Lost lands are littered with the homes of those who lived there. Armenian houses in south-eastern Turkey. Abandoned Palestinian homes in Israel. German property in what was the Sudetenland and Prussia. There are Greek homes around Smyrna – now Izmir – and down the west coast of Ireland lie the roofless cottages of those who died or emigrated in the Great Famine. Michael Barry, an Irish engineer and railwayman, has recorded the broken homes of the Moriscos – “little Moors” – of Spain, the very last Muslims to be driven out of Andalusia in 1613. His photographs of arched stone walls, roofless cabins and broken timbers in Atzuvieta in Valencia look eerily similar to the wreckage of the 19th-century peasant houses of his own country.
The year of darkness, of course, was 1492, when the Moorish kingdom of Granada surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella. Christian power was restored to the lands in which Muslims and Jews had lived together for hundreds of years and had rescued some of the great works of classical literature – by way of Baghdad – for us to study. Save for those who converted to Christianity or died at the stake – at least 1,000 Jews, perhaps as many as 10,000, among them – the entire Muslim and Jewish communities were thrown out of Spain and Portugal by the early 17th century. They scattered, to Morocco, Algeria, Bosnia, Greece and Turkey. Which is why the glories of Andalusian architecture can still be found in north Africa. The Sephardic (Spanish) Jews spoke Ladino, which was still understood in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of the 1990s. In just over 100 years, the Christian monarchy of Spain had expelled half a million Muslims and between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews. There are now around 3.5 million Sephardic Jews in the world. Their ancient homes also still exist in Spain.
But now Spain and Portugal want to make amends, so we are told. They will give citizenship – full passports – to the descendants of families expelled from their countries. The government regards the expulsions as “a tragedy”, or – in the words of Spain’s justice minister – a “historical error”. It was, of course, an ethnic cleansing, a massive crime against humanity, but don’t let’s expect too much from our Spanish and Portuguese friends, as there are, unfortunately, a few problems. For example: Muslims need not apply.
Jewish descendants of those expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th and 16th centuries can claim a passport which will allow them to travel freely in 28 EU countries. Many of those expected to apply live in Israel. They are being given a “right of return” – a right which Israel does not, of course, grant to the former Arab inhabitants of Palestine who were driven from their homes after the creation of Israel. Spanish and Portuguese officials preferred not to dwell on such matters – nor to explain why they have chosen to discriminate racially between those who were expelled from their lands 600 years ago.
The tragedy of Andalusia lasted for more than a century and there were Muslim rebellions – put down with Christian brutality – which, so comes the double-speak from Spain, may have disqualified the Muslims from Madrid’s generosity. In popular imagination, expulsion in time of war – and this might apply to the Palestinians – somehow doesn’t quite equal the wholesale expulsion of peoples on purely racial grounds. Thus, so this theory goes, the Jewish descendants of 15th century Spain have more rights than their Muslim brothers. A dodgy argument.
But there are other problems. It seems that approval of Jewish requests for citizenship in many cases will have to be approved by local Jewish community groups; thus, any refusals cannot be laid at the door of the Madrid government. And Jewish columnist Micah Halpern, who describes himself as an expert on “terrorism” (sic) and “Islamic fundamentalism”, has harshly condemned the whole fandango. The Spanish and Portuguese are not apologising to the Jews – as they certainly should – but merely offering them passports. There will be no attempt to pay compensation. And Muslims expelled from Spain in 1609, as Mr Halpern notes, are excluded.
But so far as he is concerned, the so-called “generous” offer from Spain and Portugal is not being made for reasons of conscience, but because Jews are “good with money” and will help the economies of these two bankrupt nations. “This is a decision based on economic need,” he writes. “And that is why no invitation was extended to Muslims. The return of Muslims would mean that tens of millions [sic] of people could claim citizenship but they would not be bringing in money.” This is a bit odd. Tens of thousands of Muslims are extremely wealthy and could also bring large sums of money to Spain and Portugal. Spanish Muslim groups have long campaigned for citizenship rights for the descendants of Muslims who were expelled or forced to convert at the same time as the Jews. No, the real reasons for their racism is that our cousins in Madrid and Lisbon simply don’t want Muslims to come to Europe, let alone become citizens. And they can rely on the fact that very few Jews who take up their offer, many now living in America as well as Israel, will actually come to live in Spain. Muslims might well do so.
Mr Halpern writes of the German apologies for the Holocaust and America’s regrets over slavery. Oddly, he does not mention the Armenians who are denied apologies from Turkey. But he concludes by saying that all Spain and Portugal can hear “is the clinking of money”. A simplification, I suspect. Spain and Portugal simply want to ensure that the Muslim expulsion is permanent. Andalusia was one of the wonders of what we now call multi-culturalism. The Spanish don’t want it back. “Everything declines,” wrote the poet Salih bin Sharif al-Rundi of Seville in 1248, “after reaching perfection…”