Friday, November 16, 2007

A common word between us and you

I first went to Spain in 1989. With O-level Spanish locked in my muscle-memory, I spent six weeks on a teaching practice in a secondary school in Madrid and then went to Cordoba in Andalucia to visit a friend who was living there. Wandering the narrow streets and whitewashed patios of the ‘Ornament Of The World’ in the early heat of Easter, I was struck by a strange sense of familiarity. I was not long returned from teaching for a year in Zanzibar, where Arab and Portuguese influences still breathe from the style of buildings, from the faces of people, from the Swahili language.

In Zanzibar the style of mosques was simple, but they were ubiquitous. Although I never actually went inside one, the call to prayer at dusk, the snatched sight through lit doorways of rows of praying men’s heads, the rituals of Ramadan were part of my normal life. People shared wealth and hospitality in ways that we would call ‘Christian’ at home. I had to question some of my prejudices.

In Cordoba the sharp sweet tang of orange blossom pursued me, palm trees shaded walled courtyards, buildings stood tall with interiors open to the skies to create a draft. Even the open-throated singing that coiled through the labrynths of streets from balconies, punctuating day and night during the fever of Semana Santa, echoed with reminders of a style of Zanzibar music, Taarab, and with the mosque calls. I knew little of Spanish history. I was disoriented by finding this nostalgic familiarity in Europe, even though when I visited the mosque, its grandeur bore little resemblance to the simple single-story buildings I had seen on corners in Africa. Two worlds seemed to touch each other here.

In the years that followed I returned to walk in the hills of Andalucia, was excited by the aquecias- the irrigation channels high in the dry hills introduced by the ‘Moors’ and still in use today. Later when I went to walk in La Marina – a range of mountains inland from the Costa Blanca –it was the Mozarabic trails that astounded me. These are extraordinary feats of engineering - narrow paths stepped into rock so that steep ascents and descents through severe mountain and ravine-cut land could, and in some places still can, be easily traversed.

The ‘mozarabs’ (would-be Arabs) were Christians who adopted Moorish customs and habits and learnt their skills. Although the majority of the population converted to Islam, Christians were treated with tolerance, had normal freedoms, and contributed considerably to the Hispano-Arab civilisation that flourished for several centuries.

It was the physical superiority of these ancient paths that grabbed me, and have insisted that I follow their zig-zags and archways again. At the time I had no idea that they were also emblematic of a period of religious tolerance when culture in the arts, science, engineering was so sophisticated we might even call it a ‘golden age’. But this idea now excites me – that our very feet might teach us something by taking pilgrimages on enlightened routes.

This October, when prominent Muslim scholars wrote a letter to the Pope, they warned:
"If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world's inhabitants. Our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake."

They called the letter ‘A common word between us and you’, drawing attention to shared theological values and their expression in words from the holy books. I was interested in the language aspect of this, 'the word'. Already in my scant reading around the subject of the era of religious tolerance in medieval Spain, I’ve come across problems with the way words come at us. ‘Medieval’ itself is often used to indicate a backward and enlightened culture, when in this case we mean quite the opposite. ‘Moor’ was a disparaging word for Muslims used by Christians. And even ‘Mozarab’ is said by some to have been used by Christian resistors against those who collaborated with Muslims to become Arabised and impure. The word is loaded, needs to be regarded cautiously.

I had no idea my feet would lead me into such territory, but I’m going back to La Marina to see what walking can tell me about the word between us. I have no doubt of the importance of this issue, and the importance of looking at history.

As part of the 2007 London Design Festival, '26 Posters' set a challenge to twenty-six pairs of writers and designers. To create a six-word ‘advertising’ poster that somehow comments on or reflects its immediate location. I’m intrigued by this one and its intertwining of two words, two worlds. It also reminded me of this image on a Zanzibar postage stamp in 1963.


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