by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Trying to name the peculiar sweetness of Spanish sunlight in winter (lemon soufflé? saffron ice cream? malai qulfi?) before touchdown in Granada, I feel the small plane shake, then gently glide into descent. I’m reminded of a poem of mine in which a character has a dream of flying over the Alhambra: She grew wings so long they dipped in the Vega… Flying over Alhambra, she looked for the mexura, the court of myrtles, granaries, the royal stables…
This is my first flight to Granada and first visit since I finished Baker of Tarifa— my book of poems based on the legendary “convivencia” (peaceful coexistence of the Abrahamic people) in al-Andalus or Muslim Spain (711-1492). In the many years since the book was published, it has traveled to numerous places but this place, Andalucia, is a return to the world it embodies, the spectacular bridge that al-Andalus was— a bridge between antiquity and modernity, between Africa, Europe and Asia, between Medieval Jews, Muslims and Christians.
I am here to present from Baker of Tarifa and I am exhilarated to meet the academics who have invited me, to meet students, to present my poems at venues that are only a few miles away from the great Alhambra. These are difficult times to be speaking about the Islamic Civilization as a Muslim; being in the line of fire from the weaponry of literalism on both sides of the war-terrorism binary, the only thing we can do is attempt to be a bridge, to revive a language that conceived pluralism, a time known to be the pre-cursor to European Renaissance. The history of Al-Andalus, spanning nearly a millennium and collapsing with the Spanish Inquisition, is not entirely free of conflict, but it offers a model for tolerance and intellectual efflorescence and inspires hope.
I arrive at Granada’s Federico Garcia Lorca airport but my luggage does not. It is disconcerting—who am I without my luggage: my Pakistani shawl, Turkish rings, high heels? How will I give a poetry reading without my book? For a moment, I’m a true outsider, an exile with no belongings, not unlike the founder of al-Andalus, the Syrian poet-prince Abd Rahman. The light, a gift from every window of the airport, lifts my spirits as I walk out. There is snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains, the air is crisp, the uber driver is playing an American song with the refrain “somebody that I used to know.” On my last visit and throughout the years I imagined this landscape, it was through traditional music— Sufi and Sephardic music, Christian Hymns, especially the richly varied compositions of the Al Andalus Ensemble— the music that inspired me to begin the project in the first place. As we approach the foothills of Sebeka through the alleys dappled in Mediterranean light, my mind tunes itself to Housnak Ishtahar fe Gharnata “A Beauty Famed in Granada” by the Al Andalus Ensemble: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZXmyclsFso
Alhmabra’s many fountains and birdsong from the gardens accompany me on my climb up Sebeka to the hotel which is right next to the ancient baths and the mosque or mezqita.
My room has a balcony which reminds me of Lorca, Spain’s seminal poet and a true child of Andalucia who wandered through Alhambra’s gardens in his youth and had designs from the Alhambra copied on the floors in his home in Granada. At night, I study the moonlit shadows on the high towers, humming Lorca’s “Rider’s Song:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggtR8FVWQIQ
Among the few things that survived the complete erasure of al Andalus by the brutal forces of the Inquisition, were recipes that were passed down from generation to generation of exiles; bread, therefore became the primary metaphor of Baker of Tarifa. I find a place I can taste some of the food described in my poems, such as Bregua de pollo con pasas y nueces al estilo Arabe (fowl stew wrapped in fine dough with Chicken, raisins, nuts, caster sugar).
My luggage does not arrive until the second day; I end up having to buy clothes and read poems from my laptop, but my luggage does arrive in time for the second event. I’m grateful to finally see Baker of Tarifa in Andalucia.