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Volume 42, Number 4July/August 1991

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Exiles From Andalusia

Written and photographed by Susan T. Rivers

Hajj Hamadi Ben Ezzedine peered through his heavy glasses at a crimson cap, or Chechia, that he had crafted just as his Andalusian ancestors had. He smiled when his visitors were surprised to learn that, like the rest of his traditional Tunisian costume of camise, farmlah and jibbah - shirt, vest and long outer garment - his distinctive red felt cap had originated in southern Spain.

"This is actually Andalusian," Ben Ezzedine said from behind his work table. Respectfully, he raised the downy scarlet hat in his hands. "My forefathers brought their Chechia trade with them when they left Spain."

The traditional Chechia, a distant cousin of the European beret, is just one example of how Andalusian Arabs, fleeing the harsh aftershocks of the Spanish Christian reconquista, have transformed even the most prosaic aspects of Tunisian life over the past 500 years. Their contribution to Tunisian culture is so great that it is almost impossible to picture how Tunisians ate, dressed or entertained themselves before their brethren from the West sailed into the Gulf of Tunis.

Andalusians, also called Moors or Moriscos, were Arabs who presided over a rich and unparalleled fusion of Islamic, Christian and Jewish civilizations in Spain for more than half a millennium (See Aramco World, September-October 1976, May-June 1982). But by 1492 the spectacular social and political ferment of Andalusian civilization had gone flat. The Christian Spaniards, under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, wrested political control of the Iberian Peninsula from the Arabs.

In the next two centuries life grew increasingly repressive for the dwindling Arab population of Spain. After forbidding the practice of Islam, the Christians eventually expelled everyone of Arab descent. Waves of Moriscos fled to France, the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, or North Africa. Scholars estimate that by the 17th century, well over 100,000 Andalusian Moors reached the shores of Tunisia.

The proud Andalusians who came to Tunisia worked hard to retain their cultural identity, according to University of Tunis Professor Abdejelil Temimi, an internationally recognized expert on Andalusian history. Urban Andalusians from such cities as Granada, Cordoba, Seville and Valencia carved out an Andalusian niche amidst the bustle of Tunis. A whole quarter of the Tunisian capital, near its ancient medina, is still called Zuqaq al-Andalus -literally "Andalusia Alley," but referring to the entire surrounding community.

Other Morisco families built whole new cities within a day's journey of Tunis, such as Sidi Bou Said, Ariana, Zaghouan and Galaat al-AndaUis. These Andalusian towns were near the cosmopolitan hub of Tunis, yet were still distant, and distinct, enough to preserve their founders' Moorish identity for centuries.

Meanwhile, Andalusian farmers and plantation owners, longing for their fertile lands left behind on Spanish hillsides, searched for the corners of Tunisia most like home. Many put down roots and prospered along the rolling green banks of the winding Medjerda River northwest of Tunis. Other farming families moved southeast from Tunis to the orchard-carpeted Cap Bon peninsula.

Even today, Andalusian towns like Tes-tour and Sloughia in the Medjerda Valley, or Soliman, Menzel Bou Zelfa and Grom-balia in the Cap Bon region, feature the pleasing blend of Spanish and Arab architecture so unique to Andalusian tastes. In those towns one finds the proud descendants of the original immigrants from Spain as well.

Streets in modern Soliman and Testour are still named for old Andalusian cities, such as Rue Grenade and Rue Valencia. In Tunis and in many Morisco towns, one can find a Rue des Andalous, or streets named for important families, such as Rue BenAicha in Soliman.

"It was very rare for Andalusians to marry 'outsiders,' that is, Arabs not of the same origin. This is one of the biggest reasons so much of their heritage still exists today," said Professor Temimi, the founder and director of the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Ottomanes, Morisques, de Documentation et d'Information in Zagh-ouan. The indefatigable professor is among the first Tunisian scholars to undertake a systematic study of the country's Andalusian traditions. (See "The Independent Scholar," page 14.)

Andalusian and Tunisian architecture share their basic cube-like shape and a fondness for whitewashed stucco and inner courtyards. But to soften the sternness of traditional Arab construction, the Andalusians added elegant touches found in their former homes: courtyard fountains, crenelated facades, sloping tile roofs, domed cupolas and stubby turrets.

The Andalusians were also fond of attractive and practical wood-lattice windows jutting out from the stark white exterior walls: Even the hottest days are more bearable when large windows funnel cooling breezes to residents inside. At the same time the shady wooden grills ensure the occupants' privacy from curious passersby.

Local mosques are an easy way to track Andalusian influence in Tunisian towns. For example, Testour's 300-year-old mosque boasts a richly patterned minaret with tooth-like crenelations and surprisingly well-preserved tile work. In the last decade Soliman has completely restored its Moorish mosque, replacing crumbling tiles and sagging carvings with new materials in traditional designs.

Tunisia's most popular decorative arts are ceramic tile, stone carving or pottery in bold colors and complex geometric patterns borrowed from old Andalusian designs. One of Tunisia's most prestigious and successful ceramic companies, Al Kharraz of Nabeul, is owned by descendants of an enterprising Andalusian craftsman who first fired his kiln three centuries ago. Outside Nabeul, Dar Cha-baane's stone carvers still chisel much-prized honeycomb patterns in chalky limestone, an art form the Andalusians called naqsh hadida, or carving with chisel.

Meanwhile, traditional Andalusian music, called ma'louf, has so deeply enriched Tunisian music that most of the country's non-Bedouin traditional songs today have Andalusian roots. Andalusian songs often poignantly recall the lush Spanish countryside and the Moriscos' longing for home, as in this fragment from a traditional ballad sung all across Tunisia:

May rain lavishly sprinkle you as it


Oh, my time of love in Andalusia:

Our time together was just a sleeper's


Or a secretly grasped moment.

Despite the inroads of Western rock-and-roll on Tunisian culture, the ma'louf remains very popular among Tunisians of all ages. In a popular cliffside cafe overlooking the Mediterranean at Sidi Bou Said, a group of exuberant high-school and college students gather to sing ma'louf songs and sip cups of tea in the deepening twilight of a spring afternoon. Led by an expert 17-year-old 'ud player, the group gathers regularly every Saturday afternoon. "We do it because we like it," explains the musician.

It is fitting that the group should gather in Sidi Bou Said: Not even two kilometers - just over a mile - north of Carthage, Sidi Bou Said is one of the best preserved of Tunisia's Andalusian towns. The town was a prime location by Andalusian standards: Perched on dizzying heights overlooking the Gulf of Tunis, it offered cooling breezes, spectacular views, steep elevation and a ready supply of fresh water for the fountains in every Andalusian courtyard.

Today Sidi Bou Said serves as a monument to Andalusian style and elegance. Huge, cerulean-blue arched doors bear heavy black studs ecumenically patterned with crescents, crosses, and six-pointed stars. In its quiet, narrow side-streets, tiled benches built into the whitewashed walls beckon the weary to stop and enjoy a sheltered rest from the bleaching sun. And tiled courtyards and entrances, with their riot of color and pattern, break the blank monotony of whitewashed walls.

Cap Bon, another area favored by the Andalusian immigrants, boasts rows and rows of leafy Valencia orange trees, heavy with ripening fruit, and spidery apricot trees - both fruits that were cultivated in Spain centuries ago. Northern Tunisia also features a patchwork of almond orchards, producing one of the country's most popular snack foods.

The whole country is fragrant with jasmine: from shaded city gardens to rural meadows and roadsides, and even to the tiled balconies of suburban apartments. And of course there's the prickly fig, a huge sprawling cactus making crooked stitches in the bumpy quilt of the Tunisian landscape. All these plants did not exist in Tunis before the Spanish Moors brought them as poignant reminders of their paradise lost.

But beyond such charms, the Andalusian touch reaches past the rural Tunisian landscape and to the very dinner table. Couscous, Tunisia's national dish, owes much of its character to Andalusian tastes and farming skills. The tomatoes on which its distinctive sauce is based, and the potatoes usually included in it, are both native to the Americas and were unknown to Europe or the East before 1492. Having savored the New World delicacies brought back by Spanish explorers, the Andalu-sians wasted no time learning to cultivate and enjoy them, and brought them along to Tunisia in the 16th century.

Even the fiery spiciness of Tunisian couscous, chakchouka, harissa and merguez was made made possible by Andalusian farmers who introduced an astonishing assortment of New World peppers and chilies, along with other seasonings, into the local diet. And no Tunisian holiday, wedding or celebration would be complete without delicately flavored pastries such as kaak warqa, tagine louz and kaaber. The texture, shape and taste of these sugar, almond and butter confections are so favored by the Tunisian sweet tooth they have become traditional treats - and their relationship to the Andalusian sweets of today is clear (See Aramco World, September-October 1989).

The last major influx of Andalusian immigrants arrived more than two centuries ago. Yet their descendants are still so steeped in the Andalusian heritage that it sometimes seems the settlers have only been there for a generation. Most Tunisians of Andalusian origin can pinpoint which part of Spain their ancestors came from, as well as when they arrived in Tunisia, and many of the Spanish-sounding family names, such as Pasquale, Blanco, Giorgi or Morishco, have resisted assimilation into more Arabic forms until today.

One young man from Soliman described the special importance of a traditional Andalusian sausage callled kwaris to his family. He told how fleeing ancestors slipped their jewels into the plump sausage casings to keep them safe from thieves and avaricious boat captains, who often preyed on the Andalusian refugees. His Andalusian ancestors were able to purchase choice land in their new country, thanks to those few jewels, he said - and he remembered the story because every year at Eid al-Kabir, or 'Id al-Adha, the greatest Muslim feast, his grandfather recited it as the family ate the traditional kwaris sausage.

Meanwhile, the Tunisian government has begun to take a more active role in preserving worthwhile specimens of Andalusian architecture. For example, authorities say, plans are in the works to restore the former home of Habiba M'Sika, a wealthy Testour widow of Andalusian descent. Once restoration is complete, the building, resplendent with Andalusian tiles and marble, will serve as a cultural center for the whole town, perhaps signaling yet another golden age for a remarkable people whose legacy outlived the greatest of calamities five hundred years ago.

Susan T. Rivers, a photojournalist from Princeton, New Jersey, lived in Tunisia and writes frequently about the Arab world. She gratefully thanks Hedi BenAicha and Oussama Romdhanifor their assistance with this article.

The Independent scholar

Hunkered against Tunisia's jagged Zaghouan Mountain, historian Abdejelil Temimi's silver-domed center for Andalusian and Ottoman Studies is proof of his independence and perseverance.

Officially named Le Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Ottomanes, Morisques, de Documentation et d'Information, it "is the only institute of its kind in the world," according to Temimi, who used his own money to pay for much of the 1100-square-meter (12,000-square-foot) building.

A professor of contemporary history at the University of Tunis and a recognized expert on Ottoman and Andalusian studies, Temimi is convinced that future scholarship and research must come from private institutions. "By staying independent and outside bureaucracies, these [research centers] can be more productive and will encourage more lively intellectual exchanges among scholars from all over the world," Temimi said in a recent interview.

Nestled in a green meadow about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Tunis, the multi-domed white stucco building is a blend of futuristic and traditional Arab features. And despite the hushed serenity of the center's soaring interiors, it is dear that scholarship and ideas are lively, almost entrepreneurial, pursuits for its founder.

From his comfortable office, Temimi nods to his visitors as he speaks into a cordless phone. Sporting jeans, a crew-neck sweater and an easy smile, he darts from his desk to his bookshelves and back again, says a quick goodbye and turns to welcome his guests.

He has greeted a stream of scholars, diplomats and dignitaries from the US and Europe - as well as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Syria and Egypt - since the center, still under construction, was started about six years ago. Its library was dedicated in 1989. While it focuses on Ottoman andMorisco history, the institute's third mission is to serve as a center for library and information sciences in the Arab world as well-a broad mission that reflects the breadth of Temimi's own polymath background.

Fluent in Arabic, French, Turkish, Spanish and English, Temimi modestly bills himself as "a historian with an affinity for library science" but his resume reveals afar more profound and global education. After earning a bachelor's decree at the University of Baghdad in the 1960s, he studied Turkish language and Ottoman history in Istanbul and at the University of London before skipping over to America to earn his Master of Library Science degree at the University ofPittsburgh.

In 1970 Temimi completed a doctorat d'etat in history from the University of Aix-en-Provence (today the University ofAix-Marseille III) and became professor of contemporary history at the University of Tunis, where he's been ever since.

Although the Kuirouan-born Temimi is not Andalusian himself, he became fascinated with the enormous social, economic, and political impact the Andalusians had all over the Arab world, and grew frustrated that no institute for Ottoman or Andalusian studies existed in the region. He decided to build one himself. After selling his own property to finance the venture, Temimi picked a site for his building outside Zaghouan, a town founded by Andalusian immigrants centuries ago.

Temimi can now add certified skills as an organizer arid scholarly fund-raiser to his resume. "We have had a great deal of interest and support from many countries in the Arab world," he says. "Saudi Arabia, for example, has helped us continue with our plan. But we keep hoping to attract more support from all over, including the United States'.'

Temimi has hired four staff members to manage his enormous correspondence and pinch-hit as assistant researchers. "But soon I will hire permanent staff for research and to produce the centers'publications," he says. Under his guidance, the center has sponsored several international conferences on Andalusian or Ottoman history and has published a prodigious quantity of conference notes and proceedings - all part of the work Temimi does in the five days a week he spends at the center. He teaches on Saturdays at the University of Tunis.

"It is a demanding enterprise, this labor of love" he says.

This article appeared on pages 10-17 of the July/August 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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