Getting to know Spain through books and poetry

By Anniqua Rana

A Visit to the Mosque of Córdoba, قرطبہ کی مسجد کی سیر, an essay in my Urdu reader introduced me, at nine, to Spain. The faded gray scale image of the historic arches were a pathway to a past unfamiliar to me—a mosque in a European setting. That title and image have stayed with me as my gateway to Spain.

It had been a year since we returned from London. In England, we had not seen a traditional mosque. I’m sure some existed, but it was more common to see office space converted to places of worship. A mosque in a country in Europe, therefore, was very unique to my nine-year-old self. Not only was it in Europe but at the time it was built, this Grand Mosque of Cordoba rivaled only two other mosques of the time: the mosque of Mecca and the Blue Mosque of Istanbul.

Cordoba mosque, Spain
Mosque/Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain

Spain in Pakistan

At that time, in the early 70s, I struggled as I re-learned how to read and write Urdu after our return. The title and the image stayed with me all these years as I struggled to learn the language. But I don’t remember much of what I read.

The Mosque of Cordoba

I’m sure the essay told of how the mosque—now on the UNESCO World heritage list locally known as Mezquita-Catedralwas built by Prince Abd al-Rahman I between 705 and 715 ce. I don’t think it mentioned that on this site stood a temple to the Roman god, Janus. The temple was then replaced by a church. The essay did, however, describe how once the moors were expelled, the mosque was then converted to a cathedral.

I’m not sure if the essay described the uniqueness of the landscape of the city that lies between the Morena Mountains and the Guadalquivir River. The olive trees stretching to the horizon were not mentioned. I would have to wait to see all this myself, but at the time, I had no plans to visit.

As a teenager, I must have read Pakistan’s national poet, Allama Iqbal’s poem The Mosque of Córdoba. I want to pretend that I remember reading it, but I don’t. I’m quite sure it was included in one of my Urdu literature textbooks in high school or college.

Haspania ki sarzameen, bil khasoos qurtaba main likhi gyi
Written in spain especially Cordoba
Allama Iqbal’s poem about Spain, written in Spain

Whether in grade six, in high school, or in college, I had not imagined visiting this mosque in Spain. Not only did I not imagine visiting it, my geographical boundaries were restricted to Pakistan and the UK. There would be no trips to Spain, I always thought.

Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

Then, in 1989, I moved to California. My two sons were born and I began teaching after graduating from San Jose State University. My geographical boundaries had now expanded, but my travel now included trips back home to Pakistan with short stops in the UK.

In the early nineties, a few years after settling in the US, I came across Tariq Ali’s Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree—a historical novel of the times just after the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain, the early 1500s. One of the main characters, Hind, a courageous but uniquely liberal young woman, was unlike any I had seen growing up in Pakistan. Spain and the characters of that time fascinated me such that I chose to read the other books in the Islam Quintet by Tariq Ali.

Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet

And then in the summer of 1997, we decided to take a family trip to the south of Spain to visit Andalusia. On the morning of August 31, in a hotel in Granada we turned on the TV and heard the tragic news, Princess Diana had been killed in a car accident in Paris.

Washington Irwing’s The Alhambra: a series of tales and sketches of the Moors and Spaniards

We continued our trip, and I tried to lose myself in Washington Irving’s The Alhambra: a series of tales and sketches of the Moors and Spaniards, which was published in 1832. I held on to it to force myself into the magical space that I remembered from that black and white photograph in my sixth grade reader. Washington Irving's, Tales of the Alhambra on Gutenberg Press
Washington Irving’s, Tales of the Alhambra on Gutenberg Press

The Time in Between by Maria Dueña

I returned to Spain a few more times, and each time, I brought with me books that introduced me to people and places that I would not otherwise notice. I read about the dressmaker Sira in The Time in Between by Maria Dueña. I travelled with her to Morocco as she struggled through the Civil war.

Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain

More recently, I came across Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain, a lighthearted jaunt of a young family who chooses to buy a farm in the south of Spain

An excerpt from Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain
An excerpt from Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain

Getting to Know Gloria Fuertes

And now, as I prepare for my next trip to Spain, I am researching poetry and books as my travel companions. Gloria Fuertes, poet and a children’s author will accompany me. Her “Prayer” makes me want to know more about her work.

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art:

Steven Nightingale’s Granada: A Pomegranate in the Hand of God

Steven Nightingale’s Granada: A Pomegranate in the Hand of God

I have also started to read about Steven Nightingale’s experience settling in the Arab quarter of Granada. It’s a rich historical and personal narrative worth reading. Selma will be sharing some of her recommendations too. I am also interested in your recommendations of what to read as we travel through Spain.


  1. As always it is very well written with lots of interesting information of the past and written with precise discretion of the places ,so even the people who haven’t visited feel the need to vist such an interesting place .

  2. Love these book ideas. I enjoyed “Spanish Lavender” a book set in 1937. A British young woman decides to stay in Spain when her family and other expats were being evacuated. It is moving to read how devastated Malaga was and follow the story of her trek over to Ailcante with the rest of the Spanish refugees. When I walk the streets of Malaga and travel the coast, it is had to image that it really wasn’t that long ago when such tragedies had occurred.

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