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A Descendant Of The Spanish Arab Exiles In Morocco Tells His Story

posted on: Sep 7, 2016

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Chefchaouen, the Blue City of Morocco

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer

        “Your majesty, to you we complain about the many

Calamities and great disasters that on us have fallen.

We have been betrayed and in oppression our religion

Has been disgraced and we have been made Christian…

Alas! For our sons and daughters, for every morning

To the Muslim hating priest, in fear they must hasten,

To be taught blasphemy, falseness and even idolatry.

So wrote an anonymous sad Morisco (Spanish Muslims converted to Christianity) poet to the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid, the most powerful Muslim ruler during the 16th century, imploring him for aid and informing him of the sad fate of his fellow Moriscos. They had been suffering for decades under the Spanish yoke. His appeal fell on deaf ears. Eventually in 1609 all the former Arab/Muslims, even though nominally Christian for a hundred years, were expelled from Spain.

I was reminded of that poet’s words during a tour of Morocco when our guide Abdelatif El Mfarrej, said that he could trace his lineage to Granada, Spain. I became excited thinking, here was my chance to interview a descendent of the Spanish Arab Muslims who were expelled from Spain in wave after wave as the Christian forces, little by little, occupied the Iberian Peninsula. From the fall of Cordoba in 1236 to the expulsion of the Moriscos, millions of Spanish Arab Muslims had to choose between conversion to Christianity or exile.

Now as we sat down on comfortable chairs and talked about the Arab Muslims in Spain, my thoughts went back to the days when these proud people had been defeated, then forced into exile in large groups, mostly to the North African lands.

One of these groups of refugees settled in northern Morocco and established Chefchaouen – a town whose 100,000 inhabitants today are virtually all descendants of these bitter exiles. To these fugitives, Chefchaouen became a sacred town that no European could enter – so angry were the people at the cruel fate of their ancestors. This only changed when the Spanish forces in 1926 defeated the Rif rebellion led by Abd al-Karim al-Khatabi

Chefchaouen, the Blue City of Morocco
Chefchaouen, the Blue City of Morocco

Abdelatif, whose forefathers were a part of these refugees, was emotional as he spoke, “Our family worked in the courts of the rulers and emirs during the days of Moorish splendour in Arab Spain. They were a part of the elite in that nation.” He went on, “A short time after the Christian forces occupied Granada, at that time their home, my forefathers had to choose between conversion to Christianity or exile. They chose exile.”

He said much more and as he talked, it became evident that the fate of his family is the story of millions of other families who had to flee the splendour of what their fathers had built in Arab Spain. His tale is the saga of these Spanish Arab Muslims who once called Spain home.

The El Mfarrej family originated in the Arab East – even today they still have members of their family in Iraq. With the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, a number of the family members emigrated to al-Andalus – the name the Arabs gave their new land in the Iberian Peninsula. In the ensuing years, their descendants, working in commerce, made much wealth and became influential in the courts of the rulers in Granada.

In less than a decade after the Christian forces occupied Granada, the Muslims, like Abdelatif’s family, had to choose between being converted to Christianity or banishment. In the main, the affluent chose exile, but the poor, with no money to travel, opted for conversion.

However, in the long run, this did not save these converts from becoming refugees. Barely a century later, these former Muslims were expelled en masse from the country. With virtually no means, they died in the thousands. A few, the lucky ones, were shipped to the Spanish colonies in the Americas and became the ancestors of some of today’s Latin Americans.

After their exile, the El Mfarrej family settled in Chefchaouen. Having brought some of their wealth with them and continuing the family tradition of working in commerce, they quickly became important members of the community. One of the family members became a Pasha and there is a street in Chefchaouen carrying the family name.

Chefchaouen, a craft city.
Chefchaouen, a craft city.

For centuries, Chefchaouen remained the family’s home. Abdelatif’s father Ali and his mother Fatooma were born in this town. Later, they moved to Tetouan where Abdelatif and his older brother Muhammad and their three sisters Mufeeda, Nazha and Frida were born. Muhammad became an engineer; Nazha, a civil servant; and Frida, a school teacher with their residence in Tetouan. Mufeeda, also a school teacher made Tangiers her home while Abdelatif and his wife, Dr. Samia Lekchiri resided in Marrakesh. However, many of Abdelatif’s uncles and cousins still call Chefchaouen home.

Ahmed, one of Abdelatif’s cousins who is a doctor, after searching in the Louvre Museum in Paris found the family records dating to 15th century Granada and discovered where the El Mfarrej family home was located in Granada. According to Abelatif, his cousin went back to Granada and found the spot where five centuries ago the El Mfarrej family lived. For him, it was a nostalgic trip into the past.

For hundreds of years many of the Spanish Arab exiles had very fond memories of their homes in Andalusia. A number have kept their keys until this day. Abdelatif said that his family kept the key to their family’s home in Granada until it was lost sometime in the past century.

Yet, the memories of Arab Spain are fading a little with each generation. Abdelatif said that he has often talked to his son Ali about their ancestors in Spain. However, he believes that most of the descendants of the Spanish Arab Muslims now only think of Spain as a friendly neighbour.

In his own words, “Gone are the days when our forefathers had bitterness in their hearts. After the Spaniards made northern Morocco their Protectorate, we lived together in a friendly fashion – no one better than the other.” He continued, “Memories we might have of our former Andalusian homes, but remember this is the 20th century.” “The years heal all wounds”, I thought to myself as Abdelatif ended his family’s saga.