Viva Veracruz ... Viva Mexica

Viva Veracruz ... Viva Mexica

Travel to Mexico looks like travel to another world ... a different taste of life, a characteristic music rhythm, a sharp flavour of food, women s outstanding beauty ... a strange mix of people and cultures on the land of this world which one day was new to the European invaders but was very ancient in the history of civilizations. The word Mexico is derived from the language of the Nahuatl civilization which flourished there and means a place in the heart of the moon.

A huge country, with diversity in geography and ethnicity, it is the fifth largest in the Americas, although it was forced to surrender a third of its territory to its bitter neighbour the USA, including two of the wealthiest areas in the world: the oil-rich state of Texas and the state of California, the home of the film industry. Despite that surrender, Mexico is still a wonderful country with ample opportunities. Though a North American country it belongs to South American countries in terms of culture, language and destiny. Being on the border with the USA is definitely an unfortunate coincidence; the two countries fought three wars all of which Mexico lost. It was probably that defeat that helped Mexico retain its character and not be influenced by American culture. Mexico has witnessed tremendous industrial development following the oil boom, but there are still large areas which look as if they were a Spanish colony: traditional markets, colonial architectural style, villagers still cutting their crops with scythes. People s features show a mix of man s history divided into three groups: First, the indigenous people, ancestors of the Maya and Aztec civilizations; the Serlons, a small community of pure Spanish origin not mixed with other groups; the Mestizos, the majority of the population, a mixture of Indian and Spanish blood for over about 500 years.

Mexico is an oil producing country, in addition, it is one of the world s largest producers of silver. It lies on the drug road which stretches from Colombia south to the USA north, and is the home of famous drug cartels who are involved in a war with government forces. The most well-known product, however, is open-ended romantic TV serials which attract all Latin Americans as well as many Arabs who watch beautiful Mexican women in love, the sight of whom breaks their hearts.

Dancing to the rhythm of the marimba music

I arrived at the city and state of Veracruz, one of the thirty one of the United Mexican States to participate in the High International Arts Festival, which was first held in Wales, Britain and is so popular that it attracts about 200,000 visitors every year. From Wales the festival moved to countries away from world capitals, particularly cities with a rich history and culture where writers, thinkers and artists from around the world meet. The only Arab capital which hosted the festival was Beirut, last year. This year the festival took place at Jalapa, the capital of Veracruz, a non-coastal city located among mountains.

At first I expected to go to Jalapa quickly, but I was instantly impressed by what I saw in Veracruz, a city bustling with life. I went around non stop starting from the night and day busy city centre with the characteristic rhythm of the marimba music played by elderly musicians who carry their wooden musical instruments and put them in front of a café or a restaurant. As soon as the customers hear the music they go dancing. In the evening, particularly at weekends, the city centre becomes a dance floor. I then went to Independence Street which is full of shops and vendors and next to the traditional Mikado market near the port where leather goods and shells produced by Mexican artists are sold. The old port is filled with huge cargo ships carrying goods, especially cars to North American countries, as all cars from Asia must first land in Veracruz port then are carried by big ferries to the USA and Canada as well as to South American countries. I don t know the reason behind this, but this is one of the secrets of world trade routes. In the evening ship lights shine in the port as ships start to sail into ocean waters with their long whistles. From a distance appeared the lights of San Juan Castle which witnessed a long chapter of the city s bloody history. That range of merriment seems an attempt by the city residents to forget the experiences of the past as life should continue despite the legacy of death.

Yes, it is a bloody, painful history. Only few cities in the world have experienced such a scale of recurrent devastating strikes. That s what Professor Juan Sontes, a specialist in the city s history, said as we were touring a part of one of the city s three museums which house not only chapters of the city s history but important chapters of world history as well. It is the icon of heroism, but it was also the gap through which all invaders infiltrated. It bore the brunt of the hardships of history, while tens of cities and villages were protected by mountains. Veracruz alone met Mexico s destiny.

The discovery shock

The first hall in the museum was about discovery and invasion, housing models of the Spanish ships which reached the coast of the New World: Three ships which subjugated two of the world s largest continents and turned their unknown paradise into forests of evil. Veracruz s story of invasion started with the arrival of the Spanish commander Hernando Cortez with 55 men, a gun and a number of horses and fighting dogs. A very small expedition, nonetheless it defeated and captured Mexico in a matter of three years. Cortez did not carry an official order of invasion from the king of Spain, but was like an adventurous robber for his own sake. The first thing he did was copying Tariq bin Ziad: burning the boats which carried his soldiers so that the only thing they could do was fighting to death, with little he would lose and much they would catch . Many factors contributed to the success of that mad adventure: thunder-like gun sound and ability to kill Aztec fighters who knew only spears and arrows. Spanish shining iron shields made them look like imaginary beings in the face of a civilization unfamiliar with metal smelting. In addition, using horses and dogs at war was very frightening and a cause of defeat. But real defeat lay in the Aztec Emperor Montezuma s illusions and hesitation. He was well aware of Cortez s arrival and was able to attack and kill all his soldiers, but he was under the illusion that those pale-complexioned, blue-eyed, fair-bearded men were not human beings or invaders but came from heaven. He didn t fight them but sent them gold and presents and appeased them and even prevented other allied tribes from fighting them. When the Spanish reached his capital Tenochtitian (present-day New Mexico) he welcomed them again and gave them more presents, but they arrested him and imprisoned and killed him inside his palace. As the Aztecs began to shed the illusion, Cortez had already made many agreements with their hostile tribes and recruited them, assisted by his Indian mistress Marina. He killed all Aztec clergy inside their temples, and within two years he was able to wipe out all Aztecs through inter-tribal fighting.

Cortez became the ruler of that vast country, and with big landowners made Indians suffer inhuman conditions and easily replaceable labour cheaper than machines, and by the end of the colonial era the church owned half the land and a peasant in a small village was lucky enough if he met just one priest for the duration of his life.

Dreams of independence

The second hall deals with another stage in Mexico s rich history, housing rare pictures of the first emperor of Mexican origin (Mestizo).

Spain s power had begun to wane and lose control over its overseas colonies. At first, their huge fleet the Armada was destroyed by the British, and Napoleon occupied Spain itself and made his brother its king. Ideas of freedom and equality began to spread influenced by the French Revolution and the independence of America, and resistance against the Spanish led by Sim?n Bolivar began. All those ideas aroused the Mexican educated middle class of mixed Indian and Spanish origin (Mestizos), who led the movement of independence and separation from Spain, which it was forced to succumb to. Mexico gained independence in 1820, and Itubide, the first Mexican emperor, was enthroned.

Independence brought about a number of problems, in the absence of a powerful ruler and the rising power of the army and wealth of the church. The emperor s rule was short lived and he was forced to abdicate, then was executed and the country fell under a succession of military rule. The predominantly American oil-rich state of Texas declared itself independent from Mexico which tried to regain by force but was heavily defeated by the USA.

Veracruz remained the ambition of many world powers, including France whose fleet bombarded the city many times for illogical reasons. In 1838, e.g. a French bakery was burnt and the French fleet used that incident, (called the pie war ), as a pretext for protecting French property in the city. In 1845 the navy bombarded the walls of Veracruz again and the USA captured Arizona, New Mexico and California. War broke out again and Mexico was defeated and the dictator Saint Maria was forced to surrender those territories for $10m. In 1862 the French fleet bombarded the city once more on the pretext that Mexico failed to repay its foreign debts. The city came under heavy bombardment again and again as if it had been destined to devastation. The French army occupied New Mexico and installed an Austrian emperor, Maximilian, who with his wife Carlota are famous in Mexico s history. Historians say he was a liberal man who wanted to modernize Mexico, but came at the wrong time and was appointed by French occupation forces. It was not a strange thing that after the French left Mexico he was arrested and shot dead. The last invasion of the city was in 1914 when the US navy bombarded and occupied it under the pretext of protecting American interests from the then revolution in Mexico.

Veracruz was the offering Mexico had to sacrifice so that it could attain independence. It was a difficult journey indeed, not only in terms of resistance to foreign invasion but also from suffering dictatorship, civil war, bankruptcy and division. It is still suffering, but will never abandon democracy. That s why all top officials are elected directly in free elections, and presidents, governors and mayors are elected for just one six-year term of office, with a lapse of at least another six years before standing for re-election. Mexico has realized that the smooth transition of power is the effective treatment of dictatorship.

Veracruz encouraged me to visit many cities and towns around it as well as villages, waterfalls, rainforests, mountains and relentless volcano craters, which were all fascinating places worth visiting, but it was time to go to Jalapa.

Jalapa, the green city

Its name may be derived from the Arabic word khallaba , meaning fascinating; (many Spanish words are of Arabic origin). Jalapa is really fascinating: It is green everywhere; its hilly streets are quite steep and very busy with hilltops nearby, some of which are volcanic, others covered with snow. It is a major cultural centre with Veracruz university, a leading university and the second after New Mexico university. That s why it hosts many arts festivals and houses the museum of anthropology, the biggest museum in Mexico. The city is like a large forest with trees and houses surrounding three large lakes and many waterfalls around it.

The High festival opened in Carlo Fontes cultural centre, strangely enough named after a living eminent Mexican writer, but that is by way of honour in recognition of his long career in writing, making up for not being awarded the Nobel Literature Prize, although he has been a candidate for a long time. A prominent contemporary poet, Octavio Paz, won the prize. Since his novel The Most Transparent Area, a Mexican literary masterpiece, was published half a century ago, he has been living in seclusion. But we felt as if he were among us as we sat in the centre which bears his name, and it was a good chance to see tens of writers and artists from around the world in that regional capital, most of whom were not familiar to me. When I checked the Internet, however, I found out that all of them are significant contributors to world culture. That made me feel that we are unfamiliar with human achievements, a everybody is concerned with their own affairs, with few translation efforts, lack of communication and preoccupation with daily mundane tasks.

Festival activities took place in different places in the city: theatres, lecture halls, university and museum. As an Arab in whose country cultural activity plays a marginal role, I was astonished to see that crowd of culture lovers of all ages, especially the young standing in long queues in the rain to buy $15 tickets to see their favourite writers. The love of culture was very clear at the symposium with the Mexican writer Elena Poniatosca, whom I did not know before, but the other guests were keen to see her. I also attended the symposium, and the hall was filled with the audience who clapped and laughed at her sexual secrets. Her age probably allowed her to do that; she was 80, full of life, with a good memory, a lover of French literature, with close contacts with French writers. Discussion centred round her latest book Lenora, a biography of Lenora Carrington; a British-born painter who loved Mexico and lived and died there this year after a long illness. Elena vividly described Lenora s intense suffering and will to live, but the will of God prevailed. The book came in first place as a bestseller and won many Mexican literary prizes.

Cultural diversity

Crowds gathered not only round Spanish writers but also round many others, to their astonishment. The American writer Richard Ford, a Politzer Prize and Faulkner Short Story Prize winner. He became famous after the showing of his film Independence Day based on one of his novels, a science fiction about destructive beings invading the earth. He is the author of five short story collections. I had read his latest novel A Piece of the Earth, which I found good but not wonderful. I attended his symposium half-heartedly, but I was surprised at the large audience, each carrying a copy of his latest book translated into Spanish. His fans gathered round him but he said he would sign a hundred copies only. As I sat beside him he whispered to me looking at the fans pushing round him: Why are they doing this? They have a large enough number of good writers! He was right. He was in the country where Octavio Paz, Juan Rolfo, Carlos Fontes and other prominent writers were born, and he had to remind himself.

Cinema also had its share in the festival. Spanish cinema in particular is never fed up with filming the classic novel Don Quixote, and this time if did not reduce the big novel to just one film as was previously done, but presented the minute details of the novel. The new film was part two of the novel, and a third, or a fourth part, may follow. The film which really impressed me was the documentary The Beast, directed by Pedro Altras, who works in Spanish speaking American television. The film depicts the suffering of Central American immigrants who cross Mexico on their way to the American border and the rough treatment they receive from Mexican officials and civilians and are usually killed, kidnapped or raped. To collect the relevant material Pedro travelled with hundreds of these immigrants crossing Mexico on the death train, or beast as they call it.

To be as comprehensive as possible, the festival devoted part of it to economics through a lecture by Neil Ferguson, a Harvard University economics professor, in which he talked about the global financial crisis. Science as well had its share in the festival through a lecture on mathematics by Oxford University Professor Marcos de Satoy. The festival ended with a music finale not only with Jalapa s symphonic orchestra but also with world-famous musician Michael Neuman playing on the piano. Many people have perhaps watched his film Piano, which won an Oscar for incidental music. British-born, he frequently moves between London and New Mexico and has written a lot of film and modern opera music. That night he did not only play the piano but also accompanied it with short films he shot and directed himself.

Arabic literature symposium

When many of he audience knew that we are Egyptians they were keen to attend the symposium in which my colleague writer Miral Eltahawi and I shared in order to identify some aspects of the Arab Spring and certainly the Egyptian Revolution. It was a wonderful new feeling. Strangers had a false image of Egypt as the land of pyramids and the Sphinx, an obscure and submissive being, but today it has its influential presence admitted by all. An Israeli writer was talking about how the revolution influenced Israel s youth when they shouted at Netanyahu resembling him with Mubarak, and, feeling badly insulted, he cried: I m not a beast like Mubarak, and didn t call the police to kill any of you. He was right if we do not consider his killing of tens of Palestinians as murder and a crime against humanity. Even blood-thirsty Netanyahu is now ashamed of his old friend! I was pleased to be with such a gifted Egyptian writer like Miral Eltahawi, whose novel Brooklyn Heights was short listed for last year s Booker prize. She now teaches Arabic literature at Arizona University, USA, and is thus nearer to Mexico than me as she lives just a stone s throw from the border. But I didn t see her at first and was worried to be the only Arab at the symposium, but she came at the last minute, and was immediately carried from the airport to the symposium venue without having even a cup of coffee. The symposium opened a few minutes late, and, to my astonishment, the hall was filled with audience, especially university students. At first, we wanted to talk about the development of Arabic literature and the novel project of each of us, but talk about the Arab revolution imposed itself as that large youth audience did not come to hear about art and literature, but were only too eager to know about the miracle which Egypt s armless youth performed as they stood against one the fiercest dictators in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that as the story of Latin Americans with such type of rulers is long and sorrowful years of coup d etats, an iron fist and hundreds of missing persons. The USA was their best ally but soon let them down as it did with Mubarak. Our talk about Mubarak and what he did with us scared the audience who found it difficult to believe that his rule continued for thirty years, beating that of any Latin American dictator however clever and brutal he was. That reminds us of Gabriel Marquez s novel The Autumn of the Patriarch, who never died but was reborn again and again exercising the same kind of repression. The audience was surprised to know that such an imaginary story was about to happen in Egypt, as Mubarak keenly sought to make his son his heir, as if he wanted to recreate the character of the patriarch in a new body and turn the novel into a real nightmare. The Egyptian revolution was a fascinating experiment as we gave some of its details. It is the only movement in the world that has achieved such a degree of loftiness and the youth have proved to be able to give and sacrifice for the sake of noble purposes: freedom, democracy and social justice.

That was a glimpe of a multi-activity festival, and a brief one of a multi-cultural country with ethnic diversity and a long history.

(Translated by Dr Shaaban Afifi)


Muhammad Al-Munsi Qandil


Each city has its own carnival. A picture of the nine-day Veracruz festival

The Aztecs believed that the relationship between man’s world and the spirit world worked through the stars. That’s why they were greatly interested in astronomy. This stone engraving which dates back to 600 BC, portrays the zodiac

The Aztecs believed that the relationship between man’s world and the spirit world worked through the stars. That’s why they were greatly interested in astronomy. This stone engraving which dates back to 600 BC, portrays the zodiac

A girl representing Mexican beauty

A panoramic view of the city of Jalapa

A celebration in a night and day busy city centre, with old musicians playing marimba music

A troupe acting an episode in Mexico’s history

A Mexican dance

A celebration of the Aztec civilization. It is said that they gave human offerings to the gods to deceive them to lengthen their lives which they belived were stolen

A true love of music. Mexican men are never fed up with playing the guitar and marimba music

A celebration of the Aztec civilization which was destroyed by the Spanish invasion in the early 16th century

Mexico’s Emperor Maximillian (1832-1867)

A seven-ton head in Jalapa museum, a remnant of the Limbo civilization, a predecessor to the Aztec civilization. There are 17 other heads in Veracruz state

A soldier carrying an eagle, the country’s emblem

An event in Mexico’s troubled history: the execution of Emperor Maximilian enthroned by the French against the will of the people

A page from Mexico’s constitution, with an eagle in the middle surrounded by symbols of the Maya and Aztec civilizations

Simon Bolivar

A painting by the Mexican painter Jules David portraying the novel hero Don Quixote

A famous Mexican pyramid, a remnant of the great Aztec civilization which existed before the arrival of the Spanish. It was a rich civilization in terms of knowledge but did not know metals

World-famous Mexican writer Carlos Fontes

Elena Poniatosca

Miral Altahawi

Alfredo river waterfalls near the town of Tlabokian with vast areas of rainforests around

Composer Michael Newman

Writer Richard Ford

Corn was only known after the discovery of America. It is a basic ingredient of Mexican food, and a variety of pasta is made from it

Neil Ferguson

Marcos de Satoy

Takeaway food and smoked meat cooked in Jalapa’s traditional market

Mexicans are very fond of football. The Mexican team is North America’s champion, with regular presence in the World Cup. The team is so strong that it beat South America’s champions, such as Brazil and Argentina

Far away from crowded cities, Mexico’s shores are still virgin and filled with signs of wildlife

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