Don Quixote and Muslim Spain.

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera at Public Books writes about Don Quixote, which he calls “the Saturday Night Live of the Spanish Inquisition.” He says “A traditional line of scholarship holds that Cervantes was Islamophobic and something of a Catholic zealot,” giving examples, and continues:

“I have another view,” says [Muhsin] al-Ramli: Cervantes was “in favor [of Islam]” in Don Quixote. “The Inquisition was going on,” notes the Iraqi scholar, “and Cervantes knew how to camouflage his ideas.” Al-Ramli foregrounds the author’s lived experience in the Muslim world, saying, “without his experience in Algeria,” where he lived for six years, “Cervantes could not exist as we know him, nor his literature.” […]

“Cervantes spoke of Islam and Judaism in his stories in discreet and subtle ways,” Kevin Bullard Quiñones, of the Universidad de Puerto Rico, wrote to me in an email, “as his views did not fit the narrative the Catholic Church wanted to create.” Cervantes’s masterpiece has many dimensions; several stem from his shrewd—“discreet and subtle,” as Quiñones puts it—narrative technique. By making Don Quixote a madman, for example, Cervantes can escape the prying eyes of Inquisition censors. He could insult clergy, even the Bible, as part of the protagonist’s lunacy.

Consequently, he could put much of the material in plain sight. This results in scores of puns, one-liners, and parodies. This wordplay begins early in chapter 1, as the narrator explains the main character’s last name: Some say “his surname was Quixada or Quesada … although from reasonable conjectures it seems plain that he was called Quexana. This, however, is of but little importance to our tale.” Of little importance? Only if you miss the jokes. “Quexana” (“Quejana” in Spanish and “Kexaa” in Euskara, the Basque language) is a town in the Basque Country that marked the northernmost border of Muslim Spain. “Quixada” (“Quijada” in Spanish) means “jaw,” while “Quesada” at that time was a Moorish surname.

Even so, the role of Islam itself in Don Quixote is not about parody but irony. Cervantes venerates a lost Spain, a beautiful one, that was being destroyed by the Inquisition. The narrator explains that Don Quixote is an Arabic manuscript (it may be aljamiado, Spanish language written in Arabic characters); it was discovered in Toledo—holy Toledo!; and its author is Cide Hamete Benengeli, a Spaniard and an Arab from La Mancha.

But if Don Quixote is a Spanish tale written in Arabic, what we read is transcribed or translated into the Roman alphabet (Borges called it, in jest, “a bad translation”). Many scholars claim this entire backstory was a joke. Whatever the case, the narrator wants the reader to know that Quixote speaks Arabic:

“[Hamete Benegeli] is a Moorish name,” said Don Quixote.

“Maybe so,” replied Sancho; “for I have heard say that the Moors are mostly great lovers of berengenas.” [Berengena, or eggplant, was brought to Iberia by Muslims, and traditionally consumed by some during Ramadan.]

“Thou must have mistaken the surname of this ‘Cide’—which means in Arabic ‘Lord’—Sancho,” observed Don Quixote.

Sancho asks about the word albogues and Quixote defines it (musical instrument) and clarifies that the word derives from Arabic, “as are all those in our Spanish tongue that begin with al; for example, almohaza, almorzar, alhombra, alguacil, alhucema, almacen, alcancia, and others.” Some fundamental components of Quixote’s being, his name and linguistic proficiency, link him directly to an Islamic-Spanish-Arabic world. […]

Mukadder Yaycioğlu deftly argues that, in Don Quixote, translation itself (Arabic to Spanish) and transcription (Arabic to Latin characters) merge deep components of being, time, community, and experience:

If we try to understand what the game consists of, we realize that we do not fully understand it until we finish reading and do another take: a retrospective and a futuristic one; return from the end (which is equivalent to now/the present) to the beginning (which is equivalent to before/the past) and vice versa, to foresee the future. It is the eternal return that saves us from the threat of forgetting history. With this linear and circular structure, in which Western and Eastern cultures merge, and through the aljamiado text and its transcription into the Roman alphabet, Cervantes creates an intercultural game/deception and confronts the writing system of the Semitic languages—Arabic and Hebrew (which are written right to left, back to front)—with Latin, which is written in the opposite direction, to show that the difference between the two systems is no more than a formal reality and does not change the concept, beginning and end.

Doubtless overstated, and the last bit is too theoretical for me, but interesting to think about. (We discussed words for ‘eggplant’ here.) Thanks, David!


  1. John Emerson says

    One edition of DQ that I have includes the censors’ reviews — four of them, as I remember (apparently renewal was required. The final censor sounded like a fan.

  2. marie-lucie says

    Several years ago in Paris I went to an exhibition at the Musée du Monde Arabe, and also browsed through its bookstore. I was intrigued by a small book by a French-named author who claimed that Don Quichotte was not written by Cervantes, but only translated by him from the work of the real author, Cide Hamete Benengeli, just like Cervantes admitted. I was intrigued, but not convinced.

  3. Trond Engen says

    It”s been a long time since I read Don Quijote, but it definitely didn’t strike me as a Reconquista propaganda piece. I remember that both the authorial voice(s) and the protagonist himself keep holding the question of moorishness open by the way(s) they keep assuring that there’s no question.

  4. Yeah, I suspect the “Catholic zealotry” tradition has to do with the nationalistic Islamophobia Juan Goytisolo hated so much and spent his career fighting.

  5. When I read Herlihy-Mera’s article I regretted having discarded Don Qujote many years ago because I

    despised the ‘humour’ of bloody beatings. But now I am compensating for that reckless move by

    reading A la Sombra del Granado, a translation of the English novel by Tariq Alí, the title of which must

    be In the Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree.

  6. “Quixada” (“Quijada” in Spanish) means “jaw,” while “Quesada” at that time was a Moorish surname.

    True enough, but quesada, at least in La montaña, the northern province of Santander, is a cheesecake. If you have the opportunity, don’t pass up a chance to enjoy a quesada pasiega.

  7. I remember very little of Don Quixote, but one thing that struck me at the time was the number of references to being an “Old Christian”, the import of which I did not understand at all. I don’t remember any references to Arabic.

  8. Almorzar isn’t derived from Arabic, of course. I suspect that was a mistake by Quixote but intentional for Cervantes.

  9. William Boyd says

    Thanks so much for posting this. As I read what sprung to mind is how much my Ohio State Cervantes prof, long since retired and living in the Bay area, might appreciate the rather refreshing perspective on what we undergrads back then called “the Quijote.” Immediately I googled that prof locating her email address and penned her a short message about this news-worthy chunk of info while wishing her a merry christmas.

  10. Many years ago, when I was too young to appreciate it, I took a course on the novel given by a visiting professor who was at Harvard more to study butterflies at the Museum of Comparative Zoology than to teach freshmen.
    About all I remember is his insistence that the final A in Karenina is silent. This in a course that started with “Don Kwikset”.

  11. Heh. I envy you the experience!

  12. This visitor doesn’t seem to have done any instruction. Is the set of funded visitors to Harvard whose profession was literature with a particular interest in Russian, but whose primary interest was butterflies, greater than one?

    Or maybe he did teach a course during his research fellowship? This seems the most likely answer, but weirdly, both a Crimson article and a piece in the FAS blog mention him teaching at Wellesley while curating at the MCZ, but neither mentions him teaching at Harvard.

  13. Not sure quite how old Dan Milton might be, but the internet says the following that may be relevant:

    Spring: As Visiting Lecturer for the second semester at Harvard, Nabokov teaches courses on Russian Modernism and on Pushkin, and Humanities 2, The Novel, including Don Quixote.

    He was already on the Cornell faculty at this point (where my father was one of his students closer to the end of the 1950’s), but per the same chronology was back in Cambridge, Mass again for a sabbatical semester in spring ’56 although it’s not explicitly stated that he taught anything at Harvard that year. The teach-at-Wellesley-but-study-butterflies-at-Harvard period of his career was earlier, and ended when he started at Cornell in 1948.

  14. That was it: Hum 2 1952

  15. John Emerson says

    “I regretted having discarded Don Qujote many years ago because I despised the ‘humour’ of bloody beatings.”

    As I remember, Nabokov felt somewhat the same way. My memory is Part II is different in kind from Part I, and that the end of Part I is different than the beginning, so that it’s almost like you’re watching a mediocre writer decide that he’s going to write a good book after all.

  16. The references to “Old Christian” mean that you don’t have any converted Jews (conversos) in your ancestry; conversos (and their descendants) were vulnerable to the charge that their conversion was faked and they were liable to end up in the Inquisition’s prisons. Lower class people (like Sancho Panza) were often proud of being Old Christians, whereas many upper class families apparently were related by marriage to well-to-do conversos. The anti-judaism of 16th century Spain wasn’t just religious, there was a real racist component, it mattered if you were of “pure” Spanish descent. (Most of this info is what I remember of reading Kamen’s history of the Spanish Inquisition many decades ago).

  17. That’s the background I needed.

    There’s obviously a lot that I missed…. a lot more depth than just tilting windmills.

    Doesn’t sound like a very nice place.

    But I guess a contemporary novel about the US would have racism as an unstated background, a novel about England the classism, Australia the colonialism (including racism)…. etc., etc.

  18. “Old Christian”, the import of which I did not understand at all

    That is, not a convert from Judaism or Islam or one whose ancestors were Jewish or Muslim respectively. “New Christian” is the antonym. These terms were standard at the time, not invented by Cervantes.

    Don Kwikset

    That indeed was the traditional pronunciation in English until the 19C, when the fashion came in of pronouncing borrowings as they were in the source language, modulo English phonology. The adjective quixotic did not change and shows the underlying pronunciation.

    I used to annoy my 10th grade English teacher by saying “Don Kishotay”, reflecting more or less the way Cervantes would have said it. He lived, fortunate fellow, before the Great Sibilant Collapse, whereby firstly /d͡z/, /z/, /ʒ/ as in fazer, casa, ojo devoiced to /t͡s/, /s/, /ʃ/ as in caçar, passar, baxar; secondly, /t͡s/ shifted to [s̪], which either dissimilated to /θ/ (ceceo) or merged with /s/ (seseo); thirdly, /ʃ/ moved to /x/, leaving /t͡ʃ/ unchanged.

    Note that Eng blue blood < sangre azul, meaning that your skin is light enough for the underlying blue veins to be seen through it.

  19. Kwikset is a brand of door handles, locks, and related hardware. I don’t know whether the name was intended* as an oblique reference to Cervantes, but I prefer to treat it as one, regardless.

    * Names like that are easy to think of apparently. Netflix’s original business was sending out DVDs for people to watch and return. When they realized the future of their business would be in streaming, they announced they would be splitting off the original DVD distribution business under the new brand name “Qwikster,” without noticing that that name was already in use as somebody’s Twitter handle.

  20. Lars Mathiesen says

    My grandparents’ generation called him [d̥̥ʌnkʰɛˈɕʌd̥̥]. [dʌnkiˈɕʌd] is still the first option given in the national encyclopedia (which uses [] fpr broad transcription), but I’m not sure how kids these days would pronounce it — it also lists [dʌnkiˈkɔːd] (!) which must be influenced by the spelling. (It’s very often still spelled with an {x}, and I’m pretty sure I gave that the full /ks/ value the first time I tried to pronounce it. And with schools these days, yadda, yadda, how should they know better? I’ve had too many Spanish lessons to tell what the “natural” Danish pronunciation is any more).

  21. Trond Engen says

    “Donkey shot” a few degrees further north.

    I used to refer to my reading of don ki’xo:te, but it dawned on me that not only does it sound pretentious in casual speech, but it’s also anachronistic. On the rare occasions that I talk about it now, I say don ki’ʃo:te, laying me open to objections from lay and learned alike.

  22. Pronunciation with [ki’ʃote] is attested for German (and of course someone made a stupid pop song about him).

  23. Lars Mathiesen says

    don ki’xo:te — what’s with the vowel length? I admit that if Danish hadn’t dropped the final /e/, standard exoticizing rules would probably make the penult long, but I don’t understand why. The same thing happens to French loans like bagage, garage, but not etape. I’ll provisionally blame LG.

    Also the encyclopedia gives “learned” as [dʌnkiˈχʌtə], which is not really modern Spanish as I’m being larnt it — no unrounding or centralization in the audio snippets I hear, but in connected Danish speech those processes are hard to abstain from. (Don Quijote is a headword for its metaphorical use to designate a person on a quixotic quest).

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