Dreaming of Al-Andalus

by Leanne Ogasawara

4_el_partal_y_albaicinI've been dreaming of al-Andalus my entire life.

I'm not even sure where I first heard the name–and indeed, the name is like a one-word poem. A magical incantation; for it is enough just to say it–or better, to whisper it. Al-Andalus. I might have learned about the glories of Muslim-ruled Spain in a story by Borges I read as a teenager. It was about the philosopher Averroes. Have you read it? As far as I am concerned, it is the best story ever written. Born in Córdoba during the heyday of the Caliphate, Averroes (aka, Ibn Rushd) represented the golden age of Islamic Spain. This being a subject near to Borges' heart, he once said in an interview that he thought it fortunate his blindness came only after seeing the Alhambra–not before. Not surprising, this palace which moved him so deeply appears in several of his works; as al-Andalus itself became part of his vast fictional landscape.

So, back to Borges' story. Averroes, also known as the smartest man in the world, is utterly absorbed in the task of understanding Aristotle; indeed, so daunting is this challenge that it occupies him day and night for many years. Working one day on a particularly tough problem, he realizes to his great annoyance that his work will be interrupted because he has dinner appointment that evening. A famous traveler it seems, who claims to have traveled all the way to the Kingdom of Sin, had arrived in Córdoba, and Averroes has been invited to dine with this traveler in the esteemed home of Mr. Farach, the city's great scholar of the Koran.

Poor Averroes. All he really wanted to do was continue working on Aristotle.

Working from a translation of a translation (since he could not read Syriac or Greek), Averroes' challenge was enormous. Hating to tear himself away, little did he know that the very question that had been troubling him in the work of Aristotle concerning the words comedy and tragedy, would become clear to him at last that very evening during dinner. However, before discussing the wonders of Cantonese theater, their conversation first turned to the rose garden in the palace. The Koranic scholar Farach asks the traveler about the roses of Hindustan; about which he notes that, "The learned Ibn Qutaiba describes an excellent variety of the perpetual rose, which is found in the gardens of Hindustan and whose petals, of a blood red, exhibit characters which read, 'There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet.'"

As a young teenager (I was probably 12 or 13 when I read the story), I was quite taken by the image à la Borges of scholars looking for the name of God in the rose petals. And I never forgot the story. Delightfully, many, many years later in Tokyo, a friend of a friend (who was also a great scholar at Tokyo University) told me over soba noodles and beer all about the time he fell in love with life one day when he gazed on the roses in the gardens of the Alhambra.

Dreaming of al-Andalus…

I just finished the loveliest book called Granada: Pomegranate in the Hand of God, by Steven Nightingale. What I thought would be a whimsical account of a young couple pulling up stakes to become expats in Andalusia (I am hoping to also pull up stakes again) is in fact an enormously poetic meditation on the splendors of what was Al-Andalus. Beautifully written, Nightingale's love letter to Granada illuminates and charms. Fittingly, the book begins with a meditation on Islamic gardens. Nightingale explains that when the first Umayyad emir arrived in Córdoba from Damascus (narrowly escaping with his life in 711), he set up shop by consolidating his power in this new land. He also created gardens. With waters fed by snowmelt from the surrounding Sierra Nevadas filling fountains and lovely aqueducts, the emir cultivated fruit trees of countless varieties– he would bring lemons and oranges, quince and apricot, figs and pomegranates into his new kingdom. Beautiful trees were adorned by flowerbeds of an endless variety: lavender and hydrangea, violets and wisteria. And, above all, the gardens of the emirs were known for their roses. There were at least a dozen distinct varieties says Nightingale. Perfumed gardens full of trickling water and birdsong, these gardens delighted all the senses.

The multicultural wonder that was Islamic Spain, where the "peoples of the book" lived in relative harmony under Muslim rule, has come under some revision by historians of late. Some maintain that Al-Andalus was not quite the paragon of religious and racial tolerance and harmony that has been the conventional view. And yet, I think one can safely agree with Steven Nightingale that what came after the caliphate was a huge step backward; for it cannot be denied that al-Andalus –along with Baghdad– were the most philosophically and scientifically advanced places in Europe during the middle ages and that there was a kind of harmony that was achieved there amongst different religions not seen elsewhere. That means, in the Spain of the time, the peoples Islam, Christianity and Judaism ruled together, spoke each others’ languages (Toledo was famous for its House of Translation); lived in mixed neighborhoods, and were influenced by each other's customs in a way not seen elsewhere in Latin Europe.


Recently having a conversation with a friend about the Spanish Inquisition, he recommended a cookbook to me.

A cookbook?

We were talking about how different the Inquisition in Spain was compared to what we know of the Papal Inquisition. In Spain, the Inquisition was very much focused on cultural hegemony and political consolidation–much less about religious dogma as it was in Rome. For after 700 years of Muslim rule in most of Spain, in order to gain a truly firm grip on power, Queen Isabella first married the King of Aragon, thereby uniting the two most powerful Christian kingdoms. Together with her husband, she sought to gain total control of the peninsula. Part of this project included the horrendous 1492 Expulsion of the Jews. The Jewish population was given a choice: leave, convert or die. Those who converted, however, were then constantly harassed by Isabella and the Inquisition. Called conversos, the "New Christians" were suspected of all manner of things that put Christians at risk. Conversos who were Christian on the outside but still practicing Jews at home were a main target of the Inquisition as cultural hegemony under one church was a top priority for Isabella and Ferdinand. And one of the main ways these secret practices were thought to be knowable was through diet and practices surrounding the sabbath meal.

A Drizzle of Honey: The Life and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews, by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson, is a fascinating cookbook. A collection of recipes found in Inquisition documents that were actually used to prosecute (persecute) those suspected of "secret Judaizing…" it will leave you utterly chilled.. A collection of recipes found in Inquisition documents that were actually used to prosecute (persecute) those suspected of "secret Judaizing…," it will leave you utterly chilled. The recipes look like typical medieval food, with a lot of fowl, eggs and some fish, and lots of cinnamon and other spices. It is simple fare. Harmless stews and lots of chickpeas. The main points of contention were no pork, a kosher kitchen.. and … what else could there have been? Any excuse was used:

"Did the suspect put down a white tablecloth and light candles?"
"Did they avoid pork?"
"Did they create sabbath stews?"

Gitlitz and Kay start with the story of Beatriz Nunoz. She was hauled in after she and her husband had converted because there were witnesses who said she kept a kosher kitchen. This was spring 1485. One of the particulars found in the documents claimed that their maid mentioned a Sabbath stew made of lamb, chickpeas and hard-boiled eggs. Sounds innocuous, right? Well the Guadeloupe Inquisition found her guilty and she was burned later that same year.

26070252_360914167705995_3350167098964836352_nAnd so yes, compared to that, the Caliphate of Córdoba was a slice of heaven.

In addition to Borges –even more than Borges in fact– there was one other book I read as a teenager that drew my mind so vividly to the medieval marvel of gardens, poets, and cosmopolitanism that was medieval al-Andalus. The book was called Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn 'Arabī. Written by French philosopher and Iran specialist Henry Corbin, the book is quite unusual for a scholarly work in that it reads something like a sacred book itself. While Corbin was Catholic, he wrote beautifully of Islam and especially of Sufism; and his work would later influence many Jungian thinkers around the time I was a teenager (and as a precocious teen, I was quite devoted to Jung). I will say, Corbin's book had a profound influence on the young mind of Leanne. There was a poem by Ibn Arabi that I loved. This is part of it:

My heart can take on
any form:
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks,

For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka'ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur'án.

I profess the religion of love;

Over and over again I re-read the introductory chapter in Corbin's book on the spiritual topography between Andalusia and Iran and began my dreaming of one day seeing the Moorish gardens and listening to the music of al-Andalus. Being precious, I think I also wanted to profess the religion of love! (If you have time, I really like the Ode to Ibn Arabi, sung by Amina Alaoui below)

Like Salmon Rushdie's beloved Averroes (from which he derives his family name Rushdie), Ibn Arabi is also a son of al-Andalus. A scholar, polyglot, and polymath extraordinaire, Ibn Arabi wrote over two hundred books books (some of them revealed to him in a dream!) And he was known by the Latins of the time as Doctor Maximus–though that title could have just as easily been reserved for Averroes or Maimonides. Nightingale devotes chapters to all three philosophersin his book

How is it possible I never managed to travel to Andalusia?

Turning fifty this spring, I've decided to finally go and see it with my own eyes.

These obsessions from childhood are somehow so strangely comforting in one's middle age…. I wonder why that is? Nostalgia? Somehow, al-Andalus became a half-forgotten passion– and so planning this trip, I can hardly believe how so much has lain dormant; so many things I remember reading about so long ago or dreaming of; so many hopes to visit this place or that in Lorca's land of white walls, myrtle and fountain. And I cannot stop thinking of the man I met in Tokyo who spoke of falling in love with life again while he was looking at the roses in the Alhambra. That wasn't exactly how he put it but that was what he meant. Anais Nin once wrote of trying to help her "patients" through this disaster or another. She was not–as far as I know– a trained analyst, but she did have these patients to help. And they had some fairly heavy-duty problems. She realized that trying to solve their problems was going nowhere and what she really needed to do was to help them learn to fall in love with life again.

She said:

We have loyalties to the past, commitments, promises made, human responsibilities. Science may heal, but it is the poetic illumination of life which makes my patients fall in love with life, which makes them recover their appetite for it

To fall in love with life– for me (for most people?), perhaps that is the only hope.

For Professor Wey-Gomez, who inspired me to go find the roses at Alhambra, at last!

“Why wasn't Christopher Columbus able to discover Spain?”– Neruda


Photos from Argentinian artist Sergio Vega's exhibition Blind Vision: “Borges in the Alhambra.” The artist says the exhibition was inspired by a quote he ready by Mexican poet Francisco de Icaza in “Alhambra in Grenada.” It goes, “Give him alms, woman, for there is nothing sadder in life than being blind in Granada.”

Salman Rushdie in the New Yorker on AverroesGranada: A Pomegranate in the Hand of God
by Steven Nightingale

My post on The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture, by Jerrilynn D. Dodds, María Rosa Menocal, Abigail Krasner Balbale and A Vanished World, by Chris Lowney (both great books on cosmopolitanism and religious tolerance in Islamic Spain)

For more on Isabella, Columbus and Salman Rushdie: See my Queen of the Garden of Eden (Book review of the biography of Isabella by Giles Tremlett and I also attached the Salman Rushdie short from the New Yorker)

Review of Joseph Perez's The Spanish Inquisition

Review of A Drizzle of Honey

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
by María Rosa Menocal

The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture
by Jerrilynn D. Dodds, María Rosa Menocal, Abigail Krasner Balbale