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Tales of a Morisco

Hassan Aourid’s novel, Le Morisque, or, The Morisco, a lyrically written account of the unsettling life of a Morisco who lives in the tumultuous period of the late 16th and 17th centuries, fills a huge gap in the literature of a tragedy that connects Spain, Morocco, and the Maghreb in a tale of sorrow and broken dreams.  The peripatetic journey of Pedro, whose secret Muslim name in Spain is Ahmed, allows readers to reflect on the conflicted relations between Spain and Morocco throughout the centuries, and, even more importantly, reassess the clash of religions that has ensnared both sides of the Mediterranean since late antiquity.

Trapped in an impossible social situation following the Alpajurras uprising of 1568-69, Pedro’s father, a faquih, or religious scholar, maintains his defeated ancestors’ Islamic legacy at home, thereby forcing his wife and children (Ignès and Pedro, or Zahra and Ahmed) to lead double lives.  Such a life of dissimulation may be a short-term survival strategy, but it is not a way to be fully human.  Zahra gets killed, her aggrieved father soon follows her to the grave, the mother enters a Dominican convent, and the surviving Pedro/Ahmed, heir to his father’s religious title, flees with his childhood friend to Morocco and makes his way to Marrakech.

It is in this enchanting city that Morocco’s king, Sultan Moulay Ahmed al-Mansour, renames the hapless refugee Chihab Eddine and employs him as his secretary.  Thus appointed, the Morisco navigates all sorts of court intrigues by remaining neutral in political affairs, witnesses the plight of his fellow Moriscos in their lands of exile, examines up close the real state of the Muslim world, and even has doubts as to whether his loyal attachment to his faith is really worth the trouble.

It doesn’t take much time for Chihab Eddine to realize that he has fled Spain only to find the Inquisition, bloody power struggles, corruption, slavishness, sycophancy, spying, and arbitrary justice in the lands of Muslims. His Amazigh (Berber) friend and guide to Moroccan culture, Antati, notes the waste and tyranny of the Saadian sultan, what with his imperial wars against fellow Muslims (such as the crusade against the Songhai Empire), mad quest for gold, building the fabulous Badii Palace (while people are crushed with taxes), and terrorizing his subjects with the European renegades that command his troops.  Not only that, but like the Taifa wars that decimated the Muslim fabric in Spain, the sultan has to fight his own son Mamoun who, like his brothers Zidane and Abu Fares, is not fit to govern.

Following the death of Ahmed al-Mansour from the plague, a bloody interregnum and the rise of Moulay Zidane to the throne, Chihab Eddine, the father of three children by this time, is tasked to lead a delegation to France and Holland to explain the plight of the Moriscos who are ordered expelled by King Philip III from Spain in 1609. The freedom he finds in Holland impresses him and makes him wish it were available in his native and adopted countries.  But France has an equally powerful effect on him.  He engages in passionate intellectual discussions about religion and is swept off his feet by the beauty and grace of Eugénie.  He fights mightily to resist making love to her, but he can’t avoid the effect she has on his thinking.  He now realizes that one can’t generalize about Christians or Muslims, that both can be agents of good and evil.  His attitude becomes more nuanced.

Meanwhile, back in Morocco, power struggles continue to tear the country apart, and the independent pirate republic of Sale, the base of exiled Moriscos, is no exception.  As Chihab Eddine ages and his friends and wife die, he embarks on a long pilgrimage with his youngest son and fourth child, Ibrahim, to Mecca. There he prays for all his dead relatives as well as for his lost love, Eugènie. On his way back from Arabia, Chihab Eddine settles in the Tunisian oasis village of Tozeur and entrusts his manuscripts to the local imam Chabbi.

On the face of it, Le Morisque seems to be about a tragic moment in the history of Islam, but the book is very much a cautionary tale about the present.  Like all fundamentalists, Pedro/Ahmed/Chihab Eddine starts out by idealizing his faith, only to find out, through his interactions with the Amazigh Antati and the French Eugènie, that things are not quite that simple.  He appreciates the freedoms available in Holland and France and wishes his fellow citizens had them back home, yet he himself, like most Muslims today, however “modern” they may think they are, is unable to transform himself fully.  He quotes repeatedly from the Qur’an (although he makes occasional references to the Bible) and can’t transcend the boundaries of religion.

Le Morisque is, thus, a commentary about our lives today.  We are still debating the place of religion in politics and society and the language of the Qur’an is still trying to claim a privileged place in Morocco. Meanwhile, we still have no national language and freedom of conscience is still a distant dream, even in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Tradition, in other words, continues to exact a terrible price from our future.

About the Author

Anouar Majid is editor of Tingis.

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