Sketches of Spain: In Andalucia's Moorish Towns, There Is Hope for the Future of Islam in Europe
Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin, New Statesman (1996)
This July, we went to the Atlantic coast of Spain, to a beach area called El Palmar. It is situated between Trafalgar and Cadiz, two formidable symbols of European conflict and colonial competition. Huge breakers, strident and audacious, crash on the bay where Nelson vanquished the French and their Spanish allies in 1805. Thousands of men were killed or drowned in the battle, and then a day later a biblical storm took twice as many again. You can imagine the waves delivering their wasted bodies to shore for mourning.
Lusty, warring Europeans have shed so much blood over the centuries, at home and abroad. Cadiz is regal and rich with old spoils, Castilian Spain at its proudest, and vainest. This was the launch pad for raids into the New World and the Spanish empire. The Muslim rulers who had conquered and run much of Andalucia since 711 were seen off by this muscular, masculine Christian Europe.
The Moorish empire, like all other empires, was morally questionable and imposed on the native inhabitants. However, in the latter period Imperial Moors became quiet administrators keen on gardens, art, science, books, and on objects and buildings of intricate beauty. Women wrote poetry and learnt science; Christians and Jews coexisted in peace with Muslims. The poet and dramatist Frederico Garcia Lorca said it was "an admirable civilisation [with] a delicacy unique in the world". The American writer Washington Irving wrote: "Wherever [Moors] established a seat of power, it became a rallying place for the learned and ingenious--they softened and refined the people they conquered."
Many Muslims today regard that golden age of Islam in Europe with nostalgia: effete, some would say, not macho and brutish as the Moors would have needed to be to push back their foes. Internal enmities and devious plots also weakened the ruling class. When the Moorish ruler, Boabdil conceded defeat in Granada in 1492, his mother, Aisha, spat at him and said: "Weep like a woman for what you couldn't defend like a man."
The taking of Granada, which was witnessed by Christopher Columbus, was the final victory in the Reconquista. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella re-established the Catholic order, with force and some cruelty. But they couldn't quite wipe away the centuries of Moorish presence. Although the Andalucian diet is defiantly full of pig meat, Arabic place names, irrigation systems, gardens and cultural influences are still in evidence, quietly subverting Christian Spain.
Up a small mountain not far from Trafalgar is the whitewashed town of Vejer de la Frontera, surrounded by an old Moorish fort. On the narrow streets you see life-sized cardboard cut-outs of women clad in black burkas. An old man we met told us that all the women in Vejer wore the burka until the mid 1930s. He showed us grainy photographs of the time and it looked like a street in Kandahar.
For me, Granada and Seville are two of the three most beautiful cities in Europe. Venice is the other--also profoundly influenced by Islamic forms and colours. …