Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Whispers from the Alhambra

Walt Whitman has been speaking to me lately. For what am I doing here, on this side of the ocean, but “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them”*?  I am trying to connect the various aspects of my life and studies in a big, never-ending web. My generation is used to Facebook and picturing human interactions in terms of a great web. Granada is a city of constant interactions, sometimes beautiful, sometimes jarring, and often surprising. The city forces its inhabitants to face the meandering gossamer threads* of their past, which crisscross daily life like the cobblestoned and graffiti-coated alleyways that crisscross the city.

For me this means that I am constantly reminded of my ties to the other continent, America, which holds a thousand myths for those here who have never been. I situate myself as mexicana and estadounidense in this bridge-world, this city at the confluence of land and water, mountain and valley, greenery and snow, Spanish and Arabic, ancient and new. I am aware of my roots in the “moonlight through the pines”* of Mississippi and Georgia, in the nopales of México “florido y espinudo,”* but also in the fishing town of Puerto de Vega in Asturias where my great-grandfather was born. And in the languages I speak, my mother tongue English and my father tongue Spanish, I find the shibboleth words from the South like “catawampus” and “catty-corner” as well as the telltale prefix “al” that denotes a word derived from Arabic: “algebra,” “alcohol,” “alchemy,” and of course, a word that penetrates my vocabulary like a breath of enchantment: Alhambra.

That word must have plucked a wailing guitar string somewhere within Washington Irving’s spirit, too, when he came to Granada and wrote “Stories of the Alhambra.” While he wrote fiction, that fiction brought this eternal city to the international consciousness and charmed the gorgeous haven with a mystique that it lives up to and even surpasses.

Begun in the eleventh century, the Alhambra was built as an Islamic royal city and fortress. Its thick walls served their purpose and withstood invasion for centuries, until at last in 1492, that fateful year, Fernando and Isabel's army seiged the city and forced a surrender out of King Boabdil.

The Alhambra is so intensely beautiful that the imagination cannot help but be carried away into a trancelike, dreamlike place that is neither now nor then, neither here nor elsewhere. From afar it sits upon the green mountain and crowns Granada. From within, it humbles with the enormity of its dimensions, the majesty of its vaulted spaces, and the intricacy of its designs and inscriptions.

The journey begins with a steep ascent through the forest. On either side of the road, rivulets of water rush down. Water that Islam held holy at a time when Catholics bathed once a month at most. I walked up and into a dream, a memory, a wish come true. My seven-year-old self had walked this very path with my father, had marveled at the water that rushed through the entire city of the Alhambra in a great circulatory system that gave it life ten centuries after its initial construction. This time I felt the circularity of my life doubling back on itself. I touched my childhood and lived a moment that was never a single moment but a recurrent point at the confluence of eternal circles of time.

If Walt Whitman helped me understand why I have left the American continent, García Márquez helped me understand that stories and histories are not just events with one beginning and end, but rather ongoing occurrences and experiences that we relive again and again. Cien años de soledad taught me that places retain eternal memories of the people who come and go. The Alhambra remembered me and welcomed me like an old family friend who used to pat my head and pinch my cheeks and who still recognizes me in my grown-up form.

The Alhambra is full of quiet surprises. A vaulted ceiling pulls my gaze up like a magnet and I nearly lose my balance ogling at the stalagtite-like architecture that is replicated in archway after archway. I peer at the poems inscribed on the walls and swear once again that I will learn Arabic so I can experience the full effect of the marriage of the visual and the literary. What rich creativity springs from limitations! I understand that strict Islamic law forbids the representation of animate objects, and so has engendered a refined class of beauty, which the Alhambra wears like fine lace on fortified stone walls, fusing feminine and masculine beauty harmoniously.

When at last I made my way down through the colorful gardens, it was with the knowledge that if I returned 365 days out of the year, I still would not discover half the treasures of the Alhambra. But the stillness that almost drowned out the tourists, and the rushing water that sings in a language I would love to understand, whispered to me that I could come back again, and again, and again, and find myself and be surprised each time.

 *Quotations are from Walt Whitman's A Noiseless, Patient Spider, Ray Charles's Georgia On My Mind, and Pablo Neruda's Confieso que he vivido.

1 comment:

  1. Found your blog through facebook! Everything sounds so amazing - I'm so happy for you, that you got to go back - and it sounds like it's living up to your memories, which is amazing. Also, I love your writing.

    I'm trying to go back to Italy next year. Good/bad idea? Also, HRO is playing a song (by an American composer) that's a setting of a Pablo Neruda poem. (If you have any interest, look them up - Neruda Songs by Peter Lieberson. They're on youtube, and are so gorgeous. I had never heard of the poet before now!)