Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The Afterlife of al-Andalus [1] examines medieval Muslim Iberia, or al-Andalus, in twentieth and twenty-first century narrative, drama, television and film from the Arab world and its diaspora, as well as from Spain and Argentina. My focus in this book is on the role of contemporary representations and invocations of al-Andalus in relation to questions of cultural translation, postcolonial identity construction, empire, migration, gender, sexuality, metafiction and tolerance.

Traditionally the invocation of al-Andalus has been understood as a purely nostalgic gesture, and more recently as a reenactment of medieval conflict. On one hand, this study establishes that al-Andalus is indeed a key element in narratives of identity and that paying attention to the rhetoric and symbolism employed reveals how various types of oppression are reiterated. On the other hand, this inquiry reveals that many writers and filmmakers depart from traditional invocations of al-Andalus and creatively reinterpret the past. These reworkings of iconic figures critique sociopolitical issues—such as lack of freedom of expression, dictatorial rule, gender and sexual oppression, labor migration and economic disparities, restrictive religious and nationalist ideologies, and postcolonial identity politics—to imagine new migrant and gendered identities and different types of cultural integration, and point to the richness of al-Andalus as a story that can be retold. In short, these works reveal and transform concepts of cultural, religious and gender identity that are the foundation of traditional discourses about al-Andalus, and Arab, Maghrebi, Spanish and Argentine identities, as well as East–West relations at large. Al-Andalus is not a fixed history of conquest and re-conquest but a site of creativity, a story that can be re-created to imagine better, more tolerant futures.

One of the bridges between Latin American and Middle East studies included in The Afterlife of al-Andalus is that of Arab migration to Latin America. My interest in contemporary versions of al-Andalus grew out of my first book, Between Argentines and Arabs: Argentine Orientalism, Arab Immigrants, and the Writing of Identity. [2] In the course of that research I came across a few works by immigrants from the Levant to Argentina (as well as by Euro-Argentines) that represented or alluded to al-Andalus, which inspired me to analyze them within the broader corpus of texts engaging with al-Andalus. Additionally, through Iberian literature, legends and sayings, al-Andalus is part of the cultural heritage of Latin America. In a sense, the Arab world holds up one end of this bridge that traverses Spain, and Latin America supports the other end. Another set of links between the Middle East and Latin America that this book addresses, however, is a network of bridges—the slanted bridges of empire—that unite areas of the global South in their shared experience of being conquered by the Spanish empire and, more broadly, by the geopolitical power of the North. The Afterlife of al-Andalus attends to continuities in imperial power relations, as well as the interactions between various empires and world systems, and between various colonized communities across the globe and across historical periods.

The Spanish Reconquista (718–1492) resulted in the shrinking of the Muslim empire and the expansion of the Christian Castilian empire, a process that was propelled forward by Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. For these reasons, themes of power, conquest, religious and linguistic difference and loss are an integral part of narratives about al-Andalus. Many of these narratives tell the story of nostalgia for a lost position of power or, on the part of the Spanish, the loss of a European identity conceived of as pure and authentic—al-Andalus in this case is used to create exclusionary imperial and national identities. Alongside these established narratives, however, there are alternate discourses about the legacy of al-Andalus that rewrite the traditional narratives. In the process, these discourses critique the imperial and gendered dimensions of the al-Andalus story and pursue intercultural translation.

The book focuses on texts that refer to a set of specific cultural icons, the historical and legendary figures that are most prominent and recur most frequently in the corpus of modern creative works on al-Andalus. The first part, “Cultural (Un)translatability and Narratives of Identity in Representations of Ibn Rushd/Averroes,” centers on the medieval Cordoban polymath Ibn Rushd, known in European languages as Averroes, and foregrounds attitudes regarding the potential for cultural translation. Part two, “To and From al-Andalus: Migration and Coloniality,” examines figures who are known for their movement in and out of al-Andalus such as the initial Muslim conqueror Tariq ibn Ziyad, the exiled last Muslim ruler Abu Abd Allah or Boabdil, and modern-day immigrants. This part emphasizes transcoloniality, which is a term I propose that brings to the fore the nature of enduring colonial power relations as temporally layered and having multiple origins and axes. The third part, “Florinda, Wallada, and Scheherazade, or the Women of al-Andalus and the Stories They Tell,” examines representations of the two most famous women of al-Andalus and focuses on women as storytellers and al-Andalus as narrative. Each part consists of two interrelated chapters.

Chapter one, “Borges and His Arab Interlocutors: Orientalism, Translation, and Epistemology,” is a comparative analysis centered on the short story “La busca de Averroes” (“Averroes’s Search,” 1947) by the renowned Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges. I assert that Borges’ “La busca” demonstrates elements of Orientalism and precludes cross-cultural contact. Furthermore, I explain how the responses of two early twenty-first century short stories, Moroccan Abdelfattah Kilito’s “Du balcon d’Averroès” (“Concerning Averroes’s Balcony”) and Iraqi Jabbar Yassin Hussin’s “Yawm Buenos Aires” (“The Buenos Aires Day”), make Borges’ search more complex and successful. In modern Hispanic and Arab-Maghrebian literature, Ibn Rushd functions as an icon of cultural (un)translatability. I argue that what matters most is not determining whether ideas can, in the abstract, be translated but how and why the potential for translation is deemed to be hampered or enabled. What are the assumptions that underpin understandings of what can and cannot be successfully translated into another context? In Borges’ story, underlying concepts of reason and the radical otherness of “the East” are what create a barrier to cross-cultural understanding.

Kilito’s story promotes a de-romanticized openness to cultural contact, in contrast to Borges’ foreclosed cultural contact. Kilito’s form of cultural connection is aware of postcolonial sociopolitical hierarchies, but avoids anchoring identity in a single language. Kilito’s dream-based story presents the ironies, paradoxes and mediations of language and the multiplicity of interpretations which spring from these hierarchies. Hussin’s story responds to Borges’ ambiguously Orientalist depiction of Ibn Rushd with a fantastic tale in which Ibn Rushd travels through time and space to meet Borges in Buenos Aires. Hussin responds to Borges’ portrayal of Ibn Rushd as a symbol of cultural separation and inability to create meaning with an Ibn Rushd that symbolizes cultural connection and the endless possibilities of signification. The two literary responses to Borges bring up issues of postcolonial identity and assert the possibility of intercultural dialogue through other forms of signification and identity construction.

The second chapter, “Ibn Rushd and Freedom of Expression: The Construction and Fragmentation of Identity Narratives,” examines a more indirect textual dialogue between three works that portray Ibn Rushd: an Egyptian film, a Spanish television screenplay and a Tunisian play. The three works share a concern with constraints on freedom of expression in the face of censorship and the fashioning of narratives of identity and truth. In addition to presenting Ibn Rushd as a champion of rationalism who supports the compatibility of secularism and Islam—that is, as a bridge-building figure to be emulated—the three works reveal the limits of narratives of cultural identity. The challenge, which is played out in these representations of Ibn Rushd, is how to acknowledge mediation by language and cultural positioning without adopting a narrative of antagonism—a belief in an inevitable clash of cultures—and how to build tolerance and equity within mediated, partial knowledge. The existence of this textual dialogue in and of itself supports the possibility of meaningful cultural contact: not a facile, idealized vision of convivencia (the idea that Muslims, Christians and Jews coexisted peacefully in medieval Spain) or of Muslim supremacy, but a careful negotiation that considers how knowledge is constructed.

In part two of the book, chapters three and four and a coda delve into the core narratives of identity and truth that are part of the legacy of al-Andalus by examining three historical figures pivotal in the physical movement and power dynamics between Iberia, North Africa and the Americas. This section reveals that Arab and Hispanic cultural production links these figures to various migration flows from the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries. Chapter three, “The Migration of a Hero: The Construction and Deconstruction of Tariq ibn Ziyad,” centers on representations of the military general of Amazigh (also known as Berber) origin who started the Muslim conquest of Iberia. Traditional representations of Tariq from the Middle East and North Africa emphasize his identity as a Muslim and the glory of the Muslim empire. In the process, Tariq’s probable non-Arab identity and the subjugation of the Amazigh peoples are erased. Since the mid-twentieth century, Tariq has been the topic of several literary works from the Middle East and North Africa region and its diaspora. The analysis of these texts identifies significant temporal and regional differences between romanticizing triumphalist narratives and narratives that demythify Tariq by linking him to other conquests and to contemporary labor migration from the global South into Europe.

While Hispanic cultural production has shown little interest in Tariq, there has been a veritable obsession with Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of the Emirate of Granada. Chapter four, “Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad XII (Boabdil) and Other Migrants,” examines works ranging from the 1926 novel Zogoibi (a nickname for Boabdil, from the Arabic for “unfortunate one”) by Argentine Enrique Larreta, to the 1990 Spanish miniseries Réquiem por Granada (Requiem for Granada) and popular historical novels produced in Spain since the 1990s. Parallel to the trends found in the works on Tariq, these Boabdil-centered works exhibit a temporal shift from experimentation in the 1970s and 1980s to traditionalism in the 1990s and beyond. The twentieth and twenty-first century Spanish representations of Boabdil mostly take their cue from the Romantic writers and craft the last Moorish king of Granada as a weak, melancholic figure who affirms Spanish power. Similarly, in the Argentine novel Zogoibi, the protagonist is identified with Boabdil due to his weakness and tragic end. Throughout the novel, al-Andalus’s encounter between Arabs/Amazighs/Muslims and Iberians/Christians is used as an analogy for the encounters between Argentina’s indigenous, mestizo gaucho, Spanish, European and North American elements. In this way, the novel uses al-Andalus to comment upon the tensions inherent in Argentine nation-building. One of these tensions is the arrival of foreigners understood as a threat to Argentine authenticity.

Arabic speakers from the Levant had been immigrating to Argentina for several decades before the publication of
Zogoibi. One such immigrant, Ilyas Qunsul, arrived in Argentina a few years after the publication of Zogoibi and decades later invoked a similarly tragic Boabdil in his 1980 essay in Arabic, The Tragedy of Arabic in the American Mahjar (place of exile or migration). In this essay, Qunsul laments the disappearance of Arabic in Argentina and employs the legend of “the Moor’s last sigh” to urge Arabs in the Arab world to support the Arabic-language mahjar press. Like Qunsul’s essay, many of the texts about Boabdil use migration to reveal the falsehoods of triumphalist narratives (whether Christian or Muslim) about Muslim Iberia and to open the way to shared narratives of al-Andalus.

The last section of part two, “Coda: Columbus and Coloniality,” considers another border-crosser who often appears in tandem with Boabdil, who was the catalyst for large-scale European conquests and connects al-Andalus to the Americas: Christopher Columbus. I compare the representations of Columbus in late twentieth and early twenty-first century works from Spain, North Africa and Syria and consider the early twenty-first century phenomenon of US Hispanic converts to Islam and their invocations of al-Andalus. These discourses emphasize not only the destructiveness and ephemeralness of empire and the persistence of the disenfranchisement of immigrants from the global South but also the possibilities for imagining and establishing new realities.

In part three, the final chapters reflect on women as an integral part of the conquest narrative by looking at issues of gender, sexuality and storytelling. Chapter 5, “Florinda and Wallada: Subjugation, Seduction, and Textual Transformation,” considers the two women most frequently associated with al-Andalus. Florinda is the legendary figure whose rape or seduction is said to have led to the Muslim conquest of Iberia, and Wallada is an eleventh century poet who was the daughter of the penultimate Umayyid ruler of Cordoba. Florinda and Wallada are portrayed in a plethora of twentieth and twenty-first century texts from Spain and the Arab world. An analysis of these works show that the representations of Florinda and Wallada, although varied, ultimately result in the silencing of female agency. Nonetheless, I identify two significant exceptions to this in the form of two novels about Wallada, written by a Spaniard and a Syrian, which use the mythology of al-Andalus to reflect on the myth-making process itself and offer alternate narratives about al-Andalus and its women.

Chapter six, “Scheherazade: al-Andalus as Seduction and as Story,” further explores the workings and uses of narrative in texts from Iraq and Egypt that address al-Andalus more broadly. By focusing on the transformative power of storytelling, including storytelling as survival and al-Andalus as a narrative, these texts suggest a Scheherazade figure who recasts conceptions of gender and al-Andalus. In these works women function as storytellers—not just the objects of narrative—and use storytelling to create equity and cultural resilience. The narratives constitute an imaginative departure from both discourses of restorative nostalgia and forced exile and the versions of al-Andalus that replay East–West conquest through romantic and sexual relationships.

Around the globe, concerns about strained interfaith relations have led to efforts to find more successful models, such as those deemed present in medieval Muslim Iberia. The conclusion of The Afterlife of al-Andalus considers recent critiques of the concept of tolerance, including how some types of tolerance, characterized by one party offering forbearance to another who is understood to be of lesser standing, are themselves implicated in structures of oppressive power. Yet critics of tolerance also point to how the disruption of competing ideologies, expressed through narrative, often reveals unexpected commonalities. Re-writing the myths surrounding Muslim Iberia activates al-Andalus’s potential for creating a deeper tolerance built upon equity and understanding.

Endnotes

[1] Christina Civantos, The Afterlife of al-Andalus: Muslim Iberia in Contemporary Arab and Hispanic Narratives (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017).
[2] Christina Civantos, Between Argentines and Arabs: Argentine Orientalism, Arab Immigrants, and the Writing of Identity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006).

How to cite this article:

Christina Civantos "The Afterlife of al-Andalus: Muslim Iberia in Contemporary Arab and Hispanic Narratives," Middle East Report 284/285 (Winter 2017).
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