Sunday, 17 August 2008

Book Review: The Prostitutes Of Serruya's Lane And Other Hidden Gibraltarian Histories by M. G. Sanchez

Gibraltar, located on the southern tip of Spain, is a British Overseas Territory, one of fourteen such territories of the United Kingdom. These include the Bermudas, Falkland Islands, Cayman Islands etc. Until 2002, British Overseas Territories were called British Dependent Territories. Before that, they were called Crown Colonies, which in my opinion is the most appropriate way of describing these territories. For, if you strip away the thin veneer of political correctness which is contained in the phrase British Overseas Territory, these territories, each of them quite far away from the British mainland, are nothing but colonies of the United Kingdom.

Gibraltar was under the control of the Moors for over 750 years, until 1462. It then became a part of Spain, until on 4 August 1704 it was captured by Britain. Ever since then, Gibraltar has been a British naval base and a garrison town. Most of the Spanish population left Gibraltar when it was captured from Spain and the people now living in Gibraltar are a mix of various seventh or eighth generation European (mainly Maltese, Genoese, Portuguese) and North African (mainly Jews) immigrants who are proud of their unique Gibraltarian identity.

Spain has always contested UK's hold over Gibraltar. Recently, the UK has agreed to consider joint sovereignty with Spain. However, the people of Gibraltar (as in the case of the Falkland Islands) prefer to be with the UK. In November 2002 a referendum was held to decide this issue and almost 99% of the people voted to remain with the UK.

M. G. Sanchez is a Gibraltarian academic and author. His latest book, The Prostitutes Of Serruya's Lane And Other Hidden Gibraltarian Histories, is a collection of essays that tell of story of Gibraltar in the nineteenth century. Sanchez's language is matter-of-fact, his attitude unflinching, his tone alternating between stoicism and anger, as he opens practically every curtain in Gibraltar to let the sunlight in.

Sanchez starts with the prostitutes in Serruya's Lane (is there any garrison town which doesn't have a red-light district?). A large chunk of this slim volume is devoted to the collateral damage caused by prostitution, such as venereal diseases and the like. Sanchez then goes on to dissect and examine the prejudice which people in mainland UK had for Gibraltar and its people. Gibraltar has had more than its fair share of smugglers and Sanchez does justice to this interesting profession in which numerous Gibraltarians were at one point involved in.

Sanchez's strength lies in describing all facets of an issue. For example, his description of smuggling revolves around an analysis of how demand and supply gave rise to smuggling. Rather than elaborate on the contents of this book and spoil the fun for future readers, I'll stop here and leave it to you to read it for yourselves.

Sanchez is also the author of a collection of fine short stories – Rock Black: Ten Gibraltarian Stories and Writing the Rock of Gibraltar: An Anthology of Literary Texts, 1720-1890. For the last three years, Sanchez has lived in Mumbai, India (since his partner is a British diplomat posted there).

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