In the Agora of Socrates

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

No one knows if it was really in the state prison, the ruins of which are visible today outside the ancient Agora of Athens, that Socrates was kept during the final days before his execution, so many times has the area been destroyed and reconstructed— walking past it sends a chill down my spine. Ancient Greece is visceral and vivid because it entered my imagination early in life; some of the most cherished tales of my childhood came from the crossovers of Hellenistic history and legend, such as the one in which Sikander (Alexander the Great) is accompanied by the Quranic Saint Khizr, in pursuit of “aab e hayat,” the elixir of immortality, or the one about the elephantry in the battle between Sikander and the Indian king Porus, or of the loss of Sikander’s beloved horse Bucephalus on a riverbank not far from Lahore, the city where I was born. I became familiar with ancient Greece through classical Urdu poetry and lore as well as through my study of English literature in Pakistan, but I would read Greek philosophers in depth many years later, as a student at Reed college; I would subsequently discover Greek influence on scholars in the golden age of Muslim civilization while working on a book on al-Andalus— the overlooked, key contribution of Arabic which served as a link between Greek and Latin, and its later offshoots that came to define the cultural and intellectual history of Europe.

Visiting the Agora in the sweltering heat of July, I am amazed by how comfortably these ruins from over two thousand years are nestled in the modern landscaping, park benches and pavements, how familiar the patchy, intensely green grass is, the deep, somnolent shade of oaks— the ancient is home once again, brought down to a child’s scale, at once snug and phantasmagoric, historic and pulsating with new life. Read more »

Sultana Morayma: the Last Queen of Al Andalus

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

UnnamedAt the end of the story, in its final pages, is a queen. Not the pious despot Isabella of Castille who is about to command the Inquisition, or the embittered, vengeful Sultana Aixa la Horra who is inciting war within the house of Nasrid, but the queen who is obscured from view on this history’s chessboard, whose life and death will come to be a veritable symbol of the paradox that is Al Andalus, the queen who prevails as the enduring shadow of a legend. Her name is Morayma.

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. Al 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.

It is 1482; the year Morayma weds the Nasrid prince Abu Abdullah who is known in history mostly by nicknames: Boabdil, or Rey el Chico (“little king”), or El Zygobi (“the unfortunate one”). The house of Nasrid is at war. 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; 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.

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