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Saturday, March 17, 2007 

Lisbon - an Arab city in the heart of Europe

You won't hear many Arab voices in Lisbon. But look beneath the skin, and Lisbon's Arab history is all around.

In most parts of Portugal's capital you'd struggle to tell you're still in Europe. It's easy to spot Arab skin - but I'm not in the 'ethnic' quarter you'll find in most European capitals - the history of these people - who look Arab - stretches back centuries. They aren't Arabs living in Portugal. Portugal is Arab. The reminents of 400 years of Arab rule are everywhere.

There's the superficial - road names betray a connection with Arab world: Rua Monte Damasco, Vialle Jordan.

And there's the Damascus jam on sale. 'Damasco' is a type of peach, named after the Syrian capital.

But the Arab connection is more fundamental. The Portuguese language is made up of hundreds of Arabic words.

And venture into quarters like Mouraria (the Moorish district of Lisbon), and it feels more like a Beirut suburb than neighbouring capitals of Madrid, or Paris or Rome.

Crumbling houses, washing hanging from balconies, old women talking to their neighbours across the street from rooftop to rooftop, bakeries packed with morning customers, men sitting lazily in their cramped shop selling olives, nuts, sweets, washing powder, brushes...

Climb up the hill a little (because this city has almost no flat land, every street is a hill...a very steep hill) and you'll get to Se cathedral.

Arabs were in control of this city, and much of the Spanish peninsular until 1147. But the Europeans got their city back, eventually, and turned one of the mosques into a fabulous cathedral: the Se. A symbol of Christian dominance, the reverse, in many ways, of the Ummayid Mosque in Damascus (which used to be a church, and still houses the head of John the Baptist).

Down the other side of the hill is the cramped district of Alfama (the name comes from Al-Hama, the spring). It's the most crowded part of the city. And one of the poorest places in central Lisbon. Rent control means the big old families haven't been forced out, despite property developers desperate to get their hands on this prime location.

If Mouraria is like Beirut, Alfama is Damascus.

Close your eyes and you could almost...almost feel like you are in Damascus's Old City.

The smell of jasmine...the melissa tea being slurped in doorways as old men chat...the children running through the streets with their mothers in pursuit...the narrow passageways...the sense of adventure as you turn a corner...the old houses turned into dramatic restaurants...the lack of tourists...the flags fluttering from balconies.

And then you hear it. It sounds a little like someone's had too much to drink, and they've decided they can sing. The Fado 'houses' in Alfama are the birthplace of Lisbon's music (they're usually bars or restaurants, with an atmosphere reminiscent of the bars of Bab Sharqi).

Melancholy lyrics, often made up on the spur of the moment, are accompanied by the Arab oud (the lute).

The Arab history of this country is dotted all around Lisbon...in the sights, the smells, the people, but most importantly, in Lisbon's culture. And it works the other way too - Damascus University has just started its first Portuguese course.

In the end, no matter how tolerant Arab rule of Lisbon was reputed to be, it was inevitable that it couldn't last forever. All occupation comes to an end at some point.

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Hi Sasa, I have a question: what do you mean with - "In the end, no matter how tolerant Arab rule of Lisbon was reputed to be, it was inevitable that it couldn't last forever. All occupation comes to an end at some point" - ??
I'm not sure of understanding the real meaaning of this phrase.
Thank you in anticipation

Hi Patrick - thanks for your question,

During the Arab rule of Lisbon, it was said to be a very liberal, tolerant city, with all religions allowed to practise.

But eventually, the Europeans reclaimed their city.

My point was that all occupations come to an end - even after 400 years. So we shouldn't lose hope just because Palestine has been occupied for 60 years, Syria's Golan Heights for 40 years, or Iraq for 4 years.

Does that answer your question?


Though your heart is in the right place, I feel your last statement was a bit inaccurate. You're applying modern understandings of occupation with conquest in the classical period of Arab history.

The old Roman colony of "Hispania" was about as "European" as Paris was back then. Europe as the concept we recognise today simply didn't exist and ideas that Spain "belonged" to anybody is a conveniently constructed history. There was a Visigothic kingdom which was Christian in some sense, but that was shattered. The Visigoths themselves were not Hispanic in any sense and neither were the invading Europeans from the North. The "Reconquesta" was an idea which was fuelled by the idea that any and all Muslim lands were to be purged of them, including the heartland in the Levant. Something they tried to do through the Crusades and failed, and succeeded in doing in Eastern Europe. In fact, the area of Muhajreen in Damascus is called so because it housed those refugees who fled after the receding of the Ottoman empire there because of what we now call ethnic cleansing.

The Arabs were not "occupying" Spain any more than the Carthaginians or Romans were. It is quite common for pro-Zionists or militant Christians to denounce Arab invasions of Christian lands as if it happened yesterday and as if those peoples have remained occupied till the present, waiting for "liberation". This widens the scope of debate to a point where they can then say that Israel has a historical right to exist, creates artificial arguments which are really best discussed by historians, and detracts from the legitimacy of the Palestinian right to their homeland. In that sense, the ethnic cleansing of Andalus from all Moors and Muslims as well as Jews was a historic injustice. This injustice is perpetuated by warped interpretations of history and is now being attempted in the Occupied territories.

sada dont forget that syria is also occupied by the beasts which is really their true familly name,they came to damascus and syrian cities as their former allies the tatar of holaku and timurlank ,when ,in spain ,the spanish are working hard to preserve their islamic omayad heritage and they are very proud of it.

Hello Sassa,
Quite a coincidence; I just spoke of "saudade" and its connection to sauda-iya on my blog http://syrie.be and was wondering about the other connections between Portugal and the Arabs. I'll mention the link to your post. But still, I would have liked some more historical facts. Was Portugal settled at the same time as Spain ?

yes annie,most of portugal was under the califat of cordoba control.

Yes, thank you very much Sasa.

Wassim - thank you, as usual your insight is illuminating. Your knowledge of Arab history putsme to shame! I'm sorry if it looked like a direct comparison between the two periods (Arab conquests - Israeli occupation). My point was simply to say that justice restores itself eventually, even if it takes centuries.

Annie - I just read your post, it is very interesting, and yes, I forgot to mention the closeness of the name Portugal to the word Orange in Arabic. What a strange coincidence that we have the same thoughts!

السلام عليكم
I'm from Portugal, I live near Lisbon and I studied ad work there for 18 years. Arab influence is present allover Portugal, but specialy in southern regions (the ancient gharb al-andalus). Northern portuguese often call us "moorish" and "morroccans".

Our language is a latin language, but we have lots of arabic words. Lisbon toponimy has lots and lots of arabic names. Let me mention only some of the most known districts and subburbia with arabic names. Some are quite obvious, other no so.

Trafaria - طريفية (tarîfya)
Almada - المحدن (al-ma'dan)
Atalaia - الطلحة (aT-Talaha)
Alcoentre - القنيطرة (al-qunaytara)
Ota - وطا (uTâ)
Alverca - البكة (al-burqa)
Santa Iria de Azóia - الزاوية (az-zawya)
Azambuja - الزبزج (az-zabuja)

City districts:
Alvalade - البلاد (al-balad)
Alcântara - القنطرة (al-qanTara)
Alfama - الحمى (al-hama)
Aljube - الجب (al-jub)

We also have lots of arabic words used everyday by everyone. Some common exemples:

فلان / فلانة (fulanu / fulana): fulano / fulana (some man, some woman)
حتى (hatta): até (until, even)
إنشاء الله (insha' Allah): oxalá (hopefuly)
الزيت (az-zayt): azeite (olive oil)

and lots of words starting with al- (ال).

A picture from one of the most famous Lisbon restaurants, "Casa do Alentejo":

And some free e-books in portuguese (left column) and arabic (right column) about arabic influence in Portugal, and also about cultural rapports between Portugal and some arab countries:


This comment has been removed by the author.

pour annie:

i read in your blog the following:
"Le nom du pays, Portugal, est à rapprocher de Bourtoukal (orange)"

But in this example , was the portuguese language that influenced the arabic, as the name for the sweet orange came after the introduction of this fruit in the region by the portuguese merchants, that brought it from china. cf http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_%28fruit%29

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  • From Damascus to London via Beirut. Based in and out of the central Damascene hamlet of Saroujah. News and feelings from the streets every day. I'm talking rubbish? Leave a comment. Welcome to the information democracy. See below for info about this site.
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