‘A usted‘ is the reply you will often get in Spain when thanking a tradesman or a shopkeeper and it always brings with it a smile. A small but significant courtesy. Usted (or its arabic forerunner ustadh) is the formal ‘you’ or plural form of the pronoun. Of course anyone who knows any arabic will recognise ustadh immediately as the common term of respect for a teacher. I’m not sure how many Spaniards know of its Arabic provenance (although the connection is remote) but that could be said of several thousand arabic words embedded in the Spanish language. Eight hundred years of spoken and written arabic couldn’t be wiped off the map and out of the hearts of the people as simply as King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and the Catholic Church believed it could in 1492. In fact so much remains of Muslim civilisation in this country but just under the surface so that most of the population are quite unaware of it. Another Arabic-Spanish word I like is rizme from which the English word ream (500 sheets of paper) comes, signifying a bunch of paper in its original arabic. Many similar words are in common use and subconsciously, I believe, reconnect the people on a daily basis with their roots. In much the same way as all language does. For example, in English, earthy words like mud or blood, link us instinctively and unthinkingly to our Saxon heritage. We all lie hidden under our tongues.
And many would agree (except the Bishop of Granada) that its Moorish history is what gives Spain its unique character. The Bishop believes Spain is really a Visigothic culture by tradition, vanishing somehow eight hundred years of Islam and I just don’t know how he figured that out. What a chump. The evidence of Moorish culture in Spain is just about everywhere if you know where to look and I’m not speaking of the Alhambra, Cordoba or Sevilla (which is proof enough). It’s in the place names eg Gaudix = Wadi ‘Ash; or Lanjaron = Ayn Harun. Or in the food Paella= Baqilla, a food normally served on Thursdays in old Andalusia with the leftovers of the week before the big lunch on Fridays. Which is what Paella is…a mix of just about everything, bits of fish, clams, chicken and vegetables all mixed with soggy rice in saffron. If Spain has a national dish, that’s it and definitely of Moorish ie Muslim origin. Or it’s in peoples’ names: eg Ishmael, Nuria or Fatima. But then the Spanish go in for curious names. If you were born on a particular Saint’s day you took on the name. Hence strange names like Expiracion or Incarnacion, quite common Catholic female names. So as a name, Ishmael or Fatima is not going to seem so odd therefore.
I’ve mentioned asequias (another arabic word) in a previous post, the irrigation systems as a living tradition from earlier times. The list is endless. We are continually finding little hidden gems of Moorish times. One of these is a tiny little mosque in a small town called Fiñana on the road between Guadix and Almeria, the north side of the high Sierra Nevadas about three hours drive from us.
Many churches used to be old mosques but in this case the mosque is acknowledged as a mesquita and although it is now officially a Christian shrine it is not used as a church but opened one day a year to exercise the effigy of Jesus that sits inside. But the interior was restored in the 1980s very sensitively and the mihrab and its quranic alabaster work preserved well. You can only peep through a glass window at all this but its columnar layout and qibla direction indicate that it is quite clearly a mosque. On its floor plan an octagon can be seen quite clearly behind the mihrab which must have been the minaret. An unusual octagonal minaret can also be seen in central Valencia. I don’t know of any other octagonal minarets anywhere. Fiñana also has an Arabic baths and a Moorish castle dating from its Almohade past. But it is well off the guide book trail. There are quite a few other similar secret mosques and minarets around Spain but which are also not on the tourist routes.
When my wife and I first came to Spain eight years ago we had many questions about unwritten Moorish history which mostly we couldn’t get answers for. The things which had, against all odds, survived down time. Some we knew had their own little secret stories about, for example, relatives who had been crypto-muslims and who had been performing vestiges of the prayer or wudu in secret for hundreds of years in secret. There are quite a few other such histories. But these were just anecdotes, un-researched and hard to confirm, and they will probably remain as legends. And of course as the older people die out these stories die with them. But where there was a little smoke, more than likely there was a few embers of truth.
But it is in the language you sense the living traditions of a thousand years ago most and even more so when you see the calligraphic evidence in the few qur’ans preserved from that time. Completely readable it as if they were written yesterday. Recently I showed to a group of twenty-five Spanish design students in Granada, on a large screen, a page from an illuminated Quran from around a thousand years ago written in Granada but now in the Stadst museum in Berlin. Its beauty impressed them but what impressed them more was that I could recite the clear arabic script to them. It was like a message sent to them from the past – their past not mine. On a recent visit to the Alhambra museum I saw (behind glass of course), parts of two immaculate handwritten medieval Granadan qur’ans and it is as if they were calling out to me to be liberated. Even more so because the ayats were quite clear and ones I knew….words cannot express my feelings. Well one word can – Allah. In Spanish – Olé.