Returning to the Scene of our Times 1

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(The clearest map I could find is, not surprisingly, in German. They’re taking over)

The question is, can you go back? If you’ve had a sublime experience somewhere, what happens when you return? This is how it was for us.

In 1989, my wife of three years, our daughter of eighteen months and I migrated to the island of Mallorca. Migrated. That’s how we saw it. We weren’t running away, we were deliberately turning our backs on what we saw as a dull and bland country.

There were other reasons, but I won’t go into them here. Enough to say that we were over the country of our birth, and I persuaded De (my wife) that a fresh start in the country with which I’d conducted a long term love affair (and many short term love affairs) was our best bet for a future. She didn’t need much persuading. She too had fallen in love with Spain, the island of Mallorca and the house I’d bought there long before we were married when I took her there for our honeymoon.

The island of Mallorca is much maligned. In England it is a joke. Somewhere to go to take a holiday from the bad English weather, to lie on the beach and drink too much every night. To arrive home sunburnt and not quite knowing where you’ve been. I’m pretty sure that many English tourists don’t even know that it’s a part of Spain.

But to damn the entire island for that would be like damning Queensland because of the Gold Coast. There is much more. Take our little corner, the northwest, the largest town there, Soller (pronounced Sol-yeah).

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‘We’ll go to Soller — Papa always says it is the finest place on earth,’ said a child character in Loup Durand’s novel Daddy. Those who know it well wouldn’t argue.

The little city of Soller could have been used to illustrate the assertion by historian Fernand Braudel that ‘the Mediterranean is a …sea ringed by mountains.’ Those mountains certainly shaped Soller and the Soller Valley by guaranteeing insulation from the rest of the world. Soller and its port, before the advent of buses and trucks, before the tunnel, offered the easiest access to the markets of southern France for the produce of the Soller Valley, mainly oranges, olives and olive oil. Little ships would cross from the port to Marseilles, and with them generations of Sollerenses (as the natives are called) with two results. One, there were and are many families from the valley in Southern France, many in the produce trade, and two, French is the second language — after Mallorquin — of many Sollerenses.

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And above Soller, the village where once we owned a house, Fornalutx, a village of some 400 inhabitants which swells to at least twice that in the summer. A cosy blanket of a village with its mix of nationalities, still predominantly Mallorquin, but with an increasing number of Germans and a small handful, when we lived there, of Australians, English, Swedes and Spaniards from the mainland: a very different lot from the locals.

The honey–coloured stone cottages of Fornalutx – some of them, like the one I bought, 700 years old – tumble down the hillside which leads eventually to the Tramuntana, the mountain range that forms the north western spine of the Island whose peaks are covered in snow in Winter. So hilly is it that there is still work for a man with a donkey to lug building materials up the steep paths no mechanical workhorse can handle.

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Two crops still dominate the valley, oranges and olives. The orange groves lower down on the valley floor, the olives growing up and down the hillsides, planted on dry stone terraces, a feat of man-made engineering (they encircle the island) often compared to the pyramids. Their construction points to them having been built by Arab and Berber settlers in the tenth century.

So there we were, fresh from the cutthroat world of advertising (literally in my case, cutthroat I mean) and the ‘open all hours everything on tap’ life of a big city plonked, after considerable difficulty with customs, in my funny old house in a tiny village on a mountainside, with a wife who didn’t speak the language and an infant daughter who had been ripped from her home. What could possibly go wrong? Well, over time, everything. ‘ I Pity the poor immigrant’, wrote Dylan, ‘Who wishes he would’ve stayed home’ he added. Eventually, we didn’t.

It took six months to adjust. Six months during which there were tears, fights, and a real danger of the marriage breaking down. I don’t know about the experiences of other migrants, but I would assume not much different. And we had it a lot easier. We weren’t entirely stranded. I had friends I had made over the years. There were other English speakers, and I had some Spanish. Gradually, we settled into what we (De and I) agree were the best three and a half years of our lives. Curiously, our daughter Laura who was four and a half when we left, and who was fluent in Spanish and Mallorquin by then, remembers virtually nothing of that time.

Even my own memories are vague and selective. I remember people, I remember incidents, but as I read through my old diaries, I am surprised by how much of what were obviously important events and people with whom I was close I have completely forgotten. Entries like ‘Gerald to dinner. Religious waffle.’ Who was Gerald? What religious waffle?

But also, reading through those diaries, I’m reminded of the intensity, richness and variety of our lives. There, as here, the life of a writer is essentially sitting all day in front of a machine, and squeezing words and sentences and chapters and stories from the brain. But there, surrounding the hours spent at the machine we fostered deep and abiding friendships with people we could never have met in Australia (the poet Paul Roche, the illustrator Paul Hogarth, the painter George Sheridan among many), were intertwined with our community in ways in which I certainly never had been in Sydney. When it was all over I realised that we had spent a good twenty per cent of our time working for that community in various ways.

But in spite of that, and tending to our almond trees and planting a flourishing garden, I finished (and sold) my first novel and began and almost finished a second (also later sold). We left, not because we wanted to but because we had to. With heavy hearts.

 

Moorish Spain, 711-1492. Christians, Jews and Muslims living together.

Moorish Spain, 711-1492. Christians, Jews and Muslims living together.

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(The flag of the Nasrid Dynasty, the last to rule in Moorish Spain)

In 711, not 90 years after the birth of Islam, black clad Berber tribesman and their Arab allies crossed what are now called the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa to the Iberian peninsula with their wiry horses, and galloped north, conquering all before them, destroying the decadent Visigothic rulers and laid the foundations for modern day Spain.

They called it Al Andalus, and it began as it was to continue for the over 300 years of the first Umayyad dynasty, with tolerance for the other ‘people of the book’ as they called the Christians and Jews they found there.

But the hero of this story, a hero who deserves his own epic film, is the adventurer and statesman, Abd al-Rahman, the Falcon of Al Andalus.

Abd al-Rahman’s family, the ruling Umayyads, were slaughtered by their rivals, the Abassids in Damascus in 750.

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He and his brother Yahiya, his son Suleyman and his Greek servant, Bedr, escaped and found refuge in a village on the banks of the Euphrates on the edge of a deep forest.

But the Abassid troops found them and they dived into the Euphrates. Al-Rahman, a strong swimmer, held onto his son. Together with Bedr, these three made it to the opposite bank. But not so Yahiya. Here, in al-Rahman’s own words, is what happened:

“No sooner had I set my feet on the shore, than I began anxiously to look about for my brother, whom I saw in the hands of the soldiers, and whom I expected every moment to see put to death. I was not mistaken ……having dragged him to a spot not far from the river, they beheaded him and marched triumphantly away with his head. My brother was then thirteen years old.”

After five years of adventure, intrigue and wandering from refuge to refuge, and the prophesy of a Jewish seer that he ‘shall in time become a great conqueror’ and that ‘he shall found in Andalus an empire for him and his posterity’ he crossed, with his son and servant into Andalus.

There, employing a combination of guile and diplomacy, he eventually became Abd al-Rahman I, the Emir of Cordóba, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty which, over the next 300 years, would transform the Caliphate of Cordóba into a world centre of scientific, philosophical and agricultural innovation and attainment, a beacon for musicians, poets and writers in the Muslim and Jewish worlds.

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(The Great Mosque of Cordóba, begun  by Abd ar-Rahman I

Cordóba was, at that time, the shaft of light cutting through what in the West were called the Dark Ages. All this was possible because these desert Arabs, the Umayyads, in conquering the peoples of the Iberian peninsula, had been confronted with a universe of languages, cultures and peoples.

Their response was to define their version of Islam as one that rejoiced in dialogues with other traditions, other cultures, and other religions. This was an Islam that translated the long forgotten Greek philosophers into Arabic, and appointed Jews as advisers.

The Jews, especially, flourished at this time, the two languages, Hebrew and Arabic the dominant ones in the land. Latin was abandoned by ambitious young Christians who flocked to learn the far more sinuous and poetic Arabic, much to the dismay of their Bishops.

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(The Santa Maria La Blanca Syngogue, also built in the Moorish (or Mudéjar) style)

The arrival of these new settlers also brought about a green revolution in Spain, a revolution which ran on water: these desert dwellers were geniuses at irrigating crops and filling their fragrant gardens with the sound of running water.

They brought with them oranges, lemons, limes, apricots, and bananas, rice from Asia, sugarcane from India – some say they invented caramel, in Arabic kurst al milh.

New vegetable crops planted were artichokes, aubergines, celery, spinach, and carrots. Most important of all, hard durum wheat. Did the Arabs invent dried pasta, which can only be made with this hard wheat? One of the first mentions of dried pasta dates from the twelfth century and the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, who wrote that it was being manufactured in Sicily – by Arabs.

The usual diet for rulers and commoners alike in Christian Spain was based on the trilogy of meat, wheat, and wine. Arabs were accustomed to a more sensuous mix of fruit, vegetables, and legumes, a cuisine low in animal protein. But at banquets roast lamb was often served, stuffed with chopped meats fried in sesame oil, with crushed pistachios, pepper, ginger, cloves, mastic, coriander, cardamom and other spices, sprinkled with musk-infused rose water. It was not only their language that was more appealing. Life, generally and food specifically was more luxurious, more pleasurable.

And Al-Andalus soon filled with luxuriant flower gardens, planted with ornamentals imported from the Orient: tulips from Turkey, narcissi, lilacs, yellow and white jasmine and roses from China arranged along walkways under canopies of orange trees and sweet-scented almonds and everywhere, the cooling sound and sight of running water.

Cordóba became the urban garden centre of all Spain, if not the world, with an estimated fifty thousand private gardens gracing the villas of that city at the time it was recaptured by Christians in 1236.

Living in Mallorca in the early 1970s, I met a man who claimed to have travelled through time and offered to teach me the technique. Not your usual nutter, Ben Wright was a poet who also lectured on the Nordic Saga Beowulf. He claimed that another resident of our village, the English poet Robert Graves, had also time travelled to write the I Claudius series of books. I declined his invitation because back then, there was then no other time I wanted to visit. If offered that chance again today, I would happily travel back to that golden period of Moorish Spain.

But this year you can come with me and explore the material and culinary remnants of this remarkable period. I will be conducting a tour of Andalucia in October: Moorish Spain: Architecture, Culture and Cuisine.

It will follow the route of the caliphates and will visit out of the way villages (including the only Jewish city in Moorish Spain) and explore the Islamic, Jewish and Christian legacy of that time in such world heritage buildings as the church of San Simón in Toledo, the Alhambra in Granada, the Mesquita and the Madinat al-Zahra in Córdoba.

The food chosen for this tour will explore Moorish, Sephardic Jewish and Spanish culinary traditions. There will also be a tasting of the wines of the little known (outside Spain) region of Montilla-Moriles where winemaking practices date back to the 8th Century.

To find out more about this tour, go to: www.travelyourway.com.au

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(The Church of San Román, built as a Christian church but in the Mudéjar style partly Gothic partly Moorish)

 

 

A short festival on Spain

 

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This was written for an occasional series in The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘A short festival on…’ and I chose Spain. I’m posting it because we’re going to Spain in a couple of weeks, my first trip in some years. 

The Spanish would rather a fiesta than a festival any day, it’s a party and a lot more fun. We will hold ours on St Anthony’s Day, January 17th, a day on which a bonfire is lit (St Anthony’s fire?) in every village square, and neighbours gather to eat and drink.

What better to eat than a paella, ours prepared by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, whose detective character, Pepe Carvalho, eats far more than he detects, and is pedantic about paella, asserting (in South Seas): “I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and – nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.” The wine, the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, will flow like water.

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) is also a novel by last century’s most prominent Hispanophile, Ernest Hemingway, a tale which introduces the intertwining themes of our fiesta, the bullfight, the matador, and sex: eros and thanatos. In Fiesta, the matador, Pedro Romero, makes love to the bold and beautiful Lady Brett Ashley because the narrator, Jake Barnes, can’t: a war wound left him impotent. Hemingway does Lorca.

Because we can, we have invited Hemingway, and you can see him, glass of wine in one hand, cigar in the other, talking to his friend the matador Antonio Ordoñez, who will be demonstrating the art of killing bulls, showing classic passes, the pase natural, and his own derechazo de rodillas among them.

Our fiesta is being held in a bull ring, the roaring bonfire throwing glints and sparkles off Ordoñez’s suit of lights. Just the place to ponder the nature of a culture whose heroes are killers – matador from matar, to kill – and whose national sport, also an art, sacrifices animals and men in public. There is a darkness in the Spanish soul.

That darkness has a name: duende, the elusive spirit that poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca called “the hidden heart of disconsolate Spain.” It is to be found in Spanish art, literature and music. “All that has black sounds has duende” murmured Gypsy canto jonde (deep song) singer Manuel Torre upon hearing composer Manuel de Falla’s Nocturno del Generalife.

It certainly informs the paintings on show here. There are three in the art tent, the first and greatest, once defined as “the theology of painting”, in front of which the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier stood and cried “where is the picture?” It is Diego Velásquez’ profound, enigmatic and beautiful Las meninas, the maids of honour, a painting which transforms its every viewer into the King and Queen of Spain. All Spanish art stands on the shoulders of this man who, artist Anton Raphael Mengs said “paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be.”

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Our second painting is by one whose duende drips from his brushes, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. We have chosen the baffling El perro semihundido, the half buried dog, from the series known as the black paintings. An abstract field of light with a curved horizon, bare but for the tiny head of a terrified spaniel. It has mystified viewers and critics for almost 200 years, moving many to tears. This is only detail from the larger painting which is way more mysterious – and  moving.

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Finally, one work from the creator/destroyer, the protean Picasso, the painting that ushered in the 20th Century, of the most famous whores in history, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, equal parts eros and thanatos, with its cryptic reference to the promiscuous Picasso’s fear of syphilis.

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But where are the killer heroes? Elsewhere in Goya and Picasso of course, on television all day during summer, and in the cinema regularly. In Carlos Saura’s 1983 adaptation of Carmen, his most successful collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades. And most sardonically in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 Matador, in which the sumptuous Assumpta Serna murders her victims in coitus, and, ‘al momento de verdad’ (at the moment of truth), using a long hair pin in much the same way as her ultimate victim, ex-matador Nacho Martinez, despatched bulls with his sword.

The matador (or matadora) returns in Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her, a film already heralded as the first classic of the 21st Century, in which Rosario Flores plays a famed female bullfighter, gored, left in a coma, and cared for tenderly by her lover, Adrio Grandinetti.

We leave the films being projected onto a suspended muleta (bullfighter’s cape), and stroll to the fire for a plate of Montalban’s precise paella and to take a glass with Javier Marias, whose 1997 novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, opens with a man whose first night with a lover is interrupted by her death, in his arms. We note with pleasure we have been given a small scraping of socorrat, the burnt crust of rice from the bottom of the pan. And then the arena falls silent, but for the crackling of the fire.

We look up. The gate has burst open. A magnificent fighting bull runs onto the arena and skids to a halt in the sand, black hide glistening. He looks wildly to right and left, snorting steam. We are frozen with fear, but for Ordoñez, who reaches for his sword. The bull lowers his huge head, and charges the bonfire, crashing into it, scattering embers, ashes and flaming branches. The burning bull stands in the centre of the conflagration, bellowing.

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