Al-Andalus, the Bridge of Books

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Spanning just shy of a thousand years,  al-Andalus or Muslim Spain (711-1492), has a riveting history. To picture the Andalus is to imagine a world that gratifies at once the intellect, the spirit and all the senses; it has drawn critical scholars, poets and musicians alike. Barring cycles of turbulence, it is remembered as an intellectual utopia, a time of unsurpassed plentitude and civilizational advancements, and most significantly, as “la Convivencia” or peaceful coexistence of the three Abrahamic faiths brought together as a milieu. Al-Andalus was a syncretic culture shaped by influences from three continents— Africa, Asia and Europe – under Muslim rule. This civilization came to be known as a golden age for setting standards across all human endeavors, a bridge between Eastern and Western learning, sciences and the fine arts, between the public and private, native and foreign, sacred and secular— a phenomenon hitherto unknown in antiquity. The decline and eventual collapse of al-Andalus is no less of a legend; it is a history of in-fighting and brutal intolerance perpetrated throughout the three centuries of the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) with ramifications to witness in our own times. The stark contrast between the Convivencia and the Inquisition makes al-Andalus a poignant story of reversals.

What made al-Andalus great? The flux of travelers from the Muslim world, among them, major intellectual and artistic figures, and the continuous arrival of trends, influence and material culture from societies far ahead of Europe— helped in integrating past learning with innovative technology and ideas. Andalus participated in the great translation movement (8th/9th centuries) of the fast-progressing Muslim world centered in Baghdad, and absorbed influences from the rich scholarly environment of places such as Fez. Greek works were translated into Arabic and then Latin, classical ideas were surveyed, amalgamated, built upon and passed on. Al-Andalus created a necessary link that brought together the best of antiquity from various geographical regions and forged what would later be identified as rudiments of the modern world. It was a veritable bridge of books. Located on the cusp of Africa, Asia and Europe, Iberian Muslims built further on Persian and North African architecture, aesthetics, medicine, linguistics, Roman engineering, Greek philosophy, Indian mathematics, so on. The spirit of mutual learning and collaboration, a corollary of the Convivencia, is the distinguishing feature of al-Andalus.

My interest in al-Andalus was sparked during my student days at Reed College, when I attended a performance by the “Al Andalus Ensemble” and found Annemarie Schimmel’s work on Iqbal’s Urdu poetry. A book project took shape soon thereafter. After many years of searching for al-Andalus, processing a history that was suppressed in the West and romanticized in the East, I understood the key reason for the postcolonial sense of rootlessness that has been an important subject for writers from the Muslim world. On the one hand, we have inherited a blurred, bitter nostalgia of past glories, with no concrete knowledge to substantiate it with, on the other, a systemically generated, potent and absolutist narrative of Western superiority.

My visits to Spain yielded nothing of scholarly value in those early years, as al-Andalus had been thoroughly, effectively erased by the machinery of the Inquisition and up until 1992 (the 500thanniversary of Reconquista), there was no modern historiography of merit, only narratives, stories built on vague bits of history. The book that I had begun dreaming up (back in 1995) was, for long, an amorphous manuscript gleaned from calligraphy on the walls of surviving Andalusi buildings, Victorian drawings, books about “Moorish” architecture and garden design, Washington Irving’s sensationalist accounts, Tariq Ali’s inspiring historical fiction, Andalusi-Arabic poetry in translation, the lyric offerings of “Andalousiaat” or the vast body of nostalgic literature and music of the Muslim world, and the disjointed but copious notes from my own wanderings through Cordoba, Granada, and Sevilla.

In the decades that followed, scholarly research began to emerge, most notably in the form of The Legacy of Muslim Spain, a collection of scholarly articles in two volumes edited by the Palestinian scholar Salma Khdra Jayuusi— an important turning point for me. I also appreciated my email correspondence with Maria Rosa Menocal, author of The Ornament of the World, until around the time of her illness and tragically early death. My book Baker of Tarifa, a series of poems based on the history of al-Andalus, was finally published in 2010.

In my book I touch upon al Andalus’s feats of architecture, philosophy, garden-design, science, poetry, styles of calligraphy, music notation, cartography, and other fields but I choose the culinary culture as the primary metaphor to hold the story together because the fact of growing, crafting and partaking of food together remains the most powerful symbol of the Convivencia.

In a recent, virtual presentation on the culinary history of al-Andalus with the illustrious chef and food writer Yvonne Maffei and British poet Jonathan Davidson at MACFEST, I shared some poems that use the language of food to tell an erased history, highlighting the ethos of collective nourishment. We had an excellent conversation, discussing topics that illuminate a lost history in relevant ways. I was struck, yet again, by al-Andalus’s lengthy list of contributions in the culinary context alone: phenomenal developments in agriculture, agronomy, irrigation technology, classifications of edible plants, introduction of urban concepts in health and hygiene such as food-handler’s manuals and health inspections, metrological calendars, nuanced recipes, use of soap for cleaning materials, utensils of gold and silver, vessels for preserving, culinary aesthetics, dining etiquette and finery, cookbooks and manual-writing, using organic materials such as linen and hemp for paper. As always, the story ends with the book-burnings of the Inquisition.

The history of the Inquisition is an unpleasant but unavoidable chapter of al-Andalus, especially in the context of food which has a visceral effect on memory. In one of history’s most prolonged and inhuman acts of ethnic cleansing, all traces of Judaism and Islam were mercilessly expunged from Iberia on orders of Pope Sixtus in 1478, carried out by the Catholic Monarchs. Andalusi Muslims and Jews were forcibly converted to Catholicism, or burned at the stake, enslaved or exiled. Informants were deployed and any signs of practicing the Jewish or Islamic way of life were severely punished. Ramadan-fasting was disallowed, as was the Eid feast. Washing of hands and feet, suspected to be ritual ablutions, were strictly banned, as well as uttering Arabic or wearing new clothes on Eid. Pork was force-fed to new converts from Judaism and Islam as a way for them to prove their full conversion to Catholicism. Books were publicly burnt in massive book-burning pyres. These included books of recipes, agriculture, healing and culinary knowledge. The legacy of collective nourishment was, in this way, reversed, and the memory of a people of ethics, creativity and industry, obliterated. Fortunately for us, the ghosts of al-Andalus are eloquent as ever and their story will always find new ways to be told. Books are again poised to bridge the losses of history.