Ever since I was a boy, my mother would recount to me the fascinating story of Cervantes’ Don Quixote de La Mancha with its tall tales of chivalry, courage and humor.
The story of an old man chasing windmills as if they were monsters brought laughter and amusement to my impressionable mind. What I did not know back then was that Cervantes’ opus was cloaked in shadows; as a need to memorialize a lost culture, the Islamic/Hebraic Andalusian culture of ancient Spain.
Cervantes’ great novel takes place in the region of La Mancha, which at one time was controlled by existing Islamic taifas or petty kingdoms. Though by the time Cervantes introduced his great literary work all traces of that culture had been done away with; erased from memory by the zealous Spanish authorities.
Undoubtedly the Andalusian tradition of convivencia was not only unappreciated but strongly repressed and finally destroyed by the northern Christian authorities who were bent on ridding Spain of any remnants of this once flourishing society.
As the northern kingdoms of León, Navarre, and Castile unified as one force against the disparate taifas of al-Andalus, the final days of Islamic rule in Spain were numbered. The death of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula was attributed to internal division and a failure to organize itself into a larger kingdom in order to fight the united Christian onslaught.
The Christian armies brought with them a newer version of Christianity that was intolerant; unlike its counterpart in al-Andalus which was very much like Andalusian Islam, religiously humanistic. This version of Christianity despised difference or anything that was not in its parochial interests.
This northern Christian intolerance was to change the face of the Iberian Peninsula forever.
Though they made “agreements” with Andalusian Muslim, Jewish, and Arabic-speaking Christian sects, in the end they would not keep their word. The remnant of those left after the final Christian victory of the reconquista were either exiled or converted.
After the travesty of exile and conversions the Spanish authorities turned their religious bigotry on the Andalusian culture; burning hundreds of thousands books that contained any evidence of Islamic or Hebraic influence.
Numerous libraries that contained priceless books and artifacts were sacked and burned. Mosques and synagogues were converted into churches. In the end, both Islam and Judaism were outlawed.
It was a new Spanish era, a parochial rather than humanistic era, where the central government dictated what was tolerated and what was not. It was in this era that Cervantes penned his Andalusian reflections within the story of Don Quixote de La Mancha.
Many of the newly converted Muslims and Jews – those who did not choose exile – entered Spanish society as physicians, men of letters, or successful merchants. The Spanish conquerors at that time had exhausted themselves in their military exploits, and were in comparison to their former Islamic or Jewish counterparts quite uneducated.
The New Christians helped to elevate Spanish society and culture. They also introduced meta-fictional elements into their literary works which in turn brought the concept of the novel to Spanish literature. They were some of the first professors of letters in the universities. They were also expert navigators and seamen. In many ways they helped educate the New Spain.
Many did not forget their Andalusian roots. In a hidden way they wrote about it without being explicit for fear of being exposed.
After a while the New Christians were despised in this intolerant Spanish kingdom. In fact, the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition was instituted to weed out any left over remnants of these former vital members of ancient Spain.
So pervasive was the hatred of these people that those who had escaped the clutches of the Inquisition were burned in effigy and given a solemn parade in remembrance that their souls would burn in hell, just as their effigies did in their stead.
Spain had entered a period of great darkness.
Under this cloak of darkness Cervantes wrote his first novel Don Quixote de La Mancha.
To the uneducated masses, it was an instant success. To the New Christians, it was their swan song. It contained in its many hidden passages references to a better time. It embodied a more dignified time. It was an ode to Andalusian chivalrous life where gallantry and respect towards friend or foe was valued, and where intellectual decorum reigned.
Much in the Cervantes novel contained a double-meaning: La mancha, though referencing a region in Spain, also meant literally, the stain. Those who were not of honorable old Christian blood were thought of as manchado de sangre, blood stained. It was considered beneath the Hidalgo characteristic to stain their noble blood (old Christian blood) with the blood of a former Muslim or Jew (new Christian blood) through marriage.
In the novel Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s trusted sidekick, is constantly referencing his old Christian blood, though he be a dunce, his pedigree is spotless or without mancha (stain).
In Cervantes’ Spain proving one’s pedigree took on an almost absurdist tone; where documented proof was required in order to get governmental posts or for the arranging of proper marriages. You had to prove yourself to be an old Christian to be a healthy member of Spanish society; otherwise you were shunned as an outcast.
Cervantes pokes fun at these ridiculous blood laws by making the uneducated peasant Sancho Panza Don Quixote’s squire. Sancho is illiterate and proud of it (referencing the new Spanish order) but by influence of his new master he develops considerable knowledge about some books (the Andalusian influence).
Is Don Quixote insane or is he just overly romantic?
Don Quixote disregards his current circumstances:
-He is physically connected to the “new” Spain, but is mentally separated from it.
-He is mentally connected to the “old,” chivalrous Andalusian Spain of romance, but is physically disconnected from it.
Andalusian Spain becomes a place where his literary dreams can become real at the expense of others who are by far more pragmatic and grounded, but who cannot possibly see what he sees (they have become physically blinded to the past).
Don Quixote sees things in a confused state: Windmills, which were introduced by Muslim engineers into Spain, become monsters he needs to fight. This is a reference to the current struggle (righteous warfare), that the current polity was exercising to repress the Andalusian past (evil breed).
At this point they came in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, “Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.”
Cervantes writes in these meta-fictional and duplicitous ways in order to call attention to the current state of despair Spain is locked into; while still remembering what Spain was under Andalusian rule. Both countries are undoubtedly Spain, but both are subject to different cultural influences with very contrasting results.
The Andalusia of old, which Cervantes was inspired by, in contrast to the new regime, which was bent on destroying itself, reflected a better time, a harmonious time, a time gone by.
Don Quixote metaphorically represents Andalusian Spain; a Spain that is infatuated with chivalry and ancient literature, a time of literary greatness and romance.
In chapter 9 of Don Quixote we come to a point where the story should continue, however the text is missing and must be found in order to complete the narrative:
(A)nd at this so critical point the delightful history came to a stop and stood cut short without any intimation from the author where what was missing was to be found.This distressed me greatly, because the pleasure derived from having read such a small portion turned to vexation at the thought of the poor chance that presented itself of finding the large part that, so it seemed to me, was missing of such an interesting tale. It appeared to me to be a thing impossible and contrary to all precedent that so good a knight should have been without some sage to undertake the task of writing his marvellous achievements; a thing that was never wanting to any of those knights-errant who, they say, went after adventures; for every one of them had one or two sages as if made on purpose, who not only recorded their deeds but described their most trifling thoughts and follies, however secret they might be; and such a good knight could not have been so unfortunate as not to have what Platir and others like him had in abundance. And so I could not bring myself to believe that such a gallant tale had been left maimed and mutilated, and I laid the blame on Time, the devourer and destroyer of all things, that had either concealed or consumed it.
In order to continue the narrative Don Quixote needs to travel to a place where stories were transcribed and translated. This place is the alcala de Toledo; the name Alcalá (from the Arabic word al-qal’a القلعة for fortification or citadel) is a reference to Toledo’s Arabic past.
Toledo (which was a frontier Andalusian citadel) was handed over to the Northern Christians during the reconquista. This marked the end of Islamic rule in that region. In other words, it was all downhill from then on for Islamic rule in al-Andalus.
It was a major Islamic catastrophe to lose such a vital city; a place that was renowned for its ability to translate books into Arabic from it original sources. The city was host to much of the Islamic and Jewish literati of Islamic Andalusia, to which Cervantes pays homage.
One day, as I was in the Alcala of Toledo, a boy came up to sell some pamphlets and old papers to a silk mercer, and, as I am fond of reading even the very scraps of paper in the streets, led by this natural bent of mine I took up one of the pamphlets the boy had for sale, and saw that it was in characters which although I recognised as Arabic, I was unable to read them, I looked about to see if there were any Spanish-speaking Morisco at hand to read them for me; nor was there any great difficulty in finding such an interpreter, for even had I sought one for an older and better language I should have found him. In short, chance provided me with one, who when I told him what I wanted and put the book into his hands, opened it in the middle and after reading a little in it began to laugh. I asked him what he was laughing at, and he replied that it was at something the book had written in the margin by way of a note. I bade him tell it to me; and he still laughing said, “In the margin, as I told you, this is written: ‘This Dulcinea del Toboso so often mentioned in this history, had, they say, the best hand of any woman in all La Mancha for salting pigs.’”
In this narrative we find that a boy selling ancient manuscripts (Spanish cartapacio more or less, a binder with numerous papers) which were written in Arabic, a nod of course to Toledo’s connection to its Islamic past.
Finding that he recognized the writing as being Arabic but not understanding what it meant, he went looking for an interpreter. What better place to find such a person than in Toledo, an area renown for such talent though by this time they were either long gone or in hiding. Happenstance leads him to find a Morisco who knew what these words meant.
Moriscos, “Moors,” were the converted Christian inhabitants of Spain and Portugal of Muslim heritage. Over time the term was used in a pejorative sense applied to those nominal Catholics who were suspected of secretly practicing Islam.
He continues to say that in this old city of Toledo you could even find a translator for an older and better language, a reference to Hebrew; the other forbidden language. Of course one can only find those who spoke “forbidden” languages Arabic and Hebrew in the Alcalá de Toledo, the ancient Islamic citadel known for its abundance in books and translators.
The reference to Dulcina del Toboso, who had the “best” hand in salting pork, references both Muslims and Jews who, because of their religious aversion to swine flesh, in order to convince the general populace of their “good” intentions to assimilate religiously as Christians, became adept at salting pork for general consumption. It was a ruse that everyone in the know knew about, which is why it was funny to the Morisco translator who was reading it.
Another point of importance is the Islamic and Jewish custom of adopting in their surnames the region in Spain they came from; usually with the definite article, de or del before their surnames (e.g., del Taboso, El Toboso is a town and municipality located in the province of Toledo, central Spain).
When I heard Dulcinea del Toboso named, I was struck with surprise and amazement, for it occurred to me at once that these pamphlets contained the history of Don Quixote. With this idea I pressed him to read the beginning, and doing so, turning the Arabic offhand into Castilian, he told me it meant, “History of Don Quixote of La Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian.” It required great caution to hide the joy I felt when the title of the book reached my ears, and snatching it from the silk mercer, I bought all the papers and pamphlets from the boy for half a real; and if he had had his wits about him and had known how eager I was for them, he might have safely calculated on making more than six reals by the bargain. I withdrew at once with the Morisco into the cloister of the cathedral, and begged him to turn all these pamphlets that related to Don Quixote into the Castilian tongue, without omitting or adding anything to them, offering him whatever payment he pleased. He was satisfied with two arrobas of raisins and two bushels of wheat, and promised to translate them faithfully and with all despatch; but to make the matter easier, and not to let such a precious find out of my hands, I took him to my house, where in little more than a month and a half he translated the whole just as it is set down here.
By far the most interesting and controversial piece in Cervantes’ narrative is that the “history” of Don Quixote De la Mancha is in fact written by an Arab historian, El Cide Hamete Benegeli.
This odd, some scholars suggest, eccentric entry into the narrative is stuff of legends. Scholars of Cervantes to this day struggle with the significance of the complexity that this simple sentence implies, when it comes to understanding Cervantes’ work. Scholars suggest that Don Quixote De la Mancha, is a work done by more than one author because of El Cide’s declared authorship; suggesting, perhaps, that Cervantes uses multiple personalities as authors as a means to confuse his readership.
I believe that this multi-layered authorship with its nod towards Arabic origins is another ruse used by Cervantes’ Andalusian dialectic. It was a literary trick to confuse the Spanish authorities who censored or banned outright any material that pointed to, or referenced any greatness of past Islamic influenced Spain.
In my opinion, suggesting multiple authors is a literary device meant to safeguard himself from censorship or worse. It serves also as a double entendre. The controversial idea that Cervantes suggests here is that Hidalgo chivalric pride and its great military prowess was actually derived from Arabic sources.
This astonishing revelation is meant to reference the greatness of Islamic Spain with its splendid culture and humanism. It was this culture that helped to shape Spain whether the Catholics acknowledged it or not.
We all know that after the reconquista Christian Spain tried to bury Andalusian culture and its great significance and profound influence, deep under the rubble of Christian posturing and intolerance.
Try as they might, though, the truth was not to be forgotten, especially by Spain’s most honored and distinguished laureate. With an uncanny insight and literary subterfuge Cervantes was able to acknowledge Spain’s most significant contribution to itself and the world: the Andalusian humanistic culture and the great scholarship that it generated.