On a recent Saturday night, as Americans prepared for fireworks in celebration of a long-ago battle for independence, the Spanish seaside town of Moraira was gearing up for a holy war. It took place, as always, on the town's main beach, and it involved women and children, as well as bare-chested men. As tourists, we headed down to watch the Christians kick the hell out of the Muslim invaders — again.
Each year, communities up and down Spain's Costa Blanca hold what they call Fiesta de Moros y Cristianos — a spirited, multi-day celebration of the Reconquista. For locals, the story is a familiar one, if not strictly historically faithful: Muslims invade Spain in the early hours of the eighth century; in 1492, the Spanish kick the troublemakers out. In reality, the Moorish period was an age of art, science, and religious tolerance in Spain, but that doesn't matter. It's the bloody expulsion that Moraira's celebrants are interested in. The occasion is marked with parades, dancing, and the wholesale purchase of fake blood.
This year's rehashing of the story began when a rabble of grumpy-looking Moors overran a small hill near the beach. The Christians didn't respond in earnest until the following evening, when they filed onto the sand carrying banners and swords, kitted out in period costume, applauded by the inhabitants of a temporary bleacher. The opposing armies hollered at each other for a while, in Spanish, an exchange that seemed to amount to:
"Get off our hill!"
At one point, a marauding horseman rode around setting fire to market stalls, only the stalls wouldn't catch, and the marauding devolved into frustrated fiddling, the kind you see over an uncooperative barbecue grill. After more shouting, the combatants began firing fake guns at each other, the noise of which caused some of the children in the audience to weep. The kids' discomfort intensified as a man paraded around with another man's head on a pike. It wasn't a real head, but try telling that to a two-year-old.
Soon, corpses littered the ground. Never mind that one of the dead could be seen checking his watch, it was an unsettling spectacle, and not only for the pre-schoolers. "Yes, um, well," remarked a middle-aged woman named Jan, from Chicago, who was seated in the front row. "I'm not sure we'd see anything like this at home." When the subject of American Civil War re-enactments was raised, the woman frowned and said something about "the whole 9/11 thing," before being drowned out by another volley of gunfire.
What Jan-from-Chicago seemed to be getting at was this: in her part of the world, the notion of Christian armies beating the bejesus out of Muslim armies has uncomfortable political connotations. Not so for a young local man named Tomas, who came to watch the battle from the nearby town of Benissa. "This is not politics," he said. "It is historical."
I didn't stay to watch the end of the fight. My own little girl appeared to have been slightly traumatized by the sight of the dripping, disembodied head, and I already knew how it ended. As we walked away, fireworks streaked into the sky, crackling triumphantly. The small hill had been retaken. Mission accomplished.