17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 11 August 2008
I was ill-abed when I read this book, pretty much straight through in one go. It is ideal for that sort of situation because Jason Webster is no slouch with a sentence. He can and does write interestingly.
The problem with this book is that he does not have anything original or even particularly interesting to say about the residual influences of mediaeval Moorish culture on current Spanish life.
He repeatedly uses the 'example' of 'hola!' being derived from 'Allah'. Well, 'hello', which seems clearly derived from the same root, is given in the Oxford Concise as derived from the identical word 'hola' in French, being a conjunction of 'ho!'[hey!] and la ['there!']. I'm as inclined to believe this version as the Allah one, perhaps more so as the use in French cannot be influenced by Arabic 'Allah'.
There was another example of mis-attribution to Arabic culture of something concerned with navigation and seafaring, which I happened to know was certainly wrong [being a bit of an old salt, m'self] but I'm sorry to say that as I write, I just can't remember what it was [I mentioned I was ill at the time, you recall], so until I find it and add it to a comment following this review, you'll have to take my word for it. Suffice to say that Webster has been pretty weak with the ground-work and research required to make his attributions soundly based and believable. The result is paper-thin evidentially and thus entirely untrustworthy as a proposition
Jason Webster can tell a story well. His personal narrative in his book 'Duende' proves this. But why are some of the stories recounted here in what is intended, we are led to understand, to be a serious exposition of a major cultural omission [if such it proves to be] from the Spanish view of themselves and their present culture? The tale of his escapades with Zine, the Moroccan he feels obliged to help out after his escape from the mafiosi tomato farmers, is a slim branch to hang the Moorish quest on and it often gives way completely. Other episodes, like the Nativity gig in the pole-dancing club, are amusing but entirely irrelevant, pure filler.
His publishers recognise Jason Webster as a talented writer. His book 'Duende' was a success both as writing and as a narrative. He has published 'Andalus' and another, 'Guerra' on the strength of the first book and both these later two, being explorations of something 'hidden' in Spanish society and culture, fail because Jason Webster is not equipped with sufficient depth of knowledge nor rigour of research to do them justice.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 12 May 2008
The sub-heading of this book is Unlocking the secrets of Moorish Spain and is a follow-up of Webster's first book DUENDE: a journey in search of flamenco which became an acclaimed big seller. Having studied Arabic in Oxford, Webster lived for several years in Italy and Egypt then went to Spain to learn to play the flamenco guitar; he now lives in Valencia with his Spanish wife
Like many Hispanophiles, he's had a long-lasting fascination with the Moorish past of this country, whether trigered by the sublime Alhambra in Granada, the dramatic and beautiful Great Mosque in Cordoba or the surprising number of Arabic root words in the Spanish language. Gibraltar which the Spanish insist is theirs could realistically be claimed by Morocco or other North African countries - after all, it's named after a Moor - jabal Tariq - the mountain of Tariq, the first Arab to conquer Spain.
For eight centuries Christians, Muslims and Jews lived and worked side by side. It was a period of great cultural and artistic blossoming. The Moors in Spain had the first universities, the first paper factories and the first street lighting in the whole of Europe. The Arabs learned paper-making from the Chinese artisans on capturing Samarkand. Indeed, the Moors first crossed the Strait to Spain in the Dark Ages, at about the same time as Bede was writing his History. At the time Spain was under Visigothic rule, the German tribes having moved in and taken over as the Roman Empire collapsed.
`Moor' was the term used to describe Muslims in Spain - Arabs, Berbers, Syrians, Persians and eventually Spaniards; it originated from the Latin maurus, which had been used to refer to North Africans.
Eventually the Christian Reconquest started to bite and in 1492 the Moors were expelled from what had become their country. What followed was religious intolerance, epitomised by the Inquisition. In modern Spain now annual `Moors and Christians' fiestas occur in many towns and cities; these are colourful and quite spectacular events.
Two hundred years before the Reconquest Arabic scholars translated great medical and mathematical works from the original Greek. By way of the Reconquest many of these works were translated into Latin, notably in Toledo. It could even be argued that the Arabic learning laid the foundations of the later Renaissance.
Webster was curious to see how the Moorish influence persisted even to this day, beyond these fiestas - ironically at a time when the Spanish government is having difficulty stemming the tide of illegal immigrants from Morocco.
He read an old legend about Musa the Moor, the richest, strongest and most powerful caliph in ancient Spain. As the Christian armies were advancing, Musa asked his friendly jinn to safeguard his riches - which he did by turning them into stone in a special cave; but Musa's daughter Zoraida didn't want to flee, so she was turned into a tree outside the cave. But for one day in every year, as spring arrives, Princess Zoraida comes back to life and all the Caliph's riches gleam and shine again. Only for one day the spell is broken. Webster was enchanted by this tale and wondered if, like the Caliph's riches, much of the Moorish heritage was hidden from view, only waiting to be discovered.
The book begins with Webster incognito under the plastic sheeting of a fruit farm, doing some journalistic research on the illegal immigrants working in appalling conditions. Because they're illegal, the immigrants are locked up at night and monitored by guards; they get no pay, only food and cramped sleeping quarters. Slavery was alive and well, it seemed. Then he was discovered and had to flee, aided by a young Moroccan called Zine. They got away but Webster now felt beholden to Zine and attempted to find work for him - a difficult task when he had no papers.
Accompanied by his own modern-day Moor for most of his journey of discovery, Webster meets a number of fascinating characters in Cordoba, Murcia, Almeria and Seville, among other southern Spain and Portugeuse towns. There's an amusing visit to a clinica de enfermedades sexuales in Seville; I could have done without the over-long surreal Christmas party in a Valencia disco. On the way he reminds us of the Moorish legacy in the language - many words beginning with `a' or `al' have Arabic roots, whether English or Spanish - `Cotton' - algodon in Spanish - comes from the Arabic al-qutun, for example.
Webster has an observant eye and a deceptively easy writing style which enliven a fascinating quick tour round the Moorish history via modern-day towns and cities of Spain.
55 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on 23 June 2005
I glanced at this book, which was on display in the English-language section of a Frankfurt bookstore, and ended up buying it and reading it in a day, it was so absorbing. I've always thought Spain was a country of hidden history-- I once met a man whose Spanish-Jewish family had kept their religion alive for centuries while pretending to be ordinary Catholics to avoid persecution. Spain also has Visigothic, pre-Roman and Moorish roots, and was at the core of the Roman empire.
Jason Webster, who speaks Arabic and Spanish and has a Spanish wife, starts off on his journey around Spain with the idea that 800 years of Moorish identity must have left many traces in Spain beyond the obvious ones of architecture and language. For many years this was suppressed; the Moors had always been the enemy, the other. After the Reconquest in 1492, they were first forced to convert and then expelled from Spain.
Webster sees Moorish Spain as an idyllic place where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived happily together in tolerance, bringing knowledge and sophistication to benighted Europe. This has not been the view of most Spaniards over the centuries, but he makes a good argument for it in the book. A scholar of Moorish Spain would not learn much from this book (but would still be amused by the travelogue) but most of us have a lot to remember about how much the Moors gave us: sugar, cotton, paper, oranges, and of course the crucial zero.
The second thread in the book happened accidentally. While secretly interviewing slave laborers on a farm near Valencia, Spain, the writer is rescued from violent farmers by an illegal Moroccan immigrant named Zine. Jason feels an obligation to Zine and ends up taking him with him around Spain, trying to find Zine a job. Zine seems mostly interested in sleeping with as many Spanish women as possible, but surprises himself by falling in love with Lucia, a friend of Jason's wife. The theme of Spain and the Moors perfectly illustrated, it seems! But as in history, there is no happy ending.
The most interesting parts of the book, for me, were the flashes of Moorish life still alive in Spain. Who knew that "Hola" and "Hala" come from the ubiquitous "Allah"? Once I saw a North African male troupe of dancers using many of the same gestures and movements as a woman flamenco dancer in Granada in Spain. Even some typically Spanish dishes turn out to come from the Moors. The author interviews two experts on Moorish Spain, who have opposite points of view, a flamenco dancer, a Spanish convert to Islam, and a scion of an ancient royal family. He has a way of spotting the revealing detail, of seeing the vulnerability in even the most obnoxious person. He must be a bizarrely good listener. I for one could not sit and nod while someone told me that the Americans bombed the World Trade Center themselves.
My two main criticisms of the book are that, first of all, the author does not show the respect for Christian culture that he lavishes on Moorish Islam-- every mention of a church or priest or religious custom seems to be snide. He never asks the question: how did the Spaniards keep the fight NOT to be Moorish alive for 800 years?
The more important criticism is that the most devastating difference between Christian Spain and Muslim Morocco (seen as the heirs of the Moors) is passed over in silence: women. In the book, Westerners and Muslim men speak. Muslim women, of course, do not. A Queen Isabella of the Reconquest could never have happened in Andalus. The fact that Zine pursues the freer Spanish women like a randy animal is seen as a lovable quirk, rather than a commonplace consequence of his Islamic upbringing, in which women are either to be exploited or dominated. Yet this common and ancient Muslim male attitude is one of the biggest problems facing not just modern Spain but the world. I believe that the author thinks he has said something, in subtle fashion, on the subject; but considering his passion while describing the golden age of Andalus and the prejudices Moroccans face in Spain today, he could have been a little less subtle about one of the main reasons those prejudices exist.
Still, a fine book. I hope to see many more from Jason Webster.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I enjoyed this book. Knowing little about the subject, and having read the author's book about modern Spain's attitude to the Civil War, I thought this would be a good introduction.
Some of the negative comments here perhaps come from the expectations that readers might have of the book. If you want a historical discourse about Moorish Spain, then this clearly isn't for you. If you want to learn about the country's current political landscape, then there are doubtless better sources than this. But if you want to begin to see modern Spain and its connections to the Islamic past in the company of an informed outsider, then you can certainly do much worse.
This book left me wanting to learn more about the 800 years of Muslim rule in Al Andalus. It reminds me of having a conversation with a friend in a pub. They tell you something, share their interest in a subject and you follow it up to satisfy your curiousity. It's a conversational work and that's not a pejorative description. Writing in this style is informal but it takes talent, the ability to communicate well, to do so.
Perhaps the author does romanticise Spain's Islamic past; perhaps he doesn't present a fully rounded perspective on the relationship between the invading Muslims and the indigenous population; but if he does, then perhaps that's a reaction to the overt hostility and ignorance towards Islam that is found in the modern world today. I'll be reading more.
One thing's odd, though. The author makes clear that one aspect of today's Spain that has no Moorish roots and that is bull fighting. Why does the cover of the book depict this, then? I suppose that's one for the publishers and their take on what the average non-Spaniard will identify with Spain but it doesn't exactly fit in with the content of the book!
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 17 August 2007
I'm currently reading this book and I had hoped to find it a fascinating read about the Moorish legacy to Spain. It's interesting in parts but I find the inclusion of the author's Moroccan companion and his own personal quest not wholly believable nor the altogether too frequent coincidental appearances of the writer's old friends.
The author clearly wants to prove that an enormous amount of the Spanish language and culture should be attributed to the Moors. There are too many conjectural links between Spanish and Arabic words for my own liking. For instance, he attributes the introduction of the practice of roasting peppers to the Moors. But seeing that their final expulsion from Spain in 1492 preceded Columbus's discovery of the New World and the pepper plant, it seems impossible to me. A disappointing read.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 15 September 2011
I was given this book as a present and, after reading some aloud, was begged to put it down by my Spanish friends.
The book had the potential to be fascinating but instead it riddled with factual mistakes, irrelevant stories or information, two-dimensional (often stereotyped) characters and immature observations. He travels through beautiful, fascinating places and writes almost nothing about them, instead preferring to comment on his Moroccan companion's sexual exploits or providing two-dimensional personal impressions of a solitary artifact from which he usually learns very little. Most of the 'storyline' is so full of clichés I find it hard to believe that it isn't the product of the author's imagination.
I gave it two stars instead of one because it is easy to read and his final conclusion is true but obvious: Moorish influence is exists in Spain but is often somewhat obscured if you don't know what to look for. An observation which is true of almost any past empire.
on 14 August 2007
Having lived in Spain for years and having a Spanish background, I can't help but feel that the author is a bit carried away by the romanticism of Moorish Spain. Yes, the Arabs had a huge influence on Spain, the language and architecture - but we must not forget that the Arab culture influenced the whole world as well, in many areas he mentions himself such as mathematics, language (after all 'rice' and 'arroz' and 'sugar' and azucar' all have the same roots), philosophy and much more. It is almost like he is seeing too much of the Arab past in a country which has also had many other influences, and where Islam has been gone 500 years.
What I DID find fascinating and maybe the author lets through unintentionally is the complete social change in Spain even in the last 20 years - the ease with which his Moroccan companion sleeps with Spanish girls at the drop of a hat would have been undheard of recently in Spain, where women were not known to be as 'easy' as in Norther European countries. The dark world of sex clubs (where there is a scene in this book of people performed sex acts to a background of a nativity scene on Christmas Eve), 'clap clincs' and Nigerian prostitutes are one of the negative aspects of the modernisastion of Spain and one which surpirsed me as I have not lived in Spain since the early 90s (OK, I know these things have always been around but not as blatant as they seem to be now).
Webster has always had romantic ideals of Spain (this was also seen in 'Duende' his book about flamenco where he was fascinated by the seedy world of gypsies and was dragged into their drug ridden world). I hope he is not disolusioned of his dreams as his books do at least make for an ententertaining read.
48 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on 29 July 2004
Andalus, as the author is constantly reminding us, is the story of a journey around Southern Spain, with brief visits to Portugal and Morocco, looking for traces of residual Moorish influence. Despite what the author would have us believe, his quest turned up very little that could not be more easily discovered by spending half an hour browsing the Rough Guide to Spain. Webster is repeatedly obliged to fall back on words in modern Spanish which derive form Islamic words (I strongly suspect he was using a crib list to source his examples). Moreover, when he does come across a potential example he seems to duck the issue, apparently through either haste or laziness - the influence of the Moors on Flamenco is 'unclear', the Mosque of Santa Margarida 'must remain a mystery', the ancient Jewish community at Belmonte is better left 'in peace'. Moreover, some of the claims he does make are absurd - he says that the West only knows of Plato and Aristotle because of the Latin translators of Persian versions of the texts which were undertaken Moorish scholars at Toledo. This is not the case; manuscripts were rescued from monastic libraries by Italian scholars who then translated them direct from the Greek. Most astonishingly of all, in presenting his Islam / Christian dichotomy, he falls to mention that both belief systems were religions of the East.
The problem is that he travels occupy so short a period that he gives himself no time for the type of proper research that might give him a chance to actually discover something worthwhile. Instead we are treated to a parallel narrative, the story of an illegal Moroccan worker called Zine who Webster picks up when visiting a mafia controlled fruit farm. These unlikely adventures consist largely of a shag-fest, a visit to a pox clinic, the discovery of a corpse on a beach and an unplanned pregnancy of a lover which ended in a miscarriage. It seems to me that this is just filler material, trying to compensate for the authors lack of insight into his chosen subject. Even that doesn't explain why he chooses the pox clinic visit as the touchstone of his visit to Servile; neither does it excuse his ghastly description of participating in a bizarre nativity tableau at a lap dancing club. The book reads like a good idea gone wrong. If Webster wishes to pursue the travel narrative genre, he should reconcile himself to some hard work.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 March 2014
I'm really fascinated by the Moorish history of Spain but even if you weren't I think this would be a fascinating read. I like the fact that at the end of the book you can decide how important/relevant the history is to present Spain and whether in fact just about all Spaniards have Moorish ancestors.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 February 2013
Interesting and informative - an easy read - Gives reasons and an understanding of modern Spain though better if you have some knowledge of Spanish history