Gibraltar is unique in so many ways and one of the things which makes it so is its diverse community and that community’s ability to live together amicably. Here, people from many diverse faiths and backgrounds live together in tolerance and respect for one another.
A think tank, called Understanding Gibraltar, has been set up to look at why and how the different faiths and religious groups here can live side by side so well and with a view to perhaps exporting the Gibraltar model elsewhere in the world.
In this episode of the Postcard from Gibraltar Podcast I caught up with Joshua Lhote from Understanding Gibraltar to find out all about it.
From being encouraged to draw a stick man version of myself by an artist who’s exhibited at the Royal Academy to laughing at anecdotes from the former Chief Minister of Gibraltar and being moved and inspired by the courage of an amazing young woman, my morning spent at this year’s Gib Talks event didn’t disappoint. The day-long event features speakers from all walks of life talking on subjects as diverse as the origin of Gibraltar’s name to becoming the first Gibraltarian to compete at the Olympic games.
Last year I had my first experience of Gib Talks, I called in for a short time to hear a friend of mine speak and found myself not wanting to leave. Ahead of this year’s event, I was able to catch up with the organiser Julian Felice when he took part in the Postcard from Gibraltar Podcast Episode 002 : Gib Talks, in it he described some of talks we would be able to hear, but that preview was nothing like actually being there yourself.
One of the joys of Gib Talks is that you don’t need to commit to the whole day, you can dip in and out just coming for the talks which interest you or as was my situation, just coming for the time you are able to fit in around the family. As a consquence I managed to see most of the morning’s session and was so glad that I did. Here’s my take on what I heard (it’s a bit long so feel free to dip in and out of it too!):
Samantha Barrass – My secret life as an amateur thespian and theatre impresario
The first talk of the day I saw was given by Samantha Barrass, the mother of three is CEO of the Gibraltar Financial Services Commission but it was her passion for acting and, as she put it, “non-professional theatre” which formed the subject for her talk. Samantha recalled her first experience of acting in a production of Snow White at the age of 10. She’d moved to New Zealand as a child and it was there that she’d been given the role of the wicked queen in her school production; a role which she joked had been a “forerunner for her role in financial services”.
While on the stage there had been a technical fault which meant that her magic mirror failed to reply when she asked it “who is the fairest of them all”. Her ability to stay in character and act out a “queenly strop” until the fault was rectified earned her a complement from her favourite teacher that “only a real actress could do that”. The comment sealed her fate and her love affair with the stage.
Samantha described how her love for acting and theatre had continued beyond school and despite considering going to stage school, she had pursued a career in finance while continuing as an amateur actress in her spare time. After a move to London, and the birth of her three children, she became involved in a non-professional theatre in Bromley and ultimately became chair, a role which was to see her merge her skills from her professional life and her hobby together.
Describing the theatre as “my third place” in addition to home life and work life, Samantha says she has made many friends through her hobby and that it is something which people can do at any age and with not much money. She ended by saying she is “pleased to be in Gibraltar where I have a very responsible job and I can also fit in some acting around it”.
Samantha Barrass won Best Actress at the 2016 Gibraltar Drama Festival.
Tito Vallejo – Naming the Rock
Next up was well-known local historian and all round personality Tito Vallejo. In his introduction to Tito’s talk, organiser Julian Felice joked that “If you have a pulse and you live in Gibraltar, you probably know this speaker!”
Tito began by saying “We all know how the Rock got it’s name” inferring that if you Google it, you will see that ‘Gibraltar’ is derived from ‘Jebel Tarik’ or Tarik’s Mountain after the Moor who first conquered it. That, however, is not the case according to Tito; first known as ‘Kalph’ the Phoenecian word for rock, then ‘Calpari’ or ‘hollow’ by the Romans and later ‘Calpe’ a name we recognise from insignias and local names today.
The Phoenecians were traders and set up camp nearby in the Bay of Gibraltar 4000 years ago, they were responsible for creating the Pillars of Hercules, or the Pillars of Melcartes as they called them. They also told everyone of the ‘abyss’ which lay beyond the pillars in an attempt to dissuade anyone else from venturing out of the Mediterranean and relying on their imports including tin from the south coast of England.
Later, the Moors staged an invasion of the land of the Vandals, which is now known as Andalusia. Their first port of call was Gibraltar. The leader of the invasion, Tariq landed in Gibraltar in 711 and burned all of his ships, telling his men “we win this land or we will drown in the sea as cowards”. Tito explained that here is “where the myth starts”; the Tarik in Djebel (or Jebel) Tarik does not stand for the man Tariq, but is the Moorish word for ‘path’ meaning the beginning of the path through Andalusia which the Moorish invaders took.
Tito was vehement in his defence of this claim saying that every place the Moors conquered was named for a reason and not after a person, as that would go against the Islamic religious teaching against idolatry. Hence the Alhambra is named after the red colour of the stone, Tarifa is named after the end of the world as it was at the edge of the ‘abyss’ and if you passed there you had to pay a toll or ‘tariff’ and Gibraltar was the start of the ‘path’ through Andalusia.
According to Tito it was the Spanish who coined the name Gibraltar.
Manar Ben Tahayekt – Living with a disability
I get looked down to and this annoys me because it’s like “Hello, I am a smart person you know”.
Described in her introduction as “truly inspiring” and a young woman who “faced every challenge head on” Manar Ben Tahayekt took to the stage and soon had the auditorium captivated. Manar, who was born with cerebral palsy, moved to Gibraltar at the age of 4, after her parents decided she would be better off living here than in her native Morocco. As she wasn’t a Gibraltar citizen, she was home schooled until the age of 11.
She said of her childhood, that it wasn’t easy and that she “started school late but came a long way” gaining 2 GCSEs, one in English, and the other in Spanish. She went on to say that “something I have learned is to never give up”. Despite the difficulties she has faced, Manar now works for the Department of Education and is studying for further qualifications.
Then Manar stunned the audience by asking the awkward question “How many of you said to yourself la pobre” when they saw she was going to speak. She went on to say “I can say poor thing in Arabic too and it irritates me. I wonder when these people will get the hint?…I get looked down on and it’s like ‘Hello I am a smart person you know'”.
Manar explained that although she is disabled, it doesn’t stop her being independent and “just doing what any normal 23 year old does, like falling in love, partying and travelling”. Last year saw her complete her Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award and after much training she conquered the Med Steps.
Finishing her talk, Manar asked the audience to “look beyond the disability” the next time they see a disabled person “and look for their ability”. She was given a standing ovation for her inspirational, and at times deeply moving speech. What a remarkable young woman.
Henry & Priscilla Sacramento – Making it work
For the first time ever, a couple was invited to take to the Gib Talks stage at the same time this year. Compere Julian Felice introduced them saying “the UK has Posh and Becks, the USA Barack and Michelle, Gibraltar and Morocco has ‘HenPris'”.
Retired Police Officer, and charity worker Henry stood with his arm around his wife throughout their talk about their relationship and their dream of buying a property in their beloved Morocco. Priscilla, a retired special needs teacher and dressmaker who made dresses for Miss Gibraltar contestants, took turns with her husband as they told the audience about their marriage, saying that rather than being described as a “golden couple”, they should be “a platinum one” on account of the colour of their hair.
The Sacramentos have been married for almost 30 years, or rather “29 years and 46 days” according to Henry. The recipe for such a long and happy partnership was “positive attitude and respect”. They told the interesting story of how they had fallen in love with a house in Morocco which they wanted to buy but had missed out on the purchase only to be able to buy it years later as Henry came up for retirement. They believe that their positive attitude had lead to them being able to fulfil their dreams.
Karl Ullger – To what extent can you learn to be creative?
Karl Ullger, described by fellow teacher Julian Felice as an “Artist, teacher, colleague and friend” is the second Gibraltarian artist to be invited to exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art (the first being Gustavo Bacarisas). He also featured in last year’s Sky Arts Landscape Artist competition getting through from a field of 600 applicants.
Beforehand, we were all given a piece of paper and a pencil, which we were told we would be required to use during Karl’s talk – but more on that later…
“Creativity is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality” however “being imaginative does not mean you are creative” said Karl. He gave the examples of things which evolve over time with creativity like the gramophone, which eventually led to record players, the Walkman and the iPhone and “chalk drawings on a cave wall” which then evolved to the ink well, pencil, pen and ultimately an ink free stylus for drawing on a tablet.
Karl said that by using experimentation and breaking from the norm, things don’t always turn out right but don’t give up and keep trying. He told us of the time he went for a jog down by the dockyard and spotted a piece of metal lying in a bus stop. He said he “liked the look of the rust” so he took it back with him to his workshop.
Weeks later, while cleaning his brushes, some of the acid he was using splattered on the sheet of metal and he liked the effect it made. That piece of discarded waste metal later became a piece of art work with a painting of Sacred Heart Church and the Upper Town of Gibraltar on it and it stood beside him on the easel on the stage.
As a teacher, Karl was well qualified to explain that all children can be artists but as we grow older we develop inhibitions and other qualities which restrict our creativity. He went on to say that the left side of the brain which favours logical thought is what powers professions like accountants, and lawyers and the that right side is creative and is stronger in professions like artists, musicians and chefs.
That doesn’t mean that you have to be just one thing or the other though, as Karl gave examples of great men through history who had great creative and logical minds; Einstein, Da Vinci and Michelangelo. He gave us all a method to “keep yourself intact – brain gyms”. An example of a brain gym is when you doodle while speaking to someone on the phone.
Here’s where the paper and pencil comes in…
Karl then asked us to take our pencils and paper and get creative. He asked us to draw a house, with windows and a door and a path. To add some weather to the picture and then draw a sketch of ourselves. He then grilled the audience as to what we had added to our picture, did it have a roof or chimney? Were there curtains in the windows? Were we pictured inside or outside the house? Did we have a big head? Were there flowers in the garden? All of which would reveal a meaning behind the picture we had just drawn.
We were invited to either speak to him after the talk as he was willing to give feedback on the meaning of our drawing or we could send him our picture online. So I did and here’s what he had to say…
Apart from the bit which says I take care over my appearance (I normally look like I have been dragged through a hedge backwards) it is actually very accurate. The point of all this? Karl said that these basic and very quick sketches were to prove that all the audience members can be creative even if many think they can’t.
Sean Vincent Acris – Pride, not Prejudice
Introduced as the reigning Mr Gibraltar after being crowned in September 2016, Sean Vincent Acris has used the time since to work with charities and causes through his new role. He began his talk with a series of shocking quotes on Islamophobia, violence towards women and sexual inequality made by current world leaders. He described himself as a “firm believer in equality for all and a proud Gibraltarian”. He said that the democracy we enjoy here in Gibraltar, the diversity we represent and issues like the rights of women to vote and for cultures to be accepted shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Sean also spoke of the recent change in the law in Gibraltar for gay couples to be married and explained it had been an issue he had campaigned for in the past and he was thrilled to be able to attend the first gay wedding on the Rock in December last year. Sean said he knew some people in the audience may not agree with the new law and asked that they wouldn’t “just tolerate it but understand”.
He then took us back in time to his childhood here in Gibraltar, explaining that he had attended a first school and became good friends with another boy he referred to as ‘Michael’. They had been best friends and enjoyed lots of fun times together. When the time came for them to move up to middle school, although nervous about what lay ahead, Sean had felt lucky that ‘Michael’ would be going to the same school and that they would be together.
However their friendship changed and Michael became distant and was almost a stranger by the end of their first year at middle school. Sean said he was labelled as “different” called “queer and spat at”. He believed “there must be something wrong with me”. He continued; “Today I am happy and proud as well as being Gibraltarian I am also gay”.
Sean impressed the importance of education to eliminate phobias of people who are regarded as different saying “In the world we live in today, there’s a change of mood in where we’re going with Brexit and the new President Trump… the freedoms we enjoy today are not guaranteed forever”.
Georgina Cassar – From Rock to rings: My Olympic journey
Setting the scene for Georgina Cassar’s talk, Julian Felice described London in 2012. “The world gathered for the greatest sporting event” among them were two Gibraltarians, one was a hockey umpire, the other a rhythmic gymnast. She was Georgina and she would become the first Gibraltarian Olympian.
Georgina walked on stage in her Team GB uniform and began her talk telling us how she had followed her older sister into ballet and had done that for several years before deciding to try gymnastics. It was at the age of 13 that her coach had suggested she opt for rhythmic gymnastics rather than the more traditional type she’d been learning to that point. It was unheard of for a gymnast “to start so late and still make the Olympic team” said Georgina, however she was to prove the critics wrong.
First of all making the team going to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, Georgina said that she began to focus on the Olympics two years later. However the road to London was not a smooth one for her and she doubted she would “make the trials let alone make the Olympics”.
The journey to the trials in Swindon meant flying to the UK but bad weather led to flights being cancelled and she just managed to catch the last train to the venue only to be told that the trials were cancelled because poeople hadn’t been able to travel due to the poor weather. Georgina was indignant “We had come all the way from Gibraltar!” The judges agreed to test her the following day and she did well enough to qualify.
The qualification meant that she had to move to England mid way through her AS Levels. As a 17 year old that was a big deal, but she chose to take a year out of education in order to train. She still had to qualify and there were 13 girls on the rhythmic gymnastic team at that point, which had to be whittled down to 7.
“It was eat, train, sleep, repeat for 9 months” says Georgina, she suffered homesickness and managed to wangle a flying trip back to Gibraltar during training to celebrate her 18th birthday in return for agreeing to wear her contact lenses when she competed (she had competed without her glasses or lenses at the Commonwealth Games).
Georgina explained that the team was self funded and although she had some sponsorship from the Kusuma Trust in Gibraltar, they still needed to find more funding and put on multiple displays and even packed bags in Morrisons.
When it came to the crunch Olympic qualification took place over three days. On the first day the team’s ball routine exceeded the score required to qualify. On day two a knot in one of display ribbons meant that they missed out on the score needed by 0.02 marks. They believed that they had a third day to make up the deficit but they were told that it was the end of their dream and they had failed to qualify.
That evening their coach took them out for a commiseration vodka and lemonade and even gave them a square of chocolate each before going out to perform the next day. They were determined to prove their governing body wrong and did their best performance ever and scored 2 points more than was required to qualify. A court case followed and the rhythmic gymnastic team triumphed against British Gymnastics.
In celebration, the seven-strong team took a week off and ate and drank as much as they wanted. On their return to the gym their coach made them stand on the scales. Between them, they had gained enough weight for a whole other team member; 60kg. Their coach wasn’t happy! Georgina described a harsh “ten hours plus” training programme to lose the excess weight and get ready for the Games with a “minimal diet” with limited fluids.
The hard work and deprivation paid off though, on the day of the contest Georgina said she “woke up excited… we were the first [rhythmic gymnastic] team from GB to make the games … I was the first Olympian from Gibraltar”. She described life in the Olympic Village, sitting down for meals with the likes of Mo Farrah and Sir Chris Hoy and being escorted by officials to speak to GBC.
It was on the parade around London after the Olympics though which made her most proud. Falling on September 10th, Gibraltar National Day, she was able to wave the Gibraltar Flag from the top of the open topped bus as it passed Gibraltar House.
A hip operation in 2014 meant that she can no longer compete, but she is grateful for the experience and all the opportunities in media and sport which have come her way since. Her parting message was that “everything happens for a reason and every choice you make along the way… creates our own fate”.
Sir Peter Caruana QC
Gibraltar’s second longest serving Chief Minister, and the first Knight of the Realm to grace the Gib Talks stage brought the morning session to an end. Sir Peter Caruana chose today to make his second public appearance since his retirement from public life in 2011.
He began by humourously stating that the British system of politics meant that the change over of power was a “sharp execution”. The first clue that things had changed on that fateful night in November 2011 was that the man who had chauffeur driven him to the John Macintosh Hall for the election count on the previous evening “was no longer holding the door open for you and is doing it for someone else and you’re walking home”. He described his immediate situation after losing the election as “having nothing to do and nowhere to go but interfere with the domestic arrangements at home”.
The former Chief Minister’s talk was peppered with anecdotes of his political life from having dinner with Margaret Thatcher who told him “two professions end in tears, boxing and political leaders” and holding a political surgery with a lady from Glacis estate complaining about her boiler while taking a call from the Foreign Secretary at the same time, “this is what being Chief Minister of Gibraltar is all about” he added.
He mentioned being asked at a dinner at Lancaster House following the Royal Wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton, if it wasn’t “all looking a bit North Korea in Gibraltar” suggesting that perhaps the time had come for a change at the top. Sir Peter said that political office was “a temporary job” and “losing to the will of the people was as important as winning”, although in 2011 he “lost by not very much…which meant you didn’t think I was the worst Chief Minister”.
“There are few professions where you can retire early and try something new… you made the decision for us” was his way of alluding to his change of professions back into legal life after his long political sojourn. One lesson he had for the audience was not to bear grudges, “if you do, they don’t know – it just burns you up”. “So many political leaders find it hard to make it to the wings… I slipped back into obscurity and open my mouth only when invited to do so” he said.
So what did I take from my morning spent at Gib Talks 2017? To be positive, keep trying and never give up, look beyond first impressions to see people’s ability and don’t hold a grudge! Valuable life lessons for anyone I think.