The Alhambra, in the twilight.

When I was a young teenager, before I went off to prep school, I attended a junior high school. American educators have fiddled about with various schemes for the schooling of younger teens and middle schools, grades six through eight, were popular for a long time, but in my day, where I lived, the junior high had grades seven through ten, though shortly after I left, the tenth graders were moved to the high school across the street. The baby boom generation was at hand, and soon students were literally hanging out the windows as the school district tried to juggle them into the rapidly shrinking available spaces.

Language studies began in eighth grade, when students were given four 10-week courses in Latin, German, Spanish, and French. The idea was that students could use a smattering of each to decide which they would like to pursue as they continued their studies. Those going to college usually took three or four years of a language. A year or so after I went away, Russian was added as an alternative, but only at the high school. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, and a knowledge of Russian was considered desirable. Today, by way of contrast, the same school district sadly  offers only one language, Spanish. Administrators find this convenient for a number of reasons, some not related to education at all, and that is just the way it is.

I elected to study Spanish in ninth grade, probably because I thought it was closest to Italian, which is part of my family heritage. In retrospect, Latin might have helped more with Italian than Spanish, but since I still have not studied Italian, I have no way to say for certain. At the prep school I attended, students with three years of Latin could take a one-year Italian course.

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Mosque, Toledo

Italian would have been a great offering, as there were many Italian immigrants in my home town, but New York State did not encourage Italian studies. Latin was seen as a basis for scientific studies, as was German, whereas French and Spanish were world languages. Latin also had some interest for Catholics since the Mass was still in Latin. Second and third generation kids of Italian immigrants would have probably taken Italian and profited greatly by connecting to their relatives as well as to the culture and history of Europe. The option just wasn’t there, so I thought Spanish was a good second choice.

My ninth-grade Spanish teacher was Mrs. Supkowski. Then, as now, few students had the benefit of a language teacher with native fluency, but I was the exception. Mrs. Supkowski’s first name was Agapita, she was of Spanish descent, and she was fiercely proud of Spain and the Spanish-speaking world.

Kids playing in a public square, Toledo.

At the time, Hispanic culture was integrated into the language curriculum much as was the teaching of the language itself: rote learning. More active methods were just beginning to appear. Culture was taught as facts that one needed to know to succeed on the statewide tests. Luckily, I had a teacher who infused those facts with a dose of pride and passion.

The Arab heritage of Spain was part of the mix. How could it not be? The Spanish language and culture was influenced for centuries by Arab rule. A high percentage of Spanish words, some 4,000 words or 8% of the vocabulary in a standard Spanish dictionary derive from Arabic.

The United States was not invading Arab lands in those days, and Arabic was not high on the learning agenda, though it gained steam as the Cold War continued. I had little idea who the Arabs were. Apart from my Lebanese and Syrian neighbors, with whose children I played, I had never met an Arab. Local Arabs were mostly Christian, too, which made them seem less foreign, I suppose.

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Woman knitting before cathedral doors. Toledo.

In Spanish class, we learned about the Alhambra. We all knew The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, at least via Walt Disney, and the story of Rip Van Winkle, but Tales of the Alhambra was something new, romantic and magical. Its author, Washington Irving, is one of the earliest American writers, the first to earn his income from writing, and popular in England. He was also a New York writer. Though his literary reputation has debentures somewhat dismissed by time, Tales is still worth reading, and can be downloaded from various sources. Take care to get an unabridged version. Washington Irving was, among other things, an American diplomat in Spain. He traveled to Granada and actually lived in the Alhambra, in his time a derelict ruin.

Washington Irving

We learned about El Cid, presented as a national and religious hero, and a movie version of his life, with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren appeared about that time. A truly terrible movie, El Cid was presented as a romantic spectacle. Today the internet movie databases seem to rate it highly, but even in my callous youth I thought that the Arabs were caricatures and the movie had little historical basis. It might have been worse. It might have been turned into a musical. Perhaps that’s in the works. In the meanwhile, I’d recommend reading the medieval romance or Corneille’s play, though both distort history.

Berber horsemen, Sefrou, Morocco.

We learned that the Reconquista was glorious and led to the discovery of America, the riches of which funded El Siglo de Oro. There was little said about the expulsion of the Jews and Arabs and the Inquisition, nor the enslavement of aboriginal peoples. We learned the factoids that the educators wanted us to learn. If I have learned anything in my life, it has been that received wisdom about history should be met with skepticism. Indeed, it was Washington Irving, in his biography of Columbus, who propagated the idea that Europeans thought that the earth was flat!

The Fountain of the Lions. Alhambra.

Aside from the above, in our Spanish class we may have learned about the Mezquita and the Giralda, but they were just answers to multiple choice questions.

Now in the last decades, there has been a growing tendency on the part of some to see the world as a conflict between western Christian civilization, and eastern Islamic fundamentalism. Some of this is simply a cheap way to justify nasty wars fought for other reasons. Some of this is simple pandering to the American religious right. Some of it is sensationalism. A lot of it is intellectual laziness. Some of it is prejudice. But, certainly, all of it is hogwash.

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Transito Synagogue

In Spain, the Reconquista has been a subject of romanticism, religion, nationalism, and imperialism, appropriated by whatever interest could use it. In the Arab world, the history of Spain is another nakba ( النكبة), a disaster, a place where the crusaders won, and a golden age was ended. For the Spanish, it has been the reaffirmation of their Catholic heritage. For the Jews, just another tragedy with which they have had to deal. Today some people in northern Morocco cities such as Fes and Tetuan claim to have still the ancient keys to their ancestors’ homes in Spain, Al-Andalus. Clearly, history has given the event many facets.

I have just finished reading a book by a scholar, who encourages us to look a bit more deeply into the complexity of this history. In his book, Kingdoms of Faith, Brian Catlos, a professor at the University of Colorado, argues that the history of Spain should be viewed closely through the prism of the complex society that lived there, and the multiple, sometimes conflicting, motivations of those who ruled the region. No paradise for dhimmis, no battlefield for fundamentalists, no saintly or nationalist cradle for the Spanish, the political dynamics of medieval Spain were influenced by complex interactions between groups motivated by a multitude of interests, some local, some remote, some religious, and many secular.

Maimonides, medieval Jewish philosopher. Cordoba.

In the modern world of nation states, we often ascribe anachronistic points of view to those who lived in the age of kingdoms and empires, forgetting how recent the notion of the nation state is. Furthermore, some writers talk about intellectual concepts such as civilization, as if they have a concrete reality. The fact is that many armies have gone to war, but not one civilization. Rome was a republic, and, later, a military dictatorship that ruled an empire, but Roman civilization did not conquer Gaul. Caesar’s armies did. Once conquered, Gaul slowly adapted many Roman technologies and ideas, but it was not conquered by them, except, perhaps, in the figurative sense.

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Detail from the Burial of the count of Orgaz.

Anthropologists and historians have a difficult time even defining a civilization, agreeing only that a civilization must have most of the several attributes, but not necessarily all, that help define the concept. A written language is one of the defining attributes of a civilization, but the Incas, who ruled a huge empire, had no written language. Was there an Inca civilization? The Incas had public works, monumental architecture, organized religion, a bureaucracy, cities, and so on.

Interestingly, there was an article on the impact of African migrants trying to get into Ceuta the other day. Ceuta is one of two enclaves on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, and, as Spanish territory, an easy way to get to the Spanish mainland. It is dear to my heart as I went there often.

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Port of Ceuta. At twilight.

Morocco claims Ceuta and Melilla, the other enclave, as part of Morocco. The Spanish response is pertinent: Spain claims that there never was any Morocco in the past so the claims were never Moroccan. The idea here is that Morocco was not a nation state until the twentieth century. Before then, it was a territory loosely ruled by a series of dynasties.

I don’t wish to argue with anyone about either Moroccan or Spanish sovereignty. During my time in Morocco, near the end of Franco’s dictatorship, Gibraltar, a British colony, faced a land and sea blockade by Spain. Britain had taken it by warfare, a couple of hundred years earlier, and Spain wanted it back. Gibraltar’s population, of course, had no desire to be part of Franco’s Spain. Ironically, today the status of Gibraltar is threatened by Brexit.

The name Morocco (Maroc, Marruecos) is of European origin, deriving from Marrakesh, a city founded in the Middle Ages, in the midst of the battles for Spain. The Arabic name (المملكة المغربية) is translated as the Kingdom of Morocco, though it reads literally as the kingdom of the West. Under the French protectorate, the postage and currency referred to the Cherifian Empire. In Arabic it is also called the Farthest West (el Maghreb el Aqsa) to distinguish it from the other parts of the areas of northwest Africa also part of the Maghreb. Today Morocco is a modern nation state. A thousand years ago it was not. Nor was Spain. We should not look back with modern preconceptions.

Al-Andalus, Arab Spain, was organized in severa similar and overlapping ways, as were the Christian areas of Iberia. The societies that comprised the territories were complex and fluid, dependent on many factors.

In a sense, the situation was a bit like the rule of Crusader states in the 11th-century Middle East. Religion may have given an impetus to the Crusaders, but once in the Middle East, they carved out kingdoms and fiefdoms, and settled in as best they could, often adopting eastern customs. The Arabs did the same in Spain, but their stay was far longer and more successful, and their imprint on society consequently much greater.

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The Song of the Cid, like The Song of Roland, is a medieval romance, not a history. The Cid (the word comes from the Arabic word for lord) is represented as a crusader fighting for Catholicism and Spain. In fact, he was a soldier of fortune, who fought for whoever paid him, and for what he could obtain for himself. He was not a chivalrous paragon of virtue. Indeed, he wasn’t much different from the many Arab rulers for whom he fought.

Colonnade along the Court of the Lion. Alhambra.

Catlos describes Al-Andalus, from its origins till its fall, as a region of political entities and actors motivated by far more than religion. I think this is a needed corrective. He writes well, with as much detail as he can, and paints an interesting picture of Al-Andalus, a place at the intersection of many cultures, contested for centuries, not just by Christians and Muslims, but by Muslims and Muslims, with alliances that often crossed religious and sectarian, boundaries. Sometimes he is repetitious. He uses current and popular vocabulary, which I sometimes found attractive and other times jarring. He does not glorify violence. Combat was a way of settling disputes, and cruelty was acceptable for both whoever had power or wanted it. The Muslim and Jewish cultural achievements are indisputable, and he gives them their proper place

I recommend it.

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Back street in Toledo.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

4 thoughts on “Agapita”

  1. I enjoyed this. You make a number of good points. Your reflection on the modern notion of the nation state is helpful and leaves me with a lot to think about. My knowledge of Spain is minimal, but this did bring back memories of school. I loved the story of Roland in elementary school. Much later I wrote a history paper linking the Reconquista to the Conquistadors in South America. Much of this intolerant mentality seems to persist to this day.


    1. The Spanish may have moved past a lot of this. The war in northern Morocco, the Civil War, the long Franco dictatorship, and internal ethnic conflicts may have shaped their current views. It is gratifying to see rescue boats still being allowed to put into Spanish ports with migrants, and the rather benign treatment of refugees by the Spanish government.

      The Reconquista and expulsion forced tens of thousands Muslims and Jews to leave Spain. They were not always well received in their new homes. I think we all need a deeper, wider perspective and much more charity.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Then again maybe their biggest problems are themselves. Today’s Guardian has a piece on the government’s announcement that it will remove Franco’s body from his Mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen, and the subsequent uproar.


  2. Just read Lords of the Atlas, at your suggestion Dave. Wow! I never realised what a complicated and bloody recent history there is in Morocco. Thanks for the tip. I will be a lot more careful next time I drive up over the Atlas passes through somebody else’s patch.


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