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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Things get Real

I wrote last time about French and what a pleasure it is to come up with the necessary words in another language, even while making all kinds of mistakes. Since we have an old car, I’d been running through various words and phrases just in case (we’ve never had any trouble with the car before): Les freins ne marchent pas. La voiture est tombée en panne.

But the brakes didn’t act up in France, or for that matter, an English-speaking country. They waited till Spain. Which is why, having reached the outskirts of Madrid safely and without incident, our first priority is to see if we can get the car fixed, and when/how we will be able to proceed. Somehow, in all my years of studying Spanish, I don’t seem to have absorbed much of use beyond the numbers. So I’ll be able to understand what the mechanic would like to charge us, just not what is wrong.

I hope this reassures anyone who thought we were just on some beach jolly over here.

Since we have some time, I think I’ll write a bit about my interest in Spain, a country whose mainland I never visited until two years ago. The earliest thing I remember learning about the country was that “Don Marcelino took his daughter Maria/ Into the cave at Altamira.” In the version we read at school, it was Maria who at least helped in the discovery of the Altamira cave art, Europe’s most sophisticated Stone Age drawings (doce mil=12,000 years old). We passed signs for Altamira on our way to Bakio, in the Basque country.

We didn’t go there, nor to the landmark we visited last time, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. I feel very fortunate that we saw San Juan a couple of years ago, as I’m told that since then, it has become famous as background scenery for Game of Thrones. We tried to watch Game of Thrones once and couldn’t get into it, but I pass no judgment on the program’s legions of fans. My real problem with it is that it is ruining Europe. Ever since San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was on TV, busloads of people crowd it every single day, putting (we were told) no money into the local community. 

I’ve also heard that they’ve ruined Dubrovnik, but we’ll see about that next month. Or maybe the month after. Depends on the car situation.

You could do worse on a cross-country trip than the Madrid-Burgos highway. Burgos has an impressive Gothic cathedral. As with Bordeaux, we didn’t actually go to the city, but Burgos’s cathedral is visible across the sweeping landscape, so I was still able to see it. One of many mighty impressive views. Another was this:

Somewhere in the middle of the meseta, you go over a rise in the hill and there is this toro. I don’t know why, but I recognized it from the cover of an old Lonely Planet guide I was reading.

Speaking of guidebooks, the best laid plans kind of go adrift when your transportation is kaput (that’s a Spanish word), but they’re great for getting ideas. For example, I understand that here in Madrid, nightlife only really kicks off in the wee hours of the morning. We are not testing this proposition tonight and are unlikely to.

The contrast between this continental climate, which I’m used to, and the islands we’ve been living on is quite striking. There was some rain on our drive, and there’d have to be; inland Spain is much greener than, say, Arizona. But the hills and valleys were still pretty stinking hot (dipping from 35 degrees C to a mere 27 in the rain). At the same time, we passed signs with snowflake symbols on them, warning of the danger of ice in the winter.

But there are other, more cultural contrasts I’d never have thought of. For example, in Ireland I could never find a trash can. There were rows and rows of recycling bins, seemingly everywhere, but never in one of these rows was there a place to put regular rubbish. I am as big a fan of recycling as anyone else, but when there is no place to put plain old trash, it ends up where you’d expect: in rotten piles on the ground. 

In Spain, on the other hand, there are pairs of trash cans everywhere: one for trash, one for recycling. I’m not even sure people are allowed to throw things away in their homes, as we kept seeing people arrive at the cans and empty their trash. Even the beach was lined with cans. It made me wish I still had that banana peel from Ireland, just so I could throw it away.

Trivial, I know. Here’s what really interests me about the Iberian peninsula: it’s the only part of Western Europe that was ever Islamicized. And by the standards of the Middle Ages, it went pretty well. For the age of convivencia, Muslims, Christians, and Jews all lived together in what passed for peace and harmony in those days.

Of course, there was no equality or modern concept of human rights. Muslims ruled, and there were special rules and taxes for the other “peoples of the Book.” As for infidels, there were about as welcome as you’d expect them to be in any Islamic state. But the fact remains that for centuries, people who worshipped the God of Abraham in three distinct manners managed, by and large, to keep from killing each other. That would stretch the capacity of the twentieth century, and maybe the twenty-first.

For mediaeval Jews, not being killed or forced to convert to a religion not their own was as good as life got. And they made the most of it. Islamic Spain was a place where much classical knowledge, such as from ancient Greece, was preserved by learned writers. Before there was what we would call a Spanish literature (Castilian) most of that learned writing was in Arabic—except for that which was in Hebrew.

Then came the biggest year in Spain’s history: 1492. U.S. schoolchildren used to be taught that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” with all the caveats that entails; but Ferdinand and Isabella have two other disturbing acts to answer for.
Statue of Cristóbal Colón, Madrid
The same year 
Colón sailed, they expelled the unconverted Jews from Spain. (England, and most other European countries, had expelled Jews centuries before. You didn’t think they moved to Poland for that continental climate, did you?)

And then Isabel and Fernando started the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition is one of the most monstrous institutions ever to bleat out religious terms, but its first target was converted Jews. Conversos were, naturally, suspected of having converted to Catholicism only to escape expulsion, and of secretly still doing Jewish things, like not eating pork. This type of deviant behavior may have been OK under the Moors (Muslims don’t eat pork either), but the Catholic monarchs could not tolerate it. And so the conversos were in an impossible position. If by any chance they wanted to convert to Christianity, it would do them no good anyway, as they would still be persecuted as Jews.

Does any of this sound familiar? I wrote my graduate dissertation on the conversos of Spain, so I still get kind of worked up about them.

But I never visited any of the cities of Spain, or al-Andalus, as Muslim Spain (now Andalucia) was called. So I didn’t know what the historical remnants of this convivencia looked like in practice. What’s happened seems similar to how all of Ireland’s trash cans were shipped over to Spanish beaches: the religious buildings of Spain betray each other’s heritage. Córdoba's 8th-century mezquita, the finest mosque in Spain, has had its minaret replaced with the tower of a cathedral. In Seville, the world's largest Gothic cathedral retains the minaret of a mosque.
It's just a question of getting on the road again.


Anonymous said...

Very informative, fascinating, and leavened with wit ("What happened [architecturally in post-Islamic Spain] is like how all Irish trash cans were shipped to Spanish beaches.") A good read! Groove & Pop

Unknown said...

fascinating history the Islamic invasion of Spain ....brought backs some classroom memories from Graduate School..... Darn after these posts I think I want to come back to Spain and Portugal....Do you remember Jeff Cannon....his family was Portuguese ....great musicians...UB