My First Book Published on al-Andalus

This week my first book was finally published after years of travelling, researching, writing and editing. The book is a study of a very important Mediterranean diaspora that took place in the early 17th century and left an extraordinary imprint on the Mediterranean culture, especially in North Africa, namely the diaspora of the Moriscos (Arabs and Berbers forced to convert into Christianity under the pressure of the Inquisition Courts in the Iberian Peninsula, mostly in Spain).

In the year 711 AD, Muslims conquered the Iberian Peninsula, calling it al-Andalus and sowing the seeds of a fascinating renaissance characterised -mostly- by tolerance, coexistence and an appreciation for the arts and the sciences. With the fall of the last Andalusi Kingdom in Granada to the Catholic Monarchs in 1492 AD, the Muslim rule in al-Andalus came to an end. Faced with discrimination and persecution, the Muslims there (first called mudejars, then moriscos after they converted to Christianity) survived one tragedy after another until the Spanish King Felipe III approved a decree calling for the final expulsion of all the Moriscos between 1609 and 1614 AD. It is estimated that some 350,000 Moriscos were forced to leave, accused -among other things- of practising Islam in secret, failing to integrate in the Spanish community and conspiring with the Ottomans against the Spanish Crown.

All the material in my work is based on research, interviews and accredited historical sources, presented in my book in a storytelling format. The title is ‘al-Andalus: History of the Diaspora’. It’s in Arabic, but for my friends/followers who cannot speak Arabic, below is an English translation of the back cover:

Al-Andalus was once a glorious chapter in the history of the Islamic Civilization (and humanity in general), before it finally turned into an epitome of the Paradise Lost as the Muslims succumbed to their internal conflicts and ignored the civilizing foundations that the Umayyads had lain centuries earlier. The tragedy of the diaspora that followed the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Moriscos in the seventeenth century is rich in incredible details about how these groups adapted to their new realities in North Africa and the Orient. The Moriscos left an exceptional imprint in all fields from architecture and urbanism to poetry and music. This book chronicles the memory of the diaspora through a selection of tales that trace the footsteps of the Andalusi migrants and celebrate their cultural legacy in the Mediterranean basin.

Mohammed Elrazzaz An Egyptian academic researcher and professor (Cairo, 1976). He studied History at the University of Granada and Cultural Management in Barcelona. He is Professor of Culture, Art History and Mediterranean Heritage at the International University of Catalonia where he obtained his MA back in 2010. Since 2013, he works for the Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean in Barcelona.


The Adventures of Don Quixote

“You must endeavour to write in such a manner as to convert melancholy into mirth, increase good humour, entertain the ignorant, excite the admiration of the learned, escape the contempt of gravity, and attract applause from persons of ingenuity and taste.” – From the Preface of Don Quixote

This might indeed be the endeavour that Cervantes undertook while writing his epic masterpiece, Don Quixote; possibly Spain’s greatest literary achievement, and the most incredible window that one could ever peer through into the turbulent 17th century in Spain and the Mediterranean: omnipresence of the church, widespread superstition, contempt to the moors and the Jews, fear of the corsairs, sharp divide between social strata, strong ideas about proper conduct, etc.

Having recently finished reading this epic work, I can fairly claim that no one could possibly understand -at least in part- the roots of the Spanish culture without first reading Don Quixote. How else would you understand sayings like ‘de la ceca a la mecca’ (from Ceca to Mecca) or ‘Santiago, y cierra España’ (Saint James, and strike for Spain) or ‘más perdió el rey godo’ (bigger was the loss of the Visigoth King)?

Through one episode after another, the novel is structured around countless chivalric tales, impossible loves, acts of wizardry, parables on virtue and vice, all wrapped in a vivid proto-costumbrismo that would characterize many literary and artistic works of the Spanish Golden Age (Siglo de Oro).

Cervantes masterfully incorporates different literary resources and tricks of composition as he swiftly sets in the footsteps of Don Quixote. He tells us that the storyteller that recorded the adventures of Don Quixote is a moor called ‘Cid Hamet Benengeli’, which is probably a playful reference to himself (Cid means Master in Arabic, Hamet could be an interpretation of Miguel, and Benengeli can be Ibn al-Ayel or Son of the Deer, an Arabic equivalent to Cervant-es). While this resource is, clearly, a meta-fictional instrument, one can only wonder why he chose a moor as his storyteller despite all the derision that he expresses towards the moors and the moriscos throughout the novel. The influence of the Italian novella is unmistakable in some parts, and so is that of pastoral songs and epic poems, and yet Cervantes creates an unparalleled work that is totally and unmistakably his, complete with autobiographical elements that allude to his captivity in Algeria.

Throughout the novel, we enjoy the adventures of a delusional self-proclaimed knight-errant (Don Quixote) and his simpleton-yet-witty squire, who devoutly follows his master in the hope of a reward that never comes (Sancho Panza). Wherever he goes, Don Quixote shows himself to be a madman and draws everyone’s attention and curiosity, yet his gentle and gallant character never fails to impress. Probably the most sober -and to my taste, sad- moment in the novel comes as Don Quixote realizes towards the end of the story, and just before his death, that he had been afflicted with a serious madness that he attributed to his obsession with knights and their false stories. A man can spend his entire life engaged in heroic battles, only to realize when it’s already too late that it was all nothing but a chasing after the wind (and fighting against windmills!). This takes us back to one of the most powerful ‘images’ of the novel, in which a curate and a barber, both of them friends that are genuinely concerned about Don Quixote and his mental health, hold a mini-Inquisition for the chivalry books in possession of Don Quixote!

Finally, I would like to share with you some quotes from Don Quixote:

“In the midst of this their conversation, they discovered thirty or forty windmills all together on the plain, which the knight no sooner perceived, than he said to his squire, ‘Chance has conducted our affairs even better than we could either wish or hope for; look there, friend Sancho, and behold thirty or forty outrageous giants, with whom, I intend to engage in battle, (…) for it is a meritorious warfare, and serviceable both to God and man, to extirpate this race from the face of the earth.”

“I cannot conceive how falsehood is able to ape truth so exactly.”

“Where is the merit in a woman’s being chaste, when nobody ever courted her to be otherwise? What wonder, that she should be reserved and cautious, who has no opportunity of indulging loose inclinations, and who knows her husband would immediately put her to death, should he once catch her tripping?”

“Nothing sooner successes in overthrowing the embattled towers of female vanity, than vanity itself, employed by the tongue of adulation.”

“While we enjoy our meal, let every harlot mind her spinning-wheel.”

“Hunger is the best sauce, and as that is never wanting among the poor, they always relish what they eat.”

Illustration by Gustave Doré

The delusional calls to ‘recover’ al-Andalus

Following the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (which they would call al-Andalus) in 711 AD, the Andalusi society eventually featured a very interesting ethnic and cultural mosaic. Then came the Reconquista, the Christian armies started gaining back territory slowly but surely, and the social mosaic became even more sophisticated. A couple of days ago, while lecturing on al-Andalus at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, I explained some interesting ‘elements’ of the Andalusi society:
1- Muwallads (muladíes مولدون)
These were the sons and daughters of Muslim conquerors and native Christian women. The term also extended to describe natives who converted from Christianity to Islam.
2- Mozarabs (mozárabes مستعربون)
These native Christians maintained their religion under Muslim rule, but adopted many elements or the Arab culture and language.
Later on, two more elements would come into play:
3- Mudajjan (mudéjar مدجنون)
As the Christian armies took back several cities, several Muslim communities chose to stay and live under Christian rule, maintaining their religion.
4- Moriscos (moriscos موريسكيون)
Following the surrender of Granada and the introduction of the Inquisition courts, scores of Muslims had to convert to Christianity, becoming new Christians of Moorish origin, better known as moriscos. They were finally expulsed from Spain (some 300,000 moriscos) between 1609 and 1614 under Felipe III following a tragedy that extended for over one century. The Jews were forced to leave much earlier (Sephardim), and also scores of them had to convert.

Obviously, from the Arab-Islamic viewpoint, al-Andalus was ‘lost’, while from the Western standpoint, it was ‘liberated’. Such is the case with history always: it can never be read in a unilateral way or a linear form, or based on a single discourse.

Calls among some Arabs to ‘recover’ al-Andalus are more than just absurd: they are delusional! For one thing, al-Andalus no more exists; because it is a historical concept and should always be treated as such. It was occupied by the Arabs and Berbers, but was never their homeland or their native territory. Moreover, calls to ‘recover’ territory just because, hundreds of years ago, it was under Islamic rule, is closer to intellectual terrorism than it is to rational thinking that would foster intercultural dialogue. With all the Islamic and Arab countries around the world that are lagging behind culturally and scientifically, wouldn’t it be a better idea to start with themselves and alleviate the suffering of their own people than ‘yearn’ for a land that their modern feet never stepped?

I yearn for al-Andalus myself, not the land but rather the state-of-mid, not the territory but rather the cultural renaissance, not the traditional geography but rather the moral one… and I will end it here.

Boabdil handing the keys of the Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs

Lecture on al-Andalus in Cairo: The Fall of al-Andalus, Memory of the Diaspora (Aug 4th)

Today I gave a lecture at El Sawy Culturewheel about the fall of al-Andalus and the dispora of the moriscos.

The fall of Granada in 1492 marked the fall of the last Islamic kingdom in the Iberian Peninsual, bringing the rule of Islam over al-Andalus to an end. The Muslims living there initially enjoyed a peaceful period under the Christian rule as mudejars, before being eventually forced to convert into Christianity, becoming moriscos.

These moriscos suffered the horrors of the Inquisition, as well as several attempts to erase their cultural identity, forbidding them to use the Arabic language and names, and preventing them from listening to their music, wear their traditional clothes, celebrate their festivals, or even posses books in Arabic. Finally, they were subject to expulsion by Felipe III between 1609 and 1614.

This expulsion marked the diaspora of 300,000 to 500,000 moriscos that had to leave and spread in every direction, from Italy to the Niger Basin, and from Morocco to Turkey. Wherever they went, they left a clear mark that can still be noticed in art and architecture, in music, in gastronomy, in traditions and in almost every other aspect of life.

We are still reminded by these forced migrations through family names like Torres, Salas, Blanco and Medina in Morocco, Lorca, Cordoba and Qastali in Tunisia, and Qutri, Shatibi and Mursi in Egypt.

Timbuktu, Fez, Tetouan, Rabat, Algiers, Oran, Tlemcen, Tunis, Kairauan, Tripoli, Alexandria, Cairo, Istanbul…these are some of the cities that offered refuge for the moriscos, whose fate varied according to the destination that they ended up heading to, suffering in Algeria, privileged in Tunisia, risking in Mali, etc.

This diapora is absolutely one of the greatest collective tragedies in human history, and it deserves further study and research. It comes as no surprise that there appeared a whole discipline titled Moriscology; considered with the study of this tragedy.

International Congress on Moriscos in Granada: History of a Minority (May 16th)

Today marked the end of the international congress ‘The Moriscos: History of a Minority’, organized in Granada by El Legado Andalusí Foundation. The event marked the 400th anniversary of the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain in 1609 through an infamous decree by Felipe III.
Between 1609 and 1614, over 300,000 moriscos were kicked out, starting with the morisco community of Valencia, followed by that of Andalusia, Catalonia, Aragon, Castilla, Extramadura and Murcia. These moriscos, it has to be said, were not ‘Arabs’ or ‘Berbers’…they were natives (because after some nine centuries -of their arrival at the Iberian Peninsula- and around 36 generations, you cannot be anything else!).

They were kicked out simply because they were ‘different’. They had a different faith, spoke a different language and dressed in a different way. They were accused of:
– Practicing Islam (and black magic) in secret;
– Disrespecting the Church and its symbols;
– Conspiring with the Ottoman Empire against Spain;
– Failing to ‘integrate’ into Spain.

The congress was a simple tribute to those people, their culture, their traditions, their struggle against oppression and, finally; their doomed fate. The congress also celebrated the legacy they left in the most unthinkable of places, like Peru!

The event saw the participation of professors, writers, researchers and enthusiasts from all over the world, and it was an honor to be present. Always proud about belonging to El Legado Andalusí.