Seville, Spain — As the glorious New York Sun‘s roving correspondent on Matters of Controversy I have traveled to the Spanish province of Andalusia, where for centuries Christian Spaniards cohabited with Muslim Moors peacefully with only an occasional bout of mayhem. Here, in the great palace of the Alcazar, the Fourteenth Century Christian king, Peter I, raised beautiful tiled walls and ceilings emblazoned both with the pious Catholic incantations to God’s love and with the Koran’s bellicose threats from Allah (such guff as “None conquers but Allah!”) At the time no one seemed to mind. Christian ornamentation mixed with the Islamic, in a style peculiar to the region called Mudejar. The Mullahs of the day remained tranquil, and no Hispanic theologian did more than pray for his swarthy neighbor’s soul.
Yes, there were occasional lapses into unspeakable slaughter, and eventually the Moors were given the heave-ho. Yet for long periods of time all sides living in Andalusia lived in peace. Here in Seville there is even a lovely Jewish quarter. It goes back centuries. To be sure, when the Spaniards get their dander up they can be brutal. Recall their civil war of the 1930s, but there have been long years of serenity here under the Andalusian hot sun, made tolerable by a refreshing breeze that seems to blow constantly. I would have to mark Seville among the most pleasant cities I have visited: well-dressed, polite people everywhere; clean public spaces; café life, sedate; the local cuisine, first-rate; and manners impeccable. So where is a connoisseur of controversy to find fireworks in such a clement setting?
Press credentials dangling from my neck, I betook myself to the Plaza De Toros De Sevilla, right in the heart of town. There a well-mannered crowed was streaming in to watch Sunday evening’s bullfights. A ticket costs about the same as the entrée at a good American steak house. The yellow-plastered stadium, about three stories tall, is nearly the size of the minor-league baseball park you find in a city the size of Indianapolis. It features a live brass band, which struck me as extravagant, given the fact that this evening only two dancers really matter, the bull and the matador. The spectacle begins with a modest parade into the ring and across the albero, the dark orange surface of the ring composed of what appeared to be a mixture of dirt and sand. Numbered in the parade are the evening’s three matadors and their aides, all dressed in ornate, tight-fitting couture. Fat picadores ride in on padded horses. Then comes a complement of three horses used to lug the deceased bull from the ring. Their attendants are dressed in what appear to be butcher’s coats.
The ring falls silent, save for the solo of a lone trumpet that will be heard throughout the evening to announce some momentous occurrence. Of a sudden, into the empty ring stomps a black bull, the first of six that will provide boeuf bourguignon this evening. He is understandably irritable, his plush life on the beautiful Spanish countryside having been interrupted for this inscrutable evening as the focal point of thousands of human eyeballs. The bullfight is a grand affair of hot colors and surprisingly sedate audience participation. There are no soccer thugs here. The bullfight is a central theme of Spanish history and tradition. Still not all outsiders comprehend its full significance. To the denizens of computer civilization it might be perceived as a mere virtual butcher shop.
To the bull it is a dreadful inconvenience. He has been living the life of Saddam’s sons complete with the bovine equivalent of pornography. Now he has to endure the importunities of the matador’s gang of banderilleros, picadores and cuadrillas. He speeds across the ring with terrific acceleration as the matador’s colleagues goad him into frenzy — then into a state of premature filet mignon. Courage is a main element in the bullfight, and the Spaniards tell me that the bull is brave. Possibly, but from what I see he is mainly irascible and would have a lot better chance if he staggered around the ring for a few minutes, pleading mad cow disease. We know how even the brave Spaniards quail over mad cow disease. Instead this bull suffers the importunities of the matador’s faculty of pests until into the ring pops the matador himself, dressed in a costume that would have sold well at Victoria’s Secret.
To be a fine matador one has to be even braver than the bull. One has to have a strong arm with the blade, good eye-hand coordination, fast footwork, and tight pants. The three young matadors I watched the other night had only tight pants. One fell in front of his bull, and his prostrate leg luckily fit precisely between the animal’s grounded horns. Before the beast could lunge again he was distracted by a cuadrilla, and soon the horses were dragging him off to the butcher’s block.
The bullfight was not the gory horror I had expected. In fact there were many non-Spaniards in the audience, a surprising number of whom were Americans, many actually young women. Admiring it fully does seem to take acculturation, probably acculturation in Spain where I am having a most agreeable time, but Spain is not my home. I would caution that the activities at the Plaza De Toros De Sevilla are not to be recommended to vegetarians and probably not to Hindus. The bullfight is for meat eaters, and after watching one even a meat eater might have second thoughts.