Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tales Of The Alhambra

This week's column for the Sunday Guardian.


Restoration in progress in an Alhambra courtyard
In an alcove of the former palace of the Nasrids in Granada, you can see artisans hard at work in restoring faded friezes. Under their hands, the Alhambra comes back to life; the results, evident in the courtyards of the complex, are remarkable.

Writers of fiction have, over the years, engaged in Alhambra restoration of their own. These are recreations of the lost glory of Al-andalus, notably, of its civilized intermingling of culture and religion. The contrast with today’s polarized times couldn’t be more stark.

In English, among the first and most influential of such books was Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving, better-known for his stories of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. First published in 1882, these folktales and fabrications are often overblown and over-romanticized:  “Surrounded with the insignia of regal sway, and the still vivid, though dilapidated traces of oriental voluptuousness, I was in the strong-hold of Moorish story, and everything spoke and breathed of the glorious days of Granada, when under the dominion of the crescent”.

The room Washington Irving is supposed to have inhabited
Visit the Alhambra today and you’ll come across a plaque outside the room that Irving is supposed to have lived in when he wrote his tales; the actual location, however, is in a section closed to visitors. Repackaging the West's fantasy of the palace, the audio guide quotes Irving liberally, and locally-published editions of his book are available in every souvenir store.

The vanished grandeur of Arab Ghranata is also the subject of Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, the first novel of Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet. This elegiac story of the fortunes of a Moorish family after the Reconquista shows Ali to be a better polemicist than novelist. Laden with dialogue, it recounts the strategies Granadians adopted to ensure their survival, from conversion to conciliation to conflict. The Alhambra here is a brooding presence from where edicts are issued by its Catholic conquerors, personified by the real-life Ximenes des Cisneros who once famously ordered that Arabic books be burnt in the city’s public square.

More successful as a novel is Amin Maalouf’s Leo Africanus, originally in French, which tells of the 15th and 16th century journeys of al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, the titular hero. The first section is set in Granada, where Leo is born and spends his early life, and has a vibrant Arabian Nights tonality, with picaresque characters and tales from a lost homeland. In “this palace of the Alhambra, glory of glories and marvel of marvels”, the penultimate Sultan presides over extravagant parades and hedonistic parties, willfully ignorant of the storm to come.

A view of the Alhambra from Granada's Paseo del Padre Manj├│n
In these and other such works, the Alhambra is emblematic of bygone brilliance, a place whose epitaph wasn’t composed in words but in the form of a sigh heaved by Boabdil, the last Sultan, at his last sight of it. In making use of a vanished Moorish past in The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie has something more ambitious in mind: a conflation of Granada with Bombay-turned-Mumbai: “Just as the fanatical ‘Catholic Kings’ had besieged Granada and awaited the Alhambra’s fall, so now barbarism was standing at our gates. O Bombay! Prima in Indis! Gateway to India! Star of the East with her face to the West! Like Granada…you were the glory of your time. But a darker time came upon you, and just as Boabdil, the last Nasrid Sultan, was too weak to defend his great treasure, so we, too, were proved wanting.”

The narrator, Moraoes Zogoiby, claiming descent from Boabdil, visits Spain only in the final section, when he is incarcerated in a bizarre replica called “little Alhambra”. The theme, however, is prevalent from the start, not least in the form of the paintings of his mother, the redoubtable Aurora Zogoiby. One of them is termed “a Bombay remix of the last of the Nasrids”, not a bad description of the novel itself.

Europe’s own red fort, then, still tantalizes. It’s a monument to past possibilities, a testament, in Rushdie’s words again, “to our need for flowing together, for putting an end to frontiers”. Now that’s worth restoring.

1 comment:

Preet said...

I bought Tales of the Alhambra in Granada, and read it throughout my Spanish sojourn. It was a fantastic (and fantastical) companion on the trip!