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  • Why You Can/’t Believe the Arabian Historian Cide Hamete BenengeliIslam and the Arabian Cultural Heritage in Don Quixote1
  • Nizar F. Hermes

In Don Quixote: A Touchstone for Literary Criticism (2005), distinguished Cervantine scholar James A. Parr does not seem to go too far when he hails Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (1605–1615)—hereafter Don Quixote—as the perfect model of a “pivotal text,” that is “prescient in its formulation of the strategies of the self-conscious, self-questioning, and other experimental and historical texts of our time” (6). Indeed, in addition to its superlative literary merit and fictional uniqueness, Don Quixote is historically and culturally rich. This is very much true, for example, of the text’s distinctively complex dramatization of the early modern encounter between Europe and Islam. This encounter, of course historically speaking, was primarily embodied in the conflict between Habsburg Spain and the Ottoman Empire, then Europe’s and the Islamic world’s two leading powers.2 Although the Spanish-Ottoman rivalry was performed in different territorial and, mainly, maritime battlegrounds—the Battle of Lepanto (1571) looms large in this regard—the textual ones were not less significant and Don Quixote is a compelling textual illustration.3

In growing numbers, scholars are arguing that the “contact zone,” between Europe and Islam is textually and contextually very detectable throughout the works of Cervantes.4 “Islam,” to quote Frederick Quinn’s The Sum of All Heresies: The Image of Islam in Western Thought (2008), “was a topic not only in French and English political, religious, and cultural writings but also was the focus of a major seventeenth-century Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes” (83). While a fair amount of ink has been spilled on the Islamic theme, and that of Algiers in particular, in works such as Los Bagnos de Argel (The Bagnios of Algiers), Los Tratos de Alger (The Traffic of Algiers), El Galardo Español (The Gallant Spaniard) and La Gran Sultana (The Grand Sultana), there still exits a lacuna when it comes to exploring Cervantes’ complex representation of Islam and his attitude towards the Arabo-Islamic cultural heritage in his magnum opus.

Through addressing what I see as Cervantes’ reference to the medieval propaganda myth of “the idol Mahomet,” his literary transfiguration of the early modern subversive phenomenon of the conversion to Islam, and his ambiguous feelings [End Page 206] towards the Arabian historian Cide Hamete Benengeli, I will re-visit Cervantes’ views of Islam and Muslims. I will, further, explore—again, what I see as—the not yet duly studied possible Arabic influence on Don Quixote. I will do so by comparing, for the first time in Cervantine scholarship, the Moorish tale (i.e., “The Captive’s Tale”) to the Arabian Alf Layla wa-Layla’s Frankish tale known alternatively as “Princess Miriam the Girdle-girl, Daughter of the King of France” and “The Love Tale of ʿAli Nur al-Din the Cairene and Princess Mariam, Daughter of the King of France.” I will finally, albeit briefly, draw attention to the Arabic maqāma genre whose features and motifs bear some striking similarities to some of the salient narratological and structural aspects of Don Quixote. The hope is to stir further interest and future research on the possible (in)direct influence of the Arabic maqāma genre on Don Quixote.5

It is “universally acknowledged” that Don Quixote is introduced at the beginning of the narrative as an obsessive reader of romances of chivalry and a zealous admirer of Christian knights. “In short,” we are told, “our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset” (21). In his seemingly never-ending disputes with his entourage, specifically the learned curate of the parish and the connoisseur Master Nicholas, barber of La Mancha, he prides himself on fervently defending the valor of his favorite knights Amadís de Gaula, El Cid Ruy Díaz, Bernardo del Carpio,6 giant Morgante, and Reinaldos de Montalban.7 We need to keep in mind that most, if not all, of the aforementioned...


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