Timothy Garton Ash: Listen to this message of hope from Europe's Arabs – and the warning

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist.]

I thought I should see for myself the impact of these revolutions on the Arab street. The Arab street in Europe, that is. So I have come back to the Calle de Tribulete in Madrid. Along this one narrow street, with its seedy bars and phone-and-internet locutorios, where immigrants talk to their convulsed homelands, you meet Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians – and, in a dusty little shop called the House of Pharaoh, a young Egyptian, Safy. He came here three years ago from the Mediterranean port of Rashid, or Rosetta, where Napoleon's troops found the famous Rosetta stone.

What Safy tells me, and Mokhtar, and Muhammad (several Muhammads) is this: at last there is some hope at home. And if those hopes are realised, if what an Algerian migrant worker calls his "mafia government" also goes, if there is a real prospect of jobs, housing and yes, more freedom, they will go home. They are here in Spain to make a better life for themselves and their children. There is much they like about being here, although they say anti-Muslim prejudice has got worse since the Madrid bombings of 2004. But given the chance, they will go back. For now there is "how do you say – l'espoir?".

This is not just any European Arab street, though you can find the likes of it in every larger city in western Europe. No, this is the very street from which some of the Madrid bombers came. They used to meet in La Alhambra, a quiet cafe-restaurant. A man called Jamal Zougam worked in one of those talk-to-home locutorios. He prepared the mobile phones that detonated the bombs which killed so many innocent Spanish commuters on the trains into the nearby Atocha station on 11 March 2004. When I was here six years ago, I met young men who had pictures of Osama bin Laden on their mobile phones. They spoke of their fear, anger about the Iraq war, and desperation.

Today those locutorios and mobile phones are alive with better tidings. In the House of Pharaoh, Safy and Ibrahim rejoice at his fall. And the man behind the bar at La Alhambra, a thoughtful Moroccan who once studied medieval history, talks warily of possible change for the better in the kingdom of his birth. In free elections, he says, Moroccan Islamists could do well, but they would be peaceful, law-abiding, democracy-respecting Islamists like those in Turkey, "only even more moderate".

Well, as Herodotus says, my business is to record what people say – but I am by no means bound to believe it...

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