Baynana, a new bilingual newspaper, in Arabic and Spanish, created for social and public service purposes, interviewed Daniel Gil-Benumeya, scientific coordinator of the Center for the Study of Islamic Madrid (CEMI), on October 4th to learn about the history of Islamic Madrid and to talk about CEMI’s latest publication, Islamic Madrid, a Rediscovered History.
We would like to meet Daniel-Benumeya: where does the surname ‘Benumeya’ come from?
Benumeya is the pseudonym used by my paternal grandfather from Granada. There is a family legend according to which my grandfather’s family comes from a character who revolted in 1568, a Moorish character from Granada who was called in Spanish Luis de Válor and in Arabic Abd Allah Benumeya. That is the reaosn my grandfather took this surname.
What are the reasons for writing the book Islamic Madrid, a Rediscovered History? Why is it rediscovered?
Madrid is the only European capital of Islamic origin. According to the oldest sources and archaeological data of the city, Madrid appeared in the middle of the 8th century. Andalusia was founded by Mohammad, the first of Cordoba, and belonged to Al-Andalus for almost 250 years. It was then conquered by the Castilian kingdom, but continued to have a Muslim minority for another 500 years. That means that Madrid has an Islamic history of about 750 years, seven and a half centuries after its Islamic foundation.
However, this is history is very little known by the people of Madrid, mainly because there are very few material remains, as most of them have been destroyed over time, and because since Madrid is the capital of Spain (since the middle of the 16th century), it is not considered appropriate to recognize the Islamic past.
We should take into account that when Madrid became the capital, during the reign of Philip II, the city was the capital of the largest empire of its time. It was also the empire that presented itself as the Catholic empire par excellence, that is, the defender of the Christian and Catholic faith. This led to an attempt to hide Madrid’s Islamic past. With the destruction of the Islamic vestiges in Madrid, history and memory were destroyed.
Were there specific reasons for entering this field?
I have lived in Madrid for a long time, it is a city I like, and I like to know the history of the city. When I was working at Casa Árabe I was asked to coordinate a book on the history of the Arabs in Madrid. I had to start with the foundation of Madrid and that’s where I began to research and study its Islamic origin.
So is Madrid Arab or Islamic?
It is both. I prefer to use the term Islamic, because it covers a broader period. The Arabic would refer mainly to the Al-Andalus period in any case, but the Muslim minority that came later cannot be said to be an Arab minority because they no longer spoke Arabic but Spanish.
Why is it important to know the origins and identity of a European city like Madrid?
For some years now we have been living in a context marked by the idea of the clash of civilizations, and by the idea that Europe and the West and the Islamic world are opposites. That is why calling Madrid “Islamic” is also a political bet against Islamophobia and racism. Madrid has always been a mestizo, multicultural and diverse city since its origins.
How did Madrid’s Islamic history change?
The moment when Madrid ceased to be Islamic was in 1085, when King Alfonso VI of Castile conquered the Kingdom of Toledo, of which Madrid was a part, and it was incorporated into Castile. From then on, most of the population of Madrid left and only an Islamic minority remained, which existed for 500 years, until 1502, when the Muslims of Castile were forced to convert. In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs expelled the Jews and then in 1502 they decided to wipe out the Muslims, not by expelling them but by forcing them to convert to Christianity. But when they turned Madrid into the capital, in 1561, everything started to change because they started to hide its Islamic history.
After this, Madrid still hired Muslims for some public works, how did they disappear or become a minority?
Yes, from the end of the 11th century until the beginning of the 16th century. During the time that the Kingdom of Granada existed, Al-Andalus existed. A system of respect for religious minorities similar to that which existed during Al-Andalus was put in place.
The idea was: if we allow Muslims to exist in Granada, they will respect Christians. It was an exchange. But the moment Granada 1492 disappeared, Al-Andalus disappeared then there was no reason to keep religious minorities in peace. When it is decided that all Muslims convert to Christianity is how Muslims formally disappear. However, although many convert to Christianity, they are not really Christians, that is why they were called Moriscos. Moriscos means that it looks like Moro, which at that time meant Muslim. Today the word Moro popularly refers mostly to the Moroccans, the people of the Maghreb. So Moorish means that he is a Christian but looks like a Muslim, someone who may be a Muslim in secret.
How was the coexistence of religions when Madrid was Islamic?
We do not know, because there is no data on the presence of Jews or Christians. The written sources only speak of Muslims. We do not know if there were really Jews or Christians. It is possible that during the time of the emirate of the caliphate the coexistence was, more or less, good . The only material evidence that there may have been Christians in Madrid are pig bones in two archaeological excavations.
There is a great tradition of activists in Spain who talk about Islamic and Andalusian history, but do we find the same interest in talking about the Islamic origins of Madrid?
There are quite a few researchers and books, from the middle of the 20th century to the present. But it is a knowledge that remains within the academic and university environment. It is normal for academic knowledge not to reach society. I belong to the Center of Studies for Islamic Madrid, which is one of the most important initiatives that has been created in this sense. Rafael Martinez, whom I am sure you know from his web site Arab Madrid, also participates there.
You and the Center for the Study of Islamic Madrid have put a lot of effort to promote the recognition of the Islamic origins of Madrid, what has been achieved so far?
We have achieved that the public, or at least an important part of it, becomes interested in the history of Madrid, that they are aware of the origins of Madrid. Many things have been published as a result of our activities, for example, we give guided tours and a growing number of people have started to take them. The subject has also started to appear in the media. Even the public channel Telemadrid, made a series of pretty good reports on the origins of Madrid, and one on the Islamic Madrid . I think that in short what has been achieved is to generate interest.
At the institutional level, practically nothing has been achieved. Institutions such as the Madrid City Council are reluctant to recognize the Islamic origin of Madrid. Especially this City Council, which is right-wing, because there is also a political question: the right is more nationalist and has more problems with the Islamic past, although in reality, the Left does not like it very much either. So we have not achieved institutional recognition, many things in Madrid are not signposted, people do not know them because they are not protected. There is a lot of work to do.
Is there interest from the media in Spain in showing the origins of Madrid? How do the media treat the facts and evidence of your research and the books you publish?
There is a relative interest. Only a few media have been interested. Usually the interest comes from cultural journalists. On the other hand, many media deny the Islamic origin of Madrid. This knowledge that has been produced in recent years about Islamic Madrid has generated a reaction from people. There are journalists who look for people to tell them that Madrid is not of Islamic origin, but of Roman origin.
Why is that?
People are afraid of the word Islamic. This has been something we have thought about a lot . We did not know if it was good to talk about Islamic Madrid. Maybe we should have said Arab Madrid, for example, or Andalusian Madrid, to soften the idea. We took the risk of saying Madrid islámico also to be a bit provocative, to provoke a reaction, although it also implies some problems. If we go to the press or to the institutions with the term Islamic Madrid, sometimes we find some reticences. Proclaiming that Madrid has an Islamic origin is something that many people do not want to read or hear about, it is conflictive because the term “Islamic” is associated with Islamic terrorism. For example, we have been told in networks and in press comments that if we talk about Islamic Madrid we are putting Madrid in danger because Muslims are going to reclaim the city as their own.
Baynana is a recently published magazine, what advice do you have to make Madrid’s Islamic origins known and reveal its true identity?
It is important to make information known in Arabic. Because we are not enough to generate interest in institutions, or investors. If there were people from Arab or Islamic countries that would generate a tourist demand around the Islamic heritage of Madrid, if there were more publications about this kind of things, then the Spanish Administration would also have more interest in its heritage. I think that promoting its existence outside Spain and spreading its history across the Arabic world could be very interesting.