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Arabic Origins

Today, Columbus Day is being celebrated in Spain—the colonization of the Americas. The lost Spanish empire. Why is Christopher Columbus, one individual, famous for this? What differentiated Columbus from other explorers who came to the Americas?

No one “discovered” America. Many tribes of people speaking different languages were already living there. Traces of human presence dates back 30,000 years. Before Columbus first came to a small Bahama island in the Caribbean and then to Cuba, Lief Erikson and the Vikings had explored and lived in the north, and there were Irish monks and even Chinese Muslims who came to the American continent, and perhaps others.

It is odd that just as the doubts about celebrating Columbus are on the rise in the U.S., it is still considered a big holiday in Spain. The myth that Christopher Columbus discovered America persists. Supposedly, Queen Isabella heard God’s voice telling her to convert others to Catholicism, outside the European world. She also wanted to expand the recently formed Spanish Kingdom’s territories, so she supported Columbus with funds.The truth is he colonized America for Spain and for his own glory.

I feel fortunate to have found and read several books by the inimitable Medieval scholar and writer Maria Rosa Menocal (now deceased). I learned what really happened when Columbus went on his first voyage. Maria Rosa writes vividly about this moment in history and I highly recommend her books.

Columbus did not know where he was going. He set off looking for gold with the help of the Spanish government and thought he was going to India. Planning to leave Spain from Cadiz, he had to change his departure point, because when he arrived at the port, there was mass confusion. At that very moment, the Jews were being expelled from Spain for being Jewish (anyone who had not converted to Catholicism had to leave) and the port of Cadiz was thick with people trying to board ships with their families and belongings. There was such a terrible noise and “wailing,” so many people leaving and so much commotion that Columbus decided to move his departure point to Palos, another port north a ways.

Before he left the turbulent Cadiz, Christopher Columbus grabbed a Jew who spoke Arabic (for this was a common language in Spain at the time, especially for scholars) and convinced him to join his voyage to the New World. He needed him, Luis de Torres, to speak to leaders he would run across in this new land—in Arabic. Both the Jews and the Moors spoke Arabic and both were long time residents of Spain, and both groups were also being expelled from Spain right then. The infamous Spanish Inquisition was in full swing. The languages of formal communication were Arabic and Latin with Castilian (Spanish) being the spoken language and not yet used formally.

When Columbus and his three ships arrived in the Bahamas and then went over to Cuba, “the first diplomatic conversation in the New World took place between Luis de Torres, a Jew speaking in lovely Romance-accented Arabic that was both the language of high culture and stunning nostalgia—and a Taino chief in the hinterlands of Cuba…” Maria Rosa Menocal writes in her book Shards of Love (1993). As Menocal beautifully points out, there are so many layers here. Her writing decidedly non-linear for a scholar, and accessible, fun to read. Very well put: so ironic is “the speaking of Arabic in the New World when the Old is being outlawed.” She also informs that the Castilian grammar had been written down for the first time in the very same year that Columbus departed. Wasn’t the Castilian grammar a form of expulsion— of Arabic, the non-Christian language (Shards of Love, 11).

Think of the synchronization of all these monumental events in the year 1492. These are facts: the Jews were expelled from Spain by Isabella and Ferdinand; the Moors were defeated in Granada and subsequently oppressed; Christopher Columbus, representing Spain and the Queen, landed in the New World; and the first grammar and dictionary of the Castilian language was published (by Antonio Nebrija, a converted Jew) and promoted by the Queen to be used more widely, making it the official language of the Spanish Empire. Thus 1492 was a turning point in history in so many ways. Claro.

One wonders on what basis this early history was written and then later deciphered and reinterpreted. Menocal gives a fascinating account and synthesis of these studies in her writings. As we seek the truth in history, we wonder what drove some of those early Christian scholars to write about events the way they did. One important reason was to convert the native peoples to Catholicism. History always comes to us with a point of view.

Menocal’s writing style is unique in that it doesn’t shuffle away Medieval studies to the ivory tower. She opens her thinking to everyone to consider, thereby uncovering some of the great secrets of Columbus and his ilk and of the role of Arabic and Jewish culture in early Spain.

Another point of view that contributes to the history of Columbus’s colonization is that of Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, who wrote a short novel about Columbus called The Harp and the Shadow, showing Columbus was a specialist in self-aggrandizement. Why Columbus became so important, more so than previous explorers was partly because of how he painted himself and partly because he was a colonizer for Spain. While Carpentier’s book is, of course, fiction, Columbus reveals himself in these words: “'I felt that I was the equal of any monarch and was just as important, for though I lacked a jeweled crown, I wore the aura of my great idea, the way they wore the crowns of Castile and Aragon.'' Columbus’s image grew throughout history and became legendary.

European expansion continued and the establishment of white European culture became the dominant/richest culture in the world. The expansion mission was massive and nourished by capitalism and imperialism. The African slave trade and after that the changeover from slavery to industrialization provided for the high level of capitalism we have today. It comes from white European Christian culture, with a progeny that is unaware of the extent to which Arabic and Jewish peoples had to be suppressed and driven out of Europe for this growth to occur.

I end with a photo of Maria Rosa Menocal (1953-2012) who revealed so much to us through her scholarly work about Arabic culture and the roots of European culture, about the real Columbus, and about the importance of learning through history.

The conversation in Arabic which took place between Columbus’s Arabic-speaking Jew and the Taino chief in Cuba, said Cuban-born Maria Rosa Menocal, “I am a descendant of that conversation.”

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