Converting Texts: A 16th-Century Spanish Arabic Catechism in Modern-Day Algeria

By Claire Gilbert

Bibliothèque National d’Alger/al-Maktaba al-Wataniyya al-Jaza’iriyyah, BNAIn 1554, in a small city in the mountainous region north of Granada, a translation was made of Spanish-language Tridentine catechetical materials into Granadan Arabic. In 1893, that manuscript was inventoried by the French colonial administration as part of the holding of the French public library system in the Bibliothèque-Musée d’Alger. Today it is housed in what is now the Algerian National Library in Algiers (Bibliothèque National d’Alger/al-Maktaba al-Wataniyya al-Jaza’iriyyah, BNA). In the absence of more 19th-century materials about the provenance of the text, we cannot say with certainty how it found its way into the hands of French colonial agents, but by reflecting on the circumstances of its production and reception in the 16th century, we may piece together a possible route for the Ta’lim wa Quira’a from Granada to Algeria.

The Ta’lim wa Qira’a is one of three known Castilian catechisms translated into Arabic over the course of the 16th century. As the Arabic (f. 3) and Spanish titles (ff. 40v-41r) tell us, this text is an Arabic translation of a Castilian (romance) catechism (doctrina) written by the Bishop of Guadix and Baza, Martín Pérez de Ayala, in 1554. The translator was the beneficed clergyman Bartólome Dorador, a bilingual priest who worked in Guadix, in which region there was a large Arabic-speaking morisco population.

Not all that much is known about Dorador, although Carlos Garrido has recently brought important new documents to light from local archives. Most of what has been known about Dorador comes from the work of María Paz Torres Palomo, whose emphasis was on the linguistic analysis of the Ta’lim wa Quira’a. According to her work, Dorador was born not far from Guadix (Sabiote, in Jaén) and spent several years with his grandfather, a military inspector (veedor) in the Spanish North African presidio of Melilla, and it is there where Torres Palomo posits he likely learned Arabic. Nonetheless, Dorador’s version did not achieve the wide currency of the other two 16th-century Iberian Arabic catechisms (1505 and 1566), both of which were eventually printed while Dorador’s remains in manuscript.

Bibliothèque National d’Alger/al-Maktaba al-Wataniyya al-Jaza’iriyyah, BNAAlthough it was difficult to work with, the text could still have been of value to other priests invested in Arabic-language Christian instruction in Spain. This brings me to one possible trajectory. When Ayala left Guadix, he may have taken the Arabic catechism with him, since he had commissioned it. He would have likely had it in Valencia when he ordered that a new Arabic catechism be made. The likely translator of that catechism, the Jesuit Jeronimo Mur, had been recalled from Rome where he had been sent by his order to study Arabic for just such a purpose. Ayala may have provided his new translator with Dorador’s attempt as an example of an inadequate translation, or perhaps for more constructive reasons. In any case, Ayala died in 1566, the same year his bilingual doctrina was published in Valencia. Just a year later, Jeronimo Mur, who by all accounts remained deeply interested in learning Arabic and creating Arabic-language materials to support priests carrying out missions and instruction in Arabic-speaking communities, was sent unwillingly to the Spanish North African presidio Oran for what turned out to be a five-year mission. While there, he continually petitioned his fellow Jesuits to send him Arabic-language teaching and Christian materials to aid in his efforts with the Muslims living around the Spanish garrison.

Bibliothèque National d’Alger/al-Maktaba al-Wataniyya al-Jaza’iriyyah, BNACould Ayala’s second Arabic translator in fact be the vector by which Dorador’s slim volume crossed the Mediterranean? By 1869 it appears in the collections of the French Bibliothèque-Musée d’Alger, whose first librarians had collected manuscripts from all over Algeria, including the former Spanish presidio of Oran. It seems to have been forgotten for the next several decades until the 1920s, when the Italian missionary A. Giacobetti, of the order of Notre Dame d’Afrique, sent a personal communication to the French hispanist Robert Ricard informing him of the manuscript and its location. Even if we cannot establish the exact provenance of the text, what can these hypotheses about possible routes of transmission teach us about religious instruction and language politics in the Hispanic monarchy, including in its military outposts in North Africa?

Claire Gilbert is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Saint Louis University. She received her Ph.D. from UCLA in 2014. Her dissertation explored the politics of language in early modern Spain and the Western Mediterranean, and her work has been supported by the Fulbright Program, Social Science Research Council, Huntington Library, Spain-U.S. Program for Cultural Cooperation, and the Chancellor's Prize of the University of California.