Andalus by Jason Webster

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The Independent Culture

'Corre! The others are coming.' The Moroccan began punching at the farmer's throat. Someone, I thought, was going to die here if I did as he said. Either he would kill the farmer or the others would kill him once they found him. The man had saved me: I wasn't about to run away..." The opening chapter of Jason Webster's Andalus, a journey "unlocking the secrets of Moorish Spain", is fast-paced and exciting. Webster made what he hoped would be a secret visit to a fruit farm in Spain in order to research the conditions of illegal immigrants from Morocco. Those Moroccans, imported by criminal gangs, effectively toiled as slave labourers. He scarcely had time for research before his intrusion was detected by thuggish farmers and he had to make his escape with a Moroccan called Zine.

Webster decided to act as patron to this man who, without papers, had little prospect of finding employment. Even before their encounter, he had decided to travel around Spain in quest of its hidden legacy of medieval Moorish culture. The Moroccan might in some fashion serve as cicerone on the quest. So this becomes a kind of buddy book with educational overtones, and a portrait of uncertain young men.

After the opening of a book which is part travelogue, part history and part memoir, the pace slackens, as potentially lethal investigative journalism gives way to an amiably digressive, picaresque narrative. Webster travels from one historic site to another and Zine, lean, lustful and moody, is his foil.

Incidentally, the European picaresque genre, of which Don Quixote is the most famous example, derives ultimately from the Arab maqamat, produced by such authors as al-Hamadhani and al-Hariri. In the Arab stories, a wily rogue travels from place to place, with encounters that furnish pretexts for displays of eloquence.

Webster perhaps overstresses Arab elements in Cervantes' fiction. He seems never to be without his Arabic dictionary and notes how much Spanish vocabulary regarding cooking, gardening and much else derives from the Arabic. Even hola, Spanish for hello, apparently derives from "Allah".

His excellent earlier book, Duende, chronicled the author's attempts to immerse himself in the world of flamenco. It was personal, passionate and well-observed. Andalus is similarly observant and the people are vividly recreated. Lectures on the history and culture of the Arabs of medieval Spain are disguised as conversations. The drive-by tutorials are measured out in carefully titrated doses.

I sometimes wished that he had gone to a library and had asked himself harder questions. He tells us what a grand figure the philosopher Averroes was, but never says what his philosophy was. He walks round the Alhambra and conjures up the place rather well, but never bothers to sort out the building's chronology. He tries to visit a mosque in Portugal but, since it is locked, he walks away. He gathers that there is some kind of mystery behind the construction of the controversial new mosque on a hill in Granada just opposite the Alhambra, but leaves it at that. He has heard that the imam of the new mosque is a Scotsman, but is not curious to know more.

The Moors entered Spain in the early eighth century and lost Granada, their last toehold, in 1492. But there is much about Spain's Muslim past that is controversial. How much Spain owes to its Moorish conquerors has been the subject of fierce debate. In general, Spanish left-wingers have cried up the Arab legacy and looked back affectionately on a (slightly mythical) golden age of tolerance. On the other hand, quite a few Catholic right-wingers have deplored the disastrous hiatus in the history of Christian Spain and gone on to argue that it was the Arab and Berber occupation, and the Islamic brake, that were the cause of backwardness in the early modern period, when Spain lost ground to England, France and Holland.

The story of Jason and Zine is set against a broader canvas. Their loose-limbed quest took place while Bush, Blair and Aznar were preparing war against Iraq and when the ethics of suicide bombing was already an issue. The intrinsic interest and, indeed, topicality of this book are obvious.

Robert Irwin's 'The Alhambra' is published by Profile