Arts Listings

‘Islam and Authors’ Series Begins at Oakand Islamic Cultural Center

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday October 22, 2009 - 09:51:00 AM

“With the expulsion of the Moors by decree of the Spanish crown, assisted by other European powers, 400 years ago, in 1609—at 5 percent of the population, the worst ethnic cleansing in modern Europe until the 20th century—the Moor became the template, the archetype for the alien, the universal minority figure in the modern world,” said Professor Anouar Majid, director of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England, who will discuss his book, We Are All Moors (University of Minnesota Press), with Hamza Van Boom and the audience Saturday for the inaugural event in the Islam and Authors series at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, near the main library in downtown Oakland.  

“Spain was in the process of consolidating a national identity: a common faith, a common language and a national state from the territory ruled by feudal lords. It was really the first to do so in Europe. In 1492, when the Reconquest of Spain from the Moors was complete, the Moors who remained were given all rights and privileges, but they were forced to convert to Catholicism. They were known as the Moriscos, ‘Little Moors,’ a pejorative, and were under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. There were statutes written concerning purity of blood, as synonymous with race, religion for the first time, the predecessor to what happened in the last century. A priest described the losses in the conflict as ‘the agreeable holocast,’ a burnt offering to God. The Moor became literally in the language an undesirable alien. And since the First Crusade, Jews had been closely identified with Muslims in the West. In fact, much of Jewish history until the creation of Israel is closely identified with Islamic heritage. Much Jewish theology and poetry were written in Islamic societies. Emancipated Jews in Germany claimed Moorish heritage and built synagogues on Moorish models, as many synagogues in the U. S. have been built. Germans were puzzled; instead of becoming European, Jews were claiming Oriental identity, as Benjamin Disraeli had constantly boasted of his Sephardic origins.” 

Majid noted that even as late as the concentration camps of the 1930s and ’40s, “the Nazis referred to Jews, to the most wretched who had been consigned to death, as Musselmen—Moslems. If Jews and Moslems could become aware of their common history, of the common image they’ve had in the European imagination, maybe there could be a human foundation to begin a discussion.” 

The title of his book comes from the remark of a participant in a Spanish rural fiesta of the 1990s, one of many in which locals dress up, “half the village as Moors, the other half as Christians, and reenact the battles of the Reconquista, complete with costumes and Moorish flair—big ceremonial events all over Spain. The villagers often compete to be the Moors, because they have the better costumes! In this village, near Alicante, the patron saint is represented in a painting as a black woman. There’s a great deal of ambivalence in it all.” 

Hamza Van Boom of the Islamic Cultural Center said the series, designed to introduce new and important books and other literary works about Islam to the Bay Area community, would be “a mix ... we have a playwright, a journalist and an academic coming up, as well as the author of books for young adults. Dave Eggers will be here next year.” 

Van Boom continued: “Some people have asked why Muslims aren’t saying things about progressive issues, about human rights. There are muslim voices speaking to those issues that are not being heard, as well as a new movement in the arts, humanities and literature. In the past, immigrants, for social reasons, usually chose business careers.” 

This spring, the Cultural Center plans to host a film festival of work from young muslim filmmakers. Van Boom also mentioned working with an artist to make a documentary using the poetry of Hafiz, one of the greatest Islamic poets, who inspired writers in the West such as Goethe and Emerson, to “look at the lives of muslims in the Bay Area.” He also noted the Center has staged events recently, like a performance of Rumi-style dervish dancing. “Arts and cultural activities are the best way to reach out; the general public—muslim, nonmuslim and secular—can come together and have discussions.” 

Both van Boom and Ali Sheikoleslami, executive director of the Center, stressed that its programs supported unity in the muslim community.  

“We are an independent nonprofit, founded in 1995,” said Sheikoleslami, a cofounder. “We have a language school for Farsi, and classes in Islamic ethics are held here, mostly for teenagers and younger. We do interfaith work with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Montclair Presbyterian Church and Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. Our programs are cosponsored by the Islamic Media Network and Illume Media Organization. Other Pan-Islamic groups use the Center for fundraising activities for scholarship funds, for instance. Our mission is to inform others of the message of Islam and how we may contribute to society.” 

The historical building on Monroe Street occupied by the Islamic Cultural Center is a Masonic building, appropriately enough in Moorish Revival style, dating from 1909. Sheikoleslami noted the Center has won recognition, including an award, for the restoration of the building and improvements made.  

“Designed as a Masonic building, it was set up for performances of music, theater, dance, poetry,” said Van Boom. “We’re looking forward to presenting more in the future.”  


Islam and Authors:  

A conversation with Professor Anouar Majid, author of We Are All Moors,  

8 p.m. Sat.  

Islamic Cultural Center of Northern  

California, 1433 Madison St., Oakland.  

Tickets: $5-$7