cost of travel to Europe,” she explained.
Since Pakistan gained independence from British rule in 1947, some eight million Pakistani nationals have emigrated to other countries in search of a better life. The poorer classes could not afford to travel far, often settling in countries around the Persian Gulf, while the middle classes travelled to Europe, or even to the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan or South Korea. Now, Pakistanis are one of Barcelona’s largest foreign communities, and though their presence is visible in the city, there is much life, struggle and achievement that is not immediately apparent.
Huma Jamshed is a familiar name within the local Pakistani community. In addition to serving for a time on the Barcelona City Council, she is the founder of ACESOP (the Association for Cultural Education and Social Operations of Pakistani Women)—the first social programme founded by a Pakistani woman in the city, dedicated to supporting women from her homeland. Founded in 2005, ACESOP is Dr. Jamshed’s passion, as she fights to gain the freedom and opportunity these women deserve.
In 2001, women made up only around 10 percent of the Pakistani population here. Fifteen years later, that number has grown to 24.5 percent. When compared to other large foreign populations, such as the Chinese (with 50.6 percent women), the gender imbalance is stark but easily explained. Due to a mixture of cultural tradition, economic challenges and legal hurdles that are part of the typical immigration process, it is far more common for Pakistani men to arrive here and begin working before women. When a man emigrates in search of a job, he often leaves his wife and children in Pakistan until he can afford to bring them over to join him.
While a lot of Pakistani men in Barcelona are able to apply for ‘Family Reunion’ allowances (to obtain residency for their wives and children), there are still many who remain separated from their families. In 2015, the Pakistani community submitted more Family Reunion petitions to the city government than any other foreign population of Barcelona.
Photo by Sam Zucker
Females account for just 24.5 percent of the Pakistani population.
Despite being a prominent face in her community, Dr. Jamshed’s personal circumstances do not represent the average lifestyle or education level of a Pakistani immigrant in Barcelona. In reality, only around five percent of Pakistanis now in Barcelona were previously earning professional salaries in their homeland. These emigrants left their country in search of a higher standard of living, but also because the vast majority could not make a living wage back home.
As the President of the city's Pakistani Workers’ Association, Javed Ilyas Qureshi, explained in his 2009 report entitled ‘Pakistan, in search of an identity’, many Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona left situations where salaries were as low as €45-€50 per month, while renting a flat cost €100 per month, and food staples, particularly proteins like chicken and beef, were beyond many people’s means.
In 1972, the first Pakistani immigrants began to arrive in Catalunya, coming mainly from the Punjab region, which spans the border between Pakistan and India. Qureshi quotes the total number that year as 110 people. These first immigrants, virtually all men, came to work in the carbon mines of Teruel during the week, but many lived in Barcelona. As these workers began to send money back to their wives and families, people still in Pakistan realised there were real opportunities, and they too made plans for a Europe-bound journey. That said, Spain was by no means at the top of the list of desirable countries for relocation. With Pakistan’s identity as a former British colony, many Pakistani families had relatives already living in Britain, and the majority of Pakistani people spoke English. However, the post-World War II period of ‘open immigration’ to the UK for Pakistanis ended in 1971, making Spain, with its more lenient visa process, the best option for many emigrating workers.
Qureshi estimates that between 1975 and 1982, 1,000 more Pakistanis came to Catalunya. A further 5,000 arrived in 1992 following a loosening of government regulations, 98 percent of whom came from other European countries where they had been living but were unable to regularise their paperwork. When Spain made it easier for Pakistanis to obtain work visas, many of those 5,000 benefited, though only some settled in Spain (around 20 percent used their new visas to return legally to countries like Germany and Denmark where the wages and standard of living were much better than those of Barcelona). The most recent significant influx of Pakistani immigrants to Barcelona landed between 1999 and 2007, during the construction boom. With a lot of new jobs needing to be filled, many workers came here, especially those with experience in the construction sector. There are currently 19,414 Pakistani nationals registered as living in Barcelona, 34 percent of whom live within the Ciutat Vella, and more specifically, the Raval.
Magid Alam is a well-known face in the Barcelona food world. Alam, along with his brother Mani and brother-in-law Bilal, opened the popular Fish & Chips Shop last year on the corner of Rocafort and Gran Via. Alam and his family are from Lahore, Pakistan, but he has lived in Barcelona since the age of 12. “Of any Pakistani family I know, ours is one of the most integrated in Catalan culture,” he told me at the bar of his tiny ‘chippy’ as he and the team cleaned up after the weekday lunch rush. “My uncles came in the Eighties and all three married Catalan women,” he explained. “So when I was growing up, my parents were very liberal by Pakistani standards.” His father came to Spain from Pakistan in 1992, and Alam, along with his brother, sister and mother, joined their father several years later. Alam’s uncle, Javed Fazal, was a successful importer of Pakistani furniture who made his name selling intricate pieces to hotels and wealthy Catalan families, and he was one of the most prominent members of the local Pakistani community until he passed away two years ago. Yet, Alam still doesn’t feel that connected to the community.
His family opened the restaurant Flor de Maig in the Raval in the late Nineties, and, though it was a Pakistani restaurant at first, they now serve a mix of the original dishes, plus a wide array of tapas and Catalan favourites. In a way, the menu at Flor de Maig (where he worked in the kitchens for seven years before honing his culinary skills and eventually launching his own business) is a reflection of Alam himself—Pakistani at the roots but shaped by the local culture into the person he is today.
Photo by Sam Zucker.
Sweet and savoury treats can be found in the bakeries of the Raval.
Wandering the streets and shops of the Raval and chatting with the people there provides a window into the community, but Sheri Ahmed, who works with Casa Àsia—a public consortium of institutions (Barcelona City Council, the Generalitat de Catalunya, and the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs) dedicated to the promotion and support of the city’s Asian cultures—takes cultural exchange a step further. Sheri Ahmed was born in Manchester to parents from a rural area of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Her father first moved to England in the Sixties to work in a steel factory and he was joined five years later by his wife. Ahmed arrived in Barcelona in 1998. She has been working with Casa Àsia since around 2002 within their Escola de Bambú (the ‘Bamboo School’), a programme for children that promotes intercultural exchange. In 2015, Ahmed began leading cultural tours of the Raval with Casa Àsia and cultruta.com, the first of which took place during the annual religious holiday of Ramadan, under the name of ‘Les nits de Ramadà pakistaneses’ (the Nights of Pakistani Ramadan).
The goal of this two-hour walking route is to show people how the Pakistani community lives during the holy time of Ramadan, and how the night comes alive once the daily fast is broken at sunset. Ahmed accompanies groups through the Raval, guiding them into one of the neighbourhood's mosques, where she explains the traditions of the holiday, as well as the dynamic purpose that a mosque serves in the community. “Mosques in Barcelona are about much more than just religion,” she told me, as we sat in her colourful dance studio on Carrer d’en Roig, where she also teaches Bollywood dancing—a genre that bridges Pakistani and Indian cultures.
The mosques were originally formed here as cultural associations, collecting monthly payments from members that acted as a type of ‘insurance fund’ allocated to the repatriation of the remains of a community member who had passed away. A fundamental aspect of Pakistani tradition is that one must be buried in their country of origin, so these mosque funds helped to put people at ease as they were adjusting to their new lives away from home. Now, in addition to holding community funds and serving as a place of worship, the city’s mosques also play a key role in the education of the younger generations of Pakistanis, especially that of women. While many young Pakistani men and women study in Barcelona’s public schools and universities, some are not able to access education, whether it’s due to bureaucratic problems or conservative family values. However, thanks to free Spanish, Catalan and English classes offered at the mosques, all members of the community can learn, socialise and make strides towards further integration.
After visiting the mosque, Ahmed shows her group other important parts of the Pakistani community, including a visit to see Javed Ilyas Qureshi at the Pakistani Workers’ Association; a stop outside of the city’s first Pakistani restaurant; a look inside a traditional Pakistani sweet shop and an opportunity to browse the items and articles of a typical Pakistani bookshop. To finish the tour, Ahmed leads the group to her dance studio where they listen to recordings of traditional Qawwali singing (a form of Sufi devotional music) while eating the typical foods with which Barcelona’s Pakistanis break their Ramadan fasts, including dates, some sweets from the shop on the tour and pakoras (savoury chickpea flour fritters of potato and onion).
Photo by Sam Zucker.
Sheri Ahmed leads cultural tours of the Raval with Casa Àsia and cultruta.com.
Ahmed loves showing people another side to the local Pakistani culture and religion, especially since Islam is not a mainstream religion in Spain. Despite the country’s rich Islamic heritage, there are no ornate mosques in modern-day Barcelona. Although most Pakistani people in Barcelona would agree that Catalan culture is quite open and accepting of religious difference, some say that the idea of specifically commissioning a mosque still creates friction and, in the current context of rising Islamophobia, this is likely to be more contentious than ever. While the global context is beyond the control of the local community, initiatives such as Ahmed’s tour help to establish empathy, acceptance and respect between individuals. It may be a small step, but these are fundamental building blocks of a multicultural society.
Eva Maciocco, an Intercultural Mediator specialising in South Asian cultures and part of the ‘Xeix’ project (a programme run through the Barcelona City Council), has been working for many years with the city’s Pakistani population, both as an Urdu translator and a community liaison officer. When asked about the concept of there being a ‘Pakistani culture’ in Barcelona, she explained that, “Among the people of the ‘community’, you can find many different religious beliefs and political orientations, different educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, different interests and aspirations, and different stories of travelling, migration and settling that have made them who they are now.” Maciocco continued, “I just think we should try to get rid of the mysterious or exotic flavour we give to the idea of a ‘community’ and talk about real people living in a diverse society.”
The idea of ‘experiencing’ another culture can encourage the tendency to exoticise, and one may unwittingly simplify the complex nuances that are rarely seen or truly understood by those who do not belong to the community. The iceberg metaphor is often connected to culture—the part you see is just a small piece of a much larger concept. This, too, may be an oversimplification, as it doesn’t take into account the fluid nature of culture, especially when it is supplanted on top of another. But what’s certain is the richness brought to society by the interaction of different cultures living side-by-side.
Restaurants and Bakeries
Here is a short list of popular, authentic places in and around Barcelona for tasty Pakistani kebabs, curries, meats and sweets.