Middlemarch,Edward Said wrote that Orientalists who traveled abroad were like ghosts, “wandering about the world and trying mentally to construct it as it used to be, in spite of ruin and confusing changes.” For the conqueror, this is the feeling of dreams shattered by reality, which can be remade. For the conquered, a displaced land, history, or life runs dreams—memories—against that reconfigured world.
Santiago was the dream-maker. He soared from the defeated towers of Alhambra, glided through the flow of gold, spices, bodies, and blood across the Atlantic, wriggled his toes in the sand of my mother’s country, and planted his image in homes and churches across Spain and the Americas. He is sacred in Latino culture but also the object of the erasure of our histories and the rape, pillage, and massacre of our ancestors. It seemed perverse—incestuous—that we venerate the instrument of our destruction.
Four centuries after the Reconquista, Francisco Ortiz captured this historical turning point with his painting The Capitulation of Granada, glorifying the moment when Sultan Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII surrendered the keys of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella. But, like the tour guide’s official story, there was a missing character in Ortiz’s apocryphal painting, and with this a missing story: Santiago.
He haunted me, as silent and menacing as the dry, pale walls of Alhambra were austere and—in the displaced and nostalgic way Muslims sometimes feel when they visit that place—evocative of a history not quite our own.
I made Santiago a demon in my novella, Technologies of the Self, described to the protagonist by his uncle. Santiago would flicker through dimensions in a time traveling space suit that looked like knight’s armor, haunting my characters in their daily lives, their memories, and the memories they told to one another.
At first, I told myself Santiago was a metaphor, a literary device, the “speculation” in my speculative fiction. Surely, he could not be a real thing in this world.
Reading early drafts,my peers—who considered the entire story fiction—remarked that parts I knew to be true felt unbelievable and those I knew I’d imagined felt real. There was something about Santiago that they, like me, couldn’t shake. He didn’t feel like my own character anymore, just as, for the protagonist, he gradually became more than a figment of his crazy uncle’s imagination.
A writer will recognize those dark times when lost obsessively in the heart of a story. I was raking my fingers in the mud of a new reality. I wanted my work to “re-enchant” the modern world, give life to the modern architecture of reality that had become mute as the Alhambra’s walls. In this architecture, the universe was cold, austere, cut off from history and tradition—material and valueless. Modernity was about unhinged progress and what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
But I was surprised to find my attempt at enchantment laced with menace. It was as if, through that lost space between dream and reality, I’d run up against the ubiquitous “dust of events” moderated by the modern state, to quote Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.
Enchantment, I realized, necessarily confronted the pervasive, ambiguous menace of modern power. Santiago was this menace. He shaped daily habits, emotions, and ways of living, so, as Foucault wrote, the subject “becomes the principal of his own subjugation.” Santiago operated without respect for identity or bodies, but created both, for he was there during the limpieza of Spain, where his name was on the lips of the Inquisitors who brought into practice the idea of “blood purity,” giving birth to whiteness and otherness. His name traveled with Colon to the Dominican Republic, ferrying the nascent concept of the modern state to the New World.
I had intended to evoke wonder—the pleasures of memory, the pride of heritage, the affections of family and loved ones, the magnificence of the divine—but found myself left with Santiago, a demon who’d emerged from historical circumstance and the political origins of othering as much as from my mind. After all, history and politics were projects of the imagination. They were as fertile as my mother’s stories about Santiago and the DR, but as fixed as the simple reality of the Alhambra tour guide’s officially sanctioned fantasy. They were as alive as the forgotten histories of Granada, but as real as Santiago’s venerated legacy.
I knew Granada, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, and my experiences growing up Muslim in America through memory, history, and story—my family’s and my own. Before, I had asked myself whether Santiago was a figment of my characters’ imaginations, as much as he was a figment of mine. I now realized that to consider Santiago as only a metaphor or parable would sidestep the battlefield of political imaginations. The war over the social and political lives we live was also a war over dreams and their realities—a war over stories.
A few weeks ago, my mother attended an interfaith fundraiser for Syrian refugees at a local church. On the wall, she discovered a boy’s Sunday school poster project about Santiago. He had glued onto the poster a painting of the saint riding atop his horse, trampling Moors. To the boy, his parents, and his teachers, this violence fell within the scope of what they considered reasonable or irrelevant. To passersby who glimpsed it briefly, Santiago’s bloodshed was literally wallpaper, loitering in the background as he had for centuries in the paintings and sculptures that my mother has described. As if to say: Here I am. Don’t think any more of me than what you see.
Haris A. Durrani (@hdernity) is the author of Technologies of the Self, a winner of the Driftless Novella Contest from Brain Mill Press. He is also winner of the McSweeney's Student Short Story Contest. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from McSweeney’s, Comparative Islamic Studies, Lightspeed, Buffalo Almanack, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and Media Diversified.