Every writer is, of course, a reader of her or his predecessors as well, but what I want to underline is that the often surprising dynamics of human history . . . dramatize the latencies in a prior figure or form that suddenly illuminate the present.
The Moor, no longer European or even part of Europe, passed through history, then passed out of history, leaving only traces in the fictions and myths as a negative exemplary figure of what not to be. Ergo, Othello.
1492 marks both a point of rupture and a point of departure, a rupture with the Moorish Andalusian presence in the Iberian Peninsula and a departure to the New World, which was "new" only in the sense that it had yet to be known—encountered, not discovered. Christopher Columbus's sail to the Americas followed shortly after the crusading armies of King Ferdinand (Aragon) and Queen Isabella (Castile), cemented by their royal marriage, re-conquered Granada, the last independent Moorish city-state whose survival for more than two and a half centuries (as subordinate to the Kingdom of Castile according to the 1246 treaty of Jaén) had squarely depended on the unabated resurgences of hostilities between the surrounding Christian powers, which the successive statesmen of Granada exploited skillfully, treading the delicate line between diplomacy and deterrence, to defer an otherwise ineluctable demise.1
The convergence between the recapture of Granada and the departure to the New World was not, it bears emphasizing, incidental, much less accidental. Columbus's departure to the Americas would not have occurred were it not for the booty plundered from Moorish Granada. More importantly, it became patently clear that Arab sailors' transatlantic navigational knowledge and devices such as the astrolabe were crucial to Columbus's successive voyages. No wonder, then, that a number of Moors and Mudejars (Muslims living under Christian rule), and perhaps even former Mozarabs (Arabic-speaking Christians living under Muslim rule), and later Moriscos (Muslims converted to Christianity) were among the first diasporic ethnicities to set foot in the New World. Many of them were taken as sailors and translators on the assumption that the natives of the Americas spoke Arabic, which, ironically as it might be, bears indirect witness to the oftentimes downplayed navigational élan of the Moors of Al-Andalus.2
It is no exaggeration to suggest at the outset that the post-9/11 political invention (i.e., assignation and cultivation) of an Arab American ethnicity/ identity must be interrogated against the backdrop of this historical longevity whose roots shimmer in the recesses of 1492—this exquisite overlap, as it were, between the Reconquista of Spain and the Conquista of the Americas. This is all the more so apparent, given that the Moors, Berbers, or Muslims of North Africa writ large were also among the first slaves captured, sold out of Spain to Portugal, and then shipped to the New World colonies via Lisbon in late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, a time when the merciless expulsion of Jews, Arabs, and Muslims from their homes in Al-Andalus was well underway.
Much is yet to be known about how the Moors have been written out of Spanish history post-1492 (let alone that of post-1609, when they were summarily expelled out of Spain under the auspices of an expanding Inquisition) and displaced, at least in part, in the New World—only to be in turn narrated out of American history (or, perhaps, hammered into it beyond recognition) until they are accidentally "discovered" and frantically "targeted" in the post-9/11 climate of fearmongering, ethnic profiling, and the war on terror, all of which imperiled, perhaps for decades to come, civil liberties, constitutional rights, and the credibility of international law. In a masterful analysis, Velocities of Zero, Marwan Hassan, the Arab Canadian novelist and dialectical socialist, discusses the demographic distortions that the Reconquista had resulted in, and which intensified during the scramble for the Americas and the internationalization of the slave trade. There is little to no recorded evidence of Moorish and Muslim presence in the Americas during and following the Age of Discovery beyond what is exemplified by speculations about the...