Book Review: Al-Andalus Rediscovered: Iberia’s New Muslims

Marvine Howe. Al-Andalus Rediscovered: Iberia's New Muslims. London: Hurst and Co., 2012. (A US edition is available from Oxford University Press USA.)

For medievalist readers, especially for medievalist readers with more than a passing interest in how medieval Spain functions as a trope in the modern world, Marvine Howe’s Al-Andalus Rediscovered: Iberia’s New Muslims, falls far short of the seductive promise of its title. By and large a reported social history of the poorest and most desperate Muslim immigrants to Spain and Portugal, the book studies a the population that hardly views its migration to the Iberian Peninsula as part of a recreation of a medieval myth; it’s a group of men and women just trying to get by in a world where Andalusi fantasies are a luxury. The book is interesting if not superbly well-written — it could have stood one more serious round of editing for style, for transliteration, and for the slightly unidiomatic international-English koine adopted subconsciously over time by foreign correspondents and academics. But it is not really what it claims to be.

Neo-medieval kitsch.
Neo-medieval kitsch.

The book is, in effect, a very long-form reported journalistic feature story about the status of Muslim immigrants to Spain and Portugal and the kinds of institutions that have grown up to support their integration, as well as the institutional and personal resistance that integration has faced. Both in chapters on the literate, educated, skilled immigrants who have had the greatest role in building up Islamic institutions in the Iberian Peninsula and those on the less-educated and unskilled ones from Islamic countries directly across the Strait of Gibraltar and from ones that were formerly part of the Spanish and Portuguese empires a bit farther afield, the book is largely focused on the integration of immigrants into a new civil society. That they are Muslims in a nominally Catholic country is secondary to the socio-economics of the situation, and that the concept of convivencia in its term-of-art, Jews-Christians-Muslims sense might be a productive, or at least provocative, lens through which to view this anthroposcape, are both very secondary considerations.

There are the obligatory references to the renewed optimism about religious toleration and integration brought about by the 500th anniversary of the fall of Granada in 1992 and to Osama bin Laden’s claim that he wanted to restore the caliphate as far as al-Andalus. But with the exception of one lament-for-the-city-style Friday sermon transcribed out in the book (p.115) there is little sense of a historical cognizance amongst the people living day-to-day in what used to be al-Andalus. Nor does the book offer the possibility of that kind of cognizance to the reader; staying with the same example, there is no indication of how that sermon fits into a long tradition of literary laments over the loss of al-Andalus. So, too, when Howe writes about the troubles that the Muslim communities of Granada faced when they tried to build a mosque, troubles that echoed the historic precedent of limiting the construction of minority-religious houses of worship to a shorter height than those of the majority religion, a precedent that was enforced against mosques in periods of Christian rule and against churches in periods of Islamic rule. Howe is far more interested in in the intracommunal squabbling amongst Granada’s two main Muslim factions (one of which is part of a larger movement called the Murabiṭūn (p. 128 and following), a term that goes uncommented despite its watershed significance in Andalusi history) than she is in the historic Andalusi precedent for the troubles that they faced, for this kind of unfortunate and inadvertent rediscovery of the tensions, and not just the dream, of al-Andalus.

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The modern Friday mosque in Granada.

It is also worth noting that mistakes in terminology and etymology — she explains erroneously that marrano, a derogatory term applied to Jewish converts, is the Hebrew word for swine when it is in fact a perfectly good and obviously Spanish word with that meaning — reinforce the reader’s sense that the book could never have achieved what it set out to be for lack of historical and linguistic contextualization.

At the same time, the disjunct between the title and the content of the book is, in and of itself an interesting indication of the power of the mythic al-Andalus in the popular imagination: somebody in the publishing house obviously thought that throwing that name into the title of a book that’s not really about that at all would attract readers, and that somebody can’t just have had six medievalists in mind as that target demographic. Even though the text of the book does not demonstrate it, the production of the volume at least says a little something about the appeal of the concept.

There are other problems, too, besides the let-down of getting past the title. Howe very much casts Spain as the villain and Portugal as the hero in terms of their treatment of Muslim immigrants; as a medievalist it is difficult for me to assess the extent of the truth in that vision, but anyone trained to read chronicles as something deeper than spy-vs-spy, the consistent cheering on of the Portuguese efforts and the condemnation of the Spanish ones raises a note of skepticism. I have no illusions about the capacity of Spanish society to be unwelcoming to foreigners and to the minorities in its midst, but as a scholar I have trouble believing a narrative that casts Spain as the unrelenting villain and Portugal as the great white hope.

Ultimately, it is those rigid distinctions between categories that sunder the book for what it is, and not just for what it might have been but failed to be. Many of Howe’s interviewees consistently distinguish between Spaniards, Jews, and Muslims, and she adopts that distinction uncritically and even uncommented. One of the non-governmental organizations profiled published a position paper encouraging “acceptance by Spaniards of the history of Muslim Spain as their own history” (126) but there appears to be no follow through, in real life or in the book. She lets comments like “we don’t pray to the same god” (179) slide even though it would offer an opportunity to introduce the concept of a single Abrahamic god so crucial to the kind of civil society and religious cultures to which she wishes to hearken back. It was especially shocking to me to see the head of the Madrid Jewish community himself distinguish between Spaniards and Jews, as though one cannot be Spanish and a Jew: “Israel Garzón, a youthful sixty-five, told me that I had not seen many Jews in my travels because they are well integrated… they look Spanish and speak Spanish” (171). Was Howe expecting to find Spanish Jews speaking Hebrew? Not even the Jews who lived in medieval Spain spoke Hebrew as an every-day language. Truly disappointing, though, to see Howe sign on to that distinction over and over again — another interviewee informs a credulous Howe that “the majority of Muslims are not radical, just as the majority of Spaniards accept diversity” (198) — rather than interrogate or unpack it. It is a terminological problem that reflects the issues right at the heart of the question of convivencia and of the promise and problems of the communal historic memory of al-Andalus. The notion that a Jew or a Muslim cannot be a Spaniard, that there is some inherent difference between the two that must be ferreted out, dates back to the fourteenth century and is, at its core, deeply inquisitorial. (For more on this, see David Nirenberg’s relatively new Neighboring Faiths.) A reporter writing about religion and culture should be more sensitive to that and a book premised upon the reinvention of al-Andalus in the modern world must be cognizant of it.

I had chosen to read this book as a possible text for my seminar on medieval Spain in modern fiction; my hope was that I could use it to offer students context on how al-Andalus functions as a significant trope in the contemporary world. It will not serve that purpose. This coming year I will also be leading a section of the Presidential Honors Scholars program here at NYU on religious conflict and coexistence in Spain. The program is designed to be research enrichment for students with top standing in the sophomore class, ultimately leading to their pursuit of research grants and writing honors theses when they are seniors. This may prove to be a useful book in that context, though. It will give the honors students some basic sense of the current state of Muslim immigrants in Spain and Portugal, and will also be an instructive model for how not to write about some of the thornier cultural problems that they find (or, crucially, do not) themselves facing in contemporary Spain.

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