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Aljamiado

By:
Luce López-Baralt
Source:
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Aljamiado

Backgrounds

During the height of al-Andalus—the medieval Muslim civilization in the Iberian peninsula—Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived side by side, flourished as a people, and developed a cultural exchange over a period of roughly seven hundred years. This occurred in spite of political tensions and the so-called “Reconquest War” among both Christians and Muslims. Due to complex historical and economic reasons that are still being explored by historians, the coexistence of these three nations on the peninsula eventually ceased. After the expulsion of the Jews and the capture of Granada in 1492, the Spanish Semitic cultures—both Arab and Hebrew—began to decline, and their forced absorption into Western Christianity began.

In the midst of their historical annihilation, the last Muslims of Spain, now known by the term Moriscos, went underground and produced a vibrant clandestine literary culture. These texts helped keep alive a sense of their identity as a people, in spite of the forced baptisms to which they were subjected prior to their final expulsion from Spain in 1609. The Moriscos’ cultural singularity could not be totally squashed either by their defeat in the Alpujarras (1576–1571) nor by their mass deportations to the north (1570–1571) by which King Phillip II accelerated the process of their political and cultural assimilation.

Over the course of the sixteenth century, laws were passed decreeing the Moors gradual absorption into Christianity—and, therefore, their eventual disappearance as a people. Islamic religious practices were strictly forbidden and the Edict of 1567 criminalized the possession of books written in Arabic. When Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616) ironically states that his novel Don Quixote (1605) was written in Arabic by Cide Hamete Benengeli, he is implying that the reader is dealing with a book that, for all purposes, is illegal.

But the Moriscos, in the midst of their collective misfortune–or perhaps, because of it—recorded the gradual destruction of their world in the hundreds of secret codices they wrote underground. These texts constitute what is called aljamiado literature. Aljamiado comes from the Arabic ayamiyya, meaning “that which is not Arabic” and is thus contrary to the concept of arabiyya. The Spanish Moriscos transliterated their Spanish in Arabic script as a last sign of loyalty to the sacred language of the Qurʾāan, which was beginning to fade from the community (Hegyi, 1978). Morisco literature was so baffling for the West that when the first manuscripts were discovered in the eighteenth century, Arabists such as Sylvestre de Sacy thought they must have been written “in some of the languages spoken in Africa, perhaps in Madagascar” (Sacy, 1797). Other scholars took the manuscripts for Persian or Turkish, until it finally dawned on them that they were Spanish texts written in the Arabic script.

The full scope of the aljamiado corpus began to be discovered in the nineteenth century, and scholars are still in the process of decoding and publishing the huge amount of material saved by the clandestine authors for posterity. Written during the most turbulent period of the Spanish Inquisition, the literature provides a first-hand testimony of what it was like for the crypto-Muslims to experience the decline of their culture. Thanks to these Morisco authors, who devised subtle strategies to protect their identity, scholars have a better understanding of what became of Spanish Islam after the fall of al-Andalus.

The secret codex thus offers a dramatic example of what W. E. B. Du Bois describes as “double conscience” (Du Bois, 1994). In Spain the Moriscos considered themselves Muslims and outsiders; but later on, when in exile, and in spite of the sincerity of their Islamic faith, they emphasized as well their Spanish heritage. The Moriscos’ fluid, hybrid identity is indeed astonishing: they wrote in Spanish, but with the Arabic script; they quoted Islamic authorities such as al-Ghazzālī and Aḥmad Zarrūq alongside Spanish classics like Lope de Vega and Luis Góngora; they translated the Qurʾān, Arabic legends, and treatises on magic, but also imitated Cervantes’ novels and Francisco de Quevedo’s satirical prose. Aljamiado literature, with its constant code switching, is both Spanish and Arabic, but is also the “third space”—to use a contemporary postcolonial term—of the violent clash and the harmonization of both cultures. The hybridization and the creativity with which the covert Morisco authors give testimony of their plight makes for a vibrant, tangled, unique literature that was, curiously enough, written alongside the most prestigious European Renaissance classics such as by Cervantes and Shakespeare.

The aljamiado manuscripts deal with the most varied subjects: magical and astrological treatises, dream interpretation, medicine, prophecies, legends, novels, poems, itineraries that explained how to flee secretly from Spain, testimonies regarding the fall of Granada, and the experience of exile in Tunisia. The legends, full of literary imagination, echo stories like A Thousand and One Nights. Strange images appear that were often unfamiliar to Western readers: islands inlaid with precious stones and graced with saffron beaches; trees endowed with the power of speech; wooden horses that fly in an instant the distance of a five-hundred-year voyage; birds of paradise with golden heads, emerald necks, and saffron feathers; angels with feet of fire that keep guard over the forty worlds of light that constitute the limit of the universe, beyond which lies God’s inscrutable mystery. Readers even come across a curious “Spanish Kama Sutra” or nuptial treatise, explicit yet deeply spiritual, that teaches the pious Muslim that sex, in the context of marriage, can lead to the ultimate contemplation of God (López-Baralt, 1992, 2017).

Expulsion of the Moriscos

“We are not in times of grace, but of tears” (Harvey, pp. 69–70; translation by author; for information regarding the library of origin, title and catalogue number of the manuscripts, cf. López-Baralt, 2009). Thus the Morisco author Baray de Reminyo sums up the emotional situation of Spain’s Muslims prior to their final expulsion. Another author, anonymous like most aljamiado writers, reacts angrily to being forced to use Spanish instead of Arabic. His indignant tone is startling:

"Not one of our brothers knows the Arabic in which our holy Qur’an was revealed, nor understands the truths of the faith […] unless these things are revealed to them in a foreign tongue, such as that of these Christian dogs, our tyrants and oppressors!" (Ticknor, p. 420)

Surprisingly, aljamiado literature rethinks Spain à l’envers: from the Islamic point of view. The texts are written, as the Spanish saying goes, “al revés de los cristianos” (“inverting Christianity”) and they force modern readers to get acquainted with a concept of Spain that is difficult to recognize, because its fundamental cultural and religious values have been inverted. The Morisco codices declare Muḥammad to be the true Prophet and Islam the true religion; affirm that Paradise is full of bright-eyed houris (divine beings) and that jinns were created alongside humankind. The Inquisition's horrors are denounced for the first time and the fall of Granada is seen as a tragedy, not as a national triumph. The Edict of 1609 that decreed the final expulsion of the Spanish Moors is interpreted as liberation from their Christian oppressors.

Several texts give the victims of the fall of Granada a chance to speak about the personal misfortune that the national unification of the peninsula meant for them. A Morisco author known as the “Mancebo de Arevalo” (the “Young man of Arévalo”) interviews some of the shocked survivors like a modern-day journalist (Narváez, 2003). La Mora de Úbeda, Ali Sarmiento, and Yūse Banegas all echo the same denunciation: Granadan women were sold as slaves in the town square when the city surrendered. Yūse Banegas gives the Mancebo an eyewitness account: “I saw with my eyes all the noble ladies, both widows and married women, being scorned and humiliated, and I saw more than three hundred maidens sold in public auction…” (Harvey, p. 301). In another passage, La Mora de Úbeda, who lost her family in the fall of Granada, weeps with the Mancebo de Arévalo at the collapse of her nation: “crying over the fall of the Muslims […] she said to me: Pray God, my son, that this event shall not pain us for so long as I forsee!” (Narváez, p. 54). The world of the beata or saintly woman is literally coming apart before her eyes, and the scene depicts her weeping over the remnants of the holy books of Islam, whose folios merchants tore up to use as candy wrappers. Yūse Banegas shares with the Mancebo de Arévalo his emotional reaction at the final collapse of his nation:

"My son, I do not weep for the past, for from the past nothing returns, but I weep for what you will see if you [stay] in […] Spain. […] With our religion so scorned and despised […] the people will say: What has happened to the religion of our fathers? And all will be bitterness […] I say all this passionately, [but I] pray to [God] that my saying be far from the truth, for I do not wish to come to such weeping […] For if now in such a short space it appears that we sustain ourselves by confrontation, what will happen when the last autumns [the last days] come? If the fathers defame our religion, how will the great-great-great grandchildren praise it? If the king of the conquest does not keep his word, what awaits us from his successors?" (Harvey, pp. 300–302)

The Mancebo also describes a secret meeting of covert Muslims in Zaragoza: each one of those present spoke with anger and despair, for most were pessimistic about the difficulties involved in keeping Islam alive. The Moriscos also consulted prophecies or aljofores: some prophecies assure that the tragic fate of Spanish Islam was foretold by Muḥammad himself; while others, quite imaginative, foresee that the Christian king will convert to Islam, thus restoring the Morisco community’s ancient glory.

The Moriscos’ Exile

After the massive expulsion of 1609 decreed by Philip III, some Moriscos made it to the relative safety of exile in Islamic nations, where they tried to become full-fledged Muslims again. One of the most prolific survivors, another anonymous author, provides a detailed account of the generous reception he received in Tunisia (López-Baralt, 2009). He also describes in detail his last days in Spain under the Inquisition. His testimony is probably the first account about this feared religious tribunal written from the point of view of one of its victims:

"We were taken to the Inquisition, where for following the truth [Islam] we were stripped of our lives, properties, and children; we were thrown in a dark prison […] while our property was consumed […]; some [inquisitors] said that we all should be put to death, others that we should be castrated by fire cauterization, so that our nation would die away." (López-Baralt, 2009, p. 455)

Yet the crypto-Muslims arrived in their new homelands plagued with emotional contradictions, for they also yearned for Spain. The anonymous exile covertly weeps for his native land, quoting with delight Garcilaso’s and Góngora’s verses and Lope de Vega’s plays, which he used to attend in Madrid. Moreover, he has a bittersweet attitude toward Tunisia: while he acknowledges the welcome given by his new adoptive country, he also admits the newcomers were often mistreated. They were foreigners in Spain and similarly foreigners in Barbary.

In this way, the aljamiado manuscripts bring to life the vanishing Morisco world, with all the pain of the clandestine authors’ historical denunciations and with all the passion of their feverish literary imagination.

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