en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 52, Number 2March/April 2001

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Arabian Memories in Portugal

Written by Habeeb Salloum
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

"I hope that you will enjoy our fado. Tourists rarely appreciate this." Maria do Carmo Norqueria, a Portuguese tourist official, went on to wax poetic about the country's folkloric song tradition. Its name means "fate" or "destiny," and it remains little known outside the country. "As for me," she concluded, "it brings out the deepest of my emotions."

I smiled. "I have heard it many times, and I love it! Did you know that it's related to traditional song styles in the eastern Arab lands?" Maria looked at me but did not comment. Perhaps my remark puzzled her, for I have found that Portugal's Arab legacies are so many that even in the country itself, they can be difficult to discern.

That evening, in the semi-darkness of Lisbon's João da Praça Restaurant, Maria Armanda, one of Portugal's top fadistas, poured out her soul in a free and flexible rhythm, singing piercing lyrics of sorrow and despair. Her voice was so sweeping, so stark with lamentation, yet so driven by cathartic, passionate love for life that it touched my own deepest emotions though I understood few of her words. As Armanda threw back her head with her eyes half closed and clutched and twisted the ends of her black shawl, it was as if the late Umm Kulthum, one of the greatest singers the Arab world has ever known, had not died in 1975 after all, but had secretly emigrated to Lisbon.

George Sawa, who holds a doctorate in historical Arab musicology from the University of Toronto, explains fado's links to Arab music. The plucking of the strings on the mandolin and guitar, he says, is similar to the strumming style Arab musicians use on the fretless 'ud, the ancestor of the lute of the European Renaissance. Fado's switches between minor and Phrygian modes parallels the Arab use of nahawand and kurd. Some fado forms, Sawa adds, are repetitive, like early Arab muwasbshaat, where a phrase is repeated over and over.

Musician and historian of cartography Benjamin Olshin says of the similarity that "you can hear this in the music." Similarly, the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians locates fado's roots in the Arab musical tradition. Olshin adds that "There is also other Portuguese music which is clearly Arab-inspired. Listen, for example, to the modern flautist Rao Kao."

The next morning, Antonio, a native of Lisbon, guided our group into the capital city's Alfama district, the heart of historic Portugal. "We are walking through the Arab part of Lisbon. Its outline has not changed since the Moors built this section of the city," he said, apparently taking for granted that all in our group would know that Arabs had once called Lisbon—Lishbuna—home.

In Spain, most of the country's inhabitants and a good number of its visitors are at least passingly familiar with its Arab heritage. But it is less well known that Portugal, too, was at one time part of al-Andalus, the land known in the West as Moorish Spain. Cordoba was the capital of al-Andalus; its counterpart in southern Portugal was Silves.

"A good number of our people, especially educated people, know quite well that the Arabs were part of our history," says Jose Antonio Preto da Silva, a former Portuguese tourism commissioner in Canada. "They contributed to our language, our architecture and especially to our knowledge of navigation. The lateen sail and the astrolabe, introduced by the Arabs, were instrumental in launching our nation into its Age of Discovery."

Alfama, bustling beneath its hilltop Arab castle, is today a testimony to the Arabs' brilliant legacy of convivencia— peaceful cohabitation—of learning, innovation and culture that shaped the European Renaissance. Though it was founded by the Phoenicians and later embellished by Romans and Visigoths, the Arabs gave it its name, which comes from al-hammah, "hot spring." Amid narrow, cobbled streets that follow the Arab platting, and among the complexity of close-quartered whitewashed houses, the aura of the long-gone Muslim city still lingers. Climbing plants and stone vases still sprout flowers in courtyards, and all appear to have more in common with North Africa than Europe.

It was in 711, soon after the first Arab probe across the Strait of Gibraltar, that the Iberian Peninsula came under Arab rule. In the western portion of the peninsula, this rule continued until the end of the 10th century, when the northern provinces of what is today Portugal fell to Bermudo II, Christian king of León, who called the newly acquired lands Portucalia. Over the next 250 years, the Christian reconquista continued to push the Arabs south. In 1139, emboldened by a brilliant victory over the Arabs at Ourique, Afonso Henriques declared himself independent of the rule of Castile and declared Portugal independent under his own crown. From that date, Portugual began to develop a national identity distinct from that of the Galicians, Léonese, Catalonians, Castilians and others in the Iberian realms, which later united to become the nation of Spain.

In the mid-13th century, Afonso III conquered Faro, the last stronghold of the Arabs, the city that is today the capital of Algarve, the southernmost province of the country. With its fall, five centuries of Arab rule in Portugal ended. (In what would become Spain, it would be 240 years more before the last Arab kingdom was extinguished in 1492.) But the Arab legacy enriched and shaped Portugal indelibly.

The Arab introduction of new agricultural technology, and the Arabs' plain hard work, made Arab Portugal prosper. To this day, the common Portuguese verb mourejar means "to work like a Moor," and it implies unusual diligence and tenacity. The Arabs introduced and expanded groves and fields, some of which dated from Roman times, of almonds, apricots, carobs, figs, lemons, olives, oranges, pomegranates, rice, palms, sugar, spices and numerous vegetables. Today, many of the orchard and garden products that grace the tables of Portugal carry modified Arabic names. (See sidebar, page 37.)

Throughout al-Andalus, Arab agriculture thrived with the construction of irrigation systems, parts of which are still in use today. Sometimes built on Roman foundations, this watering network was made more useful still by the introduction from Arab lands of the windmill, the watermill (Portuguese azenha, from the Arabic al-saniyah), and the water wheel (Portuguese nora, from the Arabic na'urah). These innovations may have been the greatest gifts the Arabs gave to Spain and Portugal, for thanks to them Iberian fields were for centuries better developed than those in the rest of Europe. The 12th-century Moroccan geographer al-Idrisi described Algarve as a land of beautiful cities surrounded by irrigated gardens and orchards.

After 1249, although their western Iberian kingdoms were no more, Arabs continued to live in the Christian-ruled kingdoms, working the land, constructing and decorating homes, villas and palaces. The 1492 expulsion of Muslims from Spain led to a similar expulsion from Portugal in 1497, but even after this, the cultural legacy lived on. The early-16th-century court of Manuel I, for example, the ruler who patronized the first Portuguese voyages to India around the Horn of Africa, featured Arab clothing, Arab dances and music, and Arab-style harnesses for horses.

One Arab decorative tradition that has endured to become part of modern Portuguese identity is the love of vivacious ornamental tiles, called azulejos. (The word comes from Arabic al-zulayj, "polished stone.") On the walls of homes, churches, country mansions, train stations and countless other structures, these colorful, often geometrically patterned tiles seem to bring out the beauty of every building they adorn. Tiled walls in every city and village harmonize with Portugal's baroque and Manueline architecture-the latter developed largely by Francisco Arruda, an admirer of Arab artistry and one of Portugal's finest architects in the period after the Age of Discovery.

During the 18th century, which the Portuguese regard as the "golden age" of azulejos, the Dutch influence brought pictorial tiles- featuring animals, castles, ships, flowers, people and religious scenes- and blue-on-white monochrome tiles. But it is the early, geometric styles of azulejos that show the clearest stylistic ties to the Arabs. Outside Lisbon, intricately patterned tiles on the walls and floors of the National Palace and the Peña Castle in Sintra, the Church of Nossa Senhora do Pópulo in Caldas da Rainha, the Church of the Misericórdia in Vila do Conde and many other structures throughout the country incorporate a fine selection of Arab and Arab-inspired tile work.

The colors, aromas and flavors of the Portuguese kitchen are another important inheritance from the Arabs. In the days of al-Andalus, basic meats included lamb, goat, some beef and much seafood. Many of the Portuguese names for fish—such as atum (tuna, from Arabic al-tun), sável (shad, from shabal) and even almêijoa (clams, from al-majjah )—attest to the origins of Portugal's seafood habit. The Arab sweet tooth was passed on, too, as Portugal's candied fruits and its many pastries made of almonds, egg yolks, honey and rose water demonstrate. Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre noted in his book The Masters and the Slaves (1933) that old Portuguese cookbooks are filled with Arab recipes often simply called "Moorish lamb," "Moorish sausage," "Moorish hen," "Moorish fish," "Moorish broth" and so on.

Besides the fields, the tiles, the kitchens, the Arab architecture of castles, gates and city walls and the audibly Arabic names of towns and geographical features, there is the less definable but very persuasive Arab look and feel of Portugal's landscape, especially in Algarve, to remind the visitor of this important part of the country's history. The sparkling white houses with red terracotta roofs, set in lush orchards, the courtyard patios drowsing in their flowery shade, and the fretted chimneys unique to southern Portugal—all these are evidence of a kind. (See page 38.) Loulé, parts of whose 12th-century ramparts remain, is a city whose houses are adorned with attractive terraces and colorful minaret-like chimneys, situated in one of the loveliest parts of Algarve. Likewise, the older sections of Olhão and Tavira, with their narrow streets, kasbah-style town architecture and, again, the "Moorish" chimneys, also appear more North African than European. And crowning all these towns is Silves, known as Shalb when it was the Arab capital of Algarve, vying with Cordoba to be the intellectual center of the western Islamic world. The mystic Ibn Qasi, the poet-king of Seville, al-Mu'tamid, and the poet Ibn 'Ammar were all born in Shalb. Devastated in the reconquista, the city never again reached its former size or glory, and today it is a modest place whose economy relies heavily on tourism. Only the Arab castle, the Alcazaba (from al-qasabah, the fortress), the nearby cathedral (which retains vestiges of the mosque it was built on) and a gate in the Arab city walls remain.

Despite all these visible traces, for me there is still no better indication of the Arab contribution to Portuguese life than what can be heard in a long and heartfelt fado. Although its modern form is urban and it developed, as we know it, only in the 19th century, it is increasingly performed throughout the towns of Algarve, albeit largely for tourists.

Fado is perhaps most appropriately performed at night. Then, when a fadista pours out her soul to remind of all we cannot know, cannot control, cannot understand—our loves, our histories—she inevitably recalls for me the gripping, expansive songs of the Arabs who once called this land home, and whose influences remain today.

Habeeb Salloum is me author of five books and numerous articles on Canadian, Arab and Latin American history, travel and culinary arts. He is currently collaborating with his daughter Muna on an etymology of Arabic contributions to Spanish.

Free-lance photographer and writer Tor Eigeland began contributing to this magazine from Beirut in the late 1960's, after which he lived in Spain. His home now lies on the other side of the Pyrenees, in southwest France. Visit his website at www.toreigeland.com.

A Legacy In Language
Written by Habeeb Salloum

Portuguese is saturated with more than a thousand words of Arabic origin—more even than Spanish. Some are easy to spot: Portuguese words beginning with "al-" are almost all the result of assimilation of the Arabic prefix that means "the-" (and which in Spanish became "el-"). Similarly, Portuguese place names beginning with "Ode-" or "Odi-", such as Odeleite, Odelouca and Odiáxere, all stem from the Arabic wadi, meaning valley. For this list, however, I have concentrated on words that, for the most part, are legacies to both Portuguese and Spanish, and in some cases to English as well. Note, though, that some of the meanings have shifted!

al-karawiyah caraway alcaravia
al-badhinjan eggplant beringela
al-zanjabil ginger gengibre
al-laymun lime limáo
al-zayt oil azeite
al-zaytun olive azeitona
al-naranj orange laranja
al-rumman pomegranate romã
al-aruzz rice arroz
al-za'faran saffron açafrão
al-isbanakh spinach espinafre
al-sukkar sugar açúcar
sharab syrup xarope
amir al-bar admiral almirante
al-kimiya' alchemy alquimia
al-jabr algebra álgebra
al-manakh almanac almanaque
'anbar amber âmbar
al-samt azimuth azimute
jamal camel camelo
gharrafah carafe garrafa
sakk check cheque
al-zanqah lane azinhaga
al-mijrash mortar (for grinding) almofariz
al-misk musk almuscar
al-jayb pocket algibeira
ta'rifah tariff tarifa
al-makhzan warehouse armazem
sifr zero cifra
Albufeira al-buhayrah the lake
Alcantarilha al-qantarah the bridge
Alcaria al-qariyah the village
Aldeia al-day'ah the small village
Alfambras al-hamra' the red
Alferce al-fa's the pickaxe
Algoz al-ghuzz name of an Arab tribe
Aljezur al-juzur the islands
Almadena al-madinah the city
Almansil al-manzil the house
Almodôvar al-mudawwar the round
Alvor al-barr the port, the dry land
Salema salam peace
Odemira wadi al-amirah valley of the princess

This article appeared on pages 32-37 of the March/April 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2001 images.