What the Africanistas Saw Across El Estrecho de Gibraltar

… they saw Africa.

Notes from a trip across the Strait.

TALIM El Estrecho de Gibraltar

Well, of course they saw Africa: every primary school geography student knows that the Strait of Gibraltar (or, as they say north of the water, el Estrecho de Gibraltar) separates the continents of Europe and Africa.

But Spain's Africanistas were not academic "Africanists" – they were the officers of the Army of Africa, of which Dr. Francisco J. Romero Salvadó writes in his review of Sebastian Balfour's book Deadly Embrace: Morocco and the Road to the Spanish Civil War:

Balfour portrays convincingly the quasi-surreal world dominated by terror, alienation, corruption and unabated warfare which the Army of Africa inhabited. For the recruits, Morocco was a meaningless nightmare in which fear for their lives, anxiety to return home and appalling living conditions went together. However, for the Africanista officers of either the native-led troops or Regulares and the Foreign Legion, the Moroccan campaigns became the crucial part of their upbringing. Indeed, most Africanistas would have subscribed to Franco’s words: 'Without Africa, I can scarcely explain myself’.

Our photo above, taken from the lovely Spanish town of Tarifa, underscores the reality of the 14 kilometers which separate the two continents.  Though we look out across the Strait from Tangier and know that Spain and Europe are there, it was a revelation to see, as we did during our short Aïd al-Adha break, Africa looming up beyond the waters from the Spanish side.

TALIM Tan Med from Tarifa
So back to Spain and the Africanistas.  We've touched on Spain's Moroccan adventure before, most recently in our piece on the Lafayette Escadrille in the Rif War in the 1920s, and earlier in Caitlyn Olson's piece on Moroccans On Both Sides in Spain's Civil War.  The Africanistas spent their formative military years in the former, and came to power with their leader Franco in the latter.

Today, the competition across the Strait is more commercial, with the night lights of the new port of Tangier-Med beckoning to the incessant maritime traffic – "Come here, don't get stuck in Algeciras."  By the looks of the lineup of ships awaiting space in Algeciras Bay (photo below, taken from atop the Rock of Gibraltar), Tangier Med (a) might entice ship owners with lower demurrage charges for shorter offshore waiting periods or (b) is 14 kilometers too far south from where the ships want to dock: Europe.

TALIM Algeciras Bay from Gibraltar
   If Spain still has Africanistas, they are more akin to Africanists elsewhere, people who are more interested in culture than in conquest.  Like the Fundación Tres Culturas, which promotes understanding among the three main religions across the Mediterranean, an echo of the days when al-Andalus represented the ideal of tolerance of the diverse cultures that made up Moorish Spain.

Gerald Loftus

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