Q&A: ‘The Converso’s return’

The Converso’s Return: Conversion and Sephardi History
in Contemporary Literature and Culture

by Professor Dalia Kandiyoti 

I spoke to Dalia Kandiyoti about her new book, The Converso’s Return.

Q & A for the Jewish-Muslim Research Network (JMRN)

December 2, 2020

Co-sponsored by the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center
(MEMEAC) at the Graduate Center, CUNY

Five centuries after the forced conversion of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to Catholicism, stories of these conversos‘ descendants uncovering long-hidden Jewish roots have come to light and taken hold of the literary and popular imagination. This seemingly remote history has inspired a wave of contemporary writing involving hidden artifacts, familial whispers and secrets, and clandestine Jewish ritual practices pointing to a past that had been presumed dead and buried. The Converso’s Return explores the cultural politics and literary impact of this reawakened interest in converso and crypto-Jewish history, ancestry, and identity, and asks what this fascination with lost-and-found heritage can tell us about how we relate to and make use of the past.

Dalia Kandiyoti’s latest book offers nuanced interpretations of contemporary fictional and autobiographical texts about crypto-Jews in Cuba, Mexico, New Mexico, Spain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey. These works not only imagine what might be missing from the historical archive but also suggest an alternative historical consciousness that underscores uncommon convergences of and solidarities within Sephardi, Christian, Muslim, converso, and Sabbatean histories. Steeped in diaspora, Sephardi, transamerican, Iberian, and world literature studies, The Converso’s Return illuminates how the converso narrative can enrich our understanding of history, genealogy, and collective memory.

Dalia Kandiyoti is Professor of English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. Kandiyoti researches and teaches comparative diaspora studies, American Studies, and world literature.  Her research has focused on Latina/o/x literature, global Sephardi Studies, and comparative studies of migration in the Americas. Prof. Kandiyoti’s current work includes an oral history project  and an edited volume about Sephardi Jews and the citizenship laws in Spain and Portugal, both with Dr. Rina Benmayor. This work has received support for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Anthropology Is: Bendy Minds

The best anthropologists make their minds bendy – they try to warp their perspective of the world (how it works, how ‘society’ is organised, what ‘culture’ is) and explore these questions from another perspective (and in doing so, may allow their questions to radically change) Saba Mahmood had the bendiest of minds. She showed up white liberal neo-imperialist feminists and anthropologists who went into Middle Eastern nations and placed Muslim women (from a diverse range of locations) within their white, liberal conceptual frameworks. From their perspectives – if a Muslim woman was observant, she was oppressed. Accordingly, the less Islamic they were, the more ‘liberated’.

What’s the point of anthropology – understanding cultures and societies in their diversity – if you already know what’s good and bad for groups/individuals before hand? if you can just slot them into an oppression/liberation narrative? So Mahmood made her mind bendy – she went and researched a group of Muslim women in the ‘Women’s Mosque Movement’ in Cairo after the Egyptian Revolution. Mahmood saw how the way white liberal feminists understood ‘submission’ was, for this mosque movement, irrelevant. For the practitioners of this all women’s Mosque movement, ‘submission’ to Islamic values was not a oppressive, passive, docile and dogmatic act. Submission meant an active, intellectual and bodily moulding of the self in order to internalise Islamic values and practises until they emerged from the self and body without conscious effort. Submission was a form of empowerment. To understand this, Mahmood had to deconstruct dominant European conceptions of agency, the body and freedom and in turn see how such concepts, applied to the Mosque movement, concealed as opposed to revealed something of the culture which Mahmood was studying. Much Euro-American academia (and especially anthropology), if it doesn’t question itself (and its political agendas), can violently assimilate sociocultural difference to its own terms, hierarchies and views of the world.

The best anthropologists, like Saba Mahmood, endlessly question the terms through which they understand different social and cultural groups. Many Egyptian Islamic feminists disagreed with the Women’s Mosque Movement relation to submission, although that doesn’t discount the need to understand a multitude of perspectives on the matter of women’s diverse experiences of freedom and oppression.

Read Mahmood Cairo ethnography in her 2004 Politics of Piety.