By Inka Piegsa-Quischotte
“My name,” said the lady, clad from headscarf to sandals in shades of pink and purple, “is Bahia, which means ‘ocean of beauty and compassion’ in Arabic. Welcome to my school.”
Tea was poured, sweets were proffered and we sat down in the shade of more than 100-year-old olive trees in the backyard of her tiny Montessori school to talk about Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.
But we weren’t in a Muslim country – we were in the south of Catholic Spain.
Órgiva, located approximately 60km southeast of Granada and tucked away in the Alpujarra mountain region, is an extraordinary place. The small town’s population is just under 6,000 – but amazingly, this comprises 68 nationalities, as well as the Buddhist community O.Sel.Ling and a sprawling tent camp of Rainbow people (a group committed to principles of non-violence and egalitarianism) called Beneficio.
But I’d come to this mountain wilderness to meet the largest of the cultural communities: 35 Sufi families who have converted from Catholicism and settled here.
Despite Spain being home to many North African immigrants, Spaniards who convert to Islam – particularly the order of Sufism – are a rarity. I wanted to know what motivated them to convert, and why they’d chosen this remote part of Andalucía to live.
Bahia, originally named Maria Jose Villa Cascos, explained that she was born in Seville, about 320km west of Órgiva, later studying law and working in Madrid as a lawyer.
“My search for the right way of life actually started in the Catholic college I attended in Seville,” she said. “It took me years of studying, probing, doubting and experimenting until I finally came upon the philosophy and teachings of Sufism. Sufism’s way of life, teachings of tolerance, wide understanding, unconditional love of mankind and total rejection of violence made me convert. We concentrate on the simplicity of life, valuing the spiritual over the material. That’s also one of the reasons why I turned from being an attorney to teaching kids.”
She explained that Umar, who was appointed emir of the order in the 1970s, happened to live in Órgiva before he converted. Over the years, other converts flocked here, like Bahia who jumped at the chance to run the school when the opportunity arose.