That Old Bilbao Moon: An Interview with Joseba Zulaika

thatoldbilbaomoonThat Old Bilbao Moon is a complex and multifaceted book. Part memoir, part the history of a generation of Basques growing up in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and part the story of the city of Bilbao and her people, Joseba Zulaika’s book takes a page from Dante and describes the history of the Basque Country via the lens of Bilbao. It is a wide ranging account, touching on the various underpriviledged and stigmatized classes of Bilbao’s people and the multitude of characters Zulaika has known that were connected, in one way or another, with the political and social upheaval that typified Euskadi in the later half of the 20th century. These were the Basques who formed the first Basque government and were subsequently exiled after Franco won the Spanish Civil War and, later, the young men and women who were disgruntled with the perceived failure of the earlier generation and turned to violence as a way of pursuing their goals.

Zulaika’s tour of his generation and the forces that shaped it delves deep into the collective psyche of those men and women, often through philosophical discussions that, to be honest, were beyond me. But they provide a touch-stone for the environment in which the men and women that formed ETA and, in some cases, later found alternative paths to shape the future of their country. After the turmoil of a generation that rejected the politics of Aguirre and his contemporaries, modern Basque politics has begun a return to that approach that offers new paths for the future. As Bilbao has been reborn with the construction of the Guggenheim Museum and the so-called “Bilbao effect”, so to does the entirety of the Basque Country see new possibilities for a bright future.

Joseba Zulaika kindly “sat down” (at his computer) and answered some questions I had about That Old Bilbao Moon.

Buber’s Basque Page: In your book, the history and struggle of the Basque Country, at least over the last 100 years, is embodied by Bilbao. Bilbao is an inferno in which the Basque identity is both forged and struggles. I’m curious as to what the other two Basque capitals, or for that matter, Pamplona, symbolize for you? Gipuzkoa has a higher percentage of Euskara speakers. Does Donostia have a different symbolism than Bilbao? Or is Bilbao special because of its history of the workers and its proximity to Gernika?

Joseba-ZulaikaJoseba Zulaika: There are several reasons why I chose Bilbao for my book. Its historical proximity with and symbolic centrality of Gernika was one (and its relevance in the politics and history of art — Picasso — of the 20th century). The immediate reason was the establishment of the Guggenheim Museum and the international echo this had in the world of architecture, art and urbanism. I was writing in English for an international audience and the readers could have a reference about the Basques though the Guggenheim. And there were other reasons having to do with the recent history of the modern Basque Country, my generation’s struggles (euskera, ETA, nationalism, socialism), as well as autobiographical (I was in a convent there and studied in Deusto). Donostia or Gasteiz or Pamplona would share some of my generation’s themes and would have other historical and cultural references. Given my own interests and from the perspective of an international audience, Bilbao was the city.

BBP: It seems to me that your generation delved deep into philosophy, something which I think isn’t happening so much anymore. Why was philosophy such an important factor in your generation’s lives as compared to today’s youth? Are you alarmed by a seemingly lack of interest in philosophy today?

Joseba Zulaika: I wouldn’t say we were necessarily more “philosophical” than other generations, but those of us who grew up in the 1960s in the Basque Country, many forced into an educational system controlled by religious orders, and in a convulse period of fighting dictatorship with revolutionary ideals, we were subject to conflicting worldviews and moralities that required thinking and philosophical arguments.

BBP: You mention how, in the last three generations, leisure has supplanted work as a source of satisfaction. Where do you see this going? Is this sustainable? Can a culture or economy that exists solely to consume survive?

Joseba Zulaika: On the one hand, there is a remarkable change regarding the value of work, leisure, consumption. On the other hand, as the majority of the youth can’t find work in the current Spanish economic slump, the search for employment is pushing many young people abroad, work being the only way for having a middle-class lifestyle.

BBP: As you write, your generation, the generation of ETA, rejected the politics of Aguirre as failed, as “impotent fathers” who had not fulfilled their promise of Basque nationalism. However, at the same time, you show how Aguirre and Prieto resolved, at least at a personal level, their political impasse and that modern politicians almost embrace the ideas of Aguirre. What do you think the true legacy of Aguirre and his generation is, post-ETA? Did Aguirre accomplish more than what was thought?

jose antonio aguirreJoseba Zulaika: You could say that Aguirre and Prieto’s complicity has been repeated to some extent between Arnaldo Otegi and Jesus Egiguren in their search for overcoming the political impasse posed by ETA. Aguirre was an extraordinary man whose fate in a fascist Europe was tragic; he was a radical Christian and democrat who had to antagonize the Catholic Church and was abandoned by the European democracies. Some founders of ETA dismissed him as too accommodating with Spain, but his figure is unparalleled in the history of Basque nationalism and for many, including people on the nationalist left, he is the best guide for the kind of politics that is currently needed.

BBP: For your generation, the abondonment of Christianity is linked to the previous generation, their failure to establish an independent Euskadi, and a rejection of what they believed. However, it seems to me that atheism has risen across Europe and is not uniquely a Basque phenomenon. What other factors, broader than the Basque experience, have also pushed society in this direction?

Joseba Zulaika: Bilbao, like Basque society in general, has been a very Catholic city. But large pockets of atheism became a social reality at the turn of the 20th century with the creation of the socialist movement and the struggles of the working class. Many Basque nationalists stopped going to church as the result of the Catholic Church’s implication with Franco. Many of my generation, raised in seminaries, lost their religious faith as the result of getting involved in political protest. But this was nothing exclusively Basque of course; we were part of a larger European trend towards a more secular culture.

ela-valentin-bengoari-bubu_3BBP: When you describe your discussion with the priest Bengoa, you highlight how he saw the break with ritual and ceremony as possibly beneficial, that breaking with religiousity might be good. That those who are most Christian are those that are the most anti-Christian in their language. It seems to me that the opposite is also often true, at least in the US. Those that profess their Christian values the most are often the least Christian, in some sense. How do you view this dichotomy?

Joseba Zulaika: That was exactly how those radical Christians saw it: true religion is not about going to church and taking the sacraments, it is about helping the poor. The only God they accepted was the God of the poor. This led to the theology of liberation and to accepting ideas that might sound revolutionary. What they were doing was taking literally the Christ’s message that “what you do to one of these people, you do it to me.” Nothing was more deplorable to them than a Church that sided with the rich.

BBP: What is your view of the recent efforts by Scotland and Catalonia, and the ongoing efforts in Euskadi via Gure Esku Dago, for a voice? At least in Scotland, the people, in the end, rejected separating from the United Kingdom. If given the chance, will events turn out differently for the Basques and Catalans?

Joseba Zulaika: Scotland is fortunate to be in the United Kingdom and to be allowed to express the people’s will through a referendum. Basques and Catalans are simply not allowed such a referendum. This has been the losing struggle for Basques: the denied right to express their political will. The current situation in Catalonia is explosive, as they have decided to dismiss Spain’s prohibition to hold a referendum by framing the September 27 elections as “plebiscitary”—meaning that they will interpret a favorable vote to the parties seeking independence as a mandate to act and go ahead with secession.

BBP: Basque society today seems to be a series of polar opposites: Catholocism versus atheism, folk versus punk music, leisure versus the working poor, factories versus basseria. Is this simply a transition period from one time to the next, or is this inherent in Basque society?

Joseba Zulaika: Such polar opposites are primarily the creation of the analyst who has to make sense of the cultural and social complexity. But a century of sharp changes and transitions in every aspect of life has tended to create antagonistic oppositions that have made for turbulent times. This is not something uniquely Basque but, given the enormity of changes in concrete areas of culture and politics, the share among Basques for such polar opposites has been remarkable.

BBP: You mention that Aguirre finally became disillusioned when the US policy to contain communism meant siding with Franco’s government. In fact, the outcome of the Spanish Civil War was in large part a consequence of the West not wanting to get involved. Maybe it is foolish to play “what if”, but how do you think things might have turned out if the West had taken up the Republican and Basque causes?

Joseba Zulaika: Hitler and Mussolini sided openly with Franco. The democratic powers hypocritically adopted a policy of “neutrality.” Had they sided with the Republic, Franco would not have won. The U.S. was Aguirre’s only promised land of freedom where he found refuge—until even the U.S. sided with Franco in the early 1950s. The betrayals suffered by Aguirre would lead soon to ETA and another half a century of political turmoil for the Basques.

bilbo09-1BBP: As you mention, you were one of those that was initially opposed to the idea of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Later, however, you changed your mind. Was there a specific thing that changed your mind? What lessons do you think the Guggenheim effect has for other cities or nations? Is it a uniquely Basque phenomenon or something that has broader lessons?

Joseba Zulaika: I changed my mind when I saw Gehry’s masterpiece of a building and the worldwide effect it had on architecture and art. Bilbao became the paradigm of a city transformed by iconic architecture and every city wanted to replicate the same “Bilbao effect.” I soon realized that the ironies I had seen in the deal between the Guggenheim and Bilbao were not the true story, but rather the power of the architecture and the will of Bilbao to transform itself into a new postindustrial city. Gehry says that the relationship with the client is the most important thing in the creation of his work and it says a lot about Bilbao and the Basques that he built his masterpiece there. There have been news about dozens of other similar Guggenheim projects worldwide but so far it has materialized only in Bilbao. The broader lesson is that a success story such as Bilbao doesn’t happen unless a city really believes in its future and is willing to do what it takes to make it happen.

BBP: What is next for Joseba Zulaika? What projects are you working on?

c0ade769951bdf1b_shutterstock_153923993.jpg.xxxlarge_2xJoseba Zulaika: My next project is a book on Las Vegas. Lately I have been working mostly on two main areas of research — the transformation of cities, and drones and counterterrorism. Las Vegas combines both these interests, as drones are operated mostly from the Creech Air Force Base near Vegas. Besides, I have lived in Nevada close to three decades and this now my place.

Learning Euskara Online

Jaialdi is starting! Maybe, as you wander the streets, Kalimotxo in hand, you will hear an old timer (he might be my dad) speaking with his buddies in Euskara. Or you might hear some of those visiting musicians or even the Lehendakari himself, also speaking in Euskara. Or, even, some of those preschoolers who attend the only Ikastola outside of the Basque Country (who just got their own space, zorionak!), talking to each other in Euskara. And maybe, you think, I’d like to learn a bit of that language, become a true Euskaldun, or possessor of Euskara.

Well, to help you in your new-found desire to more deeply explore your Basque origins, here are two online resources.

51Wh2j0XosL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_First, Alan King and Begotxu Olaizola Elordi’s seminal Colloquial Basque, one of the first “courses” developed in English to learn Basque, came with audio tapes. Now, that audio is online for free. From the website:

Colloquial Basque: The Complete Course for Beginners has been carefully developed by an experienced teacher to provide a step-by-step course to Basque as it is written and spoken today.

Combining a clear, practical and accessible style with a methodical and thorough treatment of the language, it equips learners with the essential skills needed to communicate confidently and effectively in Basque in a broad range of situations. No prior knowledge of the language is required. Colloquial Basque is exceptional; each unit presents a wealth of grammatical points that are reinforced with a wide range of exercises for regular practice. A full answer key, a grammar summary, bilingual glossaries and English translations of dialogues can be found at the back as well as useful vocabulary lists throughout.

AMAIA_MINTZANETSecond, I got an email from Ainara Loiarte, the coordinator of Mintzanet, which she describes as

The aim of Mintzanet is to offer the possibility of practising Basque to everyone, without them having to leave the house. Anyone who wants to converse in this language, regardless of where they are in the world, will have the opportunity to do so as often as they wish through the website The initiative is completely free and is based on two pillars: the bidelaris and bidelagunas. The bidelaguna is a person who is proficient in the language and helps those who are studying. The bidelari, on the other hand, wants to learn and improve.

Thus, the purpose of this initiative is to provide all Basque speakers, both those who live in the Basque Country and those living in other parts of the world, with an opportunity to practise. A minimum level will be required to ensure the possibility of basic communication (A2-B1).

An explanation of the project is attached along with the flyer for the sharing of the information (which are in Basque).

We currently have 250-300 participants and of these 20% are living abroad.

Here you have the experience of a bidelari which we published on our website recently. She is Andrea Bella, from Uruguay.

See what you think, and if you need anything don’t hesitate to ask. You can sign up on our website: (it says IZENA EMAN)

Right now we have more bidelaris (people who want to practise Basque) than bidelagunas (those who speak Basque). Our goal is that this free project continues to grow, and although our priority is to attract bidelagunas we also need bidelaris.

Mintzanet essentially pairs two people, someone proficient in Euskara with someone who is trying to learn, and simply lets them converse in Euskara via the internet. You have to have some level of proficiency in Euskara (a minimal level) to participate, as you will be conversing with someone else in Euskara. This would be a great way to practice.

With these two resources, you now have some great opportunities to learn and practice your Euskara!

Did you know…?

Wolfram_evaporated_crystals_and_1cm3_cubeThe element tungsten was discovered by two Basque brothers, Juan José and Fausto Elhuyar Lubize, in 1783?

Tungsten is an incredibly important element. Having the highest melting point of any element, it is extremely hard and durable, used in light bulbs, x-ray tubes, as piercing armament, and catalysts. Tungsten is also proposed as an important material for ITER, the demonstration fusion reactor being built in France.

sello_189187The Elhuyar brothers were born in Logroño, La Rioja (Juan in 1754 and Fausto in 1755) to French-Basque parents from Hasparren, France, in the Basque province of Lapurdi. Fausto, at least, became a professor at the University of Vergara and later founded the School of Mines in Mexico City.

Today, the Elhuyar Foundation is dedicated to bringing together science and the Basque language.

Tungsten, officially known as wolfram, is a Swedish word that means “heavy stone” while wolfram means something like “wolf’s froth/cream”, as a consequence of the extraction process of a mineral containing tungsten. If the Elhuyar brothers had given it a Basque name, maybe we’d now be calling it harri-astuna or otso-apar.

The Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia has more details (in Spanish) on both Juan and Fausto, including short videos.

Talk at Jaialdi: In the Footsteps of Basque Whalers in Newfoundland and Labrador

Here is news about another talk taking place at Jaialdi, also on July 30th, at 10am. This was sent to me by Aimar Arizmendi, one of the organizers of the talk and the expedition.

In The Footsteps of Basque Whalers In Newfoundland and Labrador is an expedition by boat, slated for 2017 and open to the public that will visit the sites and celebrate the legacy of the first Basques in the new world: The venerable Basque whalers who arrived in Newfoundland following codfish and whale at least as early as the beginning of the 16th century. This expedition will mark the opening of a new cultural route, the first one ever built around the vestiges of historical Basque whaling in eastern Canada.

There will be a special Jaialdi presentation about this expedition featuring local author of historical fiction Christine Echeverria Bender at The Grove Hotel on Thursday, July 30th at 10:00 a.m. More information at

Inviacion Boise July 30th  (3)

Did you know…?

Bilbao, the capital of Bizkaia, was known for its steel. So well known that a type of sword popular in England and America was called a bilbo, after the Basque city. (In Basque, the name of Bilbao is Bilbo…)  In Basque, they were called Labana Bizkaitarrak. These swords were made in Bilbao and exported widely.

This sword was popular because it was typically well forged and very flexible.

Bilboes also refers to a type of shackles, put around the ankles to immobilize people. While it isn’t so obvious that the name of these shackles also comes from the Basque city, the fact that they were made of steel suggests it is possible. Joseba Zulaika, in his book That Old Bilbao Moon, suggests the same origin for the name. However, these devices were in use before Bilbao started exporting steel to England. In any case, these bilboes have a dark history, used to confine prisoners and slaves.

240px-Bilbo_Baggins_Tolkien_illustrationThe most famous Bilbo, these days, is Bilbo Baggins, of The Hobbit fame. While it isn’t clear where J. R. R. Tolkien got the name for his character, at one point Bilbo finds a sword, called Sting, that plays an immensely important role in the story of Mr. Baggins. It is possible that Tolkien named his character after the sword or, maybe more probable, was inspired by the name he had chosen for his character to outfit him with a sword.

The photo of bilbo, the sword, not Bilbo, the hobbit, linked to above is from this site. The image of Bilbo Baggins was taken from Wikipedia, but drawn by Tolkien.

More information about Gure Esku Dago talk

Jon Camio, one of the speakers at the Together or Nothing at All conference during Jaialdi, sent me some more information about the  event. The Agirre Center, where ex-Lehendakari Juan Jose Ibarretxe is now based, has posted more details about the conference. You can find that information here.

jaildi talk

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