Speaking before several dozen people munching on babaganoush and taboule and chatting away in Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and English, the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury invoked the hallowed name of Al-Andalus.
"And if we do not find it, we can build it in our hearts," he said at the reception for a literary event last week in the Soho studio of Iraqi-born sculptor Oded Halahmy.
Amidst today’s climate in the Middle East, it seemed even more hopeful for the writer to nostalgically recall a time nearly 1,000 years ago when the three peoples of the book dwelled together and created a glorious culture in southern Spain, a land known to Spaniards as Andalucia, to Muslims as Al-Andalus, and to Jews as Sepharad.
But for most people, the multicultural texture of the so-called Golden Age of Spain from 750 to 1492, which produced Maimonides, Judah Halevi, and Moses of Leon (author of the Zohar), is largely unknown.
Maria Rosa Menocal hopes to change that. The professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale recently published a poetic historical introduction to the wonders of Andalucia. "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain" (Little, Brown) offers a grounded optimism in the value of stories about a shared history.
"It’s very rare that a book on this subject comes out on a popular press," says David Shasha, the founder of the Brooklyn-based Center for Sephardic Heritage, who has invited Menocal to read at his Syrian Sephardic synagogue at the end of this month, possibly to be taped by C-SPAN.
Indeed, there is no lack for new books examining the cultural influence of Sepharad, but these titles are not likely to reach a wide audience. Gil Anidjar, a professor of Hebrew literature at Columbia University, just published a difficult theoretical work, "Our Place in Al-Andalus: Kabbalah, Philosophy, Literature in Arab Jewish Letters." And last year the small, quirky Lusitania Press put out an unusual volume, half comic book, half critical theory, tracing the arrival of 23 Sephardic Jews in New York in 1654.
But as a sense of hopelessness settles over the Middle East, and most pundits subscribe to some version of Samuel Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilizations, people are beginning to respond to Menocal’s rare message of coexistence. The New York Times printed her Op-Ed piece,"A Golden Reign of Tolerance," on March 28. And after it received a number of strong reviews, "The Ornament of the World" last week reached into the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon.com.
Sales of books about Islam have soared since Sept. 11. Asya Muchnick, Menocal’s editor at Little, Brown, hopes "The Ornament of the World," though planned years ago, will catch the updraft.
Reached by telephone in her New Haven office, Maria Rosa Menocal told The Jewish Week that she did not initially set out to write for an audience beyond her field of European medieval literature.
Five years ago, the author of the acclaimed "Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric" and co-editor of "The Literature of Al-Andalus" was asked by the Yale alumni organization to give a general interest, 50-minute lecture about her scholarship. Simply explaining why medieval Spain is interesting elicited a enthusiastic response from the alumni, Menocal says. "Many people asked, ‘How do I learn more?’ "
On the train back to her apartment on the Upper West Side, she showed a copy of the lecture to her friend Jean Bloom, who then showed it to her husband, Yale professor Harold Bloom. Having already crossed over from the ivory tower to a general readership, the English scholar advised Menocal to make the transition. He even wrote the introduction.
It took several drafts for Menocal to determine how to tell nearly 800 years of history in under 300 pages. She eventually found her voice through a set of interwoven vignettes that draw out the details of the lives of the great Muslim, Jewish and Christian writers and enlightened rulers she so clearly adores.
When asked if her book has a message, Menocal demurred. "I’m cautious about answering in any programmatic way," she said. "This history does exist. I believe, and I say this gingerly, the moral of this story does reveal the promise and tragedy of a shared history that played itself out for a long time."
As a cautionary tale, Menocal offers Samuel ha Nagid. This Jewish hero of "The Ornament of the World" was typical of Andalucia’s audacity and inventiveness.
Exiled at age 20 from Cordoba in 1013, he arrived in Granada and eventually became a celebrated vizier who led the city’s forces in victory against archrival Seville. Samuel also proclaimed himself "the second David" when he became one of the first Andalucians to write secular poetry in Hebrew. But his son Joseph was murdered during a spasm of anti-Jewish riots in 1066.
Centuries later, the glorious Alhambra was built on the foundations of a citadel laid out by Samuel and Joseph on a hill overlooking Granada. The Jewish and Arabic layers have been largely ignored or misunderstood, despite their literary and architectural persistance.
At its best, Andalucia was "first-rate," Menocal writes, borrowing the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It could accommodate contradictions between faith and reason, religion and science, local and foreign. When intellectual life in Christian Europe was constrained by the Church’s insistence on Latin and scholasticism, Islamic Spain excelled in the sciences, mathematics, philosophy and poetry.
However, it was not utopia, Menocal says. The delicate tolerance in the many city-states, called taifas, was constantly threatened from internal strife and attack by Muslim fundamentalists in Morocco and land-hungry Christians in northern Spain. The balance of power continually shifted between warring Christian and Muslim taifas. People died because of their religion.
Any remaining pockets of tolerance were consumed in 1492, when the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella took the keys to the Alhambra, ending the remaining Muslim fiefdom in Granada, and expelled the Jews from Spain later that year. Those Muslims and Jews who lingered and converted to Christianity were tortured in the Inquisition, which followed them to the New World.
"For me, this is not a heritage issue," Menocal says of her interest in Spain. "But a parent issue in the broad cultural sense. We’re all heirs to that." Born to a Catholic family of mixed ancestry in Cuba, she immigrated to the United States with her parents after the revolution, when she was nine.
Menocal first became interested in Arabic and medieval Spain while working toward her doctorate in Romance Philology at the University of Pennsylvania. Any investigation of the roots of French, Spanish and Italian inevitably leads to Andalucia, where the literary revolution of transferring classical languages of Arabic, Hebrew and Latin into the new Romance vernaculars began, she says.
Andalucia’s echoes reverberate in works by such founding fathers of European literature as Cervantes, Bocaccio and Chaucer. Indeed, after reading "The Ornament of the World," one is tempted to take another look at "Don Quixote" and "The Decameron" to discover a cultural fluidity obscured by linguistic categories. Fortunately, Menocal provides an appendix of further readings.
Tolerance in medieval Spain would not measure up to the standards of contemporary liberal democracy, but Menocal, who calls herself "an eternal optimist," sees the medieval glass as half-full. Which is more than most, she bemoans. "Most people see it as completely empty. Look up ‘medieval’ in a thesaurus."
Maria Rosa Menocal reads from "The Ornament of the World" on Wed., May 29, 8:30 p.m. at Congregation Beth Torah, 1061 Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn. (718) 252-9840.