Border Crossings: Myths and Memories of Tolerance

Leslie Harkema Reviews Eric Calderwood’s Colonial al-Andalus

Eric Calderwood, Colonial al-Andalus: Spain and the Making of Modern Moroccan Culture. Harvard University Press, 2018. pp 408. $45.00.

This past summer, migrants from throughout Africa and elsewhere continued to make the journey to Ceuta and Melilla, two autonomous Spanish cities nestled in Morocco’s northern coast. As small parcels of European land on the African continent, these cities defy the assumption that the Mediterranean Sea serves as a natural barrier between distinct civilizations. They are sites of border crossing, with all of the charge that this term carries in the contemporary geopolitical climate. Ceuta and Melilla are gateways to Europe, and for that reason they are surrounded by tall fences and kept under surveillance—not only by military guards, but also by the Spanish press.

When tensions rise at these borders, as they did in July 2018, news coverage stirs anxieties about Spain’s ability to accommodate the influx of displaced people. As in the United States, some outlets use the word “invasion” to describe the flow of migrants into Spain, bolstering their rhetoric, at times, with a reference to a specific historical event. The newspaper La Razón, for instance, recently likened the steady flow of unaccompanied Moroccan minors through Melilla to the Green March of 1975, a strategic mass demonstration in which hundreds of thousands of Moroccans crossed the country’s southern border into Spanish-controlled Western Sahara (then Spanish Sahara) in an attempt to assert Moroccan control over the region.

The Green March is far from the only or most obvious event in Spanish history that those looking to fan the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment have at their disposal. More famous crossings from Morocco to Spain, particularly across the Strait of Gibraltar, certainly exist. In the year 711, the Umayyad Caliphate launched its invasion of the Iberian Peninsula from Ceuta, initiating nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule in the territory that came to be known as al-Andalus. (The present-day region of Andalusia in southern Spain derives its name from this Arabic predecessor.) Twelve centuries later, northern Morocco would again serve as the origin for an invasion of the Iberian Peninsula: in July of 1936, General Francisco Franco led a military uprising against the democratically-elected government of the Second Spanish Republic, plunging Spain into civil war.

The seemingly disparate events and histories concerning the legacy of medieval Iberia, modern Spanish colonialism in Morocco, the Spanish Civil War, and the Moroccan resistance to Spain’s presence in North Africa come into contact with each other in Eric Calderwood’s recent book, Colonial al-Andalus: Spain and the Making of Modern Moroccan Culture. As its title suggests, Calderwood’s book demonstrates how integral the memory of al-Andalus became to Spanish colonial expansion in Morocco in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as how this memory fueled Moroccan nationalism leading up to the country’s independence and beyond.

The history of Spanish-Moroccan relations, Calderwood reminds us, is by no means simply a story of invasion from south to north: migrants and invaders have also crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from the Iberian Peninsula into Africa. After the Nasrid kingdom in Granada fell to Ferdinand and Isabella (the “Catholic Kings”) in 1492, newly expelled Jews and Muslims fled across the Mediterranean to Morocco. With the expulsion of the Moriscos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity) in 1609, this North-African diaspora grew. Two and a half centuries later, in 1859, the Spanish military crossed into Morocco, inaugurating a colonial campaign known, in Spanish, as the “Guerra de África.” In 1912 the Spanish protectorate in Morocco was established, and in 1921 Spanish recruits again crossed the strait to quell a colonial rebellion in the Rif region. The conflict lasted until 1926, when the French and the Spanish ultimately prevailed. Morocco would not gain independence until 1956.

The North-African Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla exist as physical reminders of this history of crossings and colonization. They embody the blurring of distinctions between Europe and Africa, Christianity and Islam, East and West that has long been the reality of the relationship between Spain and Morocco. In the imagination of many, al-Andalus has often served as a less concrete, more idealized symbol of this blending. The legacy of a medieval Iberia where Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted and shared social space under Muslim rule has been invoked—most recently and controversially by María Rosa Menocal in The Ornament of the World (2002)—to counter the notion that interreligious relationships in Iberia were marked by hostility and violence. Published in the wake of 9/11, Menocal’s book sought to highlight the cultural and intellectual riches produced in al-Andalus, and to show, as its subtitle proclaimed, “How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.” Scholars since have criticized Menocal’s invocation of harmonious coexistence or convivencia in the Iberian Middle Ages as overly rosy and insufficiently objective. In the context of the Bush era and pronouncements about an “axis of evil” in North Africa and the Middle East, it seemed to some that Menocal had distorted the history of convivencia in order to serve contemporary ideological ends.

One of the many valuable contributions to be found in Calderwood’s Colonial al-Andalus is its analysis of earlier, less familiar uses of the discourse of convivencia, which extend beyond Iberia proper. The book’s account of the memory of al-Andalus as a transnational and transhistorical phenomenon shifts the debate on convivencia away from proto-national and historically rigid views of medieval Iberia. Calderwood argues, moreover, that this memory is in large part a product not of the middle ages, but of modern colonialism. Through nuanced readings of a multilingual archive composed of poems, travel narratives, photographs, maps, periodicals, and architecture, Calderwood reveals how the view of Morocco as a direct heir to the cultural legacy of al-Andalus was in fact a product of Spain’s colonial interests in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In so doing, he shows how the memory of al-Andalus continually blurs other distinctions between the medieval and the modern, and between the colonial and the postcolonial.

Calderwood contends that the modern memory of Muslim Iberia served the interests of both Spanish imperialism and Moroccan nationalism, producing a number of “strange bedfellows” along the way. Just a few of the unexpected pairings discussed in the book include a Spanish journalist with his invented Moroccan friend and alter-ego, a Republican intellectual with a Francoist scholar, a Catholic dictator with a secular Lebanese-American poet, and Spanish academics in colonial Morocco with pro-independence Moroccan Nationalists. These unexpected couplings demonstrate time and again how the legacy of al-Andalus has captivated and served the ends of intellectuals and politicians from a wide range of countries and ideological persuasions.

Perhaps the most counterintuitive of the many original findings in Colonial al-Andalus is the extent to which Franco himself embraced and utilized the idea of convivencia. It is relatively well known that the Generalísimo recruited Moroccans to fight for his Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, paradoxically including them in a campaign that the Catholic Church officially defined as a crusade. Much less familiar are the stories of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, that Franco arranged for a group of Moroccans in 1937 (and kept financing into the 1950s), or the institutions dedicated to the study of “Hispano-Arab culture” that were established in Spanish-controlled Morocco during the Franco era.

Calderwood offers a wealth of information about these forgotten projects by analyzing overlooked texts, such as Ahmad al-Rahuni’s 1941 travelogue Journey to Mecca. He contends that these sources have been overlooked because scholars of Arabic literature and culture often view Morocco as peripheral to their field or, when they don’t, tend to focus on Morocco’s colonial ties with France at the expense of those with Spain. In the field of Hispanic Studies, a lack of facility with the Arabic language has kept most scholars of modern Spain from accessing this archive. Moving fluidly between Arabic, Spanish, French, and even Catalan, Calderwood uncovers a new and intricate history that unsettles our common view of Spanish culture and Francoism and troubles distinctions between colonial occupation and postcolonial resistance, narratives of oppression, and narratives of national identity.

The story of al-Rahuni’s Journey to Mecca, told in a chapter titled “Franco’s Hajj,” sits at the center of the book. Three chapters precede it, and three others follow, respectively setting the stage for this Catholic-funded Muslim pilgrimage and describing its consequences. In the first two chapters, Calderwood contrasts a nineteenth-century Spanish writer who looked at Morocco and saw al-Andalus with a Moroccan contemporary who rejected the comparison. The Spanish writer is Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (1833-1891), a native of Andalusia who travelled to Morocco during the Spanish-Moroccan War of 1859-60 and wrote the most famous account of the conflict. He saw glimpses of medieval Spain at every turn, and even went so far as to invent a Moroccan interlocutor whom he later impersonated at costume balls in Madrid. The Moroccan contemporary is the poet, scholar, and artist Mufaddal Afaylal (1824-1887), whose poetry similarly evoked the memory of al-Andalus in the context of the Spanish-Moroccan War. However, for Afaylal, al-Andalus ultimately proved an insufficient trope to describe his contemporary moment. The inclusion of Afaylal’s perspective thus suggests that mid-nineteenth-century Moroccan writers did not feel the kinship with al-Andalus that their successors would express fifty or a hundred years later.

Further documentation of this lack of identification with al-Andalus by nineteenth-century Moroccans would strengthen Calderwood’s argument here. But his readings of Afaylal’s Kunnash (Notebook) and poetry are lucid, informative, and compelling. Particularly suggestive is his contention that the memory of al-Andalus in nineteenth-century Morocco defies and confuses the Aristotelian distinction between history and poetry, making it possible for the past of a particular place to become a myth of universal significance. The reference to Aristotle’s Poetics largely disappears in the rest of the book, and one wonders whether it could have also made appearances in later chapters. Al-Andalus, in Calderwood’s telling, occupies a place between specific histories and far-reaching, transportable mythologies, and this chapter lays important groundwork for the analyses carried out in rest of the book.

The third chapter details how intra-national Spanish politics shaped the way Spaniards saw the connections between Andalusia and Morocco. Calderwood shows how the Spanish writer and politician Blas Infante (1885-1936) developed a discourse of Andalusian identity that drew deeply on the region’s proximity to Africa, and responded directly to the Europe-oriented nationalism of Catalonia. Years before the historian Américo Castro (1885-1972) would develop his theory of convivencia from exile following the civil war, Infante promoted the idea of cross-cultural and cross-religious unity, brotherhood, and shared history between Spaniards and Moroccans. While Infante, like Castro, was a leftist who supported the Second Spanish Republic, his ideas, as Calderwood documents, were appropriated and developed by the Francoist intellectual Rodolfo Gil Benumeya (1901-1975), who laid the ideological groundwork for the dictator’s colonial endeavors in Morocco.

The last three chapters of Colonial al-Andalus trace Spanish promotion of Andalusi heritage in twentieth-century Morocco, as well as its acceptance and appropriation by Moroccans. The invention of so-called “Hispano-Arab culture,” Calderwood argues in chapter five, was one of these promotional endeavors. This category and field of study came into being through the creation of the General Franco Institute, an academic center in Tetouan dedicated to scholarly research on the shared cultural legacy of Spain and Morocco. Viewing “Hispano-Arab culture” as a form of Francoist imperial discourse, Calderwood stresses that the Institute described its work as promoting a “resurrection” of Andalusi heritage in Morocco. He also explains how the Lebanese-American poet Amin al-Rihani became an influential spokesman for this Francoist project in the rest of the Arabic-speaking world. In chapter six, he focuses on the development of Andalusi arts in colonial Morocco, particularly at two institutions: the School for Indigenous Arts and the Hispano-Moroccan Music Conservatory. An important part of the Spanish colonial strategy, Calderwood contends, required emphasizing Morocco’s cultural affinities with Spain in order to cast the French presence in Morocco as alien and divisive. That strategy was so successful that Andalusi heritage actually became a cornerstone of Moroccan nationalism, ultimately inspiring the movement that brought the country’s independence from both France and Spain. In chapter seven we observe again how, as in so many other moments detailed in this book, the myth of al-Andalus passes fluidly from one ideological position to precisely its opposite.

The epilogue of Colonial al-Andalus completes the symmetrical form of the book with a discussion of architecture, mirroring the content of the first pages of the introduction. Having opened his study with a reflection on a mausoleum in Tetouan that houses both the city’s fifteenth-century founder and one of the leaders of Morocco’s twentieth-century nationalist movement, Calderwood closes the book with an elegant account of the Mausoleum of Mohammed V and archive of the ‘Alawi dynasty. The complex housing both structures was built in 1971 in close proximity to the Hasan Minaret, a twelfth-century edifice intended to recall another minaret—the Giralda in Seville. Calderwood treats us here to some of the finest passages in his lucidly written and fascinating study, passages that trace architectural echoes between modern and medieval constructions in Morocco and across the Mediterranean.

Migrants who cross the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco to Spain today come from places well beyond these two countries. The majority of those who hope to enter Europe via Ceuta or Melilla are from sub-Saharan Africa, and they participate in a wider, transnational phenomenon that extends throughout the Mediterranean and across the globe. Yet the mythologies of earlier crossings—those that brought about the founding of al-Andalus and followed in the wake of its collapse—continue to frame their stories. The particular value of a book like Colonial al-Andalus is the way it illuminates and historicizes these mythologies, tracing a story that itself extends far beyond Iberia and Morocco. The book brings our attention to some of the less-acknowledged uses of convivencia and also excises the debate over intercultural and interreligious relations in medieval Iberia from its academic confines. With this book in our hands, we have new tools with which to understand Mediterranean crossings and the rhetoric that surrounds them today.

Leslie J. Harkema is an Associate Professor of Spanish at Yale University. Her first book, Spanish Modernism and the Poetics of Youth: From Miguel de Unamuno to La Joven Literatura (University of Toronto Press, 2017), examines the little-studied relationship between the renowned essayist, novelist, and poet Miguel de Unamuno and several Spanish writers associated with the so-called Generation of 1927. She is currently working on a second book-length project, tentatively titled “Faithful Betrayals: Translation and the Republic of Letters in Modern Spain.” 

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