The sunrise colored the mountains of Spain orange with memory.
The old Emir Habbus was dead (long live the Emir!), and so his son Badis took the throne. He wasn’t young – thirty six, to be exact – but he was inexperienced, slightly foolish, and had been completely sheltered in the tall southern rocks from the war and storm of Medieval Iberia. At the coronation ceremony, televised throughout the small kingdom, he rode horseback in the confetti, trotting beside the Court Vizier, Samuel HaNagid, the most powerful Jew of the Middle Ages.
‘I thank you for what you have done for me, Samuel,’ Badis told Samuel as they wended their way through the trumpeters and drummers, the crying and screaming crowds of all colors and creeds. ‘Without your tutelage, I would be nothing.’ He posed briefly to take a selfie with a group of middle school girls, each shrilly screaming his name.
Samuel nodded, saying nothing. He had quickly drowned the original heir, Yaddair, when the old emir had suddenly taken ill. Yaddair had been, by all metrics, a talented heir, far more than the simple-minded Badis. He was well read in the Greek classics, could recite half the Qur’an without a single stutter or hesitation, and rode nearly as fast as Samuel himself. He would have made a brilliant and independent emir, which is why he could never have been one. The man had struggled valiantly, but he still died bloated and blue in a well. A vizier sometimes must make sacrifices for the good of country.
Samuel’s eyes slowly scanned the ground, his sight blurry with old age. All the Emir’s subjects were here, each descended from Abraham. The coronation was purposefully held on a Monday, nobody’s Sabbath, so that all could attend – no iterant legs were bowed in prayer, no iterant hands were clasped in thought, and no itinerant fingers were lighting candles.
The two reached the end of the procession. The palace guard, wearing black suits and sunglasses, helped the new Emir down from his horse. Badis walked up to the podium, as regally as a new royal could muster, his long green cape trailing behind him on the velvet steps. After adjusting the various microphones in front of him, he began his speech.
‘May Allah bless you all for coming today.’ A great cheer resounded through the crowd. ‘And for the Dhimmi, who call Him by a different name, you too will always be blessed in this kingdom.’ This was a lie. In fewer than thirty years, there will be no more Jews in Granada. Samuel’s son, Joseph, will be torn to pieces by a great mob. They will crucify his body and string his grey organs across the rooftop of the synagogue. Hundreds of Jews will run to stop the murder, and they too will be slain. From the tall window palace, Badis, now having grown a grey beard of his own, will watch wordlessly. And then, in four hundred years, there will be no Muslims in Granada either, driven by sword and stake across the strait. Badis and Samuel and all the citizens of Granada knew all this, but, as those were things that had yet to pass, they did not speak much of it.
After the speech had ended and the crowd dispersed, the newly crowned Emir pulled his vizier aside. ‘Samuel, I wish to prove my submission to Allah. I would like to go on a pilgrimage to the city with the greatest mosque in the world, Córdoba. Yes, I know; it is true that we are at war with them. But the laws of religion are sacred and travelers even more so. I will be given safe passage.’ Badis put his hand on Samuel’s gnarled shoulder. ‘But I want more than your permission. I request that you come with me. You were born there and know the city. And furthermore, I would trust nobody else to be my guide and guard.’
Samuel bowed, low enough to touch his beard to the ground. As a youth he had left Córdoba in a fit of fire and war. The Caliph had been murdered and his empire had fallen to dust in a single day. In times of civil unrest, the Jews were always the first to be blamed. His calloused feet still held the scars of his barefoot night flight. He was lucky – his agile steps dodged flashlights and gunfire, but his friends, his family, his parents – it is better to imagine they died quickly. In the years since, he climbed cliffs, fell to the innermost pits, sewed desert to desert, split the seas, filled every gorge – but every night he still dreamed of the same red arches and crowded markets. He made those memories into poetry, typing it all, letter by letter, on an old electronic typewriter. He knew, just before his death, he would be given the opportunity to follow that blood trail back to Córdoba and glimpse again a lost homeland, a precious commodity among his Chosen People.
The two left at once. From the top of the mountain, they were carried by slaves on a palanquin. ‘My one regret,’ Badis said, looking at the royal palace from afar, ‘is that I could not see the Alhambra in its full majesty. It shall not be built for another three hundred years, in the twilight of Al-Andalus. Do you not feel the same, friend?’
Samuel did not look out the carriage window. ‘Córdoba will always be more beautiful.’
Upon reaching the base of the mountain, they disembarked and traveled the rest of the journey by glossy limousine, fitting for an Emir and his highest advisor, although it was against Samuel’s wishes. It was the first time Badis had left the confines of his tiny Taifa of Granada. Like a child, he pawed and mewled at the scenes passing by in the tinted windows. Most were domestic: an olive grove of a thousand twisted trees; a shepherd, complete with a crooked staff, leading her sheep to the light of Jerusalem; little stone houses belching rings of smoke.
‘Who are they?’ asked Badis suddenly, as he sipped on his glass of sangria. He pointed at a group of stone-faced men sitting on an old Roman wall that lined the road. Motionless and silent, they were staring at the motorcade. In each of their laps lay weapons of war – spears, swords, scimitars, and AK-47s.
‘Those are men I killed on your father’s orders,’ replied the vizier. ‘I cut them down in wars of conquest. Drunk with their blood, I fed Granada many victories.’ Samuel raised his hand to calm the panicking Emir. ‘Do not fear. If they attack us, I shall easily kill them again. But I do not think they will. They fear me for what I did to them and know it can easily happen again. My Lord, take solace in their fear and make it your strength.’ Samuel paused as he took in the Emir’s expression. He began again with a firmer tone. ‘Do not look on them, My Lord. They will only cloud your judgment with unhappiness. An Emir must have a clean mind to rule.’
Badis did not take his eyes off them. He met every black-eyed gaze with his own and listened to their thousand and one stories all, until the limousine reached the border of Córdoba.
There, they were stopped by a guard. Badis rolled down his window. ‘We are here on a pilgrimage to the Great Mosque of Córdoba. Please let us pass without issue, for this is a religious matter of great importance.’
One of the guards, a tall man with a great white turban, leaned into the limousine. He briefly inspected the two passengers. ‘You claim to go on a Muslim pilgrimage, and yet you bring a Jew?’
Badis responded in anger. ‘He is my greatest advisor. Moreover, he was once a resident of this city and wishes to see it again. Now let us pass.’
The guard scoffed and shook his head. ‘A Jew, your vizier? It is forbidden in Islam to be ruled by a man of another religion.’
‘And it is also forbidden in Islam to drink wine and to fuck men, and yet we still do, don’t we?’ Badis waved his hand. ‘Now leave us be.’ In shock, the guard stepped back. After a brief moment of thought, he bowed briefly and let them continue into the city.
Even from across the river, the Great Mosque, taller than all the red-roofed buildings around it, was unmistakable. Girded by a tall brown brick wall, it cast a shadow over the dusty city. Badis stuck his head out the window to get a better view. ‘I have truly never seen a building more magnificent,’ he said, although secretly he was disappointed that its exterior was neither taller nor grander than his own palace. He expected gold and alabaster, not a dim brown and grey.
Samuel said nothing. As the royal procession rolled through the streets, the citizens of Córdoba looked up from their fruit and pottery stands to gawk. Some, seeing an opportunity, came holding bottled water for sale. With the glint of an eye and a dagger, Samuel waved them off. As Samuel had predicted, the limousine attracted harassment and hawkers, but as an upstart Emir, Badis craved this attention, just as Samuel had when he was still a barefoot Jew boy, cast out from his home into the wilderness with nothing but longing. Not so much anymore. In forty years, he had built up power that none of the chosen race had seen since Solomon. He was more than the power behind the throne, more than an accomplished poet, artist and Talmudic scholar, more than a caring friend and a feared enemy, more than the sum of all those characteristics. Where Samuel walked, Judaism followed. When he spoke, his word became law. And yet, despite it all, when he cried, he did so alone. He wept every night for countless reasons: that he would be the last of his race; that the people whom he had killed would take revenge; that there would never be peace for his people again; that the peace his people experienced now was but a romantic history fabricated by twenty-first century academics; that Badis did not care; that his descendants will not care, at least not until they too were cast out (and of course by then it would be too late); that G-d would not forgive him for his impropriety because G-d does not know what forgiveness is, only hate, pure divine animalistic hate; that once, as a teenager in Granada, he thought about converting to Islam or even Christianity because Allah and God seemed kind and brought people joy (but for the next two weeks he vomited black tar until he painted his forehead with lamb’s blood); that the Jews would be killed and killed and in return kill and kill but they would never build the Temple again; and that was all alone, save for one night ten years ago. His son found him collapsed in a heap in study, the radio blaring Leonard Cohen, his tears marking the margins of the Torah with salt. ‘Why are you crying, papa?’ his son had asked, tugging at his long green sleeves. His father did not respond and only cried harder. ‘Did I do something wrong again?’ Joseph said. He nuzzled his face into Samuel’s chest. Beset with vision thirty years hence, Samuel composed himself as best he could and slowly stroked his son’s curly hair. ‘Yes, you did, but it was not your fault. You were born, my son. That was your wrong, and mine as well.’
‘Samuel?’ The old man opened his eyes. Badis was looking quizzically at him. ‘We are here.’
Samuel looked out the window and saw a familiar stone wall behind the tinted glass. ‘So we are.’ He slowly opened the car door, unfolded his creaky legs, and stood with the help of a wooden cane. There were guards here too, but they were welcoming – they bowed themselves lower than the stooped old man when they saw him. He slowly approached the walls and ran his crooked fingers over familiar curved grooves. Samuel turned around briefly and saw that Badis was giving his autograph to a group of Japanese tourists. Assuming the Emir would follow eventually, Samuel stepped through the gates
The courtyard was replete with orange trees full of ripe fruit. Samuel welcomed the shade – the Iberian summers were cruel and painful – and the quiet that came along with it. This was a holy place. It was not his Holy Place, certainly, but Samuel still felt protected here, perhaps close to G-d. He had never been inside Great Mosque before, not even when he had lived here. He had his own little synagogue in the maze-like alleys of the Jewish quarter, and besides, back in those days he was not much for religion. But now that old age and tragedy had beaten faith into him, he had come to respect devotion of any type.
‘Sorry for the delay,’ Badis said in between bites. Pulp and juice ran down his satin robes. ‘Shall we?’ He tossed the peel on the pavement as he walked into the Mosque. Samuel picked up the cast away rinds and put them onto the soil to compost. Then he followed.
The interior of the Mosque was all that the stories had whispered. In every direction, Samuel saw those thousand red and white arches in every direction. They tricked the eye and made mockery of perspective; the gaps in the archways looked like mirrors that reflected nothing. On the ground, supplicant in prayer, were thousands dressed in white robes, submitters each to Allah’s beauty and might.
‘A work worthy of al-Musawwir,’ Badis mumbled. Even he could say nothing trite at what he saw; instead, the words of stanzas not yet written tumbled from his lips. ‘O waters of Al-Kabeer! Someone on your shores/In the shades of evening, dreams of a dawning age. That is Córdoba, as the poet will say.’ He turned to Samuel and with a whisper said, ‘You were right.’
Samuel dared not speak any further, though the next stanza of Iqbal’s poem danced on his tongue. The new age is shrouded yet in the mists and haze of the future/But my inward eye has seen some glimpses of its dawn. The two men stepped between the multicolored prayer mats. The whispers of silent sermons combined into a cage of unheard music from every direction. They must have walked around the Mosque ten or more times, but each time felt new, each retread brought different sights and insight – a quiet inscription to God, the gold and jade mihrab, and a small garden of lilacs, irrigated by a small stream.
At last, when legs young and old finally grew tired, in an unmarked place, Badis stopped. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘This is where I will pray.’ He fell to his knees and thought of many things. Samuel watched him. For a moment, in the dim light, the Emir looked no different from the hundred subjects around him.
When he finished, Badis stood silent for several minutes, his eyes cast in shadow. ‘We can leave now, Samuel. Thank you.’
But as they turned away, a group of people stormed the building. They were covered from head to toe in glimmering steel. They ran through the Mosque, swords aloft, yelling and screaming and crying. With fatal swipes, Muslim heads began to roll. ‘Do not look upon them!’ Samuel shouted. He tried to cover Badis’s eyes with his cloak. ‘These are things yet to come. Do not let them haunt you! They are ghosts of future time, another age, another Iberia!’ But Samuel knew that was not true. There was no other time and no other Iberia. All time happened at once; all sadness was a single instance; and the spirits never stopped walking.
Badis pushed the old man aside. Like a museum-goer, the Emir watched the slaughter. The supplicants did not defend themselves.
It was over in only a few minutes. The bodies were quickly carried out by the knights. Monks with glowing tonsures, wielding brooms and mops, swarmed the newly sanctified cathedral to sweep up the gore and organs on the ground.
Badis walked dazed through the Franciscan crowd. ‘Why?’ he asked, to nobody in particular. ‘Why?’
‘That’s a complicated question, Badis of Granada,’ a female voice replied. Samuel quickly found its owner. ‘As the victors,’ continued Queen Isabel, ‘it is within our divine right to reform this structure as we see fit.’ She brushed a lock of brown hair out of her dour face. ‘You did it yourself. Is it not true that on this site once lay a Visigothic church? And before that, a Roman temple? And before that, some other, unknown temple created to celebrate some other pagan deity? What makes you the sole possessors of Spanish heritage? Of history?’
Badis approached the queen with hesitation. She was taller than he, and her flowing velvet robes gave off a forbidden luster. ‘But so what, if in the past there had been violence? Nobody says that you must continue it!’ Samuel put a calloused hand on Badis’s shoulder to tell him that he was arguing beyond his abilities. The Emir ignored the warning. ‘There will not be peace in my realm forever – happiness is fleeting and given by God’s mercy – I do not claim to be blameless, far from it – but I live in your past, Isabel. Can you learn from my mistakes and take the path of kindness over destruction?’
‘No, we cannot,’ replied Queen Isabel curtly. A strange smile crossed her lips. ‘But you have caught my interest. Come with me, Badis of Granada. There are some people I would like you to meet.’ She stretched out her soft white hand for Badis to take. ‘I shall one day be buried in your palace, long after you, but tonight, we shall live to our fullest.’ Gingerly, he put his palm on hers, and she quickly set off towards the exit. Samuel followed, his staff scraping the ground.
They stepped through many archways and many times: they saw the soldiers demolish the center of the mosque and place there a cathedral; they saw Charles, grandson of Isabel, weep at the beautiful building he destroyed for a commonplace cathedral; they saw the minaret ground to ashes and a bell tower ring in its place; they saw poets and pilgrims and tourists visit and forget; they saw Muslim men and Christian guards beat each other bloody over right to worship; for a second they saw me and I saw them; and they saw themselves walking in.
Night had fallen when the three left the cathedral. The courtyard had become crowded; Spain had awoken from its eternal siesta. The guitar music and smell of roasted tomatoes rode the cool air. With his old eyes, Samuel saw Isabel and Badis talking and laughing, their cheeks nearly touching. Next to them loomed Ferdinand, grumpy and jealous, glowering at this wife and this new interloper. Chuckling at the sight, Samuel let the crowd carry him away in song. The party swirled around him: Franco was waltzing with Lorca; the red haired Abd Rahman groaned as his only company was drooling Charles; Maimonides drank so much that his whole body began to shake; the wife of Dunash posed lustily on a bench for lustful Picasso; de Las Casas tried to start a toast but nobody was listening; and Cortés and Torquemada arm wrestled.Before Samuel realized, the night had grown long, the wine jugs had grown empty, and the music had grown faster. His body felt so heavy, so exhausted, so ancient. But just as he was about to topple to the ground, Samuel found himself lifted to the sky, above the mountains and plains, above the people alive and dead, above the ghosts of the past and future and future past. The whole world below joined hands in a hora and sang Hava Nagila until the sun rose and Córdoba was nothing but shadows again.
Coda Danu-Asmara is of Jewish and Muslim descent and lives as a contradiction in Madrid. His previous work has been published in Thrice Fiction and The Write Launch.