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Spain reclaims its African heritage: after centuries of denial, Spain is reclaiming the heritage of Arab-African Moors who brought a high civilisation to barbarian Europe. (Diaspora: Old Africa).

The Catholic cemetery in the southern Spanish port of Algeciras has dozens of graves of illegal African immigrants, roughly moulded recess tombs of concrete which stand out among marble grave slates within the confines of the whitewashed walls. They show no names or dates, just one hastily scribbled word: "Unknown."

"They crossed over from Africa to look for a better life," shrugs Manolo Blanco, caretaker of the cemetery. Thousands of Moroccans and sub-Saharan Africans are believed to have drowned during clandestine crossings of the stormy Strait of Gibraltar, where only 13 kms of water separate Europe from Africa.

"We bury them just like that, without a ceremony," Manolo says. "Many of them were probably Muslims, so I would not even know what kind of prayer to say for their souls."

Manolo could hardly feel more distant from the tens of thousands of Moroccans, Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans and others who storm the gates of Spain, one of the main frontiers of Fortress Europe, every year. His is the image that most Spaniards have of Africans: the poor would-be immigrants whom the police chase after they land at night.

Occasionally, there are outbreaks of racism, as in the town of El Ejido where more than 60 people were injured in clashes between local people and Moroccan agricultural labourers two years ago.

Sub-Saharan Africans are generally better accepted than lighter-skinned Moroccans or Algerians whom the Spaniards call "Moros" or Moors. They may arouse a visceral hatred linked to a past which people like Manolo know vaguely about, when they fought against the Christians and were driven out.

Were Manolo told that he himself was partly an Arab-African Moor, culturally, historically and genetically -- he might not believe it. Manolo may have visited the palace-fortress of the Alhambra in Granada, the most magnificent Islamic monument in Europe -- but he sees it as just a setting for romantic legends. He may have ceramics at home without knowing that they have been decorated in a Moorish style. He may season his paella, a typical rice dish, with saffron without knowing that it is also sold in the markets of Morocco. He uses hundreds of Spanish words - many of them beginning with the syllable "al" -- without knowing that they are of Arabic origin.

Few Spaniards fully realise that the tightly sealed frontier between their country and Africa is artificial in cultural terms. It suffices to cross it by raking a ferry from Algeciras to Tangier, and the frontier fades in front of one's eyes.

Reminiscences of Spain abound in northern Africa, from the typical decorative wall tiling to the labyrinthine streets of the old quarters and the inner courtyards hidden from the eyes of passers-by.

Spanish-style houses can be found in the Moroccan Rif Mountains, The architecture of Maghrib mosques has similarities with many Spanish churches, some of which are in fact converted Moorish mosques. Traces of Spain even lay hidden far our in the Sahara desert.

The Mauritanian town of Chinguetti, one of the holy cities of Islam, was once an important hub where camel caravans passed on their way towards northern outposts which served as links with Europe. Today the city has shrunk to just a cluster of crumbling houses sinking in sand.

Chinguetti boasts a large number of ancient Islamic libraries that house thousands of invaluable manuscripts. Ask the aged and bearded librarians where the leathery manuscripts come from, and they will name several Muslim countries as well as another place: "Andalusia".

The librarians do not mean a southern Spanish region with that name. They are talking about Al-Andalus, a region ruled partly by Africans which once covered most of Spain and whose history spans eight centuries.

Africans and European scientific thought

The story of Al-Andalus begins when North African warriors launch raids on the Iberian Peninsula in the early 8th century. It ends in 1492, when Boabdil, the last king of Granada, hands over the keys of Spain's last Moorish bastion to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.

The Moors are usually believed to have been Arabs, but historians say that few Arabs from countries such as present-day Syria or Yemen settled in what is now Spain. Some important rulers were of Oriental origin, but most of the conquerors came from northwest Africa, and the majority of them were not Arabs but Berbers.

The immigrations also brought significant numbers of blacks from regions south of the Maghrib to Spain. There were both black and white slaves, and black slave craftsmen may have carved some of the ornaments in places such as the huge mosque in Cordoba, regarded as one of the most breathtaking in the world. Blacks also played a role in Moorish armies which had regiments of black soldiers.

The Moors -- a word whose original meaning is "dark" -- brought a heritage which makes Spain different from other European countries to this day. For centuries, Christian propagandists downplayed the importance of that contribution, which is now increasingly getting the recognition that it deserves.

The American author, Washington Irving, and other 19th-century writers created a romantic myth of Arab-African Spain. It lives on in the exquisite palaces of the Alhambra, wondrous creations of space and light, where tourist guides tell dramatic stories of sultans and their harem favourites.

Al-Andalus has also been presented as a haven of fraternity between Christians, Muslims and Jews. While Moorish Spain was a remarkably tolerant and liberal place during many phases of its history, its main importance lies elsewhere.

A millennium ago, when Al-Andalus was the richest and most powerful region in the Western world, it was Arabs and Africans who brought high culture to backward Europe.

In the sumptuous courts of the caliphate of Cordoba (929-1008), emits composed poetry and knowledge accumulated in some of mankind's most important libraries. The Moors brought Oriental influences and helped to divulgate the Hellenic heritage of Aristotle and Plato, giving a decisive impulse to European thought.

Oriental and African Arabs brought innovations including public baths, mental hospitals, irrigation techniques and navigational devices. They had a key influence in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and medicine. The works of philosophers such as Averroes and Maimonides or of the religious mystic Ibn al-Arabi are still known today. Inter-marriage was nor rare, and Spaniards partly descend from Arabs and Berbers.

Gradually, Al-Andalus was torn apart by internal strife. The Christian "reconquisra" (reconquest) was completed in 1492, and all Muslims were expelled in the early 17th century. They were presented as enemies and infidels. The age of denial had begun.

The Moors return to Granada

As recently as during the 1939-75 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain's Arab-African heritage could nor be presented in a positive light, said Rafael Lopez, organiser of an exhibition on the glories of the caliphate of Cordoba.

The exhibition drew 300,000 visitors in 2001 to the Madinar al-Zahra, a ruined palace city of the caliphs in Cordoba. Its remains are gradually being excavated, and similar exhibitions have been staged in Spain and Portugal in recent years.

There is also an audiovisual museum on Moorish Spain in Cotdoba, and the foundation Legado Andalusi seeks to make its culture known. Writers such as Juan Goytisolo and Antonio Gala have come out in defence of Spain's ArabAfrican heritage which is also being reclaimed by ordinary Spaniards.

Against the backdrop of the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, at the foot of a hill on which rises the reddish sandstone citadel of the Alhambra, bearded men and women wearing headscarves pass in front of Islamic butcheries and Moroccan craft shops. North African tea shops compete with typical Spanish cafes, and a signboard announces the construction of a large mosque in the old Moorish quarter of the Albaycin.

One might think that the Moors have returned to Granada -- and that is indeed happening. Nor only does Granada have some 11,000 African Muslims from countries such as Morocco and Senegal, but local Spaniards are also converting to Islam.

"We want back the rights granted by the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to the Moors of Granada, such as the right to have our own Islamic judiciary and partial administration," Malik Abder Rahman Ruiz says. The bearded Spaniard is a member of a community known as the Murabirunes, who try to live according to the precepts of Islam by schooling their children at home and coining their own money.

Thousands of Spaniards have converted to Islam, and many of them regard the country's Arab-African past as an important reference. Analysts agree that Spain is in an ideal position to build bridges between Europe and Islamic Africa, but the terror attacks of September 11 in America have made such attempts more difficult.

The police estimate that there are only some 200 extremists among Spain's nearly 600,000 mainly African Muslims, but the detentions of at least 20 presumed collaborators of Osama bin Laden -- many of them Algerians -- have tarnished the image of the Islamic community.

A nostalgia for Al-Andalus lives on in Islamic Africa and the Arab world, and Bin Laden made an explicit reference to it after the September 11 attacks. "We will nor allow the tragedy of Al-Andalus to repeat itself in Palestine," Bin Laden said in one of his televised messages.
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Author:Kahl, Sinikka
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:May 1, 2002
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