A New Alhambra
for Elaine Freedgood
Although I have no sisters by birth, I am constantly being confused for my friend who is half Mexican, as she is for me. We gleam with flattery, and glint with rage at white people and their defective eyes. We shimmer in the light of both, stick close together when we can; we let or make such mix ups happen.
La Torre de las Infantas (the Tower of the Princesses) at the Alhambra, according to Washington Irving’s account from 1832, is surrounded by fig trees, pomegranates, and myrtles. Its marble fountains, arches, and arabesques the perfect surrounds for “royal beauty.” He tells of
three Moorish princesses who were once shut up in this tower by their father, a tyrant king of Grenada, and were only permitted to ride out at night about the hills, when no one was permitted to come in their way under pain of death.
Irving claims to have been told by a small fairy who lives under the stairs of the Alhambra that the triplet princesses still haunt the green gardens and the rolling hills, that they
may be seen occasionally when the moon is in the full, riding in lonely places along the mountain side, on palfreys richly caparisoned, and sparkling with jewels, but they vanish on being spoken to.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise. At their birth, the astrologers warned their father, “[d]aughters, o King, are always precarious property…these will most need your watchfulness when they arrive.”
When last June we heard about the kids arriving in New York from the Southern border—the first moment the child separation policy flared into the public eye, the first I knew of its systematic existence—we raced to LaGuardia to witness, to support, to stage something visible, at least. We made posters on the M60 bus. I passed around fat sharpies, brought extra neon poster-board. No one knew what to write, or who to address. The children? Their captors? The news cameras? It maybe wasn’t a great decision. The couple of kids I saw filing out of side doors were so little and tired and quiet. I’m not sure a phalanx of screaming adults helped, though it gave the TV cameras something to show other than their tiny bodies. Some stubborn questioners managed to get information about where the children were being taken in the unmarked vans.
This emergency airport-going has been a thing these last two years. I like it. It is good to disrupt these spaces of fear and docility with liveness and spontaneity and too much mess and song and language everywhere. To show up and clog up and drown out “bags unattended” announcements with the people’s mic. And in my family, you always pick up at the airport in person. We don’t mess around with this “I’ll meet you at home” business. At Qaid-e-Azam International Airport in Karachi, my uncle and grandfather would meet us on the tarmac. Whatever else is true about the ceremonies of sharif log and shi’ia people, our snobbery and formality, airport greetings are the best, especially with tea and hand stitched banners.
The day the first Muslim ban came down, the New York City Taxi Drivers’ Union staged a strike and encouraged New Yorkers to show up at our ports, bear witness, provide language and legal support. It was an extraordinary thing, and it spread to other cities. My cousin in Boston, a lawyer, went immediately to Logan for detention support. I have no skills, so I went to JFK to watch and be a body. We’re all weighing the same decisions these days, so I won’t go into it. Protest is protest, it does things. If nothing else, it brings collective life into being. Let’s call it a kind of convivencia.
That night at LaGuardia Terminal C was an attempt to reactivate the taxi strike of January 2017, but the crowd was different. There was more Spanish in the air, for one, alongside the Arabic and Punjabi, the Urdu and Bangla. From what I could tell, there were more people inside the terminal this time, and the pond-water airport lighting and drop ceiling muffled the mood of outrage into a kind of grim confusion, a growing sense of shame. The immediacy of the moment—our rush to get there—revealed its inadequacy as information rippled through the crowd: how long the children had already been separated from their parents, how long they’d have to go before they saw them again.
When you are safe, it’s easy to think of days and nights as an unearned gift, a zakat, a grace, a charity from the stars. In 1933, a little more than decade after the Treaty of Sèvres began the dismantling of the Caliphate, the Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal traveled from British India to Córdoba to see the mosque there. In the beginning of the poem, he describes the famous red and white arches in their two-toned alternation as containers for the history of the world and the infinity of the future:
Chain of day and night, sculptor of history
Chain of day and night, well of life and death
Chain of day and night, double colored twine of silk
from which the divine weaves her favorite robe…
It examines you as it examines me
Chain of day and night, jeweler of the cosmos
If I you are found to be less, or if I am…
Well, then it’s death for us both, he says. The “Masjid-e Qurtaba” (The Masjid of Córdoba) is an aggressive poem; it counterposes the ishq or passion of the Abrahamic prophets against the comparatively insubstantial stones of the mosque, which are only its manifestation, even in their soaring beauty. “Kafir-e Hindi hun main,” he writes, “I am an Indian infidel,” but hear the prayer on my lips. Then, as now, reading namaaz in the “cathedral” of Córdoba was forbidden; Iqbal was furious about it. In his poem, the Muslim is exile, soldier, wine-drinker, ascetic, horseman, revolutionary, servant, the only beautiful thing beneath the vault of the heavens. In Al Andalus, Iqbal sees the glories of the Muslim past, and the beating of a heart that refuses luxury, royalty, spoils. It is a righteous vision, and a beautiful one
Even today the Andalusians are
happy of heart, warmly convivial
Even today in that country
the eyes of the gazelle are all around
Musing on the imperial and spiritual pasts of Europe, he wonders what will leap out of them, their oceanic depths, and “change the color” of the sky, unveil the new dawn on a “new world.” “Where there is no revolution, it’s a dead life.” Following a visit to the Alhambra on the same trip, he imagined in the poem “Hispania” the sound of the azaan being recited at glittering minarets along the hills of Grenada. This brings him no comfort. “There is solace for the heart in neither seeing nor learning,” he wrote, in rage and nostalgia, as he journeyed home to a still colonized land.
Yesterday, following vigorous denials by the Secretary of Homeland Security before Congress this past summer—“we do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period”—a redacted memo released under a Freedom of Information Act request confirmed what we already knew: that Kirstjen Nielsen signed a policy into law in April that “permissibly direct[s] the separation of parents or legal guardians and minors held in immigration detention so that the parent or legal guardian can be prosecuted.” A heavily redacted email from the Deputy Chief of Operational Programs at US Border Patrol Headquarters was sent just a week after the children arrived in New York: “We have been asked to provide additional follow up information which will be used by C-1 in his discussions ‘up the chain’ to set expectations of what our true capabilities are with respect to FUMA prosecutions.” Downchain, border patrol agents have been filmed pouring out and kicking over gallon jugs of water left by church and humanitarian groups in the Sonoran Desert for those making the journey in nearly unendurable heat.
It’s not a good idea to romanticize Moorish Iberia right now. If you want to terrify Europe, ISIS learned, invoke the Caliphate—whisper the vanished glories of Muslim Spain, and sit back and wait for histrionic visions of sharia law and no-driving women to take root with the orange, the rose, the fig tree, the myrtle. The Muslim philosopher of Córdoba, Ibn Hazm, wrote a treatise on love both godly and profane in 1022 called Tawq al-Hamamah (The Neck Ring of the Dove). The title refers to the thin band of dark feathers that adorn the Cape turtle dove’s neck, collar and necklace both, chain of bondage and adornment.
The text contains sections on heart problems like “falling in love while asleep,” “slanderers,” “wasting away,” and “separation.” Of separation, augmented and unbearable through force of distance both temporal and geographic, he writes “it is separation that has moved the poets to weep over former trysting places.” He asks a visitor from Córdoba if he has seen his former home but its traces have been obliterated: “where peace once reigned, fearful chasms yawned; wolves resorted there, ghosts frolicked, demons sported.” He tries to recollect happier times, but
hear[s] the voices of owls hooting over and those passages, astir of old with the busy concourse of people….Then night followed day with the selfsame bustle, the selfsame coming and going of countless feet; but now day followed night there, and all was hushed and desolate.
In the stirring passages of the airport, I thought about the difference between a concourse and a terminal and came to few conclusions. Poems by Ibn Hazm illustrating his philosophy of love are scattered throughout the treatise in strict meter. The translations are mostly mannered and poor, but sometimes they are striking. Speaking of his fickle love and her wild moods in the section on “breaking off,” Ibn Hazm elegizes her dissimulating smile, her magnetic twoness:
Her lips were smiling graciously,
But in her heart she raged at me—
A double necklace, fashioned with
Gay pearls, and somber chrysolith.
Or, in an earlier translation that flips the motive:
And she smiles in my direction while pretending to be angry,
Wearing double strings of pearls and emeralds!
This section, as with many of the earlier ones is somewhat mocking of the insistent, infinite foibles of love. “Of Falling in Love While Asleep,” is in this comic vein as well; it’s a send-up of a man whose beloved exists only in his dream. The speaker says “you have very little judgment, and your discretion must be affected, if you are actually in love with a person you’ve never seen, someone moreover who was never created and does not exist in the world at all.” I think Ibn Hazm would say the same of me, of my longing for Alhambra, a place I have never seen. How I miss its perfume. How I feel like I would be just the person to ride around on a palfrey richly caparisoned, sparkling with jewels in the moonlight and disappearing when spoken to. Of my affection for the Masjid-e Qurtaba, with which I have fallen in love “through merely hearing [its] description…without ever having set eyes on the beloved.”
Ibn Hazm’s opinion of the man who falls in love while asleep is almost as low as of the man who falls in love through a description: “If you had fallen for one of those pictures they paint on the walls of the public baths, I would have found it easier to excuse you.” The case is “pure fantasy of the mind,” he says, “a nightmare illusion, and falls into the category of wishful thinking and mental hallucination.” Outside the terminal, I watched on YouTube that viral video from last September of a tall red-headed Syrian man calling the azaan at the Alhambra, felt my scalp and shoulders prickle toward my infidel heart, and wondered if the shape of my Iberian dream was just a nightmare illusion. A mental hallucination of a brown future here in Queens, then Manhattan, then the Bronx, then everywhere. How do we measure convivencia, weigh a pure fantasy of the mind? In examining me, I thought, the jeweler of the cosmos would surely find me kam: less, fewer, low-carat. At the Alhambra, the sweet-voiced man said the walls of the fortress missed hearing the call to Allah, the last time having been in 1492, at the time of the expulsion.
Most of us left LaGuardia pretty quickly that night, realizing how radically alone the kids were, how immaterial our presence, at least at that moment. News broke on Twitter that dozens of children were being transported to holding facilities in Harlem in the pre-dawn hours, by decree of a tyrant king. Local reporters said they looked scared out of their minds. A day or two later, a photograph ran in the New York Times of three school-age girls who had been separated from their parents an undisclosed number of days and nights earlier. In the photograph, the girls are walking into a foster-care center with their faces covered by Disney princess masks. The princess masks were not the kind you buy at a store. The looked like they had been printed out on a home laser printer and colored in with a random selection of leftover and mismatched markers; a detention-center art activity.
It was late. On the bus back from Queens, most of the riders were on their way home from work at the airport—security, yes, but also Mexi-Joe’s Grill. Interwich. X-Press Spa. The M60 is one of the slowest bus lines in the city, especially the last stretch of Manhattan, which crosses from East to West Harlem on 125th Street. The way the city spread out beneath us, taking for what felt like ever, made room for longer histories of failed nights and good promises to thread themselves through the passing minutes. Three avenue blocks from my apartment, when you spot the Alhambra Theater and Ballroom, you know you’re almost home. Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday sang on that stage. Now there’s a bowling alley and new condos.
Garlanded in shimmering halides and fluorescents, incandescents and hot halogens, and set off by the black of the rivers and the harbor, New York never quite reveals if she is smiling while pretending to be angry, or flashing a gracious dimple while she seethes and rages. I learned from a PBS documentary that a tenth-century poet described the string of streetlights—the first we know of—stretching between Córdoba and the Madinat al-Zahra as a string of pearls adorning the slender neck of his beloved Andalusia. I haven’t been able to find the poem, but the double chain of lights that curve in arced suspension on the bridge between the three boroughs swayed a little in the dark night and glittered, as a well-cut necklace will on a throat that—for the first time in too long—sings a lullaby or leaps with laughter.
[Translations from the Urdu are mine; translations from the Arabic are from published sources.]
Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb grew up in Albany, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied Comparative Literature at Columbia, where she also earned a PhD. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in 3 Quarks Daily, Discourse, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BookForum, Boston Review, Triple Canopy, the Bennington Review,...