Like many Hispanophiles, he’s had a long-lasting fascination with the Moorish past of this country, whether triggered by the sublime Alhambra in Granada, the dramatic and beautiful Great Mosque in Cordoba or the surprising number of Arabic root words in the Spanish language. Gibraltar which the Spanish vociferously and with inept politicians insist is theirs could realistically be claimed by Morocco or other North African countries – after all, it’s named after a Moor – jabal Tariq – the mountain of Tariq, the first Arab to conquer Spain.
For eight centuries Christians, Muslims and Jews lived and worked side by side. It was a period of great cultural and artistic blossoming. The Moors in Spain had the first universities, the first paper factories and the first street lighting in the whole of Europe. The Arabs learned paper-making from the Chinese artisans on capturing Samarkand. Indeed, the Moors first crossed the Strait to Spain in the Dark Ages, at about the same time as Bede was writing his History. At the time Spain was under Visigothic rule, the German tribes having moved in and taken over as the Roman Empire collapsed.
‘Moor’ was the term used to describe Muslims in Spain – Arabs, Berbers, Syrians, Persians and eventually Spaniards; it originated from the Latin maurus, which had been used to refer to North Africans.
Eventually the Christian Reconquest started to bite and in 1492 the Moors were expelled from what had become their country. What followed was religious intolerance, epitomised by the Inquisition. In modern Spain now annual ‘Moors and Christians’ fiestas occur in many towns and cities; these are noisy, colourful and quite spectacular events.
Two hundred years before the Reconquest, Arabic scholars translated great medical and mathematical works from the original Greek. By way of the Reconquest many of these works were translated into Latin, notably in Toledo. It could even be argued that the Arabic learning laid the foundations of the later Renaissance.
Webster was curious to see how the Moorish influence persisted even to this day, beyond these fiestas – ironically at a time when the Spanish government is having difficulty stemming the tide of illegal immigrants from Morocco and North African ports.
He read an old legend about Musa the Moor, the richest, strongest and most powerful caliph in ancient Spain. As the Christian armies were advancing, Musa asked his friendly jinn to safeguard his riches – which he did by turning them into stone in a special cave; but Musa’s daughter Zoraida didn’t want to flee, so she was turned into a tree outside the cave. But for one day in every year, as spring arrives, Princess Zoraida comes back to life and all the Caliph’s riches gleam and shine again. Only for one day the spell is broken. Webster was enchanted by this tale and wondered if, like the Caliph’s riches, much of the Moorish heritage was hidden from view, only waiting to be discovered.
The book begins with Webster incognito under the plastic sheeting of a fruit farm, doing some journalistic research on the illegal immigrants working in appalling conditions. Because they’re illegal, the immigrants are locked up at night and monitored by guards; they get no pay, only food and cramped sleeping quarters. Slavery was alive and well, it seemed. Then he was discovered and had to flee, aided by a young Moroccan called Zine. They got away but Webster now felt beholden to Zine and attempted to find work for him – a difficult task when he had no papers. [This short episode inspired me for a sequence in my Blood of the Dragon Trees].
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Accompanied by his own modern-day Moor for most of his journey of discovery, Webster meets a number of fascinating characters in Cordoba, Murcia, Almeria and Seville, among other southern Spain and Portugeuse towns. There’s an amusing visit to a clinica de enfermedades sexuales in Seville; however, I could have done without the over-long surreal Christmas party in a Valencia disco. On the way he reminds us of the Moorish legacy in the language – many words beginning with ‘a’ or ‘al’ have Arabic roots, whether English or Spanish: ‘Cotton’ – algodon in Spanish – comes from the Arabic al-qutun, for example.
Webster has an observant eye and a deceptively easy writing style which enliven a fascinating quick tour round the Moorish history via modern-day towns and cities of Spain.
Since writing Andalus, Webster has produced three detective novels featuring Chief Inspector Max Camara in Valencia: Or the Bulls Kill You, A Death in Valencia, and The Anarchist Detective.