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In the first chapter of Book II of that monumental work belonging to the world literary canon, the formidable Don Quixote, its (real) author tells us a story about the story — a meta-story that is. Once the author happens to be, so we hear, in a marketplace in Toledo where he finds a youth selling “a parcel of old written papers to a shopkeeper.” He continues:

I, being apt to take up the least piece of written or printed paper that lies in my way, though it were in the middle of the street, could not forbear laying my hands on one of the manuscripts, to see what it was; and I found it to be written in Arabic …

It was my good fortune to find immediately a Morisco that understood Spanish … [I] pressed him to read the title of the book, which he did, turning it thus extempore out of Arabic: The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Cid[e] Hemet[e] Benengeli, an Arabic historian …

Don Quixote — an Arabic work? Is this not a deep irony that this Spanish novel of Miguel de Cervantes, a model of writing declared by the Bokklubben World Library to be “the best literary work ever written,” a work beloved of Schopenhauer and Picasso, and recognised as the foundation of the European novel, claims to be a translation from Arabic? Yes, we are tempted to hide away behind the cloak of denial — so is the historical rupture, so is the incapacitating weight of petrified centuries-old received narratives and coercive ideological discourses.


On the Andalusian Arabo-Muslim milieu of the “world’s greatest novel”


In fact the irony embodied in Don Quixote is highly complex, and thus its yields are high too; it is instructive and intriguing to the same magnitude. The novel was published in two volumes, first in 1605, then in 1615. Imagine what time this is — the Spanish Christian Reconquista is complete with Queen Isabella’s flag hoisted in 1492 on the magnificent Alhambra, “the ornament of the world”; forced conversions of Muslims and Jews, and their ruthless Inquisitions, expulsions, and dispossessions, all already taken in stride; and — perhaps most pertinent in the context of Cervantes — to possess, let alone to write or translate, anything in Arabic made a capital crime through royal decrees, punishable by most excruciating means. Cervantes seems to be doing something most daring, heroic, but “criminal” in fact.

Note another thing. The alleged author is one Cide Hemete Benengeli, a corruption of Saiyid Hamid, Brinjal-Eater. The word “brinjal” (aubergine, eggplant) is an Iberian naturalisation proximately from the Arabic “badhinjan” — but here the pressing question is, why identify this “historian-author” by his diet? There is more to it in fact: Cervantes seems to be obsessed with the diet of his characters. Thus in the very beginning of the voluminous novel, we read that Don Quixote, who sets out to revive chivalry, eats duelos y quebrantos, “trials and sorrows”. And here lies one of the keys to an explanation of the author’s frequent dietary inventories of his story’s personae.

“Trials and sorrows” was the cover-name given to ham/bacon and eggs by the new Muslim and Jewish converts to Christianity, the bulk of them having suffered forced conversions, and they must have found this food pretty revolting. But they had to eat it to prove before the authorities their sincerity to the new identity, or else in order to make more credible their dissimulations. By this token, Don Quixote too seems to be a newly converted member of the Catholic community. The Judeo-Islamic or Semitic ethos of the novel is then unmistakable here — for we are brought into an ethos where food was stigmatised, and where obsession with kosher/non-kosher and halal/haram was a hallmark of identity.

And there is more. In the early chapter of the novel from which I have quoted above, our Spanish author Cervantes tells us that his Morisco translator, a former Arabo-Berber Muslim and now a Christian called Aldonza Lorenzo, no sooner read some lines than he began to laugh. I asked him what he laughed at. ‘At the certain remark here in the margin of the book,’ said he. I prayed him to explain it, whereupon, still laughing, he did it in these words: ‘This Dulcinea of Toboso, so often mentioned in this history, is said to have had the best hand in salting of pork of anyone in La Mancha.’

Pork again! And again, the deep anguish of a new convert is discernible in the diffused light of Cervantes’s fiction. Was the Morisco translator laughing ironically at himself? In the novel Dulcinea is the lady love of Don Quixote. She hails from a small town in La Mancha called Toboso, a town that was — as a historical fact — known for its converted Muslim Moorish population. Why this outstanding skill in the art of salting pork of all things? Was it dissimulation? An act of what is termed taqiya? Indeed, in the heyday of post-Reconquista Inquisition when Arabic was being outlawed, and when the practice of Muslim religion, nay, even the practice of Muslim social customs, carried merciless criminal penalties, a fatwa was obtained by the community making taqiya permissible for them under the circumstances.

Then we have Cervantes’s adorable character that was so reflectively and masterfully depicted many centuries later by Picasso — the character of Sancho Panza, a simpleton who is Don Quixote’s squire. Now this peasant keeps comparing his obesity with the fat of a pig, speaking of his “Old Christian’s seven finger-widths of fat.” Sancho Panza is made a representative of “clean” Christianity with his blood unmixed with non-Christians, whereas Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s pork-salter beloved, came from a town full of “unclean” blood — that is, newly converted Muslims.

So it is clear that Don Quixote is soaked in the concerns, plight, fate, and psychological dislocations of the Muslims (and Jews) of erstwhile Al-Andalus — Al-Andalus about which Iqbal sang his many glorious songs. Here we have a monumental irony of world literary history. But, then, there is yet another key to understanding the character-construction and the very genre of Cervantes’s grand work. It seems to have arisen from the bosom of what is called the picaresque genre, and this genre was widely present in the Arabic literary tradition in the maqama (plural, maqamat) works, in all likelihood original to it. What is a maqama work? This is the episodic story of the adventures of a likeable rouge who travels from place to place and in a corrupt society lives by his wits, idiosyncratic ethics, clever tricks, humour, and smooth talk. The word “picaresque” is the Spanish “picaresca,” from “pícaro,” for “rogue” or “rascal.” Indeed, one is familiar with this kind of adventure stories in Hamzanama or Talism-i Hoshruba. Here the diet of the protagonist is often in focus.

The Arabic maqama genre is familiar to literary historians. It was invented, so the scholars tell us, by Badi‘uzzaman Hamadhani in the 10th century and was taken to never-surpassed heights by the famous Hariri of Basra in the following century, delicately combining prose and poetry. On the western side, maqamat are known to have been composed in Spain from the late 11th century onwards and became a consolidated literary mode soon thereafter. We note that the genre was cultivated in Hebrew too in Spain and the lush work of Hariri was actually emulated also by Spanish Christian writers at least from the end of the 12th century, some 300 years before Cervantes. This genre was in the air.

Another thing to note in the meta-story of Cervantes is the location where he finds the “Arabic” manuscript of the novel. Why Toledo? We know that the city had been captured by the Reconquista towards the end of the 11th century — and this marked a major event in the intellectual history of the world: for once Toledo was open for Christendom, it became in no time a major centre for feverish translations of Arabic works into Latin, given its libraries. Here, apart from the well-known massive translations of philosophical and scientific texts, literary works too were rendered into Latin in large numbers.

So we have the case of Pedro Alfonso, who was a convert from Judaism, having being baptised in 1106, composing in Latin translation 33 originally Arabic tales, giving it the title Disciplina clericalis — a title which renders precisely the literal meaning of “adab” (manners/discipline). It is reported that this book gained a very wide diffusion in Europe, and it was translated into many European languages. The great historian Montgomery Watt declares that the echoes of Disciplina clericalis are found in Don Quixote.

Historical rupture is a terrible thing!

—With very minor rearrangement, quotations of Don Quixote are from the 18th century translation of Peter Motteux.

Syed Nomanul Haq is professor and advisor of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.