Friday, 5 August 2016

Al-Andalus

Well, I haven’t done this for a while.


Anyway, me and the family have just got back from the Altiplano de Granada in southern Spain – in Andalucia, in fact. It’s a fascinating place, of course, the region of Spain that stretches from Cadiz over on the Atlantic west coast to Almeria in the east. The Altiplano de Granada is an arid, high plain in the north-east of the region of Granada, and about 150km from that city. These high, dry uplands very much reminded me of the landscapes of the Spaghetti Westerns, of course, a lot of which were shot a bit further south of where we stayed.

We rented a cave-house built in the hillside above a dusty Andalucian village called Galera. Walking up to where the unmade and precipitous roads ended, to get a view over the town and, beyond, the plain, the area revealed itself almost as a Mars-scape, a place of dust and flattened hills and mountains erupting from the flat terrain. Up above the cave-houses sat a round, whitewashed building, part Moorish and part observatory (or secret state installation): an Andalusian Baikonur?


When we visited the Alhambra in Granada, that extraordinary example of Moorish architecture and culture, its articulations of space struck me as vital to its conception. The supporting columns are thin, attenuated, and some appear to dissolve into the air; ceilings draw the eye upwards, a heaven enclosed in a room; and the fabric of the building itself
wavers in the green surfaces of the courtyard pools. In his BBC series on the art of Spain, Andrew Graham-Dixon suggested that the garden, and thereby the idea of paradise, was deeply encoded in the architecture of al-Andalus, but I also think that the building points outwards and upwards, towers and palms pointing to the sky, a sky reflected in those shimmering pools. It’s a kind of cosmic architecture. While Islamic art prohibits direct representation, its formal gestures are to the divine and the infinite.

While there, I read Tariq Ali’s The Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree, the first in his ‘Islamic Quintet’ of novels. This novel is set a few years after the culmination of the Reconquista, the fall al-Andalus when Granada was surrendered to the Christian besiegers in (irony of ironies, that Ali points out) 1492. It’s a novel of defeat, of the violent elimination of a way of life, the Muslim civilization of al-Andalus, and the expropriation of its property and wealth. As such, it ends in terror and death. But I began to wonder, a what if?: what if al-Andalus hadn’t fallen? What if the intellectual, scientific and philosophical culture (which had actively embraced tolerance of religious belief and practice, with Jews, Christians and Muslims sharing the same communities and social structures) had endured?
Would there be an Andalusian space program in the deserts of the Altiplano, looking upwards towards the divine and the infinite?

Clearly I need to do some more historical reading about the culture and communities of al-Andalus in its ‘golden age’ of the 11th and 12th centuries, but it intrigues to me think that there might have been another Enlightenment, another Industrial Revolution, another European history. Would technological development have avoided the exploitation of fossil fuels, and concentrated on water, wind, chemistry? Would Europe have avoided its deeply damaging and corrosive imperatives towards Empire and the domination of non-white, non-Christian others? Could tolerance have prevailed? In the town of Galera, we saw memorials to the persecution and violent deaths of the Moriscos (Muslim coverts to Christianity) as they resisted further repression in the 16th century, and the land was literally ploughed with salt afterwards: the very ground of Andalucia tells a different story.

At the recent Fantastika conference, Mark Bould gave an excellent and thought-provoking keynote on Afrofuturism, which (in its North African inflection) has clear affinities to what has been going through my own mind on holiday. If the Moorish architecture of the Alhambra is a dream, of capturing the divine in the formal structure of the building and its pools and courtyards, then al-Andalus makes me dream of possibilities of a different time, a different now. I’m just about to start the second of Ali’s quintet, based on the story of Salah al-Din (Saladin) and the Crusades, the political dimension of which is all too apparent. Amid the narratives of disaster and defeat, I’m looking for ways to hope and dream.