During my first and only visit to Matamoros, a Mexican border town adjacent to Brownsville, Texas, I felt as if people were stopping in the street to stare at me as I passed. I didn't learn that matamoros was Spanish for "Moor slayer" until about seven years later, when I read Thomas B. Irving's The Tide of Islam. Perhaps it was the Moorish-American ethnicity listed on my original birth certificate that made me feel uncomfortable in a town with such an inhospitable name.
There was certainly no conscious reason for my feeling of discomfort. I was dressed in civilian clothing and looked normal by most standards. My companion did not seem to notice all of the extra attention, however, so eventually I decided that it was just my imagination.
My only other strong memory from that visit was of waiting in a line of cars at the return border crossing, while what seemed like an endless parade of beggars, many of whom were physically deformed, pleaded for handouts.
At the time, this young Naval Officer undergoing advanced flight training at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, TX, was solely interested in impressing the lovely young lady who had taken the day trip with him in his sporty British roadster. Historical details such as the unusual ethnicity entry on his birth certificate; the early 20th century circumstances that led his paternal grandfather to join the Moorish Science Temple; the history of these Mexican people or translating the name of their town, had never entered the young visitor's mind.
The harsh juxtaposition of U.S. affluence and Mexican poverty at the border crossing was not history, however. And its ugliness remained with the young officer long after he had forgotten his companion's beauty. To be fair, however, while the young lady had simply been a riding companion for one day, the stark juxtaposition of affluence and poverty at various national and community borders became an oft-repeated and always jarring theme - as did the Moor slayer.
I encountered the Moor slayer again, in various guises in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during my travels for the European edition of a technical trade magazine based in San Francisco. My distinct impression, based on visits to European cities such as London, Paris, Rome, Brussels, Munich, Vienna and Amsterdam, was that Europeans generally did not carry the deep prejudice based on skin color that one finds in the United States. But particularly during my visit to Brussels, where political advertisements at bus stops displayed ugly, hate-filled cartoons, it became quite obvious that the European equivalent of the word "nigger" was "Muslim."
Ironically, while many African-Americans sought solace from American racism in the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam and traditional Islam, many of the Muslims living in Europe might have found life easier if they had been black Christians. Both Irving's book and Stanley Lane Poole's The Moors in Spain point out that after 700 years of religiously and ethnically tolerant Muslim rule in Andalusia, the reconquest by Christian forces brought severe and barbaric repression based not on race, but on religion. This was the same spirit of "Christendom" that marched off to capture the "Holy Land" during the Crusades and slaughtered everyone that dressed in a manner that even appeared Muslim or Jewish, including Eastern Orthodox Christians.
During my European travels and readings, I found frequent references to Christendom in essays and even newspaper articles, looking forward, at that time, to the unification of Europe in 1992. But the connection to the old Moor slayer seemed a matter of distant history, particularly as Europeans spoke and wrote so much of a modern and enlightened era of cooperation and peace. Perestroika and the nonviolent fall of the "Iron Curtain" seemed to support that view. Even the bombing of Iraq by Western forces in 1990 could not convince me that if the Moor slayer was not already history, he soon would be. I must have wanted it real bad.
European inaction upon learning of Nazi-style, Bosnian Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims in 1993, however, brought me into the present. After all of the talk of a unified and peaceful Europe and particularly after the brutally strong Western military action against Iraq, European inaction as Muslim women were carted off to "rape camps" on European soil, screamed with a deafening and unmistakable silence that the Moor slayer was alive and well. Shortly after that I lost all interest in European affairs and the unification of Europe. Just as it had more than two decades ago at the border between Matamoros and Brownsville, the ugliness of the longstanding truth totally obscured the beauty of the transient idea.
Current events indicate that the Moor slayer still lurks in Europe. I've even encountered the disagreeable fellow occasionally on American soil. A historical exhibit on California in the Oakland Museum depicted old matamoros doing his thing on a religious tapestry that was brought over from Spain to the New World. I remember gazing at it and wondering distractedly if I had ever encountered any reference to a Christian slayer, or any other kind of slayer for that matter, in the religion of Islam. I couldn't think of one.
More recently, I had an interesting experience while taking a music class at a community college built on Spanish mission land, named after the Native Americans who lived on the land before the Spaniards took it over. One of the students in the class asked the instructor about Moorish influence on the development of the Spanish guitar. The instructor responded passionately about what he described as the horrible Moorish invasion and oppression of Spain. I wanted to say something but was too shocked to respond. It was the first time I had ever heard that history from the perspective of the Moor slayer. Of course everyone is entitled to his or her perspective. But look at it this way. The Moors ruled Spain for 700 years. But dated from its earliest beginnings, the European invasion of the Americas is only about 500 years old. So perhaps in a couple of centuries, when the Native Americans have pushed out the oppressive invaders...well, you know what I'm driving at.
It seems that the line of traffic at the border of Brownsville and Matamoros may actually be circling around a very old rut. Perhaps it's time to abandon our fashionable two-seater for a vehicle that will accommodate everybody ... Planet Earth, perhaps?
Ibn Musa directs the Imagine Peace Project at http://www.imaginepeace.org.
Copyright 1999 Ibn Musa