Four years ago, I had just arrived to the Basque country, in a city I called San Sebastian, but would later call Donostia. I was there to study abroad, and particularly to learn Spanish. Palestine had just undergone the ravages of Operation Cast Lead. The second week of classes we had a day off for the Festival de San Sebastian, or the Tamborrada. The festival is a day long event that runs from midnight to midnight, so daytime before the night of opening festivities was technically the day before the festival. It was the day before Obama’s inauguration. It was also the first day I met my “intercambio”, or language partner, that wanted to practice their English and with whom I could practice my Spanish. We met up for a short time before parting ways earlier in the afternoon, but made plans to get together later for the festivities downtown. This was the beginning of a friendship that exposed me to much more than practicing my Spanish.
We met back up downtown in the Parte Vieja, Alde Zaharra in Euskara, or Old Part in English. After going around the bars for the majority of the night, being present in the Plaza de la Constitucion at midnight for the beginning of the official festivities of the day, and meeting up with my German roommate who also stayed in my homestay, we went back out to drink and celebrate more. After a bit more of this, and admittedly being fairly intoxicated, I found myself in the midst of a protest in a courtyard off one of the streets. As I said, by this point I was pretty drunk and had just been following around my new friend and going to the bars that they led me to, meeting his other friends randomly in the process. So when we turned a corner and walked into a crowd, I wasn’t quite sure how we had ended up there in the first place, but I was ok with it. It started out with noise and applause, as someone wearing a keffiyeh over their face walked across an upper ledge of the courtyard waving the flag of Palestine. This was accompanied and followed by chants:
Pa-le-stina, As-kat-u! Pa-le-stina, As-ka-tu!
I didn’t yet know what “Askatu” meant literally, but I knew I had been horrified by the bombings in the news before I left the U.S., and took heart at the demonstrations I witnessed in Madrid in the Plaza del Sol before arriving to the Basque country, and I knew I knew what it meant. I joined in. Then the subject turned to Basque country, and their own political prisoners, and more chanting, this time for freedom for the Basque country. I had seen pictures of prisoners briefly earlier at the bar. There had been a procession of mothers carrying pictures of them at the opening festivities in the Plaza earlier (whether it was officially sanctioned or only tolerated was unclear), and someone had hung a banner from their terrace opening to the square, but this was my first exposure to real militant mass support for the Basque cause.
I still knew very little about the actual situation, what the Basque movement was or what it meant, where it came from. But I knew about Palestine, I knew about the legacy of Franco, and I knew that there was something going on here that made sense. Without knowing the language at all, it was clear that the strong connection of these people with the Palestinians, the linking of their causes, of two oppressed nations, in two separate continents, was stronger and more tangible than most of the political movements I had been involved with in my own life. I was barely comprehending what was going on or how I had gotten there in my intoxicated state, but I knew it was right. This demonstration was exactly what the school officials and state department warn you to stay away from when abroad anywhere, especially in places like Basque country, but it was really the only place to be.