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Andalusia's Journey

A spate of recent Arabic and Muslim writing has redirected attention to Andalusia as a mournful, tantalizing emblem of what a glorious civilization was lost when Islamic rule ended. This literature serves only to accentuate the conditions of decline and loss that have so diminished modern Arab life—and the conquests that have dominated it. Thus, for instance, the 1992 appearance of Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish's great qasida, or ode, Ahd Ashr Kawkaban Ala Akhir Almashad Al-Andalusi (Eleven Stars over the Last Moments of Andalusia). The poem was written about—and served to clarify—what the Palestinians felt they had lost not just once but time after time. The Palestinian national poet seems to be asking, What do we do after the last time, after the new conquerors have entered our palaces and consumed our still hot tea and heard our mellifluous music?Does it mean that as Arabs we exist only as a footnote to someone else's history?

Our tea is green and hot: drink it. Our pistachios are fresh; eat them.
The beds are of green cedar, fall on them,
following this long siege, lie down on the feathers of our dream.
The sheets are crisp, perfumes are ready by the door, and there are
plenty of mirrors:
Enter them so we may exist completely. Soon we will search
In the margins of your history, in distant countries,
For what was once our history. And in the end we will ask ourselves:
Was Andalusia here or there?On the land...or in the poem?

It is difficult to overestimate the searing poignancy of these lines. They recall not only the self-destructive demise of the Andalusian kings and their tawai'f but also present-day Arab disunity and consequent weakness. (Tawai'f is the plural of the Arabic ta'ifa, used to refer both to the independent Muslim kingdoms that began in 1023, and also to modern-day confessional sects, of the sort common in Lebanon during its recent civil war. The references are lost on no one whose language is Arabic.) For a visitor from either North Africa or the Arab countries east of Suez, including Egypt, Andalusia is idealized as a kind of lost paradise, which fell from the brilliance of its medieval apex into terrible squabbles and petty jealousies. This perhaps makes a rather too facile moral lesson of the place.

Andalusia's unthreatening landscape—tranquil hills, agreeable towns, and rich green fields—survived a turbulent and deeply unsavory history. Running through its convoluted past was a steady current of unrest, of trust betrayed. It seems to have been made up of composite or converted souls, Mozarabs (Arabized Christians) and muwallads (Christian converts to Islam). Nothing and no one is simple. Several of its city-states (there were no fewer than 12 at the height of the internecine conflict) were occasionally ruled by poets and patrons of the arts, such as Seville's 11th-century al-Mutamid, but they were often jealous and even small-minded schemers. Andalusia multiplies in the mind with its contradictions and puzzles; its history is a history of the masks and assumed identities it has worn.

Was Andalusia largely Arab and Muslim, as it certainly seems to have been, and if so why was it so very different from, say, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, themselves great centers of civilization and power?And how did the Jews, the Visigoth Catholics, and the Romans who colonized it before the Arabs play their role in Andalusia's makeup and identity?However all these components are sorted out, a composite Andalusian identity anchored in Arab culture can be discerned in its striking buildings, its tiles and wooden ceilings, its ornate pottery and neatly constructed houses. And what could be more Andalusian than the fiery flamenco dancer, accompanied by hoarse cantaores, martial hand-clapping, and hypnotically strummed guitars, all of which have precedents in Arabic music?

On this trip I wanted to discover what Andalusia was from my perspective as a Palestinian Arab, as someone whose diverse background might offer a way of seeing and understanding the place beyond illusion and romance. I was born in Jerusalem, Andalusia's great Eastern antipode, and raised as a Christian. Though the environment I grew up in was both colonial and Muslim, my university education and years of residence in the United States and Europe allow me to see my past as a Westerner might. Standing before the monumental portal of Seville's Alcázar (the Hispanicized word for al-qasr, "castle"), every inch of which is covered in raised florid swirls and interlocking squares, I was reminded of similar surfaces from my earlier years in Cairo, Damascus, and Jerusalem, strangely present before me now in southern Europe, where Arab Muslims once hoped to set up an Umayyad empire in the West to rival the one in Syria. The Arabs journeyed along the shores of the Mediterranean through Spain, France, and Italy, all of which now bear their traces, even if those traces are not always acknowledged.

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