An annual festival of satire in Valencia has fallen foul of censorship after more than four centuries following the furore over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
In the Fallas festival, giant sculptures of the high and mighty are placed in the streets for the public to mock before being destroyed in an orgy of gunpowder and flames. It has survived attacks by the Roman Catholic church, various puritanical rulers and the Franco dictatorship.
This year’s figures will include President George W Bush, several of the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and the Prince of Wales dancing, in Highland dress, with the Duchess of Cornwall. But self-censorship has seen Muslim and Arab figures modified to avoid offence.
The Fallas season is now underway until March 19 but as it approached, Valencians watched global protests against newspaper cartoons of Mohammed with growing alarm. Last month, the mayor, Rita Barberá, urged artists to “temper freedom with a sense of responsibility” when referring to religious subjects.
At least one well known local Fallas artist admitted to removing elements from his display of comic sculptures.
He had sculpted three life-size figures of illegal Arab immigrants storming the Spanish border, in a reference to last year’s crisis in Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s enclaves in North Africa, involving thousands of migrants. The artist has now removed details that identified them as Arabs.
The artist asked not to be named, partly for fear of reprisals, partly because he did not feel proud of such “self-censorship”. But this year was “different”, he said. Radical Muslim leaders appeared to be looking for excuses to cause trouble.
“We saw what happened in Denmark,” he said. “Those artists may have had the freedom to draw Mohammed, but now they’re living as virtual prisoners. They have much less freedom than before. I felt responsible not just as an artist, but as a citizen of this city.”
Félix Crespo, the senior official in charge of the Central Fallas Council that runs the festival, urged the neighbourhood committees that raise funds to build the sculptures to avoid mixing humour with religion, “because that can be misunderstood”.
Everyone assumed these warnings referred to Islam because sculptures of Roman Catholic priests, nuns, even of God, are a central part of the Fallas.
“The ordinary people do not know all the intricacies of Islam, they just saw that there was a very extreme reaction to these [Danish] cartoons, they heard that embassies were attacked, and so people felt cautious,” said Mr Crespo.
In the countryside near Valencia, many villages have their own festivals, involving mock battles between “Moors and Christians”, in an ancient recreation of the Catholic reconquest of Spain from Arab rule.
There have been subtle changes this year, which no locals would discuss, the Spanish newspaper ABC recently reported. In Bocairent, villagers refrained from burning life-size mannequins of the “Mahoma”, a traditional figure presumed to be based on Mohammed.