Guest post written by Daniel Muñoz Sempere, a Ramón y Cajal postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cádiz.
The fights over memory that often dominate the headlines in Spanish politics are not restricted to the history of the Spanish Civil War. The far-right party VOX has recently made of the Reconquista concept —the idea that the medieval conquests of the Muslim kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula by their northern Christian neighbours was a concerted effort to unify ‘Spain’ around a Catholic identity— a central tenet in its ideology, and one that has obvious implications for issues such as immigration, nationalism and the role of the Catholic church. The inescapable fact that the medieval societies of the Iberia were a mix of Christians, Muslims and Jews has shaped the way in which Spanish artists, politicians and intellectuals imagine their past and, often, their present.
Miguel Hué y Camacho (1803-1841) was a doctor working in Benaoján, a remote village nested among the hills of the Sierras of Grazalema and Ronda. Hué hailed from the town of Jerez which, like many places in lower Andalucía, has the suffix ‘de la Frontera’ — ‘on the frontier’— in its name, signalling its location in an area that had been the historical border between the kingdoms of Castille and Granada. This shifting, porous frontier between Christianity and Islam left a lasting legacy in a region that was the stage for centuries of war but also for collaboration, exchanges and transitions between cultures and religions.
Hué was a prolific writer whose work has for the most part laid dormant in public and personal archives. Although he published some short stories in the local press and at least one full-length book, he left behind a lengthy manuscript saga of historical novels entitled ‘Las noches de Benaoján’ where he evoked the Andalusian Middle Ages inspired by Romantics such as Walter Scott or Chateaubriand, but also by his own life experiences as an Andalusian author. One of such novels, only recently discovered, was El ferí de Benastepar. The manuscript of the novel had been kept undisturbed for nearly two centuries among the private papers of another Andalusian writer interested in the customs, history and ethnically diverse past of the region: Serafín Estébanez Calderón.
The ferí (a hispano-arab term for Sharif, meaning ‘noble’ or descendant of the family of the prophet Muhammad) of Benastepar was an obscure historical figure that features in chronicles and oral tradition: he was a Muslim chief during the rebellion of the mudéjares of Ronda (the Muslim inhabitants that had been recently conquered by Castile and allowed to keep their religion). In the novel, the ferí is a Muslim knight who fights valiantly against the Castilian invaders, falls in love and betroths a noble Castilian lady who had fallen prey to the Spanish Inquisition, and ultimately dies on the battlefield while defending his homeland.
The choices made by Hué in his historical fiction are interesting: the positive depiction of a love story between a Christian and a Muslim, albeit possibly inspired by Chateaubriand´s Les aventures du dernier Abencerage, was unusual among Spanish Romantic novels. Moreover, the love story is framed by a depiction of the frontier land as a site for cultural hybridism and for a distinctive Andalusian culture that had been shaped by centuries of coexistence between faiths. While the authorial voice asserts the superiority of Catholicism over Islam, there is also a rich ambivalence in that the point of view throughout the text is not that of the Castillian victors common in the historical fiction of the age but, rather, that of the vanquished Moors, whose ‘patriotic’ struggle is praised by the narrator. In creating this story of love and war across religious boundaries Hué was obviously influenced by Romantic orientalism, but also by the local folklore and the often conflicting memories of Al-Andalus.
El ferí de Benastepar, o los moros de Sierra Bermeja combines a rich description of historical customs with a genuine admiration for Andalusia’s Muslim legacy.
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