Getting to know Spain through books and poetry
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.
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-Catedral—was 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.