Tunisia's Andalusian Heritage
Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review
IT was back in the mid-1980s that I drove to [Qal.sup.c]at el-Andles in search of the remains of the Spanish Muslims who had been forcefully evicted from the Iberian peninsula. Stopping our auto, I asked a passerby, 'I want to speak to someone who knows the history of this village. Is there anyone?' The man looked at me inquisitively. 'Go to the town's coffee-house and ask for Sidi al-Bakr al-Andalusi. He is the historian of our village'. In a few minutes we were in the coffee-house talking to al-Andalusi, a professor of literature in the University of Tunis. I was excited as I introduced myself, then continued, 'I have come to search for traces of the Arab-Andalusians in this country. Do you know of anything that has remained pointing to these Muslim Spaniards?'
As Sidi al-Bakr talked a smile crossed his face, 'Note my name and the name of this town. Are they not indicative of that past? Look at the people round you. Do they not exhibit strains from the north? Although in the last few years many of our people have moved to Tunis and other Tunisians have moved here, as you see, the majority still appears as if their fathers come from al-Andalus (the Arab name of Moorish Spain) only yesterday'. He continued, 'If you search the root of their family names you will find they are as Spanish as any Spaniard'. Smiling, he went on, 'Even many of our dishes still carry the touch of Andalusia'. Pointing to a woman passing by, he went on, 'Look at that women's attire! Note how it differs from other Tunisian dresses! I believe this is the clothing once worn by the Arab women in Andalusia'.
Al-Andalusi was not romanticising about the influence of the Andalusian Muslims left in Tunisia, but only relating historic facts. As the Christian armies, little by little, occupied Arab Spain, many Andalusian Muslims, rather than live under the Christian yoke, fled and settled all the way from Morocco to Tunisia. In that era the Arab Muslims who were fleeing Spain, were scientifically, economically and intellectually more advanced than both the Christian West and Muslim East. A great number of these fleeing refugees came to Tunisia and enriched the country with their introduction of capital, refined way of life and new technologies in the fields of architecture, manufacturing and agriculture.
In The History of the Maghrib, Ralph Mantheim states that the Andalusians introduced court etiquette, formalism and diplomacy into North African society. Also, they revolutionized the whole concept of politics, relaxing its ties with society and religion. Unlike most Muslims of that time, they regarded religion as a private concern - a far cry from the view held in the countries of Christian Europe and the Muslim East.
From the time of the fall of Cordoba and Seville in the middle of the thirteenth century until 1609, the Spanish-Arab Muslims came to North Africa in unbroken waves. As many as 150,000 of these refugees, in the span of 350 years, made Tunisia their home. However, only the educated and wealthy could afford the hazard of such a long trip to rebuild their lives in a new domain.
In 1609, when the Spaniards expelled all the Moriscos (Spanish Christians who were former Muslims, but not trusted by the church) approximately 80,000 came in a single year. Unlike the previous exiles these new refugees were mostly peasants who, although they were at that time the best farmers in the world, were only semi-literate. After one hundred years of forced conversion and persecution they had lost much of the refined way of living enjoyed by their ancestors.
They came to Tunisia, skipping Morocco and Algeria, at the invitation and with the help of the ruling Dey who was having problems with his neighbours. He wished to make his country strong, knowing that the Andalusians' advanced farming methods would enrich his land. When they reached his domains, he settled them along the Medjerda River, the most fertile part of Tunisia. …