Sketches of Spain
In Andalucia's Moorish towns, there is hope for the future of Islam in Europe
This July, we went to the Atlantic coast of Spain, to a beach area called El Palmar. It is situated between Trafalgar and Cadiz, two formidable symbols of European conflict and colonial competition. Huge breakers, strident and audacious, crash on the bay where Nelson vanquished the French and their Spanish allies in 1805. Thousands of men were killed or drowned in the battle, and then a day later a biblical storm took twice as many again. You can imagine the waves delivering their wasted bodies to shore for mourning.
Lusty, warring Europeans have shed so much blood over the centuries, at home and abroad. Cadiz is regal and rich with old spoils, Castilian Spain at its proudest, and vainest. This was the launch pad for raids into the New World and the Spanish empire. The Muslim rulers who had conquered and run much of Andalucia since 711 were seen off by this muscular, masculine Christian Europe.
The Moorish empire, like all other empires, was morally questionable and imposed on the native inhabitants. However, in the latter period Imperial Moors became quiet administrators keen on gardens, art, science, books, and on objects and buildings of intricate beauty. Women wrote poetry and learnt science; Christians and Jews coexisted in peace with Muslims. The poet and dramatist Frederico García Lorca said it was "an admirable civilisation [with] a delicacy unique in the world". The American writer Washington Irving wrote: "Wherever [Moors] established a seat of power, it became a rallying place for the learned and ingenious - they softened and refined the people they conquered."
Many Muslims today regard that golden age of Islam in Europe with nostalgia: effete, some would say, not macho and brutish as the Moors would have needed to be to push back their foes. Internal enmities and devious plots also weakened the ruling class. When the Moorish ruler, Boabdil conceded defeat in Granada in 1492, his mother, Aisha, spat at him and said: "Weep like a woman for what you couldn't defend like a man."
The taking of Granada, which was witnessed by Christopher Columbus, was the final victory in the Reconquista. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella re-established the Catholic order, with force and some cruelty. But they couldn't quite wipe away the centuries of Moorish presence. Although the Andalucian diet is defiantly full of pig meat, Arabic place names, irrigation systems, gardens and cultural influences are still in evidence, quietly subverting Christian Spain.
Up a small mountain not far from Trafalgar is the whitewashed town of Vejer de la Frontera, surrounded by an old Moorish fort. On the narrow streets you see life-sized cardboard cut-outs of women clad in black burkas. An old man we met told us that all the women in Vejer wore the burka until the mid 1930s. He showed us grainy photographs of the time and it looked like a street in Kandahar.
For me, Granada and Seville are two of the three most beautiful cities in Europe. Venice is the other - also profoundly influenced by Islamic forms and colours. Muslim design and aesthetics are imprinted across continental Europe, from tile work to domes. They affirm a truth denied for too long: enlightened Islam is an intrinsic part of western Europe. And it is here, I believe, that the next Islamic renaissance will flower.
Iran and Iraq were centres of Islamic art and culture, until the barbarians of both east and west turned them into dark and hopeless places. The Middle East is so depressing that past glories cannot waken the spirit. Istanbul and other parts of Turkey are majestically redolent of the Ottoman empire, but Ottoman Islamic art and artefacts appear self consciously imposing, lacking in humility, which is the central tenet of our faith.
It is to southern Spain that we European Muslims return to fill our hearts. Since 9/11, I regularly take my young daughter to the Alhambra Palace in Granada. We spend long, lazy days getting to know the exquisitely carved panels, inscriptions from the Koran, tiles and paintings. I feel restored as I watch her in the gardens full of lilies, roses and cypresses. Coming down the many steps connecting various levels, she laughs with pleasure to find she can cool her hands in water scented with rose petals.
Here we remind ourselves that Muslims had elegance and dreams of making paradise on earth - not the deadly pessimism of our own times, when our youngest and brightest want to bomb themselves to heaven instead. There have been other periods when Islam has propagated an aggressive male character, when art has been overwhelmed by weapons and authoritarianism. Sadly, we are in that place again today.
In Vejer I bought a lovely carved teapot and an enormous tray from an Arab Spaniard. As we gently negotiated the price over mint tea, he said: "What happened to Muslims? We lost our eyes, tongues, hearts, heads. What the Christians couldn't do to us, we have done worse to ourselves. Even in Granada now, I hear there are crazy Muslim men who want to kill or die, not make beautiful things or good lives." As we wait for the cycle to turn, we can take solace in the remains of those days when we were fruitful.
We still have fine artists, writers, musicians and designers, but these are individual seekers of light. Islamic states are lost in kitsch, more in tune with Harrods than the Alhambra. This may be about to change, as Paris and London have both started to showcase truly wondrous old and new Muslim arts and cultures. The latest and arguably best of these is the Jameel Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a dazzling space for its collection of Islamic objects from around the world. This month, I recorded introductions to three programmes on the gallery for Sky Arts-world. Describing the oldest dated carpet made in Iran and a carved Egyptian pulpit, I felt a sense of connection with grace, the same leap of hope I feel in Andalucia. This is who we were. This is who we can be and must be again one day.
"A Celebration of Islamic Art" will be broadcast on Sky Artsworld on 10 September, from 4.15pm
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis