Actually, I’m still pissed off, and sad

A friend of mine, well, not any more, came to London and invited me to dinner at his hotel. As a newly appointed acting editor of a magazine in a Gulf capital, he wanted some exciting stories for a grand entrance to his newly decorated office back home. I suggested several interviews three of which attracted his attention. One was with British fantastic actress Vanessa Redgrave.

At the time, the key to Vanessa’s door was with her brother Corin. He sanctioned the interview with his sister on the very strict and very reasonable condition that a copy of the published interview must be provided ASP.

I went to Vanessa’s apartment with my friend, at the time, of course, and there was a brief small talk before the interview started. Vanessa was a smoker, then, like me, but she didn’t have a lighter. As I approached to light her cigarette, she pulled back and said the light was too dangerously close to my fingers. That was moving. “Don’t worry,” I said, “had I not had a lighter I would gladly burnt my finger for you.”

She puffed and looked at me sideways, “Why would you do that? I wouldn’t burn my finger for you.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to, but I would burn my finger for you. Why? I have absolutely no idea.”

The interview went very well, I thought, and a promise to provide a copy ASP was made.

I translated the interview into Arabic and gave my friend, at the time definitely, a copy with a number of photographs.

Three weeks later, or so, I got a call from Corin asking about the fate of the interview. I told him that it was published but I haven’t received any copies, yet. A week later I called my friend, well!. He said that three copies were sent. I waited another week and called again. He assured me that the copies were sent but he is going to ask his secretary to send me a new batch.

A week later, no copies. I made another call. Again he said two lots of copies were sent to me.

A week later, still no copies.

I became suspicious so I called an old friend of mine who was managing the local news agency.

“You can’t be serious,” he said, “is it your interview?”

“It is and I need a copy immediately. I feel very embarrassed. Both Vanessa and Corin were promised copies weeks ago I don’t know how Vanessa feels about this but her brother is pissed off;.”

A longish silence followed.

“Listen,” he said, “for you I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the interview was published and elevated our mutual friend to the post of editor. The bad news is that you are unlikely to get any copies from him ever but I will send you one.”

He wouldn’t tell me the reason so I waited for the copy that arrived five days later. When I looked at the inset, I was relieved to find the full interview with all the photographs, but the name on the interview was his not mine..

I had, at last, a copy I could present to Corin, but I was more pissed off than him.

That was many years ago when I was a young man. Now I’m really old but actually I’m still pissed off. Not because of a single unauthorised plagiarism, Throughout my career I have been plagued with several.

But I’m also sad. Vanessa was eight years older than me but she looked eight years and more younger. I never thought she would age. But just like everybody else, it seems, she did.

I hope her heart is still young. It was.








In search of Spain’s historic Andalusia

A Search for Traces of Spain’s Islamic Past

Tor Eigeland*

I set out on my trip to photograph the traces of Spain’s Moorish past by driving south, down the coast from my home near Barcelona. Valencia In Valencia and its satellite towns of Manises and Paterna I saw some interesting ruins, though in my opinion they are among the ugliest towns in Spain.

One attractive aspect of Manises, however, is its ceramics, especially azulejos–tiles. The Spaniards have never tired of the tiles that the moros brought. The owner of one shop told me that in the little town of Manises alone there are still some 200 ceramics shops or factories. Some, unfortunately, make cheap souvenirs for the tourists, but others still make lovely traditional ware
There are kilns called moruno, meaning “of the Moors,” in narrow, ancient back alleys which reminded me of the oldest parts of Cairo. When I asked the owner of a moruno kiln whether it was the original Moorish one, he said: “Kilns don’t last forever
But this one has been rebuilt exactly as the Moors built them, in the same place, and even with some of the same old materials.” He added, “The Spanish way of making ceramics is based on the Arab way.” The most attractive ceramics of Manises still come out of the moruno kilns as far as I could see.

Some of it is Islamic- style lusterware, which has a metallic sheen, in traditional designs carefully painted on by hand. In one shop several old ladies made friendly conservation with me as they painted, but they absolutely refused to let me photograph them
Since they were not at all shy, I asked them why. One answered with a smile: “We’re not modern. It is an old custom here.” So we left it amiably at that as I had done so many times in the Middle East.

I inquired about the patterns they were painting. Where did they come from? Did they have anything to draw from? One of the ladies raised her hand and tapped her index finger a couple of times on her head. “It comes from here.” Nearby Paterna, as far as I could discover, had only one traditional kiln, but I also spotted an interesting old Arab tower
Driving around the town in circles looking for a way to get to it, I came upon some whitewashed buildings where a narrow staircase seemed to lead up toward the tower between two houses.

The view from the top was like looking at the surface of the moon. Surrounding me over three or four acres of land were white- washed, round chimneys and equally white walls about a yard high, some circular, some square, all jutting out of the ground. And next to the chimneys and walls TV antennas were also planted in the earth.

On closer inspection, by leaning over the tower walls, I could see some big holes. Then I understood. There were underground caves and the walls on the surface were to prevent dirt, dust and water from dropping into these air holes. Whitewashed slopes led down from ground level to an open patio, from which gaily painted doors led into the caves.

I never hesitate to approach strangers in Spain and I asked one woman who was passing about the caves. “Oh, the Arabs made them,” she said, “and that was the old watchtower right over there.” She pointed to where I had been standing a few minutes before
The woman knew people who lived in one of the caves and she took me to meet them. The cave was spacious, spotlessly whitewashed and clean; it had two bedrooms, a dining room, a living room and a small kitchen as well as a battery-operated television and a record player.
It was attractive and also, I learned, rent free. The owners told me that their family had lived there for as long as they knew, “probably since the time of the moros.” The Valencia region, as other areas in Spain, has a highly developed irrigation system based on the Arab acequias, or irrigation canals.

And just over 1000 years ago in Valencia the Muslims started a Tribunal de las Aguas–a tribunal that judged and imposed penalties for any abuse of water rights. One such abuse, for example, would occur if a man were to sneak water from a canal on a day when it was his neighbor’s day to water his fields.

The tribunal still meets every Thursday about noon on the steps of the cathedral of Valencia, although the day I went they met elsewhere since the cathedral is in the process of being restored. Even with my knowledge of Spanish it was impossible for me to understand completely what was going on.

The proceedings were held in Valenciano, which is close to the Catalan language. And the place names and irrigation terms, most of Arabic origin, were unintelligible to me. This is a region where almost all the place names are of Arabic origin
Almansora, Almenar, Alcora, Benafigos, Adzaneta, Albucazzar: I am rattling off some of the road signs in Castell”n Province as I head north from Valencia, taking a roundabout route to Toledo. Place names beginning with “guad,” as in Guadalquivir, are also Arabic; Wadi al-Kabir, from wadi, a river valley, and al-kabir, the big one.

There are an estimated 6,500 words of Arabic origin in the Spanish language. Ole!, the most Spanish of Spanish words is derived from Wallah! For God’s sake! Arabic was full of technical words for subjects unknown in Europe and for which there was no Latin or Spanish equivalent, words having to do with crafts such as carpentry, botanical words and just about the entire vocabulary dealing with irrigation.

Unaltered or altered, these words passed into Spanish and other European languages. Saffron, sesame, coffee, alcohol, alkali, almanac, algebra, zenith and zero are a few examples. Toledo Toledo is not an Arabic name, but the city is full of mementoes of the Moorish presence.

Mudejar architecture dominates the city, though it coexists with Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, and neo-classic styles. I saw a small mosque built in the year 1000 and the old Gate of Bisagra (Bib Sagra–Gate to the region of Sagra), and I photographed a group of Christian wor- shippers who still call themselves Mozarabs and who celebrate mass on Friday, the Muslim holy day
Explained Don Jaime Colomina Torner, secretary of the First International Congress of Mozarab Studies: “People even here in the home of the Mozarabs know very little about them. They consider them a little mysterious and exotic, and many think they are descendants of the Arabs when in fact almost the opposite is the case.

The word Mozarab is Arabic, of course. It means literally adopting the customs of Arabs, becoming Arabized. So it refers to those who stayed in their places and lived with the Arabs, mixed with the Arabs and became like Arabs in many things including using their language.

Except for one important thing. Mozarabs remained Christian and their liturgy and rites were never in Arabic. These people predate the Arab invasion, which suggests how very tolerant the Arabs generally were of Christianity.” He added, “Of course there were pressures to convert, and even times of persecutions, but many Christians left their faith and became Muslims completely voluntarily.” “How many Mozarabs are there today?” I asked. “Probably about 4,000 persons, of whom some 1,000 reside here in Toledo.

The communities have some trouble in developing since Mozarabs only pass their faith on from father to son. Of daughters only the eldest has the option of founding a Mozarab home. Younger women, unless they stay single or marry a Mozarab, lose their status.” I went to the charming little Mozarab church of Santa Eulalia.

I found it simple, lovely, warm and with a certain Oriental feeling. It had Moorish keyhole arches, and to me, some of the feeling of a mosque. South from Toledo As I drove on I felt myself getting what I call “the Andalusia feeling.” To me, it is always a good feeling. I saw more and more whitewashed houses with red tiles. The whole atmosphere is different in Andalusia, more exciting. The people are attractive, but darker complexioned; I noticed more Arabic names. The countryside is gently rolling plains and hills, with abrupt, sometimes snow-clad mountains as a backdrop.

I saw grapevines, olive trees and a train of gypsies on muleback with their slim-waisted dogs that reminded me of the graceful salukis I’d seen in the Middle East. I saw the ruins of Arab watchtowers on almost every strategic hilltop, and always within sight of another one.

Few are the villages or towns that do not have an Arab castle perched on the highest peak, usually, today, right next to the village church. Cordoba In Cordoba the Christians put a cathedral inside the mosque. The styles clash totally, yet I still find the interior of the building one of the few places in the world that overwhelms me so much I have had goose bumps on my arms when standing in the cathedral section listening to music or chant and looking beyond through the cool, silent forest of columns and arches of the Great Mosque.

There is a magnificent mihrad, or prayer niche, with intricately ornamented arches and mosaics of gold-flecked glass. The antechamber has a high vaulted dome with a subtly colorful leaf-patterned mosaic. Cool, shady and spacious, with orange trees and a fountain, the patio of the Great Mosque, now as in Moorish times, is a place for children to play, grown-ups to sit, talk, read walk, contemplate or rest.

Groups of tourists hustle through but no one pays much attention to them. In the old quarter of Cordoba where the Great Mosque stands, an infinite number of things reminded me of the Moorish past. Narrow streets, glimpses of lovely patios, tiny little workshops and cafes, and the people of Cordoba themselves.

To me they are gentle, fine, soft-spoken people. They still dress well and have excellent manners, characteristics which I suppose date right back to the days of the caliphate. Even the young people of Cordoba do not conform to the present rage throughout the rest of Spain and Europe of wearing jeans on absolutely all occasions. But if I wanted to retain the romantic mood, I shouldn’t have walked outside the Arab city walls. Just a few steps away I came across the usual nondescript apartment block, automobile- exhaust style of modern living with its plastic bars, disco- theques and supermarkets. Cordoba and other Andalusian downtown areas, clogged and increasingly smog-filled, did inherit one great gift from the Arabs, and the Spanish have shown their appreciation by taking good care of it.

I refer to the big gardens of the Moorish alcazores, or royal palaces. Today, where it is most needed, there is another world of water, air, space, shade from mag- nificent tall trees and a profusion of plants and flowers. And no cars. I found that pride in the Moorish heritage seemed to increase as I got closer to the source.

A Cordoban craftsman told me: “Many people here appreciate their Arab heritage. And frankly, that is what sells Cordoba to the tourists. As for myself, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing if the Arabs hadn’t been here. Cordovan leather was once famous all over the world.

Embossed leather, I think you say in English. The whole process of making it is still basically as it was when the Moors made huge leather cordovans to cover entire walls. They used wooden molds and a press. Today we mostly make small things such as family crests for the Americans.” Granada As in Cordoba, it is Moorish past that sells Granada to its visitors.

The director of the Alhambra told me that in 1975 for the first time the palace had more visitors than Madrid’s famous Prado Museum, more than one million. The tourists in Granada are whisked around the Alhambra, one tour pushing another out of the way; then they are taken to the Corral del Carbon, an old Arab funduk, or inn, which has now been adapted for use by artisans. Then the tour groups forge on across the main street to two narrow lanes called the Zacatin and the Alcaiceria where some of the Muslim bazaars used to be.

The quarter has been reconstructed in the old style and is still a bazaar where handicrafts are sold. The guided tour of Granada is climaxed with a trip to the Sacromonte, the old gypsy quarter where visitors can drink and shout “Ole” to their hearts’ desire as they watch third-rate entertainers stamping their feet and clapping their hands. But to me, Granada is so special that even if I had to visit it as part of a guided tour and stick to the itinerary it would still be worth it.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to. And given the luxury of a little more time to wander around quietly, Granada becomes something else. At dusk the downtown Bibarrambla Square (from Arabic–Gate of the Sand) is a good place to sit for awhile. The Moors fought bulls on horseback there, and held all sorts of contests.

I didn’t have to wait long before someone appeared with a guitar, that all-pervasive Spanish instrument that was introduced in Moorish times. Softly, tentatively at first, an onlooker began to clap a rhythm to the music. Then another person, I think a complete stranger, started to sing.

For brief periods, when the mood was not crushed by the curse of modern Spain, muffler-less motorcycles ridden by ferocious youngsters, I felt transported into another, gentler, dreamier age. True Andalusian music without motorcycle accompaniment is not easily available to a casual visitor on a guided tour. But in Granada I know a place called Pena la Plateria.

It is a private club for professionals and amateurs dedicated to flamenco music and dance, but one or two strangers will not be turned away. Nothing much happens at the Pena till after midnight, but then great events sometimes occur. Nobody danced the night I went, but some of the singers and guitar players seemed to catch on fire.

Tarab was there. The deep, insistent monotony of the cante jondo, coupled with a strange guttural intonation and a quavering in the voice produce a strange, almost hypnotic effect. I felt a strong Middle Eastern influence in the music, though its exact origins lie in the obscure past.

Granada’s Albaicin quarter, greatly changed as it may be, retains much of the old flavor. It is like a village within Granada, and a good place for a leisurely stroll. Narrow, cobblestoned streets and stairways that run up and down, twisting and turning, may lead to a dead end, to a magnificent view of the Alhambra across the gorge, to a Morisco or Mudejar house or even to an old minaret In this quarter people quietly continue the crafts of the old Nasrid kingdom. I saw craftsmen making marquetry (inlaid wood), brass and copperware, Nasrid-style lamps and wrought iron.

Others were weaving the traditional alpujarra cloth, and still others were making fajalauza and cuerda seca ceramics, styles which have been handed down from the moros. In one ceramics workshop I watched an old, illiterate man hauling in clay for the day’s work. When he signed his name to the bill it was barely legible scrawl. His name was Jose but he signed it in the Arabic fashion: Yussef.

Later, strolling into a sweets shop I asked the owner which sweets he thought might have had a Moorish origin. “That’s an interesting question,” he answered. “In the first place the Arabs brought sugar cane to Spain and thus sugar. Then they planted almond trees. So it follows that most of our traditional Andalusian sweets, certainly all that contain almonds, must have an Arab ancestor. We really inherited a great sweet tooth from the Moors. Have you noticed how sweet everything is here com- pared to northern countries?” Heading Home Everywhere on my drive through Spain, but mostly in Andalusia, I found traces of the Moor’s beloved al-Andalus.

And even though I had set out to find the traces I had some surprises. In the Marismas, a marshy area south of Seville, I saw men wearing red-checked head cloths which resembled the ghutra, the Arab headdress. In a little village called Montejaque in the mountains near Ronda, an old woman immediately covered her face with a shawl up to her eyes when I glanced at her.

A young boy told me, when I asked the reason why, “Oh, she is my grandmother. She is nearly 100 years old and she keeps the Arab custom.” Near Murcia I came across a huge noria, waterwheel, churning away, irrigating some nearby fields. A caretaker who was cleaning the wheel told me he really didn’t know how old it was, but everyone knew it was built by the moros.

I know that cultural stereotypes tend to oversimplify and I am treading on dangerous ground, but I can’t help mentioning how many similarities I have noticed in the character of the Arabs I’ve met in previous travels and many Spaniards I’ve come to know. Every true Arab feels himself to be a king. He may be nobody of importance, but he has self-esteem and thus has the respect of others
He is proud and highly individualistic. The Arab responds to his emotions and doesn’t care as much about tomorrow as so many Europeans or Americans do. He is polite and hospitable and has a streak of fatalism.

Religion is of supreme importance to him. I think I have also just described a Spaniard. Of course centuries of cultural interaction leave traces, some clear and visible, others vague and imponderable. The Moors came from differing cultural backgrounds and the influences on them in Spain were varied and complex.

Moorish Spain was an integral part of the Islamic world, even though it had a unique flavor. The bright torch of civilization and knowledge blazed in Muslim Spain while much of Europe slumbered. But the light shone beyond its frontiers and it became an important meeting ground for East and West, a transmitter of classical Greek learning as well as innovative Muslim thought.

As I headed back north toward Barcelona to begin writing the story to accompany my photographs I thought about what I’d seen. The history of al-Andalus may seem today to have happened a long time ago and to have lasted all too briefly. But I couldn’t help reflecting–in the year Americans were proudly celebrating a mere Bicentennial–that the Muslim civilization in Spain had, after all, endured for nearly eight centuries.

*This feature appeared in Aramco World Magazine (Sep-Oct 1976)

The City of Al-Zahra*

Tor Eigeland
The most magnificent of Islamic Spain was probably not the well-known Alhambra which still stands in all its splendor in Granada, but another remarkable palace complex which once stood in the foothills five miles west of Cordoba: Madinat al-Zahra, City of the Flower, or Blooming City.

Begun in 936 by Caliph Abd al-Rahman III as a country home for his court favorite, al-Zahra, it grew in concept and was not completed until 40 years later by al-Hakam II.

In 1010, during a Berber revolt, Madinat al-Zahra was destroyed. Its stones were quarried for other buildings over the centuries until, covered by earth and vines, its site was nearly forgotten. Only in recent times did the Spanish Government painstakingly begin to restore some of the palace, piece by tiny broken piece.

During the few brief decades of its glory Madinat al-Zahra elicited an abundance of superlatives from contemporary writers. Ten thousand men and 2,500 mules labored to build the palace, which contained some 4,300 marble columns, many imported from North Africa and Italy, and 140 columns sent by the emperor Constantine VII of Byzantium. Walls were inlaid with ivory, ebony and jasper.

An exquisite green marble fountain was imported from Syria and surrounding it were 12 red-gold statues encrusted with pearls and gems. The statues were made in Cordoba and represented a cockerel, a kite, a vulture, a lion, a stag, a crocodile, an eagle, a dragon, a dove, a falcon, a duck and a hen.

Nearly 14,000 people lived in the palace-city when it was finished: servants, soldiers, women and children. The complex included some 400 buildings with inns, schools, workshops and even a zoo. Evidently 1,200 loaves of bread a day were required just to feed the fish in the ornamental ponds.

To dazzle visitors there was a pool of quicksilver in the reception hall which set off a kaleidoscope of flashing light when struck by sunlight. The mystic MuhyiI-din ibn al-‘Arabi wrote an account of one visit to the palace–by an embassy of Christians from the north of Spain whom the caliph particularly wished to awe with the magnificence of his court. Along their route from Cordoba to Madinat al-Zahra he had stationed a double rank of soldiers, “their naked swords, both broad and long, meeting at the tips like the rafters of a roof. On the caliph’s orders the ambassadors progressed between the ranks as under a roofed passage.”

Within the gate the caliph had ordered the ground covered with brocades. “At regular intervals he placed dignitaries whom they took for kings, for they were seated on splendid chairs and arrayed in brocades and silk. Each time the ambassadors saw one of these dignitaries they prostrated themselves before him, imagining him to be the caliph, whereupon they were told, ‘Raise your heads! This is but a slave of his slaves!’

“At last they entered a courtyard strewn with sand. At the center was the caliph. His clothes were coarse and short. What he was wearing was worth not more four Dirhams. He was seated on the ground, his head bent; in from of him was a Koran, a sword and fire. ‘Behold the ruler,’ the ambassadors were told.”

* Aramco World Magazine (Sep-Oct 1976)

“The Ripening Years”
Ishbiliah of the poet-king al-Mutamid*

Tor Eigeland

Although its history includes times of turmoil and upheaval, as well as periods of glory, Seville was the most important kingdom and city of Spain from the fall of the Cordoban Caliphate until it was conquered by Ferdinand III in 1248.

Seville’s history got off to a bad start–under its first independent ruler, the cunning, cruel al-Mutadid, who took control of the taifa or little kingdom, and extended it during his reign from 1042 to 1069. But fortunately, he was succeeded by a son, al-Mutamid, a gifted statesman, intellectual and poet. Under the poet-king al-Mutamid, Seville achieved a brief respite from struggle and some moments of beauty that have passed into legend.

Before al-Mutamid became king he met Ibn Ammar, an itinerant and brilliant poet, forged a friendship with him and, when he gained the throne, made him vizier of the kingdom. Together one evening, al-Mutamid and Ibn Ammar were strolling along the banks of the Guadalquivir, bantering and improvising poetry. Al-Mutamid started off with a line–“The wind scuffs the river and makes it chain mail . . .”–which Ibn Ammar was supposed to complete. For once, however, Ibn Ammar was at a loss for words to end the couplet and a slave girl nearby overheard them and completed the rhyme: “Chain mail for fighting could water avail.”

The girl was al-Rumaikiyya, a lovely and charming mule- skinner. (For some reason mule drivers often seem to be romantically associated with poetry in Spain.) Al-Mutamid instantly fell in love with her, later married her and, eventually, when war again engulfed the taifa, romantically sailed with her into exile.

Another charming story is told about them. They were standing side by side one morning looking at a very rare sight in Andalusia: the plains were covered with snow. Al-Rumaikiyya sighed and told al-Mutamid how much she hoped to see this lovely scene another time. To please her, al-Mutamid had the plains planted with almond trees and to this day, seen from a distance, parts of Andalusia in early spring look snow-covered because of the groves of white blossoms.

Such idyllic interludes, however, were short-lived in al-Andalus. There was constant intrigue in the court, intermittent feuding among the various Moorish taifas and a growing menace from the Christian kingdoms in the north: Castile, Leon and Galicia.

Although Castile, Leon and Galicia–united under Ferdinand I in 1037–had broken apart again after Ferdinand’s death, Castile and Leon were temporarily reunited under Alfonso VI and Christian raiders were reaching farther and farther south. At last they reached Tarifa–where the first Muslim raiders had come ashore more than three centuries before. In 1085, the Christians retook Toledo, a key Muslim city in the heart of Spain. The road was now open to the underbelly of al-Andalus.

The taifa kings of Spain suddenly realized that they were in serious trouble. Because of their quarrels they had waited too long to join forces against the Christians. Now it couldn’t be done without outside help and the kings knew that asking for help in the one quarter in which it was available was like choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea.

In North Africa some Berber tribes, the Almoravids (in Arabic al-Murabitun, Those Who Live in Religious Retreats) had recently embraced Islam. They were undoubtedly strong, and certainly eager to defend the faith in a new holy war, but they also, al-Mutamid thought, might pose more of a threat to Seville than the Christians. In the end, of course, he knew that he could only make one decision, and he eventually made it. As he wrote, “I do not want a curse to be leveled against me in all the mosques of Islam, and faced with the choice, I would rather drive the camels of the Almoravids than be a swineherd among Christians.”

In 1086, therefore, the Almoravids, led by Yusuf ibn Tashafin, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. Marching on Toledo, they encountered the Christians at Sagrajas, near Badajoz, and defeated them soundly. The Christians fell back, but due to problems at home the Berber army failed to exploit its victory. It returned to North Africa and, as so often in the history of Spain, the campaign ended inconclusively.

Al-Mutamid’s fears, however, were not groundless. Within four years the Christians were again on the march and the Almoravids again crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. This time, however, Yusuf ibn Tashafin came not to help the Moors of Spain, but to add to his own North African empire. In quick succession he seized the kingdoms of Granada, Cordoba and Seville.

For a few years the Almoravids were held in check by a great Spanish warrior who fought fiercely all over the country, inspiring countless poets and writers with his exploits. He was Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar–better known as El Cid, a name derived from the Arabic sayyed, originally “lord.” El Cid was actually a free lance who fought for both Christian and Muslim rulers. But his basic loyalty was to King Alfonso VI–though Alfonso did nothing to deserve it–and when the Almoravids came the second time it was El Cid who stemmed the Berber tide, winning battle after brilliant battle for the Christians and earning the title Campeador, or Champion. But when El Cid died in 1099, the Almoravids swept over all of southern Spain and present-day Portugal.
In Seville, meanwhile, the poet-king al-Mutamid had fallen on bitter times. His great friend and fellow-poet Ibn Ammar had ambitiously attempted to establish himself as an independent ruler of the kingdoms of Murcia and Valencia. After his treasonous plans failed, Ibn Ammar and al-Mutamid were reconciled briefly. But again Ibn Ammar enraged al-Mutamid and the king went at him with a flashing axe. Ibn Ammar fell to his knees and begged for mercy, but al-Mutamid’s patience had run out.
But so had his luck. Taken captive by the Almoravids, the poet-king al-Mutamid and his love al-Rumaikiyya were sent into exile and poverty in North Africa, an event described by poet Ibn al-Labbana:

Never will I forget that morning by the Guadalquivir
When they were thrown into ships like corpses into graves.
Along both banks the people crowded
To see those pearls cast into the foam of the river.

Maidens had no wish to cover themselves, they dropped their veils. Clothes were rent and faces torn with anguish. The moment came–what a tumult of farewells, Maidens and young men outdoing one another in lamentation! The ships gathered way, the sobbing mounted, Like the driver urging forward his slow caravan.
How many broken hearts those merciless galleys took! To the newly-converted, zealous Almoravids, the poet al-Mutamid and other Moorish kings of al-Andalus seemed decadent and slack in their faith. Perhaps they were. But lush Andalusia was seductive, and it was not long before the kind climate, the easy living and the refinements of life softened the crusading fervor of the Almoravids too. Gradually Almoravid rule began to crumble in as great a confusion of rebellions and intrigue as that of the taifa kings before.

In North Africa, in the meantime, the Almoravids’ homeland had been taken over by an even more zealous Berber group from the Atlas mountains. These were the Almohads (“Asserters of the Unity of God”), whose founder, Ibn Tumart, was a sophisticated theologian who had studied in Baghdad, Mecca, Alexandria and Cordoba. And as earlier factions had invited the Almoravids to Spain, now new factions invited the Almohads to come and protect al-Andalus from the ever-present Christian threat.

Again, North Africans swept into Spain. Again, al-Andalus was unified and the Christians were pushed back. But except for the tiny Kingdom of Granada, which miraculously endured three centuries after their fall, the Almohads were to be the last Muslim rulers of Spain.

The final years were a period of confusion, corruption and violence. Yet, paradoxically, even as military and political affairs went badly, the economic and cultural life of the Moors reached new heights. In Seville trading ships came up the Guadalquivir from the Atlantic Ocean and ferryboats hustled back and forth across the river. In the shade of the Great Mosque, several Christian churches raised their spires. Through open doorways along the streets craftsmen of every imaginable kind could be seen at work, and in the market areas hawkers, beggars, veiled women and tradesmen shouted and whispered over bread, meats, fish, olive oil, melons, figs, oranges, grapes, spices and herbs piled in the stalls. It was a city of smells, ranging from orange blossoms and myrtle to more earthy odors.

Cultural, intellectual and scientific life also flourished as the towering intellects of al-Andalus soared into new realms of thought and experiment in theology, philosophy, mysticism, medicine, astronomy and geography. It was not uncommon for one man to make great strides in several fields, and there were many such men: al-Idrisi, who wrote the most accurate and detailed account of the world available to man at his time, as well as impressive works on botany and medical remedies; and Ibn Rushd, or Averroes as he is known in the West, a distinguished Aristotelian philosopher, whose writings later helped spark a scholastic revival in the rest of Europe and who, in addition, wrote a seven-book medical encyclopedia. Among his insights in medicine: no one is taken ill twice with smallpox.

Another of the period’s outstanding intellectuals was Ibn Tufail, a writer, physician and astronomer from Guadix near Granada. His allegorical tale, “Hayy ibn Yaqsan, The Living One, Son of the Vigilant,” anticipated the literature of the Age of Reason and it is said that the 1708 English translation of this book, titled “The Improvement of Human Reason”, influenced Rousseau and Voltaire, and possibly Kipling and Daniel Defoe too. The tale, about a boy brought up by a gazelle and isolated from human beings, raised the philosophical question of whether the child by his own reasoning and intuition would find truth and God. The answer in the tale: he would.”

Out of the confused last days of Seville also came the mystical and inward-looking Sufis, whose purist thought dominated the last of the Almohad period. Although Sufism had numerous adherents, many fundamentalists in Islam objected. As Jan Read says in his excellent book, “The Moors in Spain and Portugal,” Sufism, “directed as it was, inwards and to the individual . . . did nothing to restore the spirit of the jihad. The holy war now became the prerogative of the Christians, and in the hands of the Crusaders and the Inquisition it was to prove a weapon as blunt and brutal as it was essentially irreligious.”

The decline in the spirit of the jihad among the Almohads, plus their preoccupation with affairs back in North Africa, promoted still another series of taifa secessions, and still more intra-Muslim strife just as, in the Christian north, King Alfonso VIII of Castile and the Archbishop of Toledo were working to reconcile their kingdoms. Their efforts were successful and in 1212 the united forces of Castile, Leon, Navarre and Aragon at Las Navas de Tolosa delivered Andalusia’s death blow. As the taifa kings even then continued fighting among themselves, their final downfall was not long in coming.

In 1236 Cordoba fell– and its Great Mosque was converted into a cathedral. In 1238 the Balearic Islands were conquered. In 1246 Jaen fell and in 1248 Seville was occupied, with the help of Muslim forces from the taifa Kingdom of Granada, where the final–and some believe the finest–chapters of Islam in al-Andalus would be written.

*Aramco World Magazine (Sep-Oct 1976)

The Golden Caliphate*

Tor Eigeland

By 718 the Muslims had taken control of most of Spain. In the north, tough Berber tribesmen still patrolled disputed areas, but in the central highlands Muslim rule was relatively uncontested and in the area today known as Andalusia the Arab military and administrative leaders had chosen the old Roman city of Cordoba as their capital and were settling in for a long stay.

At they had since the beginning of the century of rapid Islamic expansion, the Muslims, although looking on the conquest of Spain as a jihad, or holy war, did not exert pressure on Spanish Christians or Jews to embrace Islam. This policy, which dates back to the lifetime of the Prophet, is summed up in an injunction in the Koran. “Be courteous when you argue with People of the Book, except with those among them that do evil. Say: ‘We believe in that which is revealed to us and which was revealed to you. Our God and your God is one. To Him we surrender ourselves.”

Admittedly, there were also practical reasons for not forcing mass conversions. Muslims were exempt from taxes while Christians and Jews were not. Nevertheless, the approach of the conquerors was definitely based on a real spirit of tolerance, as one treaty of surrender of Murcia in 713–illustrates: “In the name of Allah, the Clement, the Merciful! A letter addressed by ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Musa ibn Nusair to Tudmir (Arabic for the Visigothic name Theodemir) ibn ‘Abdush: This last obtains peace and receives an engagement, guaranteed by Allah and His Prophet, that nothing will be changed in the position of him and his; that his right of sovereignty will not be contested; that his subjects will not be killed, nor reduced to captivity, nor separated from their children and wives; that they will not be burned, nor despoiled of their holy objects; and that this will hold good as long as they satisfy the charges we impose. He is accorded peace subject to the surrender of the following seven towns: Orihuela, Baltana, Alicante, Mula, Villena, Lorca and Ello. . . He and his subjects will each year pay a personal tribute amounting to a Dinar in money, four bushels of wheat and four of barley, four measures of musk, four of vinegar, two of honey and two of oil.”

The policy of tolerance extended to the practice of religion too. The Great Mosque of Cordoba, for example, was built on the site of a Visigothic church, but at first the Muslims shared the church, then bought it–at a good price–so that they could build a proper mosque. And whenever that occurred the Christians were allowed to build new places of worship. Indeed, during the first half century of Moorish rule in Spain, the Muslim conquerors experienced considerably more difficulties with each other than with the Spanish as the mixed armies–Berbers and North African and Syrian Arabs–broke into factions.

In Damascus, meanwhile, the Umayyads–then the rulers of the Islamic empire–were also facing unrest, which in an unexpected way was to transform Cordoba and al-Andalus. In 750, the Abbasids of Baghdad overthrew the Umayyads and replaced them as the ruling dynasty. Only two members of the Umayyad family got away–young Abd al-Rahman and his even younger brother. The escape was described in Abd al-Rahman’s own words in the Akhbar Majmu’a, a contemporary chronicle: “Joined by my freed man, Badr, we reached the bank of the Euphrates, where I met a man who promised to sell me horses and other necessities; but while I was waiting he sent a slave to find the Abbasid commander. Next we heard a noise of the troop approaching the farmhouse; we took to our heels and his in some gardens by the Euphrates, but they were closing in on us. We managed to reach the river ahead of them and threw ourselves into the water. When they got to the bank they began shouting ‘Come back! You have nothing to fear.’ I swam and my brother swam . . .”

The brother was caught and killed but Abd al-Rahman–poet, warrior; tall, red-haired, one-eyed, with shrunken cheeks and a mole on his forehead–survived still more adventures and even- tually made his way west to al-Andalus. There, only 26 years old, he went triumphantly to Cordoba and claimed his position as surviving head of the Umayyads. His claim did not go unchallenged–either in Cordoba or in Baghdad–and Abd al-Rahman had to quell rebellions and cope with intrigues for more than 20 years before he consolidated his power as leader of the Cordoba emirate, with roughly three-quarters of the Iberian Peninsula, including present-day Portugal, under his control. At one point his personal militia totalled some 40,000 warriors, mostly Berbers and Slavs.

This unrest, which would eventually undermine Islamic rule in Spain, continued under his successors Hisham I and al-Hakam I. But somehow they also found time to re-establish and increase commercial and cultural contacts with the faraway Eastern Caliphate where, under the Abbasids, science and art were flourishing. These continuing contacts would eventually make Cordoba and al-Andalus the cultural center of western Islam and a seat of learning for Christian Europe. Cordoba’s prosperity, and its era of splendor, began in the reign of Abd al-Rahman II.

By then the hospitable climate and fertility of Andalusia had begun to mellow the tough desert warriors and a love of books, poetry and music began to replace their infatuation with intrigue and battle. Ziryab, for example, a musician from Baghdad, founded the Andalusian school of music and also brought a taste for fashion with him when he arrived from the East. He prescribed brightly colored silk robes for spring, pure white clothing during the hot season and fine furs and quilted gowns for the cold weather. Ziryab also prescribed hairstyles and, some say, even ran a hairdressing salon. There was also considerable integration with the original non-Muslim populations. As the warriors had come without their women, many married local Christians while others turned to blond and blue-eyed concubines from the north. Reputedly, some of the later Moors, who were especially proud of their North African heritage, had to dye their hair black to conceal their northern ancestry.

The local populations were also, in increasing numbers, accepting Islam. As the wealth and culture of Andalusia grew, those Christians who did not voluntarily embrace the new faith began to complain that their impressionable young people were being unduly influenced by the splendor of Muslim culture. The Indiculus luminosus, written in 854, expresses how some of them felt: “. . . intoxicated with Arab eloquence they greedily handle, eagerly devour and zealously discuss the books of the Chaldeans (the Muslims), and make them known by praising them with every flourish of rhetoric, knowing nothing of the beauty of the church’s literature, and looking down with contempt on the streams of the church that flow forth from Paradise; alas! The Christians are so ignorant of their own law, the Latins pay so little attention to their own language, that in the whole Christian flock there is hardly one man in a hundred who can write a letter to inquire after a friend’s health intelligibly, while you may find a countless rabble of all kinds of them who can learnedly roll out the grandiloquent periods of the Chaldean tongue. They can even make poems, every line ending with the same letter, which displays high flights of beauty and more skill in handling meter than the gentiles themselves possess.”

In contrast, Spanish Jews, who had been persecuted by the Visigoths, had welcomed, even aided, the Muslim invasion. Though living in close-knit groups they nevertheless played an active and successful role in the life of Muslim al-Andalus, working as tradesmen, scientists, scholars and even as advisors and administrators. They were far outnumbered by Spanish Christians, however, as the Christians also came to be outnumbered by Muslims. In the 10th century, during the reign of Abd al-Rahman III (912-61), probably the greatest ruler of Muslim Spain, this richly diverse society reached a memorable level of affluence and culture. And Cordoba, the most sophisticated city in Europe, was its center.

As al-Idrisi, the great medieval geographer, wrote: “Cordoba is made up of five continuous cities, each surrounded by walls that divide it from the rest, and possessing enough markets, hostelries, baths, and buildings for the different professions. From east to west the city covers a distance of five kilometers (three miles). From the Gate of the Jews in the north to the Gate of the Bridge in the south is a little over one and a half kilometers (just under one mile).”

Another writer of the time once counted all the houses in the city and suburbs and found that they came to a total of 213,077. “This figure includes the dwellings of the common people such as workmen and artisans, but excludes the rented attics, inns, baths and taverns. The palaces of the nobles, viziers, officials of the royal household, generals and wealthy citizens, the barracks, hospitals, colleges and other public buildings come to a total of 60,300.” The population of Cordoba was about 500,000 compared to about 40,000 for Paris at the same time. The streets were lighted, there were 700 mosques and some 900 public baths. Many wealthy people had lavatories with running water in their homes.

The houses of Andalusia were typical of those found in the western Mediterranean region since Roman times and the style survives today not only in Spain but in parts of North Africa as well. The exterior was usually whitewashed and plain. As in the Arab heartland, people concealed their private lives and possessions behind their massive, wooden studded doors. Life centered around a sheltered outdoor patio paved with marble or stone, or not paved at all, according to the size of the owner’s purse. From the patio, doors led to the bedrooms, sitting rooms and storage areas. Rush mats, wool carpets and cushions covered the floor. Brass lamps or candles supplied lighting and charcoal in braziers supplied heat. At the end of the bedrooms there would be a raised screened niche or alcove for sleeping, which the Moors called al-kubba.

The most impressive buildings, of course, were the mosques– especially the Great Mosque, which still stands in Cordoba. Begun by Abd al-Rahman I, it was enlarged and improved by successive rulers. Abd al-Rahman III contributed the magnificent minaret which was later imitated in Seville as well as in Rabat and Marrakesh in Morocco.

In al-Andalus, as in most of the Arab world, the mosque was a center of education as well as worship. But in Cordoba education flowered elsewhere too as the fame of its writers, philosophers, poets, astronomers, physicians and other scientists spread throughout Europe. Indeed, Andalusian intellectual life was years ahead of the rest of contemporary Europe. There was a university in Cordoba and some 70 libraries in which not thou- sands, but hundreds of thousands, of volumes were amassed. Al- Hakam II’s library contained some 400,000 books. And though philosophers of the time complained of the lack of opportunity for the development of women’s talents, there were female poets, librarians and book copyists and other women were involved in teaching, law and medicine.

In sum, as geographer al-Idrisi said, the Cordobans were: “. . . the most advanced in science and most zealous in piety . . . They have won fame for the purity of their doctrine, the rigor of their honesty, the formality of their customs in regard to dress, riding accoutrements, elevation of felling in assemblies and gatherings and finally in often exquisite taste as regards food and drink; add to all this great amiability and perfect manners.”

Then, as now, the citizens of Cordoba loved music and song passionately. At times people reached a state called tarab, a state of physical pleasure attained through music. According to the famous Spanish Arabist Emilio Garc!a G”mez, “Spain, that stronghold of ancient forces, still keeps the tarab in its cante jondo, an inner room in an Andalusian tavern; glasses of golden wine, a guitar, a voice . .”

Outside Cordoba, the countryside was lush with Spain’s traditional olives and wheat and also the sugarcane and oranges imported by the Muslims. As a Mozarab bishop, Recenmundus, described it in March 961: “Fig trees are grafted in the manner called tarqi; the winter corn grows up; and most of the fruit trees break into leaf. It is now that the falcons of Valencia lay eggs on the islands of the river and incubate them for a month. Sugarcane is planted. The first roses and lilies appear. In kitchen gardens, the beans begin to shoot. Quails are seen; silkworms hatch; grey mullet and shad ascend the rivers from the sea. Cucumbers are planted and cotton, saffron and aubergines sown . . . Locusts appear and must be destroyed. Mint and marjoram are sown . . .” Al-Andalus had not attained this happy state of material prosperity and the peaceful pursuit of knowledge and pleasure without an effort. Abd al-Rahman III, who came to power in 912, was beset by perennial rebellions by minor Muslim rulers and continual skirmishes with Christians from the north, who had begun to raid further and further south. In a series of brilliantly planned and well-executed annual campaigns the stocky, red-haired, blue-eyed ruler first eliminated the resistance within al-Andalus and, in 929, pro- claimed himself a sovereign caliph under the title of al-Nasir, the Victorious, thus formally breaking what had become only a nominal link with the Eastern Caliphate. Abd al-Rahman then turned his energies against emerging Christian kingdoms.

Initially successful, he organized what he called the “Omnipotent Campaign,” in which, at Valladolid, he led 100,000 men into battle with the combined forces of the kingdoms of Navarre, Castile, and Leon–and nearly lost everything. Abd al-Rahman himself barely escaped with his life, apparently losing a golden suit of armor and his precious personal Koran in the confusion. But as the Christians rarely seemed to follow up their victories, and turned to internal feuding not long after, Muslim forces soon returned to the attack. Before long, as a result, the three Christian kingdoms of Navarre, Castile and Le”n were again paying annual tribute to the Cordoban Caliphate, Abd al-Rahman III reigned supreme and Muslim power reached its zenith in Europe. Ambassadors from throughout the known world came to pay their respects at his court.

Abd al-Rahman’s successor, however, was to be the last of the great Andalusian rulers. This was the caliphate’s greatest warrior and minister, al-Mansur, the Conqueror, who came to power in 976. Ambitious and ruthless, he established military rule, introduced secret police, employed large numbers of mercenary troops and, although warring constantly with Christian kings, married two of their daughters.

Al-Mansur’s most spectacular campaign took place in 997 when he led a great force to the holy of holies of Christian Spain, Santiago de Compostela. This was the site of the tomb of St. James the Apostle (Santiago), whom Spanish Christians believed to be the twin brother of Jesus. Since 830, when relics of St. James had been found there, Santiago de Compostela had been a center of pilgrimage for Catholic Europe.

During the battle the city was sacked and the church of Santiago de Compostela was destroyed. Out of respect for Christian beliefs, however, al-Mansur left the tomb of Santiago itself alone and placed a guard around it. He also spared the life of an old monk found sitting next to the tomb. Al-Mansur asked what he was doing there and the monk replied simply: “Praying to St. James (Santiago).” “Then pray on,” said al-Mansur, and gave orders to leave him in peace.

Santiago de Compostela having been a rallying point, its fall was considered a disastrous defeat for the Christians. But St. James was also the symbol that helped maintain Christian faith in the ultimate reconquest of Spain; when al-Mansur died five years later, the Christians credited St. James with having punished the Moors for the rape of his city and cathedral.
As no strong ruler succeeded al-Mansur in Cordoba, and as his military rule had made his reign unpopular, Cordoba itself rebelled and civil war engulfed al-Andalus. Within 20 years the caliphate–previously the emirate–which had lasted nearly 300 years, collapsed. By 1031 it was over, the occasion marked by a riot in the capital.

Andalusians, Berbers and even minor functionaries began to carve out little kingdoms for themselves, called taifas, from the Arabic for faction. Some lasted only months; others, like the Berber kingdoms of Malaga and Algeciras, and the Berber Zirids of Granada, founded local dynasties that lasted till the Almoravid invasion at the end of the century. But the long decline of Muslim rule had begun.

*Aramco World Magazine (Sep-Oct 1976)

The Antechamber of Heaven*

Tor Eigeland

“If you have a patio, you possess your own piece of sky,” said Maria Luisa Llorente as I admired her manicured, flower- filled patio in the center of Seville.

Said a friend in Granada, “The patio is the heart of the house; it is where friends come to talk. And it is also the lungs. The plants and the running water clean the air.”

“The antechamber of heaven” is what some Andalusians call their patios, with a characteristic sense for poetic phrasing– and poetic license–no doubt inherited from the great poets of their Muslim past.
Reflecting on visits to a hundred or more patios across Andalusia, I was suddenly struck by a fact that says volumes about the spiritual influence of these outdoor living rooms: I did not see a single television set in a single patio, even in this land of television addicts.

The Andalusian patio is automatically associated in people’s minds with the traditional Arab house. This is correct as far as it goes, since the ultimate refinement of the patio was indeed achieved by the Muslims in Andalusia during their six centuries of rule; the Patio of the Lions and the Patio of the Myrtles at the Alhambra in Granada are the high points of this development, and the most famous patios of all. The Corral del Carbon–an ancient funduk, or Arab inn, now turned into a center for artisans–is almost as well known.

The Albaicin quarter of Granada also has a number of beautiful patios. At the villa Carmen de los Martires, only about a hundred meters from the Alhambra, there is a jewel of a restored Arab-style patio and a fine old Persian/French garden–very peaceful in contrast to the Alhambra itself, which has about two million visitors a year The Parador San Francisco, a hotel, also has a lovely Andalusian patio and an Arab garden.

The predecessors of these patios date back thousands of years, to ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. It was simply a natural way of constructing a home: Dwellings surrounded and protected a central open space where a family lived its life and where the outdoors, its rigors tempered, could be enjoyed in complete privacy.

The Muslim Andalusians, though highly urbane, remembered the blazing deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, which was the heritage of some of them. Consequently they had a great love of beauty, nature, and growing things, and a positive passion for running water–qualities evident in their art, architecture, and, above all, in their patios.

Traditional Muslim Andalusian patios were secretive, enclosed–even had a jealous quality. It was nearly impossible, from outside a house, to find out what was going on inside: The eye met blank walls. If there were any windows at all, they were high up, so that people could see out but not in. A front gate would open onto a passage that turned at right angles and only then gave onto the patio, protecting the family, especially the women, from curious eyes.

Many older Spanish homes are still this way, and the layout of more modern homes, when they are built with patios, is basically unchanged–rooms open onto a central patio which is often surrounded by an arcade. What differs is the entrance from the street. Instead of a blind passage, only a decorative wrought-iron gate prevents someone from walking in, and seems positively to invite spectators.

Taking advantage of this new openness, people line up in front of particularly attractive patio gates in the old Santa Cruz section of Seville, for a glimpse inside. That quarter, in the center of the city, is full of patios, and two notable ones, one now a restaurant, are on the very short Callejon del Agua (Water Lane). The main patio of the Alcazar, Seville’s 14th- century royal residence, is also impressive.

Cordoba is the best place to see a great number of superb patios very easily, especially in May, when they have fiestas and patio flower-decoration contests. The Palacio de Viana has no less that 14 different patios, and the Patio de los Naranjos of the Great Mosque is magnificent.

Simple and natural as the idea of the patio is, the actual constructions vary greatly according to the taste and pocketbook of the owner, and the use to which they are put.

Palatial homes may have enormous marbled patios with tall, splashing fountains, statues, ornamental plants and flowers. A country home might have orange and lemon trees as well as a vegetable garden in its patio, in addition to the usual geraniums, roses, jasmin and vines. Everywhere, the murmuring of splashing of the water and the scents of flowers and trees are as important as the visual beauty.

In poorer quarters of the cities of Andalusia there are the corralas-joined two- or three-story houses or apartment buildings looking onto a large rectangular or square patio, the center of life for several families, rather than just one. Chairs and tables are put out in front of each home. At the very least, a few pots of geraniums hang from the walls.

On Santiago Street in Granada there are two colorful, decayed, 16th-century apartment buildings, four and five stories tall, with interior galleries on each floor that look down into a rectangular patio. Partly built of wood, the buildings have miraculously survived years of smoking in bed and past attempts at modernization. But one elderly resident told me that the government was now going to restore them–something the tenants regretted, she said, since they would have to move out.

“Now, when people really need them,” laments Maria Luisa Llorente, “the patios are disappearing.”
Reprint permission granted by publisher.

*Aramco World Magazine (Vol. 41, No. 5, September-October 1990, pp. 5-10)
The Final Flowering*

Tor Eigeland

That Muslim Seville was captured by the Christians with the aid of Muslim troops from Granada is not as surprising as it might appear at first glance. Political alliances, as well as marriages, between Christian and Muslim were common in Spain, and in any case Granada’s taifa King Ibn al-Ahmar had little choice. His little kingdom, which reached down to the south coast between Gibraltar and Almeria, could easily have been overrun by the Christians had he refused to join Ferdinand III of Castile in attacking Seville.

In a sense Ibn al-Ahmar personifies the achievements, the failures and the sad romanticism that pervades the story of Islam in al-Andalus. He was the man who planned the glorious palace- fortress called the Alhambra. He was a petty princeling who like other throughout Islamic Spain diverted Islamic strength into the endless wars that opened the way to Christian reconquest. And throughout his reign, his small kingdom was corroded with intrigue, the political cancer that slowly, over the centuries, consumed both the caliphate and its innumerable offshoots.

Ibn al-Ahmar, king of Granada, was of Arab descent, born in al-Andalus. Starting out as the lord of a castle near Cordoba, he was just a little more successful than the other feuding taifa kings and leaders. Gathering supporters as he invaded one territory after another, he captured Jaen about 1231 and then, in 1235, Granada, to which, in 1245, he moved his capital.

By then, of course, Christian Spain was closing in on al-Andalus, and in response Ibn al-Ahmar had become the vassal of the Christian King Ferdinand III. But then he was faced with a cruel choice: join the Christians in their final assault on Muslim Seville–as a loyal vassal must–or risk extinction. He chose to help Ferdinand and Granada survived. But on his return, as the Granadans hailed him as victor, he gave a quiet reply that hinted at his feelings and was later inscribed in the Alhambra: “There is no victor but God.”

Since then, historians have speculated on the reasons why the Christians chose not to take Granada any way. One reason may have been that they no longer saw a threat in this little kingdom. Another could be that it made a convenient “reservation” for the Moors where they could mind their own business and pay taxes. In any case, Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, survived–for more than two and a half centuries, in fact–and nearly 100,000 Moorish refugees from throughout Andalusia poured in. They doubled the size of the kingdom, enriching it with the artisans, intellectuals, poets and merchants who were to con- tribute significantly to the final flowering of Islamic culture in Spain.

Ecstatic writers, Muslim and Christian, past and present, have praised Granada and its glories. Perhaps it is because Granada–unlike the beautifully preserved historical city of Toledo, which is almost an outdoor museum–has succeeded in combining its many parts, its cultural past, its pleasant climate, its splendid setting among snow-clad mountains, rivers and fertile plains, to become uniquely itself, alive and lovely. Or perhaps it is because Granada is crowned by that incomparable palace-city, the Alhambra.

But whatever the reason, the praise has been profuse and unending. One example is the extravagant description written by Ibn al-Khatib, vizier and historian of Granada, in his work “The Full Moon Splendor of the Nasrid Dynasty”: “The city is today the metropolis of the coastal towns (Granada is about 30 miles from the Mediterranean), illustrious capital of the whole kingdom, a great marketplace for traders, a pleasing hostess to travelers of all nations, a perpetual garden of flowers, a splendid orchard of fruit trees, an enchantment for all living creatures, the center of public finance, a place famous for its fields and forts, a vast sea of wheat and fine vegetables and an inexhaustible source of silk and sugar. Nearby soar lofty peaks, notable for the whiteness of their snow and the excellence of their water . . . The area abounds in gold, iron, silver, lead, pearls and sapphires, and its woods are full of blue gentian and lavender . . . There is not a shadow of doubt that the clothes made of silk surpass the silks of Syria in softness, delicacy and lasting quality.”

Writing about the setting, he was equally enthusiastic: “The great city of Granada with its suburbs lies partly on the hills and partly on the plain. It is not easy to describe the comfort and beauty provided there by the mildness of the winds and breezes, the solidity of the bridges, the magnificence of its temples and breadth of its squares. The famous River Darro rises at its eastern confines and flows through the town, dividing its suburbs, then changes and meets the River Genil which, after lapping the city walls, flows on through the spacious plain, now swollen by other torrents and streams, and finally directs its proud course, Nile-like, towards Seville . . . The streams flow in different directions, sometimes to supply the baths, sometimes to work the water mills, the income from which is earmarked for the restoration of the city walls . . . There are about 300 villages and 130 water mills in the immediate vicinity of Granada and 50 colleges and temples within the city.”

Housed in this city was the greatest concentration of craftsmen anywhere in Spain at any time–the Muslim artisans who had lived all over the peninsula and had flocked to Granada as the Christians, kingdom by kingdom, drove the Muslims south.
By this time their crafts had become more refined and elaborate than during the Cordoba and Seville ascendancies and their famous silks, gold and silver embroideries, wood veneer inlaid with infinite skill and patience, embossed leather, carpets, ceramics, ivory, filigreed silver and fine arms had won fame– and markets–in Christian Spain, northern Europe and Africa.

Out of this fusion of craftsmanship and prosperity, Ibn al-Khatib suggests, came a citizenry that to him seemed physically and socially superior: “The people of Granada are orthodox in religious matters . . . They are loyal to their kings and extremely patient and generous. They are generally slim, of medium height and well-proportioned, with black hair. They speak an elegant form of Arabic, and their speech is full of proverbs and occasionally rather too abstract. In discussion they tend to be unyielding and hot-headed.

Like the Persians they dress in fine clothes of silk, wool and cotton, striped in subtle shades. In winter they wrap themselves in the African cloak or the Tunisian burnous. In summer they wear white linen
The faithful assembled in the temples, arrayed in their many-hued clothing, present the appearance of a spring meadow covered in flowers . . . Among the ornaments thought particularly tasteful by the princesses and ladies of Granada are girdles, sashes, garters and coifs, exquisitely worked in faceted gold and silver. Precious stones such as zircons, topazes and emeralds glisten amid their finery. The women of Granada are graceful, elegant and svelte.

It is rare to find one who is ill- proportioned. They are neat, take great pains to arrange their long hair and delight in displaying their ivory-like teeth. The breath from their kips is as sweet as the perfume of a flower
Their charms are highlighted by their graceful manners, exquisite discretion and delightful conversation. It is regret- table, however, that we are reaching a moment in which the women of Granada are carrying the magnificence of their attire and adornment to the brink of fantasy.”

Describing the Alhambra, which was begun by Ibn al-Ahmar in 1238 and enlarged and perfected by his Nasrid successors, Ibn al-Khatib was oddly restrained: “The regal residence of the Alhambra presents a fine appearance, rising like a second city. The enclosure is embellished with lofty towers, thick walls, sumptuous halls and other elegant buildings
Sparkling torrents rush downwards, soon to become quiet brooks that murmur through the shady woods. Just like the city below, the Alhambra has so many orchards and gardens that the palace turrets are glimpsed amid a canopy of foliage, like bright stars in the night sky.”

But if Ibn al-Khatib was restrained, subsequent writers were not. The Moors left Granada some 500 years ago, but physically the Alhambra is still one of the loveliest palaces anywhere.

Its lofty beauty was achieved with simple materials such as wood, carved stucco, tiles in geometric patterns and the repetitive application of Arabic lettering or calligraphy. Everywhere water–laughing, burbling, pouring, sparkling, leaping, or dead still in order to reflect the blue sky, the towers, the flowers, myrtles and the elegant cypress trees. The Alhambra is a perfect fusion of the efforts of man and nature, and a fitting monument to the civilization that even then was crumbling.

The final years were not unlike the preceding years: there were occasional incursions of Berber tribes from North Africa, frequent raids and counter-raids among rival factions within Spain. But commerce continued as before and, in general, there was extensive mixing between Muslims and Christians.

Towards the end, unfortunately, a new, less pleasant spirit began to grow, especially in the north, as tensions mounted between the Christians on the one hand and the Mudejars and Jews on the other. Part of the reason for this was simply envy; although the Christians again held political power they saw that their subjects were less prosperous.

The Mudejar population in the north, like the overseas Chinese in so many places today, worked hard, saved their money, paid their taxes and were model citizens. Generally they were much more skilled than their Christian neighbors in the arts and crafts as well as in the cultivation of land. As for the Jews, many had reached high positions within the Christian community as administrators, merchants, doctors and tax collectors.

Then, in 1453, news reached that the Ottoman Turks had taken Constantinople and the old Christian fear of Islam was fueled. It smoldered uneasily through 16 years in which tensions and frontier skirmishing increased until, in 1469, the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile fanned it into flames.

This marriage constituted a powerful union. Ferdinand was a gifted soldier, diplomat and politician and Isabella had a forceful–some say bigoted–character. The marriage, in any case, signaled the last assault on Granada, a campaign carefully planned by Ferdinand and Isabella and well financed.

The King and Queen even convinced the Pope to declare their war a Crusade. The Christians crushed one center of resistance after another and finally, in January 1492, after a long siege, the Moorish king of Granada, Muhammad abu Abdallah, known as Boabdil, surrendered the fortress palace of Alhambra itself.

Observing the surrender were two men. One, by coincidence, was a man who would make history that same year: Christopher Columbus, who had come to speak to Isabella and seek her royal patronage. Another was an eyewitness who left a vivid account of the surrender in a letter to the Bishop of Leon: “The Moorish king, with about 80 or 100 on horseback, very well dressed, went forth to kiss the hand of their Highnesses whom they received with much love and courtesy (Some historians believe that the contrary was true–the Highnesses were rude and condescending), and there they handed over to him his son, who had been hostage from the time of his capture, and as they stood there, there came about 400 captives, of those who were in the enclosure, with the cross and a solemn procession singing Te Deum Laudamus and their Highnesses dismounted to adore the cross to the accompaniment of the tears and reverential devotion of the crowd, not least of the Cardinal and Master of Santiago and the Duke of Cadiz and all the other grandees and gentlemen and people who stood there, and there was no one who did not weep abundantly with pleasure giving thanks to Our Lord for what they saw, for they could not keep back the tears; and the Moorish king and the Moors who were with him for their part could not disguise the sadness and pain they felt for the joy of the Christians, and certainly with much reason on account of their loss, for Granada is the most distinguished and chief thing in the world, both in greatness and in strength as also in richness of dwelling places, for Seville is but a straw hut compared to the Alhambra.”

The famous Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, himself from Granada, has said of this junction: “It was a disastrous event, even though they say the opposite in schools. An admirable civilization and a poetry, architecture and delicacy unique in the world–all were lost. . .”
Boabdil sadly rode off into oblivion, but his subjects were allowed to stay on, and for a brief period the future even looked bright for them. Surprisingly, the defeated ruler had obtained very favorable terms of surrender.

The Muslims were guaranteed virtual self-government, freedom of movement, complete religious freedom and even a three-year from taxes after the surrender. After that they were to pay no more than they had under Nasrid rule.

Europeans elsewhere were exasperated by the Spanish attitude, and unable to understand why the Moors had not all been expelled or slaughtered after the victory. They failed to realize that, for all their fighting, after 800 years of coexistence and mixed marriages the Christians and the Moors had, in spite of themselves, become very much alike. Also, in the final centuries the Christians had to a large extent lived off taxes paid by their Mudejar population as well as by the Muslim vassal kingdoms
The Catholic kings, moreover, must have known that if they had thrown the Moors out abruptly, much of the peninsula’s flourishing trade would have come to an end. Nor did they want large depopulated areas.

Nevertheless, the end did come soon. In 1499 the primate of Spain, Ximenez de Cisneros, arrived in Granada and was soon applying strong pressure on the Muslims to become Christian. Three years later the Muslims were told simultaneously that they must convert or leave–and that they would not be allowed to leave.

In 1526 the Inquisitor General moved to Granada to speed things up. But the process dragged on for years with many Muslims pretending conversion to survive–they were called Moriscos–and other rebelling. There were, for example, serious uprisings in the Alpujarra mountains near Granada; one was so long and well fought that Philip II of Spain finally had to call in Austrians to put an end to it.

Eventually, between 1609 and 1614, Spain gave expulsion orders to the Moriscos. Only six percent were to be allowed to stay, most of whom were children and their mothers, and some 250,000 to 500,000 Moriscos were driven out.

During the journey into exile, it is estimated, up to three quarters of the exiles died and Henry Charles Lea, writing on Moriscos expelled from Aragon, provided a description of their fate: “There was one body of some 1,400 souls, that was refused admission to France . . . They had paid 40,000 ducats for permission to go to France besides the export duties on what they carried and the expense of commissioners in charge of them.

Forced to turn back on the long road to Alfaques, so many of them sickened and died in the summer heat that it was feared that they would bring pestilence to the ships.”

With that footnote the long history of al-Andalus came to its end.

*Aramco World Magazine (Sep-Oct 1976)

Petra Doleželova – Děkuj very much




The Church of Saint Giles (Ægidius), or Kostel svatého Jiljí in Czech, is almost right in the heart of the old town of Prague. There are many beautiful churches outside Italy, and Saint Giles church, built at the beginning of the 14th century, is one of the most beautiful I have seen. The priest likened it to an ante chamber of Heaven. I was at the church in early November for the wedding of my eldest son, Sammy, to Petra Doleželova, a young Czech lady he met while studying for his Masters in Diplomatic Studies at the University of Malta, and I agreed.

Sitting close to the altar, and for a brief moment I imagined myself living a dream. With the precision of a German master’s clockwork, everything was ticking in unison as planned meticulously by Petra and her bridesmaids – the stuff from which fairy tales are spun.

Like time, the bridesmaids moved quickly as if floating on soft air like the fairies of a Disney movie, and then stopped suddenly. The ceremony uniting Petra and Sammy in marriage was about to begin with the established Catholic traditions in English and Czech. Thirty or forty minutes later, the grand finale – the bride and bridegroom exchanging vows for a life-long union.

During the ceremony the word ‘love’ was repeated more than a dozen times and for a good reason. Love is one of probably five or six topics that dominate the life of human beings but what is love? There are countless definitions of the word but if we go back 15,000 or so years we will discover that the ‘natural’ definition of live is ‘giving’. The bilateral root of the word in ancient Arabian, the closest daughter to the mother tongue known as Ursemitisch, means ‘seeds’. Like in most bilateral roots, the meaning is all inclusive of kind, therefore ‘seeds’ would also mean any kind of edible seeds or shaped vegetables as well as fruit – apples, oranges, grapes, figs, etc.

Love in the hunting age was essential not just for the continuation of marriage (then a sort of cohabitation tradition) but for the very survival of human beings. If a man doesn’t love his wife, he wouldn’t protect her nor would he feed his children. The same applies to women. The concept of duty comes from a trilateral root and therefore a coinage several thousand years after the concept of love. Love in the old times was a natural duty.

When time came for a few words of the dads of the bride and bridegroom, my friend, Jiri, Petra’s dad, was emotional. I was no less emotional but the guests, including several friends of Sammy and Petra who came for the occasion from Malta, England, Romania and Sweden, were silent and the words had to be said. In such occasions, a speech should be like the dress of a pretty girl – short but not too revealing. I am at an age where I have absolutely nothing exciting to reveal – not even to my good wife, so it should be brief.

And in brief, aside from the duty of giving, couples should fall in love to make their partners happy. They should also marry for the same reason or not love at all nor marry at all. Looking at my son and his wife I felt I was looking at miracle. They are just man and wife, but they are in love. Every love story is a miracle and I was, we all were, looking at a fine example.

We are proud of our Sammy. His mom and I looked after him well and, like his brother Daniel, he was a happy child. They are the words of his dad, but Sammy is a gentleman, a title I don’t dare to claim. He can be a wall, if he wants to. A wall in which a bright, happy window was opened it. We have to thank Petra for that.

I tell my boys do not bring me a girl – bring me a lady. Sammy did and I’m sure Daniel, in good time, will do the same When, by chance, we met Petra for the first time, we tried to hide our thrill at Sammy having managed to attract such a girl to his heart. But behind closed doors we were ecstatic. Like all novelists, I am a sinner so I don’t believe God would listen to my prayers but his mom is a devout Catholic and I believe she prayed at the time for Petra and Sammy to bond and marry. It is clear that her prayers were answered.

In brief we were giving the Doleželovi, Petra’s family, a gentleman and a fine eldest son but I think they are doing even better – they are giving us their only daughter – an accomplished lady with amazing looks that shine along with her amazing intelligence. At no time in their marriage, Sammy should brag about your Master’s degree – Petra has two and a little dog as well.

Probably above all else, marriage ceremonies are celebrations of love. Like all other people, married people, like all other lovers, need help that can help sustain and strengthen their social and religious bond. As families and friends, we shouldn’t just hope that they will be happy but do all we can to make them happy – now and always.

During his longish stays in Prague, Jiri, Petra’s father and Jelena, Petra’s mom looked after our son. My wife, my son and I will do the same for Petra and for her family. Jiri and Jelena didn’t give away their only daughter – they gained another son and husband to their beloved daughter.

And off they go on their long honeymoon carried to their waiting car on chairs – Petra by her two brothers, and Sammy by his brother, Daniel, and his best man, Kevin, an affable and intelligent young man who looks always happy and always anxious to make all those around him as happy as he is.

Děkuj Petra and Sammy for giving me the happiest day of my life



Apparently fingers are not just for foreplay

Astonishing epigraphical evidence unearthed in southern Arabia proves fingers were first used for counting goats, camels and wives

Some clever people in ancient Arabia, or maybe in eastern Africa before they crossed the southern end of the Red Sea, needed to express numbers. They had no paper, no pens and pencils and definitely no computers, scientists claim.

The story goes that a pretty girl harassed by almost half the young men of a tribe of 100 members or so, was given the option of choosing just one young man and not the ten she liked. To do so, each of the 10 finalists had to choose a mark by which the girl can identify him from a good distance.

With no iPads available, yet, the chieftain of the tribe allocated each young man a symbol created by a different hand and finger formation. To keep her chosen one a secret, so as to avoid getting his throat slit at night by nine angry stone daggers firmly held by nine very angry young men, she had to scratch the symbol identifying the finalist on a stone dagger made for the occasion. Her chosen one was to be revealed to the tribe on a special betrothal occasion the following Saturday, or whatever name the day was called.

The orientalists of the East India Company will tell you a different story, but the above is the most likely one as it is epigraphically proven.

Here are the ten symbols used by the ten anxious young men:


Microsoft Word - Nafees Naskh v2.01.doc


It should be noted that historically people scribbled, or scratched surfaces, from right to left. Here is a plate that proves how identical the numerals produced to the actual physical hand and finger formations. The plate combines both the eastern Arabic numerals and the western (English) numerals whose origin will be explained a bit later:


Microsoft Word - Nafees Naskh v2.01.doc


Probably five or fifty thousands years later, Europe was gradually populated and some needed numerals to count the famous Charlemagne silver pennies. Meanwhile in Spain, which was named Andalusia by Arab conquerors, a mixed Iberian-Arab generation thrived and so were bilingualism and numeralism. A clever Andalusia mathematician reversed the eastern Arabic numerals and produced a different numeral creature known as Western Arabic numerals.

Here is his creation preserved in a famous manuscript:

Microsoft Word - Nafees Naskh v2.01.doc


A bit of refining of the shapes of western Arabic numerals brought perfection to the European sisters of their oriental concubines. Here is the final outcome:


Microsoft Word - Nafees Naskh v2.01.doc


Unfortunately for our prehistoric brave heroine, none of the finalists was suitable for casual foreplay let alone sleeping with. When the supposed betrothal ceremony was at last held , her scratched dagger was presented to the judges. Instead of the number she was supposed to have scratched with a fibreglass pencil, the judges were astounded to discover that the pretty girl had invented a symbol fit for both the occasion and her own opinion of the finalists.

Alongside the Arabic numeral system, her symbol was universally adopted and is still widely used by all sophisticated societies.

Here it is freshly unearthed in south west Saudi Arabia:




Shamelessly Amateurish



Bishtawi has written two books on the Moriscos covered extensively in the Arabic section of this website. In what I called “a literary odyssey in search of Andalusian Spain”, the investigative featurist Tor Eigeland poduced for Aramco World magazine a series of remarkable articles covering many topics. A search in the magazine will produce the articles but I am reproducing them here as well.

“As to their vanishing from the face of Earth,”,María Elvira Sagarzazu wrote of the fate of the Moriscos, “they have shared the fate of many nations, cultures and languages. It seems useless to speculate if they deserved a destiny different from that of Zoroastrians, Sumerian, Parthian, Mayan, Charrúas or Abipones, all of which had their own aims and reasons to survive but lacked at some time or other the proper answer to do it. Life is change. So change is needed to adjust to new life conditions, which are, in an ultimate analysis, a way to guarantee survival” Here.

However, nations do not just vanish from the face of the Earth. Some would have been killed in Spain or drowned in the exile seas, some found their waSidi Bu Saidy to the New World and many moved south to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia,  and east to countries controlled by the Otomans. Apart from Spain itself, no other country was influenced by the expelled neo-Andalusians (Moriscos) more than Tunisia. Whether in art, agriculture, fruit, food, traditional handicraft and manufacturing, folklore etc., Tunisia may be regarded as the most important recipient of the Andalusian legacy. The Tunisians over the years have accepted this legacy with pride and continue to build on it. A famous quarter of Tunis (Sidi Bou Said – image left) is mostly built as a replica of Andalusian architecture and style with the white and blue paint wash of buildings.

Names and places in Spain: I was pleasantly surprised a few years ago when I found myself able to trace the route taken by the famous 12-13th century Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubair (1144-1217).  Curiously, mount Etna was as active in his times as now, he noted, with streams of lava flowing into the sea. As he returned home to Granada after a three-year extensive trip to the Arab east, he named towns and villages on his way. With the help of a number of maps, I was able, mostly, to mark place names and compared them with Ibn Jubair. Over the past 10 years I compiled a list of names and places of modern Spain and their equivalent in Arabic as used by the Andalusians. It is claimed the former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is of Morisco stock with the original Arab name of “Al Saniah”. Rafal in Spanish is Rahal in Arabic; Albuquerque is Al Barququi (prunes for which Andalusia was famous all over the Middle East), Al Bufera is Al Buhaira (lake), Alcala is Al Qalaa (citadel) and several hundred others among the 6000-7000 words used in Spanish today. Over 450 names and places are listed


True or false?: A line of poetry on Al Hamara (Al Hambra) mural says: “Mercifully you ascended the zenith of kingly power to clear away all that was darkened by injustice”. The line is missing a word lilnas “to people” suggesting the reproduction of the mural may not have made by Arabs or may not be contemporaneous with Arab Granada..

True or false, again!

Section-1-to-5-Crop-16-1030x621Roaming Spain properly requires a lifetime. If the historian is accompanied by a beautiful and sexy girl, it should take longer. Together, we criss-crossed Spain south to north and east to west often arriving in cities and towns late at night after long drives with no hotel booking.

Of the thousands of pics we took, the one from the military museum in Madrid was curious. When the film was developed, the pretty girl,who later became my wife, noticed a white shadow covering part of the third line of a reproduced plate of the treaty signed in 1493 by queen Isabela and Abdulla Mohamed, the last king of Arab Granada.

After a long search I found the exact photo in a book published in Arabic in 1976, Andalusian History from the Islamic Conquering to the Fall of Granada, written by Abdul Rahman Ali Al-Hajji.

In the 1976 photo, and maybe earlier, the original text states merely that King Andulla Mohamed consented to leave the city of Andarax. The altered text states “en su capitulacion”, or “capitulation”.

Nations do forge important historical documents but this one is shamelessly amateurish.

A Bridge Between Death and Life

A review of Times of Death and Roses by Salman Zain-ul-Deen*

In his latest novel, Times of Death and Roses, Palestinian novelist, Adel Bishtawi, has his hero, Ali, say to his heroine, Rana: “The time of death has departed but it still hangs somewhere yonder. This I know: I sometimes hear it calling out in the darkness. I don’t want it to come back. This is why I need someone to pull me away. The time of roses has not started. I know that its scent is carried by the breeze nearby. I hold up my nose and empty my lungs to make room for it and I search at night, at dawn and in the faces of all those I meet but I haven’t found it yet. I need someone to remind me of it; pull me in its direction. Push me, even. But if this someone does not succeed right away I will not complain. Knowing that I’m being pulled away from the time of death is enough.”

Times of Death and Roses is a novel about transition from the time of death to the time of roses as dramatized in 553 pages that are full of internal and external conflicts. This transition is effected in terms of time and place as well as internally- the latter being the most difficult requiring internal cleansing and profound psychological tests.

But at another level, the transition takes the form of the movement of two persons who are far apart and different in nationality, psychological makeup and religion, but come together in the end by factors of personal will and destiny as if to say that what the time of death separates the time of roses reunite.

The time of death in the novel is the closing chapters of the civil war that raged inside and against Lebanon in the second half of the 1970s and all through the 1980s. The hostilities started between some armed factions of the Lebanese militias, mainly Christian, and the Palestinian resistance and ended with a massive Israeli invasion that entailed the occupation and destruction of the Lebanese capital and the subsequent departure of the Palestinian fighters. It was a vicious war marked by large-scale killing, indiscriminate bombardment, kidnapping, massacres and booby-traps of deadly cars.

The venue of the time of death is some regions in Lebanon. By contrast, the time of roses is the time of love, stability, marriage, work and planning for a happy family life. The venue is the far away Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Between the two combinations of time-venue is a bridge of conflict, hardship and danger. Hence the presence of someone who is shown to extends help to the hero and heroine in crossing a challenging bridge. This transition is the main theme of the novel.

Heavy Souls

At the opening of the novel, Ali is a Palestinian deputy commander posted at a military base. His soul is heavy and burdened by a heap of private and national frustrations, despair and a sense of bitterness and futility. He has lost faith in the Palestinian leadership, and began to realise his loyalty to the Palestinian cause has made him lose himself but win not the Cause. When Ali is blamed by a friend a fellow fighter, Maher, for having wasted the chance of marrying his beloved Fatina, he is full of bitterness especially when pondering her fate in case he got killed in battle: “Is there anything that the Cause can give her more than it has given the others: widows, orphans, destitution, poverty and massacres?” (Page 21) He is also furious when he wonders: “What would I leave behind for her when I get killed? Some filthy guy like Abu Abbas who would not open his hand to her with the martyr’s salary at the end of the month unless she opens her legs?” (Pages 21,22).

Ali is hurled into the abyss of despair when his close friend Maher in killed in an Israeli air raid on the base He decides to commit suicide by attempting to march through the “Last Run,” a minefield, thinking that one of the mines would explode and put an end to his bitterness. But this does not happen and he, consequently, decides to join his mother in Damascus. From there he travels to Abu Dhabi to join an uncle working there in the hope of finding a new start in life.

*But what Ali wants to get away from is actually carried inside him. His heart is full of wounds, his memory heavy with defeats and bitterness. And in these the private and the public concerns intersect and infract. Ali, for example, cannot forget his young sister who had been slain in the infamous Sabra and Shatilla massacre which targeted hundreds of Palestinian refugees during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.

The novel deals with its subject at three levels. The first is external and tackles events as well as the actions of the hero and other characters. The second is internal and handles what is stored in the memory and is now released in a chain of past events and actions that invoke and provoke each other. Interestingly, at this level the narrative shuttles between the external and internal. The third level, which is used sparingly, is confined to the imagination and deals with what amounts to daydreams that are mostly concerned with the future.

Time and Space

The novel breaks through time and space. Ali is alone on the waters a long way off the coast of Abu Dhabi. In the midst of a world of water, his boat’s engine fails to start. He loses his sense of direction. The unrelenting waves and loneliness conspire against him. Here again the narrative moves between two spheres. One is external where the narrator, using the third person, records Ali’s actions and reactions vis a vis the new situation. The second is internal where Ali is a first-person narrator reviewing his memories and comparing between life on land and life at sea. Both have something in common: in both the big devours the small and everybody fights for survival.

The peculiar situation raises a question: does Ali, the resistance fighter who deserted his military base after having lost faith in the Cause and the leadership, the lonely mariner who lost direction and initiative after his boat’s engine had failed to start and was now threatened by the immense oil carriers and unable to reach the shore symbolize the Palestinian who lost course after having abandoned the Cause and the struggle? The novel does not pose this question directly. Nor am I certain that it does it indirectly.

What is certain is that this mariner will resume the journey. In his loneliness, bewilderment and inability to act, a heavenly coincidence occurs to draw a new course for him. Thus, while Ali is searching for a solution to his dilemma, he catches a glimpse of two girls jumping into the water in suspicious circumstances. At exactly the same time the engine restarts and Ali races to the scene. He manages to rescue the younger girl while the senior one is left with no option but to take care of herself. Ali finds out later that the two girls were not only the daughters of a doctor who happened to be a friend and business associate of his uncle but that one of them, Rana, was a girl he had known while he was a resistance fighter in Beirut.

The incident serves to reignite a difficult relationship between Ali and Rana. Rana, the senior girl who lived through the time of death in Beirut before coming to Abu Dhabi, did not simply jump into the water. She tried to commit suicide and by doing so she wanted to get rid of the time of death by throwing herself into the arms of death. Her attempt, which was not the first of its kind, failed but led to the re-emergence of Ali in her life, offering her a chance to cross the bridge to the time of roses. And here it is noteworthy to underline a common denominator between the two characters: each has emerged from the time of death with deep scars, and each has tried to get rid of the time of death by attempting suicide, and each gains a chance to cross over to another time.

While in Beirut, Rana, a university student born to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother, is kidnapped at a “flying” (sudden) barricade while Lebanon was still engulfed in war and hostilities. But the kidnapping turns out to be a make-belief and Elie, a person who commands some authority, enacts a faked rescue. Later on, Rana is drawn by a friend into a gang run by Elie and engages in unlawful acts, including kidnapping, assassination, prostitution and drug trafficking. Driven by need to show gratitude for her alleged rescuers and under the pressure of fear, Rana finds herself obliging the gang. One night she is made to drink and while intoxicated she dances topless, unaware that she was being photographed for the purpose of extortion. Indeed, Elie, whom Rana calls the devil, uses the stick and the carrot to get what he wanted from the girl. The cumulative result is a series of painful memories that turn into nightmares.

Time to Die

Twice Rana attempts suicide and twice she is rescued by her younger sister. In the second time, however, the rescuer was to be rescued by the sudden but timely appearance of Ali on the waters off Abu Dhabi. Ali and Rana meet halfway but only after each has built inside barriers that prevent him/her from reaching the other. Soon a common friend emerges and starts to undo the barriers and remove the spikes off the bridge that would carry both lovers to the other side- to the time of roses.

This common friend is none other than Fatina, Ali’s old time flame. To be sure, she has not forgiven him for having squandered a chance to marry her while engulfed by the Cause. Likewise, Rana whom Fatina considers a close friend and soul mate, also has not forgiven Ali for having lost a chance to wed to her while in Beirut, adding yet another barrier between the two.

But the barriers are many. The first are external ones that take the form of differences in religious orientation and nationality (i.e. Rana is half-Lebanese) and these are shown not to be difficult to surmount, reflecting a high level of social awareness and the disavowal of sectarian and national complexes. The second are internal barriers that needed a great deal of effort, both internally and externally, to remove. It is here that Fatina plays an essential role. Following a series of meetings between Ali and Rana, there emerges the prospect of a joint venture materialising between the two. Still, the venture is delayed as Rana is hesitant and torn between Elie whom she had promised to marry and is now awaiting her in Beirut, and Ali who had occupied her thoughts during the war years but missed the chance to marry her.

During one of their meetings, Ali is made to understand that Rana was worried and wanted him to rescue her from the devil, Elie. When she takes a step further and attempts to reveal her past he refuses to listen, inviting her, instead, to the time of roses and telling her that what concerns him is the future not the past. He tells her further that what is important to him is for her to return to his arms clean as he has decided to be clean. The act of cleansing takes Rana back to Beirut. She is to complete her studies and end her relationship with the devil by meeting him face to face. Ali sends someone to look after her while she accomplished her task.

Fatina plays a role in strengthening the relationship between the separated lovers every time it waned. She sends roses and chocolate to Rana in Ali’s name when the latter stops to do so. Nonetheless, when Rana returns to Abu Dhabi cleansed of the remnant of the time of death she finds new barriers erected inside Ali who became jealous had misunderstood her action. But a tale about the fate of a loving nightingale Ali hears in his uncle’s house in the presence of Rana’s family awakens the child in him. He breaks down all the remaining barriers and sheds away his doubts. He proposes to Rana and when the latter accepts his gesture both put their feet at the doorstep of the time of roses.

Multiple Narrators

In telling this story, A. S. Bishtawi assigns the narrative task to multiple narrators. He uses various modes of exposition that alternate between the internal, the external and the daydreaming. He employs the past, present and future tenses and jumps through time and space while according myth and popular tale an active role in bringing the characters together and deciding their choices.

Times of Death and Roses is a long novel in terms of pages but Bishtawi knew how to knit its parts together and tie its events though not at the expense of dramatic tension. And although the narrative played a dominant role, the novelist gave dialogue ample space, allowing it in certain instances to cover whole chapters.

Like the narrative, dialogue runs at multiple levels that match the moods of the characters. In terms of language, Bishtawi attempted to bring slang up to the level of classic Arabic, inserting in the process some hybrid vocabulary. In general, however, the novel’s language is smooth and docile. It is mostly narrative in nature but watered by literature and borrows from various linguistic sources and dictionaries in order to emphasize the reality of events, environments and experiences. Consequently, the language used by the resistance fighters is rough, reflecting the roughness of military life. Likewise, military jargon is used to express the psychological disposition of the hero– the ex-fighter, who, in another instance, relies on the vocabulary of the fisherman to talk about his friendship with Rana when they are together on the shore of the Gulf. In sum, the novelist addresses every situation suitably while ensuring that the vocabulary of various sources remains within the main stream of the novel’s language.

With such a story, mode of address and language, Bishtawi has produced a great novel wherein he traced the movements of his hero and heroine, measured their passions and inner thoughts, dug deep into their souls, analysed their characters and attitudes, emerged from the private to the public, and succeeded in recording an entire epoch of history. For all that, he has assumed a distinguished status among Arab novelists and made the Times of Death and Roses a time of enjoyable reading.

*Published by Hayat Newspaper (London) on 5 April 1999 and translated by Mohamed Khaled.

Crosseing the Satanic Sea in a Palestinian Boat

 Times of Death and Roses reviewed by Hussam ul-deen Mohamed*

The Goddess Ishtar Crosses the Satanic Sea in a Palestinian Boat
{Editor’s note: Since the publication of the Novel Times of Death and Roses and the publication of this article Elie Hobeika was blown up in Beirut in January 2002}
Is it possible for a literary work to possess a human being and become something like a soul mate day and night?

This happened to me recently. The literary work responsible for this strange feeling is a novel written by Palestinian novelist Adel S. Bishtawi entitled Times of Death and Roses.

I read this novel time and time again for over a year. Every time I finished it and attempted a review I found myself gripped by a conflict almost similar to that facing one of the novel’s characters in their quest to free themselves from the devil’s grip. It is the kind of conflict which keeps one in bed for days unable to decide what to do next.

Such a feeling is hardly an invitation to read the novel by the usual fans of easy and undemanding reading. Or could it serve to set the right mood for a study of the psychological impact of literature? In any case, what it means, in my opinion, is that Times of Death and Roses is unique and special. What is more, the act of possessing itself is one of the pivotal points of this novel posing a mind-boggling question: How does evil possess human beings and how could they escape evil’s grip?

From an artistic point of view, these questions are articulated in the story of a beautiful sophisticated young woman directly in conflict with a person portrayed as the human embodiment of a modern Satan. Through this story, the novelist takes us the readers on a journey where our destiny is to be possessed by the Prince of Darkness, to touch it and to repeatedly feel an urge to free ourselves from its grip. At times we cannot but sense the devil lurking under our very skin; feel his breath released from deep down within us. This is the novel’s way of making us fathom the terrible influence of evil.

I guess this is exactly what happened to me.

Times of Death and Roses, however, is also about the ability of the human soul to free itself from the devil. In this novel, salvation lies in a love relationship 1 between Ali (a Palestinian Muslim youth) and Rana (the product of a marriage between a Palestinian Muslim man and a Lebanese Christian Maronite woman). Failure in love does not only equal death; it simply leads to it. This is made clear in the opening chapter in what happened to Maher, a friend of Ali, who recalled his failed love story while he heard the call of death and prepared himself for it to happen.

Demonising the Demonic

In Times of Death and Roses, contrasts are repeatedly made between Rana and the biblical character of “Legion” whom the New Testament describes as possessed with demons. But for Rana to describe herself as Legion does only constitute an act of symbolism. This invokes a religious dimension but also an important element – a mythological one – which combines with a corresponding historical dimension so that the novel is endowed with the seal of an epic, although it appears to the reader to be mainly concerned with the individual and its choices.

For Ali, however, Rana remains an angel until a touch of doubt weakens his insistence. This comes late in the novel, when Ali, with his own eyes, sees his heroine trying to protect (the antagonist) Elie. Rana actually enlisted Ali’s help to free herself from Elie who had possessed her like a devil does to its victim in a horror movie.

The reference we have made to the movies here does not, however, eclipse a greater reference – the Bible. Bishtawi’s book adopts a similar logic to that of the New Testament in its insistence on the viability of the possession of human beings by the devil and the ability of Jesus (in the New Testament) and Ali (in Times of Death and Roses) to chase the devil out of the “patient’s” body. And this is just one instance where the spirit of the biblical text infiltrates Bishtawi’s book. There are many more which we will underline in the course of this article.

The recurrent invocation of Satan in the novel gives the impression that everybody is possessed one way or another with different demons. Salvation lies not only in love but also in the ability to put up a ferocious struggle against evil – one, which may lead, even to death. 2

Rana, for her part, falls prey to the devil’s power of possession through an exploitation of the most basic of human instincts – survival.
How does this come about?
The scene of the novel is partly in the midst of Lebanon’s deadly civil war. Elie, the antagonist, affects one of those infamous flying-barricades. A car is stopped. Rana is ordered to step out. She is led to an unknown fate when, suddenly, Elie emerges. Fear is a basic element of seduction. When, much later, Katya, who reveals herself a mistress of Elie and a member of his secret organisation, fails to convince her friend, Rana, of meeting with Elie, she promptly wins her consent by reminding her the barricade incident could happen again.

Then camisoles turn to use the element of life instead of death in his seduction scheme so as to assume total control over Rana. Gradually, Rana is attracted to a handsome and influential man. But Elie is not an ordinary man; he is a “devil” whose vocation is death. He does not seek to win Rana’s love like any man seeks the love of a female (his first concern is to enlist her into the gang of death that he leads). He simply wants to control her as quickly as possible, employing dishonest means. He arranges a party for his followers of boys and girls.

He tells Rana to smoke hashish and, once she undresses, under the effect of the drugs, he snaps shots that he would later use as a means of control and blackmail. Feminine jealousy intervenes. Katya explains to Rana that what is required of her to do once she becomes a member of Elie’s gang is to engage in murders and assassinations (like blowing up bobby-trapped cars in the midst of pedestrians). The problem with Rana, however, is that she becomes possessed with Elie’s love. She even becomes, albeit briefly, a willing partner, does her share of seduction and accepts even Elie’s desire to control her, though still under the influence of drugs. Indeed, once aware how horrible the acts required of her are, she backs off. Her refusal takes the form of an act of self-destruction, but even two failed attempts at her life later, she still believed in the viability of reaching a compromise with Elie 3 despite having known the evil side in his character. How does this come about and what does it mean?

The novel lays part of the blame on Ali. He had a chance to engage Rana in a relationship before she met Elie. But he was busy with his political cause. The male’s good side ignored the woman and, by doing so, pushed her to the evil one. It is as if the educated, by lending itself to its political cause is kept away from the prime meaning of human existence: love and life-making.4 The more mysterious side in Rana, the reason for falling in love with Elie even after having unmasked his death-making face, is one that can by no means be touched easily. That is why the novelist dealt with it with extreme care and equally great bewilderment which is further inflamed by the question: how could a morally pure, innocent girl (with a practicing Muslim father and a practicing Christian mother), even if swayed by the forceful passion of love rather than the reasoning of the mind, accept a marriage proposal from a criminal and how has the devil been able to infiltrate into her soul, in the first place?

The bewilderment in Rana’s case does arise from this girl being the exception to the rule but because many a girl like her have sold their tender souls to the devil.

Moving down from the mythological to the earthly and societal grounds, however, will show the novel treading into the bumpy areas of the human soul when it feeds on a hatred dressed with religious justifications. When Rana tries to equate Palestinian violence with that of the Lebanese (Christian) Phalanges, Ali says to her that the Palestinians did not kill children with empty bottles and hatchets. As a political reader, maybe, equating victims to murderers seems to me rash because we find in this equating a gap through which the devil has infiltrated and in which demonic ideas camouflaged by politics and religion have found their way to the necks of children and bodies of women.

“Times of Death and Roses does not allow for classification.
This, in my opinion, is the most important characteristic of great literature.”

But there remains for me as a reader and a human being, as well as for the novelist himself, an open door for feeling bewildered. The reason is that Rana says to Ali, threatening:” You don’t know what is lodged in me.” She also says:” Some of my souls belong to me, some to the devil.” (Page 289) The novelist is admitting here that something evil already existed in Rana. It is like an “original” evil or sin lurking inside waiting to be awakened, suddenly, to kill and murder. The novelist ventures even into suggesting some king of a relationship between this original evil and man being the product of a minority. (Page 303)

Rana’s contrary decision to fight the devil within her and get married to Ali seems extremely realistic and far away from riddles. She says by way of justifying her new decision:” I want to be part of this small world I know. I want to be close to mom and dad and my friend in a secure place doing the only thing I want – live my life.” (Page 175)

The Yin-Yang Analogy

Having treated Rana in her swivelling between the position of a victim in the grip of its oppressor and the contrasting position of the victim in its struggle to defend itself and end the deadly darkness’, Bishtawi has proved able to see the strange dialectic between good and evil where, such as in the Chinese philosophy, the yin and yang are entwined and where the beginning is part of the ending and the one is part of the other.

We may see that entwining in the names of the protagonist and the antagonist who are competing for Rana’s love. They carry a single name pronounced differently (Ali, Elie). The variation in pronouncing the names of the two characters, although insignificant and marginal, hides a huge amount of differences and signals that are so opposed to each other as to make the survival of one dependent on the destruction of the other.

The novelist sets up an arena for a mythological conflict between good and evil as personified by people that are real and carry political and historical significance. Concurrently, he presents all the possibilities of doubt as to the usefulness of such a struggle. There is, on the one hand, a clear Manichean distinction between two opposite natures, while, on the hand, the novel continuously makes references to a boat carrying both (Muslim and Christian) characters so that if one were to drown, the other would certainly meet death. What is even more significant is that the heroine, through her dual cultural identity (as both Palestinian and Lebanese, Christian and Muslim) carries inside her both of these ferociously opposed persons and suffers thereof. It may be concluded, however, that the aim sought by the novel is to eliminate the division and weld the two parties together.

The novel presents love blossoming within evil (and hatred) but turning, gradually, to strive against it. It is a scrupulous depiction of the ups and downs in the growth of this love inside the complicated character of the heroine. Rana does not only carry inside her the seed of destruction (her two failed attempts at her life) but also the seed of fertility (her unquenched desire for love and motherhood). She encompasses both evil and good (in an utterance that reflects this while leaving the door open to bewilderment, she says: “I want to hate them both because they are the reason for everything.” (meaning her suffering). (Page 357)

Having started by recording Ali’s departure from the way he dealt with his political cause (joining the Palestinian resistance movement), the novel moves to depict Rana as she enters the spider-web, falls in love with Elie (the antagonist who may be described as the anti-Christ, using ecclesiastical terminology) and finally discovers the truth about the latter’s designs. At this stage, she has realised that in return for Elie’s promises of love and marriage she is to engage in assassinations and dealt acts. The subsequent encounter between Ali (who is frustrated and at the brink of meeting his death on the open sea) and Rana (who is equally frustrated and attempts suicide) becomes a savior for both and constitutes a welcome development in a realistic novel that embraces the idea of beginning of the universe with the creation of Adam and Eve.

The Sea of darknessp the sea of love

Still, Adam and eve of the novel do not descend from paradise to earth but from a genuine hell to the sea. Here, the novelist invokes a wealth of what the sea has meant through the ages. Ali’s excursion refers the reader to an entire heritage of literary production that is organically and intimately linked to the sea: (Homer’s) Odyssey, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway. It refers the reader as well to layers of memory that do not only interact with the recently stored literary texts but also with all that has been written about the sea and water and its foundations both in human soul and in the myths and legends.

The second chapter ends with a horrific scene in which futility and death are interwoven. Having disappeared without a trace following an Israeli air raid, the mutilated body of Maher, Ali’s friend, emerges to the surface of a lagoon inside the military camp, forced out by the explosion of a hand grenade that another guerrilla (Bu’bu’) had tossed to the water.

A change of scene. We see Ali in a boat on the open sea, pondering his return from what Fadel Errabii had once described as “the closed society of the Freudian fighters” to civil life. Ali is immersed in fishing. Maher had died in the lagoon like a fish. The narrator’s description of the fish’s struggle to escape the fisherman (and Maher’s attempt to evade the Israeli bomber) appears symbolic of Ali’s desire for survival. The fish’s attempt to free itself appears to be suicidal. Ali had tried to exit the camp not through the main gate but through “the gate-to-hell” that the commander had planted with mines. His exit is, consequently, suicidal, too, but also ritualistic. It is similar to the crossing of “straight way” to paradise for a Muslim or the act of baptism for a Christian. The mines do not explode, however. It is Ali who explodes in a lengthy monologue accompanied by an enormous outburst of rage against the main topic of the novel, evil.5

Likewise, the act of fishing plays a role close to the Christian experience as demonstrated in Jesus inviting his followers to eat his flesh or his invitation to the fishermen: Samaan and Andrew to follow him so that he will make them save men, morally speaking. 6 Maher who metaphorically becomes a fish in the camp’s lagoon is now himself, or rather his tormented soul that had been cornered and made helpless, to be fished by Ali. The naiveté of the fish is nothing but that of Ali, Maher and Bu’bu’ who all made the mistake of biting on the bait. 7

But while Ali draws comparisons between Maher and the fish, he, likewise, draws comparisons between himself and the other two in a tripartite exchange of symbols. In order to escape the memory of having been a victim, Ali feels a need to be a fisherman, not a fish. Fishing is getting rid of violence in addition to being symbolic and ritualistic.

Immersed in an acute existentialist mood, Ali becomes aware of how lonely he was on the open sea and in the entire universe.8 He is unable even to sense the existence of God. This notion is so powerful in that it holds the individual solely responsible for fate but, strange enough, it also puts Ali in the middle of crossed mythological and ritualistic experiences that are religious by excellence. This serves to draw the reader’s attention to the mythological and symbolic core that is embedded in the realistic fabric of the novel.

“Times of Death and Roses does not allow for categorisation. This, in my opinion, is the most important characteristic of great literature.”


Chapters: 4, 5,and 6, are the most important in terms building the dramatic action in the novel. They provide the reader with details for a scene for each of Ali and Rana. Ali, in his part is in his boat (having spent a terrible night, came to the brink of death and suffered deadly loneliness). Rana is on board a ship (likewise in a state of acute despair that pushes her to take the decision of committing suicide). They appear having been on a journey in the sub conscience, far away from the mainland and its relationship with reality. They are heading, each in his own way, towards death, passengers in a mythological boat taking them to the underworld of the dead. The chance for Ali’s survival is slim: the sea sets its huge jaws wide open to swallow the two. But when Rana jumps into the water, their destinies meet again and they rush to each other, having been saved from a close encounter with death.

As we have noted earlier, water has many faces in the novel. One of these is death. Maher had died in the water of the camp’s lagoon and Ali and Rana approached the end also in the water. Another face is life and fertility as demonstrated in Ali’s attempt to save Rana from drowning. Combined, the sea becomes an enormous womb for existence and its opposite, the two contradictory concepts that constitute the main focus of the novel as illustrated in the struggle between life and death.

The novel proceeds to present an extraordinary love story faced -under the powerful force of an old history represented by the cultural identity of the heroine and a new history represented by her relationship with Elie – with obstacles that similar expected in an ordinary love story. The antagonist, who is more of an “anti-hero” than a villain, does not put sticks in the heroine’s wheel. It is she who goes out to him. The obstacles are actually of a psychological nature. Hence the fluctuations in the behaviour of the hero and his heroine as well as the suffering they endure in their attempt to come together.

The novel can be seen equally possessed with two deadly elements: one human, the other religious (although the latter is also human). But while the human element is quite clear and need not be justified or questioned, it is the religious element that makes the novel remarkably unique. While rejecting political action that conceals its murderous behaviour under the banner of Christianity, the novel, equally vehemently endorses the more profound meaning of the Christian experience. Ali, the Palestinian Muslim, is closer to the Christian teachings that understands the woman (a side that is quite clear in the New Testament), and closer as well to the Christian teachings that rejects religious tradition when it is not compatible with and merciful towards humans, in addition to many other elements that too readily render themselves to the reader. By adopting the essential core of Christian teaching as clearly demonstrated in the New Testament, the novel invokes the profound in Christianity thereby to reject the exploitation of Christianity under the pretext of protecting it but actually using it for political purposes that permit murder.9

Focusing on Ali tends to conceal Rana’s pivotal role. Hers is not the role of a possessed patient awaiting a miracle. Rana is full of intelligence, passion and a special psychological aptitude. She plays the active and fertile role in the love story. Her relationship with Ali is the result of her decision. Ali’s role is active and interactive in tandem and equal standing with that of Rana’s. If Ali happens to embody mythological as well as human characteristics, Rana has the seed of eve with all its richness and mystery. Her story is, at the mythological level, closer to that of Ishtar who descends to the realm of the dead to save Tamouz from his enemy and to save herself as well.

Fictional Possession

Having read Times of Death and Roses several times and investigated it from different perspectives, I may safely venture into talking about a strange relationship existing between narrator and novelist. I would not exclude the possibility of a conflict between the two. The novel encompasses two parallel compositions: one is wanted by the novelist for his novel, the other imposed by the novel itself. On the one hand, there is a tendency in the novel to depict the fictional conflict as being between two devils, though a reader may understand it as being between God and Satan: the equating that Rana makes between “two devils” in her life does appear as such. After all, Ali does not make death: he is in a military camp targeted by bombing and aggression: his relationship with Rana is one of extreme tenderness. By contrast, we see Elie sowing programmed death in all its actual and symbolic forms. He is also aggressive and mean in his relationship with Rana.

I would guess that Times of Death and Roses is a model example of a conflict switching from one between the characters to one between the novelist and the tale he has created. The novelist, the impartial and the “democratic,” has Ali say: “I wasn’t capable of dealing with life: I only deal with death.” By so doing, the novelist established a kind of similarity between Ali unduly. The novel does not, indeed, conceal the novelist’s keenness on being democratic with his characters, even at the expense of a certain degree of self-demonising. But in the end, the novel attests to two important points, firstly, that the novelist cannot but be partial in historical and human situations of universal interest, and, secondly, that the principal conflict in fiction, in general, and more so in epic novels, tends to be one between starkly opposed view points or two contradictory major lines of narrative where one has to negate the other. Still, Times of Death and Roses scores a distinguishing point by its democratic desire to embrace both lines of narrative into a single story, although it had, in the end, to side with one against other, as should be expected from an artistic drama.

The novel tends to depict a conflict between good and evil but the novelist, perhaps out of concern for impartiality, appears to want to equate Ali to Elie. The purpose might be of twofold: first, the equating is meant to be strictly for Rana who thus becomes like the possessed Legion. Secondly, it could be directed to a reader who does not sympathise with Ali, or, let’s say, does not view Palestinians in favourable eyes.

But this would bring in the question of contrasts in the sociology of reading. The novel’s antagonist who could be considered the human incarnation of Satan is a person who has political ambitions and belongs to a specific religious group and Arab nationality. Furthermore, the historical background of the fictional conflict is still fresh in the reader’s mind. So what if a person of other than me -one of different political and social background- was to read the novel? Would this reader come to experience the same feeling as I, or rather see things from a different perspective and, maybe, sympathise with “Satan?” 10 And would this mean that the novelist ventured into demonising the other while beatifying and sanctifying the self? And if we were able to easily see the mythological and tragic, could we as easily have smelled the ideologue- in the negative sense of the word? There is no doubt that ideology is present and incorporated in all the creative writings because it is present in all of us, social humans, though I, personally, do not see ideology a smaller story within large ones, and I can never equate the story of the uprooting of the Palestinians from their homeland to the story of the independence of Israel, and not to the phalanges idea of seeing the civil war as the result of the Palestinian “alien” presence in Lebanon.


To those who have read Bishtawi`s previous novel, Traces of a Tattoo, Times of Death and Roses reveals itself as a big adventure. In the former, we read a love story evolving from a simple theme with a beginning, a climax and a denouement in the classical tradition. The reader lives through events that are narrated in a very exciting way. The fictional form, basically composed of relatively short chapters, interacts with the theme homogeneously leaving the reader with the impression of watching a television serial that continuously uncovers for the spectator layers that are skilfully hidden in the text so as not to interfere with the free flow of the narrative.

The story in Times of Death and Roses is quite different. Here the reader is faced with several restraints that are imposed by the complexity theme and characters heavily burdened with the weighs of history, the sufferings of the present, the twisting of idea and body under the heavy price of the Lebanese civil war which opened the Pandora box and unleashed all the bloody instincts and motivations. By way of form, Bishtawi uses for this novel a division similar to the one he used for his previous one: a large number of relatively short chapters. The number of pages is also the same. The action, however, does not appear to develop in the same way. In Traces of a Tattoo, the heroine travels to America and back to Syria but the progression of the action is not affected at all.

One of the elements on which the novel is built is the ability of the young characters to maintain their contact and bring their love story to success by using modern technology. In Times of Death and Roses, instead of encounter we sense a deadly loneliness pushing each to suicide. And even when an encounter does materialise, we do not gain the same reward that a reader gets from Traces of a Tattoo after having followed the funny and extremely enjoyable details of a special love story. For Ali and Rana, their encounter is based, in the first place, on a previous, failed attempt at establishing a relationship which, itself, suffers from a competing one between Rana and Elie who is the personified antithesis of Ali. In the process, the novel becomes a continuous struggle against separation which, strange enough, can only be won by vanquished a corresponding separation- the one between Rana and Elie.

While we may consider encounter as being the mover in the relationship between the hero and heroine in Traces of a Tattoo, it is separation which constitutes the corresponding mover for their counterparts in Times of Death and Roses. Consequently, constructing the plot for the latter, selecting a suitable framework for an extraordinary love story, required a super effort.

It would follow that the construction of plot, and, by extension, the entire novel, constituted the basic artistic element of Times of Death and Roses. The effort made by Bishtawi in this regard approaches, in its intensity, the suffering of the characters. A closer scrutiny reveals the great care and effort made by the author in composing his literary work. It is like working on a huge piece of diamond where every tiny detail has an extremely important role.

As an example of high craftsmanship, the division of chapters plays a fundamental role in furthering the principal ideas of the novel. Chapter 17 is a cinematic scene of love while chapter 18 is one of separation. Progressing from one chapter to another is not determined by a chronological order, as the division is one organic, artistic nature. The ultimate effect is manifested in a similarity that is detected to exist between chapters and ideas. It is as easy for the novel to speak of wine turning into vinegar when it wants to denote love failure as it is to speak of vinegar turning into wine to denote success.

Times of Death and Roses does, indeed, appear to have been influenced by the cinema to a large degree. This especially apparent in the way chapters wind and unwind. The silver screen is, perhaps, better equipped to convey the great creative charge carried by the novel. The first chapter opens with Maher hearing, or internally sensing, a tune which we are later to recognise as the macabre melody of death: it concludes with Maher dancing to a revolutionary song. The second chapter begins with what appears to us an illness attacking Ali but later turns out to be a nightmare which Ali suffers upon the disappearance of Maher. We also encounter in this chapter the flashback employed to record those tense moments that preceded a blast. The same technique is to be used more often in the course of the novel.

More evidence of cinematic influence can be seen in the novel’s reluctance to resort too much to the descriptive, keeping it always to a minimum such as enough to depict psychological mood. Chapters are often began and concluded abruptly. This effect is sharpened still by the use of active verbalisation. An example: “Ali looked at Bu’bu’, petrified. He signalled to him to move away but the latter ignored his signal: “Abu Al-Abbas forbade entry to ‘ the gate-to-hell,’ he said hitting Ali in the chest.” (Chapter 3).

Every time the novelist opened a new chapter he asked the reader to think with him not only about the time and venue but also about the action itself and how it is shaped. The chapters most often do not open with description but directly jumb into action by means of tense, expressive dialogue. The clearest example is the riddle we encounter right from the start as to the exact timing of events.

The flashback technique plays a large role in the making of this riddle. For example, Chapter Two expects the reader to solve several puzzles including the disappearance of Maher (an exercise which consumes 9 pages), the identity of Sana (page 54) and her death, disengaging an otherwise intertwined dream and reality. In sum, it would appear that the entire novel (which is already huge) is just a concise scenario prepared for another novel that hides behind it and presents all the details in a traditional manner!

Cinematic elements and techniques aimed at heightening suspense or hybridising a literary genre, would normally constitute a pillar in a structured novel but may, in certain instances, contravene with a complex composition the novelist chooses to weave into his work, as is the case in Times of Death and Roses. In this novel, the reader finds it necessary to read certain phrases more than once in order to fully understand its meaning. The reader also needs to be ever attentive in order to understand the numerous references and symbolic utterances in the novel. (As an example, the narrator says of Rana in page 127:” The self in the first part of the verse said to the self in the second part.” This is a reference to the dual cultural identity of the heroine.

Other symbolic utterances are of a religious type (such as the reference to Legion which is difficult to understand for someone who is not familiar with the Bible), or political nature (such as in the utterance: “He said his name was George but she overheard Michel whisper the name as Ahmed” (page 99), the connotation being that some Muslims aided the phalanges militias). Unless the novel is read more than once, it is difficult for the reader to pick up all the references that it contains.

But complexity is not limited to the question of references. Knotty are almost all the elements of the novel: image, metaphor, time, venue and character. Hence the difficulty of subjecting the novel to classification. It cannot be considered a romantic story although it intimately deals with love; it does hold the reader in suspense all the time but it is not a “horror story” whose only concern is suspense; it is not even a historical novel because it is concerned with the individual’s inner life and understanding of history; nor is it purely psychological because it tackles the social side of the individual; it is not a political story because it tries to study the political in the human context then the mythological and the epic; it is not also an epic because it is not populated by human groups in conflict but by individuals who are representatives of groups albeit unique and special. In sum, Times of Death and Roses does not allow for classification and this is, in my opinion, the most important characteristic of great literature.

For all of the above, Adel Bishtawi has once again proved himself to be one of the most important Arab novelists, and one of the most professional and representative of the our era. His current novel searches deep into the enormous human literary heritage, particularly the extremely rich mythological and religious legacy, in order to tackle issues of utmost sensitivity both at the level of every day Arab reality and the level of the human soul.

(1) For types of possession other than that wielded by evil refer to Chapter 14 where Rana describes what she thinks to be her impact on Ali’s soul.

(2) In Islamic heritage, the scholar Ibn Al-Jawzy consecrated an entire book for a study of the possession of human beings by Iblis (published by Darel Kitab Al-Arabi in 1985). What is meant by possession in Islamic tradition is that Iblis charms humans and seduces them to commit sinful acts. Every human has a Satan on his back and:” possession is effecting bad to appear as good. Vanity is ignorance: it leads to viewing the corrupt as wholesome and the bad as good.” The scholar describes the relationship between man and Satan as one of continuous conflict between angels and Satan: “The war is on between the (camp of) castle’s dwellers and guards and the (camp of) Satan.” In the tradition of the prophet of Islam, every man is accompanied by a Satan, although God helped the prophet in converting the Satan that accompanied him to Islam.

(3) She intended to ask Elie if he was prepared to accept a compromise- middle grounds between him and her- but was not able to reach him. (Page 169).

(4) Under a liberal interpretation, the attitude adopted by Ali and his fellow intellectuals who opted for joining the resistance movement at the expense of their relations with the people, rendering the latter easy prey to the devil, may mean that a true marriage between the intellectual and the people can only be attained by focusing on the self. Rana embodies a symbolic meaning in what she says of Ali: “There is the person who is primarily responsible for all that has befallen me.”(Page 171).

(5) Refer to pages 76 and 79 in the Arabic edition.

(6) Matthew’s 5:18,19

(7) Loneliness is a prime cause of despair and death.

(8) By contrast to Ali’s idea about the total isolation of man in the Universe, Rana’s father says about Ali after having saved his daughter: “Who else could have sent him but God?” (Page 159)

(9) Mark 5:

(10) A recent television interview with the former head of security of the (Christian) Lebanese Forces, Elie Hobeika, revealed that many are still capable of sympathising with a person suspected of a major role in the massacres of Sabra and Chatilla. According to Lebanese satellite TV station, Al-Mustakbal which aired the interview which, once again, held the Palestinians totally responsible for the civil war in Lebanon, 50% of the participating spectators viewed Hobeika in something other than the objective perspective of history. This may prove that history is the outcome of a host of interwoven factors– self-interest, for one- especially in arenas of factional politics such as the one which prevailed during the Lebanese civil war.

* This review was published in two-part by Al Quds Al Arabi Newspaper (London) on the 10 and 11 of March 2000 and were translated by Mohammad Khaled


{Editor’s note: Since the publication of the Novel Times of Death and Roses and the publication of this article Elie Hobeika was blown up in Beirut in January 2002}

Elie Hobeika: lady-killer and blood-soaked war criminal

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

Independent Newspaper, 24 January 2002

I once received a message from Elie Hobeika, who was killed yesterday in a Beirut car bombing. Elie, I was told, was very unhappy with my book about the Lebanon war, Pity The Nation.

In it, I had described how he led the Phalangist murderers into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila in 1982 ­ under the eyes of the Israelis, who did nothing ­ and slaughtered up to 1,700 Palestinian refugees. Who did I think I was? Elie was very unhappy. Elie was the Al Pacino of Lebanon.

I sent back a message. Elie had problems, I said. The Israelis themselves had named him as the principal murderer and war criminal in the Kahan commission report ­ the same inquiry which said that Ariel Sharon, then Defence Minister and now Israeli Prime Minister, was “personally responsible'” for the slaughter. If Elie wanted to shut me up, I said, I would ask about Sabra and Chatila at every press conference he gave in Beirut. The next thing I received from Elie was a bottle of champagne.

During the Lebanese civil war, Elie had changed sides. After being trained in an Israeli camp ­ no American bombing for “terrorists” trained in Israel, of course ­ he led the pro-Israeli Christian Maronite Phalange into the Beirut camp for the massacre. But Sister Syria later smiled upon him. He led an attack against his former militia associates and, in post-war Beirut became minister for electricity in the pro-Syrian Lebanese government, a period marked by massive power cuts and little electricity.

So outraged was the Lebanese government at the corruption of his ministry that, so it was said, four Lebanese Army trucks were sent to his east Beirut home to retrieve carpets, furniture and personal effects worth up to £7.2m looted from public coffers. The Palestinians longed for his death. The Syrians withdrew their security cover, the Israelis remained indifferent ­ until he threatened to grass on Mr Sharon.

Despite his mistresses he was a lonely man. Morose, unable to travel for fear of arrest for war crimes and defiant in the face of continued accusations of massacre. His young fiancée had been raped and murdered by Palestinian gunmen in the town of Damour in 1975. He hated Palestinians ­ although he later employed a Palestinian from Haifa to run his public relations outfit.

As a government minister, he sought respectability. When the father of Mai Kahale, the Lebanese President’s spokes-woman, died, he was there in an armchair, in the family home, grieving with the relatives. When the Pope went to Lebanon, Mr Hobeika was standing obsequiously in line to bow before the Holy Father. When Time magazine editors were due to be hosted by the Leban-ese Prime Minister, Mr Hobeika was invited to the state dinner ­ but seated on a table without journalists, a pariah minister. He was suave, intelligent, ruthless and, like many war criminals, a lady-killer. His former bodyguard, codenamed “Cobra”, listed his mistresses in a book later banned in Lebanon, creating a scandale in Beirut even more animated than the condemnation of the camp massacres.

The 1,700 civilians were murdered by Hobeika Phalangist thugs under the eyes of the Israelis. The Israelis were later to recall his response to a Phalangist officer who asked what he should do with Palestinian civilian prisoners: “Don’t ask me such a stupid question again,” Mr Hobeika laughingly replied. Later, he claimed he was in Sweden at the time of the massacre.

Five years ago Elie thought he might have a chance of becoming President of Lebanon. I received a call from Elie’s old friend, Rudy Baludi. How about dinner at the Vieux Quartierrestaurant in east Beirut?

In the seedy bar, Rudy explained Elie’s problem. He might want to be President. He was, after all, a Maronite Christian ­ the main condition for the presidency ­ and had the people of Lebanon at heart.

What was my advice? How did he deal with those unfortunate stories about Sabra and Chatila? I said he should tell the truth. In fact, I suggested he told the whole story to The Independent ­ the killings, the rape, the slaughter. Once he’d got this of his chest, he could see how the world responded to a confessed war criminal. Murderers had become presidents before, I said. Killers had become leaders in Africa, China, the Soviet Union, the Arab Nations, Israel; why ­ dare I say it? ­ a Wehrmacht intelligence officer had become President of Austria.

Alas, Elie decided he had no chance of becoming President. The interview never took place although, a few weeks later, I received another message. Elie would like a signed copy of Pity The Nation. I sent it, even though it contained evidence of his complicity in the 1982 massacres.

Last July, he started to walk on thin ice. Anxious to reconstitute his identity ­ or fearful of being set up for war crimes’ charges by Mr Sharon ­ Mr Hobeika called a press conference. “I am in possession of evidence of my innocence concerning Sabra and Chatila,” he told us. “And I have evidence of what actually happened at Sabra and Chatila which will throw a completely new light on the Kahan commission report.”

My last message from Elie was that bottle of champagne: a magnum of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Rosé 1988. I never drank it. I felt it was contaminated. It lay in my fridge here in Beirut last night. I know many in Lebanon would like to drink it in celebration. But I suspect that, if I uncorked it, blood would spurt out.

The damned and the damning

The patient reader will come out of the novel both damned and damning in a way similar to that felt by the characters of the novel themselves. In them we find parts off our bodies and memory scattered over the past and the future. Patience, however, is not an ingredient that Bishtawi wants as he leaves behind the purgatory of Beirut in one of its most heated and violent stages.

Times of Death and Roses Reviewed by Iraqi Writer and Critic Ismael Zayer

Times of Death and Roses by Palestinian novelist A. S. Bishtawi appears an extremely neutral title for a novel. It is a title that refers to things that have already been accomplished by time. But the neutrality was imperative to overcome the hardships of remembrance or the reconstruction of events discussed by the novel. The fire of these events is not dead yet. There is a layer of ash covering the body off time but it does not conceal any part of it.

The work spreading over 550 pages removes that layer and beats the bodies of the dead and vanquished to rise with their testimonies, their hardships and the loss they suffered over generations. It was not easy for Bishtawi to send back to the caves of death the souls he has awaken without giving them the chance to speak out, and to rearrange the facts that led to the death and defeat of an entire generation that lost both dream and life as a result of the incessant savageness of the 1970s and 1980s.

The patient reader will come out of the novel both damned and damning in a way similar to that felt by the characters of the novel themselves. In them we find parts off our bodies and memory scattered over the past and the future. Patience, however, is not an ingredient that Bishtawi wants as he leaves behind the purgatory of Beirut in one of its most heated and violent stages.

Both the victim and the murder were given a chance to say what they wanted to say about those times. Bishtawi leads us through his novel to the portal of forgetfulness but from a back entrance. “Nothing speeds up forgetfulness like remembrance”, he says. (P 25). From the portal of forgetfulness there enters Ali, the vanquished hero of his novel, to the garden of forgetfulness. It is up to us to forget, but not everything than can be remembered can be forgotten.

Bishtawi’s work belongs to his experience in life rather than to a specific style or a fictional trend or even to narrative mould. The novel’s time-frame is constructed in sucha way that sheds light on its characters, and unfolds the cataractal chain of thought to become, in its own space and atmosphere, an earthly substance that translates and edges on the entities that stand in its way.

Times of Death and Roses is about the experience of revolutionaries who dedicated their life to the Palestinian revolution in an absolute soul-cleansing value but soon enough the normal human dimension of such sacrifice surfaces in all its details, protrusions and diversions that extend over a wide horizon encompassing outstanding courage and baseless cowardice, treachery and degradation. Events circle around in times that storm out through the characters moulding the general human scene, and pushes to the violent surface of lake the remains left behind by massacres, violations and the spiritual and psychological ruin dumped by the regional circumstances on our generations.

Ali, the central character of the novel, crosses the red lines separating commitment (to his Palestinian cause) and rebellion, and deep belief and heresy. The only responsibility remaining is the responsibility of the individual to himself. The novel specifically is shadowed by the Massacre of the mainly two Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. The Palestinians were attacked by Lebanese militiamen with the help of the Israeli army who had invaded Lebanon in 1982. The novel also is about the events that led to the massacre and the deep wounds it inflicted on the Palestinians.

Ali’s dilemma, like all other educated young men, is manifested in his increased awareness of his marginality, and the marginality of a whole generation. It is also manifested in his shock and anger at the realisation that he had got accustomed to his marginality and accepted the new fact that the margin has become “the biggest country of the world”. This marginlisation is more painful than his frustration and disappointment due to the failure of his personal political experience. It means that he was defeated twice: The first against death, and the second against evil. In these circumstances the loss of the battle against death came as a matter of course without any justification, or ethical value.

The frustration was the nature of Ali’s times, but it was doubly bitter for this “retired” Palestinian commander as he crawls to encircle the human life that lost its initial innocence during the revolution and because of it. This crawling is both inward and outward and it continues because the poisoning of the future of those who tried to escape the poisoning doesn’t stop. There is no escape for such future. Like a satanic spirit, it haunts its victims and chases them wherever they go. The movement from the times of death to the times of roses is nothing but a deceptive space that separates hope from illusion, and certainty from doubt.

We may not be wrong to say that Bishtawi’s novel is one of the rare attempts in modern Arab literature that dares to embody an experience shrouded in various taboos and apprehensions. An entire generation of Palestinian revolutionaries and Lebanese people have gone through such an experience beginning from the Lebanese civil war and ending at the evacuation of the POL (Palestine Liberation Organisation) from Beirut following the Israeli invasion in 1982. This experience is summoned in the novel in a high standard literary narrative and with all its cons and pros. Bishtawi portrays the atmosphere of explosions, booby-trapped cars that explode at random amongst civilians, arbitrary shelling and death that seems to be even more arbitrary.

The writer does not only move us through one level of that experience but also to the depth of the “revolutionary abyss” where bitterness and corruption govern the relation between the fighter and his leadership. The language, though, is the language of that particular time. It carries its expressions and vulgarities as much as it carries its ideas and lofty values.

The stumbling of the human expression in that context is a mirror of the stumbling of the political action and the revolution itself. The overwhelming dominance of catastrophe is evident. It is where “sleep becomes an exhausting experience, walking up even more so and the mere continuation of life a miracle”.

The Other Side of the Spectrum

On the other side of the spectrum there is Rana- the Lebanese Christian Ali knew and kept in his memory as she grows into a sensual beautiful young woman. Ali squanders the chance of falling in love with Rana in the distant time but another chance makes itself available to him. Rana, like Ali, finds herself leaving the first round of time psychologically scarred. The disaster hits her as hard as it hits Ali although both go through it in two different, separate and confronting camps. Rana’s choices, whether as a human being or a woman, may seem infinite, but such choices disappear when she reaches for the future to find nothing but void.

Ali and Rana meet again in another place where guns and shells have fell silent. It is far away from the scene of battle in Beirut where the only times available are the times of death, so a warm social horizon opens itself for them only to discover that although they were far away from the wars of Lebanon, their internal satans have not concluded their wars yet. Both discover that the only way left for human beings to follow is the road leading to hell through the devil.

The price paid by Rana to free herself from the grip of the devil was high enough to almost cause her the destruction of her renewed budding love for Ali. Ali, on the other hand, is no longer capable of losing Rana again, but he fails nevertheless in unifying them together in the other times-the times of love.

As for the objectivity of the text of the novel, we may conclude that the language used is solidly constructed and heavy with poetic colour particularly when it comes to expressing symbols and contemplation. The language is like a bridge that takes us across the freed emotions that had escaped their long imprisonment. It leads us to the next scene as waves move water only to extinguish its desire in the second wave. Following a violent uprising, the language moves into narration, both deep and pensive, without losing the heat of the content.

Despite that fact that political and historical evens are cohesively intertwined with the general fabric of the novel, they do still take up a large volume of the novel. Such treatment brings into memory the experiences of several novelists who used this technique in the past as a type of literary expression to justify the unfolding of ideas and contemplations not easily contained in other techniques, or go contrary to the conditions of the publishers and the local reading scene. Still, Bishtawi succeeded in giving the reader the chance to enjoy the circumstances of an impossible love between two human beings separated by a war almost of destiny nature.

Along with the sweetness come the subjects discussed by Bishtawi and place us face to face with the difficult conditions of human existence. Moreover, he shocks us more than once into leaving the niche of our content illusions about the revolution and the false glories to return to earth. The novel also is about the human brotherhood despite its difficult prerequisites and high price.

This review was published by Al Sharq Al Awsat Newspaper on 03.04.2000

The glowing pulse of life

A review of Times and Death and Roses by Moroccan celebrated literary critic Mohamed Allout


When over a year and half ago we presented novelist Adel Bishtawi as a distinguished writer our judgment stemmed from a solid conviction, especially following the publication of his fourth literary accomplishment, “Traces of a Tattoo” (1988). The novel has since been celebrated by the Arab critics in magazine and newspaper articles and has become, in record time, a subject of literary criticism studies at the English University.

The publication (1999) of his second recent novel, “Times of Death and Roses,” is no surprise to us. Nor is it a surprise that the second should surpass the first in its length (553 pages), the beauty of writing as a craft and a creation, or the choice of subject which is human by excellence as it investigates the possibility or otherwise of the existence of love in times of war, horror and death.

It is a novel that, like its precedent, searches for the glowing pulse of life in a macabre atmosphere of despair and senseless killing; the dramatization of suffering at a time when the betting on the future seeks fulfilment and a way out of the circle of dreams; the dramatization of human beings whose memories are heavily-cracked and whose souls are inhabited by fear and the ghosts of death.

We have to presume that it is an entertaining novel. But the entertainment therein does not render itself completely to the reader until the latter has exercised patience over a narrative whose basic foundation is not a simple, superficial device of straightforwardly narrating events but two distinctive literary techniques. These are: the interior monologue and the dialogue. The former, whose single exercise may stretch over an entire chapter, invokes the style of Marcel Brust in “In Search of the Lost Time,” or the unique literary device of “stream of consciousness” whose proponents include Virginia Wolf, William Faulkner and Thomas Mann.

Furthermore, the reader finds himself drawn into realms of stylistic and eloquent exercises where the metaphor is a basic element. The reader has no choice, at times, except to venture into interpreting such metaphors by relying on the general meaning of the text. Some examples that need metaphorical interpretation are the “Sea,” the “Goblin,” the “Demon.”

“Times of Death and Roses” is a complex literary work entertaining a simple plot that may be well served by a short story of several pages. But the writer is more interested in the inner lives of his characters than in the intricacies of the plot (we are coming to that shortly). There is no need to sum up the modern plot. It would suffice to note that the novel as a whole is built on two events, namely, war and love. In the course of action, the original duality of war and love begets a series of antitheses: existence vs. non-existence; life vs. death; the possible vs. the impossible; affirmation vs. negation; past vs. present; presence vs. absence.

A passionate, extremely romatic love story evolving on the backdrop of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the novel poses problematic questions: can love and life exist in times of destruction and death? Could a rose blossom in a soil infected by mines? Could the angels spread their white wings in an age of air bombing, demons, and senseless killing?

Rana, Ali and Elie

The chief characters of Times of Death and Roses are: “Rana,” “Ali,” and “Elie” – a trio joined together by a single love story. Rana is infatuated with love for her angle, Ali. But she is also attached to Elie who victimizes her and, consequently, becomes a demon. At a personal level, Rana suffers the dilemma of being forced to choose between an angel and a demon. Her personal conflict, which has many overtones – psychological, spiritual, religious, social and political – reduces the novel into a dramatization of the ever-lasting, mythical struggle between good and evil.

But although Rana’s internal conflict is a focal point, the novel’s actual boundaries extend limitlessly as it reads into the current Arab reality. Firstly, the novel depicts the horrible, disgusting acts of aggression and cases of rape committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians. It moves on to depict life in the Palestinian military bases and the refugee camps. Thirdly, it comments on the Palestinian resistance movement as it becomes an institution and loses its human connotation.

The full weight of the events with their bloody ugliness is reflected in the personal fate of Ali’s close friend, Maher, before it turns into fits of despair which attack Ali whenever he remembered his days at the military base, the death of his friend, Maher, the death of his brother and baby-sister in one of the many massacres committed by the Israeli soldiers and, finally, the heavy loss of his beloved, Fatina- his childhood friend and future dream- in the madness of hostilities.

The overall tragedy is also personalized in Rana herself. She comes to Beirut to pursue her university studies but the hostilities steal the dreams and roses she has spent a life watering in the secret gardens of her heart. The cost she has to pay is her first love, Ali. She also finds herself entangled by the demonic web of Elie, the head of a private gang of outlaws which reduces human values into a criminal wave of killings and torture, individual and collective. As the writer carries the repercussions of the events on the inner lives of his characters, thus Rana is shown torn between a desire to turn Elie into an angel so that life could become possible for everybody and a conflicting desire to win the heart of the angel Ali so that they could join forces in the fight against crime.

Apart from the three principal characters, the novel’s fabric does not become complete except with the necessary presence of the secondary characters. These act as assistants or, (according to Mr. Probe in his study of folk tales) obstructive factors, for or against the universal desire in seeing good win over evil, or vice versa. Of the secondary characters we may mention Maher, Katia, Rama, Fatina, Rana’s parents, Fatina’s husband (Ahmed,) Rasha the child and Omar. However, the question of the secondary characters is important in as much as the affirmation of their presence bring us closer to the principal characters, not farther.

The Individual and the Cause

The writer is profoundly keen to underline the difference between the Palestinian as an individual and as a Cause. He wants to show how political commitment may turn into a heavy and destructive human burden. Ali says of his niece Fatinah,” It is true that Fatinah is a Palestinian but she is in the end a woman and needs to marry the man not the Cause. She wants to have children, her own, not the orphans of the Cause.” (P 21) But drawing the line between the individual and the Cause does not amount to a declaration of “escape” from the inevitable confrontation. Hence the angry, defiant and painful note the writer uses in speaking of the Palestinian people: “How many massacres are we to endure, ‘ Ali shouted at the top of his mouth as he ran by the fence, ‘How many massacres are we to endure before this nation raises hands trembling with anger, despair and the desire for revenge and shouts: Now, I want blood, now. How many times are we to hear: This is the last massacre but always turns out to the one before the last? How many massacres the homeland of massacres is going to endure? How many female babies are you going to rape? How many kids are you going to butcher? How many pregnant bellies are you going to open? How many boys are you going to force in line before you point your guns at their foreheads one after the other? How many bombs are going to explode and how many bullets to be fired before the nation raises her hands and shouts: Damn you all, you bastards! From now on I no longer need any of you.” (P 49)

In times of Palestinian despair, when the executed becomes the executioner, we find the novelist asserting that victory lies in survival, in betting on the future, on continuing the struggle. One of the secondary characters, “Boubou”, says to Ali,” You’re a friend so I’ll tell you. But I’ll whisper it into your ear lest somebody hears us. My gun of last resort is not here (the military base). My final gun is at home. It is my wife. In circumstances such as these it is not possible to fight death with death. We wont succeed. Instead, I’ll fight death with life. I’ve four children. I want six more, half for me and half for them and we shall see who survives in the end. (P 63)

In times of death and internal conflict in Lebanon, non-existence becomes existence; life becomes impossible and man dies standing; dies from despair and loneliness. Lost at sea, having fled the hell of the military base, Ali cries out,” Why are we here? Why are we alone in a lonely planet, in a lonely space, why?” (P85). But the novel’s characters remain alive. In an interior monologue, Ali says,” The time of death has gone but it still hangs there in the horizon. This I know because I sometimes hear it calling out in the darkness. I do not want it. I want someone to pull me away from it…The time of roses has not started yet. I know that its breeze floats nearby. I raise my nose in its direction and empty my lungs. I search for it at night, at dawn and at sea and in the faces of all those I see, but I still can’t find it. I want someone to keep reminding me of it, to drag me, push me towards it. If this someone does not succeed in the beginning, I will not complain because I know I’m being pulled away from the time of death. And this is good enough.” (P 272)

Rana and Ali are a common fate; two faces of a coin, a love story which bets on life and the future. In the end, each comes out having achieved victory over a broken, horribly damaged self. They both emerge from the darkness of despair and death, each carrying a rose for those to come. They have together achieved victory. The novel concludes with their passionate love tying them together for eternity. It is a happy ending which seeks to demonstrate that there is something in life worth struggling for. But victory comes when the characters bet on what is eternal and ultimate: love, humanity and goodness. Likewise, defeat and humiliation come when we engage in futile battles whose sole objective is to win selfish gains, negate the other, or collaborate with the demon for a trivial benefit.

Although “Times of Death and Roses” focuses on the tragedy of the current Palestinian reality in particular, yet the writer has succeeded in making us feel that what he meant by his novel is humanity at large. He is helped in that by his acute observation and preference for the universal. Everything in the book is singular in the plural tense. We may say that it is a book on Palestine. So what? It is a novel about man everywhere and at all times. The writer targets us all.

The last page is an ending and a beginning at the same time because the novel bets on renewed birth only to tell us that love is the beginning and end of any human relationship. It is love that gives life and negates death. It is love that makes us utter the cry of joy the baby utters as he emerges from the darkness of the womb. It is love which makes us hold the roses but not feel the pain of the thorns cutting into our hand and veins that pulsate with a deep love of life, a hand of good luck extending into eternity.

Published by Sahra Newspaper (Casablanca, Moroccan) on 01 June 1999, and translated by Mohamed Khaled

A Life Less Ordinary: Polymath A.S. Bishtawi

by Anisa Benmoktar on February 20, 2010

I have all the time in the world for Adel Said Bishtawi. This Palestinian-born Arab creative polymath has written extraordinary articles, novels and produced documentaries on Muslim and Arab culture around the world.

A Career Dedicated to Arabic Culture

I feel that A.S. Bishtawi has mined, explored and revealed some of the most beautiful aspects of the Arab world with beauty, poise, clarity and enveloping sensitivity. He’s also been a fountain of political and historical knowledge, and has interviewed some of the worlds’ most illustrious characters such as Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Sheikh Issa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, Emir of Bahrain. The author even interviewed Afghanistan President Hafizullah Amin and his family shortly before the leader’s execution at the dawn of the Russian invasion of his country.

I first encountered A.S Bishtawi when I was at university: I read Traces of a Tattoo in my final year. It’s the stunning tale of a young Palestinian man whose heart is shattered by a beautiful Syrian girl when she is coerced into accepting a marriage proposal from someone else. The couple are reunited twenty-four years later in London, and the novel traces the love affair between his son and her daughter against a backdrop of cross-cultural challenges and intricacies.

If you haven’t read Traces of a Tattoo yet I recommend you go grab it any way you can…

A Palestinian Author and Then Some…

Adel Said Bishtawi was born in Nazareth, Palestine, in 1945 and  studied English and Linguistics in Damascus and London. He began his journalism career at the Syrian News Agency, before relocating to London to become Front Page Editor of Al Arab, the first European pan-Arab Newspaper.

In 1980 he was appointed Central Managing Editor of the Emirates News Agency in Abu Dhabi. He fitted back and forth between prestigious journalism posts in the Arab world and the UK.

As an author, his early-published works included 5 short story collections and a novella.

His first historical work, The Andalusian Moriscos (History of the Moriscos after the Fall of Granada) was first published in Cairo in 1982.

Then came Traces of a Tattoo in 1998, followed by Times of Death and Roses in 1999, both of which were published by The Arab Institute for Publication and Studies, Beirut, Lebanon and highly acclaimed by critics. The Arab Institute also published his third novel, Gardens of Despair in late 2000.

In 2001 when he decided to hang up his journalist’s hat and become a full time novelist, shortly after a further non-fiction work, The Martyrdom of the Andalusian Nation (Part I) was released to the public.

He co-authored A Thousand Miles in One Step, with  HRH Prince Abdulla Bin Mosaad Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, grandson of the founder of Saudi Arabia. It is the first work ever to reveal the true circumstances behind King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia’s death as neither a conspiracy nor state plot.

And If All That Weren’t Enough…

Abdel Said also produced, directed and wrote “Muslims along the Silk Road”, a 5 part series of one-hour documentaries following Muslim culture, heritage and  the legacy of Muslim pioneers and merchants along the Silk Road.

Today, this extraordinary Arab author regularly appears on TV to conduct press interviews, speaking to world political leaders, ministers, writers, businessmen, and artists, and gives conferences and seminars on history, literature and IT.

I’ve heard he also wrote a series of solidarity poems for Iraq during the invasion.