Report from the Last Muslim Stronghold


SALOBREÑA, SPAIN—Last week, this village 50 miles south of Granada, where the Moors staged their last stand back in 1492, had its annual Nazarí Festival. The Nasrid was the final dynasty and represented the golden age of Arabic civilization.

The Nazarí Festival is a three-day event in ?which locals dress up like Moors and celebrate their past. It’s held outside the old Arab castle that still stands atop the village and where, according to Washington Irving, three Muslim princesses were once held to keep them out of Christian hands.

To me, it’s interesting that Spain still celebrates a culture that (a) it famously and violently expelled, and (b) is so much back in the news.

We Americans have trouble understanding the Muslims. Even now, of the three remaining presidential candidates, only one has any direct knowledge of Islam, and one (whose name I won’t mention) seems totally confused whenever he addresses the subject.

During the festival, everyone dresses up and parades around with plates of Moroccan food. One of the plazas near the castle is walled off with plywood Moorish arches and made to look like a souk, or marketplace.

There are booths devoted to Arabic arts and crafts, palm reading, juggling, you name it. You can buy a ceramic goblet for a euro and have it filled with whatever kind of liquid is being offered, including beer and wine—which, of course, would have appalled the Moors.

In an age when an American can be condemned for simply having a Muslim name, Arabism is still more or less accepted here. This despite the subway bombings and Osama bin Ladin’s periodic rantings about “restoring the caliphate” to Spain.

Once a year, a number of villages here set aside a holiday to reenact the expulsion of the Moors. Half of the villagers play Catholics, and half play Moors.

They run around banging pots and pans and stage a simulation of the fall of Granada. Since it always turns out the same way, with the Muslims getting the short end of the stick, the villagers switch sides every year. After all, who wants to be a loser forever?

These tourist events attract hordes of Brits who use the occasion to get blotto. To them, it’s all a big party. One can imagine how they would react if hundreds of drunk Spaniards descended on them to celebrate the Battle of Hastings.

Observing these goings-on, I’m reminded of those Civil War follies where enthusiasts dress up in uniform and reenact the battles of Gettysburg or Bull Run. Only there’s this difference: Here in Spain, one side is playing both parts. Real Muslims are not invited to partake.

In fact, some Muslims have begun to complain and say they see these mock battles as insulting. I can understand that. But since they’ve come here to earn the living they can’t make in their own benighted countries, to complain seems foolish. It’s a little like a Brit coming to America, then protesting the Fourth of July.

All of this might seem pretty remote until we remember that to many Muslims the loss of Spain is the greatest tragedy in their history. They’ve been told—correctly—that in the Nasrid period theirs was the finest civilization on earth. Math and science flourished, and scholars helped to preserve the ancient knowledge that would later re-emerge in the Renaissance. They do indeed deserve credit.

But that only makes you wonder what’s wrong with them today. While drafting this column, I received an e-mail from a friend of my brother-in-law who has been hired by Prince Turki al-Saud of Saudi Arabia to try to help start a Western-style university in that godforsaken country. Saudi Arabia is long on oil, money and faith, but short on everything else.

The e-mail talked about the repression of freedoms he encountered there, the difficulties he had conducting business when everything gets interrupted by prayer five times a day, and how an American woman on his research team was denied the use of a bathroom even when she had diarrhea. They had to stuff her full of Imodium and send her back to her hotel every time she had to go.

One can imagine what kind of university that’s going to be.

So obviously something has been lost in the six centuries since the caliphate. A culture that once accepted both learning and Jews, that once served as the repository of all that was progressive and tolerant, now can’t even let a woman use the bathroom lest it offend Allah.

It’s going to take more than a few subway bombings to straighten all that out.


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