Colonial Al-Andalus: An interview with Eric Calderwood

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Colonial Al-Andalus

An Interview with Eric Calderwood

By: Liz Matsushita

Eric Calderwood’s book Colonial al-Andalus: Spain and the Making of Modern Moroccan Culture (Harvard University Press, 2018) traces the modern history of “al-Andalus” as discourse and political ideal, particularly as it developed in the Spanish-Moroccan colonial encounter. Calderwood narrates how, beginning in the 19th century, Spanish politicians, writers, and artists invoked al-Andalus and Spain’s shared heritage with Morocco to facilitate Spanish colonialism. This strategy continued to develop through the fascist period of the mid-20th century, when, in surprising ways, Francoists also championed Andalusi patrimony and lent critical support to Moroccan institutions. In turn, Tetouani nationalists drew on Andalusi identity as a centerpiece for Moroccan anticolonial nationalism, a political, cultural, and racial identity that has carried over into the post-independence era. A Spanish translation, Al Ándalus en Marruecos, was released this month by Editorial Almuzara.

How did you originally arrive to this project?

The project actually started as something very different from what it ended up becoming. It actually started as a dissertation project on al-Andalus proper, a kind of medieval topic. In 2007, I went to Morocco, already having defended a prospectus on a topic that had to do with legal debates on ethnic and religious minorities in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa in the late 15th century.

When I went to Morocco, I became really interested in this idea that I kept hearing people repeat to me in a variety of ways, either casually in conversations or at lectures or exhibits—basically, that Morocco IS al-Andalus. That al-Andalus didn’t go away, but just moved from one side of the Strait of Gibraltar to the other, where it has continued to live and thrive until the present day.

So I started to become really fascinated with this idea, and was curious to know—how did it come about? Is it an unchanged, unbroken cultural memory that has existed since the 15th century, or is this the result of much more recent processes? When and how did Moroccans start to talk about their relationship to al-Andalus in these terms?

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To some extent, this bringing together of Spanish and Moroccan history, namely in the more modern period, is not really being done. So how do you see this book contributing to putting Spain and Morocco into a single framework?

By bringing these two frameworks together, you get to challenge some really common assumptions about Morocco and Spain. It’s not just about taking something everyone knows about Spain, and something everyone knows about Morocco, and just putting them together; when you put them together, you realize a lot of common assumptions—if they don’t necessarily come undone, they certainly become troubled and complicated.

For example, the scholarship on modern Spain is really structured around this rupture of the Spanish Civil War… A rupture that leads to this bifurcated view: one Spain of the Republicans, that advocates for a tolerant view and accepts various forms of religious and cultural difference; and on the other hand the Francoists, who are fighting for a monolithic and monocultural, Catholic, imperial Spain. In this bifurcated view, the modern memory of al-Andalus has pretty squarely been associated with the Republican cause, and more broadly with the kind of progressive and liberal versions of Spanish history.

Likewise, I think looking at Spain complicates many things we know about Morocco. One of them just has to do with how we map Morocco conceptually: something I was trying to do in this book is to think about, what would it look like if I wrote a history of Morocco that wasn’t centered in Fez, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, but rather in Tetouan, Ceuta, or Tangier— to re-center the story so we’re focusing on different things.

In doing that, first, you highlight a certain idea we have about post-independence Moroccan culture—this idea being that it’s the sort of embodiment of al-Andalus. And you suggest that this idea might have a colonial genealogy that you can’t entirely see unless you see the way it germinated and developed in the Spanish zone. Another thing it does, is it challenges this I think now debunked (but still worth debunking) idea that Moroccan independence was a sort of rupture, a sort of complete break from colonialism. It instead shows the very complicated ways the colonial experience still informs how Moroccans talk about and think about and institutionalize their history and their culture.

So in some sense the book is challenging these two ruptures: the Spanish Civil War and Moroccan independence.

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I was really interested in the map you included, from Muhammad Dawud’s History of Tetouan [page 272]: it seems to illustrate a lot of the core things you talk about in the book. This picture of Spain and Morocco in one frame, and Spain is marked as “al-Andalus,” and I think the colonial zones are even marked in Morocco, so it’s unclear what century we’re even in. So that sort of spatial and temporal elision, which you talk about a lot in the book, is illustrated really well by that map. I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about this historical slippage between al-Andalus, Andalucía, and Morocco.

Well first of all, thank you for that question because I feel like, oh, you really got one of these main parts of my book! I feel like your question articulates better than I possibly could what I was trying to do. But certainly, if the idea of the book is—“what is the history of the claim that al-Andalus lives on in Morocco?”—one of the rhetorical strategies that makes that possible is a slippage across space and time. And that rhetorical strategy, even if it means different things politically, is something that migrated from Spanish colonial thinking to Moroccan nationalist thinking.

As you were suggesting, Chapter 3 tries to focus on the ways in which early on in Spanish colonialism, the main point of continuity between Republican and Francoist thinkers is this idea that al-Andalus (medieval Muslim Iberia) IS Andalucía (the modern region in Spain) and IS also Morocco; that these three things converge into one space-time that not only exists, but that can best be activated and resurrected through Spain’s colonization of Morocco. It’s not just the fact of that potentiality, but the fact that that potentiality is made real through Spain’s colonization of Morocco.

Another notion you bring up that I think goes with this is this notion of “strange bedfellows,” the surprising alliance between Spanish fascists and Moroccan nationalists. Do you see that as being an intervention in terms of disrupting nationalist, colonial, and maybe even postcolonial narratives?

I do. Yeah, “Strange Bedfellows” might have been a good title for the book, now that I think about it! That was the phrase I kept coming back to, and there is a conceptual intervention at the root of it. It’s a little bit like, how do we think WITH contradictions without resolving them? One of the things that I’m trying to respond to, hopefully effectively, is this idea that the book identifies things that shouldn’t go together, and yet paradoxically did.

And that it’s not that no one knew these things—they were just too contradictory to actually talk about. If we had the categories that al-Andalus means progressive, liberal views, multiculturalism, which is the opposite of Francoism; then anything that cuts against these conceptual templates that we have, in some sense we don’t know where to place that evidence.

And you could say something similar about colonizer and colonized, or colonialism and nationalism. It couldn’t possibly be true that nationalism is nourished and supported, not just discursively but also financially and institutionally, by the very colonial powers it’s supposed to be fighting against. If things strike you as a paradox, it’s very easy to just walk away from them. If there’s a larger conceptual take-home, it’s trying to point to the value of doing history that identifies contradictions and dwells on them and doesn’t resolve them.

A classic example: scholars who have done this kind of work on Spanish colonialism before would say, “Franco said he loved al-Andalus, but he didn’t really mean it!” It’s a way of getting out of the bind. “He was insincere.” I’m not saying he WAS sincere… there’s actually value in saying, let’s be agnostic about what he really did or didn’t believe, because the idea itself became quite powerful. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter what Franco thought; the idea had a life of its own. I do think there’s a kind of conceptual insight that has to do with historicizing and dwelling in that contradiction without needing to resolve it.

I also wanted to ask about another core contention of the book and how you’ve dealt with it: the notion that Morocco’s Andalusi history, or more specifically what you call the “Andalus-centric narrative” around it, is actually a colonial invention. This is something I’ve encountered in my own work—by calling something an invention, do you get responses from people who say, here’s my actual genealogical tree dating back to al-Andalus, or here is this real concrete history of migration from al-Andalus to Morocco? I think that’s partly why you use the term “Andalus-centric narrative” to begin with, so the discourse and the “actual” al-Andalus are not confused, but how have you engaged with that?

I think at some level people assume that by “invention” I mean “false”; and that what is false then is al-Andalus. Or to come back to your specific question, is their family history, which might claim with great documentary evidence some genealogical connection to al-Andalus.

I am not denying the fact of a long history of significant cultural exchange between Spain and Morocco. What I’m trying to say is that the ways people talk about that past changed as a result of Spanish colonialism. I’m saying certain stories came into focus as tools of the colonial project, and then surprisingly (and I think this is probably the boldest claim) those same stories were translated and migrated into Moroccan nationalist culture, eventually becoming something akin to centerpieces of Moroccan nationalist ideology. I’m not saying that al-Andalus was invented, but that certain stories about al-Andalus were created long after the 15th century.

But yeah, I think that answer eschews the larger ethical question you’re getting at: putting aside an exercise in trying to historicize a certain historical narrative, what does it mean to scrutinize an idea out of which people derive meaning and value? Because it’s not just a commercial gimmick or a really good tourist slogan, “come see al-Andalus”—it’s that too, but it’s not just that!

Interrogating ideas is only interesting if those ideas have a certain cultural and political weight behind them. But the flip side of that is, it’s not a sterile intellectual exercise for a lot of the people who have written about this in Morocco, including some very close friends of mine who claim Andalusi genealogy. They think of it as a very central part of their life histories, their academic practice, their way of being, their sense of self and place in the world. So what does it mean to interrogate this story that is so meaningful for people I care about?

And also for people I don’t know—you know, craftspeople in Fez, who make their living predicated on the idea that, in one way or another, when you’re buying a piece of pottery in Fez, you’re tapping into a continuous artistic tradition that carries you back in some way to the Alhambra or medieval Cordoba? So it’s not just a matter that inflects political and intellectual elites and how they talk about themselves; I mean, there are a lot of people whose livelihoods are wrapped up in this specific historical imaginary.

One of the ethical challenges of the book, one I haven’t resolved but I think the best thing you can do is talk about it openly, is: how do you do this sort of work without damaging, without doing harm, financial, emotional, epistemic, to people who derive meaning and sometimes livelihood from the story that you’re, if not debunking, then at the very least questioning or complicating?

Absolutely, and I think that also gets to the idea of residing in tensions, which I personally find very productive for thinking about my work, and I’m sure other people’s work as well. Also maybe some of the broader ethical implications of academia and doing history! I think it also speaks to that really well.

Finally, I want to switch gears a bit back to your experience: for the research for the book, how was your experience in the archives and in traveling back and forth between Spain and Morocco? In terms of visiting the different sites, researching this topic, talking with different academics—did that inform how your book ended up taking shape?

The book was heavily archival. It really—people say this all the time, but I really mean it!—would not have been possible without the extraordinary support and collaboration from colleagues in Spain and Morocco, and particularly in Morocco.

There was some work at the Moroccan National Library, but there was really extensive work in privately owned and operated libraries in Morocco, especially in Tetouan… the benefit of them is that not many Americans are working in them, the disadvantage is that they are not digitized, they don’t generally have great catalogs. So you rely really heavily on the kindness of the archivists, and their willingness to take you seriously and spend time with you.

I want to emphasize there was a ton of archival work, but I want to dispel the notion of a single heroic figure, toiling away in the archives, making individual, brilliant discoveries! This was a work that could not have happened without people taking me by the hand and saying, “Have you considered reading this?” And doing it over and over again, for years and years.

If there’s a larger take-home—and this is particularly directed toward American academics—it is to emphasize the extreme importance of spending time in the context that you’re studying. Not only because it’s fun, not only because you learn languages better, not only because it puts a feather in your CV, but because it actually changes you intellectually. What you think is important to look for changes. As I said at the beginning, my intellectual projects changed fundamentally after doing a few years of research in Morocco, and for the better, in a way that I’m extremely grateful for, and in a way that I don’t think would have happened if I’d just gone a short amount of time. Beyond the new things you find, there are new ways of thinking, new things to look for that emerge.