by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
The ancient bricks of the mosque’s roof slowly loosen and slide apart, letting in a sudden, high torrent of water that nearly drowns me before becoming a mist of green, garden-filtered light: a recurring dream after my first visit to Cordoba, Spain, years ago. I would remain haunted afterwards by the narrow alleys of the Juderia, where, in the upper-story of an old mansion-turned hotel in Cordoba, I sense ghosts striding the rooftops, leaping across the alleys around the mosque-turned-cathedral next to a synagogue. When I write the history of al-Andalus in poems, the book ends up carving a narrative of fire, not water; it begins with the “convivencia” (peaceful coexistence) of the Abrahamic peoples gathering around the Arabic “furn,” the communal oven, baking and breaking bread, or at the kilns together making exquisite tiles out of Iberian dust— it ends with the genocidal fires of the Inquisition. The final destruction notwithstanding, the garden-filtered light of al-Andalus remains and grows in the rich tradition of Andalus-inspired poetry across the Muslim world, and the garden-filtered music of al-Andalus is the music of water reminiscent of the banks of the river Guadalquivir (from the Arabic “al-wadi al-kabir”) where waterwheels turned acres into crop-filled fields, orchards and iconic gardens with fountains and pools, transforming the land and its people for over seven-hundred years.
I praise the scholars, scribes, rulers, poets and builders of al-Andalus in my poems, but also its arabesque-rimmed public wells, irrigations canals, gardens, baths and ablution fountains in citrus-scented patios: an appreciation of water as creative material and a spectacularly-utilized gift to civilization. I recall Mahmoud Darwish’s longing in his line “water, be a string to my guitar” (Eleven Planets at the End of the Andalusi Scene”) and Iqbal’s metaphor for the Muslim spirit itself as an ocean “Watch, from that ocean-depth— what comes surging at last” in “The Mosque of Cordoba.”
If the Qasida is a journey-poem of the people of the parched Arabian desert who took the poetic form across three different continents, water may well be a metaphor for the immortal beloved in whose pursuit the endless journeys are made and in whose memory water is channeled, all manner of life supported and beautified— a response in the language of gardens to the Divine promise of elaborate gardens in the life hereafter, an homage to (“al-Hayy/al-Khaliq”), the ever-living-creator who teaches how to create. Al-Andalus quenches the mystic thirst, standing for the ultimate creative output, a robust, self-energizing spirit constantly filling its reservoir of knowledge, a paradise of human cultivation and a treasure of the Muslim legacy; its fragmentation and collapse equally unforgettable as a tragedy.
The poetry of Al-Andalus may be praise, lament, reflection, song— owing to the drama of its history which is qasida-like in theme and texture, regardless of form. Poets of the Muslim traditions have sought not only their cultural and political identities but also their personal, creative identities in al-Andalus—she is an oracle, a mirror and a muse, especially in moments of turmoil; she reverberates the subtleties of belongingness to a place of one’s cultivation/creation as well as the devastations of exile and exclusion. The two greats of the last century— the Arabic poet Darwish (1942-2008) and the Urdu poet Iqbal (1877-1938)— come from different historical moments of displacement but both speak to al-Andalus in the metaphor of water and of the creative spirit, journeying through the time/timelessness that is al-Andalus.
In his famed poem “Masjid e Qurtuba,” (The Mosque of Cordoba), Iqbal says:
O, the ever-flowing waters of Guadalquivir,
Someone on your banks
Is seeing a vision of some other epoch
Darwish, in “Water, be a String to my Guitar:”
Water, be a string to my guitar. The new conquerors have arrived
and the old ones have gone. It’s difficult to remember my face
in mirrors. Be my memory that I may see what I lost…
Who am I after this exodus?
Iqbal’s poem is addressed to the mosque of Cordoba; his incantatory “silsila e roz o shab” (the chain of day and night) ties the a-historicity of al-Andalus with the Sufi ideal of “Ishq” or supreme, undying love— a confluence with eternity, not unlike the flowing waters of al-Andalus whose music Darwish asks to return to— the quintessence of life-giving art for which he longs. Where Iqbal anchors himself, as a poet, as a Muslim empowered by Sufi transcendence, and as a human being aiming to see beyond mortality— to the realm where art assumes immortality via Ishq (as illuminated by the enduring beauty of the mosque of Cordoba), Darwish recalls al-Andalus as elusive, as if it slipped away tragically in its own shimmering waters, leaving only the traces of exile he knows too well as a Palestinian:
I have a rock
that carries my name over hills that overlook what has come
and gone…seven hundred years guide my funeral behind the city walls…
and in vain time circles to save my past from a moment
that gives birth to the history of exile in me…and in others…
Water, be a string to my guitar…
The erasure of al-Andalus by the Inquisition was carried out with chilling precision and thoroughness: maps, books and musical instruments were destrpyed, Arabic language, Muslim customs and dress banned. Darwish’s use of the image of the broken, string-less guitar as a refrain recalls the Arabic oud, the precursor to the guitar, and the wish for permanence which the music of flowing water might fill.
Elsewhere in the suite of poems, Darwish enlarges and deepens the metaphor of al-Andalus to view the intricacies of shared Abrahamic history as well as the dream of self-actualization that belongs to every human being— a sentiment and a vision very close to Iqbal’s in the “Mosque of Cordoba,” a vision harnessed by love, an energy as fluid, powerful, gentle and life-giving as water. In “how do I Write above the Clouds?” Darwish says of al-Andalus:
And I come from there. So sing for the sparrows to build from my ribs
a stairway to the proximal sky. Sing the gallantry of those ascending to their fate
moon by moon in the lovers’ alley. Sing the birds of the garden
stone by stone.
Iqbal similarly speaks to the stones of the mosque molded and shaped by the timeless power of Ishq.
To Love, you owe your being,
O, Haram of Cordoba,
To Love, that is eternal;
Never waning, never fading.
* * *
Translation from the Arabic: Fady Joudah
Translation from the Urdu: V.G. Kiernan, Shadab Zeest Hashmi