AT THE START of Jason Webster's follow-up to his widely praised Duende, the reader is taken into a part of Southern Spain where few, if any, Western travellers have ever been before: inside the immense plastic greenhouses where illegal Moroccan immigrants work under conditions of near slavery. The opening pages of Andalus provide a gripping and original, if not wholly believable, introduction to a book that takes the form of a search for what Webster defines as 'the secrets of Moorish Spain'. The book is no less unputdownable than its predecessor, but is in many ways richer in texture and more mature. Webster is a totally engaging travelling companion - sensitive, observant, compassionate, witty and reflective. As someone not only my integrated into Spanish life, but also fluent in Arabic culture and language, he would seem the perfect person to examine Spain's current relationship with its Islamic past. And indeed, as he did for flamenco in Duende, he has certainly provided an exceptionally enjoyable introduction to the subject. His impassioned and committed manner of combining history with travel anecdote makes Al-Andalus come alive in a way that it does not in the works of the more pompous and detached British middle-class writers on Spain. However, as with Duende, Webster's attitude towards his subject has seriously to be questioned. In Duende Webster's fresh and engaging style succeeded in convincing British readers that he was challenging clichés about Spain rather than wholeheartedly endorsing them. Sadly, Andalus is likely similarly to hoodwink the British public. It confirms exactly the stereotypical image of Spain in which the British want desperately to believe.
At heart Webster's rose-tinted view of Islamic Spain is no different from that of his romantic British predecessors. So determined is he to glorify Spain's Islamic achievements that he often simplifies history in a dishonest and misleading fashion. Thus the spaniard, in Webster's view, continue to denigrate or play down