It was Mahmoud Darwish--by his own personal and poetic admission, a lover of Andalusia--who said about love that love is either the longing for its arrival or the mourning of its loss. In the poem ‘Intazirha (Wait for her), the poet advises—even commands–the waiting lover to be slow, patient, disciplined; the poem itself is a kind of ritual of waiting, whose edges are illuminated by the image of her arrival though we and the poet know that she may not come, she may not. As for the sorrow of love’s loss, all of Darwish’s poetry is a mourning–across historical epochs, through the political upheavals of the Middle East, in the bleeding of Palestine, and in private tribulations of love.
On the five-hour bus ride from Madrid to Granada, I think of Darwish again (and through him of other poets), and of the deep paradox embedded in his work—that to be one of the world’s great poets of love means to be in receptive of its illusiveness, to know that our expression often falls short of the fullness of the experience. In the words of Krishnamurti: “Not quite, not quite.”
Here we are, on yet another transport, this time a bus, moving toward a destination I have dreamed about since my high school days, when we studied Andalusian history as one of the golden ages of Arab and Islamic culture. I am in anticipation of what is to reveal itself to me as we enter the city of Granada, the heft and flutter of approach laced by the inevitable coming of loss, of departure. And so, caught in this trajectory, the only certainty is the passage itself: the swift sliding of the bus across a changing landscape, the loop of pop videos on the screen above the driver, the murmur of conversations mostly in Spanish.
Nothing new in all this, nor in Darwish’s admission, really. For all the talk about purpose and intent and plans and destinations, passage is what we do most, at least most of us. And perhaps that is why passage, for all its shifts and slides, has a comforting edge, has a lulling quality which allows for the heart and mind to do their work in relative quiet and peace, to open themselves to moments of revelation, moment of clarity—about life’s poundings and injuries, about life’s small joys and uncontainable moments of exuberance.
And here we are in the bus station of Granada. Here we are in a taxi to Albaicin—the driver has a nicotine cough, and most of his molars are gone. And here we are, with our backpacks and carry-ons, at the entrance of our street. It is a beautiful sight, which automatically brings into focus other such places in my world—Jerusalem and Aleppo mainly–old cities which have somehow withstood the ravages of time, the invasions, the occupations, the traffic, have withstood all this and been made less cocky, less arrogant. But not quite, not quite.
The end of the cobblestone alley is frayed and a bit unclear; the road is all rubble of reconstruction. We begin walking, at first slowly, then a bit more quickly. But not too quick, not too quick, for as Antonio Machado said, the road is made of our footsteps--well, at least until we will make it to Alhambra the next morning. This evening, from the vantage point of Albaicin, Alhambra casts an eerie, majestic shadow on the entire landscape, flutters the heart with its distant, inchoate beauty and momentary inaccessibility.
This morning, Granada’s weather is by turns sunny and drizzly, the sky a searing blue and then a dull grey, turning the Alhambra into something akin to an apparition.
Ahambra, for all its beauty, is work–the kind of work one associates with reading because Arabic-language Alhambra is a glorified reading, of rooms opening onto rooms of Q’uranic verses etched in stone and tile, on wall and ceiling. Its strange combination of majesty and simplicity takes my breath away, holds me in my tracks, makes me wander if I are worthy (if anyone is worthy) of this much pure or purified pleasure. And like reading, Alhambra is a passage from the decoration to meaning, from line to word. And if I hold my breath for a second, if I can will the tourist noise around into stillness, I can actually hear the Q`uranic recitations from my adolescence, when the night would break, the sound of the mu`azzin would crack the silence, when the darkness would pass into dawn.
It was Francisco Alarcón de Icaza who wrote, "Dale limosna, mujer, que no hay en la vida nada como la pena de ser ciego en Granada. “ (Give him alms, woman, because there is nothing worse in life than to be blind in Granada). Alarcon is speaking on behalf of the blind one.
There is no worst cruelty than the one the blind man of Granda has to withstand. The poets always speak for the unsaid, the unseen; for the muted, and the half-visible. To be blind in Alhambra is a curse from the gods, but to be sighted is no easy task either. For Alhambra taxes vision, subjects the eyes to the torture of so much, exhausts the eyelids, so intense is its intricate, silent beauty, so demanding are its claims, so illusive its signposts as I hobble from anticipation to encounter to departure.
For all its beauty, its silence, Alhambra commands its other--the open sea. Without a map (which we have forgotten at home), without a single towel, we are on our way to the Mediterranean, to Salobreña. Call it folly; call if spontaneity; it makes no difference. We are determined—to do what? We were not sure, except that we wanted to reach the Mediterranean.
The drive south from Granada is stunning. The flat land suddenly turns mountainous and lush and continues this way for more than an hour, the road winding its way through nature as though in slow motion. By turns lulling us, by turns making us look back in wonder at a scene which had just vanished, our bus navigates the passage south, bringing us at last into the narrow streets of the town and dropping us off at a street stop.
Which way to the sea, to the weave which cradles the bones of those who fled leaving behind Alhambra? We walk for about half an hour, under the searing sun, the gentle wind buoying us along, the glisten of the sea revealing itself in small slits of light here and there. And then, suddenly, there it is, the sea, a jumbled necklace of small pearls, as it were, tossed in the heart of the universe, and spreading onto the horizon. There it is, the Mediterranean, blue and clear, inviting anticipation as much as encounter.
Nothing is sweeter than a fugitive nap on the sand, nothing is as pleasurable and invigorating. Small joy, for sure, but worth every second of it, here close to the safety of water. On these shores, but also in places like Alhambra, what’s most striking is the mesh of water and land, the way in which the two work together— palaces and verdant fountains, cities and canals, forts and irrigation systems. The great ruse is that we, on the shore, think we are the grounded ones, but for the Muslims, for instance, landing on these shores, in these towns, the picture would have been vastly different, as it would certainly have been for those surviving Muslims and Jews--some no doubt craftsmen of Alhambra-- who were expelled from Andalusia and thrown to the waters of the Mediterranean.
Here, in Salobreña this mesh, this ruse, is visible, in all it simplicity, all its paradoxical clarity--the sea holding the bones of the expelled, but also keeping vigil over their memory, bringing the figures on the shore down to size, a reminder, if there needs to be one. Here, in Salobreña: The sea unchanging, the land transient. The sea secure, the land always roiling, wounded, speaking many languages, worshipping many gods. The sea, which cradles all passage, which connects departure and arrival, anticipation and loss, vision and its twilight; connects the blind man of Granada to the poets, the blind man of Granada who waits, like Darwish`s lover, for the alms of poetry--which is in the end always, and crushingly, about loss.