Al-Andalus in Motion
RACHEL SCOTT, JULIAN WEISS & ABDOOLKARIM VAKIL
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the Medieval Herald about your book Al-Andalus in Motion. Can you please begin by providing a brief overview of your work?
Yes, of course… To the general reader the title might sound a little strange. How can a place – the territories of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) that were ruled by Muslims between 711 and 1492 – be ‘in motion’? All places can become major sites of memory or (to borrow the term popularised by the French cultural historian Pierre Nora) lieux de mémoire. Indeed, one might go further and say that to become a ‘place’ rather than just a spot on a map, any site needs to have an accumulation of memories, stories, cultural and political associations, and so forth. This book illustrates the symbolic meanings and cultural function of al-Andalus as it travels across time and space, from medieval Iberia to our contemporary worlds. The subtitle gives a clue: ‘travelling concepts and cross-cultural contexts’. Symbolic places, or memory sites, travel but their significance is never stable, because memory is always contingent upon the needs and concerns of the present and of particular cultural conditions and contexts.
OK, I understand that. So the next question is obvious: what is your definition of Al-Andalus?
Well, as we’ve just suggested, al-Andalus means many things, and its significance will depend upon the perspective from which it is thought about or viewed. It is of course a concrete time and place in history, but far more than this, al-Andalus is a ‘travelling concept’, a place-in-time that has been untethered from its historical and material conditions of existence to become a figure of thought that has allowed people and societies to think through, affirm and contest a whole range of issues relating to personal and collective identity, nationhood, otherness, race, religion and so forth. And as the essays in the volume demonstrate, that range is very broad and of global significance. If you want a definition, we think an excellent one is still that offered by the great Palestinian poet Mahmood Darwish, in an interview about his poem ‘Eleven Stars over Andalusia’ (composed for the Quincentenary of 1492): al-Andalus, he said, ‘might be here or there … a meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture […] the realization of the dream of the poem’. More recently, the historian Gil Anidjar emphasised the openness of this project and dream by calling ‘al-Andalus’ an ‘unfinished project’, ‘a figure of incompletion, even perhaps of infinity’.
How did this work come about? What led you to explore this topic?
We chose this topic for two reasons, which are inextricably entwined: our pedagogy and our research. The way we and others now teach the cultures and languages of modern-day Spain, Portugal and Latin America, moves away from national histories to explore the interconnections and entanglements of histories across time and place. Ours is a polycentric (not Eurocentric) approach to what we call ‘Global Iberias’ (in the plural), or ‘the Iberianate venture’. The book is an outcome of an educational philosophy towards modern language studies, as much as the result of our own individual research projects, which range across the Iberian Peninsula and its contact zones in the Hispanic and Lusophone worlds, from the Middle Ages to the present day. The confluence of teaching and research also characterises our work on the ‘Travelling Concepts’ strand of the Language Acts and Worldmaking project, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Open World Research Initiative (OWRI). Language Acts and Worldmaking examines language as a material and historical force which enables us to construct and question our personal, local, transnational and spiritual identities – what we call ‘worldmaking’. The aim of our project, as with all OWRI research, is to regenerate the teaching and research of modern languages, to combat approaches to language learning conceived merely as an ancillary skill, and to underscore the central role it plays in intercultural understanding and competence. Al-Andalus in Motion is the main published output of the ‘Travelling Concepts’ strand. The strand and the book conceive the Iberian Peninsula as both the originator and product of a polycentric process of global colonisation; its history – the ‘Iberianate venture’ – is a workshop for questioning how language constructs the world. So readers will find in the collected essays examples of the ideological work performed by the vocabularies that historically cluster around Iberia, whether embedded in individual words or phrases – such as ‘global’, ‘culture’, ‘civilisation’, ‘tolerance’, ‘Europe’ and the binary East/ West – or extended literary forms (narrative, lyric, history). These vocabularies have been central to the way Iberian history has been imagined both inside and outside the Peninsula, from the Middle Ages to the present day.
With our medieval list and Hispanic studies imprint Tamesis, this latest King’s College London Medieval Studies volume is a great book for a wide range of our readers. Tell us what those working in the two disciplines will get from your book?
Well, for a start off, we are not talking about two ‘disciplines’. Both Medieval studies and Hispanic and Lusophone studies are not fixed or sealed ‘disciplines’ but sites of interdisciplinarity. With regard to Medieval studies, the volume, as you mentioned, is the latest in the series published by the King’s College London’s Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies, which, since its inception in 1987 has always promoted cross-disciplinary work and collaborations. So we hope that our volume will encourage researchers and students to see themselves as belonging to multiple disciplinary fields, and to question the limitations and boundaries of rigid disciplinary silos in the first place.
The book’s blurb declares that the essays “illustrate the contemporary significance of the Middle Ages as a site for collaborative interdisciplinary thinking”. What do you mean by this?
Individually, most contributions constitute we might call the ‘stopping off’ points of Al-Andalus’s journey through time and place: they are historically specific case studies, set within a frame of two chronologically and geographically broad essays by our co-editor AbdoolKarim Vakil, who inspired the project in the first place. However, as we have already said, the volume as a whole contributes to the emphasis increasingly placed on interdisciplinary collaborative work. As for its contemporary significance, beyond the research and teaching methodologies and practices, readers will find many examples of contemporary political uses of al-Andalus (e.g. the essays by Yuval Evri or Carlos Yebra López on the way al-Andalus is evoked in relation to conflicts in Palestine/Land of Israel or debates over Spain’s recent ‘Law of Return’ for Jews exiled in 1492). But overall, each essay shows how the past is continuously reimagined in and for the present.
It seems that the common perception of the Middle Ages as one of barbarism and violence persists despite our community’s best efforts. Is it fair to say that your book is part of the counter-argument to this view?
We’d say that professional medievalists no longer think of the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages’, but that this view clearly still persists in public discourse as well as among many colleagues who work in other periods of literature, art and history. Though no one is unaware of the baggage carried by the term ‘Renaissance’, early modernists still need to define themselves against a medieval ‘Other’, ‘dark’ or otherwise. Or take the recent film adaptation of that wonderful medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Why is David Lowery’s film, The Green Knight, so visually dark? So, in one respect yes, the book certainly does counter this perspective – indeed, as some essays in the volume show, al-Andalus is often used to evoke a golden age or high point in literature, the arts, and scholarship. This is something we stress in our introduction, that al-Andalus does not only belong to or represent the past but is also part of discussions about how we live now in the present moment and about alternative possible ways of living in the future. Many essays implicitly illustrate the (rather obvious) point that the Middle Ages did not have a monopoly on barbarism and violence. Rather, as Walter Benjamin put it, ‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’.
The interplay between the (imagined) medieval past and subsequent ‘modernities’ is one reason why we chose to publish with King’s College London Medieval Studies. Its recent volumes – Locating the Middle Ages, Rewriting Holiness, Medieval Science Fiction – have all explored the dialectic relationship between a period’s sense of modernity and its premodern past.
How did you find your contributors?
We held a conference in November 2018 in collaboration with the Scientific Studies Association (ILEM) at the University of Istanbul on the topic of ‘Al-Andalus in Motion’, for which an open call was put out for participants. The Call for Papers attracted excellent proposals from a multitude of scholars working in wide range of disciplines and at different career levels. It was really hard to choose which to include in the conference, and even harder to select which papers to include in the volume. Although we had planned to publish a volume based on the event, the discussions over the course of the two days confirmed the topic’s importance and broad scope, and shaped the way we managed the peer review process and rewriting of the papers for publication. We also commissioned other papers to create what we think is a coherent collection.
What is one thing you really want your readers to take away from your work?
The importance of the past in understanding the present. As contributions to the volume show, the ideological uses to which the past is put reveal just as much – if not more – about the time and perspective from which this past is viewed as they do any sense of historical ‘truth’. That there is no one, fixed ‘truth’ about a person, place, or time.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?
Well, most of the basic research and core writing for the essays was done before lockdown, although when the pandemic struck, we were still working with the contributors, editing, rewriting, discussing matters of emphasis, scope and detail. With a collective volume such as this, it is important for the book to be more than the sum of its parts, so there was still a lot of emails passing to and fro between editors and contributors until the proof stage. Although lockdown in the UK made it difficult to access some resources for the final details, and to meet individually with the UK based contributors, we were lucky to be able to complete the final stages using internet resources and relying on the usual email contact to stay in touch with contributors from Europe, Russia and the US. Finally, we should point out that this is the first KCLMS volume that was not typeset in house at King’s College London (where it was easy to drop into the office of the late Wendy Pank to talk over production issues). But the Boydell & Brewer typesetter, Nick Bingham, was amazingly helpful, patient and prompt.
RACHEL SCOTT, JULIAN WEISS & ABDOOLKARIM VAKIL
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RACHEL SCOTT is Lecturer in World and Hispanic Literatures at Royal Holloway University of London.
JULIAN WEISS is Professor of Medieval & Early Modern Spanish, King’s College London.
ABDOOLKARIM VAKIL is Lecturer in Contemporary Portuguese History in the Departments of History and Spanish, Portuguese & Latin American Studies at King’s College London.
Cover illustration: Bowl with lustre-painted depiction of a Portuguese merchant ship. Made in Málaga (1425-50), the lustre-ware capital of Nasrid Spain, luxury pottery like this was exported throughout Muslim, Christian and Jewish worlds. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Reproduced with permission.