The Jasmine Breeze by Robin Yassin-Kassab
Every Muslim has heard of al-Andalus, where Europe meets Africa, where the Mediterranean almost closes its lips. It’s a land of sonority and luminosity, a storied land, an imagined land.
Millions know the story of Boabdil (or Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII), the last Andalusi sultan, shedding a tear as he turned to view Granada one last time, bidding farewell to eight and a half centuries of civilisation, and his mother reproving him: ‘You weep like a woman for what you failed to defend like a man’. The phrase comes from Washington Irving, American Romantic author of Tales of the Alhambra and other fairy stories, but no matter.
There’s a place in the Alpujarras mountains called the Pass of the Last Sigh, and Salman Rushdie wrote a novel called The Moor’s Last Sigh. For Muslims, al-Andalus represents lamented past glories, a standard against which to measure the decadence of the present, and hope for the future. For Spaniards and other Europeans it provokes reactions including embarrassment, denial, and delirious enthusiasm. Its image is burningly relevant to our contemporary global arguments over multiculturalism and migration.
So Muslims ruled a chunk of Western Europe for the best part of a millennium, until Europe’s Renaissance, which was in important ways provoked or fed by Europe’s Muslim civilisation. The final end of Muslim rule in 1492 provides one of those temptingly portentous dates by which to simplify history, for Christian Europe discovered the Americas in the same year, and in following years, funded by New World silver, dominated the eastern sea routes too, establishing the long ascendance which is only ending now.
The Muslims and Jews were driven out of al-Andalus, but still something of Islamic Spain persists as piercingly as the jasmin in the air. As ‘The Mosque of Cordoba’, a poem by philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, exclaims:
Its breeze even today is laden with the fragrance of Yemen
Its music even today carries strains of melodies from the Hijaz
It’s confusing being there. You glance over your shoulder and see Tangier or Meknes, then look closer and see a church or a pork delicatessen. There are Arabic survivors in the language, words like aceite from the Arabic az-zeit, meaning olive oil. The rice in the paella was brought by the Moors and became a staple in Moorish times. Certainly the tapas custom of offering a small plate of food with a drink mirrors Levantine drinking culture.
Andalucians, like Arabs, take an afternoon siesta. Like Arabs they place a high value on family life, employ a wealth of gestures when they speak, and enjoy a healthy attitude to time. There’s even a Spanish version of Arab wasta, enchufe – using connections to get things done. The Andalucians are Mediterranean people, southern Europeans, Christians and post-Christians, Latins, and almost Moroccans. ‘To be a cubist one has to have been born in Malaga’, said Picasso, who was born in Malaga. Surely he was making a joke, but if not, it isn’t the southern light he was referring to but the multiplicity of perspective inherent in the human landscape.
Malaga airport, servicing Marbella, Torremolinos and other resorts, is where you tend to arrive in southern Spain. I’d been expecting the city to be a transplanted northern European holiday nightmare, a Boschian canvas of pink boys and girls in extreme states of intoxication and undress. Perhaps that’s what I was hoping for.
Instead I found, as well as the Moorish courtyard and carved wooden ceilings of the Picasso museum, palms from Arabia and trees from the Americas, and Latin Americans and Moroccans running restaurants. The Moorish alcazaba (or kasba, an Arabic word, related to my surname, meaning ‘strong place’) dominates the city from its hill top. A surviving horse-shoe arch from the Nasrid-era shipyard is now the entrance to a contemporary neo-Moorish market.