Before the memory of our family vacation fades too fast in the wake of getting back to work and school for my oldest, I wanted to take a moment and talk a little bit about some of the things I have learned about travelling with kids as a result of this Euro trip.

Background: I haven’t taken a vacation in 7.5 years. The last time I truly had a break from work, school and the hustle was my very first trip to Morocco in 2011 to visit my husband, meet his family, and check out the school he was building. I spent six weeks getting to know everyone and seeing some sights around the country including a trip to the Sahara through Marrakech, Ouarzazate and Merzouga, and side trips to Casablanca, Mohammedia and Rabat. Even though we travelled around a bit, it wasn’t a super touristy trip because we didn’t have our marriage license yet and so paying for two hotel rooms everywhere we went wasn’t feasible for extended periods of time. I spent most of the time between his family’s places in Marrakech and a small village 60km north called Attaouia. This was followed by a month in Florence six months later where I spent most of my time buying and devouring dozens of books from a boutique English bookshop just off Piazza Duomo. Shortly thereafter, I actually moved to Morocco to continue building our school and running classes for small children in it.

Since that time, I’ve had two marriage celebrations (one in Canada and one in Morocco, same marriage!), taught for three years, endured a horrific birth trauma with my firstborn, immigrated with my husband and daughter back to Canada, built a business, completed a masters degree, delivered dozens of lectures/workshops on Islam and anti-racism work to literally thousands of people, and had a second baby. Between motherhood, grad school and the pressures of being a veiled Muslim  woman activist in an era of rising Islamophobia and misogyny, it’s safe to say, I have felt burnt out for a long time. So much so that burnt out has been my new normal…for a while.

Well rested on the last day of our trip.

Fast forward to August 2018 when we decided to use our good ol’ Canadian parental leave to take five months in Morocco and you have me still juggling kids, full time work (business has been busier than ever, thank God) and everything else in between -only now, I’ve had all the uniquely Moroccan stressors added, ones that I won’t get into listing much but which involve weather extremes, bugs and cultural divides, especially in the village where we are staying.

Because Canadian passports only entitle you to three months in Morocco without a residency card, work permit or visitor’s visa extension, November started to loom on the horizon. I had zero intention of going through the hassle of getting my papers for a (relatively and comparatively) short stay so I decided we should do a visa run on a cheap flight to Europe.

I am one of those moms that cannot leave her children for long periods of time. My oldest – who is now a spirited and eternally stubborn five year old – has only ever spent two nights out of my bed: the night her sister was born and the night after. I haven’t been away from my new baby for more than an hour in the ten months since she was born. As a survivor and someone who lives with PTSD, this is what I need to do to feel secure and safe and I am alright with that. What it means though is if I do a visa run, my family is coming with me.

So I started scouring for flights anywhere in Europe from Marrakech and checking out sights and accommodations in each place. As I looked more and more, it suddenly dawned on me: why not take an actual two-week vacation? One where you set an email auto-responder and legitimately don’t check your inbox. One where your phone is set to airplane mode and you only open the Wifi to update your Instagram. Could it really be possible? Do I dare to eat a peach? Do I dare disturb the universe?

alcazar of seville
Tile detail in the Real Alcazar de Sevilla

In the end, my love of history and my husband’s indifference won out and I booked us for five days in Berlin followed by ten days in the south of Spain running the Malaga-Cordoba-Sevilla circuit. I only had mild nerves as I gleefully packed our bags, carefully estimating how many diapers and how much formula I could cram into the two smaller checked bags the budget airline allowed. But ultimately the nerves were for nothing: we went on to have one of the best trips of my life and I will savor its memories for the rest of it.

What made it so great?

People we know couldn’t believe we were attempting a Euro-trip with two kids. People called us “heroes”and “troopers”. I honestly didn’t know what all the fuss was about and I still don’t. With enough careful planning and some important things to remember, traveling with super small kids can be fun, rewarding even. Were there meltdown moments for everyone involved? Of course. Did they happen often enough to destroy our enjoyment? No. And in the process we had the time and energy to learn more from our kids about what they need and when they need it.

Guten Tag, Berlin

Timing is everything. First of all, lap babies fly free so why not take advantage of that fact? Go when your baby is a bit bigger but not too big that they want to walk around all the time. The perfect middle ground for us was almost 10 months.

Also, when you’re checking flights, try to pick ones with good check in/departure times as well as being mindful of when they will land and how long it takes to arrive at your destination. We found that booking early morning flights to destinations worked well because we could rouse our kids to get on the plane but then they would be so groggy as to pass out as soon as the flight took off, waking off somewhat refreshed on arrival. Baby was a bit fussy on the flight to Berlin but still napped most of the way.

Check your booking carefully. We booked holiday apartments and even a hostel instead of pricey hotels. But it wasn’t just a budgetary decision: we also needed access to a small kitchen everywhere we went so we could prepare kid-friendly foods and wash bottles. Two out of four places also had baby cots for us and the other two had furniture arrangements that allowed for safe sleeping regardless. Also, many bookings have specific check-in times and won’t allow entry before then – make sure you time your flight/travel to allow for you to get to accommodations as soon as you arrive. There is little more anxiety-producing scenarios than dragging a stroller, two de-planed kids and suitcases down narrow cobblestone streets. If you have to, request early entry and pay slightly extra if you have to. There was only one occasion where we had to sit around so we found a playground and parked the baby, her stroller and the luggage while our oldest got her pent up energy out.

View over Malaga

Hit the supermarket. Honestly, as much as I am a closet foodie and wannabe chef, culinary tourism isn’t really my bag. Especially since becoming Muslim when finding halal or even vegetarian options is nearly impossible. We were so touched that the breakfast at our hostel in Berlin actually had certified halal breakfast sausages and we occasionally hit a shawarma shop, but most of the trip involved getting fresh bread, produce, instant coffees and yoghurts at the corner shop. It was infinitely cheaper than attempting restaurant eats with a picky kid who prefers fresh veggies and simple food, and our pocketbooks were happy the whole trip.

Let go of the Euro-trip stereotypes. When a lot of folks think of backpacking across Europe, they think of late nights at pubs and days spent rushing from one sight to the next. Obviously as Muslims we have zero interest in clubs or bars, and ultimately we let our kids set the pace for the day. We booked enough time in each place to do one or two major things a day, interspersed with supermarket runs, playground breaks or outright Legoland visits. Having kids with us also meant hitting the sack when they did at 8pm after clocking 15-18,000 steps a day together.  And that was alright. In fact, it was ideal. We got so much more rest than we were used to and rising early to have a fresh breakfast and plan our route for the day became a beautiful routine for us. There were some days we just didn’t make it to all of our destinations either and instead we wandered around, taking in neighbourhoods outside the center and seeing different things.

Ultimately, you know your own family best. These are just some of the things we found helped us have a much-needed rest and to make the most of it together. Alhamdulilah for that.

Plaza de Espana, Sevilla

16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 


There can be no doubt that one of the most remembered thinkers of 12th century al-Andalus is Ibn Rushd. How he is remembered varies from author to author, with some focusing on his philosophical achievements, crediting him as ushering in the foundations of the European Enlightenment through his Neo-Aristotelian exegesis and others preferring to contextualize his philosophical achievements within their political-religious contexts. In her book, Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal falls into the former category, elevating Ibn Rushd to the level of extraordinary and even characterizing him as a victim of the “single-mindedness” of the Almohad conquerors who overtook al-Andalus in his lifetime.[1] While this makes Ibn Rushd’s successes seem all the more incredible in the face of the alleged fundamentalist, unReasonable Almohad regime, the fact is that only part of Ibn Rushd’s story is being told. Both Richard Fletcher and Olivia Remie Constable paint a much different picture of Ibn Rushd as not only a revered philosopher but also a supporter of the Almohads, and a physician and advisor to the Almohad rulers. Why is there such a discrepancy in these recountings? The answer to this question has less to do with Ibn Rushd himself than how he fits into the overall project of each author. Ibn Rushd as an Almohad protagonist compromises Menocal’s overall counter-myth-making plan of upholding al-Andalus as an integral part of the European Renaissance and later Enlightenment against the typical “barbaric” African fundamentalist backdrop of Almohad al-Andalus.

In “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography,” Menocal follows in similar footsteps as the likes of Hayden White and other Critical Memory theorists who concur that “our writing of history is as much a myth-making activity as that of more primitive societies.”[2] She explores Western discourse’s preoccupation with their own intellectual heredity, shattering notions of the East-West dichotomy by pointing out how their particular myth comes with a dominant and selective forgetting of al-Andalus’ instigation and propagation of the so-called “West’s” intellectual Renaissance.[3] Her call for the inclusion of Andalusian influence in Western literary historiography is characterized as involving a major paradigm shift of unimaginable proportions because it requires the reimagining of Western civilization as “indebted to and dependent on a culture… regarded as inferior…and as the quintessence of the foreign and the Other.”[4] As such, a reading of her more popular text, Ornament of the World might be read as the development of a counter myth challenging the hegemonic discourse that excludes and Others al-Andalus from European intellectual history. Indeed, Menocal is unabashed about her project in its introductory chapter, Beginnings, arguing that much of Europe “was shaped by the deep-seated vision of complex and contradictory identities that was first elevated to an art form by the Andalusians.”[5] And while this project might be noble in itself, especially in terms of more accurately nuancing our understanding of the development of European intellectualism, Menocal’s book is permeated with instances of problematic Othering – upholding al-Andalus as exceptional and acceptably European (particularly for its legacy). This is done at the expense of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties who are conflated together as both barbaric, fundamentalist and, ultimately, foreign Muslim conqueror. The underlying story that is then told is that the Muslims that are acceptable for Europeans are those that most resemble Europeans.

One of the most glaring instances of this unfortunate consequence of Menocal’s project is found in her depiction of Ibn Rushd. Flip to the name Ibn Rushd in the index of Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World and the reader is directed to “see Averroes.”[6] Though it can be argued that this choice was that of the publisher, particularly for a commercial book whose audience might not be aware that Ibn Rushd and Averroes are the same Muslim person, the point is that an Andalusi-Euro-fication of Ibn Rushd is definitely at work elsewhere in Menocal’s book. When Menocal formally introduces us to Ibn Rushd, she sets him alongside Musa ibn Maymun, arguing that their work was shaped “by the advent of the Almohads” and their “single-mindedness” or “repressions” that dominated Andalusian society.[7] She goes on to pitch him as primarily a philosopher in an age of great Andalusian discourse, where the place of Reason beside religion was negotiated or accepted and rejected, back and forth, by the likes of Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali, ibn Maymun and Ibn Rushd himself.[8] She concludes that although Ibn Rushd’s work made him a hero in Europe, he died in Marrakesh under “suspicious circumstances” (possibly Almohad house arrest) and implies that his philosophy received “a markedly different reception” within his own culture.[9] Is she referring to his Islamic culture, Andalusian culture or to the Almohad-dominated culture of his day? In all instances, and any combinations of these as well, her implication that his death or house arrest had something to do with his philosophical paradigm might be purposeful conjecture and requires an equally purposeful dismissal of the important political roles he held under the Almohads which allowed for his philosophy to develop.

While the index of Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain also diverts readers in search of Ibn Rushd to Averroes, Fletcher presents a much less contrived version of this character. While Fletcher notes that the Almoravids and Almohads shared some similar characteristics, particularly in terms of the beginning of their movements around charismatic leaders, their methods of conquering al-Andalus and their characterization as “fundamentalist”, he does distinguish between their brands of Islam. Fletcher is careful to show that the Almohads represented: a rejection of Almoravid (and Andalusian) Maliki legalism, a theology based on the immanence of God, and a move to “spiritual interiority” that would later find its most formidable philosophical expression in the work of Ibn Rushd.[10] Ibn Rushd flourished as a philosopher (and in many other roles) because philosophy –contrary to other depictions – was actually an integral part of Almohad rule in al-Andalus. Fletcher points to the example of Ibn Tufayl who was the physician of Almohad ruler, Yusuf I, who not only sought to marry religion and philosophy in his own writing, but also was responsible for introducing Ibn Rushd to Almohad court circles (which he was an early supporter of) where he served as qadi of Seville and Cordoba, but also inherited the position of physician and trusted advisor to Yusuf (and Ya’qub). [11]

The argument that Ibn Rushd was rejected by the rulers of his time for his philosophical endeavours is simply wrong. He was immersed in Almohad political and cultural circles, and given his prominent position with the ruling group, there is little reason to think that the Almohads were repressive of his way of uniting Islamic creed and Aristotelian Reason. In fact, The Almohad Creed of 1183, composed at a time when Ibn Rushd was the closest advisor of Yusuf I, is explicit in its unification of these two concepts, declaring reason to be the main criterion for religious truths[12]. Olivia Remie Constable argues that, in all likelihood, this important document was written by Ibn Rushd. With its appeal to the use of Reason and the finding of “common ground on which to establish faith propositions,” the creed of the Almohads seriously challenges Menocal’s depictions of them as barbaric exclusionists.[13]

The Almohad openness to Ibn Rushd’s discourse (despite early inspiration from the works of Al-Ghazali which rejected the marriage of Reason with philosophy) is what made his prolific writing possible. And this alone, presents a much different image of the Almohads than what Menocal wants to put forth as part of her counter-myth. Her project, while a response to forgetful European intellectual hereditary myths (which is a noble cause) simply does not go far enough. Menocal falls short of following her own imperative in the study of “Muslims” and “Arabic culture” in medieval Europe by excluding the Almohads from the discussion. If such work is to be done and it “must be…rooted in the rejection of the simplicities an isolations of its own categories and terms, in an appreciation of the profound ambivalence of such readily nameable identities and of the necessary interconnectedness with other (equally ambivalent) identities,”[14] then the inclusion of Almohads in a European narrative becomes the necessary response to such an imperative. Rather than the European Renaissance being derived of purely “Andalusian” intellectual development, tolerance, and reverence for ancient philosophy (which the Almohads allegedly are outsiders to), the rise of Reason in Europe, through the discourse in writings of philosophers like Ibn Rushd, must be seen for what it, at least in part, is: an Almohad inheritance.

[1] Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. 2002, p 208

[2] Menocal, Maria Rosa, “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, eds. Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells, Columbia University Press: New York, 2003, p 249.

[3] Menocal, “The Myth”, p 250.

[4] Ibid 257

[5] Menocal, Ornament of the World, p12.

[6] Menocal, Ornament of the World, p 307.

[7] Ibid, p 208

[8] Ibid, p 211

[9] Ibid, p 212

[10] Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. 1992 p119

[11] Ibid, p 132-33

[12] “The Almohad Creed (1183)” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012:p. 245-6.

[13] Constable, Ibid; Menocal, Ornament of the World, p 195-6.

[14] Menocal, “The Myth”, p 268.

As the de-facto leader of the caliphate of al-Andalus under the reign of Hisham II, Al Mansour carried out a significant number of military expeditions to the Christian lands in the north, gathering booty and prestige along the way. One of the most significant campaigns occurred in 997 (386-7), when Al Mansour sacked the Santiago de Compostela. Historians such as Richard Fletcher, Maribel Fierro, and Maria Rosa Menocal have highlighted the significance of this event, for different reasons, trying to unpack the real motivations behind it. In this paper, I will briefly examine the justifications these historians give for the possible economic, political and religious reasons behind the sack, concluding with my own synthesis of their arguments in light of primary source materials. My hope is that this will yield a clearer picture of what might have been behind Al Mansour’s campaign to this particular place in Christendom.

In Moorish Spain, Richard Fletcher argues that the campaign in Compostela fit the mould of the previous caliph’s expeditions as being primarily to “exact tribute, plunder, livestock, slaves [and] treasure.”[1] The motivations of both leaders, according to Fletcher, were primarily economic and they used these campaigns to raise capital for a leadership that had a significantly smaller tax base (given the rise of conversions to Islam and the exodus of Christian emigres to the north). Fletcher likens the sacking of a monastery to “something like raiding a bank” while simultaneously downplaying any religious dimensions that may have been important for the campaigners.[2] Naming the expedition to Compostela as the “most daring and notorious in a series of hammer-blows…delivered to the Christian principalities”, Fletcher is also quick to situate it among nine other campaigns in the same paragraph. His point is that the Compostela raid was one of many (fifty-seven in total) and that it was not undertaken as an exceptional religious vendetta against the monastery of St. James the Moor-slayer.

With booty and capital would come political prestige and legitimacy. In the case of Al Mansour, he might have been less occupied with being named the real leader of al-Andalus so long as he wielded all the actual control anyway. Fletcher argues that the primary drive for the expeditions was likely economic in order to cover the enormous costs incurred by Al Mansour to maintain his rule. These costs included the building of Madina al-Zahira and the transfer of administration of the caliphate there, additions to the Great Mosque in Cordoba, reducing the amount of taxes he collected to build his popularity, rewarding loyal followers with considerable gifts and increasing the size of the army.[3] Financial gain, however, is only a means to an end and, in looking at what Al Mansour financed with his booty, it becomes clear that political strength and the consolidation of power are an important part of the motivation puzzle. Further, if Al-Mansour’s expeditions were following the same basic pattern as his caliphal predecessor, Abd al-Rahman III, it must be recognized that financial gain (while a beneficial byproduct) might not have been the only purpose behind these expeditions, Compostela included. As Maribel Fierro notes, the primary reason for the excursions under Abd al-Rahman, was to check Christian expansion into Islamic lands by “weakening the enemy to prevent attacks.”[4]

For Maria Rosa Menocal, the attack on Compostela was a continuation of Al-Mansour’s dictatorial and “bloodthirsty” rule, and, further, contained a distinctly religious flavour. Menocal claims that the taking of the church’s bells was not only “gratuitous” (implying that it was unprovoked or unjustified) but also that the bells were “purely religious trophies.”[5] In reading the ode written by Ibn Darraj al-Qastalli in praise of Al-Mansour and contemporary to the event, the invocation of religious imagery and allusions to divine sanction might seem to uphold Menocal’s claim.[6] However, this was a common literary tool of the time that might have more to do with the tastes and offering retrospective justifications for raids, than gaining insight into Al-Mansour’s personal motivations for the raid. In looking at the Latin account of the raid from Historia Turpini, there is little evidence to uphold Menocal’s argument as the description does not go much beyond that found in Fletcher’s book: it was a raid on the church in search of booty.[7] Of course, this account was written in the 12th century in France and so is difficult to use for accurate historical verification, but it does show that even later Christian-origin accounts of the expedition did not peg it as an exclusively religious enterprise.

And yet, the possibility of there being a religious dimension is difficult to ignore in light of some material evidence not yet considered. Firstly, Fletcher notes that Compostela was not an ideal location for a raid because without Christian mercenaries acting as the army’s guide, they would likely have not found their way there at all.[8] It is around 859km from Cordoba and was fully within Christian territory at the time. Secondly, as Menocal points out, nothing exceptional was done with the bells at the time, other than putting them to use a lamps in the Great Mosque of Cordoba.[9] In thinking about the sheer size and weight of the bells, the lack of practical use for them and the distance traveled to get them, it would seem that much more than economics is at play. But is this necessarily indicative of a religious motivation for Al-Mansour? The answer is no. It could just as easily be justified that any religious dimension to this raid could have been couched in such terms so as to meet specific political ends, particularly in the securing of legitimacy. The act of humiliating the Christians of Compostela and reclaiming the congregational bells of the famous Moor-slaying Saint James would have had too much socio-political currency to be framed in purely economic or purely religious terms. It also would have served as sufficient reason to warrant such a far expedition, in a land arduous to navigate, for extremely heavy booty that served no other purpose than decoration.

Ultimately, the problem herein lies in the historical question posed because it hinges on something ultimately unknown: an individual of history’s personal motivations for particular actions. What can be most illuminating about this type of exercise is not in trying to determine why someone did something, but rather, in figuring out what that action might have meant to them or others affected by it.

[1] Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. 1992: p 75

[2] Ibid. p 76

[3] Ibid

[4] Fierro, Maribel. ‘Abd al-Rahman III: The First Cordoban Caliph. Oneworld: Oxford. 2007: p 70.

[5] Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. 2002: p 97

[6] Ibn Darraj al-Qastalli, “Ode in Praise of al-Mansur’s Victory” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p 93-98.

[7] “Latin Account of al-Mansur’s Raid” inES Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Colin Smith, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p 98

[8] Fletcher, p 75

[9] Menocal, p 97