Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Cordova- the loneliness that spans centuries

The birthplace of the Islamic Empire in Spain sprung from Cordova. The streets are narrow with white washed buildings with flowers draped over the window edges. The city is so well preserved you can stand by the Jewish Quarters and look at the synagogue and feel as though any minute now Maimonides in a dark black robe will walk by, book in hand, lost in thought. It felt bittersweet to see the Grand Mosque of Cordova. I stood inside the red and white arched building and stared at the intricate calligraphic Arabic etched into the green dome and yet I could not ignore the voice in a low baritone echoing through the loud speakers as the priest stood in the center giving mass.

Cordova made me think most of Abdul-Rahman I. For it was him, lost and confused who wandered in exile to Al-Andalus and became the leader of one of the longest standing empires of all time. Despite his great successes, the mosques he built, and the power he wielded, he remained lonely for his people and nostalgic for his home of the middle east, and the date palms, and the sandy desert floor. Chancing upon a palm tree he wrote a poem:

A palm tree stands in the middle of Rusafa,
Born in the West, far from the land of palms.
I said to it: How like me you are, far away and in exile,
In long separation from family and friends.
You have sprung from soil in which you are a stranger,
And I like you, am far from home.

As a left over from the days when Muslims and Jews were exiled or forced to convert, Spanish food remains filled with pork of all variety. I've read converts were tested by being observed at how they ate the pork filled products. Did they shudder, or turn pale? If so surely they were lying about conversion and were either kicked out or killed. Due to the lack of edible food K and I wandered the streets one evening in Cordova looking for a gyro stand to eat from. At last, around 10pm, we came across one, Kebob Cafe. Looking up from the menu we were startled to see two Pakistanis behind the counter, their foreheads dripping with sweat, white aprons tied around their waists, staring back at us.

We sat down to eat and one of them, Ahmed, brought us our food. He spoke Punjabi, he told us he was from Lahore. His eyes lit up as he wiped his forehead and shared about his family back home. Do you like it here? I asked him. His expression changed and he looked down at the floor, a small smile on his lips but his eyes now unreadable. It doesn't matter if I like it or not. I have to feed my family and they need money. Working here, I can make money. I don't think too much about what I like or don't like. I hope one day I will be able to go back home.

I felt struck by the universality of Abdul-Rahman's longing. Centuries later Ahmed toils in an airless shop selling gyros to tourists. His longing is real and cuts through this European city filled with Masjids and memories of the past created by a man who too felt the cutting edge of loneliness. These men lived centuries apart in very different circumstances but both arrived in this same city due to a need to survive. I hope unlike Abdul Rahman, who died without ever seeing his home again, that one day Ahmed will be able to return home.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I feel bad for Ahmed! What a brave, stiff-upper-lip kind of guy, though.

One of my favorite things I've ever seen in a museum was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was a beautiful mimbar from a mosque in Egypt. The placard next to the mimbar explained that a man had sought refuge in an old, abandoned mosque after his life was threatened by political rivals. The man vowed that, when he emerged to safety and reclaimed his position, he would come back to the mosque that had provided him with sanctuary and rebuild it so it was beautiful once again. And he did just that, and the museum's gorgeous mimbar was an object from the rebuilt mosque.

The path immigrants take is always lonely, or at least starts off that way. But I can understand that the immigrants who are forced into exile have it particularly rough. Some are lucky in that they get to return home during their lifetimes and help rebuild, but others aren't.

As a second-generation American, I have always been grateful that I live in a country that affords so much safety. Even as things have gotten harder for Muslims in America in recent years, we still have it so much better than many of our brothers and sisters around the world, who don't have houses over their heads or even countries to call their own. America is still a land of (comparable) safety-- how lucky we are that we feel safe in our homes and never feel the need to seek exile elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Very well presented. The progression of the story raises your emotions and ends up in a peak. Excellent command of expression. I have read be the poem by Abdur-Rahman, many times earlier. Iqbal has also converted it into Urdu poem, however, the impact I felt was tremendous. Lately even minor incidents make emotional.
After 38 years, I really never felt lonely from the perspective of being away from Pakistan. There were many occasions,though, I thought I should be with the family in Sargodha. One reson could be perhaps it was not an exile, it was a choice to move to US.

mezba said...

One of my other blogger friends went to Cordoba recently (is it Cordoba or Cordova?) and I thought I should share her post with you.

It has been on my must-see list of places for some time!

'liya said...

Mezba, I think it can be spelled both ways, or maybe one way is the spelling in Spanish or Arabic, I forget.

This was really interesting to read, Mezba and another blogger both pointed me here and I'm happy they did, you have a great way of telling your experience and I hope you share more about your trip :)

It's strange to think of how the Muslims lived in these places so long ago.. I tried to picture it everywhere we went out but had a hard time. The only thing I could picture was everyone praying in the mosque all lined up, even though it's now a cathedral...

I noticed a lot of pork products everywhere too, made me think it must be their main staple food. We had to rely on veggie pasta most of the time but even then you never know what it came in contact with.

Ahmed reminds me of a boy my husband spoke to in Madrid at an Indian restuarant we went to. He asked him if he liked living in Spain and he told us that a lot of Pakistani/Indian males come here to study, the females don't usually come but the males do and a lot of them end up working in restaurants to send money home. You totally can see it in their eyes that they want to go home.

mystic said...

you better watch new movie..julie and Julia......

pilgrimchick said...

What a remarkable insight into the experience of exile and it's impact on figures, past and present, in Muslim culture.

sadeya said...

Mezba, I second what 'liya says - I think you can say it both ways, if I remember correctly.

Cordoba was a wonderful city. What struck me is how tourists from all corners of the world just became silent when they reached the courtyard with orange blossoms. It also made me realize how creative people were, even though they lived so long ago.

Pilgrimchick, I agree. Aisha's way of relating the loneliness of these two men, past and present, is really moving. Well done Aisha! Your freind, S.

sadeya said...

I also noticed that the pork hanging from shops in Seville almost seemed to have a mandatory presence, as if to prove that the people are Christian. I was wondering about whether that was the case, and I think that later I read it was. Someone told me if a person knew how to salt pork really really well, (after the time of inquisition) it meant that they were probably Jewish.

sadeya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sadeya said...

Not to mention, the emotions and longing for home that you have described are universal.

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