Wednesday, August 5, 2015


When I was sixteen, in 1971, friends of my parents invited me on a golfing holiday at Los Monteros, the exclusive country club and hotel in Marbella; the previous year my parents had taken their son with us on a tour of the championship golf clubs of England and Scotland, so this was their reciprocation. My other friends were shocked. Spain? You had to be joking? No one goes to Spain - that’s like taking a holiday in Germany in 1937. Generalissimo Franco… but I was a romantic and a would-be writer, and going to the land of Laurie Lee and Ernest Hemingway and Federico Garcia Lorca was to join, albeit rather late, the fight against fascism which Franco alone of all of Europe's 20th century despots had managed to sustain for fully forty years (apparently there was also still Salazar in Portugal, but I was a very naive and ignorant sixteen year old), and going as a Jew to that most anti-Semitic of all lands where Jews had once been fully accepted, fully integrated, though not by Christians... this was not just a golfing holiday, this was a pilgrimage and a statement of defiance.

You who were born in the decades after 1980 probably think I made this up. "Spain? On the boycott list? Like South Africa and Israel and Cuba? But every Brit I know has a holiday home in Marbella, or rents one somewhere on the Costa Lotta. If the Germans or the Scandinavians haven't rented them first, or simply put their beach towels down to claim them. Spain unvisitable? You have to be joking."

Though we think of Spain today as one of the most peacefully European, indeed one of the most civilised of countries, few realise just how complex that statement is. The earliest records that we have are from Roman times, and what we think of as Iberians were really Roman and Greek colonists, and quite probably Phoenician and Carthaginian colonists before them, mixed up with Celts and Basques and other tribes who had wandered west and southwards over many centuries. The Romans ruled Spain from 218 BCE to 409 CE, after which it was Germanic Visigoths who migrated through France and took control of Spain, making their capital at Toledo. But in 711 Spain became a Moslem nation, conquered almost in its entirety by what we call the Moors, Moroccans essentially, though Cordoba and Granada attracted Moslems from across the Caliphate, and its history is one of great scientific, architectural, medical, astronomical, engineering, poetic, artistic and literary achievement, some of which still remains as tourist sites to this day, most of which, alas, was wilfully destroyed when that great barbarian the Catholic Church claimed Spain for Christendom, in stages from the 14th century, finally in 1492. Spain as a Moslem country for seven hundred years - and much of southern France, the whole of southern Italy, and several major islands in the Mediterranean too.
You won't find any of that in your standard English history book however; the enduring Christian view of the Infidel and ignorant Moor is one of the minor reasons why we are now facing Islamic State in Syria and across the world.

Which brings us to the very brief period in which Spain was identifiable as itself, and became a great empire in the world, conquering most of South America and various parts of Europe, becoming so rich that it could arm itself for further world expansion - and then go bankrupt, and be defeated, in the process. By the end of the 17th century Spain was no more - France conquered and absorbed it, with a line of Hapsburg and then Bourbon kings, before Napoleon made it part of his empire, and then the Bourbons were re-established, as their line still is today.

A Germanic people then, still ruled by the French, with their more ancient peoples (in this case the Basques and Catelans) pushed into the geographical extremities and denied their national identity, let alone a political autonomy - a comparison with Great Britain would not be out of order!

Marks for: not simply Cervantes and Federica Garcia Lorca, but major figures such as Averroes (ibn Rushd) and Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon), as well as ibn Fathun, al-Majriti, ibn Bajjah (Avempace), Judah ha-Levi; many others.

Marks against: 1236 (the year in which Cordoba fell to the Christians, and its library, the greatest in the world at the time with more than half a millon books, was burned to the ground.

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