09 mayo 2007

Jewish and Arabic heritage in Spain

It's interesting. Spain is a country with a very long, deep, and intense history: before many countries in the World were even founded, Spain had already conquered and be conquered several times, had built-up and destroyed and Empire, and had reinvented itself several times. 21 countries in the world have Spanish as their exclusive official language (Versus 15 having English, many of the are small countries) but at the same time Spain has 4 official languages and several dialects. A high proportion of American towns have Spanish names (as far as I remember it was about 20-30%), and from Mexico to the Antarctica, almost everything has a very deep Spanish influence.

Also it is very interesting the large presence of Jews ("Sefard" is Spain/Portugal for the Jew, being one of the two main Jewish branches as far as I am concerned) and Arabs (6 centuries of occupation). Although both Jewish and Arabs were officially "expelled" in 1492, that is not completely right: Jewish and Arabic influences were so intricate in the Spanish people that everybody should have abandoned the country if the rule were strict (There are estimations saying 80% of Spanish population have Jewish origins, and I would bet 95% have Arabic origins as well). The thing is that Jews and Arabs left (or at least those who did not want to reconvert into Christians, and had the resources to leave the county, travelling was not something very easy in 1492...), but the Jewish and Arabic influence has remained in Spain since then. It is difficult to left influences behind, specially when thy are for good!

After having travelled and lived in other countries (and met/live with Arabs and Jews) I could identify some general traits of the Jewish and Arabic cultures and recognised it in the Spanish culture. The most important influence I would say is from Arabs; Spanish people
are well known for it openness to others and for their sensibility toward the disadvantaged (we are one of the countries in the World -if not the #1- with the highest ratio of organ donations, or adoptions per capita for instance), I would say those "traits" are related to the "brotherhood" by which the Muslim religion is based.

Regarding the Jewish, I would point out two things. First, it has been demonstrated that several Spanish, pagan parties are indeed Jewish holy days that had to reconvert due to the Holy Inquisition "requirements". Over the centuries those holidays have remained although people do not even know their origin. A second thing I guess we have inherited from Jews is our passion for trading and finance. For example, retail financial services is one of the key industries of the country.

During Franco's dictatorship in the XXth century (and for a long time before) the rulers of the country tried to hide our mixed origins. Everybody should behave like an Spaniard, an Spaniard like the ones Franco's wanted. It seemed (Note: I was born when Franco still was ruling the country) that Arabs and Jews (and many others like Duchs and Germans) had been to Spain for tourism, departing from the country without leaving anything behind. It seemed that the different regional sensibilities of Spain never existed. Well, I guess that any fascist dictator would have being done the same...

However, when Spain became a democracy again, Spaniards had the determination of reversing the path (40 years of dictatorship was a good moment to think about...). First, national identities were recognised, not only constitutionally, but in people's hearts. People learned that feeling a Catalonian, a Galician, or a Basque is another way of been a Spaniard. During the last 25 years Spaniards have learned to understand each other's sensibilities, and we are still learning to do so.

Now -after that first reencountering with ourselves- I am feeling that Spain is somehow reconciling to its Jewish and Arabic origins as well. As a token I would say that now there is a growing concern about converting Cordoba's mosque into a real mosque (it was transformed into a cathedral few centuries ago). Being that building a mosque again is the way many of us find to recover the truth of our history, It is not a matter of making new
Spanish-Muslims happier (there are other places to build mosques), but a matter of being loyal to our real history.

Regarding Jews the main "reconciling behaviour" I have observed is that related to the surnames. It turns out that in Spain we use two surnames: the first corresponds to the first surname of one's father, and the second corresponds to the first surname of one's mother. Although now Spaniards say this costume is explained by the fact that we do not want to miss out the surname of our beloved moms, the real origins of this surname structure is another one less known and nastier: people after 1492 had to preserve their surnames in order to prove they had no Jewish surnames... So thanks to our peculiar surname structure we can tell others 5-10 of our surnames, denoting clearly our origins; by your surnames anyone can realise what part of the country you are from, if you come from a "noble" family or not, and if you... have Jewish origins or not!! After 1492 Jewish surnames sort of disappeared... many of those surnames emigrated with their owners, but for those who remained in Spain the surnames were "reconverted" into another ones, typically names of stones or trees (Gold, Silver, etc). So now what happens is that many Spanish people are proud of identifying a Jewish surname among their surnames. The surname structure which was once designed to fight Jewish surnames, serves now to let people show-off about their Jewish origins. Isn't that interesting?

Note: Many of the statements I make in this post are highly subjective, and therefore a good target for comments...

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