Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here:

Cultural Crossroads: Alexander Fiske-HarrisonAbout Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Alexander Fiske-Harrison is a bullfighter and the author of Into the Arena: the World of the Spanish Bullfight, which was short-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, and The Bulls of Pamplona, the official guide to the bullrunning fiesta. He is also an actor, journalist, broadcaster and conservationist.


1. For an Englishman to become an accepted member of the Spanish bullfighting community is extremely rare. How difficult was it to break into?

An aside: Does rarity necessarily mean difficulty? The question brings to mind the passage from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good And Evil that ends in the question: is greatness possible – today? 

Today the taste of the age and the virtue of the age weakens and attenuates the will, nothing is so completely timely as weakness of will: consequently, in the philosopher’s ideal precisely strength of will, the hardness and capacity for protracted decisions, must constitute part of the concept ‘greatness’; with just as much justification as the opposite doctrine and the ideal of a shy, renunciatory, humble, selfless humanity was appropriate to an opposite age, to one such as, like the sixteenth century, suffered from its accumulation of will and the stormiest waters and flood-tides of selfishness…” 

To the question in point: I was given some unique opportunities by some remarkable people. They were not only remarkable for their centrality and their connections in el mundo de los toros, ‘the world of the bulls’, but also remarkable in their physical courage, their moral attachment to their historic culture in the face of the centrifugal forces of modernity, and their willingness to take a risk on a previously unknown author – until then only a journalist and playwright – and what slant he may take on being invited into the inner sancta of toreo (which we so poorly translate as bullfighting, as though it were a fight, rather than a three act ritual drama, whose last act begins with a dance and ends, with a preordained sacrifice.) 

It was undeniably tough, though. I earned that trust by shedding blood into, and breaking bones upon, the sand of a few bullrings myself. However, it paid off, and, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight – whose second edition comes out next month – became a set text on the subject. 

It took two years to research and half a year to write, and has changed the course of my life. However, trying to do it any other way would have been – I believe in both the commercial sense, but even more in the personal sense – a failure, a light thing, the whim of a writer skating over the surface of a subject trying to make out the shapes in the water below. 

2. By and large, the British look on bullfighting unfavourably. Was there a sense of breaking away from your own cultural background in order to do what you did?

I have spoken elsewhere about “immersion” ( Although my academic background in biology and philosophy gave me so many intellectual tools, it was studying at the ‘Method Acting’ school Stella Adler in New York, when Marlon Brando was still chairman, that gave me my system and my technique for how to go about writing. Not least in teaching me not to judge the characters within a play if I want to properly portray them. 

That said, I began my interest from an anti-bullfighting perspective, but also as someone who saw in his first corrida – I avoid the word bullfight for reasons given above – elements which confused and even bewitched me. Once I learned that it was not a sport, but closer to a hybrid between a drama and a religious ceremony, that the cattle had better lives and arguably better deaths than those in the abattoirs to make the meat we only eat on the whim of taste – they too die for entertainment, just of our palates – my archetypically British reservations began to melt away. 

‘Fair play’ as a concept was the hardest to shake, but is Shakespeare’s play “unfair” to Hamlet given that he must die? The question makes no sense. To even ask it is to commit a category error in philosophical terms. The bull-rings of Spain and France are EU-registered slaughterhouses, and in the corrida no one keeps score, even if the toro kills the torero, it is still killed by another – its meat has been pre-sold before it enters. 

I guess in summary what others perceive as – and I had initially thought of as – differences of cultural background I began to realise were so often misunderstandings and matters of ignorance. Of course, to make the killing of cattle, which we do three million times a year in the UK and over ten times that number in the US, into a part of a public spectacle is undeniably culturally different. However, it is one I have come to see as a failing on the part of British culture. We hide Death – of ourselves and others – and that I find an unhealthy thing, from a philosophical and a moral, and perhaps even a spiritual, perspective.

3. Does your Englishness have any bearing on how you approach bullfighting? Does it differentiate you in any way from Spanish bullfighters?

Spanish matadors are such singular characters I find generalising about them aside from the obvious – they kill male cattle with swords at risk of their own lives – not only absurd but also abhorrent. They stand alone on the sand and confront Death – their own possible, their opponent’s inevitable – and given that toreo is regarded by themselves and their audiences as an art form, they are as individual as artists necessarily are. 

I guess people would expect me to say the obvious, that I still feel more for the bull, viewing it more as full protagonist, and there is some truth to that. Because of  their daily lives as professional killers, through their upbringings reading about great toreros while I read Watership Down and White Fang, and through their adherence to Catholic doctrine about the soullessness of animals, they do indeed ‘feel’ less for the bull. 

However, I also hear them speak of their regret at having to end their ‘dance’ with certain bulls. I have heard the matador Juan José Padilla laugh when asked if he hated the bull that removed his left eye and left ear in 2011 and reply that he admired it. I have heard the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez describe certain bulls as friends, even though his own matador father was famously killed by one when he was just seven years old.

And it was not a Spaniard who wrote the lines,


each man kills the thing he loves

By each let this be heard,

Some do it with a bitter look,

Some with a flattering word,

The coward does it with a kiss,


brave man with a sword!

It was Oscar Wilde.

4. You run with the bulls every year at Pamplona, and have spoken about the therapeutic effects of it. Could you elaborate?

Bull-running is a different part of the world of the bulls although related. In some way it grew out of ways of herding wild-reared cattle through streets to the town square for a bullfight in the late medieval period. This is most likely the origin of Pamplona, the most famous of the bull-runs, and about where I wrote my most recent book The Bulls Of Pamplona, co-authored with – among others – John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest, who made that city more famous than I ever could. 

Bull-running I see as a very pagan thing, while bullfighting as very Catholic. One abandons a great deal more control as there is so much less space for technique, there are no capes to make passes with that have been tested for efficacy over centuries. It is also something one shares with friends, although when the herd is upon you, one is never more alone. It is an extraordinary abandonment of control, of pitting your skills and knowledge – I ran fifty times last year alone in a dozen towns – beyond the point of rationality. It also keys into neuronal pathways as old as the cave paintings of the wild hunts of such beasts on the wall in Altamira, the oldest of all human art, and less than a two hour drive away. 

In terms of being actively ‘therapeutic’, it is no coincidence that it became Hemingway’s great love, his teenage psyche having been so formed by his psychologically and physically damaging experiences in the horrors of the First World War. The first great American runner of bulls, Matt Carney – a personal friend and student of Idries Shah – was also a wounded veteran of the Second World War. Among the living, I could mention my friend Tom Gowen who was so badly wounded in Vietnam and Dennis Clancey who toured Iraq – and contributed a great chapter to The Bulls Of Pamplona – and Connor Quinn was invalided out of Afghanistan, all of the 101st Airborne Division. 

It is as though they have invented a place – for these visitors have changed Pamplona – where men who have suffered the heroin of battle may undergo its methadone equivalent, a morning of bulls, and then sit and drink with their brothers-in-arms afterwards.

5. Bullfighting is quintessentially ‘Spanish’. Why?

The corrida, the Spanish-style ‘bullfight’, wherever it is practised – across Latin America and in France where it may become more popular than in its native Spain – is intrinsically Spanish in nature and reflective of the history of that country.

In countries where there were no longer dangerous wild beasts to face – one thinks of the lion hunts of Assyrian kings and Masai warriors – dealing with bulls has always been a proof of a certain form of unreconstructed masculinity.

The Minoan frescoes of Crete show bull dancers and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu still has its Jallikattu, but the formalised, ritualised, aestheticized, gold-braided corrida could only have grown out of the peculiar historic circumstances of Spain with its Roman conquest, bringing both the gladiatorial Coliseum and the bull-sacrificing Mithras cult of the Legions, then its Moorish conquest, bringing the Arabian horse from whose light-hooved back the modern corrida evolved. More recently, the peculiar flow of Hapsburg and Borbón, two republics and a dictatorship which at one point closed the borders, were all vital to its continued existence. One could also speak of militarism and colonialism, Catholicism and the Inquisition. One could even speak of the landscape itself: the poet Federico García Lorca, in an essay on the intangible concept of duende in both flamenco and toreo said, 

“It is not an accident that all Spanish art is linked to our mountains, with their thistles and sharp stones… In all other countries death is an end. It arrives and the curtains are drawn. In Spain, no. In Spain they open. Many people there live indoors until the day they die and they are taken out into the sun. A person dead in Spain is more alive than dead than anywhere else in the world.”

It is too large a question to answer, but to fall back on yet another quote, as the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset put it: “the history of bullfighting is inexorably linked to the history of Spain, so it is impossible to understand the first without understanding the second.”

6. If you look back on your pre-bullfighting self, how have you changed?

The simplest way to put it would be this: when I first arrived in Seville exactly twenty years ago, in October 1998, by bus from the Moroccan Sahara, I was against toreo as a concept but knew nothing of it. When I began researching Into The Arena in October 2008, I was on the fence on the subject, and knew a little – I had seen perhaps half a dozen corridas and read Hemingway, Kenneth Tynan and Barnaby Conrad as I did not speak a word of Spanish. 

Today, I have begun working with the industry body, the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘Foundation of the Fighting Bull’ (

The past two decades have been the strangest of journeys, the oddest of pilgrimages. I read Idries Shah’s Caravan of Dreams out in the desert in ’98 when I was perhaps a more gentle, but certainly a younger soul. (I had a small and esoteric library for company out there in the dunes near Merzouga on the border with Algeria: a collection of Rumi’s sayings and Attar’s Conference Of The Birds, Dawood’s translation of The Koran, Albert Camus’ The First Man, and an already well-thumbed copy of Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason.) 

Perhaps I am become a colder soul as well. Last night I watched the retirement corrida of my first teacher in bullfighting, the earlier-mentioned one-eyed matador Padilla here in Seville, I kept thinking of the story from Caravan of Dreams, ‘The Value Of Kingdoms’. I will leave you with its dry wisdom. 

King Byazid was brought from the battlefield and taken before the victorious Tamerlane the Conqueror, Timur the Lame.

As soon as he saw that Byazid had only one eye, Timur started to laugh uncontrollably.

Byazid addressed him.

“You may laugh at my defeat, but you would do better to reflect that you might have been here, in my place. God it is who presides over the destiny of thrones. Man should not laugh at the manifestations of His Will.”

Timur, when he had recovered himself, answered,

“It is the very same thought which ‘does’ make me laugh. God indeed, presides over thrones: but they are of such little importance to him, it seems, that he hands over the kingdom of a one-eyed man to a one-legged one.