A man, a journalist, a novelist…

A two page comprehensive interview with novelist and historian Adel Bishtawi in Malta’s Independent Newspaper by Kevin Schembri Orland

A man, a journalist, a novelist… a journey through the Middle East…



Khaleej Newspaper Interview (Sharjah, UAE)

Khaleej Newspaper Interview

Highlights from an interview with
A. S. Bishtawi Published in the Cultural Supplement of
Al-Khaleej Newspaper of Sharjah, UAE

Introduction: A. S. Bishtawi is known as a short story writer but has recently published his first novel Traces of a Tattoo. Al-Khaleej met the novelist to talk about this new course in his literary career. Following are some excerpts:

Al-Khaleej: From your published works, we’ve known you to be a writer of short stories. How did this transition to the novel come about?

Bishtawi: Probably this was a natural development in my case. I started Traces of a Tattoo as a short story, but I soon felt I needed a framework far greater than the short story could offer. There are also other factors. Living in a place like London may have played an important part in opting for the freer form of the novel. In Britain there are a large number of short story writers. They constitute a substantial percentage of a community of over half a million writers. But publishing a short story is no longer an easy task.

The majority of publishers maintain that the short story has no readers at present. The argument is that the western reader, like his Arab counterpart to a certain extent but maybe broadly classified as mortgage payers and mortgage collectors, is besieged on more than one front. In a large number of cases, and unless one is of the lucky few, one is almost totally consumed by daily issues and hence the reader’s wish (and sometimes need) to escape to another reality of the literary kind, a reality he can control simply by shutting the book, or his mind.

On another level, social circumstances in the west are different from ours. A large number of people have to spend two and sometimes three hours daily commuting to work, usually by train or underground. Staring at fellow commuters is a recognised taboo. You simply don’t it if you want to avoid antagonising other passengers. Besides staring at your shoes or others’, the best way to pass the time is to read. Most of books I see people reading are novels. I am, in the end, a writer. I want to publish my works and I want them to be read. If novels are more popular than anthologies of short stories – fine. I can write novels. I have my experiences and I travel a great deal. The short story, which I love, can wait.

The literary form that suits me now is much larger. I am happy to say the responses I received from the publishers that saw my work prove I was right. But there are other reasons for my choice of the novel. A considerable number of writers I know are writing novels. If the reader wants novels then the writers ought to think about write novels. Publishers don’t want short stories so what’s the point of writing them? The short story is in a dilemma. I am not saying its days are over. It still enjoys the loyalty of millions. A good literary or artistic work will flourish on its own merits regardless of the nature of its form. It is simply the case of novels being more popular and easier to make into TV series and films.

Al-Khaleej: But isn’t it so that the style of the short story is completely different
from that of the novel?

Bishtawi: Of course it is. As far as Traces of a Tattoo is concerned, style and treatment were not foregone conclusions. These and other elements were given due consideration before I started building the characters and events. Now, judging by its popularity, the novel is a mature literary form which retains its full strength. But I think one of the main objectives of a modern novel is to be seen on the screen, small or big. With this objective in mind, I tried to ensure that the reader’s enjoyment is not limited to reading and imagining but also to feel, smell and interact with the characters as well. That is why the descriptive process is very detailed whether it concerns the simplest nod or the most complex expression of pain and pleasure. I have used dialogue very extensively. In some cases it replaced narration altogether, in others it was complementary.

One chapter is made entirely of dialogue. This partly explains the relatively large size of the novel (555 pages) in Arabic terms. Still, Traces of a Tattoo is not a play. There are chapters that are mostly, if not completely, narrative. Additionally, I made use of the experience I gained in writing over 100 short stories. Most of the chapters are short. The tempo is either fast or very fast. Sometimes it is breathless. Again, there is a big difference of style between the novel and the short story so one must be very careful. The short story is about human concerns. You may imagine it as a station where the writer is invited to witness a certain event. By contrast, the novel might be described as a long journey in a train with numerous brief stopovers at different stations, but continuing afterwards to the final destination. The result, I think, was a melange of the classical literary form of the novel, the play and the short story.

Al-Khaleej: What influenced your writings?

Bishtawi: I read English Language and Literatures at Damascus University where we were taught by English and American Professors. When in London I took a course in Linguistics, and was particularly intrigued by Code Switching, or the mechanisms that influence multi-lingual people to switch from one language to another while talking to themselves or other people. Aside from textbooks, the first book I clearly remember reading was the Arabian Nights. Later I was reading only plays for some reason. This may explain why I started writing short plays at a very early stage of my life (probably 12 or 13). After than I was reading any books available from classical Arabic poetry to Japanese modern literature.

I travel a great deal and meet many people. On top of that I have my own experiences, and I think I am a very keen observer of people. Sometimes my two little sons give me ideas, sometimes things I read or see. I could go on and on but the thing I want to say is that I have been influenced by everything, and the process is both ongoing and varied. If you ask what works influenced me most I would probably say The Mua’alaqat or the pre-Islamic poems or ballads. The anthology of those poems is one of the books that you are likely to find next to my bed. There are always opened books in the house. At any given time I would probably be reading 7 or 8 books. The only time when I stop reading is when I am writing. The writer’s subconscious is a strange being. If hard pressed for an idea it will try to find it anywhere, so has to be careful.

There are thousands of books that I have enjoyed reading, and thousands more I’ve read out of a sense of duty. So, it is not possible for me to pinpoint an exact source of influence. Nor do I think that my style, either in the short story or in the novel, is influenced by a certain novelist or novelists. Nonetheless, my style is usually marked by a fast tempo- a mark of some contemporary western literature. No doubt my work as a journalist moulded at least part of my style. It is a profession that keeps its soldiers always on the run and always panting. This is not a complaint. I enjoy my job. It has taken me to most parts of the world.

Al-Khaleej: This leads us to another question: How do you balance the writing of novels, short stories, business and IT in Hayat newspaper?

Bishtawi: Journalism is my profession and source of income but my literary writing is a basic part of what I am as a human being. I would confess it is not as simple as it sounds. In the West, writers who make a living from their literary writings are a few. They are vastly fewer in the Arab World. Literary writing in Arabic is not financially viable. I don’t know many writers who make a living out of publishing novels or short stories. The situation is unlikely to change in the near future, not in my lifetime anyway. What is the alternative though? To leave writing to the princes, the wealthy and the high-salaried government officials and diplomats? Isn’t it enough that they have the entire business market to roam as they please? But to return to your question,

I can tell you that my experience in business and computer journalism has not stood in the way of my literary writing. On the contrary, it enriched my knowledge and style. In everyday life, each of us has to take hundreds of decisions, most of which are economic in nature. Even the relationship between man and woman, unless ideal, is governed by numerous economic factors. Traditionally, Arabic literature depicts the businessman as a miniature of Shylock. This is not so nor it is true that businessmen only read bills and bank statements. I know businessmen who are excellent readers with good taste for literature and the arts. One of the main characters of Traces of a Tattoo is a businessman. They have a human dimension just like anybody else, and without my experience as a Business Editor my views would probably have been not different from other Arab writers.

A professional writer has to cover a large number of subjects but he uses a single medium – the word. Likewise, you find that most people are multi-tasking. The man is the lover, husband, father, son, carpenter etc. Women, likewise, have functions as varied as man. Personally, I do feel at my age that I need to restore my internal balance. I have taken my fill from economics and technology, and I am returning gradually to my original foundations. If journalism stands in the way of my non-literary writing, it will go.

Al-Khaleej: Who are the characters of Traces of a Tattoo?

Bishtawi: Most of them are people I’ve known. But the novel’s characters are not mere literary copies of those people. The ultimate aim is to present a novel that is realistic in the sense that its events are fictionally probable and are likely to have happened or happen. But this is not always the case in Traces of a Tattoo. I want to be realistic, but I also want to throw some doubt on reality because it can afford some doubt. The issues in the novel are not new. They are the type that have confronted and afflicted human beings since time immemorial such as death, life, birth, love, jealousy, injustice etc. The differences are in the treatment of such issues and the angle of view that I wanted to be as panoramic as possible. I wanted to talk about al-Mua’alaqat, the Internet, the globalisation and competition. But life is not all of these alone. There are other things that we know only in our sub conscience. That is why there is this strange bird which I called “hoor” in the novel. Read in reverse it becomes “rooh” which means soul in Arabic. This also was treated as a character.

Al-Khaleej: As a Palestinian, where is the Palestinian side in your work?

Bishtawi: In my short stories, the Palestinian sides are numerous, and direct. But the Oslo accord has deprived the Palestinian of even the chance to brag about the struggle. The Oslo accord and the ensuing agreements have changed many things that are not in the time frame of the novel. The novel attempts to explain the destructive effects left by the Palestinian problem on Palestinians and those close to them all over the world. I do not mean death only. This private human haemorrhage will continue even after the Palestinian state has been established. The Nakba has had tremendous effects on Palestinians’ daily life. Its after effects will continue to haunt the next two or three generations. As you have notice in Traces of a Tattoo, one of the main characters (Hisham) ends up in prison because of his nationalist activities. When he is finally released he finds his girlfriend the wife of another man.

Al-Khaleej: Was it easy to find the title?

Bishtawi: The title is a slight variation of the second part of a line of verse from a famous poem by Tarfah Ibn Al-Abd AlBakri. Most poets have one muse (the equivalent of “Shaitan” or Satan for Arab poets) and very few have two muses. Tarfah, I think, must have had three when he wrote his poem. In describing the ruins of the house of his childhood from a distance, he likens them to a fading tattoo on the back of his hand, and hence Baqaia Al Washm, or Traces of a Tattoo. The novel, however, is not about emotional ruins as some critics implied. The ruins are a just a backdrop. Arabs are accused of living in the past but only partly. The new generation is different in many ways from the older one because their problems and aspirations are different, and consequently their solutions to these problems. I wanted to talk about the past and the mistakes of the past because if you forget them your are more likely to relive them. Nonetheless, it is the present and the future that concern me most.

Al-Khaleej: Why does a writer write?

Bishtawi: I don’t think there is one single reason. Maybe it is a need of sorts, and probably selfish. Maybe writing is pure self-gratification. Sometimes I think as parents seek to immortalise their natural genes through their children, writers also attempt to immortalise their intellectual genes through their books. Maybe so, I don’t know. What I know is that we are surrounded by problems of old; poverty, persecution, injustice and destitution of kinds that are mostly avoidable. I have opinions on these and other matters that are of importance to us as human beings everywhere, and I want a chance to be heard. Let the reader decide.

* Published on 28 March 1998 and translated by Mohammad Khaled.

Professor Godfrey Wettinger: “I’ve done it almost risking my life.”

Professor Godfrey Wettinger – Malta’s Outstanding Authority on its Medieval History


Godfrey Wettinger is Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow of the University of Malta. Professor Wettinger is a recognised authority on the medieval history of the Maltese Islands from 15th century documents and many other sources providing original scholarly research.

Wettinger, B.A. Hons. (London), M.A. (London), Ph.D. (London), was born at Mosta, Malta, 22 December 1929, but lived most of his life in Mellieha (1931-1994). He was educated at the Lyceum, Malta, and studied as an external student of the University of London after becoming a teacher in the Government Primary schools and subsequently at the Lyceum. After five years’ lecturing at the Junior College of the Royal University of Malta, he transferred to the latter institution in 1972 becoming a lecturer in the Department of History. He obtained the rank of Professor in 1989. He retired on reaching the age of 65, becoming Emeritus Professor and subsequently Senior Fellow of the University.

The subject of his Ph.D. thesis was Some Aspects of Slavery in Malta during the rule of the Knights (1971). Struck by the resemblance of the names of several of the Muslim slaves to various place-names in Malta and Gozo, he subsequently investigated the matter further when his participation with FR. Michael Fsadni O.P. in the discovery and publication of Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena (1968, 1968 in English and 1983 in Maltese) encouraged him to have a closer look at the Medieval nomenclature of the Maltese Islands. The result wasPlace-Names of the Maltese Islands ca. 1300-1800 (2000).

During the long gestation of the Place-Names of the Maltese Islands Professor Wettinger published a large number of papers on life in Malta during the late Middle Ages (such as those on farming, clerical concubinage, family honour), as well as several others of a more linguistic nature. In particular, the year 1985 saw the publication of The Jews in Malta during the Late Middle Ages, and the year 1993 when he published Acta Juratorum et Consilii Civitatis et Insulae Malta.

The following interview was conducted at Professor Wettinger’s residence in St. Julians, Malta in 2011.

A brief about the interviewer here© Copyright 2011 by Adel S. Bishtawi.

Adel: So, Professor Wettinger, if we really want to study the history of Malta in depth and I am your student, how would you teach me the history of Malta with a specific emphasis on its Arabic past?

Wettinger: I’ll tell you what I’ve done. I don’t just teach flatly. I try to shock people, and then they react. How do I do it? Sometimes I’ve done it almost risking my life: Are we Arabs? We were once, you know, but perhaps not now. That’s the way I’d start.

Adel: So they’re shocked.

Wettinger: Yes.

Adel: Why?

Wettinger: Because in history we have to deal with the past on its own terms, and the terms of history are the documentary evidence, which is the case of all countries, either written or archaeological, or linguistic in this case. The Maltese language is Arabic, not Punic and all that other rubbish. That idea was abandoned about a hundred years ago by academics. Some people are still wondering about Punic, Lebanese and so on because there is a resemblance in the language. Maltese is Arabic with some Italian words, a lot of Sicilian words, and so on. But some of the old-fashioned people still keep the old ideas. They keep on saying ‘but in the language of Jesus Christ’, shem, semsh, or whatever the sun is, is the same as the Maltese ‘xemx’. Yes, but in Arabic (shams) it’s the same sort of thing as well. So, if you look at the documents, the problem is that for about a hundred years there was nobody in Malta (human beings I mean) and that Muslims alone camefor brief visits for a long period: small groups, families perhaps, people catching fish or whatever and goingaway again. And then others came. When did all this happen? Malta has been inhabited with certainty for about (I’m guessing) 8000 or more years. We have no evidence of Palaeolithic culture in Malta. In Sicily there is evidence, in Malta there is none, yet. But Malta is a small place and small countries can pass through all kinds of drastic changes which are not likely to happen in countries of, let us say, normal size. There were periods when the total population of Malta could not have been more than a few thousand, perhaps merely a few hundred. And it would not take much in those days to either kill everybody or expel everyone. And it has been said hundreds of years ago in lots of famous poems that man is the most cruel of all animals. And unfortunately that is true. Now, in 870 AD, give or take a few months, the Arabs came from Tunisia and foughta big campaign lasting for several months. The leader of the Arabs died either in the fighting or throughillness. Then, another leader and another army were sent, apparently from Sicily. Up to then, the island belonged to the Greek Byzantine culture. When the fresh army arrived, the Byzantines fled. Were there any previous inhabitants who went with them? We don’t know.

Adel: What information do we have on this second campaign?

Wettinger: On the second occasion, the Arabs were completely successful and we are told that they followed orders that they must deal harshly with Malta, and they left Malta in desolation. Some Maltese have never accepted that. For them, 2000 years ago, a personage  from the Middle East called Paul, nowinvariably referred to as Saint Paul, preached to the Maltese and they became Christian, details which are not in the Acts of the Apostles. Apparently he was credited with healing several inhabitants of their illnesses. Anyhow, he was treated well by the inhabitants of those days and for the last 700 or 800 years, the inhabitants of Malta following the reconquest by the Normans after either 1090-91 or c.1127 (the second invasion) have been saying the Maltese were Christian ever since the time of St. Paul. And they say that is why we have St. Paul’s Bay. That is why there is a church called ‘San Pawl Milqi’, which is bad Arabic. And so on and so forth.

Adel: What proof do we have that the island of Malta was unpopulated? What historic references are there, and what classical documents can we consult on this issue?

Wettinger: Al-Himyari[1] got his information, most people think, from Al-Bakri.[2] Al-Bakri was writing in the 11th century. He must have got his facts from someone before him; we don’t know who he was. Secondly, a hundred years later, an Arab traveller and geographer called Ibn Hawqal, said that Malta was inhabited by lots of wild donkeys, as well as sheep and goats, and that those who came to round up the donkeys brought provisions with them. This is all he is saying again and again and again: Malta was absolutely empty of people. The donkeys were wild: we still say it in Maltese when we pass through an empty street at night time:  twahhaxt’. We use that verb still, with the same meaning! And those coming to round them up brought provisions with them: if there were some people left, they could buy the provisions from these people. And presumably the donkeys would have remained domesticated and not gone wild. And that is a hundred years after the Arabs of Tunisia conquered Malta.[3]

Adel: So this was in 970 AD?

Wettinger: Ibn Hawqal’s account has been dated to c. 970 A.D. and he died soon after. If you’ve got a place uninhabited for a hundred years, there is no transmission of culture from one to other. Absolutely not.

Adel: So the subsequent re-population of the islands was a fresh start.

Wettinger: Completely.

Adel: From when?

WettingerFrom when people started coming. I had told a small group of students when Himyari first became known in Malta, about 20 years ago, that archaeologists should be able to tell whether a hundred or a 180 years passed, because it makes a difference provided the investigatioin is done properly. One of those students apparently got the idea, and arranged an investigation with an Italian archaeologist. And their findings were published in a preliminary report that throughout the 11th century there were people in Malta. In the late 10th century, you have evidence of people even at Mdina, but apparently not before that. Perhaps they will yet find evidence. I can assure you that they made a great effort to find it. The temptation to prove that Malta was inhabited is tremendous. They would have made themselves famous amongst the Maltese. I’ve been told since I saw you last that the research collections in the Museum of Archaeology- not open to the public or even scholars and students without special permission- they have quite a lot of evidence of Islam in Malta. That’s the thing. If they had found evidence of Christianity they would have brought it out and become benefactors of the country.

A beautiful design at Mdina. Photo by A. Bishtawi

A beautiful design at Mdina. Photo by A. Bishtawi

Adel: What you are saying could have serious implications.

Wettinger: I was told this by my successor at the University. He said he saw an image of a mihrab. I am repeating what somebody I respect told me. My own character is that I don’t trust statements without clear evidence, and I always recommend to my students that they develop their scepticism.

Adel: Where was the mihrab found?

Wettinger: Presumably in Mdina. My informant was shown images of these things on the internet, which are not normally open to inspection.

Adel: I met the rector of the Museum. She told me that they have quite a number of Islamic inscriptions.

Wettinger: I was interviewed by somebody from Zurich, the editor of one of the leftist journals in Switzerland. He was intrigued by my surname: how did the surname Wettinger come to Malta, he asked. And I told him. And then, a few months later, I found part of this interview on the internet. He reported in his periodical- and it was placed on the internet in one of the universities in Germany too- that Malta could be one of the first countries where people prayed to Allah in Europe.

Adel: But what is the significance of the use of ‘Allah” in Maltese?

Wettinger: In Maltese, Allah simply means the Almighty, the same as in the Arabic language. And it has been used in Malta since Islam, I have no doubt. But in Malaysia now, there is a big problem. They don’t want Christians to use the word Allah because they say that it is distinctive to Islam. Now, although the Maltese have always insisted that we are not Arabs: that we are Phoenicians mixed with Italians, and so on and so forth. But it looks as if the idea that the Maltese language is Phoenician started in the late 15th century. Before that, Maltese people used to say that we speak the Arabic language. I’ve got a book on that, I should give it to you: Kliem Malti Qadim. And I went into all the details of this. They used to accept that they spoke Arabic, but they said we’ve always been Christian. They had forgotten that for a period there was nobody in the islands, and then for a long period there was Islam only, without any Christians except prisoners of war reduced to the status of slaves who would have to pay a ransom to be freed. But linguistically it was Arabic. And although this didn’t come clearly into my mind until pretty recently, I used to think that not everybody was killed or expelled in the invasion of 870 AD, because it’s not normal. Arabs did not normally put people to the sword, as the Pope nearly said three or four years ago, which was totally wrong. A lot of people must have survived and gradually became Muslims. Why? Because there wassystematic discrimination in favour of Islam: you got better jobs, paid less taxes, and other ‘incentives’. But the language survived. That is the big fact of Maltese history in the Middle Ages.


At Medina - where else? Photo by A. Bishtawi

At Medina – where else? Photo by A. Bishtawi

Adel: Now, when we look at the word ‘hadithkom’, with an ‘th’ as in the English word ‘thin’ –[6]

Wettinger: Be careful, because that wouldn’t be very reliable

Adel: But then the word in modern Maltese is ‘haditkom’, so it looks to me ‘th’ is standard Arabic and the Arabic used in the past was closer to standard Arabic compared to many words in the Arabic vocabulary component today.

Wettinger: Yes, but in Maltese it has always changed some way or another. For ‘thelj’ (ice), we say ‘silj’. And there are a few other words I wouldn’t know very much because I can never remember these things.

Adel: But I was wondering whether the origin of the spoken language in Malta was some sort of standard Arabic that became vernacular with the known Maltese flavour.

Wettinger: Hardly likely, because the people were simple peasants. Some of them must have learned at some time to read the Koran. The last native Muslims in Malta probably died around 1300 and had beenforced to practisChristianity for the last fifty years of their lives. So from about 1249-1250 or thereabouts you had native Islam no longer being practised. But people who learned Arabic in their infancy would survive to old age and around about 1300 they would die off completely. In Arabic, you have two levels of language everywhere. For example, I downloaded from the internet a talk about Qaddafi. He doesn’t always get his message across because more often than not he falls back on the dialect of his tribe (The Qaddadifa), and in Cyrenaica they wouldn’t understand him perfectly. Somewhere or other I have said there was more literacy in Islam than in Christianity. Even among the Jews, there was greater literacy than amongst Christians. Why? Because the Church used to teach Christianity by means of pictures, statues, and so on. And in Islam and Judaism these are prohibited.

Adel: Did Arabs come to Malta from Sicily, Tunisia or elsewhere, and what was the nature of their Arabic?

Wettinger: We have to distinguish between the invaders who did so much harm to both of the Maltese Islands and to other places in Sicily. The first group seem to have come from Tunisia. When the second army came, they seem to have come largely from Sicily. After that, the evidence is that they left Malta denuded of its people. I’ve been told by Arabs: don’t worry about that, it doesn’t matter where they came from. No, it is important! The most probable place they came from is Sicily. I am reluctant to accept that. But I have had to accept it.

Adel: Why?

Wettinger: Because the idea that the Maltese language came from Sicily was favoured by those in favour ofMalta entering Europe: ‘even our Arabic came from Europe! That was part of the propaganda for Malta to enter Europe twenty years ago. However, when I gave th talk about Malta in the high middle ages some months ago I was told: you’re telling us that Malta had plenty of fish, excellent honey, timber for building ships (pinewood yes, but ‘tal-arrar’ is not good for building anything) and so on and so forth. But Ibn Hawqal said they used to get wild donkeys from here, they used to get sheep and goats but there was no market for them abroad. And people told me: but why did it take a hundred years for people to come here? They left Malta empty when there were these donkeys on the island. Well, the trouble is that Malta was not the only place that was ravaged in that war of 870. Eight years later, Syracuse, one of the biggest cities in the Western world in those days, was also destroyed. People were expelled or massacred. That was normal in those days. It is still normal in the Balkans, in the 20th century. What is the most likely explanation? When Ibn Hawqal said there was a market for the donkeys but not for the sheep and goats: why? There were no people in the parts of Sicily closest to Malta. It took time for them to recover as well as Malta. Gradually, those places got filled up again, almost entirely by Muslims, and from then onwards Malta not only could find a market for the donkeys but a market for the sheep and goats, as well as the honey. It took time for the whole region to recover.


Palermos' Cathedral. Photo by A. Bishtawi

Palermos’ Cathedral. Photo by A. Bishtawi

Adel: How do we begin to understand the scope and depth of relations between the Maltese Islands and Sicily?

Wettinger: Let’s start with food. Nowadays, it is easy to transport food from one country to another. But in those days, food like meat, fish and milk would go rotten or sour in a few hoursHow could you preservemeat and fish? Large-scale salting. It was almost the only way. So, probably, amongst the earliest occupations of families who stayed in Malta was the production of salt and a few other basic necessities such as pottery, and so on. In addition, we have to remember, that in Eid al-Adha (The Muslim feast of sacrifice) they need a large number of sheep and goats for sacrifice. Where do Saudis get their sheep from nowadays? From Australia. Here we don’t have an ocean. All you’ve got is one day’s journey between Malta and Sicily and so sheep and goats can be taken over to Sicily in a relatively very short time on the hoof so to speak.

Adel: What about Tunis and other North African areas?

Wettinger: I think that our connections at the time must have been with Sicily, not with Tripoli or Cyrenaica or Crete. But the newcomers from Sicily had themselves or their parents or grand parents had crossed over from Tunisia so it does not matter that much.

Adel: You have a 640-page book on Place Names in the Maltese Islands; what attracted you to this laborious filed of research?

Wettinger: When I started my studies, about 50 years ago, I decided to study not the Knights because I was already sick of the Knights and their fortifications, of which we’ve got too many, but the slaves who had not been studied by anyone so far. Not just the poor, but the poorest of the poor, slaves who were prisoners of war in the time of Knights. I started collecting material in the library of Valletta, where there is plenty of stuff some of it going back to the Crusadesbut mainly from the time of the Knights. And you know what I discovered? The Muslim slaves sometimes had identical personal names as the medieval place names ofMalta and Gozo. You’d be surprised. That valley [next to my apartment (In St Julians)] is called Wiedomor. What is omor? Nowadays nobody knows what it is. The valley has had that name since the Middle Ages: Omar’s valley. Sliema is Salama, a person’s name in the Arab world. There is even a street called Ġagħfar Street, another very common Arab name. And we’ve got Muammar in Malta, I think in Gozo as well.

Adel: So you’re saying the valley is named after an Arab or Muslim Maltese person called Omar?

Wettinger: Yes. Not once or twice. Everybody knows that near Birzebugia there is a cave called Ghar Hassan. Everybody says that is the name of an Arab called Hassan. They mean Maltese, but they would never admit he was Maltese as he belonged to the Muslim/Arabic culture. I have discovered hundreds ofsimilar instances. I spent about 30 years collecting those place names. We don’t have documents from the time of the Arabs but, surprisingly, we have a lot of their personal names. If you go through my book on the subject you will even find the name of Halima. Halima is a normal female name in the Arab world, surviving in the place names of Malta when I collected documents. Those documents still exist. And the names were of real people, not taken out of a book.

Adel: But why is that significant?

Wettinger: Because the only surviving part of the Arabic culture- apart from the language- are place names, plus some of the surnames: Abdilla, Agius, etc. But these are outnumbered by surnames that seem to be Italian or European. You know that when you bring a new idea along you meet with a certain amount of resistance. There is an Arabic word meaning Naxar, which is used as a person’s name in the wider Arab world. In Malta, it became the name of a village. You know what it means? Transmitter of information. They claim Christianity entered Malta through Naxxar. It should be written with one ‘x’. How did I get to know this?Because in the relatively early documentation I collected Naxxar was invariably written with one ‘x’. Perhaps that explains why the people of that town claim that Christianity was transmitted from there two thousand years ago. That’s popular ethimology. In total I collected 6000 place names in Malta and Gozo.

Adel: Do we know what the most important towns in the 10th-11th century were?

Wettinger: There was only one town. What is the first document about that? From Himyari [al-Qazwini mentioned it also]: Mdina. He and al-Qazwini wrote that Mdina was refounded round about 1050 A.D. But some of the meanings of the village names  also give an indication of their age.

But now a question: In the village of Ħal-Qormi; what’s the meaning of Qormi?

Adel: I am anxious to know.

Wettinger: You are very diplomatic! According to me, Qormi is derived from the Crimea, a person from the Crimea would be al-Qurmi in Arabic. When did Malta have a connection with Crimea? In the early 13th century, the count of Malta was a Genoese. Genoa had colonies in the Crimea. Malta didn’t have much trade with Venice, but it did have close connections with Genoa, at the change of the century from the 12th to the 13th. Furthermore near Qormi, there’s an area called Tal-Handaq. How do you explain this? Handaq usually means a gorge or narrow valley and there is no gorge or narrow valley at Tal-Ħandaq.

Adel: In Arabic it means a ‘moat’.

Wettinger: Yes, that’s it, a moat. But there is no moat at Tal-Ħandaq either. How do you explain the place-name? The Muslims in the 10th century took Crete from the Byzantines. They chose a spot to build their town. They surrounded the area with a moat. You know what they called that town? The moat: al-Handaq.Himyari actually calls it Rabat al-Ħandaq. If they came from Malta they [call it] tal-Handaq. ‘Tal’ is perhapsthe most prominent difference between Arabic in Sicily and elsewhere and Maltese: tal or ta is in every phrase, especialy in our place-names. I’ve written an article about it. In later ages, the time of the Knights, people from Crete came to Malta and they were called de Candia. [Regarding] Handaq, there is no ‘h’ in Italian. Instead of writing ‘h’, they had to write a ‘c’, and that was pronounced wrongly as ‘k’: Kandia. Tal-Handaq became Kandia. If you look up the origin of Kandia, it is from Handaq. This is official. And this is a not a coincidence. In the centre of Malta, there is another area called Ta’ Kandia. Obviously somebody who came to Malta at the time the Turks were taking Crete obtained this property in the centre of Malta that has been called ever since then ta’ Kandia. So, on one level, you’ve got Qormi, referring not to Crete but to the other colony of Genoa, Crimea. Then you’ve got tal-Handaq and ta’ Kandia. And one of the earliest conquests of the Count of Malta was precisely that of some place in Crete. It shows that there is a surprising amount ofhistorical information in our local place names and the personal nicknames of people who came to Malta from elsewhere. One other thing I can tell you is this: there are several places, I’ve found about ten of them, called Nigret. There are all kinds of meanings to Nigret, all to do with black. I said this is Italian: Nigretto, and the Arabic plural showing how old it is, Ingieret, That’s what we call a broken plural in Arabic and Maltese.

scholar and some of his books. Photo by A. Bishtawi

scholar and some of his books. Photo by A. Bishtawi

Adel: So they applied the Arabic suffixes of forming plurals to a non-Arabic word?

Wettinger: Yes, that’s not unusual. We can say that Qormi was one of the oldest villages, going back perhaps to the 13th century. That’s old enough. Then you’ve got others like Imqabba, to do with domes. Again that would be pretty early, as well.

Adel: What about Mellieha

Wettinger: This is something else. People from Mellieha have always said that Mellieha’s name has something to do with salt or honey. Salt from Arabic, honey from Greek. And I would tell them: would you mind deciding which one, this or that? Now I can ask them: explain, how can you have a Greek name, and a hundred years without people in Malta? So it’s decided for me now, it’s salt and where salt is produced or obtained. And in the old maps you find the place name saline vecchie: old salt pans. Where were those? At the reserve for birds, down near the sands.

Adel: Salina Bay?

Wettinger: That’s another one because although Mellieha was the original word in Arabic, in Maltese the word salina tended to come in and take its place. In Mellieha it didn’t succeed. In the other bay near Qawra, the change happened. Nobody says Mellieha tal-Qawra. Everybody says Salina. But in my book on place names, you find several other Melliehas. There’s a Mellieha at Zonqor and at Benghaisa, where there is theFreeport. But if you go to Qawra you will find the same type of old salt pans, dug into the rock next to the sea. And there were the same similar salt pans in Gozo.

Adel: Can we talk about Sicily’s relations with Malta and vice versa?

Wettinger: Now, in Sicily’s history is parallel to that of Malta in some ways, but not completely. In Malta there seems to have been a complete change of people, in or around the year 870 AD. In Sicily there was tremendous disturbance but not a complete change. A lot of people in Sicily survived, and many became Muslims for some time, and a lot of those who did not remain in Sicily went to neighbouring countries like Calabria, and when Sicily was reconquered by the Normans some of their descendants came back. Other people went to Sicily from other parts of Italy, like the Lombards. Sicily therefore suffered two extensive but incomplete changes of population. And therefore in Sicily you get a process by which Arabic spread everywhere for some time, then it was gradually squeezed out as is happening to the Palestinians in the West Bank today. When the Christians went back to Sicily they founded colonies around centres of Islam and squeezed these communities away, until they left or got assimilated. Some of the Muslim communities took to the mountains and began a guerrilla war, intifadas, and other acts of resistance and defiance.

Adel: When was that?

Wettinger: Not in the time of the early Norman conquerors. The first two Norman Rogers followed a policy of almost surprising tolerance.[7] But from around the middle years of the 12th century, they became harsh and things turned sour. Very often Norman rulers accepted ex-Muslims as ministers, but very often too such ex-Muslims also fell out of favour and were imprisoned and executed as well. When they took to rebellion, they went into the mountains in Sicily and built castles and resisted. And there was guerrilla warfare for generations.

Adel: 13th century?

Wettinger: Late 12th and early 13th century during the last years of the Normans and the time of the Swabians, mainly. And then the few that were left were expelled by the Angevins. Those who were not massacred- and there must have been mutual massacres- ended up in exile in Muslim countries, mainly in Tunisia but also in Egypt, presumably in Andalucia, and other areas. Others were exiled to Lucera in Southern Italy.

Adel: Why Lucera?

Wettinger: Emperor Frederick II had a castle in Lucera and he established a settlement of prisoners of war, a kind of concentration camp. They were permitted to keep their religion, they became mercenaries fighting against the armies of the Pope, and at some stage Muslims from Malta were sent there.

Adel: As a punishment or to re-enforce the town?

Wettinger: The historian Ibn Khaldun tells us that about the year 1249, when Abu Zaccaria, the sultan of Tunisia, died the agreement that existed between Tunisia and Frederick came to an end, and Muslims in Sicily staged a rebellion. Ibn Khaldun said that the tyrant of Sicily crossed over to Malta and sent the surviving Muslims in Malta to join their co-religionists, namely in Lucera.[8] Historians have said we know that Frederick never came to Malta, there was some mistake. And some have said the date must be in the 1220s, not 1249. But there is another historian, Frenchman Henri Bresc,[9] who says there were still some Muslims left certainly in Sicily and even in Malta, apparently, who may have caused trouble after 1250 and had to be dealt with. With regards to Malta, we’ve got other evidence: in an official report in 1241 it was recorded that Malta had around 800 families of Muslims, Gozo around 200, and so on and so forth.[10] One important thing is this: nowadays we give great importance to race. The world nowadays is racist, we can say. In the Middle Ages people gave importance to religion. The expulsion was not that of a race but of a religion. The Muslims were expelled. If they said they were Christian they could stay here and keep their land. And that is why Malta kept apparently the majority of its people speaking some type of Arabic. In Sicily it was different. The development was more harsh. There was much more fighting and warfare and Islam was not only expelled but people were replaced with those from Calabria and other parts of Italy. In Malta, apparently, things were not as bad as that. Some were expelled- you meet some Maltese in Lucera as late as 1300- but most of the 6000 place names in my book are Arabic. Those that are not Arabic are Sicilian post-Arabic. And that is the difference. Historians like Bresc like comparing Malta with Pantelleria. Pantelleria in the late Middle Ages had a curious arrangement. Pantelleria was supposed to be a condominium between Tunisia and Sicily. The Muslims there survived until the 15th century, but Muslims crossed over from Tunisia and told them: aren’t you ashamed to accept Christian rule? Why don’t you come back to Tunisia and resume living as Muslims as you should do. And they did just that. Pantelleria lost all its Arabic speakers. Pantellerians today speak some kind of Italian, with a lot of Arabic words in it.

Adel: Is this dialect specific to Pantelleria?

Wettinger: Yes.

 Adel: How do you describe the legacy of Arabic and Islam in Sicily?

Wettinger: You’ve got about two or three hundred words of Arabic derivation in the Sicilian dialect, but some people would give you different statistics. Remember that Sicily is a biggish place and you’ve got different dialects, not just one. There used to be a lot of argumentation as to whether Greek in Sicily survived through the Arabic period or whether you had Italian in Sicily before the Arabs. Perhaps for nationalistic reasons, Sicilians prefer to say they had Italian before the Arabs. German scholars say you didn’t have much evidence of Italian or the Italian dialect in Sicily before the Arabs. You had a lot of Greek around Messina, from Messina up to Cefalu and then almost down to Catania. That triangle was largely Greek.

Adel: By Greek, do we mean common not classical Greek?

Wettinger: It is not exactly clear. Under the Normans, Greek culture spread at first. According to Bresc, who was a scholar anis still alive, those Muslims who were prevailed on to become Christian preferred the Greek form of Christianity, not the Latin form, because that was the religion that dominated over them, while the Greeks were subjects like themselves to some extent. He may be right or not, there is a lot of argument about that. For some time Greek monasticism spread in Sicily. Professor Buhagiar in Malta has been trying to prove that the same thing happened in Malta but he is finding it difficult to prove. For one thing, he blundered by saying that the 12 place names I found called ‘deir’served as centres during the reappearance of Christianity in Malta.  In the Arabic world, ‘deir’ means a monastery or monastic type building. But if you study the matter very carefully you find there are problems. I studied the problem in 1975. The deir place names had no connection with religion. In fact and there seems to have been a slight variance in the pronunciation of deir of a locality not connected with monasticism. It’s a farmhouse. And to have 12 farmhouses at the beginning when you had so many sheep and goats even before there were people is normal. I have it from Buhagiar himself that one of the best qualified professors who knows Arabic told him that I was was correct on that one. I actually found citations in late medieval dictionaries in Syria where deir spelled in a particular way with the ‘y’ [sound] doubled meant a farmhouse. Christianity must have entered Malta some other way, perhaps through Greek clerical influence but not in the deir localities. Only one deir locality in Malta has got some iconography that is Christian: the deir at Rabat. The others don’t have any. Christianity seems to have entered gradually, we don’t have details. The cathedral in Malta is first mentioned in 1299, as late as that.

Adel: And in Sicily?

Wettinger: In Sicily we’ve got a lot of other details. The fight with Islam there was harsher and bloodier. Islam was expelled from Sicily but a lot of the Muslims remained in disguise as you can find out by reading the accounts of Andalusian traveller Ibn Jubair. When his ship approached Messina it ran aground and he had to be saved. He asked the young man rowing the boat to the shore: what’s that tattoo behind your ear? We believers, that is Muslims, he said, live in Sicily but we cannot practise Islam openly and that’s a sign that my religion is Islam.[11]

Adel: Some say the core Sicilian language is Latin or Greek but I have read in Arabic sources that it was a dialect of Arabic that became extinct.

WettingerThe Arabic dialect of Sicily died out in the late middle ages. When we talk of the Sicilian dialectnowadays we are talking of a dialect of Latin origin or series of such dialects. When Italy was united a hundred and forty or fifty years ago, only a couple of million Italians spoke Italian. They all had their own provincial dialect. They could hardly understand each other, the same way Arabs of Tunisia and Iraq cannot understand each other’s local dialects. Now, owing to compulsory education and –

Adel: And Jazeera.

Wettinger: And Jazeera, yes.

Adel: Al Jazeera channel is forcing lots of Arabs to speak standard Arabic and it is becoming widespread.

Wettinger: In Malta there is a bit of that. Malta is very small and you hardly understand this sort of thing on that scale. Every village used to have a slight difference in pronunciation. For example, I used to say ‘giebu’. And somebody told me that that is the Mellieha dialect, you should say ‘jabu’.

Adel: From your study of history in modern times, do you think we are becoming fairer to the Arab and Islamic past in places like Sicily and Malta or are we restructuring history to suit certain conceptions?

Wettinger: I would say it is better, but with throwbacks. There would be a political situation that would suddenly push the clock back. It’s not consistently in one direction.

Adel: But it is fairer, generally, is this what you mean?

Wettinger: A little bit, yes. But it depends who you are talking to: the class of people. For example, in Malta no one has any real interest in Arabic poetry or literature, and so on. We’ve got people who know Arabic for commercial reasons but who have no interest in the culture.

Adel: But then you have certain sounds for negation that are typically Arab.

Wettinger: Yes, there are certain signs. The grammar is almost entirely of Arabic origin. I used to be hopeful but sometimes politics comes into the picture. For example, in one case one of my colleagues brought forward the idea that Gozo remained Christian for hundreds of years and that Malta was Muslim. And that is rubbish. Pure rubbish. And he was supported by an ex-President of Malta, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici (1994 to 1999), who you might have met. Normally he is a very cultured person, but on religion his mentality is that of the 17th century, not even the 18th century.


Gozo. Commissioned photo.

Gozo. Commissioned photo.

Adel: If you had the chance to write a new book, what would it be about?

Wettinger: If I had the energy and someone to do all the hard work, like typing, the book would be about Malta in the Middle Ages with emphasis on the way the island developed, culturally as well as in other ways. I think this is the biggest lack we have. It would have to be done with a proper understanding of the contribution both of Christianity and of Islam, both of European culture and of Arabic culture.[12] Perhaps, also Jewish culture. Those poems in Judeo-Arabic which occupied my interest for a couple of years have got a language almost identical to the Cantilena. When I read them- they were transcribed by a scholar in 1949- I decided it had to be identified with the language of the Jews in Sicily not with the Eastern Maghrib, that is Tunisia. And now, someone is publishing one of my last papers concerning the children of Pietru Caxaru. All that bla bla bla, that he wrote a love poem: be careful. We know he had at least four children from his concubine. We know her name. I found a couple of pages about her. She was apparently quite a character. While attending a sermon about St. Paul in the church of Rabat, the women around her heard her saying, what a shame they sent us this parish priest, he is a drunk, and so on. Proceedings began against her. And that parish priest was the principal priest in all of Malta. She risked being burnt alive. I’m sure she was protected by her master/lover – Pietru herself. I made a few very small changes in one of the Judaeo-Arabic poems, a genuine love poem, and it is being published as if it were a Maltese fifteenth century short love song.

Adel: Why is it that Sicilian authorities today would like to emphasise the Arab and Islamic heritage of Sicily and they’re making films and seminars about Arab poetry and Muslim heritage, but not in Malta.

WettingerHere in Malta in certain respects we are still living in the Middle Ages, nearly. People like Ugo Mifsud Bonnici have got a fixation on these things, but he’s not alone. In addition, most of these people are nationalists, in local politics, and they are all involved together. But I must also say not all nationalists have the same  mental make-up. Stanley Fiurini, who brought forward his idea, started a campaign of lectures two years ago held in the Bishop’s Curia at Floriana, getting the religious segment of the people to hear him. When the book was presented, he got the presentation to be presided over by whom? By Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, getting the sympathy of right-wing politicians. That’s what I won’t forgive him for. He didn’t do it the proper academic way.

Adel: Would you like to add anything before we conclude?

Wettinger: I can say this: there is an idea amongst certain people that Malta would have started speaking Italian if the Knights didn’t take Malta. I am not sure I would agree. Malta was under Sicilian rule for hundreds of years and the Maltese language survived, and that’s all I can say.

Adel: Topically speaking, can you comment on what’s going on now in the Arab world, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya? How do you see it: is it a true democratic drive? Is it likely to change some perceptions?

Wettinger: There seems to be a difference between these movements in the western part of the Islamic world with fundamentalist moves normally. There is more laicism in these movements than in what we have got used to amongst the fundamentalists. Mind you, I know that even in Islam you have had people that were relatively and sometimes surprisingly liberal. I’ve got a book by somebody called Ali, he lived in the 1920s before there was a Pakistan and he was surprisingly liberal. You’ve had the same sorts of people in Tunisia and Egypt was well. But modern fundamentalism is not like that, not liberal, and that makes me a little bit downhearted. I’m not sure how we’re going to end. In Malta we were fundamentalists: not Muslims, but really we were still Muslims.

[1] Himyari. Mohammed Bin Abdul al-Munim, Al-Roudh al-Mitar fi Khbar al-Aqtar. Al-Himyari died 1495 AD.

See also Malta 870-1054 – Al-Himyari’s Account by Joseph M. BrincatThe famous account  of Al-Himyari is this:

جزيرة من الجزائر التي تلي جزيرة صقلية، وهي في القبلة من مسينة بينها وبين صقلية مجرى واحد، وكانت قبل هذا للمسلمين، وفيها مراس منشأة للسفن، وأشجارها الصنوبر والعرعر والزيتون، وطولها ثلاثون ميلاً، وفيها مدينة من بنيان الأول وكان يسكنها الروم. وغزاها خلف الخادم مولى زيادة الله بن إبراهيم عند قيام أبي عبد الله محمد بن أحمد ابن أخي زيادة الله على يد أحمد بن عمر بن عبد الله بن الأغلب، فهو الذي شقي في أمرها، وخلف هذا هو المعروف ببناء المساجد والقناطر والمواجل، فحاصرها ومات وهو محاصر لها، فكتبوا إلى أبي عبد الله بوفاته، فكتب أبو عبد الله إلى عامله بجزيرة صقلية، وهو محمد بن خفاجة، أن يبعث إليهم والياً، فبعث إليهم سوادة بن محمد، ففتحوا حصن مالطة، وظفروا بملكها عمروس أسيراً، فهدموا حصنها وغنموا وسبوا ما عجزوا عن حمله، وحمل لأحمد من كنائس مالطة ما بنى به قصره الذي بسوسة داخلاً في البحر، والمسلك إليه على قنطرة وكان ذلك سنة خمس وخمسين ومائتين فبقيت بعد ذلك جزيرة مالطة خربة غير آهلة، وإنما كان يدخلها النشاءون للسفن، فإن العود فيها أمكن ما يكون، والصيادون للحوت لكثرته في سواحلها وطيبه، والشائرون للعسل فإنه أكثر شيء هناك. فلما كان بعد الأربعين والأربعمائة من الهجرة عمرها المسلمون، وبنوا مدينتها، ثم عادت أتم مما كانت عليه، فغزاها الروم سنة خمس وأربعين وأربعمائة في مراكب كثيرة وعدد، فحصروا المسلمين في المدينة واشتد الحصار عليهم وطمعوا فيهم، وسألهم المسلمون الأمان فأبوا إلا على النساء والأموال، فأحصى المسلمون عدد المقاتلة من أنفسهم فوجدوهم نحو أربعمائة، ثم أحصوا عبيدهم فوجدوهم أكثر عدداً منهم، فجمعوهم وقالوا لهم: إنكم إن ناصحتمونا في قتال عدونا وبلغتم من ذلك مبلغاً وانتهيتم حيث انتهينا، فأنتم أحرار، نلحقكم بأنفسنا وننكحكم بناتنا ونشارككم أموالنا، وإن أنتم توانيتم وخذلتمونا لحقكم من السباء والرق ما يلحقنا، وكنتم أشد حالاً منا، لأن أحدنا قد يفاديه حميمه، ويخلصه من الأسر وليه، ويتمالأ على استنقاذه جماعته، فوعد العبيد من أنفسهم بأكثر مما ظنوا بهم، ووجدوهم إلى مناجزة عدوهم أسرع منهم، فلما أصبح القوم من اليوم الثاني غاداهم الروم على عادتهم، وقد طمعوا ذلك اليوم في التغلب عليهم وأسرهم، والمسلمون قد استعدوا في أكمل عدة للقائهم، وأصبحوا على بصيرة في مناجزتم، واستنصروا الله عز وجل عليهم، فزحفوا وثاروا نحوهم دعساً بالرماح وضرباً بالسيوف غير هائبين ولا معرجين، واثقين بإحدى الحسنيين من الظفر العاجل أو الفوز الآجل، فأمدهم الله تعالى بالنصر، وأفرغ عليهم الصبر، وقذف في قلوب أعدائهم الرعب، فولوا منهزمين لا يلوون، واستأصل القتل أكثرهم، واستولى المسلمون على مراكبهم فما أفل%D

María Elvira Sagarzazu – Argentinian investigative historian, researcher, novelist and essayist

The Spanish Expulsion of the Moriscos and its Historical Impact


I met María Elvira Sagarzazu for the first time during the 10th International Symposium on The Moriscos and the Mediterranean in the 16th and 17th Centuries which was organised by my good friend and Morisco mentor Professor Abduljelil Temimi in  Zaghouan (Tunis) between 9-12 May 2001 (link to briefs about the papers presented, pics, communique, etc., can be found here). I met a number of excellent scholars and researchers at the conference but contact with kept only, and unfortunately, with the Temimi Foundation and Maria.

Maria is a well known investigative historian, researcher, novelist, essayist and translator. She was born (1942) in Monte Caseros, Corrientes- Argentina, and resides in Rosario.,  Her research on the Moriscos are original and very interesting. She has a page at Wikipedia, seven books listed atAmazon.com and a link to a page displaying some of her works is here.

María’s research work includes aspects of the Arab presence in the Americas since the time of the conquest of America, revealing the contribution of the Moorish culture to the Río de la Plata and contributing to the construction of Argentina’s identity. In her several historical novels she describs in interesting details of the ways of life of her characters according to their social context, presents the reader the flavors, perfumes, clothing and the interior of the houses where the narratives unfold. These are the themes of women in Islamic society and social and human encounters between Islam and Christianity.

What follows is Maria’s assessment and thoughts on the plight of the Moriscos covering a number of questions I have suggested to her and answers to many others she considered important. To maintain the flow of her ideas, the present format is more appropriate that an interview, and her presentation is commissioned and was originally intended to be used for Martyrdom of the Andalusian Nation (Part II). I hope to begin working on this second part of this popular book sometimes in 2012.

The intelligent reader would notice that Maria’s thoughts fovuse on the Moriscos but she is giving the Spanish Crown the space to explain their policies towards their Morisco subjects. In her opinion,  sixteenth-century Spain was both involved in her long lasting conflict against Islam, and in colonizing America. The situation for the Muslim communities of Spain became increasingly harsh stands as the main reason why some of its members may have sought refuge in the Americas (Dressendörfer,Crypto- musulmanes en la Inquisición de Nueva España, 1978:485). The Spanish Crown failed to control the illegal entrance of Moriscos no matter how hard authorities tried to avoid it. Moriscos were considered ‘unfit’ to spread the Christian-European way of life Spain intended to transmit to America.

Traces of the Hispano-Arabic cultural background were identified while studying the habits and the language of rural dwellers of the River Plate region. This evidence as well as the conclusions derived from it, reveals the role played by the Moriscos at the early stages of the Spanish American colonization. No matter how limited and conditioned, the direct Morisco participation in the making of Americas’ societies implied lasting consequences that should be discussed in the frame of historical analysis.

A previous outlook assessing Moriscos traces in the Americas as merely indirect and owing to the Christian Spaniards, rather conveys the unrest felt by members of the Spanish society towards the ex-Muslim community. Its occurrence in Morisco studies too seems due to unlimited confidence in official documents and in archival evidence, or by neglecting field studies.

Note on illustrations: The images in this article are collected from the Internet and used only as illustrations and we take no responsibility for their authenticity or correct captions. Copyright is reserved for the rightful owner/owners of these images.


The Morisco case. Light and shadows

María Elvira Sagarzazu

When speaking about cultures, legacy is often employed to indicate a body of material handed down to us from either predecessors from ones´ culture, or, from a culture different from our own. Yet, some considerations may help understand the concept lying within the Latin root wherefrom such word draws its meaning in English. Its stem is the same as that for law, lex, which originates legate, meaning bequeath. Two concepts spring from this root: a) one pointing to an act falling within the province of law, and b) a second segment of meaning indicating given for gift, that is for nothing. Hence, whatever is inherited is at the same time acquired without question and unintentionally. Culturally speaking, this concept is central to any sound discussion regarding handed down material.

Our approach to the Morisco case considers their fate as linked to a time in which the concept of religious tolerance was unknown both to the European and the Islamic civilization. Europe owes such a view of religion to the XVIII century philosophy of Enlightenment. Before this, people failed to realize their freedom to believe in religions other than that of the establishment, nor to disbelieve in God.

This outlook on faith ushered superstitions and suspicion towards anyone not thinking or worshipping “as everybody else did”, be it the mainstream, the establishment, the Crown or the government. Furthermore, none of the monotheist religions discarded the opinion that each of their doctrines is the only true one, so that their members believe that theirs is the only acceptable religion.

We also approach the Morisco age from a point a view that aims to unfold the consequences of intercultural relations and its frequent outcome of social unrest. Attention shall be paid to the obstacles lying along the road of ethnic and religious coexistence, as we are dealing with a time when assessing the meaning of cultural legacy was an intellectual goal far from being conceived.

Ethnocentrism has been the rule until quite recently. Cultures from the Amazon to the Pacific Ocean and from Pole to Pole have upheld that peoples from different cultural backgrounds were unfit in different degrees to share their own societies. This extreme thought became entirely turned up side down by multiculturalists. Multiculturalism proved just as unable of assessing societies by regarding all of them equally worthy, thus overlooking their achievements, on which differences are rooted.

Moriscos lived and disappeared before social studies were known. The information regarding people and their behaviour was not a matter of scientific research but an issue commented upon by travellers, each of them reacting to what they witnessed according to their own cultural background, as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo did. But until the modern appearance of social studies in the XX century, there were no systematic studies about the factors involved in the process of passing down culture from one generation to the next. The concept of cultural agents and social actors was unknown, and with it the role of family and society in the passing down of a cultural heritage. Also the fact that while performing the role, social actors are influenced by their own habits and mind frames.

It also went unseen that, in the process of acquiring a legacy, those receiving it incorporate to their selves some social material entirely unsought for, and thus not resisted. These steps summarize the usual way culture has been transmitted through the ages. Yet, at some times and places, war and conquest have also been means of introducing traditions.

When the Arabs took over Spain in 711 A.C, their tradition spread throughout most of the territory, with Christian inhabitants living and coping willingly or not under the new foreign rule of Islam. Different responses were given to the sudden imposition, thus various degrees of Islamization occurred. By conquest too, the Islamic culture and traditions were introduced in societies different from that of the Arabs. Nor only Turks and Persians underwent distressful times before becoming thoroughly Islamized due to the fact the to be a Moslem entailed more than acquiring a new religion; Islam carried along traditions that up to that time had developed and belonged to the Arabic people alone.

We cannot extend considering the manifold ways that bring people in touch with a culture different from their own (migration, immigration, marriage, and so on). But, when for any reason, a number of people begin to acquire or follow different ways of life from that of a previously established majority; the behaviour of the minority seems to pose some kind of a threat against the majority. If survival chances are with that minority group, after some time they may be dwelling in a new cultural twilight zone which in time may progress as to create a cultural environment of its own 

It is a matter of historical experience that the building of new cultural spaces have brought along social unrest[1]; the reason behind this is the nature of the identity process, based in exercising difference and even opposition towards the power and traditions of the mainstream. Asserting a different cultural identity within a given society involves underlining the distance already existing between groups (majority and minority). A sense of aloofness may start connecting as much as divorcing both groups in society, that is, from the mainstream towards members of the parting side, and vice versa.

After these considerations, we shall see how the factor that brings the Morisco to life often today is by no means alien to politics. It is visible target; we know who are responsible for it since their expulsion was demanded by one of the leading nations of the time. Also because it was not a conflict between anonymous entities fighting in a remote territory, and so unlike other deportations, this one was well documented.

Moriscos and their identity

Expulsion of the Moriscos from Vinaros by Pere Oromig - 1613. All rights reserved to the rightful owner.

Expulsion of the Moriscos from Vinaros by Pere Oromig – 1613. All rights reserved to the rightful owner.

It is not simple to describe what was like to be a Morisco in Spain. They were a part of the Moslem Umma but yet suffered from what today is regarded as identity conflict. Being their society centered on religion, the banning of Islam and its institutions determined the end of the community. They considered themselves Spaniards, when this name was scarcely used by Christians, who still preferred to be called after their regional identities (Catalonian, Aragonese, etc). At that time, in the XV century, there were no Spaniards because there was no Spain as yet; Spain as a unified state came into existence after the fall of Grenade, in 1492. Before this time, her territories were those of Hispania in Roman times, and were conformed by several kingdoms, some even with a language of their own. But one of those kingdoms, Grenade, was still under Moslem rule until most of the XV century, with Arabic being spoken there. Grenade remained as the only Moslem kingdom after Cordoba´s Caliphate split into smaller emirates.

At that time, the peoples living in most of the territory later to become Spain, though not a homogeneous territory, culturally speaking, shared their Christian faith. This fact turned religion into a powerful political instrument of unity for the Christian authorities, and as such was employed to re-conquest Spain from theMoors, as Moslems were called.

From the Middle Ages on to the beginning of the XIX century, Catholicism played a key role in the unification of these different communities that together conformed Spain. Faith became welded to the Spanish nationality, much in the same way as Islam did when trying to control Persia, Syria, Egypt and Iraq under a unified Moslem rule.

 The process by which Spain was unified at the end of the Middle Ages resembles this early conquest of the Middle East. Also, the taking over of the Americas by Spain was compared by early historians with their own previous process of regaining territories from the Moors, regarded as infidels. For the Spanish Crown, America was too “Tierra de infields”, land of the infidel.

The idea of making war to spread religion firstly known to Moslems as jihad, provided inspiration to the Pope in 1096, who resorted to the same concept to justify the Crusades. Later on, the same instrument was used by Spain to justify the conquest of America.

Difference, not too different, how much different

Expulsion de los-moriscos blanquenos el-13 de diciembre de1613 (Luis Molina). All rights reserved to the rightful owner.

Expulsion de los-moriscos blanquenos el-13 de diciembre de1613 (Luis Molina). All rights reserved to the rightful owner.

In the process of becoming a nation, the quest for homogeneity seams to appear at some time or other. Such need of uniformity starts losing strength as people and their authorities obtain a desirable degree of coherence and civil responsibility to some extent independent of external formalities. At this point of civil maturity, nations may stop considering differences a dangerous source of social unrest. But before diversity and freedom can be a part of any assertive society, homogeneity is pursued by means that have included deportation, persecution, censorship, imprisonment and death even in places where some of these terms were unknown, as it was among the American natives. The Jesuit annals from the XVII century, for example, relate in a direct prose how the indigenous nations of Carios, Charrúas and Guaranís- were constantly at war against each other before the Europeans arrived.

War has been a common answer to reduce diversity. In the wake of this, deportation is a step forward in concern, and a minor instrument compared to extermination.

It seems clear now that what stood in the way of conciliation between Moriscos and authorities was linked to the fact that the State required some degree of acceptance of its official religion after unification in 1492, then the possibility for Moslem subjects to be considered full right citizens had vanished. Still, from that time to the year when expulsion began, 1609, there was a long period during which both parts failed to find a way to reconcile their interests.

On the other hand, Moriscos were part of the economy. The sugar cane industry in Valencia, cattle rodeos, vegetables growing and the silk industry employed many Moriscos, and the barons for whom they worked claimed repeatedly that they would be out of business without Morisco labor.[2] The Crown waited a bit more to expatriate Moriscos. It has been said that the expulsion of Moriscos affected the Spanish economy to a great extent. This would have been true if the expulsion occurred in the Middle Ages, but by the time it happened, the Moslem community had lost most of its relevant business men who were already living in Tunisia, Algeria, Istanbul or Salonika.[3]

Many wealthy families too, as the Hermes of Grenada, renounced their Islamic faith in order to remain in Spain. This option was much favoured[4].


The conflict between Spaniards and Moriscos was not due to cultural or racial hate but due to belief[5]. As Harvey has pointed out[6], the necessity for a cultural frontier was felt as both groups lived in close contact, sharing the same land. Confronting each other was the way Christian and Moslem communities preserved their separate traditions. However, other considerations should also be taken into account.

One, a Moslem community  under Christian rule was prone to fail integrating due to the their conception of the world as divided in Dar al Harb ( House of War) and Dar al Islam (House of Islam). Because of this imperative, fatwa after fatwa Moriscos were unsuccessfully reminded by Muslim alphaqees[7] from Morocco of the sin they were living in by not leaving the House of War to return to Islamic territories.

The conflict between Moriscos and the Spanish establishment was not a watermark of the Morisco group only; they were the last of the several Moslem communities facing conflict by staying in territories were Islam had been banned. Regarding this point, when Arabs were dominating most of Spain, in the X century, they resorted to harsh repression to bring Christians under their rule. In Ibn Hawqal words “…they are Visigoths following the Christian religion. At times they rebel and some seek refuge in castles. It is difficult to subject them, because they are insolent and rebellious. When they break submission, it´s hard to submit them unless they are exterminated, which is a sad and long business.”[8]

As this was part of the reality, resorting to another instrument such as expulsion to put an end to a crisis can hardly be considered the worst option.

In much recent days, as the reader might remember, there occurred a massacre of Kurds in Iraq and an ethnic conflict in East Timor[9] took the life of 100,000 people.

Excluding or secluding people from a different ethnic background, language or religion has been sought as means to preserve the mainstream culture, but from all items conforming a culture, religion is the one that more stubbornly makes a point in keeping each group apart, by banning intermarriage or by other means.

Living between two cultures has never been an easy exercise, nor was it for either Christians or Moslems residing in Spain before its unification. As for the later, their faith was the source of discomfort awakening in them a conscience of conflict. The Mediterranean background that they shared with other inhabitants of Spain proved insufficient to turn them fully into Spaniards; religion stood in between, requiring loyalty to traditions unacceptable to the Spanish majority.

Moriscos, too, were considered different Moslems by their own brothers across the Mediterranean due to habits taken from their Christian neighbours. They drank wine occasionally[10], some skipped circumcision [11]and avoided polygamy often.

Was Morisco life then an endless chain of grey events?

Not at all. As successors of the early Hispanoarabs, Moriscos a ripe culture. Dance and chanting, playing the guitar and meeting at night parties called zambras were part of their lives; they were known for their colorful garments and jewels; also enjoyed a fine cuisine with a dash of Eastern and Persian flavour,[12] and some of their everyday dishes are still very much in use in Argentina[13], also in Mexico, Chile and Colombia.

Before their downfall, they had conformed a large community to members of different social and economic status living both in rural areas and urban centres. Among them there were physicians, chemists and professionals on other fields as well as poets, that is, an intellectual élite.[14]

There are no definite numbers telling how many Moriscos lived in Spain or how many exactly were sent to exile after 1609, but the best documented estimation rounds their number in 300,000[15]. The total population of Spain was then between 8 and 9 million.[16]

Moriscos revisited


Political implications delayed sound conclusions on their meaning within the history of Spain. Later on, the Morisco case has none the less undergone the study deserved for being a large, original and vanishing community. Scholars themselves did not escape reaching biased conclusions, but in the 70´s this changed and was the turn for a new generation of researchers to dig in their ways, aware of the Morisco relevance in Spanish stage. This task was well rewarded due to the abundant archival material of different provenance. Not only Inquisition acts are available, but also legal documents, aljamiado works and even accounts of commercial operations; all this came under the magnifying glass of sociologists, historians and philologists.

 Since 1970, a group a philologists under the leadership of Álvaro Galmés de Fuentes and others, shaped what is known today as Moriscology, a discipline that ascended fast to become a widely researched field. Conferences and congresses are held every year at different universities throughout Spain, and to a lesser extent, in other European and North African countries. Moriscos also deserved attention outside of Spain. In Tunisia, the Temimi Foundation is devoted to Morisco and Ottoman studies, and in America, research has been undertaken directed at evaluating their legacy in architecture, history and literature both in Europe[17] and in the New World[18].

We have collected evidence of Morisco traditions in Argentina[19] probably transmitted by descendants of already Christianized members of the exiled community. In fact, no other but an Islamic background stands behind the protracted rejection to consume pork in rural areas of Argentina[20], a fact that Álvaro Galmés de Fuentes summarized in a personal conversation by saying, “wherever Spain stamped its feet, you´ll find Morisco traces.” Among several other findings, the piece of most unmistakable origin is perhaps a roughly cut Fatima´s hand made of lead. [21]

The romantic view

Moriscos blessed by Juan de Ribera. All rights reserved to the rightful owner.

Moriscos blessed by Juan de Ribera. All rights reserved to the rightful owner.

Lately, a multiculturalist perspective introduced political correctness in social sciences. Aiming at avoiding Eurocentricity, the movement ended up discouraging, if not banning, to assess cultures. This stand was preceded by another inaccurate outlook on social studies, that of Romanticism, a perspective prone to overprice uniqueness and exotism, even if some of their scholars removed from ingenuity did an outstanding intellectual job[22]. Yet, both perspectives fail to understand that traditions are not always good nor functional, and that they can be seen not only as a form of cultural expression or a sign of identity but also –and often –as a limitation stopping minorities from integrating to other groups, quite independently from the benefits offered by the host society.

This fact deserves attention, not just to avoid victimizing but to praise beyond proportion any given group or period in history without weighing all the aspects involved in their fate.

Part of the golden legend of Spain is that of adorning her with the title of Country of the Three Religions.  But wasn´t that the same Spain that sent Jews to exile at the turn of the XV century, and later on the Moriscos in the 1609?

We are closer to reality if we understand that Spain then was less of an island of tolerance than a balanced political and economic construction, with well informed members on each side capable of weighting the benefits derived of in and off peace treatises, with Moslem and Christian princes collecting tax from each religious minority[23] in order to allow their members to worship, trade and live under separate laws. These religious agreements based on taxation became not only a way to supply the State coffers with fresh money, buy also a source of political stability for both Moslem and Christian Spanish kingdoms during the Middle Ages.

Due to this long lasting exercise in social exchange, Spaniards – of Moslem and Christian stock- became used to cultural models that allowed them to enjoy a high standard of living unknown to other European countries in those days.

Since the problem was not properly ethnic, a cultural mixture occurred, as reflected by architecture, by music, and in language and literature, in the moashahas. These poems were written in Arabic or Hebrew with closing rimed verses in Spanish Romance[24], a device also employed by the popular poet Ibn Quzman´s for hisharchas, and by many others before him from the IX century[25] onwards.

This rich legacy was passed down through the centuries not only to Morisco descendants but to the Spanish people in general, and they, together with the Moriscos who slipped quietly into America, gave the Spanish- American way of life a touch of its own.

In Argentina, the gaucho[26] known for his horsemanship and male-only culture owes some of these characteristics to Morisco ancestry.

Facts and words

One of the reasons why poets mixed Arabic and Romance rests in the fact that for some time after the Moslem conquest of Spain by Tariq in 711, the illustrated population as well as public and private documents were often bilingual. But this situation started to change as the Christian party regained control of their territories. By the time Ibn Quzman recited his harchas in the 1200´s, the Almoravid invasion from North Africa had provoked “a deep sense of frustration” [27] among the Moslem community. The age of cultural exchange met with censorship, and writers turned to Spanish more often than previously.

Mosques, once temples of worship but also centres to discuss public matters[28] became places of indoctrination against the Christian Spanish kingdoms. Religious differences increasingly drew believers apart.

Finally, after Grenada was conquered, Moslem Spaniards were required to abandon Islam or leave the country. From this time on, Moslems who had been baptized willingly or otherwise started being regarded as Moriscos (meaning in the way of Moors).

The days of mudéjares had ended. Mudéjares were Moslem allowed to live among Christians without renouncing their faith. That such a possibility was disliked by Moslems of Dar al Islam, is suggested by the word stem.Mudéjar comes from an Arabic root meaning to tame, thus tamed or domesticated[29]. Difficult times.

Becoming Christian was a hard requirement for the Moslem believer, a consequence of which was opening new issues of confrontation between them and the Christian authorities. Moslems resorted to taqiyya in an effort to keep their faith below a Christian surface, but this was regarded as cheating by the authorities who felt that mere external signs were not enough.

Also, the suspicion that Moriscos were not behaving as Spaniards became a fact when disclosing their relation with the Ottoman Empire hostile to Spain, or by seeking help from Moslem rulers abroad.[30] All this posed among Spaniards a sense of insecurity within their own country.

Conversions and corsairs


Conversion in the XVII century entailed in many cases not only a matter of conscience. The religious dispute was also seen in terms of opportunities for either side, and so it was for renegades of both religions who adopted the enemy´s faith when an economic reward was at stake.[31] In the name of spiritual or material causes, the Mediterranean Sea was opened to all sorts of people looking for adventure, vengeance and/or profit.[32]

The Spanish State hardened its policy against “the infidel”, resorting to methods once soft and later on hard (teaching Moriscos the Catholic doctrine in Arabic, later presenting them before the Inquisition´s religious tribunals and sending them to jail or the stake).

As Ibn Hawqal had pointed out, submitting enemies was a sad and hard business.

Since 1525, an edict by Charles V requested Moslems to renounce Islam. After this, they were granted several permissions to stay before conversion was fulfilled, also extending the period allowed to become Christians. The failure of such policies makes the authorities sure that Moriscos would never integrate the Spanish society.

At this point, at the end of the XVI century, the long standing question of whether to send them into exile was refloated several times; King Phillip III finally signed the edict of exile on December of 1609. The resolution became effective from 1610 onwards, and lasted until as late as 1640, depending on the region of Spain where Moriscos resided.

Was exile the only way out left for the XVII century Spanish Moriscos?

When asking this question we know it lacks historical weight. History deals with facts, not with would be´s. The issue at stake is why some people are forced to exile. Even today.

In the old days, as today, there seem to be ends that do not meet easily. If useful lessons are to be drawn form the Morisco case, attention should focus on conflict, on split loyalty, on old and shortsighted policies. On political and religious immaturity. And on issues asking for a blind obedience while disregarding life.

It would not be too far from truth considering that Moriscos lived a demanding life, culturally speaking.

As to their vanishing from the face of Earth, they have shared the fate of many nations, cultures and languages. It seems useless to speculate if they deserved a destiny different from that of Zoroastrians, Sumerian, Parthian, Mayan, Charrúas or Abipones, all of which had their own aims and reasons to survive but lacked at some time or other the proper answer to do it.

Life is change. So change is needed to adjust to new life conditions, which are, in an ultimate analysis, a way to guarantee survival.

[1] The Hijra from Mecca is an example of social crisis leading to exile.

[2] Reglá, Joan, La expulsión de los moriscos y sus consecuencias para la economía valenciana, Hispania, XXIII, N° 9, 1963, p.200-218.

[3] Epalza, Mikel de. Los moriscos antes y después de la expulsión, MAPFRE, Madrid, 2ª. Edición, 1994, p. 273-292

[4] Soria Mesa, E.: La asimilación de la elite morisca e la Granada cristiana. El ejemplo de la familia Hermes, Anales de Economía, IX, Madrid, 1949, p. 69.

[5] Braudel, F.: La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l´ époque de Philippe II, Colin, Paris, 1949, p. 593.

[6] Límites de los intercambios culturales, Actas I Jornadas de Cultura Islámica, Editorial Al-Fadila, Madrid, 1989, p. 89-94.

[7] Moslem community leaders of Spain and North Africa.

[8] Apud Mikel de Epalza, op.cit. p 43. Quotation from al Hawqal´s Kitāb súrat al-ard, Beirut, 1979, p.106.

[9] Around 100,000 East Timorese were killed out of a population of 800,000 between 1975 and 1999. Source: Case study: East Timor,www.gendercide.org/case_timor.html. Visited 2/23/06.

[10] Pèrés, Henri: El espelendor de Al-Andalus, Hiparión, Madrid, 1983, p.368-373.

[11] Vincent, Bernard: Les morisques et la circoncision, in religión, Identité et Sources Documentaires sur les Morisques Andalous, Institut Supérieur de Documentation N° 4, Tunis, 1984, p. 189-200.

[12] Bolens, Lucie: La cocina andaluza. Un arte de vivir. Siglos XI-XIII, Clío, Madrid, 1995.

[13] Sagarzazu, La conquista furtiva. Argentina y los hispanoárabes, Ovejero Martín Editores, Rosario, 2001, p. 267-297.

[14] Galmés de Fuentes, Á.: Los moriscos (desde su misma orilla),  Instituto Egipcio de Estudios Islámicos de Madrid, 1993, p 38-51.

[15] Lepeyre, H.: Geografía de España morisca, Alianza, Madrid, 1978, p. 252.

[16] Epalza, op. cit., p. 63.

[17] The Universidad of Oviedo (Spain) has a renowned School of Aljamiado Studies created by Álvaro Galmés de Fuentes, with an Arabic-Romanic library. A group of scholars has been researching on Moriscos since the 70´s at theUniversity of Alicante under the guidance of Mikel de Epalza. Well known too are the research and publications produced at the School of Arabic Studies, in Madrid´s  CSIC ( High Center for Scientific Research), to name but a few institutions researching on this field today.

[18] The University of Puerto Rico counts since over a decade with a number of young Moriscologists working under the direction of Luce López-Baralt.

[19] Sagarzazu, María Elvira: La Argentina Encubierta  .Informe de la otra identidad, Ovejero Martín Editores, Rosario (Argentina), 2000, 320 pages.

[20] Sagarzazu,  El cerdo en la dieta criolla argentina. Antecedentes islámicos, Actas XI Congreso de Moriscología, Fundación Temimi, Tunisia, 2005.

[21] Sagarzazu, La Conquista Furtiva, op.cit. p. 11( photo)

[22] As Sir Richard Burton and his Orientalist colleagues of London in the XIX century.

[23] Farda was the tax paid by Moslems under Christian rule, while Christians under Moslem rule paid a tribute calleddimma.

[24] Galmés de Fuentes, Álvaro: Romania Arabica I (Estudios de literatura comparada árabe y romance), Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid, 1999. Pgs. 81-104.

[25] There is no written testimony of moashahas before the IX century but sound evidence of their existence before that time. Apud Emilio García Gómez: El mejor Ben Quzmán en 40 zéjeles, Alianza Tres, Barcelona 1981. Pgs. 34-47.

[26] From the Valencian Arabic; it was the name given to men in charge of transporting cattle from place to place, an occupation much held by Moriscos. Gauchos in Argentina regard pork as a bad meat, and do not raise pigs.

[27] Ibidem, p. 33.

[28] Hourani, Albert: Historia de los árabes, Vergara, Buenos Aires, 1992. Pg.47.

[29] Harvey, L. Patrick: Los límites de los intercambios culturales, Actas I Jornadas de Cultura Islámica, Toledo, 1987. Pg. 13.

[30] Hess,Andrew. C.: The Forgotten Frontier, Chicago, 1978, p. 137-1 38.

[31] Bennassar, Bartholome y Lucy: Los cristianos de Alá. La fascinante aventura de los renegados, Nerea, Madrid, 1989.

[32] Bennassar, ut supra, p. 289.

Mrs Indira Ghandi, Prime Minister Of India, New Delhi, May 1981

The true iron lady of politics

Mrs Indira Ghandi, Prime Minister Of India, New Delhi, May 1981

Mrs Indira Ghandi, Prime Minister Of India, New Delhi, May 1981

Indira Sounds Nuclear on Diego Garcia

From Emirates News Newspaper (Abu Dhabi, UAE), Monday, May 11, 1981 (Front Page)

By Adel Bishtawi in New Delhi

Abu Dhabi, May 10 (WAM): “The Americans have decided to store nuclear arms in the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia at a time when the international situation is drifting towards confrontation,” according to Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India.

Mrs. Gandhi described her country’s relations with the Gulf countries as “very good” and these have been cemented by the recent exchanges of visits. “Our relations are historical, cultural and commercial from the ancient days,” she said, “and the relations have been updated to be more relevant to the needs of today.”

“What about the UAE,” she was asked. “Especially with the UAE,” she replied.

Mrs. Gandhi told the Emirates News Agency (WAM) in an exclusive interview that the increased foreign presence in the Indian Ocean, the actual war going on in Asia and the thriving of the armament industries are all signs of the international situation drifting, willingly or unwillingly, towards a confrontation.

“Some years ago there was a genuine effort to move towards a greater understanding even though countries have different systems and points of view, but there were-efforts to find areas of agreement and now it is obvious we are going in the reverse direction,” the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy added.

Mrs. Gandhi expressed her deep concern over the militarisation of the Indian Ocean and the rivalry of the superpowers in the Gulf. Voicing India’s demand for maintaining the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace, she added: “There is no way you can get away from the necessity of having a zone of peace in the Indian Ocean, and although it is not in our hands to keep the Ocean as such, all the littoral states have strong feelings on this issue.”

In 1971, Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, raised the issue of proclaiming the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace at the United Nations, but since then the tension has been mounting while increased super power build up of naval forces is causing a great concern for the 36 countries in the region.

Mrs. Gandhi agreed that it would be impossible to go to the other extreme of achieving total neutrality of the Indian Ocean, but at least an effort should be made towards this end. “What is happening now,” Mrs. Gandhi said, “is that one power increases its presence and the others feel they have to go up one more step and this is where the danger lies.”

Mrs. Gandhi expressed India’s deep interest in maintaining the stability of the Gulf and dismissed the idea that the British withdrawal from the Gulf in the early seventies has created a security gap there. “The western powers look at everything from their point of view,” she said, “but if they did not have any presence there I do not think anybody else would threaten security.”

The Prime Minister agreed entirely that the Gulf countries are right in their efforts to work together to preserve the stability and security of the region and that these two issues are best handled by the countries concerned and not by any outside power.

“I entirely agree,” she said, “not just about the Gulf but also in other areas, and that is why we are anxious that our subcontinent should have good relations with other countries because that would be the best security for all of us,” the Prime Minister added.

Mrs. Gandhi started on May 5 a tour to Switzerland, Kuwait and the United
Arab Emirates where the first Gulf summit meeting will convene on May 25 following the agreement among six Gulf nations to form the Gulf Cooperation Council.

” We can understand the desire of the six Gulf countries to work together and also to strengthen themselves for any eventuality,” Mrs. Gandhi said. “We only hope that nobody will think that this combination is against anybody because that is what invites a reaction.”

Asked about the nature of the effort which should be taken to ensure the neutrality of the Indian Ocean, Mrs. Gandhi said that all the countries concerned should try to persuade the super powers that nobody should take attitudes which aggravate the situation any further.

Mrs. Gandhi denied that the Afghan crisis was the cause behind the escalation of tension in the area. “I would not say that is correct because the presence of super power forces in the Indian Ocean, and the decision to turn the island of Diego Garcia into a nuclear base were taken before the Afghan crisis,” she said.

The 15-mile-long and one-mile wide island of Diego Garcia was leased from Britain by the United States to serve as a rear base for a marine brigade for amphibious landings.

In early April (1981) British Prime Minister Mrs. Margaret Thatcher was asked whether her government would approve an American request to install or store nuclear arms at the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Any such thing would be a matter for consultation between the United States and ourselves and they do not take such steps without consulting us,” she added.

Mrs. Gandhi reaffirmed India’s concern about the impasse of the Middle East situation and reiterated support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the aspirations of the Palestinians.

“We have always supported the Arab cause and in the earlier years this was held against us by some parts of’ the world. We have always supported the Palestinian cause and recognised the PLO and H.E. Mr. Yasser Arafat had a very successful when our support was visit to India re-emphasised,” Mrs. Gandhi said.

Asked about the moves which should be taken to bring the Middle East closer to peace she said: “This is a very difficult question fundamentally in the hands of the Arab countries, but all I know is that the solution has to be one which the Arabs have to agree upon and support and this cannot be something which does not meet the requiremts of the basic question and by that I mean the Palestinian question.”

But in view of India’s strong support for the PLO, why does India keep an Israeli Consulate in Bombay, the Prime Minister was asked. “We do not keep an Israeli Consulate,” she said. “We do not have any diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Consulate was allowed to stay because we have a number of Jews here who were travelling back and forth and the Consulate was allowed because it is intended primarily to keep them.”

India imports more than hall- of its petroleum requirements estimated at 30 million tons per annum. Out of the 340, B/D India imports, about 240, came from both Iraq and Iran prior to the war that began in September. A tour of’ the Gulf’ region by senior Indian officials earlier this year resulted in a series of contracts with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE (30, B/D) to provide the oil India lost because of war.

Mrs. Gandhi admitted that there are some difficulties regarding the illegal immigrants of Indian origin who are in the Gulf’ countries, but she thought those difficulties are not insurmountable and can be sorted out.

There are an estimated 500, 000 Indians working in the Gulf countries particularly in the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. Indians are concentrated in the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman each remitting an estimated 600 UAE Dirhams a month, or US $ 160.
“What did your election mean for the women of India?” she was asked.

“We do want our women to play an important role internationally, and our great leader, Mahatma Gandhi showed this very clearly because he was in the first leader to drive the average woman out to take part in the political movement and this was the major breakthrough for the women of India, she said.

But would the Prime Minister agree with the description of’ a British magazine that she is an iron lady?
“No,” she replied.

“How do you describe yourself then?”

“I am just a woman.”

The last newspaper interviews of Hafizulla Amin

The last interview of the first victim of the invasion that brought Russia down

The last newspaper interviews of Hafizulla Amin

The last newspaper interviews of Hafizulla Amin


The last two known photographs taken of Afghan President Hafizulla Amin before his assassination on 27 December 1980. The photo above was taken by the photographer of the presidential palace. Below a photo which I had taken by myself. (Better camera but worse photographer)



Here is how The Sunday Times (London) opened a major coverage of Afghanistan on January 6, 1980:

On Boxing Day while the skies over Kabul shook with the roar of Russian military transport planes, President Hafizulla Amin gave a relaxed interview to an Arab journalist. “The Soviets,” he said, “supply my country with economic and military aid, but at the same time they respect our independence and our sovereignty and they do not interfere in our domestic affairs.”

Within hours of that statement, recorded Adel Bishtawi for the paper Al Sharq Al Awsat, published in London and Mecca (sic), Moscow’s, interference had proved, in fact, to be total. But Amin himself was not there to-see. He was, according to reports, tried by Revolutionary Court, found guilty of treason, and summarily executed the next day. His wife, his seven children, his nephew and countless number of his aides and supporters were apparently died in his ally’s Christmas power play.”

His hard-line Marxist sup planter, Babrak Karmal, announced, on radio and TV (but not, cautiously, in person) that he welcomed Soviet help in countering “external subversion” and an estimated 50,000 men, with at least 1,500 tanks and armoured vehicles, and an armada of Migs and helicopter gun ships, started to pour across the Oxus river frontiers arid into Afghan air space.

The tone of Amin’s interview (he also spoke approvingly of the USSR’s willingness to accept his veto on military bases) suggests that, despite the scepticism of President and Mrs Thatcher, the Red Army may indeed have entered Afghanistan -initially- at his own request. He needed all the help he could muster, with more than 60 per cent of his country in the hands of various religious and political insurgents, and he could genuinely believe that the avalanche of hardware was arriving to support his beleaguered and tottering regime.

But it is clear from the eyewitness account of a highly placed Afghan now in New Delhi, that Amin was comprehensively deceived as the final stages of the coup began.

As dusk fell on December 27 the Russians made their final moves. Armoured personnel carriers and tanks rolled down the main roads to Kabul to the Soviet Embassy, now clearly invasion HQ. There was limited resistance to the invasion as attacks and counter attacks by the Afghan army made little impression on the sophisticated Russian armour.


More Coverage:

From the Arab News Newspaper, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
31 December 1980

By Adel Bishtawi

Arab News Correspondent

KABUL, Dec. 31 – Former President of Afghanistan Hafizulla Amin said he would firmly refuse to grant the Soviet Union any bases the country. Amin said that for their part, the Soviets have never asked for these, real I zing the Afghan negative feelings on the matter.

Amin made the statement in a last interview with Arab News before his death in the recent Soviet-inspired coup, which brought to power Babrak Karmal. “Afghanistan was a neutral country and the Soviets knew and respected this fact,” Amin said.

On Afghanistan’s friendship with the’ Soviet Union, Amin said the Soviet Union had offered all the help in its power to the revolutionary regime in Afghanistan and had asked for nothing in return. He emphasized the Soviets’ refusal to interfere in the country-s internal affairs.

Amin said that his government faced internal and external difficulties. -Many foreign countries were aiding the rebellion against the central authority; a vast propaganda campaign was being waged against the Afghan attempt to develop a socialist system which enables the country to rid itself of the tribalism and backwardness of the past,” he stated.

He claimed that his forces had made important gains against the rebels in the last two months, and denied that his enemies hold -about sixty per cent of the country.

He expressed his willingness to meet with Pakistani leaders to settle the question of Afghan refugees in that country.

Amin insisted that he respects the Islamic faith and denied that mosques have been forced to close down and religious leaders arrested. “The Afghans are proud of their Islamic religion, and Muslims enjoy complete religious freedom,” he added.

Amin expressed regret at the attitude of the Arab world toward the Afghan regime. He said his government ought to do more toward conveying to the Arab world the true nature of the problem in Afghanistan. “But the government was hampered by its lack of funds for any such concerted information drive.


From the Arab News Newspaper, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Thursday, Friday, January 3-4, 1980

THE sickle and the scimitar

By ADEL Bishtawi recently in Kabul

KABUL – Just before midnight, a powerful searchlight beams from a station on top of the highest hill to scan the curfew streets and hills surrounding Kabul in search of counter- revolutionaries, lackeys of imperialism, or guerrillas.

Occasionally, the searchlight shines on the Arg (the Citadel), or the People’s House, as it has come to be known since the bloody Marxist Revolution that overthrew Mohammed Daoud and the ruling family in April 1978. The guards there know somebody is watching over those who watch.

Over the houses of a million sleeping Kabulis, the beam is magnified by the clouds of dust and wood and kebab smoke that descend by late evening with the cold mist. At 7, feet, breathing is difficult; in the town centre, it is almost suffocating. The cloudy mixture stagnates, and the wind fails to clear it.

The people of Kabul have forgotten a similar searchlight in 1504 when a wandering Khan settled in Kabul. The story goes that Zuhair Eddin Mohammed, expelled from his kingdom near Samarkand by the army, ordered his followers to light huge fires on the hills before descending to occupy the city.

The king called himself Babur or the tiger, and ruled over the city for a long time before deciding to lead his army south to establish the Mughal Empire. It was true then, as now, that he who ruled Kabul ruled Afghanistan. Babur, of course, was a descendant of Tamerlane and of Genghis Khan.

This country is the “roundabout” of civilization. Its inhabitants have watched the armies of the greatest conquerors of the world march or flee toward the Khyber Pass: Alexander (the great), the Arabs, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Babur, the Persians and the British. But although their country has been conquered many times, the Afghans have never been conquered. (Its inhabitants have watched the armies of the greatest conquerors of the world march or flee to the Khyber Pass. Afghanistan has never been conquered.)

The name Afghanistan, land of Afghans, dates to 1747 when Durrat Al Durrar, pearl of pearls, escaped from the court of the Persian tyrant, Nadir Shah, and came to settle in the country. As Ahmad Shah Durrani, he paved the way for an independent state. He is best known as a possessor of what is now the brightest jewel in the British Crown, the Koh-i-noor. When fleeing Nadir’s camp, he’ took the jewel with him.

There are no statues of Babur or Durrani. The founder of the Mughal Empire is buried in the simplest of graves, but opposite the People’s House a strange statue has been erected; a Soviet tank, a symbol of the role played by the army in putting an end to the government of President Mohammed Daoud.

There are many other signs that remind the people of Kabul of the change. Red flags are everywhere, army and police patrols roam the streets after 11 p.m. when the curfew begins and tanks are stationed in and around the People’s House to draw attention to the new power: the red torch over Afghanistan and its multitude of races. They accepted Islam in the early 8th century but one group, the mountain men now known as Nuristanis, did not embrace the faith until 1896.

The 15 million Afghans are a mixture. The Pathans, also known as Pakhtunes or Pakhtans, constitute the largest single group in the country. They are very proud and regard themselves as the only true Afghans. They occupy the mountainous areas in the southeast, but they seem to rule Kabul itself.

Other groups are the Hazara, who inhabit central Afghanistan. They are short and slant-eyed and are supposed to be of Mongol descent. There are Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkomans. The main languages in Afghanistan are Pashto and a form of Persian.

Afghanistan is the largest tribal concentration in the world, and borders are seldom taken seriously. The tribesmen are more loyal to their chiefs than to any government.

The revolution in 1978 was met with opposition from large sections of these tribes. Fighting between tribesmen and government forces has been raging for the last 19 months. Each of the last three presidents of Afghanistan has promised, without success, to reach a peaceful solution.

The result of the fighting is that government forces are more than ever tied to the major cities and roads while the rebels control the countryside, or an estimated 60 per cent of Afghanistan. The continuation of the fighting has also led to violent changes of power.

Looking from a window in the Kabul Hotel at the People’s House, or the Arg, one almost smells the abattoir of Afghan politics. On April 27, 1978 more than 30 of President Mohammed Daoud’s family were killed. On Sept. 14, 1979 Hafizullah Amin launched an attack on the People’s House; President Nur Mohammed Taraki and his wife were killed. On Dec. 27, President Amin, his wife seven children, a brother, and a nephew were executed after yet another coup.

New faces come from the north. They bring vast quantities of Russian military hardware that is in great demand at present.

So is red paint.

Afghan bank notes were in such short supply that the government took desperate action to remedy the situation. After Daoud removed King Mohammed Zahir Shah in 1973, the newly proclaimed republic withheld the circulation of the 1,000 Afghan banknote carrying the picture of the king. Because of the shortage, the Marxist government recently released a large number of the withheld currency originally destined for destruction.

It is believed that Europeans living in Kabul before the revolution numbered several thousand. The government declared a clampdown on young people who used to come in search of cheap living and cheaper hashish. Hashish was so popular that private gardens were choked with cannabis. The haven of the young in Kabul, Chickens Street, is empty now. So are the hotels. Instead, scores of Russians can be seen at breakfast tables in hotels along with Vietnamese, Bulgarians and Yugoslavs.

The Europeans are leaving gradually and their number at present does not exceed 400 or 500. One European told me at a small party, – I am leaving Sunday but I shall not miss this country or its people.”

This might be the impression of Europeans living in the neighbourhood of Ali Akbar Khan (Kabul’s Mayfair). Most people enjoyed their time in Kabul before the revolution. A young foreigner commented sadly, “We really had a good time. At parties, the number of girls always exceeded that of men.”

But Kabul is a dry city. There is no nightlife and gatherings have to end around 10 p.m. because of t he curfew. For a Westerner Kabul has very little to offer.

There are only about 50 Arabs in Kabul. The majority of these are staff at the four embassies: the Saudi Arabian, Libyan, Egyptian and the Iraqi along with a recently opened office of the PLO. Iraq has the largest embassy staff (about 20) and a diplomat fluent in Persian leads the mission.

In addition, there are a very few Arab students, teachers from Saudi Arabia and until recently in the month of Ramadan, a small number of Egyptian Koran reciters. When relations between Cairo and Kabul were severed because of the treaty with Israel, the ambassador was recalled and so were the reciters.

The recitation of Marxist principles is now taking the place of the Koran. Bookshops are filled with Marxist and Soviet literature. Pamphlets painted in stark red are for sale on the pavements along with other books in Pashto and Persian. The rusty colour of Kabul is turning redder every day and with the summer and the scorching sun, all will soon turn rusty again.

Most of the Marxist literature dates to before World War. With the new literature, there is a new journalism for Afghanistan. Stock communist phrases are in the five dailies published in Kabul. One of the newspapers ran an editorial saying: “Our people are engaged in the building of their homeland with great joy and jubilation. Under the previous despotic regimes a minority group of spongers and agents of colonialism and imperialism used to play with the destinies of the toiling people.”

A grocer near the main square was astonished when he discovered I was an Arab. “From which Arab kingdom do you come?” he asked.

I found it difficult to explain to him that I was born in an occupied Arab territory – Palestine- so I said I came from Syria. ” Ah,” he said smiling, “the Kingdom of Syria, and does your king still live in the mosque?”

From the Arab News Newspaper, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Feature page (7)
Sunday, January 6, 1980

Land of the New- Model Revolution

By ADEL Bishtawi recently in Kabul

Kabul airport’s two large signs painted in stark red welcome the visitor to the “Land of the New-Model Revolution” in both English and Russian, but since the signs were hung 18 months ago Afghanistan has witnessed three bloody coups with each new leader proclaiming his predecessor a fascist and a murderer.

The most recent of these coups (December 27) involved about 15, Soviet troops airlifted three days before attacking the People’s House, the broadcasting station and other vital points in the capital. President Hafizullah Amin was captured and later executed along with several members of his family.

The new self-proclaimed president, Babrak Karmal, was brought into the country, just before the coup. He is known as head of Parcham (Flag) Party, which was abolished during the rule of the two former Presidents, Noor Mohammed Taraki and Amin.

There are no reports of the number of people killed during the recent coup but it is believed to be substantial since Amin kept very close links with the army officers. He was in charge of recruiting the in military in the Central Committee of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan which, along-side Parcham, staged the successful coup against former President Mohammed Daoud in April 1978.

That coup was a bloodbath, unlike the one staged by Daoud against the last Afghan king, Zahir Shah, in 1973. An estimated 3, people were killed In the Marxist coup of 1978 including 32 of Daoud’s family. Purges of the followers of the old regime continued and spread later to the members of Parcham. Babrak himself was in, late 1978, sent out of the Country’ as ambassador to Czechoslovakia before going underground when Amin toppled Taraki last September, just three days after Taraki’s return from a triumphant visit to Moscow on his way back from Havana where he attended the non-aligned conference.

Amin was the Prime Minister under Taraki, but on September 14 a shoot-out erupted at the People’s House, once known as the Royal Palace. And Taraki was killed.

One of the stories told about the incident claims that Taraki invited Amin to the People’s House to settle a dispute concerning the sacking by Amin of three army officers from the Cabinet loyal to the President. When Amin arrived with a few bodyguards, they were met with bullets.

Amin left the People’s House and returned the same night with a force of loyal followers and in the battle that followed Taraki was killed, or captured and executed later, while the three officers and dissidents from the ruling party took refugee in the Soviet Embassy and were shipped later to one of the Eastern Europe countries thought to be Bulgaria or Czechoslovakia. The same three officers flew back to Kabul after the last coup and have been appointed ministers in Karmal’s cabinet.

According to this story the former Soviet Ambassador, Alexander Busanov played a questionable role in the incident by personally asking Amin to come to the People’s House for talks with Taraki. He was recalled to Moscow and replaced by the new Ambassador, Tabev Fikrat Ahmadyanovich.

The shoot-out itself was ironic in many ways, because Amin was the only senior party member outside prison at a time when other leaders were about to be executed by President Daoud, and it was his swift action in ordering factions of the army against Daoud that saved the other part), leaders including Taraki and Karmal.

There are several other interpretations of what happened on the night of September 14 and party and government officials avoid answering questions on this point. Amin, himself, said that he had met Taraki a day before but not on the same day and that shots were fired at him at Taraki’s residence but killed instead Major Sayed Daoud Taron, acting president of the office of the Revolutionary Council, and one of those involved in staging the coup.

Another story told by sources close to both Western and Eastern circles in Kabul maintains that Taraki met alone with top Soviet leaders when he stopped over in Moscow. These sources believe that Amin’s future was discussed at this meeting, and both sides agreed that he should be eliminated.

It is not clear at this stage how both sides agreed to carry out the plan, but the sources
Indicated that Major Taron, and aide to Taraki, who kept Amin informed of what went on at the Presidential Palace, sent word o Amin of the forthcoming plan, and Amin stormed the Palace with his followers. Taraki was either killed or executed soon afterwards. During the shooting, Taron was killed by Taraki’s men when his role was uncovered.

Amin dismissed the recalling of the Soviet ambassador, Busanov, as a normal procedure since Busanov had been in Kabul for seven ears, but sources confirmed the important ole played by Busanov during the last few days of Taraki. One or two days after the hoot-out, several tanks were seen surrounding the Soviet Embassy, probably to thwart Amin’s demand to hand over the three military officers and some dissident Party members who had taken refuge there.

The sources point out that Amin was constant threat to Taraki. He had close links with the army and was involved in the recruiting of officers to the Party before the Revolution. His popular base was extremely limited. Taraki, on the other hand, had a relatively wider base at the party level, and from a fairly powerful tribe in the country.

After Taraki’s death, the Soviets had no alternative but to cooperate with Amin, and the latter, realizing that no single person can rule for long, tried to widen the influence of the party as a whole to avoid falling in the trap of personality cult with which Taraki had been accused.

Amin showed more caution than his predecessor in dealing with several issues including Islam. “We view Islam with reverence,” he told a visiting Journalist, “But religion should not be used for political designs”.

Still Amin conducted his affairs in a different way. When starting a speech he used the phrase, “In the name of Allah, the beneficent the merciful”. He toned down his ideas of social reforms to appease the Mullahs.

At the Government level, Amin tried to build the party, arranging courses for members, distributing membership cards to an estimated 50, people.

Afghans were not encouraged to think and the loudspeakers in the main square of Kabul broadcast lectures, the events of the party and Government, songs in Pashto, Farsi and Urdu, and occasionally parts of Beethoven’s Seventh. –

Amin lashed at the imperialists, Zionists and counter-revolutionaries exploiting illiterate Afghans.

“‘The enemies of our revolution never tell our people that our regime is a proletarian one believing in scientific socialism. They tell them that anyone reciting the Koran would get his tongue chopped off, or those who worship Gold will be executed, and that mosques are being demolished,” he said. Just before his death. Still, mosques in Kabul have not been demolished, nor have worshippers barred from praying, but the proposed constitution promises otherwise. Local newspapers carry party slogans. A favoured one says, “The (proposed) constitution of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan lays the foundation for a full-fledged dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Considering the high rate of illiteracy in Afghanistan, as well as the entrenched beliefs of the population, the task of Amin was colossal.

Karmal’s task is almost impossible.

To build the necessary support, Amin appealed to his countrymen. Popular committees were hurriedly formed, the latest of which were the Afghan youth Organization, and the National Organization for the Defence of the Revolution. Teachers, students, peasants and Government employees were recruited to form unions.

When I met Amin at his residence he did not try to play down the significance of the dangers he faced both internally and externally. Some of the internal difficulties stemmed from the very nature of the tribal system in Afghanistan where tribesmen have more loyalty to their chief than to any government in Kabul, let alone a Communist government -considered to be anti-Islam.

The change brought about military activities along the borders with Iran and Pakistan, and Amin himself forced to beef up his army both politically and militarily in the shortest period possible. The Soviets played a decisive role in the Amin government and in organizing his removal and execution.

Mahathir supports total non-interference by the superpowers in the Gulf .

Controversial to his last day in office and beyond

Mahathir supports total non-interference by the superpowers in the Gulf .

Mahathir supports total non-interference by the superpowers in the Gulf .

Malaysia backs Palestine State, Says Mahathir
From Gulf News (Dubai, UAE), Tuesday March 2, 1982

By A. Bishtawi

ABU DHABI (WAM) Mahathir bin Mohammed, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, said here yesterday that his country would like to see the speedy creation of the Palestinian state and the return of Jerusalem and the other holy places to their rightful guardians.

He said the political line followed by Malaysia was the one acceptable to the majority of countries in the Middle East.

“We are very sympathetic to the Palestinians and we think there should he a formula acceptable to the countries of the Middle East which serves as a basis for discussions and possibly we could reach minimal areas of agreement on the Palestinian issue,” he said. Malaysia was among the first countries to accord the full diplomatic status to the PLO.

Mahathir arrived here yesterday on a three-day state visit as part of his tour of a number of states in the region. He will hold talks with UAE officials on the trade and economic cooperation between the two countries.

The Malaysian leader, who is visiting the UAE for the first time, is accompanied by Foreign Minister Mohammed Ghazali Shafie and senior officials from the Ministries of Economy and International Trade, Planning and Industry and Petroleum.

“Malaysia, which is trying to carry the Middle East question to the other members of the South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) may have differences of view on the facts of the issue, but that is not very important. What is important is our ability to explain, the case. We understand your views and can explain them but whether we get the support or not is another thing,” Mahathir said in an interview with WAM.

Dr Mahathir, 57, is currently touring four of the Arab Gulf countries to follow up other tours made earlier by senior Malaysian officials to pave the way for closer cooperation between his country and the Gulf states.

“Politically, we can cooperate closely on many international issues either bilaterally or within multinational organisations,” he said in the interview. He added that there would be a closer cooperation between (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council that was set up in Abu Dhabi last May by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain.

“Our experience in ASEAN should be a very good guide for the GCC. We think we have come through a great deal of trials and mistakes which we corrected and showed how small countries in particular can cooperate to lessen the tension and possible aggression by others,” he said.

Mahathir, who assumed his position in July (1981), said he is in support of total non-interference by the superpowers in the Gulf area. “This is our view and we have created that objective in our region by declaring it a zone of freedom and neutrality, and I am sure the people of the Gulf would also like that,” he said

The Prime Minister stressed his country’s advocacy of solidarity and unity among Islamic states and said Malaysia feels close to the Gulf States and thinks there is much that can be done to improve the lot of Muslims around the world.

One of the important issues he wants to raise with the leaders of the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia is improving trade relations. Asked about the incentives available, the Prime Minister said his country provides many special incentives although they are not directed at any particular nation and he expressed the feeling that although other countries have made use of the favourable conditions in Malaysia “the Gulf states have not taken advantage of our facilities.”

“In some fields,” he said, “Malaysia has already the needed expertise where foreign participation is not required, but in other fields of market potentials it is worthwhile for the Gulf States.”

“Financial and technical cooperation is welcomed. We are not thinking of high technology but rather of a two-way arrangement in which finance is offered and technology provided by third partners from the developed countries, he explained.
He noted that the economic activity in the Gulf seems to exceed any similar activity in other regions, and although ASEAN countries are the fastest growing states in the world, I do not think they compare well with the Gulf,” he said in his suite at the Abu Dhabi Hilton.

Malaysia is one of the fastest growing countries in the world with an average annual growth of 8% but the world recession has dealt the economy a blow since it is dependent on the export of several raw materials including tin, rubber, palm oil, timber and petroleum.

While prices of other commodities were failing, the prices of tin rose nearly 30 per cent since last July (1981) due mainly to hoarding until the price declined sharply on the London metal exchange last Friday breaching the floor level of the international tin agreement.

Press reports have indicated that Malaysia has already begun informal discussions with the aim of setting up tin group similar to the OPEC, but Mahathir denied the report.

“Thee is no desire on the part of Malaysia to create any kind of monopoly, but there is a very strong desire to break the kind of monopoly that is being practised now,” he said.

“Tin is being sold in the London metal exchange which makes and breaks rules as it please. In most of the instances it is not to our benefit and we would have to find a solution to this,” he said.

Kreisky: "The Myth of the chosen people is one of the greatest lies in life."

He tried but never believed it would ever work in the Middle East

Kreisky: "The Myth of the chosen people is one of the greatest lies in life."

Kreisky: “The Myth of the chosen people is one of the greatest lies in life.”

Emirates News Newspaper, December 10, 1981

By Adel Bishtawi

ABU DHABI (WAM) Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky said the Camp David accord was “useless” as far as the Palestinian problem is concerned adding that the eight-point Middle East peace plan proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Fahd provides a better base to reach a settlement.

Speaking at a press conference before his departure at the end of a three-day State visit to the UAE, the Chancellor said the plan Is a better base for substantial negotiations of the Middle East questions than the Camp David agreements,” because the agreements do not offer the Palestinians anything despite the fact the P Palestinian problem is a key issue In the Middle East.”

Fahd’s plan, he said, is a summary of all the decisions taken by the United Nations on the issue of the Middle East such as 242 and others, and it will be a good ground for any further negotiations aimed at solving the problem.

The Chancellor denied any involvement by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) In the Vienna August incidents. “There is no doubt the PLO has nothing to do with those activities not because Arafat, (Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the PLO) said so, but because we have found that out.”

Austrian public opinion, the Chancellor added, does not differentiate between the different Palestinian groups and the PLO, they are all Palestinians, “but the PLO has nothing to do with terrorist activities In Austria, on the contrary, they are absolutely opposed to all such activities.”

Kreisky who earlier met Arafat for an hour long discussion of the Middle East and Austria PLO relations, said he asked the PLO Chairman to send a high-ranking official to Vienna to be the new representative of the PLO there.

“I asked Arafat to send a man of high prestige because he will be representing the movement (PLO) and how the man is the movement because when he will come soon to Vienna, our journalists will be hounding him like “terrorists” the Chancellor said jokingly.

Chancellor Kreisky began last Saturday a Gulf tour that took him to Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE, and he started today an official visit to Qatar to discuss the Middle East, bilateral and important international questions.

He expressed satisfaction at the results of his discussion that he described as “very frank and positive” but as far as the talks with UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan are concerned “I have been deeply impressed by his frankness, broad-minded ness and wisdom.”

“The talks we had yesterday,” the Chancellor pointed out, “were an exciting experience and what he said about Issues outside the area, made me wish for such men to be head of bigger countries.”

The 70-year-old statesman said Austrian relations with the Gulf countries are “good” but not intense enough. “We could do much more in all fields and find new forms of cooperation. “I am a partisan of close economic, political and cultural cooperation between Austria and the Arab world.”

Asked to comment on the statements attributed to French External Relations Minister Claude Cheysson in which he called on Europe to abandon thoughts of a peace-making role in the Middle East, the Chancellor recommended to wait and see what the Minister has to say when he returns to France.

But the Chancellor explained that if Cheysson did really say what the press reports attributed to him then “I do not believe that he is entitled to say that.”

From Bayan Newspaper, (Dubai, UAE) December 8, 1981:

Kreisky is considered one of most knowledgeable European leader, s special standing he attributed to his early involvement in foreign affairs. “At an early stage,” he said, “it became clear to me the Middle East Problem would be one of the most important problems of the World.”

Although recent developments have not been encouraging, Kreisky said he personally think it can be solved. “The Saudi peace initiative, in my opinion, is proof but a plan is something and its implementation is something else.”

On the PLO Kreisky said one cannot judge a movement with the same yardstick for judging governments and their actions, but he added, “There are some in the PLO or among the Palestinians who behave in such a way that it cannot induce silence and I have said so. But this does not mean the Palestinian problem is not a core problem in the Middle East or that the PLO does not represent the Palestinian people and we have, therefore, to continue to deal with it.”

Kreisky described Meacham Begin as “a primitive, short sighted person”. The Myth of the chosen people,” he said, “is one of the greatest lies in life.”

Margaret Thatcher: Everyone recognises that there will be no solution to the Arab-Israeli problem without the U.S.

Who ever thought that Tony Blair will be the true successor of Thatcherism

Margaret Thatcher: Everyone recognises that there will be no solution to the Arab-Israeli problem without the U.S.

Margaret Thatcher: Everyone recognises that there will be no solution to the Arab-Israeli problem without the U.S.


From Emirates News Newspaper (Abu Dhabi, UAE), Thursday, April 9, 1981
And Gulf News Newspaper (Dubai, UAE), Thursday, April 9, 1981

London, April 8 (WAM): The defence of the Gulf is the responsibility of the Gulf states which are taking the steps to ensure peace and security in the Gulf both separately and jointly,” British Prime Minister Mrs. Margaret Thatcher said.

Mrs. Thatcher told six Arab journalists that she believes the Gulf Is making certain that it becomes more secure by virtue of the tremendous efforts that each and every one of the countries is making not only separately but also jointly.

Mrs Thatcher will start on April 19 a tour of the Gulf States of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Sultanate of Oman and Qatar before returning home on the April 26. Visits to Kuwait and Bahrain will be made next September.

In a wide-ranging press meeting at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s office and residence, Mrs Thatcher said that the, Rapid Deployment Force is not specifically with reference to the Gulf in any way, “one does not know where there might be trouble in the world,” she said.

“If the United States were to form a Rapid Deployment Force, then I think that we would wish to make a modest contribution which will be available for those people who wished to call upon it,” she told the journalists.

Questioned further on this controversial issue, Mrs Thatcher said that there is no question of a Rapid Deployment Force being stationed In the Gulf. “There never was. There would be no question of sending it If people did not wish it to go,” she said adding -that as there is no Rapid Deployment Force at present, there is nowhere to go. “If you have not got one, it could not go whatever the circumstances-or whatever the calls.”

The Prime Minister said that the Gulf is an extremely important place for the whole future of world peace and, stability and that the British government recognises that peace and stability are in the hands of the states in the area themselves. “We welcome their efforts to get together to ensure both aims,” she said in reference to the recently formed Gulf Cooperation Council.

On the occasion of her first visit to the four countries, Mrs. Thatcher said that the Middle East and other issues of importance would be discussed. What about the Rapid Deployment Force? “No”, the Prime Minister answered, “because there is no Rapid Deployment Force at the moment.”

Mrs Thatcher was asked whether the idea to contribute to Rapid Deployment Force is a reversal of the East of Suez policy that Britain has taken after the withdrawal from the, Gulf in 1971. “No,” she answered. “I find it difficult to know why you ask that question.”

Mrs Thatcher said that there is no justification for the alarm expressed by some at her statements made during her recent visit to Washington in reference to the Gulf. Asked whether her government would consider a decision by the United States to store or install nuclear arms at the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, she replied that such a thing would be a matter of consultation. “Everything that is done there (at Diego Garcia) is a matter for consultation. They do not take such steps without consulting us,” she added.

Mrs. Thatcher expressed the opinion that the Arab-Israeli problem and the situation In the Gulf are not wholly unrelated. “I do not know if there is any point in trying to say one is more Important than the other. Both are problems,” she said.

Mrs Thatcher said that although the Camp David accords did not meet with universal acclaim among other countries, they did lead at least to some territory being returned to Egypt.

“The problem now is how best to continue the process of solving the Middle East problem and It is quite clear that the United States has not decided the best way to continue the process and to carry it forward, and it is equally clear that the U.S. wishes to consult other people before they decide how best to go ahead. Haig is in the Middle East now with a view to seeing for himself before he and the President decide how best the process can be taken further ahead.”

Lord Carrington, Britain’s Foreign Secretary will be President of the Foreign Ministers Council of the EEC next July, but very little Is expected to happen in the near future regarding the Middle East problem. “We are not likely to make very great strides before the Israeli elections (end of July),” Mrs Thatcher said.

The Prime Minister said that the EEC countries are trying to sort out some of the things which needs to be done, and Foreign Ministers from Europe have been going round consulting with the various states concerned to see how they would interpret some of the phrases and clauses that are used when referring to the Middle East problems.

Asked how much influence Britain can exercise on the U.S. in changing Its opinion regarding Israel, she said that everyone recognises that there will be no solution to the Arab-Israeli problem without the U.S., but no settlement can be reached without the Israelis recognising the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people and the Palestinians recognising Israel’s right to live behind secure borders.

Mrs. Thatcher admitted that a final solution is not in sight, although Europe has been pursuing various avenues of approach. “We cannot see I clear way ahead until we have had discussions with the U.S. about the way in which they would like to proceed and I have not the slightest shadow of doubt that the U.S. will be influenced by what we say, ” she said.

In regard to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Mrs. Thatcher said, “Recognition” to us means countries. “We do not, I must tell you, recognise the PLO. We talk to Palestinians and that is the right way.” Admitting that British officials have talked to the PLO but not on a ministerial level. She said: “I think the reason, of which you will he aware, will be their contacts with terrorism.”

Arab News Newspaper (Jeddah), Thursday 16 June 1979
Sharq Al Awsat Newspaper (London)
Thursday 16 June 1979

UK Conservative see a more active role in the Middle East 

By Adel Bishtawi and Nigel Harvey

LONDON- Britain’s new Conservative government sees a more active role in the Middle East for itself and the European Community. And while encouraging the peace process it is taking a harder line on Israeli expansionism and is accepting its commitment to a liberated Jerusalem under U.N. resolution 242.

“That is certainly an important element in the discussions and we support 242 which covers it,” British Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Douglas Hurd told “Arab News.”

Hurd is responsible for his ministry’s Middle East section and will be the architect of the new government’s policy.

“We believe that if Europe can increasingly speak with one voice then our influence is greater,” said Hurd pointing to last week’s EEC foreign ministers’ -quite strong” resolutions criticizing Israeli settlements policy on the West Batik and involvement in-south Lebanon. Britain, he said, considered these “wrong” and “unhelpful.”

He said the Camp David achievement “although imperfect, is worth preserving and should not be destroyed. We want to encourage the autonomy talks. Because we believe that if there were to be, and it’s a big if, genuine autonomy for the Palestinians on the West Bank, then that would be another important step forward.”

“Don’t let’s spit on the only thing which is actually happening,” he added. “Increased flexibility” after Camp David,” he said, “should be used to obtain an eventual settlement against the alternative of another ‘no winners’ war.”

“We understand the criticisms of President Sadat,” he said, “and would be worried if we thought there was a permanent gape open there. So we will do what we can alone, but also with our fellow Europeans, to play a useful part in widening out, and in improving, these discussions.

41 We will work closely with our Arab friends particularly traditional friends like the Saudi government in the hope that we can play a useful, perhaps more prominent, part than we have been able to.” Initially, at least, this activity will be purely diplomatic, said Hurd.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government has quickly established contact with Middle Eastern leaders.

Since their overwhelming election victory visitors have already included Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh, Prime Minister Menahem Begin of Israel, King Hussein of Jordan and Vice President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

Britain’s Conservatives have traditionally been considered more understanding to the Arabs than their Labour rivals, who had Labour movement connections with Israel. Though there has been no head on policy clash and consequently no “sudden turn of policy when the Conservatives take over,” said Hurd, the party has ” a considerable body of experience” through various members’ personal relationships with the Middle East.

Not least among these is the Foreign Secretary, I-lord Carrington, himself. He made an extensive tour of the Middle East that included a meeting with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, His spokesman in the House of Commons, Sir Ian Gilmour, was a founder member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding.

Like most of his cabinet colleagues, Hurd, 49, was educated at Eton and Oxbridge before joining the Foreign Office, with which he served in Peking, the U.N. and Rome. He was

Prime minister Ted Heath’s private secretary in the last Tory government and opposition spokesman on Europe for Mrs. Thatcher.

The Conservatives are undoubtedly more Europe oriented than their predecessors but it remains to be seen how far this will draw them from Britain’s traditionally conservative and pro-American role in the EEC on Middle East questions.

After last week’s EEC resolution, the next step could be official recognition of the PLO that is favoured by many of the foreign ministers. Hurd said: ” We are considering our own attitudes but there is a difficulty insofar as there’s been no clear statement from the PLO about the existence of Israel.”

But he refused to be drawn on a trade off between recognition of the PLO for their recognition of Security Council Resolution 242 that acknowledges Israel’s right to -exist.

However, he stipulated a Palestinian ” land” and negotiations involvement as necessary for a settlement. “We use the word land, just as the French use the word patrie, because it is in a way rather neutral. It conveys the feeling that there are people who have rights over land, over water and over their own political future which have to be respected.” He felt the details should be left to the debating process between those involved.

Britain’s Middle East policy, said Hurd, is based on three cards of entry: past connections, a good relationship with the U.S. and the “new element” of growing European cooperation. The last two may with time conflict as Europe establishes policies of its own. The unprecedented statements on Israel tire running besides conflict on the EEC commission’s refusal to move offices from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem under threat of losing diplomatic privileges.

Pointing to the ” stuck” Euro- Arab dialogue and difficulties within the ” adolescent” European political institution of gaining agreement Hurd feels strong unity is distant.

“If the situation changed, and the present talks were coming to nothing then we in Europe would have to think again very carefully from the beginning what our role should be and whether we could take some further initiative,” he said.

” But obviously that is something we would want to discuss with the Saudi government and all friendly governments before we do it.”

Hurd stressed the importance of close contact with Saudi Arabia on oil and world economic issues as well as the general Middle East situation and the consequences of the Iranian revolution. Our doors are open,” he said hoping for further two-way visits.

Apart from this broader bilateral dialogue – and Hurd excluded a European context as yet – which started with Prince Salman’s visit, there is a continual discussion on the future of the Arab Industries Organization disbanded after the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The British military industry was to be deeply involved with Egyptian-based factories for helicopters and missiles. “It’s in difficulty, but we don’t despair of finding an answer which is reasonably satisfactory,” said Hurd.

Gulf security, said Hurd was no longer a British concern though close friendships were retained. He said there was no vacuum and the security of the Gulf and its governments depended on their own policies. “The Shah was not after all overthrown by outside armies,” he added. But he said that Oman, which has around 600 British officers some on secondment, was a “special case.”

The gentle Fred Sinowatz, the Chancellor Of Austria. Abu Dhabi, 1984

Not a mystery, really. Few sequels are as good as the original films

Editor: Mr Fred Sinowatz agrees with everything the former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky said about the Middle East so here is a copy of an earlier interview with Chancellor Kreisky:

By Adel Bishtawi


The gentle Fred Sinowatz, the Chancellor Of Austria. Abu Dhabi, 1984

The gentle Fred Sinowatz, the Chancellor Of Austria. Abu Dhabi, 1984

ABU DHABI (WAM) Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky said the Camp David accord was “useless” as far as the Palestinian problem is concerned adding that the eight-point Middle East peace plan proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Fahd provides a better base to reach a settlement.

Speaking at a press conference before his departure at the end of a three-day State visit to the UAE, the Chancellor said the plan Is a better base for substantial negotiations of the Middle East questions than the Camp David agreements,” because the agreements do not offer the Palestinians anything despite the fact the P Palestinian problem is a key issue In the Middle East.”

Fahd’s plan, he said, is a summary of all the decisions taken by the United Nations on the issue of the Middle East such as 242 and others, and it will be a good ground for any further negotiations aimed at solving the problem.

The Chancellor denied any involvement by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) In the Vienna August incidents. “There is no doubt the PLO has nothing to do with those activities not because Arafat, (Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the PLO) said so, but because we have found that out.”

Austrian public opinion, the Chancellor added, does not differentiate between the different Palestinian groups and the PLO, they are all Palestinians, “but the PLO has nothing to do with terrorist activities In Austria, on the contrary, they are absolutely opposed to all such activities.”

Kreisky who earlier met Arafat for an hour long discussion of the Middle East and Austria PLO relations, said he asked the PLO Chairman to send a high-ranking official to Vienna to be the new representative of the PLO there.

“I asked Arafat to send a man of high prestige because he will be representing the movement (PLO) and how the man is the movement because when he will come soon to Vienna, our journalists will be hounding him like “terrorists” the Chancellor said jokingly.

Chancellor Kreisky began last Saturday a Gulf tour that took him to Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE, and he started today an official visit to Qatar to discuss the Middle East, bilateral and important international questions.

He expressed satisfaction at the results of his discussion that he described as “very frank and positive” but as far as the talks with UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan are concerned “I have been deeply impressed by his frankness, broad-minded ness and wisdom.”

“The talks we had yesterday,” the Chancellor pointed out, “were an exciting experience and what he said about Issues outside the area, made me wish for such men to be head of bigger countries.”

The 70-year-old statesman said Austrian relations with the Gulf countries are “good” but not intense enough. “We could do much more in all fields and find new forms of cooperation. “I am a partisan of close economic, political and cultural cooperation between Austria and the Arab world.”

Asked to comment on the statements attributed to French External Relations Minister Claude Cheysson in which he called on Europe to abandon thoughts of a peace-making role in the Middle East the Chancellor recommended to wait and see what the Minister has to say when he returns to France.

But the Chancellor explained that if Cheysson did really say what the press reports attributed to him then “I do not believe that he is entitled to say that.”

December 8, 1981