The birthplace of the Islamic Empire in Spain sprung from Cordova. The streets are narrow with white washed buildings with flowers draped over the window edges. The city is so well preserved you can stand by the Jewish Quarters and look at the synagogue and feel as though any minute now Maimonides in a dark black robe will walk by, book in hand, lost in thought. It felt bittersweet to see the Grand Mosque of Cordova. I stood inside the red and white arched building and stared at the intricate calligraphic Arabic etched into the green dome and yet I could not ignore the voice in a low baritone echoing through the loud speakers as the priest stood in the center giving mass.
Cordova made me think most of Abdul-Rahman I. For it was him, lost and confused who wandered in exile to Al-Andalus and became the leader of one of the longest standing empires of all time. Despite his great successes, the mosques he built, and the power he wielded, he remained lonely for his people and nostalgic for his home of the middle east, and the date palms, and the sandy desert floor. Chancing upon a palm tree he wrote a poem:
As a left over from the days when Muslims and Jews were exiled or forced to convert, Spanish food remains filled with pork of all variety. I’ve read converts were tested by being observed at how they ate the pork filled products. Did they shudder, or turn pale? If so surely they were lying about conversion and were either kicked out or killed. Due to the lack of edible food K and I wandered the streets one evening in Cordova looking for a gyro stand to eat from. At last, around 10pm, we came across one, Kebob Cafe. Looking up from the menu we were startled to see two Pakistanis behind the counter, their foreheads dripping with sweat, white aprons tied around their waists, staring back at us.
We sat down to eat and one of them, Ahmed, brought us our food. He spoke Punjabi, he told us he was from Lahore. His eyes lit up as he wiped his forehead and shared about his family back home. Do you like it here? I asked him. His expression changed and he looked down at the floor, a small smile on his lips but his eyes now unreadable. It doesn’t matter if I like it or not. I have to feed my family and they need money. Working here, I can make money. I don’t think too much about what I like or don’t like. I hope one day I will be able to go back home.
I felt struck by the universality of Abdul-Rahman’s longing. Centuries later Ahmed toils in an airless shop selling gyros to tourists. His longing is real and cuts through this European city filled with Masjids and memories of the past created by a man who too felt the cutting edge of loneliness. These men lived centuries apart in very different circumstances but both arrived in this same city due to a need to survive. I hope unlike Abdul Rahman, who died without ever seeing his home again, that one day Ahmed will be able to return home.