Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mare Nostrum (No, not that one.)

The conceptual framework of my co-taught introductory undergraduate lecture class is "the Iberian Atlantic." For me, the challenge is not about thinking about maritime networks or about the idea of interconnectivity between peoples at opposite ends of a large body of water. Those things are quite natural in my field of study. Rather, for me the challenge come in thinking about integrations towards the West instead of or on top of towards the East; the sea I most often cross in my own work is the Mediterranean. For me it is Cairo and Jerusalem and Fez that are the natural loci of contact rather than Cuzco or Mexico City or Florida. That's the major difference for someone like me in a Spanish department versus someone like me in a Near Eastern Studies department: Which one is the sea that you'll have to teach undergraduates about?

So here is what I have come up with to explain our sea, even if it's not Our Sea. Some version of what follows is what I shall tell the students today about their topic of study, about learning in college, and about expectations. (My co-instructor will tell them some additional stuff about same):

Imagine that you are in a little port on the Atlantic coast of Spain in the beginning of August, 1492. That year, the lunar calendar used in Judaism lined up so that the second of August happened to fall on the anniversary of the destruction of the ancient holy temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews in Babylonia. And it could not have been more apt, for that was last day that Jews were allowed to reside in Spain. They had all been expelled, just like their ancient ancestors, and on that final day, those who had chosen not to convert to Catholicism made their way to costal towns like Palos de la Frontera to leave for North Africa and the Middle East, and one or two places even farther than that.

Perhaps by coincidence and perhaps not, some of them would have met an Italian man finalizing his crew for a different kind of sea journey. His name was Christopher Columbus, and he added some of those Jews to his roster. He needed a crew and they needed an escape. The fact that they prayed differently didn’t really matter to either side. It was the practical matters that counted.

There may have also been another Jew on board, one whose inclusion in the voyage had always planned. His name was Luis Torres, and his very best skill was his eloquence in the Arabic language. Columbus brought him along because even though the incipient nation that sponsored his voyage was cracking down on the long-held religious freedoms of the Muslims for whom Arabic was the sacred tongue, it was still the very most important language in Columbus’ view of the world. He assumed that any educated person he might encounter on the other side would at least speak Arabic and that they could communicate that way even if they had no other languages in common.

After a long summer at sea, Columbus and his multiconfessional crew landed in Cuba, where they encountered an indigenous group known as the Taínos whose chief had a special title. And when Christopher Columbus’ men heard the Taíno greeting party talk about their leader and call him the cubanacán, they were overjoyed because they believed themselves to be vindicated. They thought they had heard an Arabic word: Here they were about to be taken to the Taínos’ grand khan! Bring out Luis, the Arabic translator!

The Iberian Atlantic is the ocean that Christopher Columbus, a Christian explorer and conqueror, could traverse with his motley crew of Jewish sailors escaping a worse fate than the unknown at sea. It’s the ocean across which he brought an Arabic translator, probably also a Jew, because what other language would the educated people on the other side possibly speak?

The Iberian Atlantic, in its broader sense, is the place where it makes sense for Jews fleeing religious persecution by one Christian to seek refuge with another Christian. It is a place where Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims, speak Arabic. It’s a place where — and this may surprise you a lot — Spanish is a new, and not especially prestigious language at all. It is a place where religious identity and cultural identity don’t always match up in the way that you, as a college student living in the 21st century, might fairly expect them to. In a way, the Iberian Atlantic is a completely imaginary, made-up place where a common set of very real interactions between people happens.

What do you see here? What don’t  you see?

(Click to enlarge. L: Mappamundi, Juan de La Cosa, 1500, Naval Museum of Madrid; R: Portolan chart of the Mediterranean, Yehudah Even-Zara, 1505, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

This is a world where people were still imagining what was out there and projecting themselves onto it — kind of like we do today with outer space.

What do you see here? What do you recognize?

(Click to enlarge. Map from the Tabula Rogeriana, al-Idrisi, c. 1150)

This is a world that will seem upside-down and backwards to you at first. We’re going to learn about a world where having south up makes really good sense. In a very literal way, this course is going to be disorienting for you. Up is down, down is up, you’re going to be reading texts in lots of languages that aren’t Spanish, and all of that is going to be really disorienting for you at times. This is a really different kind of course, but when you start to feel adrift on that sea, there are big questions that govern this course that you can always come back to in order to find your way: What techniques did people use to create their identities? Did they see themselves primarily as writers, as explorers, or as men and women of faith? What were they writing about? Do their actions and recorded thoughts look similar to or different from those of people from the same time but different places, or the same place but different times. And you can always start by asking yourself: Why am I surprised by this? Why do I like it? Why do I dislike it? Even a very gut reaction like that is cluing you in to something that you’re reacting to and something that you can then analyze in a more critical fashion.

So what does this all mean for our course, in the practical terms that matter?

First of all, let me let you in on a little secret. One of the things that a professor does is edit. If you take a course on the Atlantic Slave Trade, you’re not going to learn everything about the Atlantic Slave Trade. First of all, there’s just not enough time; and second of all, while there are some events that everyone would agree belong in a class on that topic, there are other events that people would disagree about. Offering a big, thematic lecture class is like telling a story. And there are sides to every story. The story that I told you at the beginning? There are at least four other really important versions of what happened. I chose to tell you one of them. So that’s a very long-winded way of saying that a lecture class isn’t meant to tell you everything about a topic; it’s meant to give you an overview. This isn’t the history of everything in all of pre-modern Spain and Latin America. It can’t be. But it’s a really good story about a lot of important and interesting things, and we hope that it’ll pique your curiosity so that you’ll take more classes in the future and have a really good understanding, whether you take more specialized seminars in this earlier period or whether you are more interested in finding out what happens next.

The purpose of the class is to give you the tools to think about this material and about any similar material you will encounter in the content courses you take in the future either as a Spanish major or not. It’s to get you to challenge your assumptions about a part of the world — and I mean part of the world in the temporal sense every bit as much as the geographic one — that’s probably still unfamiliar to you in at least one significant way. For example, I want you to be able to take a course on the Spanish Inquisition, read some of the testimony, and not think to yourself, “Well, that guy has an Arabic name; he must be a secret Muslim.” Instead, I want you to think about the interactions that led to him having an Arabic name, and what that might or might not mean about him.

And as I said, we can’t accomplish that by trying to cover everything, even if it were possible to define what “everything” meant. So we are going to use a series of case studies to give you key historical information, to let you read important and interesting texts, and to give you a good overview of what’s out there. To do that, we had to choose a governing principle to allow us to select a coherent set of case studies. That principle is commodities. We saw commodities, like textile, stone, paper, and corn, as things that many different people interacted with in different ways, and that brought together different groups of people who might have interacted very little outside of their contact related to theses commodities. So, commodities is sort of our theme for the semester, and it’s what allows us to show you a little bit about the lives of the people who used  and thought about and bought and traded all of those things.

The fact that we’re talking about things means that we’re going to be using evidence and primary sources in a way that you might not be used to. If you come into a literature or a history class, you might expect to read lots of texts. And that’s definitely something we’re going to do. We’re going to pay close attention to text in this class. But we’re also going to use the commodities themselves as texts. So for example, we just looked at maps as a way of learning a little bit about how people understood the world, and Professor Vázquez is going to show you some paintings and read the images with you, rather than just looking at them. We’re going to look at images of tapestries and clothing, for example, and see how they can tell stories just as if they were texts, rather than textiles. We’re going to see how you can deduce history from architecture rather than from writing.

This also means that we’re not going to run the class in strictly chronological order. We’re organizing the material thematically rather than chronologically. That doesn’t mean that chronology isn’t important. It definitely is and it is a part of what will let you make sense of all of the material. And so in practical terms, I would very strongly encourage you to keep a running timeline so that you have a sense of where any material we present to you comes relative to other material. It might even be something several of you want to do together, by setting up a wiki or a Google Doc that you can collaborate on. We expect that you’ll do your assignments on your own — in other words, no collaborating on your essays — but we want you study together and to review the material in groups. That’s why we ask if we can put your contact information on a class list, to facilitate your connecting up with each other.

And just like this little preview talk has been, the class is going to be a mix of the very concrete and the very abstract. And what we hope you take away is some information that will let you study these topics in greater detail and know what kinds of questions to ask, but also a kind of broader, abstract thinking and a better sense of how to ask questions. 

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