Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Professor Liang helps launch academic organization

Wheaton Professor Gen LiangGeographically separated only by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar—and closely linked politically, religiously, culturally and economically for centuries—North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula have long been regarded as “worlds apart” by most scholars. Thanks to a promising new scholarly organization launched by Assistant Professor of History Yuen-Gen Liang and a group of colleagues, the many important links between the two regions are being re-established in the classroom, in scholarship and across academia.

Liang, founder and executive director of the new initiative known as the Spain-North Africa Project (SNAP), says the endeavor has bloomed from intellectual seeds planted during discussions among 11 American scholars attending the 2010 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute in Barcelona, Spain.

“It was intellectually rewarding to encounter other scholars who are interested in bridging the divide that has separated the region for so long,” Liang explains. “We came to realize that we shared an interest in exploring Iberia and North Africa as a single geographic region.”

As an interdisciplinary group founded by scholars of art history, history, literature, philosophy and religious studies, Liang says they seek to share work and collaborate on projects that break down the geographic, political and cultural divisions between Iberia and North Africa. Liang is organizing a one-day conference scheduled to be held at Catholic University of America in November.

So far SNAP has grown to include 43 academics at two dozen U.S. colleges and universities—Princeton, Harvard, Cornell, UCLA, University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Tufts, Brown and Wheaton—as well as educational institutions in Spain, Morocco, Egypt, Oman, Mexico and the United Kingdom. “Our work is already having a positive impact on conferences and academic journals,” says Liang, “as is the knowledge we’re contributing across disciplines, which is enriching the classrooms where we teach.”

In his own work studying, teaching and writing about the history and people of Spain and North Africa, Liang has often documented the deep interconnectedness across the region. Politically, this region was brought together in the Middle Ages and early modern period by the Visigothic, Umayyad, Almoravid, Almohad, Portuguese and Spanish empires. Modern Spain, in fact, still possesses two cities on the Moroccan coast—Ceuta and Melilla.

During this long history, hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Moriscos and Conversos moved back and forth across the Strait. They brought their goods and ideas with them. For example, Arabs introduced rice, cotton, sugarcane, citrus, spinach, eggplants and artichokes into Iberia.

Artistic traditions were transmitted across the Strait; the Cathedral of Seville’s famous bell tower, the Giralda, was once a minaret, whose design was inspired by Marrakesh’s Koutoubia Mosque. Knowledge of Aristotle, preserved and elaborated upon by scholars in the Islamic world, flowed to Europe via Iberia, helping to spark the Renaissance. In this region, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived everyday lives next to each other, sharing, cooperating and fighting over political power, economic relations, religious customs, culinary traditions and sexual relations.

The history of this region often surprises  Liang’s students, and they are studying these links as unrest across North Africa has suddenly thrust European–North African relations into the news.

“Today’s assumptions about the geography of North Africa and much of the Mediterranean is seen through the lens of the ‘clash of civilizations,’” he says. “If we consider the reality that this is one large region, it then breaks down many of the contemporary assumptions about the West and the Islamic world, and it allows a better understanding of many of the issues there.”

Read more about the organization at www.SNAPgroup.info.

Photo / Keith Nordstrom

About Randell Kennedy

Randell J. Kennedy is a higher education consultant who frequently writes about the liberal arts, science and engineering.