In the town of Zamora, once known as Samurah when Spain was under Muslim rule, Holy Week is the most important festival of the year and almost always carried with it typically pork-based dishes as part of the festivities.
Majad El Din, a Syrian Muslim refugee, has lived in this Castilian-Leonese city for almost three years.
In the front of the food market of Zamora, located in the centre of the city, there is an old souvenir shop full of crockery made of clay, such as the traditional bowl to serve garlic soups, one of the typical local dishes. As its name ‘sopa de boda’ suggests, the soup is served with bits of ham and sausages, a lot of garlic with bread, paprika and sometimes chorizo and butter.
Despite having been here for almost three years, Majad, originally from Zabadani (a town near Damascus), has never tried them because of his religion. This dish, like many others in Zamora, contains pork products, meat the Qu'ran forbids.
"In addition to religious reasons, I do not eat pork for health reasons. Pigs often get diseases, and it is not by chance that people with little hygiene are told they are pigs!”, he says laughing, as we walk down the central street of Santa Clara, where many people recognise and greet him.
There are many local recipes that this young Syrian can’t taste, such as arroz a la zamorana or the famous pinchos morunos from El Lobo bar. But in reality, this is not a problem for the Syrian.
"When I go out with my co-workers, they sometimes tease me and tell me that all tapas have pork, but in reality, if for example, we go to a restaurant, they always ask for a special dish for me. Deep down they respect me a lot”, he says.
Halal meat in Spain's pork 'Mecca'
Historically, pork consumption in Zamora has been linked to traditional slaughter, especially in the villages, where thousands of families fought against famine by making dishes of chorizo and ham from the loin, feet, nose, ears and even blood to make blood sausage. In addition, the fat of the animal (lard) has been used for decades to cook as a cheaper alternative to oil. The food depended on the whole year, and as it is said in this land, "from the pig, until the walk."
For Majad it is understandable that in extreme moments, where the objective is to survive, pork is consumed. In fact, "for a year, in the middle of the war in Syria, my family and I barely had enough to eat. Now, if I had found a pig at that time, I assure you that I would have killed it and I would have eaten it!” he tells Euronews with laughter.
"Islam does not allow you to put your life in danger," explains Majad, married and father to three children.
In Zamora, pig slaughter is still carried out in winter by families, and in a way that is very cruel to some. After sticking a hook in the throat, the animal is cut, where it is killed. This cruelty is something that also stands out among some activists practising Muslim rites. Islam proposes another way of sacrificing animals - which, of course, are never pigs - in a halal (lawful, allowed) way: the beef, or chicken, has to be slaughtered swiftly in the direction of Mecca and “in the name of God” (Bismillah). It must be done by a religious person “although not necessarily a Muslim”, clarifies Majad.
“He can also be a Christian, but never an atheist,” he added.
Despite living in Spain’s pork ‘mecca’, Majad finds it easy to find halal meat. At 27, he works in a sheep slaughterhouse — the largest in Spain — where part of the processed meat is halal.
Majad has the qualification to verify the animals have been slaughtered in accordance with Islamic Law and to sign the halal certificates.
A mosque in a garage
Majad's involvement with Islam goes beyond the average believer. In his house, he proudly shows several books with Quranic verses.
It is Friday, the day Muslims go to congregational prayer across the world. I accompany Majad to the only mosque in Zamora, a discrete space that is actually a garage and goes completely unnoticed. In our tour, we see at least three of the 22 Romanesque churches that Zamora has, a province with a Catholic majority. In fact, the number of Muslims is much lower than in the rest of Spanish provinces, about 1,100 according to the Andalusi Observatory, making it the province with the smallest Muslim population in the entire country. A small part of them meets every Friday at this location, located on a quiet street in the neighbourhood of San Lazaro.
Majad shows the women’s entrance before going to prepare to read the khotba, a pre-prayer sermon in which a message is transmitted to the congregation.
Inside the mosque — small and simple — a dozen men pray separated from just four women. Nabiba, who was born in occupied Western Sahara, has lived in Zamora for 30 years.
“Few women come here, because they are not really obligated, as is the case with men. I come when I have time.”
Beside him, Rachida, of Moroccan origin, is glad that "in general we have met with good people who respect us, although even today there are still some people who are closed-minded, who look at us badly when we wear the veil”.
“But do not think we're not presumptuous!” she adds. “Here below… he tells me, (pointing to the veil) there are wicks and everything!” she says while laughing.
'Deep down we are all the same'
Once the prayer is over, a family atmosphere spontaneously forms. Everyone greets and embraces in a warm atmosphere.
A man approaches Majad to thank him for his words, and tells me convinced: "The Virgin Mary wore a veil and Jesus Christ beard, right? Deep down we are all the same. Religion is carried in the heart. "
When I ask Majad how he lives his Muslim faith in a traditionally Catholic city, he explains: “We live here, and we want to practice our religion, although we also have to respect others, because Islam obliges us to respect our neighbour. Here in Zamora, we have not met people who do not respect us. That's why I'm still here!”
Majad considers Zamora as his city.
"This is my country because my country no longer exists ... And the people here, my neighbours, my co-workers ... are my world now" he confesses, with a twinkle in his eyes, this Syrian refugee who arrived here in 2016 after spending three years in Lebanon.
Most people adhere to the Catholic religion in his “new world”.
"It's a different culture, and I like to discover other cultures and traditions, especially those here, where I live now. For me, it is obligatory to respect other religions.”
Actually Majad, as a Muslim, does not believe in the death of Jesus Christ, a central figure of Christianity.
For Muslims, Jesus ascended to heaven, and in the future, God will send him back to Earth to solve the last problems of humanity.
Although his belief is different, he explains the importance of Jesus Christ in Islam: “Jesus announced the arrival of Muhammad, our prophet, because he was also a prophet. Islam tells us that we must believe in all the prophets, so if we do not believe in Jesus, we are not Muslims.”
Today, Majad is one of the three Syrian refugee families in Zamora. His youngest daughter, Sarah, was born here and like her brothers, she is growing and being educated in an environment with two languages, two cultures and two religions.
Majad insists that only they can choose in the future.
“If any of my children tomorrow is Christian, it would bother me, but I would respect him, because they are free, and they have grown up here, in a city of Christian tradition. I do not want to impose my religion. They will decide later if they want to be Muslims, Christians, atheists ... I leave them free to seek the truth.”
Although in the future he hopes to return to Syria, for now Zamora, or Semurah, is home to his family, his traditions and his religion.