Postcards From the Basque Country I: Imagined Communities


The first thing it did was rain. As the long-distance grey and blue ALSA bus pulled into and then out of the red and grey city of Bilbao, up into the hills of the Basque country, it began to drizzle in such a way as to make the grey and the green settle in my mind as well as on the window of the coach. I recognised the feeling, as well as the weather, straight away. After months of unending Mediterranean sunshine on the arid east coast of Spain, the Basque rain provoked a deep and immediate hiraeth. It was not only a longing for home, but a confirmation that, wherever I go in the world, and for however long, Wales will always be that home. I suppose I am telling you this personal story because perhaps it confirms, at least in my mind, the very existence of something called a nation.

According to theory, Wales and the Basque Country are both examples of ‘assimilated peripheral nations’; they share the very loose definition of being formed from ‘a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent or history’ without a general recognition of the ‘much more impersonal, abstract and overtly political’ definition of a Nation State; that is, ‘a cultural-political community that has become conscious of its coherence, unity and particular interests’. Each nation, to varying degrees, has had its nationalists, those who would argue strongly that in both places there is a strong case for ‘geographical collision’, that the cultural nation deserves a political recognition. And both have achieved a greater degree of political recognition and autonomy in the last thirty years.

Some of the parallels between Wales and the Basque country are well documented, the Basques having become something of a cause celebre for aspiring nationalists in all small European nations. Even the most cursory resumé of national statistics reveals some startling similarities. Wales is a country of 8,022 square miles, with a population of 3 million. The Basque Country is a region of 8,088 square miles with a population of 3 million. If I described a primarily agrarian country whose towns and cities nevertheless rapidly expanded through in-migration to host heavy industries that served the purposes of the wider state beyond its borders, you would be right in guessing at either. Likewise if I were to explain how post-industrial decline has led to the rise of service industries and cultural tourism, or how the principal cities have undergone large-scale regeneration projects centred on iconic buildings, or if I talked about the importance of sport in forging and expressing a cultural identity, or how the countryside is still characterised by a timeless combination of small market towns and scattered farmhouses.

The two countries are to a large extent defined by the continuing stubborn existence of their respective minority languages, each of which has survived against the odds, each protected to some degree by the mountainous landscape of the homeland. Here Euskera and Cymraeg took refuge as the territories associated with their speakers were subsumed by dominant neighbours in the process of becoming imperial world powers. And just as Cymru is the land of the Cymry, Herri in Euskera means a country, a nation, a people or settlement; therefore the native term Euskal Herria for what the Spanish call ‘el Pais Vasco’, and therefore in English we call ‘the Basque Country’, is a useful clue in understanding Basque self-perception. ‘Country of Basque Speakers’ foregrounds the language to such an extent that we are forced to consider whether that, above all else perhaps, is what a nation might be: a linguistic grouping. It’s a difficult proposition to make in a country where only 19% of the population speak Cymraeg, but is made doubly interesting by the fact that only 27% of the population of ‘Euskal Herria’ currently speak Euskera, and that despite, in the post-Franco years at least, much of the social engineering we would recognise here.

The dominant Basque landscapes are dramatic coastlines and endless green mountains. Walking the norte – the rugged northern route of the Camino de Santiago – I was perpetually struck by sights that reminded me of home. The low-key surf town of Zarautz put me in mind of Solva, Calle San Francisco in downtown Bilbao made me think of Grangetown, and somewhat strangely, and movingly, Guernica reminded me of Machynlleth. Maybe, especially after that emotional arrival, where the ALSA bus out of Bilbao made me recall the exact feeling I used to get on the National Express out of Cardiff – past Castell Coch and out into the hinterlands of RCT and Merthyr – I was looking for it. There has even been research to suggest these two tribes, occupying actually very different mountain nations on Western Europe’s wet Atlantic Fringe, are – despite Euskera’s famous status as a non Indo-European ‘language isolate’ – genetically linked.

However, as tempting as it is to see only the parallels the differences are striking too. As noticeable as the Cambrian-esque landscape of Euskal Herria are the manner of nationalist sentiments. ‘Tourist: You are neither in Spain nor France. You are in the Basque Country,’ announces a banner in the heart of Donostia/San Sebastian’s old town. It is an unnecessary assertion. A visitor to Gipuzkoa, one of the Spanish Autonomous Community of the Basque Country’s three constituent regions, could hardly fail to notice the banners depicting a united Euskadi, stretching across the France-Spain border, in silhouette, together with nationalist slogans, that hang like washing from every other apartment. In neighbouring Vizcaya, as well as the red-and-white stripes of Athletic Club Bilbao replacing the blue-and-white of San Sebastian’s Real Sociedad, there is also a wider preference for the ikurrina – the Basque national flag. Here, despite the flag’s red, white and green livery (yet another reminder of Wales) politics is a way of life in a way far more comparable to the North of Ireland.

The history of the Basques, as the very name of its ancient capital – Gernika in its native orthology – and the simple three-letter acronym ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna – Basque Homeland and Freedom) attest, is one of violent, bloody struggle. Under Franco, like other ‘regionalist’ flags – that of Catalunya, for example – the ikurrina was outlawed. The blood that R.S. Thomas saw as going into ‘the making of the wild sky’ in Wales is here not consigned to the ‘past’, ‘sham ghosts’, ‘quarries and mines’. The last serious armed national liberation struggle does not date to a time of cattle rustling and castle razing; it is very much in living memory, the final ETA ceasefire announcement coming just two years ago. Even now, in the tentative peace that exists, there are very public campaigns to repatriate the political prisoners of the bloody conflict.

Modern European nationalisms were a result of and reaction to the late nineteenth century’s fortification of the nation state as the world’s primary, and later only, way of organising its territories. In the Basque Country, and Wales, as elsewhere, there were revivals in questions of nationality that laid the ground for the course each nation was to take in the twentieth century and beyond. A comparison of the trajectories of nationalism in each country allows us to see the very idea of a nation; and, depending on your point of view, a nation is nothing if not, or nothing but, an idea.

Nations are constructed identities. Sometimes they coincide with geography or language or ethnicity, but none of these are a precondition. In Cymru and in Euskal Herria, the landscapes may be similar and the languages may have endured a parallel battle to survive but much of the insignia, regalia and quasi-national paraphernalia associated with each country today is the product of the last 150 years of sometimes slow and haphazard, but nevertheless deliberate, nation building.

Let’s take the Basque example. The ikurrina, which has come to be recognised as the national flag, was originally designed in 1894 by Luis and Sabino Arana, founders of the Basque National Party, the EAJ-PNV. Although it depicts the red earth of Vizcaya, a green saltire represents the oak of Guernica – the tree which symbolises the ancient fueros or laws – and the white cross of the Catholic church, its association with a single wing of opinion within the region meant it wasn’t until 1938 and Franco’s prohibition of the flag that it became a powerful symbol of defiance (used frequently by ETA and only legalised in 1977). Likewise the heraldic symbol of the Basque Country is the Zazpiak Bat (‘the seven are one’), a coat of arms that depicts all seven of the regions (Vizcaya, Gipuzkoa and Alava, plus Navarre in Spain, and Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre in France) was designed in 1897. It was during this period that ideas of the territorial integrity of a Basque ‘nation’ spanning the existing political borders was developed, and it was through emblematic representation that this ideal was best expressed.

The contemporary prevalence of silhouetted maps of this integral territory further underscores the power of pictorial representation to create ideas of nationhood in the minds of the populace. Indeed, Professor Steven Weber of the University of Berkeley, California, has posited the theory that the idea of the nation state was prefigured by fifteenth century developments in mapmaking technology; certainly the issue of a country’s border has been at the forefront of politics and war for at least the last half-millennium. It might be tempting therefore to see the antiquity of Offa’s Dyke – an eighth century construction – as a pleasing piece of evidence of Wales’ territorial continuity, relative to the chequered and somewhat lesser-known history of the Euskera-speaking peoples. But one might need only look to evidence as recent as the Local Government Act 1972, which finally settled centuries of ambiguity of the status of Monmouthshire within Wales, or indeed to a Wales that includes or has included, in addition to the many official changes in local administration, popularly recognised regions such as ‘Y Fro’, ‘the Valleys’, ‘the Marches’, ‘Border Country’ and ‘Little England Beyond Wales’. Like the Basque Country, Wales is not linguistically or culturally homogenous. Surveys like the one conducted in the province of Navarre, finding that 71% of respondents did not define themselves as Basque and 53% opposed measures to support Euskera as a language, sound familiar even if the figures do not tally exactly with perspectives in, say for example, Flintshire.

The lesson of history is therefore that, far from being what it purports to be – a fixed point or common thread – the idea of a nation is a fluid and malleable one. At times, it hardens into a fixity; these are perhaps the occasions when nationalism’s negative connotations come to the fore. But at other times – times perhaps like this – where the idea of the nation softens, when the guns have fallen silent and a conversation begins, we have the chance to reaffirm and  rediscover, revive or reinvent aspects of the family myth that have been a help or a hindrance in the past. In 1983, the theorist Benedict Anderson wrote of nations that they are ‘imagined communities’. And so as I stepped off the coach and onto Basque soil for the first time, perhaps appropriately in the town of Irun – at the border locals refuse to recognise – I decided to keep reminding myself: the parallels with Wales are fancies I am imposing upon the place. It is not like Wales, not really. But everywhere I looked, in the dappled sunlight of forest glades and in the misty mornings and quiet harbours, and in the bustling market towns and green, green hills, the landscape told a different story. Even surrounded by the unfamiliar trappings of über-nationalism, everywhere banners and flags and graffito slogans, I find myself caught up in a self-conscious Romantic idealism, daydreaming about the kind of country I would like, trying to imagine a community.


Next issue: Bernard Atxaga’s ‘Obabakoak’