Iberia a Thousand Years Ago

EDITORIAL, 26 Jan 2015

#360 | Johan Galtung, 26 Jan 2015 - TRANSCEND Media Service

A time machine set on the long haul backward may be useful to understand the present in the light of the past. For instance Iberia, the peninsula, today with two states, Spain and Portugal.

The time machine operator is Vigdis L’Orsa, Norwegian journalist, a pillar in the Norwegian community on Costa Blanca with incredible small towns like Alfaz with above one hundred nations living peacefully together. She runs seminars on Spanish history inviting Norwegians, professionals and amateurs, to explore the Spanish past. And has recently produced a wonderful book, a historical novel, a love story to beat: I skyggen av al-Andalus (Lyst Forlag 2014 367 pp.) “In the shadow of al-Andaluz”–today Andalucia–what was left of the Islamic Caliphate, Iberia, except Asturias-Galicia, of 711–centered on Córdoba-Granada with its rich treasures of Arab-Muslim culture.

The historian in her produces a 14 pp. appendix of facts-legends to draw upon. And the artist in her a captivating love story between Erik the Viking turning Christian and Emble (Eve), Christian from the Galician North, captured by the Muslims as concubine for caliphs Abd-al-Rahman III (929-961) and his son al-Hakam II (961-976). Both with background from Norway, speaking Old Norse, learning Arabic, Romansh–the spoken (“vulgar”) Latin of the Roman Empire, now only found in Eastern Switzerland where Vigdis’ husband Jan stems from–and more.

The background story: the Roman Empire–three provinces in Iberia–collapsing in 476, beaten by the Vandals, in turn beaten by the Visigoths (Western Goths), Christians from 589. Romani+Gothi=Hispani.

All three Abrahamisms were there: Muslims in the South, a vast, contested, no-man’s land, Christians in the North (Santiago!), Jews– forced out of the Holy Land to other parts of the Empire after the destruction of the Second Temple in Year 70–in the cities.

The Jews opened the city gates for the Umayyad takeover in 711.

And then the Vikings–brilliant ship-builders and navigators– with total destruction, brutal killings, looting as their profession. She opens with a gruesome Viking raid making a Norwegian ask: is there still some Viking in us? Quisling from Telemark canonized the Vikings for Norwegians joining Nazi Germany on the Eastern front against USSR; so did the Norwegian Army in Afghanistan–the Telemark Battalion–some years ago. But the Viking era–a Roman Empire in the North from around 800, like Charlemagne’s “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” from 800 (or the 960s rather), destroyed by Napoleon in 1806–till around 1050. Its deep pessimism was relieved by Christianity.

Her novel describes the Vikings raiding North, South and in the middle, Muslims and Christians fighting and killing each other; and Emble hating Erik for his brutality, yet attracted; he falling in love but feeling distant. She is captured by Muslims as a slave, driven months through the 800-Km no man’s land to opulent, incredible Córdoba. Erik distances himself from his extremist vikingism and becomes a negotiator between Córdoba and the Viking king in Dublin. He receives Emble as reward, they escape northward, he turns Christian, is baptized, they marry; love evolving between the two with a love scene as beautiful as anything in Norwegian literature.

Arriving in her village her parents are alive. But the father is unforgiving both of her slavery in the Córdoba harem and of falling in love and marrying a Viking, condemning her to 3 years in a monastery.   Their love survives even that; they are united till Erik dies, victim of his wounds, leaving for the final voyage-journey to his thereafter.

Deeply human, against a tapestry of an Iberia torn by giant forces, written in the subjunctive as if, it could have happened, projecting the context on Erik and Emble. The reader will love both of them. In an incredibly rich Norwegian, Vigdis masters both levels with much yin/yang ambiguity in all parties. The book shouts: Translate me!

Erik and Emble unite after strife, hatred, and across gulfs of differences. In 1492 Iberia was united, or cleansed, the Muslims-Moors-Moros were driven out, very many killed, the caliphate with its first centuries of Jewish-Christian-Muslim togetherness and dialogue destroyed. Uniting for peace, justifying centuries of warfare?

Only by limiting space and time to Iberia and some decades.

That same year of tidal change, 1492, Columbus laid claims to parts of the Caribbean, followed by Cortes and Pizarro destroying the Aztec and Inca civilizations. Direct violence was used to build the structural violence of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. And on 4 May 1493 came the cultural violence: Pope Alexander VI in his infamous Bolla Papale &Cetera gave (as if owning them) the islands and mainlands discovered by “our beloved son”, and to be discovered, to los reyes católicos, Isabella and Ferdinand, for jurisdiction of all kinds, aka colonialism –an institution to last till the 1960s. Why? Ferdinand had made Alexander, of the Borgia family in Italy, but from Gandia close to Valencia (and Alfaz!), Pope. True, he is also known for what the West celebrates, the Tratado de Tordesillas in 1494 the year after, dividing the “discoveries” between Spain and Portugal. Naively called “peace”, when two mafias divide their booty.

The warfare stuck. Felipe II turned against Catalonia, and England with the Armada; inter-nation, inter-state. The Caliphate was also belligerent, fighting the Christian North and Berber Africa. The Jews were burnt by the Inquisition and forced out of Spain, maybe also for having opened the gates? And the Vikings? Cultural suicide.

Turn the time machine on forward. To 1936-1939, Civil War, over class more than nations and state. To Now: as unable to accommodate Basques and Catalans as Córdoba in 1492. Violence breeds violence, warfare sticks; L’Orsa’s narrative shows it undermining negotiations.

Read the book, and feel yourself lifted, humanly and politically.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He is author of over 150 books on peace and related issues, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 26 Jan 2015.

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