Researching Your Own Culture

When I first started writing the book that would become A CURSE OF ROSES, I thought I could get away with doing minimal research. After all, I was writing about my own culture, using my hometown’s most famous story. I grew up in Estremoz, so I thought all I had to do was read more about Isabel de Aragão and Dinis I, as well as the living conditions of commoners, the clergy, and the nobility. I still remembered much of what we’d been taught in History lessons, and I thought that’d be enough.

I was wrong. So wrong.

Initially, the book began with a prologue about Fatyan, and how she becomes an Enchanted Moura. Because I was under the impression all Moors had been Muslim, I wrote her as one. That meant researching the Moor Occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, as well as the Reconquest, which began with D Afonso I, our first King.

I found many amazing things in that research hole, and this paper by Sahar Ahmed drew my attention. In it, she shows that the Moors actually had terms for lesbianism (sihaq) and lesbian (sahiqa), and that they didn’t persecute those girls. Rather, they believed it to be a disease passed on by breastfeeding after eating certain foods—and that the way to cure it was to have women rub their hot parts against each other. So, discovery #1.

My discovery #2 came after reading this interview with Archeologist Cláudio Torres. In it, he said something that deeply resonated when asked about archeological proof of how the day-to-day lives of Moors were (emphasis mine, translation mine):

“Yes, though archeology, which gives us information that isn’t a lie. Unlike writing, which is ordered. Who knew how to write? Only half a dozen of people, the scribes, who were paid by lords, and as such, wrote what the lords told them to. The art of the historian is in knowing how to read between the lines, in what isn’t written, because what’s written is, always, or almost always, a lie. Archeology gives us a history of those who didn’t have a history, of women, of the kitchen, of what was eaten, how it was eaten, how the agricultural region was.”

In the first part of that interview, Cláudio Torres also mentions that the Moors, unlike popular belief, weren’t solely Muslim, but also Christian and Jewish. That the so-called Moor Conquest was, in fact, not a conquest, but a change in alliances by the people, who were mistreated by their Christian overlords, and decided to swear fealty to the Caliphate instead. That the assimilation of Iberian people to the Caliphate was done mostly through trade, not war. Sure, skirmishes happened, but those always happened in medieval times.

Muslim religion came mostly through the ports. And the Caliphate didn’t demand conversion, only vassalage. Meaning you could be a Moor, but also a Christian. You were not required conversion to Islam to be part of it.

Truth is, there were two types of Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, and they too, warred against each other. It wasn’t Muslims vs Christians. That was a narrative imposed later, to further alienate the Iberian people against the Moors. The Islamophobia we see today happened centuries ago, too. This interview with several archeologists and historians dives deeper into the subject. And it’s in English, too! It opens with:

“In the 8th century, Muslims sailed from North Africa and took control of what is now Portugal and Spain. Known in Arabic as al-Andalus, the region joined the expanding Umayyad Empire and prospered under Muslim rule. But that legacy has been largely forgotten in the predominantly Catholic country.”

So there I was, writing a book about erased queers, without realizing there were more erasures happening so as to make the Moors seem like this big bad enemy of the Christian faith. That very same year, there was hubbub about shortening the History lessons we had about the hundreds of years of Moor occupation. And I couldn’t understand why we’d be erasing it, rather than expanding.

“The Moor became Portugal’s stereotypical “other” as European identity was being shaped in opposition to Islam. Although the term “Moor” traditionally referred to Arabic-speaking Muslims in North Africa, the label was often used to broadly refer to Muslims, reducing their diversity to a mass of otherness.”

I also discovered that, until Denis’s reign, the Moors lived mostly in ghettos, and it was him who “freed” them. That lasted until 1496, during Dom Manuel’s reign.

“In 1249, King Afonso III of Portugal captured Faro, the last Muslim stronghold in Algarve. Most Muslims there were killed, fled to territory controlled by Muslims or converted to Christianity, but a small minority were allowed to stay in segregated neighbourhoods.

In 1496, King Manuel I decided to expel all Jews and Muslims, turning the kingdom exclusively Christian.”

The othering of the Moors didn’t happen until later, when Christian Kings wanted to justify invading North Africa. Isabel de Aragão, for instance, was tutored by men of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. Back then, so long as you followed one of the “Books” (Bible, Torah, and the Quran), it meant you worshipped the same god, just not on the specifics. So there was a mix of faiths that the Christians later tried to undo, either through the Crusades, or through the persecution of Jewish people in the late 1400s. It’s worth noting that the reason D Manuel decided to expel, massacre, or forcefully convert Jewish people, was because he was horny for the King of Castela’s daughter, and the Castellan King would only let D, Manuel marry her if he made his kingdom exclusively Christian.

“Different communities lived together here until the end of the 15th century,” explains Susana Martinez, a researcher at Mertola’s archaeological field and professor of medieval history and archaeology at the University of Evora.

“The expulsion of Jews and Muslims breaks the long period of coexistence as Christianity from the north imposes its faith on everyone,” she adds.

“In a time of hardening borders and strict divisions between the north and the south of the Mediterranean, it is hard to imagine that the sea once served as a connector. But this is what archaeologists in Mertola have found. Despite the divides created by nationalism, both shores of the Mediterranean share a common culture and history.

“We shouldn’t look at the south of the Mediterranean as if there was a border dividing us,” says Lopes. “Those people are also our people. Genetically and culturally, we are very close.””

Where does this leave us, then?

Well, for one, I decided to make Fatyan a Christian Moor, raised by Christian Moors who were allied with the Caliphate. She directly challenge’s Yzabel’s perspective that the Moors never really invaded, and gives her a different view on Christianity that’s different from the one Yzabel grew up with. As such, Jewish Portuguese and Muslim Portuguese are mentioned in the text, but aren’t in Yzabel’s closest circle when we meet her.

Another reason was that Fatyan was cursed to be trapped in a stone, and I did not want the men who did that (villains in their own right) to be Muslim. Christian intolerance is responsible for a lot of harm, and Faty’s fate ties directly to that. I ended up making Fatyan a lot like me—I think, as a way to process my anger at how others try to shape narratives that aren’t theirs to shape. But also because, to this day, people will the term Moor as an insult directed at me because I’m tan, and have “the eyes and the hair and the nose and whatever”. Both my parents are of Moorish descent, yes. But then again, so are the parents of mostly everyone in Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese were Moors for hundreds of years, and we shouldn’t let that be forgotten.

We don’t forget the Lusitanians as our ancestors. We don’t forget the Roman Empire as our ancestors. We don’t forget the Visigoths as our ancestors, either. Why should we forget the Moors?

Fatyan being Christian also confronts the notion that Moor is interchangeable with Muslim. This is more for Portuguese people than anyone else: to leave them questioning the history we’ve been taught, and be more critical about how it’s presented. It’s a very important lesson I learned from this book: always question what happened in the past, especially when said past was written mostly by those in power.


Published by pinguicha

I'm a freelance artist and writer, mother of two cats and one awesome bearded dragon. Making Portuguese history queer one novel at a time.

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