It’s a back-breaking bus ride to Griñón, a town on the southern border of Madrid. After an hour of being catapulted around narrow roundabouts, through dusty suburbs and picturesque olive groves, I already sympathise with those who no longer have the energy to make this journey, even if it means leaving their loved ones’ graves to crumble.
Stepping off the back of the bus, I’m relieved to be on foot again, and just a five-minute walk takes me to a church overlooking a graveyard of raised granite tombs. Beyond them, in a separate walled area between a skatepark and a recycling facility, is the Islamic Cemetery of Griñón, Madrid’s only Muslim burial site.
At the front of the cemetery are hundreds of simple polished-granite headstones engraved in Arabic. The year “2020” marks the bulk of the headstones, hinting at the fact that many of those buried here were victims of the first wave of Covid-19. Behind them is a visibly older area of modest white graves, cement mounds and sunken pits. In the middle of the site, overseeing the graves, is a small white mosque with a dusky pink and yellow minaret.
On the wall adjoining the Christian graveyard is a broken sheet of white marble with Arabic inscriptions. In the foreground, hidden under long, dry grass are tiny graves made of brick and cement.
Maysoun Douas is Madrid’s first and only Muslim city councillor, representing the regionalist political party Más Madrid (More Madrid), and buried her father in Griñón in 2020. “I was shocked when I saw this cemetery,” she says. The condition of the cemetery contrasts with the Christian graveyard on the other side of the partially marble-clad wall, where family members live nearby and can visit regularly to clean the graves of the deceased, as is traditional in Spain. But Muslims buried in Griñón are typically not from Griñón, nor did they live in the town. With just one bus line from Madrid, their tombs rarely receive visitors and therefore quickly decay.
When Maysoun described her father’s burial here two years ago, she became visibly upset. “There was no respect for our beliefs. He’s not in contact with the soil, he hasn’t been returned to nature,” she explains, quickly wiping the tears from her eyes. “Worse still, when we asked why we couldn’t have a Muslim burial, they told us that we just had to accept it and that’s that. Eventually, we had to, but we’re still not at ease about it.”
Until 2014, Griñón was the chosen cemetery of Muslims from all over Madrid and even outside of Madrid, because it allowed the traditional Islamic burial of placing the deceased on their right side, wrapped only in a shroud, and with their head directed towards Mecca. However, since the cemetery was handed over to the local council eight years ago, Muslim burials have been subject to the same conditions as all others: the deceased must be placed in caskets, and funerals have fixed – but much higher – prices.
Over 300,000 people of Muslim faith live in the region of Madrid, and around 100,000 in the city of Madrid. There are around 40 mosques or Islamic cultural centres in the city, and around 130 across the region. Mohamed Kharchich Bakori is an imam at the impressive “M-30 mosque” – the biggest mosque in Europe, so called for its location alongside Madrid’s M-30 ring road. “Despite the significance of Madrid’s Muslim community,” he says, “somehow the city is still unable to reliably offer funeral services in accordance with Islam.”
“What do they expect us to do?” asks Maysoun. “Go back to where we came from? We are from here! We are Spanish!”
“Muslims want to be buried here because they are from here, and it is their right,” says Kharchich. “We don’t ask for any special treatment, we just ask for equal treatment, like all religious minorities who are buried according to their beliefs here. But why not us?”
Following a spike in burials during Madrid’s first wave of Covid-19, the Griñón cemetery ran out of space, but instead of finding a new site, “there have been discussions about exhuming bodies that have already been there for 10 years, but not necessarily informing the families,” says Maysoun. “Another option discussed was to demolish the mosque, but [really] we just need more space.” Beyond a lack of space or access to Islamic burials, however, there’s something else that haunts the families of those buried in Griñón.
In the far north-eastern corner of the graveyard lie the remains of soldiers from Franco’s Army of Africa, the reason the Islamic Cemetery of Griñón was created in the 1940s. To most, the cemetery is known as the Cementerio Militar Musulman Español (Spanish Muslim Military Cemetery), as is written on a plaque at the gated entrance.
The Army of Africa were dictator Francisco Franco’s shock troops. Boys, teens and men were recruited in Morocco, where the Spanish Civil War began on 17 July 1936. Historian Nigel Townson, who has studied and written about this period, explained that Franco’s most effective African soldiers were the Fuerzas Regulares Indígenas (Indigenous Regular Forces), recruited mostly in Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s two remaining North African territories.
“The Regulares were the only part of Franco’s army that had been in battle,” explains Nigel. “Also, because of the nature of the terrain [where they were based] and [previous fighting experience in] the war in North Morocco, they were a very effective fighting force.”
“Between 70,000 and 80,000 Moroccan troops were present in Spain at any one time,” he says, emphasising the significance of this force. “Because the insurgents recognised the importance of having the Moroccan troops on their side, they went to great efforts to win over local chiefdoms, providing them with clothing, food and a wage which was very attractive to them. Franco also built a number of mosques in North Africa and ensured there was a pilgrimage to Mecca for people taking part in the war.”
In a final gesture to his Moroccan soldiers, Franco provided those killed in battle with their own cemetery on a small piece of farmland that was donated by a Spanish-Moroccan woman for this very purpose. For almost 80 years, this would be the only cemetery in Madrid to allow Islamic burials.
Maysoun says: “I think the question is, do the families feel comfortable with this situation or not? I think, if they had the choice, they would choose a different space.”
Outside of Madrid’s Muslim community, very few people in Spain know the story of Griñón’s Islamic cemetery. “This whole dimension of the Spanish Civil War has been dramatically underplayed,” says Townson. “Around 80% of books on the Spanish Civil War are about the Republicans. Little is known about why the Nationalists won – the reason is because they had the best troops on their side: the Spanish Legion and the troops from North Africa.”
Despite their historic significance and all of the glory that Franco promised the Moroccan troops in life, death and their eternal legacy, the only sign of their presence is a barely noticeable mass tomb with a small, fading plaque inscribed “Restos Militares 1936 – 1939” (Soldiers’ Remains 1936 – 1939).
For over 80 years, every time a loved one passes away, members of Madrid’s Muslim community have had to come face to face with this dark period of history. “To be holding onto this historical damage to the Spanish population – by being buried as a Spanish Muslim in the same place – has been something very difficult for us,” says Maysoun.
Moreover, until as recently as 2014, Griñón’s Islamic cemetery was managed by the Moroccan embassy. “If I’m Spanish and I am Muslim, what is the point in making me pass through the consulate of Morocco to have a grave? It’s like an attack on my citizenship just for being Muslim, and that isn’t fair at all.”
A solution to the problems surrounding space, burial rites and historic memory was actually proposed 16 years ago by the traditional centre-left political party PSOE. But, as Maysoun explains, “there was no one fighting for us from the community” – and so it was never passed.
It wasn’t until this summer, when Maysoun entered the conversation, that the proposal to create a new Muslim burial site in Madrid was adopted. “I must acknowledge my part in this. I approached [every councillor] and explained to them why this was important and convinced them to vote for the proposal.”
Having buried her father and her grandmother in Griñón, Maysoun’s personal connection to this issue was visible in her campaigning for the proposal which, she believes, is ultimately why it was passed. “This is why we need diversity in the government,” she says. “We are the ones who know the struggles and how to sort them out, and how to convince people to accept something which is a fundamental right.”
The new site will be in Madrid South Cemetery, a well-maintained site in the neighbourhood of Carabanchel, with an area of 10,000 square metres and much better public transport connections to the rest of the capital. “The space is huge,” says Maysoun, explaining that the community will finally have access to burials according to their Muslim tradition. “We hope for the site to be mixed and to offer burials to all religious minorities, not just Muslims.”
“Regardless of religious beliefs, it’s about the soul, and all we ask for is a dignified burial,” says Kharchich, explaining that this year marks 30 years since the government formally recognised Islam as a religious minority in Spain and yet it took until 2022 to provide Madrid’s Muslim community with a reliable Islamic burial site.
“We must keep fighting for our rights,” says Kharchich, “even for our dead.”