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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter in Istán – The Passion of Christ

Contributed by my truckbuddy Tim from England, now resident in Spain:

Tim’s Take on Spain
Easter in Istán – The Passion of Christ

Continuing the theme of passion from my last post, today we take a timely trip to the tiny mountain village of Istán where every Easter another kind of passion is on display. An ancient play, dating back to the 17C is performed by the villagers over the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, La Pasión de Cristo, commonly known as El Paso. It is a characteristically Spanish mix of the sacred and the profane, which I have tried to emulate in this piece.

Although only nine miles from the coast and the seedy glitz of Puerto Banús, Istán has remained largely untouched by mass tourism. It lies in a high, sheltered valley almost hidden amongst the folds of the Sierra de las Nieves, the mountains that lie behind Marbella and Puerto Banús. The narrow road that takes you to the village is the same one that takes you out, and because it’s a dead end, thankfully remains untravelled by many. If you can avoid the odd boulder crashing down onto the road, or an occasional flock of goats crossing it, you will be rewarded with a glimpse of a more distant, simple way of life that has long been lost on the coast.

Partner and I have been visiting Istán for many years. The drive along the winding road is very scenic, if you have a head for heights, and affords wonderful views of La Concepción, the reservoir that supplies much of our water on the Costa, fed from the nearby Rio Verde. There are a number of short walks from the village to the shores of the reservoir and alongside the mountain stream that still supplies the village with cool, clear drinking water from a close-by spring.

The reservoir is looking low in that photo I took some years ago, just as it was a couple of weeks ago when I last visited, for we have had yet another dry winter; but in the village things are different. Everywhere you go, there is the gentle sound of water gushing along the ancient Arabic aqueducts or gurgling through troughs and splashing into fountains. There is a symbiosis between the village and the water, beautifully captured in this short video by José D. Ortiz - thank you, José. 

In this spot, the villagers used to do their laundry, wearing the stones smooth through constant use. Today people still come and fill large containers with water for drinking and cooking, and the walkers and cyclists who find the village also find somewhere to slake their thirst.

There are only a few bars and restaurants, but Partner and I particularly like El Barón. Some thirty years ago, when we first visited, it was run by Juan, a stocky, jovial man who dreamt of winning the lottery one day and building a grand house. His eldest son was an architect, and Juan had got him to draw up the plans for a palatial ‘Roman’ style villa which he would show to us proudly. Un diá, one day, he would say with a twinkle in his eye.

His younger son, Juanito, was just starting a career as a minor league football player, taller than his father, lean and very handsome; occasionally, he would help out, waiting on tables or working behind the bar. It was a typical family-run business that had become rare in the UK. Later, Juanito’s career was cut short by injury, so he returned home and gradually took over the reigns from Juan.

More worldly-wise than his father, Juanito realised the potential for catering to the increasing number of tourists who wanted to explore the mountains and surrounding countryside, and the little family restaurant prospered. Today, Juanito remains handsome, though his hair is greying, and now his own son, even taller, and inheriting his father’s good looks, is learning the trade, albeit whilst going through that somewhat truculent ‘teenage’ phase! To see three generations working in a business is sadly becoming less common, for it is a feature of Spanish life that Partner and I have always admired and appreciated. Improvements in education and mobility mean that many Spanish youngsters now move away from home to seek employment, and the concept of a generational family business is sadly no longer as popular as it was.

But the food in El Barón remains wonderful! Simple, but always freshly cooked and so full of flavour. Partner always enjoys the stuffed aubergines, still made to Grandma’s secret recipe (we’ve asked, but no, she won’t tell!), whilst I love the plato panocho, a local dish named after the villagers’ nickname for themselves – Panochos - piled high with pork sirloin, spicy chorizo sausage, herb-flavoured meatball, fried egg, fried green peppers and rough-cut fried potatoes, preferably smothered in fresh ali-oli, garlic mayonnaise! And yes, my cholesterol is high!

Istán only has a population of some 1,500, and every Easter they celebrate passionately, as most Spanish do, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There will be numerous services held in the little white-painted church, which remains refreshingly simple, almost austere inside, compared to many in the country, for this is still a poor village. Outside there will be religious processions led by the local band, wending their way around the narrow cobbled streets to the peculiarly Spanish sound effected by many such silver bands, a shrill and slightly off-key cacophony might politely describe it! But for at least a hundred Panochos, young and old, there will be a very personal display of passion on view as they perform El Paso, the ancient play that depicts the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Up to three hundred more villagers work behind the scenes, making sets and costumes, etc., so a quarter of the village’s population is involved every year.

First performed in Istán in 1660, as a Mystery Play in the Greek style, with silent performers wearing masks, and the narrative sung by an accompanying choir. It was discontinued during Franco’s time, but the practice was re-introduced in it’s more contemporary form in the 1980’s. Not for tourism or monetary gain, for it is not widely publicised outside the village and entrance is free, but to reclaim the heritage of the village and its population. Neither is it, strictly speaking, a religious ceremony, for it is not officially sanctioned by the church; rather, it is a public expression of faith and, using a word that is strange to a foreigner though much used here in Spain, of solidarity – that sense of belonging. It is also, at the simplest level, an activity for the whole family, three evenings of entertainment and socialising. In parts humorous, in others sad, and of course ultimately joyful. So whilst I can’t say I have ever seen the village priest in attendance, at least not in his vestments, I would say that as many as 90% of the villagers do attend the performances held in what, for the rest of the year, is the village football stadium.

Although most of the play is based on the gospel of Matthew, Day 1 is a like a ‘holy’ prequel, with tales from the Old Testament, such as the offer in sacrifice of Abraham’s only son Isaac, which presages God’s promise to send a son of his own. Then it moves on to the New Testament and the birth and early life of Jesus, After Christ’s final entry into Jerusalem, the tension quickly builds up, though. At the last supper we know that Jesus will be betrayed by Judas, but his arrest by the Romans is sudden and violent, a suitable climax on which to end the day.

If Day 1 is essentially a warm-up, Day 2 sees the story unfolding vividly and dramatically: Pontius condemns Jesus and frees Barabbas, who can’t believe his luck and races away from the court, tumbling and somersaulting in the dust. A good performance here is appreciated by the crowd with much applause; poor performances are met with silence! Judas, overcome with remorse, throws away his 30 pieces of silver, and away from the central stage, ‘hangs’ himself most realistically.

But this is Judas and deserves what he gets, no applause from the crowd, and because of that I think it is one of the hardest roles to perform. Soon Jesus is stripped of his clothes and made to carry the cross; he is beaten and whipped by a bear of a man playing the Roman guard commander. The first time I saw this scene I was horrified, it was so very real. Red dye had been put onto the ends of the whip and they left scarlet marks across Jesus’ back. This was the first time of use for this effect, and the crowd gasped as one, then applauded in admiration. As he is lead from the arena, beaten and stumbling, a man gives Jesus his cloak, then bursts into a heartbreaking cante flamenco as Christ is lead away, a touching acknowledgement of the Andalusian heritage of this little village.

There is a short break before the play continues outside with the procession to Calvary: children scrabble in the sand to find the coins Judas threw away, parents chat with friends, ‘Jesus’ takes time to recover from his beating, and the evening air cools.

Most villages have a Jack-the-lad type, and Istán is no exception. I had spied the handsome young man in the crowd earlier, dark good looks and an Elvis hairstyle. Now shirtless, one minute wooing the ladies, the next calling and whistling to his mates amongst the Roman soldiers as they formed up and marched past, ‘Elvis’ was difficult to ignore in more ways than one, although he did need to work on those abs!

The villagers tolerated his behaviour with good humour; children of whatever age are seldom rebuked in Spain. But time will out, and the following year our young buck was taking part himself, as a soldier. He did look good in that uniform, the power of the passion?

The procession follows a track about a mile out of the town, climbing up to a rocky platform, El Calvario, overlooking the village, the backdrop provided by the jagged mountainside behind. Here the three condemned are strapped to their crosses - they have a small platform on which to place their feet, but the position must be painful. Jesus is harangued by the two criminals on either side of him, and then Mary tries to comfort her son, only to be pushed back by the soldiers. Joined by angels who arrive in a cloud of smoke, his mother prays for him. Christ delivers his soliloquy, his shoulders slump and his knees buckle.

The crowd, who have watched intently and in silence, burst into applause. It is a bravura performance of what for me and for many in the watching crowd is the pivotal moment in the play, more so even than the resurrection scene the following day. It is a very ‘real’ death on a cross in a wild and rugged setting. It is incredibly moving. This is the ‘Passion’.

It has been an emotional four hours, and Partner and I retire to the village for a drink in the bar Sud-America before we return home. ‘Jesus’ walks in and stands alone at the bar. Well, what do you do? It sounds like the first line of a joke – “Jesus walks into this Spanish bar with two Englishmen inside . . . !” Well, we buy him a beer, of course, and chat for a little while. Miguel has been playing the role for eight years and considers it to be a huge privilege and honour, not for himself, but for his faith and his home. He shows us the vivid weals on his back from the whipping, and the bruises from his beating: he carries them proudly, if painfully.

Just then a large hand descends on his shoulder - his tormentor, the guard, has arrived. He too buys Miguel a drink, but they do not talk much together, as if both are still in character. Shortly the guard is joined in the tiny bar by his thirsty and raucous troops, and Jesus goes to join his apostles in an even smaller tavern, Bar Afrika, across the road, for a re-run of the Last Supper perhaps? It’s a most surreal ending to the day!

Day 3 starts later in the evening, and the stadium is noticeably cooler. A large telescopic crane is parked right outside, Partner and I wonder what it’s doing there, but then this is Spain. Jesus’ body has been interred in a tomb; a huge boulder blocks the entrance. His followers appear morose and downhearted: was it all for nothing? Then Jesus begins to appear to his disciples one by one, but they don’t recognise him at first. Gradually it dawns on them that he has indeed risen from the dead. They rush to the tomb for confirmation, but find it guarded by the Romans.

The soldiers seem ill at ease in the gathering darkness, justifiably so, for in a blaze of exploding pyrotechnics and smoke, they are stunned by an earthquake sent by the angels of the Lord and fall to the ground, senseless. Then the massive boulder falls down with a crash, smoke and flames belch from the ground. (Note: sometimes the boulder falls on a senseless Roman soldier, who senselessly moves it – this always raises a laugh!). Fearfully the disciples enter the tomb, only to find it empty, there has indeed been a resurrection, and only the robe Jesus was wrapped in remains. Outside they fall to their knees in prayer.

Suddenly, a blinding light reveals Christ high in the air above them; dressed in purest white, he tells them he is going to join his Father, and will not appear to them again. Then amidst more smoke and fireworks he ascends higher and higher towards heaven. Abruptly, all the lights in the stadium go out, leaving only the black of the night. The audience rise to their feet as one and applaud, cries of Bravo and Olé ring out, El Paso of Istán has finished for another year and the bonds of faith and friendship have been renewed. And of course now we know what the crane was for!

This video, also from José D. Ortiz, condenses the eight hours of the play into a few minutes, but it captures the movement and vitality of the Paso wonderfully.

Partner and I were quite sad after our first Paso, as we drove away back down the mountain in the darkness. We felt we had got to know the villagers better over the last three evenings, and they in turn had allowed us a glimpse of their various passions. It seemed strange to think that somewhere behind us, Jesus was enjoying yet another supper in Bar Afrika with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that ‘Elvis’ was undoubtedly showing off in front of his ‘Roman’ friends in the village discotheque, and that in El Barón, Juanito was looking forward to having a Sunday off work!

We finish with some excerpts from J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. An easy choice, for I love both Bach and baroque choral music: performed here in a delightfully informal arrangement that I’m sure the Panochos would approve of.

Happy Easter!

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