Arabic language satellite television has over the past three years broadcast a number of excellent historical dramas set in late antiquity or in early Islamic periods.(1) These programs usually are first shown as part of the Ramadan line up, guaranteeing a large viewing audience.(2) One of the new aspects of these series is that most of them have been cooperative productions between Syrian, Jordanian, Moroccan, and Emirati TV involving well known actors from these and other Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The focus of three of the most popular ones, Zaman al-Wasl, Saqr al-Quraysh, and Tariq has been Arab/Muslim Spain—Al Andalus.(3)
The choice of Al Andalus is interesting; a place no longer Arab or Muslim, but where the Arabs, Berbers, and local peoples produced one of the most brilliant periods of Arab/Muslim civilization. Yet, it is gone today, with only glimpses into what it was through architecture, music, and poetry. The loss of what was the confidence and strength of Umayyad Al Andalus, the multicultural and multi-religious nature of the society, the tolerance and understanding between peoples, can be contrasted with the current Arab world where there is little tolerance and understanding. It is the contention here that the message of these historical dramas—the comparison of what was with what is the situation of modern Arabs and Muslims—is the reason why Al Andalus recently has been a the subject of a number of television musalsalat.(4)
Zaman al-Wasl (Time of Connection) is set during the height of the Umayyads in Spain during the reigns of al-Hakim I (796-822 AD) and ‘Abd al-Rahman II (822-852 AD). The many subplots revolve around characters from the major ethnic groups that made up the population. Arabs, Berbers, Visigoths, Gypsies, Muslims, and Christians all play their part to foil the attempts by the King of Castile and his Viking allies from destroying Al Andalus. The real danger is not from external forces, but from within Al Andalus itself. Political repression by Amir al-Hakim I led to the alienation of many Berbers and there are attempts by some Christians, clandestinely supported by the King of Castile, to undermine the social unity between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. During al-Hakim’s reign, laws are passed against the Gypsies making it illegal for them to serve in the armed forces or to live inside cities. And, more importantly for the future instability of the state, a new slave woman, brought from Baghdad by the famous singer Ziryab,(5) plots to ensnare Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman II and place their son on the throne instead of his legitimate son (the future Amir Muhammad I) by a noble Arab princess.
All of the plots come to nothing as the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim subjects of Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman II sign a pledge of loyalty written with their own blood which the leaders of the three communities present to him and declare they will fight to protect Al Andalus. The Berbers are brought back into the political fold as equals with the Arabs and even the Gypsies are given equal treatment before the law by ‘Abd al-Rahman II. The state is saved from external military threats (Castile and the Vikings) and nearly all internal problems are solved through the use of wise council and the principle of Islam. Yet, the state will fall and the greatness will be lost. The epilogue to the series tells the viewers why. The plots from within the family to take the throne from the legitimate heirs will continue—the slave woman and her son will not give up so easily. Weakened from within, social justice will be forgotten. Old divisions will reemerge not only between Arabs and Berbers, but between the three religions. Small-minded self interests will override the grander ideals the state once stood for. The result will be the collapse of Al Andalus and the eventual conquest by Castile.
The comparisons with today’s Arab world are unmistakable. Arab states are weakened from the outside by military threat, but the real weaknesses—the ones that really matter—are internal to the Arab and Muslim world. The series ends with the question when will the Arabs and Muslims be great again? When will Al Andalus be “real” again? In other words, when will the social strengths so exemplified in the Andalusian model be realized in the modern Arab Muslim experience? According to the serial’s logic, it is clear that neither multiculturalism nor religious diversity prevented Arabs and Muslims from becoming a great power in the past. On the contrary, these were among the characteristics that made Al Andalus such a vibrant civilization. The problem is not that the Arabs and Muslims are battling external military threats, whether from Israel or even the United States. Instead, the problem is that the Arabs and Muslims no longer believe in their own possibilities, and when they revive this belief, then they will “recapture” the spirit of Al Andalus and not before.(6)
Another musalsal, Saqr al-Quraysh (Hawk of the Quraysh) chronicles the life of the Umayyad Prince ‘Abd al-Rahman I (756-788 AD) who founded the Umayyad dynasty in Spain. The series begins with the long process of the ‘Abbasid revolution and the wayward apolitical life of the prince as a young man. The story follows his many adventures with his slave Badr as the two travel from Syria to Al Andalus. Unlike Zaman al-Wasl which was filmed primarily in Morocco with some Syrian actors, Saqr al-Quraysh is truly a cooperative venture between Syria and Morocco. Much of it was filmed in Morocco and a number of major, well-known Moroccan actors play important roles, such as that of the close friend, confidant, and personal slave, Badr. The series not only chronicles the life of the prince, but also the life of the slave.
Again the message of the series is that both the strengths of the Arab/Muslim Al Andalus were there at the founding of the state, but the weaknesses were present too. Once Abd al-Rahman realizes that he must try his luck in Spain, he sends his slave Badr to evaluate political conditions and ascertain how much support he would have should he try to establish his own emirate. Badr is befriended by a Visigoth who recently converted to Islam. The Visigoth explains the sorry state of affairs in Al Andalus where governor after governor(7) failed to contain bloody conflicts between Arab and Berber tribes. Badr finds strong Umayyad support among Syrian Arabs who were clients of the Umayyads and the result is the triumph of ‘Abd al-Rahman who becomes ‘Abd al-Rahman I al-Dakhil, the first Amir of an independent and united Umayyad Al Andalus.
Once in power the story does not end, however. ‘Abd al-Rahman finds that he can not even trust members of his own family who he executes for treason. He becomes distrustful of even his closest friend, his slave Badr, whom he publicly strips of all of his honors, driving him from court. Heartbroken, Badr leaves with his wife to live in solitude away from cities and people. ‘Abd al-Rahman finds himself growing lonelier and more isolated eventually leading him to seek out his long-time friend and companion. He finds Badr living in poverty, driven nearly mad by his grief for his dead wife. In the ranting of the “fool” Badr, ‘Abd al-Rahman sees his own follies (and, one could venture, similar follies of distrust, paranoia, and isolation of modern Arab leaders) and leaves Badr dancing at the foot of his wife’s grave. In the end ‘Abd al-Rahman is left alone with only the date tree he had brought from his native Syria as his companion.
Like Zaman al-Wasl, this series seems to argue that the strength of Arab/Muslim Spain was in the unity of the people, no matter the origins and no matter the religion. Justice, or social justice, within society kept the various communities together, but the lack of trust worked to destroy this unity. Once broken, the ideal Arab-Muslim society became easy prey for external forces such as the Castilians, but also other Muslims such as the Murabitin (1056-1142 AD) and the Muwahidin (1130-1269 AD) who did not share the same vision of the state and society with the Umayyads.(8) The Umayyads are portrayed as supporters of not only the fine arts of music and poetry, but also of architecture, engineering, sciences, and medicine. In the series Zaman al-Wasl, among the close councilors of Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman II are poets, scientists, and philosophers.(9) He sends a poet as head of his official delegation to the Byzantine emperor and one of the scientists is given official encouragement to try to invent a means to fly.(10) The advanced level of Arab learning in Al Andalus and the high level of cultural attainment have no equal in the Arab-Muslim world today. Western popular culture fills the streets of any Arab city fueling Arab frustration and anger. The series highlights this anger as well as the need for an Arab-Muslim renaissance built on the Andalusian Arab-Muslim model.
The most recent (broadcast during Ramadan in 2004) of these historical dramas set in Al Andalus is Tariq, the story of Tariq bin Ziyad from his childhood to his conquest of Spain in the name of Islam. Tariq involved a range of actors mainly from Syria (the role of the Berber Tariq was played by a Syrian actor), but included participation by Egyptian and Saudi actors as well. While Saqr al-Quraysh remains more or less faithful to what is known about the life of Abd al-Rahman I al-Dakhil, Tariq takes a more creative approach.(11) In the series, Tariq is born a Muslim of converted Berber parents in what is today eastern Algeria or Tunisia. As a child he has a vision of crossing the Straits at the head of an army and an old, blind Muslim man predicts his future as a warrior for the faith. It is his uncle who turns him away from his religion and destiny and brings him to fight for the Berber king Kusaylah(12) against the Arabs.
Eventually Tariq learns the truth of his origins and brings himself back to Islam. He becomes a client of the Arab commander Musa ibn Nusayr who protects him from the continuing plots by jealous Arabs, including the sons of the great Arab commander ‘Uqbah bin Nafi.’(13) These men will eventually bring down both Musa and Tariq when they return to Damascus by spreading lies about them at court. The problems between Arabs and recently converted Berbers are a key aspect of the plot—it is the Arabs who cause the problems. Some Arab Muslims refuse to accept Berber Muslims as equals and Musa bin Nusayr, in anger over this refusal, humiliates the sons of ‘Uqbah by making them sit in the same classes with recently converted Berbers to (re)learn Islam. Tolerance and equality are key elements to a real Islamic society as well as to good Islamic governance Musa states.
While political intrigue is happening on the Muslim side to eventually bring down Musa and his client Tariq, the story weaves continual plots between the Byzantine emperor with disgruntled Berbers, sons of the defeated Queen al-Kahinah(14) , and the King of Spain. Tariq eventually defeats the rebellious Berbers, his own people, in the name of Islam. His reputation as a great military commander and kind ruler(15) brings Count Julian, Count of Sebta, to him to seek justice for his wronged daughter, Florinda, who had been raped by the Spanish monarch Roderick. Count Julian is not the only person who wants to see King Roderick fall. The Bishop of Seville is already turning towards Islam through secret conversations with a Muslim—and his brother has been disgraced and exiled by Roderick.(16) The young son of Roderick’s predecessor and Florinda’s fiancé also wants to seek vengeance. Count Julian asks Tariq to allow the Berber girl Lu’lu’ who was once Florinda’s handmaiden to return in the hope that she could help Florinda recover her mind. Lu’lu’ is now a Muslim and she willingly goes to help her former mistress and is able to cure her mental condition. Count Julian offers Tariq all the ships he wants or needs to cross the Straits and take Spain. Tariq’s dream is realized when Spain falls easily to the Muslims while Count Julian, the Bishop of Seville, and others have their “revenge” on Roderick.
The message in the series Tariq is similar to that of the other Andalusian dramas. When the Arabs and Berbers worked together no military power could defeat them, not even the Byzantines, the mightiest empire of the day. Muslims and Christians can work together for the common good. Ethnic and religious differences when blended in a positive environment create a strong new culture. Al Andalus demonstrates the importance of such religious tolerance while the multi-national nature of the production of these series is another concrete demonstration of the success of Arab-Muslim cooperation. The actors are both Muslim and Christian and those from Syria, Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia play the parts of Animist, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim characters. Much of the financial backing, meanwhile, comes from the United Arab Emirates. The series are filmed in both the Arab East (al-Mashriq al-‘Arabi—mainly Syria) and North Africa (al-Maghrib al-‘Arabi—mainly Morocco). This geographical diversity is not lost on the audience.(17) The series Tariq, for example, makes use of maps to help the audience better understand the flow of events as they move from the court in Damascus to Qayruwan, Tangiers, Sebta, Seville, or Toledo. In order to enable the audience to better understand the geography of the serial, names of cities that did not exist at the time of the series, such as Marrakech, are found on the map. The maps allow the viewer to understand in more concrete terms the great expanse of the early Arab/Muslim empire and how it reached the furthest borders of the Maghrib.
The question is how do these series reflect the attitudes of most people in the Arab world today? Would the majority of Arabs want to live in a contemporary version of Al Andalus as portrayed on TV? The contradiction between Andalusian society, as portrayed in the serials, and the growth of anti-Western sentiment in the Arab-Muslim world is interesting. Andalusian society is shown to be tolerant of others and does not reject ideas from non-Muslim sources. The scientists at the court of Amir Hakim I and Amir Abd al-Rahman II quote the works of classical Greek scholars. All of the serials emphasize the common cultural heritage of Islam and Christianity.
What is more interesting is the emergence of a new self-criticism. While self-criticism in film and television is not new, its application in these series is. Instead of blaming the current conditions in the Arab world on foreign intervention or past colonialism, the weakness of the Arab-Muslim world is placed firmly on their own shoulders. As portrayed in these series the fall of Al Andalus was due to the lack of unity and commitment by not only its rulers but also its people. Weak and corrupt governments produce an apathetic population who feel they have no stake in the state. When there is a strong commitment from both the government and the people, as was the case when the Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman II faced threats from the King of Castile and his Viking allies, no power can bring them down. Such self-criticism is a new and positive change within the Arab world, and, it is ventured here that it is the reason for the great popularity of these historical dramas.(18)