Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Don Quixote and the Arabs – Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel

In a certain Spanish prison cell, in a town whose name we cannot remember, in Castro del Rio perhaps, or in Seville, a tired scholar and soldier, almost in his fifties, conceived of a man in his own image, a man more ridiculous and more courageous than himself, a man decided, against all odds, to confront the everyday injustice of this world. Between those four damp walls, “where all discomfort has its seat and all the sad noise of the world makes its home”, no doubt reminiscent of and older and longer captivity on the north coast of Africa, the prisoner Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra imagined a man who refuses to bend to the deceitful conventions of the world and who decides instead to obey nothing except the norms of his chosen ethics. To the hypocrisy of a society that demands that each one hide his own beliefs and live of appearances alone, Don Quixote opposes the truth of absolute freedom, that of being able to choose his own ethical code and flaunt it in the face of those who will not admit it.


What we know about the birth of Don Quixote is what Cervantes himself tells us, and what he tells is an integral part of the fiction itself. He conceived of his creation in prison, and yet he is not, he confesses, Don Quixote’s father but his stepfather, the receiver of the story, not the inventor. Throughout the centuries, readers have chosen to believe the first statement, not the second. Cervantes composing his book in prison rings truer to us than Cervantes finding the manuscript of Don Quixote written in Arabic script by a certain Cide Hamete Benegeli. And yet, both statements, as part of the overall reality of the novel, are fiction and are true. Cervantes’ world (like that of every man) is one in which roles are played and masks are worn. Two thirds of Spain’s population, the Moors and the Jews, had been banished in 1492 from the peninsula, and only those who converted, or pretended to convert, were allowed to remain under the guise of New Christians. In such a world, appearances take precedence over substance, perception over existence. To probe behind the masks, the Catholic Church employed its Office of the Holy Inquisition established in Castile by a papal bull, on 1 November 1478, at the specific request of the Spanish Catholic Kings. Al-Andalus had been ruled under the Koranic admonition of tolerance (“Had your Lord pleased, all the people of the earth would have believed in Him, one and all. Would you then force people to have faith?.” [X,99]). After the expulsion, in Catholic Spain, everybody is suspect. Friends suspect friends and neighbours no longer know one another. In one of the most moving scenes in Don Quixote, Sancho fails to recognize, among a group of pilgrims, his old neighbour, the morisco Ricote, expelled after the new purges of 1609 and 1613 that filled the converted Moors with “terror y espanto.” Ricote’s tale is, in fact, the archetypal chronicle of every hounded, exiled, persecuted people, both in Cervantes’ century and today.


Since prejudice must avoid complexity, the multiplicity of the Arab-speaking people was reduced to the term “Moors”. The Moors, whether long or recently exiled, whether holding on to their beliefs or converted to the faith of Christ, are the enemy, the definition of what a Spanish “Old Christian” is not. Why then would a writer give over the paternity of his work to another — not just any other, but to a representative of the people who were banished from his land, people of what is now “the other coast”, inhabitants of Carthage to his Rome, savages who, in the popular imagination, take their revenge on Christendom by looting and plundering the cities of the coast and assaulting the Spanish ships, as do those Algerian pirates who held him prisoner for five long years?


There are several possible considerations.


The circumstances of Cervantes’ captivity have intrigued historians since the beginning. Briefly told, the twenty-eight-year old Cervantes was captured by Barbary pirates in 1575, held for ransom in the prisons of Algiers, tried to escape on four occasions and, astonishingly, since such attempts were punished with torture or even death by impalement, was never punished for his attempts, until he was freed through the intervention of the Trinitarian brothers in 1580. Several times did Cervantes describe his time in captivity, notably in the plays El trato de Argel and Los baños de Argel, and in the story of the captive interpolated in the first part of Don Quixote.


Cervantes’ vision of the Arab world is, by and large, coherent with the official Spanish version, that of traitors hidden in the social fabric. Ricote’s story is an exception: in the rest of Cervantes’ books, whether in the Cenotia episode in Persiles y Segismunda or in the Coloquio de los perros, he puts in the mouth of his characters harsh, insulting remarks about the moriscos that, in fact, don’t make for very good literature. Every fiction assumes its own ambiguity: whenever it attempts to take parts, it loses some of its strength which lies in the tension between extremes Thankfully, there are, throughout his work, a number passages that seem to contradict this prejudice. Historians have alleged many reasons for this: a kind of Stockholm-syndrome effect after his captivity, enhanced by possible homosexual relationships with the notorious Hasan Veneciano. No doubt the practice was common among the pirates: Cervantes himself alludes to this in Chapter 40 of Don Quixote, where he says that the corsair Uchalí (Aluj Ali) captured the young Hasan “y le quiso tanto que fue uno de los más regalados garzones suyos y […] el más cruel renegado que jamás se ha visto.”) But there are no proofs of such attachments in the case of Cervantes. Hasan Veneciano may have, indeed, become enamoured of the pitiful captive. Or he may have found in the Spaniard a reversed image of himself, both men being of the same age, one powerful, the other captive, one leader in a pirate realm, the other subject to Catholic kings, and wished to spare him as he would spare his shadow self. Or perhaps only commoners were habitually punished, while prisoners of higher social standing were more likely to be spared. The only information Cervantes provides is literary: of the real man we know nothing. As befits the conventions of his age, confession is an artifice, self-portrait a device, autobiography a fiction. Even the description he gives us of himself in the prologue to the Exemplary Novels of 1613 is in the voice of another character, “the famous don Juan de Jáuregui,” thereby discharging himself from the responsibility of being truthful. This game of shifting mirrors perfectly suits the disingenuousness of his society.


Such uncertainties are constant in Cervantes. Fiction assumes the inconsistency of memory, from the famous place in La Mancha whose name will deliberately not be remembered to the dubious attribution of characters’ surnames (is the old gentleman Alonso Quixada or Quesada or Quixana? Is Sancho called Panza or Zancas?), from a relinquishing of authorship (is the author of Don Quixote Cervantes, Cide Hamete or the impromptu translator found in the Toledo market?) to a subversion of fictional conventions (who are the characters capable of reading about themselves in a Barcelona printing-house, thus usurping the identity of the flesh-and-blood reader?). That which is told cannot be told directly or fully. “Niño, niño,” says Don Quijote to the boy who sums up the story that the puppets of Maese Pedro will represent. “seguid vuestra historia en linea recta, y no os metáis en las curvas o transversales; que, para sacar una verdad en limpio, menester son muchas pruebas y repruebas.” The irony of this instruction is that the story Don Quixote himself is in is anything but straight. Truncated by Cervantes in the very midst of an adventure after only eight chapters, interrupted by interpolated stories, essays and poems, returned to the starting-point of the knight’s home and set again on the road, the rectilinear narration demanded by Don Quixote is, according to Cide Hamete himself, a “rastrillado, torcido y aspado hilo.” Reality (that which we perceive as real because we can recall it, however faultily, however haltingly,) is faithfully rendered only as a construction made up of approximations and fragments, as a chronicle that alternately assumes and disavows the worldview of a madman or of someone whom society perceives as mad. It is therefore fitting, even necessary, that he who presents this reality to us should also be fragmentary and approximate.


We imagine Cervantes as a circumstantial character of his Don Quixote, less a man of flesh and blood –the son of a surgeon, a soldier in the army of Charles V, a captive in Algiers, a “learned wit” famously one-handed, a gentleman with bad teeth—than merely a requirement of the novel. The facts of his life are superficial and patchy. We know he was baptized on 9 October 1547 in Alcalá de Henares; we assume that he was born on 29 September. His father was a cirujano, that is to say, someone licensed to perform only superficial medical treatments; his mother came from a family of Castilian peasants. It has been suggested that his grandparents were converted Jews, marranos, and that Don Quixote and Sancho incarnate respectively the Talmudic and the Kabbalistic traditions, the one intuiting the truth in all its immediacy, the other gradually and laboriously through experience and thought[i]. Of his childhood and adolescence, all we know is that he had three sisters and a brother, and that the family lived for a few years in Valladolid where the father was imprisoned for debt. Cervantes may have studied with the Jesuits, and then, in Madrid, at the Estudio de la Villa. He spent several years in Italy as a soldier, from 1569 to 1575; in 1571 he fought at the Battle of Lepanto, received to shots in the chest and one in his left arm. As we have seen, he was a prisoner in Algiers from 1575 to 1580. Back in Spain, he applied unsuccessfully for a post in the American colonies. He began to write novels and plays, but since they brought him little fame and less money, he became first a grain and wheat gatherer for the Invincible Armada, and then a tax collector. At both tasks he proved himself inefficient. He had an affair with a married woman, Ana Franco de Rojas, who bore him his only child, a daughter, Isabel de Saavedra, in 1584. That same year he married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios. Towards 1600, he settled with his family in Valladolid where , in 1605, the mysterious death of a gentleman at the threshold of his house brought him to court under suspicion of murder, a trial that revealed the “reprehensible behaviour” of the women of his household, who were then accused of illicit relationships. That same year the first part of Don Quixote was published to great acclaim. In 1610, Cervantes moved his family back to Madrid where he died six years later, on 22 April. And yet, nothing of all this helps us understand the creation of Don Quixote.


Until the conception of Don Quixote, Cervantes’ life is a series of attempts to understand his purpose in the world, whether in the field of letters and in that of arms, whether as a  bureaucrat or a family man. The result is disillusionment. But then, in his fifties, a change comes over him. The dejection and disappointment brought on by confrontation with the reality of the world, breed the notion that dejection and disappointment are self-wrought, that if our imagination can create hell for us it can also create paradise. If the world is a dream than it can also be a dream in which good can triumph, and the artifact of good which is justice. The model for this idea is in Plato, as read and developed by the humanists, an idea encountered by Cervantes in the works of Thomas More and Erasmus. What we see of the world are shadows on the wall of a cave, shadows that include our own. Eventually we may be able to perceive something of the world around us, but the ultimate Platonic command is untenable; “know yourself” is an impossibility, except in the reflection of another, since the great paradox of consciousness is that the only thing we are prevented from observing, in the entire universe, is ourselves. A vague image reaches us from the dark mirror of Scripture, a reflection couched in words that stand for thoughts that stand for intuitions. To see that which cannot be seen, Cervantes chooses as his reflected double the Other, the excluded, the one who, because he is effectively in exile, can best perceive that which lies within.   Don Quixote is, among many other things, a play of many others, of several pairs of inverted doubles: Alonso Quijano and Don Quixote, Don Quixote and Sancho, Alonsa Lorenzo and Dulcinea, Sancho and Alonso Quijano. To these, Borges adds the über-double, the one who absorbs and opposes them all: the reader, Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote. For Cervantes, the other is, of course, Cide Hamete Benegeli, the Arab.


Who is this Other? Barely a century after Muhammed and his companions moved from Mecca to Medina, in the year 622 of the Christian calendar and the starting-point of the Islamic one, his successors had carried his thoughts and beliefs far from its original geography to the further reaches of the Mediterranean. Between the sixth and seventh centuries, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths of Spain transfer their capital to Toledo. In 711, the Visigoth power comes to an end when Toledo is captured by the Arabs. Two decades later, in 732, the Arabs, in turn, are stopped in their advances by Charles Martel in Poitiers. Toledo remains in Arab hands until 1085, when the city falls in the hands of Alfonso VI; a year later, the Great Mosque of Toledo is converted into a Cathedral. The Muslims who remain are allowed to practice their religion: they are known as Mudéjares (“tributaries”, “those allowed to stay”). In the south of the Spanish peninsula, the Arabs rule, with the cultural centre in Cordoba. The Christians who retain their religion but adopt Arab culture (language, costume) are called Mozárabes. In the North, the Christians are in power, centred around Toledo. But the three cultures of the peninsula continue to interact. When Alfonso VII entered Toledo in 1139, he demanded that his triumphal procession include not only Christian musicians, but also Jewish and Arab musicians, and each group was ordered to sing, in its own tongue, the praises of their new sovereign who took on the title “Emperor of the Three Religions.” It is therefore not surprising that Toledo became the great centre of translations.


It is easy to forget that Don Quixote purports to be a translation, that is to say, a literary work found worthy of being rendered in a language other from the one in which it has been conceived, thereby increasing its readership and augmenting its prestige. In fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain, the fact that a book has been translated lends it intellectual cachet. This tradition is an ancient one. In Islamic times, the earliest commissioned translations coincide with the creation of the first Islamic libraries during the reign of the Umeyyad prince Jalid ben al-Yazid, in the eighth century Ibn al-Nadim tells us that when Prince Jalid wished to devote himself to the study of alchemy “he called to himself a group of Greek philosophers residing in Egypt and who spoke Arabic with clarity and eloquence. He asked them to translate from the Greek and the Coptic works on alchemy. These were the first translations accomplished in Islam.” Translations from many languages began to fill the libraries across the Arab world. Again according to al-Nadim, another ruler, the celebrated caliph al-Mansur who, bending to pressure from the imams ordered the burning of books on rationalist philosophy in the huge library of Cordoba, saw in a dream “a man of pale pink skin, large forehead, thick eyebrows, bald head, blue eyes and beautiful manners.” The man was sitting on a throne, and al-Manzur was filled with respect and fear at his sight. “Who are you?” he asked. “Aristotle,” came the answer. Al-Mansur then has a short philosophical dialogue with the Greek master. According to Ibn al-Nadim, the dream led al-Mansur to collect by means of his ambassadors all the Greek manuscripts they could find, thus gathering not only works by Aristotle, but also by Plato, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid and others. At the other extreme of the Arab world, in Baghdad, at the court of the almost legendary Harun al-Rashid, translators were being paid in gold according to the weight of the work translated: if the book weighed once pound (arrelde) the translator received a golden pound.  For that reason, Baghdad translations dating from that time are written in a generous hand, with ample margins on the page and large spaces between the lines. In Toledo, the tradition persisted long after the expulsion. In the early years of the seventeenth century, translators were still plentiful in Toledo where, Cervantes tells us, it is easy to find both Arabic and Hebrew translators in the commercial street of Alcaná. There, an anonymous morisco aljamiado begins the oral translation of the adventures of Don Quixote, which is completed in a month and a half at the house of Cervantes himself for the price of 23 kilos of raisins. Translators’ fees have not increased much since those ancient days.


The translator is, we have been told, a morisco aljamiado. These terms require some explanation. After 1492, only those who converted were allowed to remain: Moriscos (converted Muslims) and Marranos or Conversos (converted Jews). Religious freedom,  guaranteed in the Capitulation Accords after the taking of Granada, was rescinded seven years later. Between 1605 (when Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote) and 1615 (when he published the second) the Spanish crown had taken the decision to expel these New Christians as well (among whom Cervantes places Ricote), arguing that these conversions were deceitful and spurious. The “Siglo de Oro” or “Golden Century” is also the century of the annihilation of the greatest multifaceted culture of medieval Europe. Don Quixote himself says: “Sancho amigo, has de saber que yo nací, por querer del cielo, en esta nuestra edad de hierro, para resucitar en ella la de oro, o la dorada, como suele llamarse.” To assist him, Cervantes brings forth from that lost age Cide Hamete, who in turn brings forth Don Quixote, his redeemer.


The text of Don Quixote by Cide Hamete Benegeli is in Arabic script and is called Arabic by those who cannot read it, but in fact it is Aljamiado, a Romance language spoken by the converted Arabs of Spain. Like the Ladino spoken by Spanish Jews in their North African exile, Aljamiado is a mixture of Castilian with Arabic expressions.


Aljamiado literature, though its earliest examples date from the eleventh century, was mainly produced at the end of the Middle Ages, when the system of Islamic education in Spain had collapsed, and Muslims in areas where Arabic was not spoken had to translate their sacred texts in Castilian. It flourished in the sixteenth century but was brought to an abrupt close with the expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609. Aljamiado literature consists of legal material, doctrinal texts, spells, medical treatises, and verse and prose narratives. Among the latter are a version of the Alexander legend (El Rrekontamiento del Rrey Alisandere), the story of Joseph, accounts of the early history of Islam (Libro de las batallas) and the Historia de los amores de París y Viana (transposed from a Christian novel of chivalry).


But the Arabic sources of aljamiado literature are, of course, much older, with roots in pre-Islamic society, and stem from a vast geography that includes China, India, Persia, Iraq, Egypt and North Africa, and assimilates Sanskrit, Jewish, Buddhist and other literatures. We know that in the markets of Mecca, even before Mahomet, the Old Testament stories and Abyssinian legends, mingled with the Persian tales of chivalry that followed the adventures of Rustam, the Persian Hercules, who fought a celebrated combat with his enemy, Prince Isfendiar, and whose ancient rivalry will echo, after myriad transformations, a thousand years later, in the pages of Don Quixote. Such stories and styles of telling, such fictional genres and narrative devices, find strange echoes in Don Quixote, and, whether Cervantes knew of them or, more likely, whether they filtered through the multilayered audiences of his time, matters less than the fact that they are renewed (and many times subverted) in the pages of the novel. Leaving aside the great works of poetry and philosophy, these are a few of the major works of popular fiction that reverberate through Cervantes’ novel:


The Kalila wa-Dimna, inspired by the Sanskrit story collection Pachatantra and written out in the fourth century by the Brahmin Bidpay, then translated into Pahlavi, and later still into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa, from which stem most of the versions known today.

The Thousand and One Nights, of which the earliest fragmentary manuscript dates from 879, and whose influence secretly precedes its official recognition in eighteenth century Europe, after its rediscovery by Antoine Galland.

The eighth-century novel of Antar, the Sîrat ‘Antar, inspired by the life of the pre-Islamic poet ‘Antara Ibn Chaddad al-‘Absî, the tale of a poor half-breed known as “The Man With the Split Lower Lip” who becomes the Knight of Knights, pursuing the love of his cousin, the beautiful ‘Abla. Through the literature of chivalry, Don Quixote owes much to the exploits of Antar.

Shadow puppet plays such as The Apparition, written in the twelfth century by the Egyptian Ibn Dânyal, in which a man discovers that the wife he has imagined under the veil is not as he dreamt her, a discovery Don Quixote refuses to make in Dulcinea.

The medieval Isrâ’îliyyât, a collection of fables taken from  Jewish folklore, tells of imaginary combats like that of Don Quixote against the windmills or against the flock of sheep, with appended morals and sermons.

The almost infinite Tale of Baïbars, an oral novel some 36,000 pages long when written out (and of which I have only been able to read the first 10 volumes translated into French) begun its long life in the fifteenth century and its earliest episodes must have reached Al-Andalus with its peculiar view of human destiny, that of a man chosen for a fate that others perceive but that he himself ignores (the reverse of Don  Quixote who knows what he must do even if others are blind to his true greatness).


All these fictions, seeping through centuries of wide-flung listeners and readers, propose, through the adventures of their heroes, a vision of reality akin to the Platonic one mentioned earlier. We only see what we are allowed to see, since life is a mirage in which our deeds are ordered not by what we perceive but by the will of God. The world, in our poor human eyes, is senseless, cruel, unfair, stupid, but also illuminating, glorious, joyful, wise: only a greater eye than ours can perceive the truth. According to Northrop Frye, “The improbable, desiring, erotic  and violent world of romance reminds us that we are not awake when we have abolished the dream world: we are awake only when we have absorbed it again.[ii]” (Baïbars, for instance, does not know why he acts justly; like Don Quixote, he moves in a world he can only know by appearances, and therefore must depend on the gauge of his ethics alone.)


But if acting justly in the world can achieve little more than establishing an ideal against the seemingly foregone conclusion of an unjust reality, then writing about such justice becomes itself an act of challenge, an attempt to correct God’s world through the imagination of good in action. Far in time and space but not in spirit from the deeds of Baïbars and the apologists of the Isrâ’îliyyât, Cervantes proposes the act of justice as a mirror in which the world can see its own errors. For a Christian gentleman, the imagination of such an action is akin to the patience of Job, meekly instructing God with his own example.


The laws of chivalry are not in themselves the laws of Don Quixote’s ethics; chivalry is the form those ethics acquire when acting in the world. However, in Don Quixote’s world, the acting according to one’s own ethics is not sufficient to play God in His universe. Our ethical acts do not necessarily have ethical consequences, unless they accomplish that which only God can fathom but that we, his instruments, cannot see. The voluntary act of justice does not lead to justice being done, which is God’s domain. Here we are in the realm of Koranic rather than Christian tradition: the notion that “Let him that will, take the right path to his Lord. Yet you cannot will, except by the will of God” (76:30; also 81:29) in reference to men’s belief may also be extended to their belief in the power of justice. Don Quixote may be willed by God to believe in justice, but the promise does not extend to the consequences of Don Quixote’s actions. Just as Job is allowed endurance to hold the mirror of suffering up to God, Don Quixote holds up to God the mirror of His own justice.


But is this true?


This generation of readers wants the writer to be heroic. We want Cervantes to play his role fully as renegade, as son of forced converts, as a Stockholm-syndrome captive who learned in the prisons of Algiers to love his Moorish captors and through them (or did this begin earlier?) the culture of Al-Andalus, a culture expelled from Spain, together with his Jewish ancestors, a century before. We want to see in his attribution of Don Quixote to Cide Hamete Benegeli a gesture of restoration or retribution, and in the occasional homages to Arabic culture and act of defiance or unwillingness to forget. The slurs against the Moors we want to read as realistic features of his fictional characters, like the racist voices in Huckleberry Finn or the anti-Semitic ones in The Merchant of Venice. We want Cervantes to prove to us that in the midst of prejudice, tyrannical ambition and exclusionary politics, an artist will find ways of voicing protest, of keeping the humanitarian banner flying for us. We want Cervantes to clear our conscience, we want Don Quixote to redeem us.


Unfortunately, this may be little more than wishful thinking. It may be that Cervantes attributed his Don Quixote to Cide Hamete just as a clever literary device, much like a detective writer chooses as the guilty party the least likely character: not because the choice carries symbolic weight but because, technically, it is the most effective. It may be that Cervantes’ opinions of the Moorish question were as confused and contradictory as any layman’s, and since he wasn’t writing a political tract or a historical account, he didn’t mind the muddiness of his views as long as the story clipped on nicely. It may be that Cervantes had no inkling that, in the distant future, four long centuries away, his readers would want to know what a writer had to say about his society, and not merely about the outcome of his fiction. It may be that Cervantes never guessed that what we mean today by truth is not the intimate wisdom of a story but the presentation of facts in chronological order within a statistical grid and supported by documentary evidence. Writers today complain that they are asked to deliver opinions on everything from food to fashion and from ethics to politics. In this vein, we ask writers long dead to judge these things too: Sophocles on women, Shakespeare on government, Voltaire on technology, and then assume that they have meant their work to instruct us on these things. We forget that fiction is neither accountancy nor dogma, that it does not deliver messages or establish laws. On the contrary, it thrives on ambiguity, in opinions raw or half-baked, in suggestions, intuitions and emotions.


We can try, of course, to have Don Quixote speak to us now, in the present, and question its pages much as in the Middle Ages readers sought answers in the verses of Virgil, casting the sortes Virgilianae, or Robinson Crusoe consulted the Bible. We can make a book converse with us, illuminate us, grant us each the vicarious pleasure of foresight and rebellion, and stand up heroically against the darkness of its time – a stance would probably have astonished Cervantes, if indeed he managed to grasp our reading at all, since, as he says in the introduction to his Exemplary Novels, his intention as a writer is merely “poner en la plaza de nuestra república una mesa de trucos, donde cada uno puede llegar a entretenerse, sin daño de barras” [to set up in the public square of our state a game table, where everone can find enytertainment without hurting others”] But are we to believe him?


Genius, as we well know, seldom manifests itself on the side of the angels, and it is only because we associate great art with virtue that we imagine the great artists themselves to be virtuous. Whoever Cervantes was and whatever he might have thought about Spain and its politics, ultimately matters little. More important is the fact that, for the reader of Don Quixote today, the overwhelming presence of Cide Hamete and the moving glimpses of a banished people, tells us that a rejected culture will not be easily silenced, that absence in history is as solid as presence, and that literature is often wiser than even the wisest of its practitioners.






[i] Ruth Reichelberg, Don Quichotte ou le roman d’un Juif masqué, (Paris: Editions Entailles-Philippe Nadal, 1989)

[ii] Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture, 1976