Notes From the Margins…

Of Moors and Gypsies

  • June 10, 2013
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I’ve just come back from Spain, where I spent a fabulous week leading a group of 18 walkers around the Axarquia mountain range in Andalusia.   The village where we stayed was located about an hour from Malaga, just inland from Torre del Mar, one of several   ‘white villages’ in the area left over from the Moorish era.

The traces of al-Andalus are still evident in many of these villages, amid the estate agencies catering to foreign second or first homeowners, the cafes, bars and restaurants.   There are the narrow twisting streets, the endless names of Arabic origin, the   minarets with Mudejar architectural motifs that were rebuilt as churches in the sixteenth century, the frequent references to the Moorish period contained in the touristic promotion of the area, the faux arches and the tiles containing idyllic pictures of a lost Arabian-nights style Iberian idyll.

Some of this recalls the older sentimentalised version of Moorish Spain by eighteenth and nineteenth century travelers like Washington Irving and Richard Fletcher – all flowing robes, dancing maidens and wise, wizened old men.     Entirely absent from any of this were any references to Spain’s long history of prejudice and intolerance, and its ruthless extirpation of its Jewish and Muslim minorities in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

You might think this absence is natural enough.   After all, tourists don’t like to be reminded of forced population expulsions, the Inquisition and the auto da fe, the persecution of Jews and the forcibly converted Muslims known as Moriscos, and the extreme manifestations of Christian bigotry and chauvinism that once regarded the eradication of Iberian   Jewry and Islam as a form of religious purification.

Such things aren’t pleasant to think about, and certainly aren’t part of the ‘Spain is different’ message that the Franco regime once astutely cultivated in order to attract foreign visitors and foreign money, and which has subsequently been continued by his successors.       Gypsies and flamenco were part of this process, regardless of the fact that Gypsies have always been a marginalized and frequently persecuted minority in Spain, and the promotion of Moorish Spain reflects the same tendency.

Franco might have cited Ferdinand and Isabella as his ideological inspiration, but he recognized that foreigners expected certain things about Spain, in addition to sun and sangria.

On one level you could argue that Spain’s willingness to embrace its Moorish past, even in its more kitschy manifestations, is a sign of how far Spanish society has moved on from the days when it regarded that past with shame and contempt – to say nothing of a period that is still within living memory in which Basques and Catalans were forbidden to speak their own languages and ordered to ‘speak the language of empire.’

But I can’t help feeling, especially in these times, when the ‘Muslim enemy’ is being evoked as the alien antithesis of ‘Europe’ that the remembrance of Islamic Spain should – and could – consist of more than a colorful background to a summer holiday.

Spain is not the only country that has attempted to transform tepid and idealised versions of peoples and cultures it has oppressed and destroyed into harmless spectacles of exoticism.     Similar intentions lay behind the ‘human zoo’ phenomenon of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when Africans and indigenous peoples from Latin America were brought to Europe to provide ‘authentic’ entertainment and pseudo-education for European visitors.     The same process has underpinned representations of Native Americans in the United States and Bedouin in Israel.

But Spain really pioneered many of the forms of cultural destruction that would later became intrinsic to Western colonialism, both inside the Iberian peninsula and during its ‘discovery’ of Latin America.

Yet in all my travels around the country however, I have yet to see any public commemoration of this history, and the villages of the Axarquia are no exception.   In the village of Archez, there is even a quote from Luis del Mármol Carvajal, the chronicler of the vicious ‘War of the Alpujarras’ in 1568, when the Moriscos of Granada rose up in rebellion following Philip II’s incredibly repressive edict that effectively ordered them to disappear.

To say that Mármol Carvajal was no friend of the Moriscos would be something of an understatement.     But there are his words on the wall, pleasantly evoking the lost world of Muslim farmers and agriculturalists whose destruction he supported and approved of, with no accompanying explanation of what happened to that world.

Anyone reading it, and observing the beautiful minaret opposite, would be forgiven for believing that the Muslims of Archez simply packed their bags and left because they got tired of Andalusia.     When in fact they were driven out, because Spain succumbed to the same combination of bigotry, paranoia and prejudice that is currently percolating – admittedly in a very different form – through many European countries.

And in these circumstances, it would be refreshing to see some kind of recognition of those events in the ‘Moorish’ villages and neighbourhoods that make Spain ‘different’ – even if it was nothing more than a simple plaque.





  1. Nik H.

    11th Jun 2013 - 1:18 pm

    Willkommen zurück Herr Matt! 😉

    Glad you are back!

    • Matt

      12th Jun 2013 - 9:43 am

      Thanks Nik! Good to be back! Not too much Internet coverage where I was…or much time.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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