A neighbourhood as an intercultural laboratory: the TODOS Walk of Cultures Festival, Lisbon (16-19 September 2010)

 

"Hold my hand and place your trust in me", said Sofia as she pulled the blindfold tight over my eyes, completely blotting out the strong Lisbon sunlight. "We won’t speak again for the next 40 minutes. Just follow my signals and you’ll be fine".

 

I was about to step into the dense, mysterious (and in the view of some, risky) hillside neighbourhood of Mouraria without the use of my eyes and completely in the hands of someone I had only just met. My senses of touch, smell and hearing suddenly became hyper alert as we stumbled over the shiny cobblestones and began to mount the steep alleyways of one of the Portuguese capital’s poorest but most ethnically rich neighbourhoods. I was also about to have the most vivid of many experiences I had as a guest of the city authorities for the four day annual Todos (Everyone’s) Festival aka (?) Caminhada da Culturas (walk of cultures), set up to focus attention on this little-known inner city community.

 

A caged bird sang somewhere above and then the pigeons and sea gulls joined in. As my nose told me we were passing a bakery I could make out a conversation in a Slavonic language and then some snatches of Punjabi. In the distance the alluring lilt of a Guinean kora player performing way down below in the square wafted on the breeze and then I was briefly jolted back into temporality by the quarter hour strike of a church bell. Around a corner a door slammed and then someone seemed to be talking a mixture of Portuguese and Chinese before being drowned out by a concrete mixer – although my nose was somewhere else… Goa maybe. I almost jumped out of my skin as an ambulance siren came from nowhere and then there was almost perfect silence – and the smell of fresh laundry drying in the sun. By the end Sofia and I were striding confidently around the city and communicating (soundlessly) like we’d known each other for years. And through the medium of Sofia I can say I have come to know the city of Lisbon like I know few others. It was very special.

 

Lots of rather more conventional events also filled the Todos festival programme with artists of many lands. But for sheer power of expression nothing matched the artform that was born and still belongs to these very streets – Fado. The Grupo Desportivo da Mouraria is a tough no-nonsense recreational club occupying an elegantly decaying former palace perched at the top of the hill. Years of devotion to this passionate, melancholic and uniquely Portuguese music has seen the club dubbed the ‘catedral do fado’. Here we were fortunate to sit not a meter away, in a steaming overcrowded hall, from one of the finest exponents of the form, Aldina Duarte. We swooned with every quiver of the lip, every heave of the bosom and every bead of perspiration as she declaimed and lamented her fate – to the raucous applause of a deeply knowledgeable audience. And, squeezed in between this queen and her courtiers, I noticed two tiny boys of Bangladeshi origin who had crept in and perched on their haunches, captivated by what might well be their first experience of their new homeland’s greatest tradition. And who can doubt that the memory of it may remain with them for the rest of their lives?

 

In Todos it seemed to me the audiences are as much a part of the spectacle as the artists. Take the performance of Paradis Tzigane – an ebullient family of French gypsies who thrilled us with circus of the traditional kind. But as intriguing as the juggler and high wire act were the faces and responses of the audience. Whole families of many races squeezed onto the wooden benches and roared every swoop and pirouette with melodramatic emphasis. Sure there were a fair smattering of tourists from other parts of the city and the odd visitor from further afield like me, but it felt like most of these people had walked a short distance from their homes to be there. Most amusing were the kids of the x-box and cgi generation who arrived with a blasé demeanour as if to say "trapeze – how uncool is that?" Yet they were drawn in and enthralled by an artform as old as the hills which can still appeal to our basic human instincts for collective enchantment.

 

Other highlights of the festival included an adaptation of the classic story of intercultural love and loss, Shakespeare’s Othello, which was played out passionately under a moonlit sky on top of the hill. And the power of the human voice as a universal communicator and catalyst to encounter was much in evidence. A people’s choir from the Casa da Achada banged out a rousing selection of songs of rebellion and protest and we also heard a combination of Chinese and Fado singers, and a powerful choir of Ukrainian residents in the beautiful Capela de Nossa Senhora da Saúde.

 

Other artforms were in evidence too with an excellent selection by five Portuguese and British photographers and their different impressions of the bairro. And also two short films made by kids from the streets about what it means to live in Mouraria through their eyes. One evoked the saudade or longing of those missing their homes (in this case Africa) whilst the other asked why the many derelict sites in Mouraria could not be put to better use for gardens or play areas. And finally a delightful and novel project the ‘little language teachers’ in which migrant kids turned the tables on their teachers by setting up a language school for adults as they would like to see it.

 

This festival is the first in which all of Lisbon’s cultures have come together to share in celebration. All of this is important because Lisbon is a city with a long history of mixing deriving originally from the sea-faring and colonial traditions of Portugal. Since the end of empire and the introduction of democracy in the 1970s the city has become home to many from Lusophone countries of Africa, Asia and South America (including Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, East Timor. In recent years Portugal has received migrant workers from a wider selection of locations: China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Moldova and Ukraine. They have settled in many parts of the city but Mouraria is perhaps the place with the greatest density and variety.

 

But make no mistake, Mouraria is no emporium of multicultural exotica set up to excite the jaded palette of the adventurous consumer or tourist. Mouraria is for real and is not an easy place – to live in, to visit or to manage. There is widespread physical degradation, endemic unemployment and conspicuous hard drug use and prostitution. Even the greatest advocate of Lisbon’s public realm could not claim that the main square of the district – Praça Martim Moniz– represents the best of the city’s architecture and urban design. On the contrary it is a charmless jumble of decaying antique and modernist facades separated by a busy road from a stark, unloved and sun-bleached piazza with no shade or tree cover. Its limited sitting places would hardly entice you to linger – unless you planned to fry an egg on the sizzling flagstones. On one whole side of the square stands a row of gaunt half-finished apartment blocks, testament to the sudden collapse of the construction industry in Portugal. On the other side looms the Centro Comercial da Mouraria, a brutal 7 storey shopping centre, so dysfunctionally-designed that it quickly lost its original shopkeepers and customers soon after opening. And yet this architectural carbuncle on the ‘ugly duckling’ of Lisbon’s public squares represents one of the main reasons to feel positive about this district’s future. Step inside and you find the place repopulated and buzzing, full from top to bottom of traders – Chinese, Indian and Africa – haggling, dealing and selling to a diverse clientele.

 

Lisbon believes in Mouraria and that’s official. Take the word of Mayor António Costa, and then observe his deeds. He’s decided to close the traditional office of the ‘first citizen’ and reopen them in Largo do Intendente, a place more associated in the minds of most Lisboans with whore houses than great offices of state. The message he wishes to convey is that Lisbon is a city open to the world and its people, so no longer can its most diverse district be hidden away and ignored as an embarrassing secret. Instead he wants it to become the city’s intercultural laboratory. A mayor who likes to break with outmoded traditions, he went outside his own Socialist group in the Council to find someone who would shape the embryonic idea of a new city festival focused on Mouraria. He chose Manuela Júdice, an unconventional former councillor of the minority Cidadãos (Citizen’s) Party. She grabbed the assignment with both hands and set about the hard road of showing Lisbon’s guilty secret in a new light.

 

The Festival has achieved an impressive amount of in-kind support from a wide range of agencies particularly the media. National TV and newspapers have given in free coverage and the local media is supportive of the broad thrust of the city council’s intercultural approach. One nationally-read newspaper agreed to circulate 60,000 copies of the festival programme and the local Jornal da Mouraria free of charge, and the national bus company has also helped with distribution.

 

But Manuela admits it hasn’t been plain sailing. Accustomed to being neglected, some residents greeted the news of a festival with suspicion. Some asked whether the money might be better spent on improving housing and amenities, whilst others doubtless feared the heightened attention and security would threaten their nefarious money-making activities. Others, who may have observed the trends in other European cities, might have worried that a poor but proud and distinctive community could fall under the threat of gentrification – for which the arts are sometimes a harbinger. And there is also a view from some in the longstanding indigenous communities who feel themselves to have been neglected for many years, and who are suspicious of new initiatives which they perceive to be directed towards the welfare of new arrival rather than to themselves. This is a common phenomenon across many European contexts and one which can harden into resentment if not handled sensitively by the authorities.

 

There is no doubt that Mouraria is one of a diminishing number neighbourhoods in the urban cores of Europe’s larger cities that have remained poor and largely untouched by modernisation. But, despite its antiquity, Mouraria is no picture postcard location and nearby Alfama and Castelo will always be preferred for chic apartment conversions, ritzy bars and boutique hotels. Neither is it easily amenable to comprehensive upgrading programmes because of the extreme difficulty of the terrain. And finally a peculiarly Portuguese factor seems likely to ensure that change will be more gradual than it might be elsewhere. The law in Portugal since the revolution has been very favourable to the retention of property by their original owners and renters particularly in poorer districts. As such rented residential and business property may be handed down through several generations with no significant inflation in rental prices. This has retained the social character of many places but, by limiting the profits to be made from letting property, has discouraged owners from investing in improvements.

 

So Manuela’s aim is for a Festival that brings both instant impact and longer term stability and prosperity to Mouraria as well as engaging the rest of the city. Perhaps one of the longer lasting impacts of the festival will be the Dining with Life project. The old market of Forno do Tijolo has been losing out to the supermarkets and malls for years and is teetering on the brink of viability. Manuela has persuaded market officials to waive normal stall rentals and open up a row of empty shops for local residents to hold demonstrations of different national cuisines. Throughout the 4 days curious crowds thronged the stalls to discover more about Chinese, Indian, Ukrainian, Brazilian and West African cooking techniques and recipes and to have a go themselves. So pleased have been the resident groups that they have now asked Manuela to allow them to set up on a permanent basis. It’s not strictly in the rules and will require some council officials to think laterally and adjust their customary practice – but this is the kind of headache Manuela welcomes - going with the grain of popular enthusiasm rather than trying to fight a rearguard action against decline.

 

Aside from this, food culture provides a constant backdrop with a rich diversity of different cafes and restaurants. Indian curry is popular with the Portuguese and with this writer too, but I never expected to find the new culinary hybrid of Bacalhau Vindaloo – which is hot in every sense of the word! The restaurant was packed, including several groups of quite well-to-do Portuguese women who, in another city, you might expect to see taking coffee and cake in a high-end café or mall rather than ‘slumming’ in thebairro. More evidence of the relaxed permeability of Lusitanian society I asked myself.

 

Portugal is proud of its distinctive approach to cultural diversity and communal living going back to the period of Muslim rule over a thousand years ago. Over centuries of mixing the Portuguese believe they have evolved a way of social organisation which has largely overcome racial prejudice and discrimination. It claims to have created a relatively ‘colour blind’ society which has nevertheless accommodated and evolved with many cultural influences, most evident in the rich musical and gastronomic traditions of contemporary Portugal. Indeed the national folk music of Fado is said to derive from a mixture of European and African influences. Portuguese society may be stratified by income and social class but colour and creed are not the divisive factors they are elsewhere in the world. As in any complex and dynamic society disagreements arise from time to time, but it’s said that the soft-edged Portuguese way ensures they are usually resolved without recourse to violence or extremist politics. On the basis of this one would hope the Todos Festival can go from strength to strength.

 

Phil Wood

 

The city of Lisbon will become a member of the network in the second round of Intercultural Cities.

 

Photo © Carmo Rosa