Arab News’ latest online Deep Dive takes an in-depth look at Al-Andalus, the land on the Iberian Peninsula that was ruled by Muslims for eight centuries, and how its rich heritage left a lasting effect on modern Spain.
The months-long investigation was conducted by the long-form journalism department of Arab News’ new Research and Studies Unit as a Deep Dive, which immerses readers in a multimedia report including videos and interactive graphics.
“We hope that this Deep Dive, like others we have produced, contributes to people’s understanding of under-reported minorities in the region, as it seeks to create a more tolerant environment,” said Arab News’ Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas. “We also trust that it will serve as a great resource for people looking to learn more about Al-Andalus, which was a golden age for the Arab and Muslim world.”
The Deep Dive, by Jonathan Gornall and Mouna El-Haimoud, looks back to the dawn of Al-Andalus in the 8th century, and ends with the stories of families who have traced their roots to those who were forced to convert to Christianity or exiled after the end of Muslim rule in 1492.
Moroccan El-Haimoud, Arab News’ Madrid correspondent, travelled to Cordoba and Granada, the heartland of Al-Andalus, to speak with people on the ground. She gained special access to film in the legendary Alhambra, and interviewed one of the last Andalusians to be found in Spain, Abd Samad Romero.
“It is fascinating to see the many similarities between our culture in Morocco and Al-Andalus, thanks to the influence of the Moorish and Andalusians that came to Morocco,” El-Haimoud said. “Since I moved to Spain 23 years ago, I always felt the need to dig more into the history of Al-Andalus and to know more about that important period of time.
“After I was asked by Arab News back in August to make a story about the Guadameci art in Cordoba, I felt the connection once again. Then, the idea came to me of finding Moorish descendants to tell their stories. The journey was beautiful and full of surprises. It made me understand a lot about our childhood traditions in Morocco, which connected me again with my roots.”
The Deep Dive highlights a topic seen as increasingly important in Spain.
Dr. Fatima Roldan Castro, a professor in the department of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Seville, is a principal investigator of its Andalusian heritage research group. She said “Arabism” as an academic discipline has a long tradition in Spain because of the Arab and Islamic presence in its history.
“The history and culture of Al-Andalus are part of the educational curriculum from primary education, although they are not treated with the depth and detail that they deserve,” she said.
“In other sectors outside academia, although often closely linked to it, special attention is devoted to the Andalusian past. An example is (the region of) Andalusia, where the tourism sector makes use of this stage of history and culture that occurred in it, as one of its main claims by splendidly showing the historical, artistic and cultural heritage of a past that identifies both the territory and its inhabitants.”
Dr. Julio Navarro Palazon, an archaeologist and senior scientist of Islamic archaeology of the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid, said Spain had made efforts to recover its Andalusian past.
“This is reflected in the economic and scientific investment placed around restoration of the monuments that have survived, as well as of the large number of archaeological excavations that are recovering … the remains of this period.”
Despite these efforts, the Islamic roots of Al-Andalus are not always apparent.
“The majority of the Spanish society is hardly aware of their Islamic past, and it is largely ignored,” said Umar del Pozo Cadenas, president of the Granada Mosque Foundation.
“However, due to academic investigation, more and more information is being uncovered and people are realizing that there is in fact an extensive heritage linking modern Spain to its Islamic past. This is happening very slowly as the efforts to erase any aspect of Islam from Catholic Spain were done very thoroughly and conscientiously.
“As we know, Islamic Spain made great contributions to science, technology, algebra, engineering, medicine and many other fields, as well as (leaving) a substantial amount of monuments and constructions which are still visible today.”
Sabrina Amrani, who owns an eponymous gallery in Madrid, agrees.
“The Islamic culture of Al-Andalus is an element you can still breathe in modern Spain,” she said. “The more you would go south and the more it would be visible of course, but nationally its traces are all around us: In the Spanish language, pastries and regional dishes, and in the architecture.”
Being from Granada, Spanish artist Eduardo Gorlat, whose artistic name is EduArtGranada, said the influence of Al-Andalus is inescapable.
“My style has clear references to the Andalusian past, to the Arab culture and also to the Persian. I do not see them as foreigners but as something of our own and that we have inherited and should be valued,” he said. “I try to do it from a modern perspective in an attempt to integrate to our days, with a fresh touch that reaches the viewer; an attempt to connect the past with the future. I always like to work from the feeling of nostalgia for the lost, but with a colorful touch of joy: A bit like Andalusia, very happy but nostalgic.”
Not everything about Andalusia is happy, however. Prof. Jamal bin Ammar Al-Ahmar, a professor at Algeria’s Ferhat Abbas University, said many activists are working to have Spain recognize the descendants of the people it expelled.
“The Andalusian issue has a flag of its own, expressing its demands in all the diaspora of the world,” he said. ‘Our activities have appeared on several occasions, and it appears every year on Jan. 2 … to commemorate the fall of Andalusia under the blows of the Catholic kings.”
In 2015, the Spanish government offered citizenship to descendants of the Jews who had lived in harmony with the Muslims in Al-Andalus and who were expelled by the Christians in the Middle Ages. Despite promises made by the victorious Catholic monarchs after the fall of Granada in 1492, Muslims were also exiled from the land that had been theirs for 800 years, but no similar offer has been made to their descendants.
Hossain Bouzineb, an emeritus professor at the Mohammed V University of Rabat, specializing in Al-Andalus history, said the descendants of Al-Andalus had managed to rediscover their family origins through researching their past. “Nowadays, we have a rich documentary base on the Moorish community, which can clarify many extremes of the life trajectory of this community uprooted from its land and scattered throughout the planet,” he said.
Iman Alyauhariah Travieso, a Spanish Muslim convert who lives in Granada, said while knowledge of Al-Andalus improved after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, its history is still not well known, particularly among younger generations. “My interest in the history of Al-Andalus grew, of course, as I became a Muslim,” she said. “Previously, it was just some certain curiosity since I felt historically connected to the Muslim past of Spain, and I believe that the majority of Spaniards of my generation think so, but on the other hand, in the Spain that I grew up the Islamic past was practically erased from history.”