Queen Morayma: A Photo Essay

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

ScreenHunter_1728 Feb. 29 15.31At the end of the story, in its final pages, is a queen. Her name is Morayma. Refusing to be erased or memorialized, she is an inexhaustible figure in a book I long finished, a book of poems tracing the history of Al Andalus.

I am in Granada again; after all these years of writing, publishing, and presenting my book, reading to audiences in numerous venues in no less than a dozen cities in America and around the world, I am about to discover why Morayma eludes history, why she haunts my book and casts a shadow on me instead of staying in the story with the other characters.

Morayma appears at the end, when, as I say elsewhere:

Nearly eight hundred years have passed in Al Andalus, Muslim Spain— years turning like great mills, a resplendence of work reflected in books and buildings, cities and institutions, technology and aesthetics, bridging antiquity with modernity, east with west, fissured periodically but sewn back again and again by Iberian Muslims, Jews and Christians.

ScreenHunter_1729 Feb. 29 15.31Al Andalus, which, under Muslim rule, has brought about a transformation simply through inter-translation, which has dared to find direction in deviation from the known and accepted, where the Abrahamic people have found enough peace to transcend literalism, and worship willingly in each other’s sacred places, to inscribe the other’s scripture on their own walls, is collapsing.

In 1482, sixteen year-old Morayma, the somber and beautiful daughter of the faithful vizier, becomes the queen of Al Andalus. But all that signifies Al Andalus — the books, maps, machines, manuals, poetry, medical and musical instruments, recipes, calligraphy— is about to be destroyed forever; a near-millennium of civilization utterly wiped out by the crushing machinery of the Inquisition carried out by the new Catholic regime; a tyranny of epic proportions poised to swallow an epic legacy of tolerance. It is the year that Morayma’s fate becomes knotted with the fate of the last Andalusi bastion, Granada.

ScreenHunter_1730 Feb. 29 15.31She marries the Nasrid prince Abu-abdallah in the Alhamra (Arabic for “the red”) palace, surrounded by honeycomb colonnades, saffron curtains in Granada silk embroidered with the Nasrid motto Wa la Ghalib Illa Allah (“And there is no conqueror but God”), filigreed walls, acres of scented gardens, leaping fountains.

Here I am at the Alhamra again, looking out the world’s most beautiful window Ain al Aisha or “the eyes of Aisha”— when I was here last I heard the tour guide say that this window had a breathtaking view of Albayazin (the city across where Morayma lived in a carmen as a captive) before Carlos V built his palace that now blocks the view. I hear the exact same words again— another tour guide, another decade, same words.

I remember sitting here and beginning a poem in the voice of this window speaking to an old cypress in the garden below, about Morayma whom the window could “see” across the valley, living in a prison instead of her palace:

And so she is wed
in her plain mantilla,
the stoic vezir’s sixteen-year old
to Abu-abdallah, rey el chico.
She has three times as many sorrows as you,
lone cypress with the bent torso

I, myself a gaping book waiting to be written,
watch her pace through endless white corridors,
reading passages between her
and the hissing walls.
A husband at war, a child taken captive,
all day she digs for a window
in those salty, supine walls.

All the while I let in common sparrows,
twigs, pollen, arrows of winter rain,
she is behind deaf carmen walls
in the city below
shut away from this, her palace.

ScreenHunter_1731 Feb. 29 15.31Once I’m back in California, I read about the carmen and write the rest of the poems based on how I imagine it. The images recur in life as well as in the book, as I read the poems and describe Morayma’s world over and over.

On this trip, in 2015, I will finally see the house Morayma lived in.

ScreenHunter_1732 Feb. 29 15.32It is a gorgeous, sunny, autumn morning when I visit Albayazin (“the falconers” in Arabic). I walk down the hill from the Alhamra where I’m staying and catch the bus that says “Albaicin.” The snow on the distant Sierra Navada mountains looks festive and edible, as the bus winds its way up to Albaicin.

Morayma’s carmen has been turned into a restaurant called Mirador de Morayma. I take photos of every nook and shrub and random tile as I walk through the quiet alleys, Granada sparkling at the foot of the hill, the majestic Alhamra on the hill across.

ScreenHunter_1733 Feb. 29 15.32The Carmen is indeed secluded and leafy. I catch sight of the tile that reads “Morayma”— the first time I’ve seen the word outside my book; imagination face to face with reality with an unnamable, unfinished business in the middle.

On the wall outside there is the menu: Morayma is an omelet, a salad, and a dessert. I plan on eating all three.

ScreenHunter_1734 Feb. 29 15.32The view of the Alhamra is much more beautiful from this terrace than I had imagined. I see now how Morayma would have seen the window Ain al Aisha from here.

ScreenHunter_1735 Feb. 29 15.33The food is good; I eat slowly, Spanish-style. I contemplate the woman who has returned as an omelet. I drink my coffee and write. There is an uplifting purity in Andalucia’s light but it throbs with a living absence. despite its brutal erasure, Al Andalus is a lambent presence, its heartbeat locked in Andalucia.

ScreenHunter_1736 Feb. 29 15.33There is a group of women in my peripheral vision; they share the same visual field as the Alhamra and Morayma’s living quarters. As I write, I find their presence increasingly comforting and familiar. They linger like I linger, like everyone lingers— in the foyer, the rooms, patios, the garden below.

ScreenHunter_1737 Feb. 29 15.33As I attempt to take a selfie, one of the women offers to take a photo. I don’t have a doubt I know her. I warm up to her and her friends instantly. We have known each other for centuries; it feels strange to ask names. All the brokenness of Morayma’s story is suddenly, finally healed. She is no more a haunting shadow. In this leafy terrace, the smell of warm bread in the air, we are all Morayma.

ScreenHunter_1738 Feb. 29 15.33