My mother has always told me stories about Santiago. He continues to haunt me, so much so that I eventually wrote him into my novella, Technologies of the Self . In the Dominican Republic, Santiago is the revered Saint James. He occupies churches and homes across Latin America, taking form in sculptures or miniature paintings. He wears knight’s armor and rides a white horse while swinging a sword through the air. The horse’s hooves trample the bodies of dark-skinned men in turbans: the Moors.
“You see that?” my mother often says to me. “Everyone is like, ‘Santiago! Santiago!’ But they never talk about those Moors.”
Every Latin American country named a major city after Santiago. He is the patron saint of Spain, Santiago de los Caballeros, Saint James of the Knights. In 1492, when the Castilian monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand “reconquered” Moorish Spain, their soldiers shouted Santiago’s name in triumph from the rooftops of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. During the Inquisition, he was called Santiago Matamoros and Matajudíos—Saint James the Moor-Slayer and Jew-Slayer.
The first time my family visited Spain, we toured the Alhambra, where the pale red stone of the fortress rose above the irregular patchwork of Granada below. Our tour group wandered through gardens with fountains naturally fed by water from nearby mountains. The scenes reminded me of Abiquiu, New Mexico, where a few years previous we had lived for one week at an Islamic spiritual retreat in the middle of nowhere. There, human architecture seemed as austere as the dry, stony landscape. I’d happened upon a lush pasture of sheep hidden behind the crags along the cliff of a plateau, and the scene had struck me as distinctly otherworldly. We believed jinn haunted the place.
In the Alhambra Palace, the guide paused beneath a dome and pointed into the patterns above. The artists had drawn seven layers of constellations.
“There,” the guide explained, “are the seven heavens. At the top is where the prophet met the god Allah.”
My father, born in Karachi and raised in Maryland, was irked by the guide’s choice of words.
“Excuse me,” he interrupted, “Allah is God. That’s how you translate it. You know that, right?”
When the guide pointed to the inscriptions of the “great king and queen Ferdinand and Isabella,” my mother asked him where they tortured the Muslims and Jews.
“I want to see the torture chambers, the dungeons,” she demanded.
“Torture?” the guide replied. “There was no torture here.”
My mother, born in Santo Domingo and raised in Manhattan, proceeded to lecture the guide in Spanish and recommended several books to him. He hardly understood Arabic. Guides not affiliated with the Spanish government’s tour agency were illegal.
Afterward, we wandered the bazaars whose cobblestone paths wound through the Alhambra’s shadow. My father discovered a distant relative from Pakistan running an antique shop. We ate lunch at a halal Moroccan restaurant tucked into the corner of a narrow walkway. When we asked the owner about the “halal wine” listed on the menu, he laughed and gestured to the thin, embroidered cups.
“You see how beautiful these are?” he exclaimed. “As soon as the wine touches the glass, bismillah, it becomes halal!”
The food was delicious—couscous mixed with vegetables, chicken, and lamb. Apparently, he had served shaykhs we knew from America.
After Granada, we visited the Great Mosque in Córdoba that had been converted to a cathedral. People had placed garish Catholic relics and saints in every corner. Santiago was among them. My father and a family friend began to pray, and security guards rushed forward and scolded them. Muslim prayer was not allowed.
The second time we visited Spain, we hired an illegal tour guide, a local Muslim doctoral candidate, to show us the “real” Alhambra. He was careful not to seem like he was showing us around. He paused outside a masjid that had been converted to a church, where a plaque boasted that Cristobal Colon attended the first mass in 1492.
That year, Isabella and Ferdinand commissioned Colon to embark west. He landed in Hispaniola in what is now the Dominican Republic. Santiago took on a new name: Santiago Mataindios. The Indian-Slayer.
We explored more of Spain and discovered how hard it was to find restaurants that did not serve pork in almost every course.
My mother told me stories about growing up between the Dominican Republic and Manhattan. The family home in the DR was in the middle of two military barracks, and when the dictator Trujillo’s son, Ramfis, rode down their street each week, he’d peer through their windows at my mother’s eldest sister, my aunt Gloria, who was around sixteen. My grandmother would say, only half-joking, that her daughters should wear burqas, fearing Ramfis would abduct them as he did any woman he fancied.
My mother also told me about a friend in her circle of Latina Muslims who remembered a statue of three women in her hometown in Peru. When she was a girl, she thought they were nuns as people assumed. Looking back, she suspects they were Muslim women in headscarves.
As I heard my mother’s stories and recalled my memories of Spain, I couldn’t help but feel the presence, as with the jinn in Abiquiu, of muffled horrors, unwritten histories, and invisible lives. Quoting Middlemarch , Edward Said wrote that Orientalists who traveled abroad were like ghosts, “wandering about the world and trying mentally to construct it as it used to be, in spite of ruin and confusing changes.” For the conqueror, this is the feeling of dreams shattered by reality, which can be remade. For the conquered, a displaced land, history, or life runs dreams—memories—against that reconfigured world.
Santiago was the dream-maker. He soared from the defeated towers of Alhambra, glided through the flow of gold, spices, bodies, and blood across the Atlantic, wriggled his toes in the sand of my mother’s country, and planted his image in homes and churches across Spain and the Americas. He is sacred in Latino culture but also the object of the erasure of our histories and the rape, pillage, and massacre of our ancestors. It seemed perverse—incestuous—that we venerate the instrument of our destruction.
Four centuries after the Reconquista, Francisco Ortiz captured this historical turning point with his painting The Capitulation of Granada , glorifying the moment when Sultan Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII surrendered the keys of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella. But, like the tour guide’s official story, there was a missing character in Ortiz’s apocryphal painting, and with this a missing story: Santiago.
He haunted me, as silent and menacing as the dry, pale walls of Alhambra were austere and—in the displaced and nostalgic way Muslims sometimes feel when they visit that place—evocative of a history not quite our own.
I made Santiago a demon in my novella, Technologies of the Self , described to the protagonist by his uncle. Santiago would flicker through dimensions in a time traveling space suit that looked like knight’s armor, haunting my characters in their daily lives, their memories, and the memories they told to one another.
At first, I told myself Santiago was a metaphor, a literary device, the “speculation” in my speculative fiction. Surely, he could not be a real thing in this world.
St. James slaying Moors. (Anonymous, 18th century, Cuzco School of Peru)
Reading early drafts, my peers—who considered the entire story fiction—remarked that parts I knew to be true felt unbelievable and those I knew I’d imagined felt real. There was something about Santiago that they, like me, couldn’t shake. He didn’t feel like my own character anymore, just as, for the protagonist, he gradually became more than a figment of his crazy uncle’s imagination.
A writer will recognize those dark times when lost obsessively in the heart of a story. I was raking my fingers in the mud of a new reality. I wanted my work to “re-enchant” the modern world, give life to the modern architecture of reality that had become mute as the Alhambra’s walls. In this architecture, the universe was cold, austere, cut off from history and tradition—material and valueless. Modernity was about unhinged progress and what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
But I was surprised to find my attempt at enchantment laced with menace. It was as if, through that lost space between dream and reality, I’d run up against the ubiquitous “dust of events” moderated by the modern state, to quote Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish .
Enchantment, I realized, necessarily confronted the pervasive, ambiguous menace of modern power. Santiago was this menace. He shaped daily habits, emotions, and ways of living, so, as Foucault wrote, the subject “becomes the principal of his own subjugation.” Santiago operated without respect for identity or bodies, but created both, for he was there during the limpieza of Spain, where his name was on the lips of the Inquisitors who brought into practice the idea of “blood purity,” giving birth to whiteness and otherness. His name traveled with Colon to the Dominican Republic, ferrying the nascent concept of the modern state to the New World.
I had intended to evoke wonder—the pleasures of memory, the pride of heritage, the affections of family and loved ones, the magnificence of the divine—but found myself left with Santiago, a demon who’d emerged from historical circumstance and the political origins of othering as much as from my mind. After all, history and politics were projects of the imagination. They were as fertile as my mother’s stories about Santiago and the DR, but as fixed as the simple reality of the Alhambra tour guide’s officially sanctioned fantasy. They were as alive as the forgotten histories of Granada, but as real as Santiago’s venerated legacy.
I knew Granada, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, and my experiences growing up Muslim in America through memory, history, and story—my family’s and my own. Before, I had asked myself whether Santiago was a figment of my characters’ imaginations, as much as he was a figment of mine. I now realized that to consider Santiago as only a metaphor or parable would sidestep the battlefield of political imaginations. The war over the social and political lives we live was also a war over dreams and their realities—a war over stories.
A few weeks ago, my mother attended an interfaith fundraiser for Syrian refugees at a local church. On the wall, she discovered a boy’s Sunday school poster project about Santiago. He had glued onto the poster a painting of the saint riding atop his horse, trampling Moors. To the boy, his parents, and his teachers, this violence fell within the scope of what they considered reasonable or irrelevant. To passersby who glimpsed it briefly, Santiago’s bloodshed was literally wallpaper, loitering in the background as he had for centuries in the paintings and sculptures that my mother has described. As if to say: Here I am. Don’t think any more of me than what you see.