Book Review: Guns, Culture and Moors by Ali Al Tuma

May 2, 2020

Guns, Culture and Moors: Racial Perceptions, Cultural Impact and the Moroccan Participation in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). By Ali Al Tuma (New York & London: Routledge, 2018).

Ali Al Tuma’s Guns, Culture and Moors is an essential contribution to the scholarship of the Spanish Civil War. As Tuma observes, it is “almost inconceivable” that histories of the war would overlook the Moroccan involvement on behalf of Franco’s Nationalists. Nevertheless, his book is one of the few English-language resources on the topic. Previous general histories of the war describe the use of the Moors in combat as well as in propaganda of both sides to incite fear among the Republican forces and sympathizers. Tuma’s work draws on previous studies, original research, and oral histories to better understand not only the various roles the Moors played and how they were perceived, but also how Moroccan veterans described their experiences.

In addition to oral sources from published historical monographs, Tuma received special access to Mustapha el Merroun’s interview transcripts from the 1990s. Tuma himself conducted fourteen interviews in 2011; and he examined 147 interrogations conducted by French officers of Moors from French Morocco “who fought in Spain and deserted back to the French Protectorate after receiving leave, usually following a battle injury.” While acknowledging the problematic aspects of the French archival trove, such as the fact that deserters’ answers to specific questions hardly constitute representative testimony, Tuma also observes its distinct advantages. The interviews in this collection outnumber all other oral history sources combined. They were conducted immediately after service in Spain. They’ve also never been used before.

Whereas José E. Alvarez’s The Spanish Foreign Legion in the Spanish Civil War, 1936 (2016) covers the military history of the legionnaires and the Regulares (the Moroccan units belonging to the Spanish Army of Africa), Tuma focuses on the Moors and provides a rich and nuanced collective portrait of these soldiers’ experiences in Spain. He reminds us, for example, that some Moors fought in units technically under the Moroccan government rather than the Spanish Nationalist command structure, and that some Moors fought in mainland Nationalist units, including the fascist party’s Falange militia. Moroccan troops were sometimes placed within Spanish units to help “guarantee the fidelity of the conscription troops,” essentially by spying on them. As the oral histories demonstrate, the Moor’s various backgrounds and roles contributed to mixed opinions regarding their treatment by Spaniards.

Tuma’s sources also allow him to address some of the significant historical and cultural questions about the Moorish involvement, such as what transpired between Moroccan troops and Spanish women (beyond the propaganda accounts), the curious mercenary alliance between Franco’s traditionally Catholic Nationalists and Spain’s centuries-old Muslim enemy, and more generally the relationship with the Moors of both Republican and Nationalist Spain. In addition to its clear and smart organization, one of the book’s strengths is the way it integrates the evidence throughout the chapters. The section on hospitals, for example, is in the “Moros y Cristianos” chapter concerning religion, yet evidence about the Moors’ medical care appears throughout the book as it touches on all aspects under study. Spaniard officers from the Army of Africa, for example, cared for wounded Moors equally with wounded Spaniards, whereas mainland Spanish officers were more prone to privileging their own. Hospitals, as Tuma reports, “were the places where the Muslims and Christians interacted the most.” They became contact zones for religious as well as romantic encounters.

Tuma argues that the rape of Spanish women by Moroccan troops probably did not occur at the exaggerated levels suggested by the propaganda emanating from either side. And Moors were certainly not the only offenders. Moors also frequented Spanish brothels just as their Spanish counterparts did. A few Moors actually married Spanish women—hospitals were a prime site for romances to blossom. To discourage sexual intermixing, the Nationalists eventually imported Moroccan women to serve the troops with both public talents (such as music) and sexual ones.

Tuma’s research also allows us to think with more nuance about the ideological justification for the bond between Nationalist Spaniards and Moroccans. To combat the Republic, the propaganda claimed, was to combat infidels of atheism and materialism along with communism. Moreover, instead of bristling against Spain’s reputation in the rest of Europe as a northern outpost of uncivilized Africa, Nationalist rhetoric embraced the shared history before the Reconquista—to a point. Spanish stereotypes of Moors continued to be in play: They belonged to a warrior race inclined to certain kinds of military operations; the brotherhood rhetoric too easily slipped to the paternalism of little brothers. But it was the Spaniard, of course, who required the rhetoric. Thus, Nationalist officers not only arranged for Moorish retinues, they very well could have dressed Spanish soldiers in Moorish uniforms and did in fact decorate their own uniforms with a Moorish flourish. As Tuma’s oral sources reveal, individual Moroccans did not always embrace the rhetoric about ideology and kinship. In the end, Tuma writes, the Nationalists “struggled to reach a balance between including and excluding Moroccans.” Efforts to accommodate Muslim practices and cultural differences simultaneously served to segregate and to contain. Franco and his minions recognized what the postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha has articulated in The Location of Culture—that encouraging assimilation and mimicry risks hybridity, that is, an erasure of the very difference on which the colonial relationship depends.

The book’s style at times conforms to a social science template that can be repetitious. Still, Guns, Culture and Moors gives voice to a major group of soldiers from the Spanish Civil War that historical studies have talked about but not listened to. Readers interested in the recent scholarship on the racial dimensions of the Great War might find Tuma’s book an extension of that work. The book is rich in detail as it grapples with the complex intersections of historical generalities, rhetoric and propaganda, policies and operations, and individual experiences.

Alex Vernon is the Julia Mobley Odyssey Professor of English at Hendrix College. He is the author of numerous books, including most recently, Teaching Hemingway and War (2016).