Monday, May 16, 2016

La estrella y la medialuna: Nuestro destino unido

"The star and the crescent : Our joint destiny"

by Lea Gabay 

The year is 1492 in Granada, Spain at the height of the Inquisition[1] and during the final stages of La Reconquista[2]. The Catholic Monarchs, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile reign over their kingdom with an iron fist. Their plan is to purge the country of religious minorities, perceived as a threat to the predominantly Catholic population. Considered heretics, Jews are subjected to the worst forms of persecution, discrimination and are victims of massacres.  Muslims are also persecuted, harassed, and killed. 
This story begins on the eve of the announcement of the decree known as the Alhambra Decree which gives all Spanish Jews three months to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. 
    My name is Miriam. Papá once told me that I was named after Moses’s older sister from our Holy Book. He also said with a sly grin that it meant “rebellious” in Hebrew. I have always wondered why he had chosen that name for I am not one to ever question authority. I have lived all my life in Realejo[3], among people of my faith. Times have been very difficult for us. There are so many restrictions on our daily lives that we feel that we are suffocating every day; worse, we can’t even practice our religion openly for fear of being arrested, tortured, or even killed.
I never thought of myself as being a brave person, much less as being able to trust someone from another religion. All that changed on that one fateful day that determined the course of my destiny.
It was early morning and Mamá had asked me to run to the butcher shop to buy some meat. There was a palpable sense of fear that permeated Realejo. We were bracing ourselves for impending doom. I knew that I should not waste any time on the streets. It felt eerily quiet as I was walking towards the butcher shop. When I arrived, I saw that it had been vandalized: Pieces of meat were strewn all over the floor and there lying in the middle of the shop in his own pool of blood was the butcher. I let out a shriek, dropped my basket and ran out as fast I could.
No sooner had I turned a corner that I felt a sharp tug at my shirt collar, causing me to fall to the floor. I spun around in fright and looked up to see three menacing looking young men staring at me with hatred in their eyes.
“Well, well, well, what have we here? Looks like someone’s lost, “ announced one of the men with a smirk.  Another one chimed in: “He He. Yes, indeed. This has been a productive morning. We got the butcher and now, looks like we got ourselves another nice catch. What’s your name, my pretty?” Petrified, I mumbled my name. The third man lowered himself so that he was looking straight me. I could discern the hate in his eyes.
“Well, that’s an interesting name. MI-RI-AM,” he stressed each syllable with great disgust. “Doesn’t sound very Catholic, does it?”
The other two men grimaced.  “Sounds to me like we have in front of us a judÍa[4],” the second man added.
 “Yeah, look at her. A filthy Jewish scum,” the first man snarled.
Suddenly, he leaned over and slapped me right across the cheek. As I felt the spot where he had hit me, he bellowed: “You’re so disgusting. You people bring nothing but filth. You spread disease; you are a disgrace to Spain.” I wanted him to stop listening to such horrific words, but the men kept on.
 “You do nothing but bring bad luck to us good Catholics. You don’t believe in God. You just want to kill us and drink our children’s blood. You Christ killers. We should purge our country of your lot,” the first one barked.
 I pleaded for them to stop, asking them to have mercy. “Did you hear that? She wants us to have mercy! “ the second man scoffed.
He then paused for a moment, turned to his companions and gave them a knowing smile before declaring: “ I have an idea. Let’s show her how merciful we can be.”
The devilish grin that he flashed me left me with little about what they had in store for me.
At that moment, the first man grabbed me by the hair and pulled me down to the floor. He then violently spread my legs apart and yanked my skirt up. Frightened, I tried helplessly to release myself from his grip by pushing his arms away and twisting myself in all directions, but someone seized my arms and tied them behind my back so that I could not move.  Tears were streaming down my face as I continued to beg for mercy. The first man struck me on the head and told me to be quiet. As I watched the second man undo his pants, preparing himself to enter me, I closed my eyes and prayed for it to be over soon. My prayers were interrupted when I heard a voice in the distance, asking the men what they were doing.
The second man whirled around and demanded that he and his companions be left alone. But the voice refused, asking them why they were doing this to me. I craned my neck to see where the voice was coming from.  I could make out the features of a young man about my age with dark curly hair, brown eyes, and a kind face. Although he was trying to appear calm, his voice betrayed his fear.
The first man stared at him up and down and retorted: “From the looks of it you’re not Catholic either.” The other two nodded in agreement and the third man growled: “ He’s definitely not a Catholic. He’s a disgusting little moro[5].” Moro, what are you doing in these parts? Are you here for this judÍa?”.
 “You know what, boys? This is our lucky day. We have two Devil worshipers in front of us. Let’s also teach both of them a lesson,” the second man said.
 I was terrified. The young man had tried to save me and they were going to hurt him. “May God have mercy on us”, I thought.
All of sudden, I heard a shriek: The second man was holding his nose which was bleeding heavily. Next to him was a big rock. I realized that the young man had thrown it at him. Immediately, his two companions rushed to his aid. After that, everything happened so quickly: My arms were freed; the young man ran to me, grabbed my arm and yelled: “Run!”
 I scrambled to my feet and before I knew it we were darting through the streets, searching for a place to hide.
After what felt like forever, we turned a corner and went behind a large brown colored house. We waited for some moments for the coast to be clear. Then, the young man leaned against the wall and let out a huge sigh of relief: “Ufff that was close”.
 He looked over his shoulder and asked me if I was OK and whether the men had hurt me. Trying to steady myself while fighting the urge to break into tears, I shook my head and crouched down to the floor.
The young man began to speak: “I’m sorry that they did this to you. My name is Yusuf. And you?” “Miriam” I whispered. 
“Miriam…That’s a nice name.” He then hesitated before asking: “ So, why were they hurting you?”
At that moment, I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks: “It’s bbbb…It’s because I’m JJJJewwwish,” I murmured.
 Looking at me sympathetically, Yusuf apologized for the situation and suggested that he take me home as soon as possible. I agreed and we set off.
As we were walking, he asked me some questions about myself and my family and told me about his own family; that he lived with his mother and two brothers in Albayzín[6]; that his father had passed away and that he worked in a bakery. Although I was still shaken by the events of that day, I was also aware that this was the very first time that I was speaking to a Muslim. Until that day I had never really talked to anyone outside of my faith. The restrictions imposed on us by the Catholic Monarchs had made it so. I wondered whether Muslims were like us. I mentioned this to Yusuf who grinned at me: “So, I’m the first Muslim you’ve met. Well, actually I learned that we have some things in common.”
Seeing the look of consternation on my face, he continued: “I used to have a Jewish friend whose name is Ephraim. One day he told me some things about his religion. He said that  he believes in one God and that he has a day of rest called Shabbat and that he doesn’t eat pork. Well, this may surprise you, but in Islam we also believe in one God; we call him Allah and we don’t eat pork. We also have a day of rest on Friday. It’s called Jumu’ah.”
 I was indeed surprised to hear that our religions shared similar traditions. I had always assumed that my religion was so unique and here I had just discovered that some of our practices were followed by another religion. This made me wonder whether Yusuf and his family were forced to hide their religion for fear of being persecuted. “Yes, my family and I are often preyed upon for not being Christian,” he replied, his face suddenly turning grim. He paused before explaining that he even came close to being killed one day by a mob that marched into Albayzín looking to attack any non-Christians they could find. 
“I really don’t know what will happen. The situation is looking very bleak for all of us who are non-Christians or don’t follow the ways of the Catholic Church,” he muttered. 
Suddenly, I had an urge to ask him:  “Yusuf, do you think that we will have to leave? I heard rumors that the King and Queen want to expel the Jews from Spain. Do you think they will do the same for Muslims?”
 Yusuf stared at me with a great sadness in his eyes and answered: “It’s quite possible; it’s only a matter of time…”
“But, why? What have we done?” I responded in tone of deep frustration. “ Why do they hate us? Why can’t they leave us alone? We aren’t doing anything wrong? We live normal lives. We aren’t hurting anyone.”
“I wish I knew, Miriam. I agree that we are human beings like everyone else. We are not animals. We should be allowed to live in peace with everyone,” said Yusuf.
By the time we had finished talking, we had reached my home. I turned to Yusuf and looked at him full of gratitude and respect. “Here is my house. Yusuf, I can’t thank you enough for your help. You saved me. If you hadn’t been there, I….” My voice trailed off as I felt myself on the verge of tears.
This made Yusuf slightly uncomfortable. He assured me that it was nothing and that his faith had taught him to help those in need. Nevertheless, I was very eager to repay him somehow for his kindness. I then had the idea of making a special meal for him to thank him. I suggested that he come by tomorrow and I would give it to him. Smiling, Yusuf accepted the offer and promised to return the next day. We then said good-bye and I went into the house.
Little did I know that the following day would be our last in Spain. King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I proclaimed the next morning that the Jews of Spain had three months to either convert or leave the country. Officials flanked by armed guards immediately roamed the streets spreading the Monarch’s message. We were informed of this news through a neighbor. Papá and Mamá were devastated. Although we could stay a little longer in Spain, my father refused, fearing that we would suffer greatly. It was thus with a heavy heart that we began packing our things.
I had completely forgotten that Yusuf was coming on that day when I heard a commotion outside of our house. I opened the door just in time to see a guard hitting Yusuf on the side of his ear. Yusuf then fell to the floor holding onto his bleeding ear. I instantly rushed to him while the guard continued to insult him. “Do not touch him, judÍa!” he barked.
“Please, sir, don’t hurt him!” I pleaded. “He didn’t mean any harm.” It astonished me that I was able to say this to the guard. I kept going: “Please, we will go inside now.” 
 “You insolent girl. How dare you talk to me this way. I will kill both of you,”  the guard shouted.
I froze. “Oh no, he’s going to kill us. I have to think of something quickly,” I thought terror-stricken. “Wait, please, sir, spare us. I can give you whatever you want. We…we have jewelry.”
“Jewelry, huh?” The guard looked interested. “ Are you trying to entice me? You judÍos do that so well” He looked around for a moment and then stated menacingly: “Alright, give me the jewelry and  I’ll let you go. But on one condition, I never want to see any of you again I see you again, I promise that I will kill you.”
I bolted into the house to tell my parents. They had heard about Yusuf having saved my life and when they learned that his life was now in danger, they immediately rummaged through a chest to find some jewelry. Moments later, my parents and I came out of the house and handed some rings and necklaces to the guard who snatched them from us, warning us that if he saw us again, he would kill us. I knew that he meant it. We had no choice but to leave.
Once he left, Papá and Mamá and I helped Yusuf stand up. They thanked him again for having helped me. Yusuf was visibly shaken by the guard’s words. “What should I do? I can’t stay here. He will come and kill my family and me.”
I looked at Yusuf and then turned to Papá: Papá,  he needs to come with us. It’s the only way to help him.”
Papá seemed to hesitate. This was a big decision. He didn’t know Yusuf and was worried that he was taking a risk having him come with us.
 “Papá, please, he saved me. If he hadn’t been there, God only knows where I would be now.  He has a good heart and I know that we can trust him. He helped me and now it’s our turn to help him. Our religion tells us to help those in need,” I argued, emboldened.
After a few moments, Papá sighed: “Yes, I think, you’re right. Yusuf, you should come with us. You could hide, but I don’t know for how long. It looks like it won’t be long until Muslims too are the next victims”.
When Yusuf requested that his family join us, Papá assented and said to him that he needed to go home as soon as possible to inform his family and pack some things. He finally told Yusuf to meet us at the entrance of the city. “We don’t have much time. Please hurry!” urged Mamá.
As Yusuf was about to leave, I called out to him: “Yusuf, I will see you soon. “ I paused and then said: “B'ezrat Hashem[7]!”
Yusuf looked at me knowingly and replied: “Inch’allah[8]!” and ran off in the distance.


[1]  A tribunal under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church which sought to punish heresy by severely persecuting, questioning, and torturing all those considered non-Christian. It started in the 12th century and spread to Central and Western Europe.
[2]  A period in Spanish History between the Islamic conquest of Spain in the 7th century to the fall of Granada, the last Islamic state, to the expansion of the Christian kingdoms in 1492.
[3] The Jewish Quarter in Granada
[4] In Spanish: Jew
[5]  In Spanish:  Moor. In Medieval Spain, the term referred to Muslims of the Maghreb, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and Malta of Berber and Arab descent. Today it is considered a pejorative term used to talk about someone from North Africa.
[6]  The Muslim Quarter in Granada
[7]  In Hebrew: God willing
[8] In Arabic: God willing