Monday, July 19, 2004

Hawks, Honey, Saints & Savages

The Gothic King Rodrigo became emphatuated by a beautiful girl named Florinda. Such was the Kings obsession, that each day he looked on from behind the bushes as Florinda, daughter of a southern Governor, bathed herself in the local river. However one morning, overcome by desire Rodrigo took her on the river bank.
Some time later, unaware that his secret was known, Rodrigo asked her father to send a hawk from his southern lands. In response, the governor promised to send hawks the like of which his king had never seen.....but little did people know that the hawks he spoke of were Los Moors whom he invited to help him in seeking revenge. And thus began the most decisive chapter in Spanish History. As did the fear, disdain and paranoia of Muslim invaders which has survived until this very day.

That very little has changed since the time of Rodrigo, the Royal Peeping Tom, was shown by the writer Gerald Brenan who moved to Spain in 1919. He found that when he described his experiences in the World War I trenches, the entire village assumed that he was of course six centuries later, still fighting that universal enemy....Los Moros !! Only in the aftermath of the March 11 attacks did I become fully aware of this enduring national syndrome, when more than once I listened to friends say how Al Qaeda have claimed Spain as Muslim territory. This notion was futher confounded by the arrest of up to fifteen suspects, all of whom are of Moroccan nationality or descent. True as this Al Qaeda statement may be, I have yet to hear it from an official source. However such conversations serve to highlight that in present day Spain, the paranoia of an Arab threat is still very alive in the public mind. It is a fear that is also perfectly reflected in their language with the phrase, "the coast is clear" being translated to Spanish as, "There are no Moors on the Coastline ".

The term Los Moros (Moors) refers to all Arab Muslims who conquered the Iberian Peninsula. Coming mainly from the area of present day Algeria and Morocco, they at first were slow to invade as unaccostumed to sea they felt more comfortable in the desert, an ocean where no oar is dipped. However they eventually crossed the 12km strait in 711 AD, naming both Gibraltar and the town of Tarifa after their leaders. Their immediate awe for this new territory is nicely explained by an old Muslim legend which says that when Allah was dealing out good and bad, each place was given five wishes. Al Andalus (the name of Moorish Spain) asked for a clear sky, a beautiful sea full of fish, ripe fruit and beautiful women. All were granted except the fifth wish which was for good goverment, as this would have created paradise on earth.

Nowadays the term Moro is perhaps the strongest insult that a Spaniard will use against another person. This for me is truly ironic given that Los Moros left an indisputable legacy that for a huge part shaped what is now considered the Spanish identity. Included in the Moorish baggage was vital knowledge for the early social development of Spain such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy and alchemy. Amongst the things we think characterstic of traditional Spain but in actual fact introduced by the Moors are Saffron, Oranges, Lemons, Peaches, Fig and Apricot, aswell as the infamous Gaspacho soup. Also imported was the tiled patio, horseshoe arch and floral decoration of clothing while Moorish song is even regarded as one of the roots of modern day Flamenco. However most important of all was an instrument known as the Lute which later developed into what is now the guitar.

The entire Iberian peninsula was swallowed up by the Moors except for the northern province of Asturias and the Basque Country. Los Moros saw little use for the Basque territory, a land inhabited by beasts, which yet again remained apart from the rest of the peninsula. However Asturias, unconquered by the Muslim invaders, quickly became the safe haven for Christian refugees. It is in acknowledgment of this role that Asturias was named the "Cradle of the Nation", while nowadays "Prince of Asturias" is the title given to the heir to the Spanish throne. Furthermore, those of you who always assumed that the dark Spanish complexion can be attributed to a large amount of sunshine should think again. When the Moors invaded they brought no women with them, meaning that the entire next generation was already half Spanish. Such was the mixing of blood that many Moorish leaders had to dye their hair black in an attempt to look the part. Meanwhile today, those of undefeated Asturias continue to be of celtic colouring, with even the odd handsome redhead appearing every now and again !! Such heroic resistence by Asturias is also the reason that Spain is not a Muslim nation today, for it was here that the Reconquista against Los Moros first began. The Reconquest was originally started by a man named Pelayo, who along with 30 survivors had fled to the Asturian mountains where they lived on honey. It was from here that Pelayo led his band of savages to the first Christian victory in 722 AD . Amazingly for some people this still seems to be of great relevance, as only last week in a heated classroom debate, the opinion of a Granada native was dismissed as being typical from someone from the Re-conquested territory. Given this attitude it is therefore unsurprising that Prince Filipe plans to name his first born, Pelayo, after the man to whom they will always be indebted for helping to rid their land of those Infidel Muslims.

Of course every war has its heroes and Christian Spain found theirs in form of El Cid. The Moors lay in absolute fear of this man whose real name was Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar. It was a Muslim prophesy that " If a Rodrigo it was who lost Spain, another Rodrigo will restore it ", and to many Moors, this is exactly what EL Cid was fulfilling. Such was the Moorish dread of him that it is said that when he died, his body was clad for battle and propped on his horse. The attacking Moors, on spotting the feared warrior, panicked and immediately retreated. However the tale of this Spanish Che Guevara has some classic irony to it, for at one point EL Cid was exiled from his people, and then in true mercenary spirit this Immortalised Hero of Christian Spain went and fought for the Moors !!!

When Los Moros first invaded, all Christians were forced to flee north. However in time religious toleration developed with Christians and Jews allowed to practice as "people of the book" on the condition that they paid a tax on freedom of worship. Nevertheless huge numbers of Christians freely converted while others remained Christian in creed but Muslim in language and culture. In Toledo (capital city) the main church was used by Muslims on friday, Jews on saturday and Christians on Sunday. Despite this tolerance, religion always served as the official excuse for war during this era, and as can be expected it was due to an association with the Re-conqest that Santiago (Saint James) is now the Patron Saint of Spain. Often appearing to the leaders of the Christian armies in the hours before battle, he became an inspiration for their soldiers. Santiago was regarded as their special protector and as a result his full title is, St. James the Moor Slayer. To put this in perspective try and imagine the patron saint of Ireland being known as St. Patrick the Prod Killer ! It was also from Santiago that the famous Re-Conquest Knights of Saint James took their name. They wore white robes with a red cross emblazoned on their front and may well have been the first to mix business with pleasure, as they devoted themselves to the service of "God and the Ladies ". However cleanliness was considered next to holiness for the Muslims and as a result these Knights of St. James began to associate their lack of hygiene with goodness. With this being the case I m sure that the ladies of the time would have much preferred if their Knights concentrated soley on their prayers and piety. From this absurd behaviour sprang the Moorish saying that, Christians were sprinkled with water at birth which therefore excused them from having to wash for the rest of their lives.

Undoubtedly the epoch of Los Moros was a very traumatic period for Spain. This is not without reason as the Moors never caused anything other than bloodshed and anarchy. When not fighting the Christians, they resolved to fighting amongst themselves (perhaps the very reason that Asturias never fell). The Moors also had an insatiable desire for gold and booty and would stop at nothing to obtain it. In doing so they shattered the Roman legacy of peninsula unity, a mark that cursed the territory for years after. It is true that they brought with them magnificent architecture, but it is believed that for every beautiful building that they put up, they tore an equal down. It is due to the constant tree chopping and vegetation burning that the central La Mancha region of Spain is now nothing more than an underpopulated yellow desert, with all the minerals of the exposed earth washed away by centuries of rain. Nor did the Moors ever seem capable of proper organisation and with time their society degenerated more and more, eventually reaching the point where they hired outside mercenaries to do their fighting for them. Some theories place the blame for this on the Moorish Harem. One leader boasted a harem of 600 women while his father before him had 45 sons and 42 daughters. As can be guessed huge fueds then broke out between the ambitious sons of different mothers, with each conflict further weakening their hold on Al-Andalus.

Fernando and Isabel, the first kings of Spain proper, saw that the best way to achieve Spanish unity was through waging war against a common enemy....and who could possibly have been more suited to this role other than Los Moros. As a result the last of the Moors were finally expelled in 1492, the very same year that the all powerful monarchs sent Christopher Columbus on his voyage to discover America. Finally after almost 800 years of war the Christians had won back their confused territory. Such was the slow progress of this struggle that one has only to look at a map of Spain and count the number of town names finishing with "de la Frontera", which signifies that it was at one point the entrenched border between the two sides.

History is always written by the victors and over the centuries the Spanish have somehow come to deny the great Moorish legacy. However with the luxuries of hindsight aswell as being foreign, I believe that the Moors did more good than harm during their occupation. It is a great pity that nowadays Los Moros are only ever thought of as a people who did nothing other than wreak havoc on the peninsula, which is a mentality that has managed to spill over into the public sentiment towards the ever growing immigrant Morrocan community here. Unfortunately what people fail to recognise is they are of a common past and that it was the Moors who made them both who they are today. This Moorish background manifests itself in almost every facet of modern Moro Free Spain and it amuses me to see how my Anti-Moor friends fail to see the great irony in their professed love of all things Spanish, be it the six string guitar, flamenco music or of course their dark eyed ladies. Never will they dare admit that the likelihood is that they themselves have Moorish blood cells....especially not my boss with a surname like Matamoros (Moor Killer) !!

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