This novel by Tariq Ali is the first of his ‘Islam Quintet’. I have read several of his non-fiction works and his journalism; I have even heard him speak at a literary festival. This is the first time I have read any of his fiction. I was attracted to it by the subject matter of this first novel.
The story starts in Cordoba where a bonfire of books took place after the reconquest of Spain by the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand. From this we encounter characters of both sides of the religious divide but especially the Banu Hadyl family who are forced, like all Muslims to make a decision about their faith: convert, go into exile or die.
The ending is inevitable, especially to those who know the history, but the sense of loss from a time when different religions co-existed is huge. Instead, we see war and politics carried out as a form of religious devotion or maybe religion is used as the cover for the usual manipulations of states and monarchs.
In general, Tariq Ali’s non-fiction is more cohesive than his fiction but his passion for his subjects is still clear as if his determination to steer us away from a Eurocentric view of the world. In these times of religious intolerance, it is good to be reminded that there was, and is, a better way of living with each other. It is also important to realise that Islam is wider and more complex than it is often portrayed in our media.
‘Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree’ is worth reading. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In the Calahorra tower at the end of the famous bridge in Cordoba houses a ‘museum’ or audio-visual display telling the history of the city and its place as a centre of learning where three religions existed in harmony and respected each other. The ‘Museum of Three Cultures’ is a fascinating place. Most of the exhibits are reproductions or models but the story of the city’s past is well laid out.
It was here that I saw the reproduction of a painting by Dionisio Baixeras of Abd-ar-Rahman III receiving at his court in Cordoba, the Monk Nicholas, ambassador of the Christian Emperor, Constantine. The coming together of religions, not to convert but to understand each other, was important then and is important now.
Cordoba impressed me because it celebrated its multi- religious heritage. Around the corner from the statue of Jewish scholar Maimonides, was this statue to Muslim scholar Averroes.
Averroes was a Muslim lawyer rather than a Jewish physician but, otherwise, the two men were similar. Averroes was an authority on Aristotle and wrote a significant work called ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence’. He, too, was exiled from Cordoba when the Berber dynasty took power and his books were burned. He died in Marrakesh in Morocco.
It is heartening that the city of Cordoba pays tribute to significant figures from different religious backgrounds.
I was struck, when in Cordoba, Spain, by the way three religions lived peacefully together several centuries ago; Jewish, Muslim and Christian believers managed to co-exist without compromising their own beliefs.
The statue to Maimonides in the old Jewish quarter of the city is the perfect reminder that we can learn from the past. He was born in Cordoba in 1125 and found fame as a philosopher and author of the Mishneh Torah. He was also interested in the sciences and in Greek philosophy and Islamic teachings. He lived in Spain at a time when the enlightened rule of the Moors might be considered a golden age but left when a Berber dynasty conquered the city in 1148. The status of Christians and Jews was threatened and Maimonides, being Jewish, went into exile with his family, moving around Andalucia before travelling to Morocco and Egypt.
This Spanish film tells the story of the fall out from the Civil War and the effects on one family. We see the world through the eyes of Androu, much loved son of a leftist activist and a put upon mother. When the war puts this family on the losing side, the parents separate. His father flees to France and his mother works all hours at the factory to make ends meet. Androu is left in the care of his grandmother and aunt but he is aware of the unfinished sentences and the secrets that circulate around him.
He is intrigued by a young man at the local sanatorium who appears unworldly, especially when Androu is forbidden by him to touch him or come closer. While the youth talks about release from the world, to a young Androu this means freedom from his current situation.
As the story progresses we learn that the activities of his father may not have been as benign as he was led to believe and unguarded comments from widows in the village suggest that his father has much of which to be ashamed. Androu is offered into the guardianship of a local worthy whose fortunes rose as the civil war concluded. Her wish for a son can be met and his wish for an education can be provided. As he finds out more about his own family, his sense of loyalty shifts.
There is one scene, of a violent act, that shows how a young gay man is dealt with by the men of the village when his sexuality is discovered. Many disappeared in the Spanish Civil War and this film shows that the scars were deep.
‘Pa Negre’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Here is a film that shows the anguish faced by so many young people coming to terms with their sexuality. Rafa is a popular guy among his group of friends at the local high school. Although he does not approve of the more macho positions struck by some others in his small group, there is nothing to mark him out as different. This changes when his friends come across Ibrahim, a young illegal immigrant from Morocco.
He feels a strange attraction to this young man and a friendship grows between them that causes Rafa to question both his own sexuality and his loyalty to his group of friends. The scorn with which the refugees are treated by locals is compounded by the harsh line taken by the authorities to deportation. Ibrahim is caught between an unforgiving system and the hostility shown to him by Rafa’s friends. Rafa, alone, offers the friendship he needs.
Mikel Rueda has created a film that reminds us of the conflicts of youth and the pain there can be when it seems that something central to your life, and that defines you, takes you away from your friends and what has counted, up to then, as normal life. The refugee theme adds a further dimension. The tension between local Spanish people and the unwelcome guests adds another barrier that Rafa crosses when he transfers his loyalty. Love is where it falls and this film shows us that choosing love is not always easy.
‘Hidden Away’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Columbus Monument in Barcelona, at the sea end of La Rambla, is a good example of how we use public art and sculpture to create the history we want to tell ourselves. Every nation needs to do it. Here we have the reminder from the Spanish that Christopher Columbus reported to Queen Isabella 1 and King Ferdinand V in the city after his first trip to the new world.
It was created for the 1888 Exposition. A statue of Columbus pointing off into the distance, with a scroll in his other hand, is at the top of the column.
Of the many other statues and bas- relief around the plinth, the one that struck me the most was the adult and boy. He looks as if he is holding the globe in his hands. “Yours for the taking!” seems to be the message.
Stories of adventure, exploration and discovery were the stories I grew up with. They always showed the relentless march of western civilisation and the ‘helpful’ way European nations barged their way into other ways of life. I don’t think my history teacher used the word ‘barged’ though!