Academic journal article TriQuarterly

The Making of Strangers: Muslims, Jews, and the Other 1492

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

The Making of Strangers: Muslims, Jews, and the Other 1492

Article excerpt

As a child of the Arab world, I was given a touched-up version of the history of al-Andalus, a fabled time of Muslim splendor in the Iberian Peninsula. A brilliant Arab-Judeo culture had flowered there, Arab history taught. A poet of our time, the Syrian-born Nizar Qabbani who had written Arabic poetry's most moving verse, had once remarked that while on a visit to Granada he had roamed its streets while searching his pockets for the keys to its houses. A hill overlooking that enchanting city had summed up the Muslim grief over its loss: El Ultimo Sospiro del Moro, the Moor's Last Sigh. On that ridge, the storytellers say, Boabdil, the last king of Granada, had paused to catch a final glimpse of his lost realm. Boabdil's unsentimental mother is said to have taunted him during his moment of grief. "You should weep like a woman for the land you could not defend like a man." The fall of the city had taken place on January 2, 1492.

It was not in Granada, but further north, in Madrid, in late 1991, that the cult of al-Andalus came back to me, a good many years after quitting Beirut, the city of my boyhood. I had come to Madrid with a television network to witness and comment on a grand diplomatic spectacle that American diplomacy had assembled in the aftermath of the first American-led campaign against Saddam Hussein. The occasion was scripted, few things were left to chance. This was taking place amid the retrospectives, and the celebration and the rampant revisionism of the Quincentennial of Columbus's voyage of discovery. It was a good "venue," the innocent said of Madrid, the right place for Muslims and Jews to come together. They had built a world of tolerance, it was said, and they had shared a similar fate--banishment and expulsion in the very same year, the year Columbus set sail for the New World. This history had its complications: a portrait of Charles V slaughtering the Moors was hurriedly removed from Madrid's Royal Palace, the conference's site. Then Yitzhak Shamir, the Prime Minister of Israel, a man with no eagerness to please, allowed himself a remembrance of what had happened in Spain: "In its two thousand years of wandering, the Jewish people paused here for several hundred years until they were expelled five hundred years ago. It was in Spain that the great Jewish poet and philosopher Yehuda Halevi expressed the yearning for Zion of all Jews, in the words, 'My heart is in the East while I am in the uttermost West.'"

This was an evocation of "the other 1492," which ran parallel to Columbus's voyage to the New World. If Granada had fallen on January 2, the "Edict of Expulsion" of Spain's Jews was issued on March 31. It gave the Jews a grace period of four months: they were ordered to quit their land by the end of July. By a twist of fate, and due to the pleas of one of Iberian Jewry's most influential courtiers of Ferdinand and Isabella, Don Isaac Abravanel, they were given a reprieve of two days. Don Isaac had pleaded for his people's right to stay, but it was to no avail. The ships bearing them to exile left Spanish waters on the second of August. This "fleet of woe and misery," the historian Samuel Eliot Morison has written, was to sail parallel to a "fleet of high promise." Christopher Columbus's fleet was ready for sea on the second of August. The men received their communion at the Church of St. George in Palos on that day. The Captain General set sail in the dawn hours of the next day.

Three destinies were being forged: the expulsion of the Jews and the Muslims and Spain's high adventure in the New World. Those in Madrid, in 1991, had they known the history, could have heard both the Moor's Last Sigh and the pleading by Don Isaac to Ferdinand of Aragon and to Isabelle of Castile, that fell on deaf ears. For those in the know, these two tales of banishment had been linked, seen as a bond, between Muslims and Jews. It was in that vein that Yasser Arafat, four years after Madrid, in 1995, and then in the middle of a brief reconciliation with Israel, would evoke that history. …

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