Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Spanish Muslims of Timbuktu

In a comment on my previous post about the expulsion of the moriscos from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, Joaquim Pisa (who besides being the author of numerous fictional, travel and poetical works also maintains an excellent Spanish-language blog out of Barcelona entitled Aventura en la tierra) brought to my attention the remarkable story of the Spanish Muslims of Timbuktu.

Joaquim pointed me to the website of the Fundación Mahmud Kati, set up following the "rediscovery" in 1999 in the ancient city of Timbuktu (in Mali, West Africa) of a library of over 3 000 manuscripts literally "splashed" (as the one report put it) with words written in the Aljamiado script. The significance of this find was simply that the Aljamiado script was the same script used by the mudejar inhabitants of Spain to transcribe words in the Romance dialect of Mozarabic, and moreover that the manuscripts found in Timbuktu contained frequent references to the Spanish peninsular.

The collection of manuscripts in question had spent nearly two centuries scattered among various descendants of the great 16th century Timbuktu chronicler Mahmud Kati (himself descended from Spanish Muslims) before being reunited by one of these descendants of Kati - Ismael Diadiè Haïdara.

In the text of a conference paper delivered in Bamako in 2005 entitled "Andalusians in the curve of the Niger" Antonio Llaguno Rojas (vice president of the Fundación Mahmud Kati) recounts the story of how these Spanish mudejares and moriscos - in all but their religion identical to their Christian compatriots - came to reside in such a far-flung, exotic location.

From this account it appears that the first wave of Spanish Muslims who emigrated to the region of the Niger left Spain either before or just after the fall of Granada, thus escaping the vicious religious persecution suffered by their morisco brethren during the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

The reasons for the emigration of these mudejares can be traced back to the period of the Mali Empire and the reign of Musa I, who flourished in the first half of the fourteenth century. Musa was a devout Muslim, and for this reason went to great lengths to persuade the great poets, philosophers and architects of the Muslim cities of Al-Andalus (i.e. Spain) to come and reside at his court. The Sankoré mosque in Timbuktu - constructed by the Andalusian poet and architect Abu Ishaq Es-Saheli as part of a wider complex that also included a library and a university - dates from around this time.

The Sankoré Mosque in Timbuktu

The remarkable thing about the Spanish Muslim presence in the Niger is that it seems to have been largely unaffected by changes in dynastic politics. Thus in 1468 when the Mali Empire was eclipsed by the neighbouring Songhai kingdom, the new ruler of Timbuktu continued to employ scribes and clerics from Al-Andalus as high-ranking civil servants, notably among them the Kati family.

Mahmud Kati, who was a member of the second or third generation of of this family of mudejar emigrants (depending on which sources you believe), compiled not only the fabled library but also the most important historical account of the Songhai Empire and its predecessors - the Tarikh el-Fettach.

Ironically, in 1591 an army of invasion sent by the Sultan of Morocco and led by a morisco general, Yuder Pachá, conquered Timbuktu and overthrew Mahmud Kati's Songhai patrons.

This Yuder Pachá was born into a family of Spanish Muslims in Morocco, banished by the Spanish Crown following the failed Alpujarras uprising of 1568-71. He fought with distinction on the Moroccan side in the Battle of Alcazaquivir in 1578 when a Portuguese-Spanish army of invasion was defeated and the King of Portugal killed (much to the relief of the local Jewish community, who Don Sebastián had promised to put to the knife if they did not convert to Christianity!).

His conquest of Timbuktu for the Sultan, while only temporary, led to the settlement of a second wave of Spanish Muslims (this time moriscos as opposed to mudejares) who subsequently founded their own "empire" (el Imperio de los Armas) which, according to the scant sources I have been able to find on the subject, survived until being overwhelmed by the invasions of Tuareg nomads and French colonialists in the 18th century.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The history that europe would prefer to forget

Given the tide of anti-immigrant fervour sweeping Europe at the moment - as evidenced by the victory of Meisseurs Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Rajoy and their lesser brethren (Griffin, Wilders et al.) at last weekend's European elections - it seems like an opportune moment to repost the following article by Juan Goytisolo, originally published in El País back in March. Apologies to the reader for the roughness of my translation.

The inconvenient history of the Moriscos

Official and academic Spain is trying to forget the fourth centenary of one of the most ominous deeds in our history: the expulsion in 1609 of hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen and women of Muslim descent.

- Juan Goytisolo El País 15/03/2009

To Francisco Márquez Villanueva

The past of all countries contains alternating moments of embarrassment and patriotic pride. The fourth centenary of the expulsion of the Moriscos in the reign of Philip III obviously belongs among the former. Outside of the Andalusí Legacy[2] foundation and the conference of historians it is organising this May, official and academic Spain has maintained a defensive position of diplomatic silence on this issue, revealing its obvious discomfort.

What happened from 1609 to 1614 was an inglorious episode that provided the first European precedent for the bloody ethnic cleansings (of various magnitudes) that we have witnessed over the past century. The “preventive” measures ordered by the Duke of Lerma[3] with the strong support of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and Patriarch Ribera[4] were the subject of a long, uncertain and controversial political-religious debate. It is useful to remind ourselves, albeit only briefly, of its various stages:

1499: forced conversion of the people of Granada by Cardinal Cisneros; 1501-02: Muslims in the Kingdom of Castile given a choice between exile and conversion: the mediaeval Mudéjares[5] became Moriscos pure and simple; 1516: forced to abandon their dress and customs, although the measure was not enforced for 10 years; 1525-26: conversion by edict of the Moriscos in Aragón and Valencia; 1562: a council of ecclesiastics, jurists and members of the Inquisition prohibits the people of Granada from using the Arabic language; 1569-70: rebellion of Alpujarra and the wars of Granada… from the crushing of the Moriscos to the execution of Aben Humeya, the political strategy of Philip II consisted of dispersing the people of Granada and resettling them in Castile, Murcia and Extremadura, far from the southern coasts and possible Turkish invasions.

So many vacillations and changes of direction reflect the contradictions that existed between an ecclesiastical hierarchy with scant respect for the universal Christian ethic on the one hand and on the other the interests of the peninsular nobility, for whom the expulsion of those who worked their lands would spell agricultural ruin. As we now know thanks to historiographical work carried out since the end of the 19th century, the political-religious crusade was the subject of a furious behind-the-scenes controversy.

While some opposed the expulsion and preached baptism and gradual assimilation, the hard-line elements of the episcopacy were strongly inclined towards more forceful proposals: slavery, collective extermination or castration of all the males and the deportation to the Island of Bacalao,[6] in other words to Newfoundland.

Banishment to the much closer African coast, favoured by the majority of the members of the Council of State, was opposed by a venerable bishop with an argument of impeccable logic: after arrival in Algeria or Morocco the Moriscos would renounce their Christian faith, the most charitable thing would therefore be to put them in leaking ships so that they would be shipwrecked during the voyage and their immortal souls be saved.

In the debate that for decades pitted doves against hawks, the hawks relied upon the eloquent pens of propagandists such as Brother Jaime de Bleda, González de Cellorigo, Brother Marcos de Guadalajara and, most importantly of all, Pedro Aznar de Cardona. – for whom the expulsion marked the closing of a long and ignoble historical digression opened by the invasion of 711: thanks to the work of Lerma and Philip III Spain would be Catholic without exception.

Along with their religious arguments, they put forward other ridiculous claims concerning demographics: the supposed danger of a giant increase in the Morisco population in abrupt contrast with a static or declining Christian one due to ecclesiastical celibacy, the cloistering of women in convents, the wars in Flanders and emigration to America. Such arguments, which are being revived today by the European nationalist ultras, were ironically summed up by the dog Berganza in Cervantes’ Symposium of the Dogs.[7]

The Morisco problem and the radical solution applied to it have been the subject of numerous well-documented studies in the last fifty years by historians as diverse as América Castro, Domínguez Ortiz, Julio Caro Baroja, Mercedes García-Arenal, Bernard Vincent, Louis Cardaillac, Márquez Villanueva, among many others. Thanks to these people we now know of the opposition of those whom today we would call courageous citizens to the edict of expulsion four hundred years ago. Very significantly, the majority of these people were recently converted Christians of Jewish origin – no less visible despite having altered their names and outward appearance. Their advocacy in favour of assimilation of the Moriscos was as much a plea on their own behalf and both contradicted and challenged the very recently introduced Christian statutes regarding limpieza de sangre.[8]

The reassertion of commerce, labour and merit against the “black honour” of the Old Christians offered some hope of arresting the already perceptible Spanish decline and the long “holiday from history” which was prolonged for another two centuries until the Cortes de Cádiz[9], despite the eminently sensible policies of Olivares[10] and the enlightened ministers of the 18th century.

Example of this reassertion include González de Cellorigo’s memorial addressed to the monarch Of the Necessary Policies and Useful Restoration of the Republic of Spain –its regenerationist spirit obvious from is title – and Luis de Mármol y Carvajal’s excellent History of the Rebellion and Punishment of the Moriscos – evocative of a human tragedy that could have been avoided with a more pragmatic approach. Both of these books helped to alter the current of Erasmean thought[11] to which the would-be modernisers of self-absorbed Spanish society subscribed.

In a soon-to-be-published work that I have just had the opportunity to read thanks to the kindness of the author – Moors, Moriscos and Turks in the Work of Cervantes – Francisco Márquez Villanueva analyses with his usual aplomb the writings – mostly unedited – of the humanist Pedro de Valencia, disciple and executor of the Hebrew scholar Benito Arias Montano. His Treatise Concerning the Moriscos in Spain, unknown until its publication in 1979 and which only came into my hands very recently, could be perhaps – seen from the perspective of its own time – the most reasoned defence of the cause of those who were expelled.

A convert from Judaism like Arias Montano and an enemy of the Church scholastics and the doctrines propounded by the Council of Trent,[12] de Valencia energetically denounced “the insult that is done (to the Moriscos) in depriving them of their lands and in not treating them with the same equal honour and esteem as all other natural-born citizens.” Like Brother Luis de León (he who is remembered for his famous description of the statute of limpieza de sangre as “an affront to generations that will never cease”), Pedro de Valencia opposed the statute of Cardinal Siliceo[13] and advocated a policy of mixed marriages between Moriscos and Old Christians in order to “persuade the country’s citizens that all of them are brothers of one lineage and one blood.”

Morisco refugees set sail from the Spanish port of Viñaroz, Valencia

The spectacle of tens of thousands of baptised men separated from their children while begging for mercy from God and the King and proclaiming in vain their desire to stay in the country of their birth was difficult for many sincere Christians to tolerate. The brutal nature of the expulsion and the massacres carried out on those who tried to avoid it were received with sadness and compassion by an intelligent minority, but with cries of hatred and spontaneous cheers by those like Gaspar de Aguilar who turned them into songs of heroic deeds.

The majority of the Moriscos took refuge – with varying success – in the Maghreb. The natives of Hornachos[14] set up the so-called republic of Salé in Morocco,[15] with the illusory hope of ingratiating themselves with the King and some day returning to Spain.

During a four-year relaxation those in the Ricote Valley[16] were allowed to voluntarily emigrate across the French frontier and travel on to other European countries. Although they had been completely assimilated, the Duke of Lerma signed without qualm their order of collective banishment in 1614. The episode of the Morisco of Ricote who in the second part of Don Quixote meets with Sancho Panza allowed Cervantes, a master in the art of cunning, to reclaim a voice for those who were victims of such a savage violation.

“I left our town – said the Morisco – entered France and although I was well-received there, I wanted to see it all. I went to Italy and Germany and there it seemed to me that one could live with more freedom, the inhabitants being a good-natured people: each one living as they wished, because for the most part there is freedom of conscience.”

Freedom of conscience! Almost casually and as if not even wanting to, the author of Don Quixote puts his finger on the problem. The agents of the Inquisition did their job well but to a good reader sometimes words are not needed.


[1] A term that has no direct equivalent in English, but refers to the Muslims living in Spain after the reconquista who converted to Christianity.

[2] Andalusí – person coming from al-Andalus/Spanish Muslim

[3] Don Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma (1552/1553-1625), courtier and favourite of Philip III

[4] Saint Juan de Ribera (1532-1611), Archbishop of Valencia and Patriarch of Antioch.
[5] Mudéjares: the name given to those Muslims living in Spain after the reconquista who did not or had not yet converted to Christianity.

[6] Mystery island in the Atlantic depicted on many 16th Century maps as lying just off the coast of Newfoundland.

[7] Reference to one of the Novelas Ejemplares or “exemplary novellas” by Miguel de Cervantes (published 1613) in which two dogs share their bemused observations on the contradictions and nonsensical elements in human society.

[8] “purity of blood” i.e. favouring of those of pure Christian descent.

[9] The Cortes of Cádez met in 1810 during the Napoleonic occupation of Spain and the detention of King Ferdinand VII in France. It promulgated Spain’s first liberal constitution, which provided for a limited constitutional monarchy ruling through parliament and universal male suffrage. It was repealed by Ferdinand after his restoration in 1813.

[10] Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel, Count of Olivares (1587-1645) was prime minister for 22 years under Philip IV.

[11] Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69-1536) Dutch Renaissance humanist and Catholic theologian.

[12] Ecumenical council of the Catholic Church which took place in the middle of the 16th century, at the height of the Counter-Reformation drive against Protestantism and other “heresies” in the Church.

[13] Juan Martínez Guijarro (1477-1557), Archbishop of Toledo and intellectual author of the statute of limpieza de sangre.

[14] A town in Extremadura near Badajoz.

[15] A small maritime republic that existed for a brief period during the 16th century encompassing the cities of Salé and Rabat.

[16] In Murcia, south-east Spain

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Jean Genet: the writer as a perpetual exile

The second volume of Juan Goytisolo's autobiography, Realms of Strife (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990 - trans. Peter Bush) contains a very moving tribute to the French poet, novelist and playwright Jean Genet (1910-1986) - whose life in many ways parallels that of the Spanish writer.

Genet was the orphaned son of a prostitute who grew up to become a vagrant, military deserter and petty thief and was only saved from a life sentence of imprisonment in 1948 (after over 10 convictions) by the intervention of André Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre (among others) who recognised the extent of his creative talents.

His works reveal a powerful fascination and empathy with people existing at the margins of society such as criminals, homosexuals and immigrants.

Goytisolo was introduced to Genet soon after his arrival in Paris in 1956 by Monique Lange of the publishing house Gallimard, and from there began a relationship that was to have a powerful influence over Goytisolo's own subsequent political and literary evolution.

Like Goytisolo, Genet was a homosexual who was initially attracted to the Arab countries of the Maghreb because of the relatively more uninhibited notions of masculinity in North African society (despite the dominance of Islam).

From this initial point of attraction Genet became more deeply involved both personally and politically in the Arab world - defending Algerian migrant workers against police brutality in France and traveling to meet with Palestinian freedom fighters in Lebanon.

He was then an exile in every sense of the word.

In his memoirs Goytisolo recounts the time he lent Genet a copy of the poems of Antonio Machado, a writer with whom Genet was not then acquainted but who had the status of a kind of secular saint among the Spanish Republican exiles abroad:

He returned the books to me after a few days and rattled off a string of criticisms: he thought the writer's human and literary horizons narrow and limited; his obsession with Castile was a way of narcisistically contemplating his own navel and resurrecting the retrograde values of the countryside. Machado not only wrote in Spanish - as Genet wrote in French - but wanted to be Spanish, a cultural identification that Genet could not understand and labeled as chauvinist. He was left totally indifferent by the moral landscape of France: neither the gardens of Versailles nor the cathedral of Rheims stirred any emotions in him. So why, then, that love of Soria, Castile, the trees on the riverbank, the slow procession of poplars? The fatherland, he would say much later, could only be an ideal for those who didn’t have one, like the Palestinian fedayeen.

Goytisolo concludes his tribute with the following account of his friend's death some 30-odd years later:

He met his end on one of those short trips to the France he so hated, when he wished to correct the proofs of his last book, Un Captif amoureux. His wish to be buried in Morocco, to leave no trace of himself in his country apart from his beautiful, repellent, and poisoned prose, apparently complicated the formalities of the funeral. As with Abdallah twenty years before, his body remained several days in the morgue; and as Abdallah blackened by poison had returned to his African origins, Genet would in turn be reintegrated symbolically in his adoptive land: as I later learned from his Palestinian friends, the customs official asked those accompanying the coffin whether it was the body of a Moroccan worker. They proudly proclaimed it was.

Finally, Goytisolo notes that

Genet taught me to cast off my early vanity, political opportunism, my desire to cut a figure in the life of literary society…Without him, without his example, I would perhaps not have had the strength to break from the hierarchy of values accepted on the right and the left by my compatriots, to accept proudly my predictable rejection and isolation, to write all I have written from the time of Conde Julián.