Moorish Spain's Love Affair Par-Excellence
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
The December day was sunny but cold as our family strolled the streets of Cordova enjoying that city’s latent charm while we reflected on its majestic history. There was much to savour in this city that in Moorish times was known as ‘the bride of Andalusia’. However, we had explored the town’s historic remains for half a day, and now as we reached a small monument crowned with two hands stretching out straining to grasp each other we felt tired. “Let’s rest awhile”, my wife sighed wearily as she sat down at the base of that monument. There was no argument. We were all happy to relax our fatigued bodies.
As I began to sit down, I was startled to see Arabic words on the plaque – two beautiful verses of poetry on the standing slab of stone. Here, after the Moors had been expelled some 770 years earlier, Cordova offers a monument commemorating two of its illustrious Moorish offspring, the poet Ibn Zaydun and his loved one, the poetess Walladah.
Who were these two literary lovers now honoured by the Spaniards? To know the answer one must return to the Golden Age of Moorish Spain – between 900 to 1100 A. D. In that period Muslim Spain was the richest and most powerful country in Europe. Its schools, the best in the world of that age, were open to students from every corner of the globe. Education was almost universal, with the vast majority of men and women being able to read and write.
Learning was at such a high level that Moorish technicians and scientists were in demand all over western Europe. Many were contracted by the European countries of the day to teach in universities and aid in the establishment of industry. Everyone in Christian Europe knew that if they wanted to excel in the best of what civilized life had to offer, they had to travel to Arab Spain – the land of knowledge.
Cordova, its capital, to many in that era known as the ‘jewel of the earth’, became the meeting place of learned men from all countries. Chroniclers have indicated that this cultured city had within its walls hundreds of libraries. The scholarly caliph, al-Hakam II, alone, is said to have had a personal library of 400,000 to 600,000 manuscripts.
Music and literature, especially poetry, flourished. Musicians and singers were in demand in the villas and palaces of the rich. Many became famous and wealthy. These celebrated artists left a legacy that was to influence in later centuries, the music and literature of the northern Christian lands. It must be remembered that this flowering of the arts was at a time when, in the remainder of Europe, only the clergy were literate.
One of the factors that gave impetus to this flourishing culture in that westernmost part of the Muslim lands was that women had more freedom and were more literate than in all other territories of Islam. Women took part in all facets of daily life, attending and participating in numerous types of gatherings. Unlike the other countries in the Muslim world, they moved freely in the streets, and, for the most part, unveiled.
This freedom can unmistakably be seen in the literary works and biographies of these Moorish-Spanish women. They held high offices and many became lawyers, librarians, medical practitioners, Qur’anic copyists, secretaries and teachers. No women in the West or East at that time wielded more power or were more cultured than these Spanish Arab women. Only in the last hundred years have women become more cultured than these Spanish Arab ladies.
In his History of the Moorish Empire in Europe, published in 1904, S. P. Scott writes:
“Mohammedan Spain presents the only instance, in ancient or modern history, of a country under whose laws and customs women did not exist in a state of tutelage.”
Another historian Anwar G. Chejne in his book Muslim Spain gives a charming picture of these intriguing females who have left an unforgettable mark on Spanish and Arab history. He writes:
“It was perhaps in Andalusian soil more than any other place in the Muslim world that the fair sex appeared in all splendour. Ladies were relatively free, gay, and more accessible than in other parts of the Muslim world. The beloved was an important part of nature, equal and even superior to anything ever created; she was seen as a lovely creature, tender, delicate, and beautiful… She was a delicate and aromatic flower, or a garden of flowers to be contemplated and enjoyed, but never touched or eaten because this would make of it a pasture fit only for beasts.”
The education and independence of women in Moorish Spain formed the base for a romantic way of life. Titus Burckhardt in Moorish Culture in Spain writes that European chivalry of the Middle Ages was learned from the Spanish Moors. He goes on to say that the glorification of women and the noble knights with their many virtues is more characteristic of Islam than Christianity.
This knightly attitude toward the fair sex had its origin in pre-Islamic Arabia. In that arid land, the desert warriors were not only excellent horsemen and first-rate swordsmen, but also great poets and renowned lovers. This tradition combined with the relatively free relationship of the Bedouin men and women produced the art of chivalry that was transmitted to the Europe of the Middle Ages. The chivalrous Arab-Bedouin attitude toward females and the poetic Arabic language made possible a great flowering of literary life, especially in the composition of verse. In Muslim Spain, this intellectual ferment reached its epitome, making the country a land of well-known poets.
Versification, especially love poetry, was to be heard in all levels of society. In the world of Arabic balladry of that day, the Moors, more than the other Arabs, were renowned for their poetic qualities. Women vied with and even outpaced men in the composition of verse. Arab Andalusia overflowed with women excelling in prose and poetry.
The most famous of these was the beautiful Walladah, the daughter of the Caliph al-Mustakfi. Historians have described her as being brilliant, passionate, witty, a rebel against tradition, the leading woman of her time, and free of manner.
When her father, the Caliph, died she made her home in Cordova the meeting place of the leading talents in that age. In her salon, the greatest poets and prose writers vied for her approval. Among the intellectuals of Cordova, she moved with an independent spirit. Out of the hundreds of Moorish women who composed verse, she was, perhaps, the greatest. Also an accomplished musician, she often embellished her evenings of poetry with the sound of music interlaced with witty observations.
As befitting a woman of her beauty and stature, Walladah was not a modest person. A story is told that when she and the poetess Hafsah al-Rumaikiyah met, each in verse boasted about her own charms. Hafsah in self-praise said:
“My eyes are more beautiful than those of the desert deer,
And my neck is more graceful than the wild gazelle.
I decorate myself with necklaces, but I assert here,
My neck gives the necklaces beauty, this I tell.
I do not complain about life’s load of pain and fear,
Yet, my body complains about the heaviness of my breasts.”
In pride Walladah eloquently retorted:
“I am, by God, suited for the high places,
For proud and haughty I tread the earth.
I empower my lover from the plate of my cheek,
And I give kisses to whoever for them seek.”
Historians have upheld that Walladah, in the custom of the caliph’s court in Baghdad, embroidered these boastful lines on the hem of her robe. With such conceit and haughtiness it was only natural that this lovely talented poetess would attract Ibn Zaydun, the most illustrious of all Moorish poets.
Abu al-Walid Ahmad Ibn Zaydun, whose father was a religious scholar, was born in 1003 A.D. of a noble family in Cordova. Many Arab authors believe that he is the most famous, learned poet sired by Moorish Spain. Before the age of 20 he was a celebrated man of letters, composing verses in the purest classical Arabic – a language, in his time, understood throughout the Muslim world. A number of historians have called him the Tibullus of Andalusia. Like this famous Roman love versifier, his poetry had charm and delicacy not found in the verses of many poets. Others have compared him to al-Mutanabbi, a master of verse whom the Arabs believe to be the greatest Arab poet of all times.
Early in life Ibn Zaydun became well known for his poetry of romance, no doubt for his love of Walladah. His passionate attachment to the charming princess has been an affaire de coeur, recalled and celebrated through the centuries. In his youthful years he became infatuated with this daughter of a caliph and she returned his love. A.R. Nykl in Hispano-Arabic Poetry quotes Ibn Bassam who writes about the lovers’ first meeting to which Walladah invited Ibn Zaydun with these words:
“Be ready to visit me as darkness gathers,
For I believe that night keeps all secrets best:
The love I feel for you – did the sun feel it thus –
It would not shine, moon would not rise,
Stars would cease travelling!”
The lovers met in a charming garden and spent unforgettable moments together. When the time came to part, Ibn Zaydun comforted Walladah with these loving words:
“Patience has departed from the parting lover,
Who divulged the secret, confiding it to you;
He is embarrassed because of not having been able
To take more steps along with you when taking his leave:
Oh, brother of the full moon in high rank and splendour,
May God protect the time, which caused thee to rise!
If your absence made my nights seem long,
I spent this night with you complaining of its shortness! ”
Like the numerous gardens to be found in the Cordova of that era, the secluded place of their rendezvous was full of trees and shrubs interlaced with rivulets and flowerbeds. Many nights the lovebirds would meet in these charming spots and exchange verses until the morning light faintly glowed. Some writers have even suggested that, at times, they shared a drink together.
These amorous meetings had to be in secret for they had to evade the intrigues of the envious who were waiting to slander and destroy their flame of ecstasy. However, they managed to overcome all obstacles – their love knew no bounds. Ibn Zaydun put his longing and suffering into verse which Nykl has translated:
“When shall I describe my feelings
To you, my delight, my torture?
When will my tongue have the pleasure
Of explaining it, instead of a letter?
…Oh you tempter in consolation,
Oh you proof of a forlorn lover!
You are the sun that has hidden
Itself behind a veil from my eye:”
In his book Moorish Poetry, A.J. Arberry has translated Ibn Sa’id’s Pennants in which he cites Ibn Zaydun, who perhaps during one of the park rendezvous, composed these verses that indicate how love triumphed over the intrigues of their enemies:
“It is as though we never flirted
That night, with only union near us,
When luck the prying eyes averted
Of those who sought with lies to smear us.
Two secrets in the mind of darkness
Concealed from sight, we lay reposing
Until dawn’s tongue with brutal starkness
Well nigh our secret was disclosing.”
The clandestine meetings continued and their passion for each other burned with intense vigour. Once, after they had spent the night together, Ibn Zaydun whispered these words to his beloved:
“The best of all delights was our gain
Without any of the worldly worries or cares.
Joy forever if the night had lasted,
But nights of intimacy are short and rare.”
However, their amour was not to last. One night Walladah noticed that Ibn Zaydun had taken a liking to her maid who, with a voice of a dove was entertaining them that evening. Walladah became jealous and angry. In Nykl’s translation she admonished him with these words:
“If you were just keeping our pact of love,
You would not love my slave-maid, preferring her,
Leaving aside the bough that produced beauty’s fruit,
Inclining toward a bough that no such fruit does show:
You know, full well that I’m the heaven’s full moon,
Yet, to my grief, you let al-mushtari (the purchased one) beguile you.”
Ibn Zaydun was sorry for his indiscretion. Admitting his fault, he said:
“Will you not have pity on one who spends
His wakeful nights tormented, without sleep?
If I did not commit an error in love does not
A fiery steed stumble and fall at times?”
Walladah would not listen to his appeal, but Ibn Zaydun continued to hope for reconciliation and addressed verses praising and begging her, trying to revive the passion she once had for him. Nykl has translated these lines of praise and hope by Ibn Zaydun:
“Oh you fragrant musk you midday sun, oh you
Branch of the ban (Egyptian willow), you gazelle of the desert:
If I have any other hope but that of obtaining
Your pleasure, let me not reach that hope at all!”
In Arberry’s translation of Ibn Sacid, the love-struck Ibn Zaydun humbles himself saying:
“Be proud–I’ll bear with you;
Delay–yet I’ll endure;
Exult–I ’11 grovel still;
Run off–I will pursue;
Speak–I shall hear for sure;
Command–I’ll do your will.”
The haughty daughter of the Caliph al-Mustakfi would not listen to his pleas. She soon found another admirer in Ibn ‘Abdus, a wealthy man of influence. When Ibn Zaydun saw that this man had taken his place in her heart, he became infuriated. Thinking he could turn him into an enemy of his former sweetheart, he wrote an epistle famous for its style and language.
In it he mocks Ibn ‘Abdus as stupid, uncouth, conceited and the lowest of creatures. He then signed this tirade with Walladah’s signature and sent it to Ibn ‘Abdus. The epistle, written in a forceful flowery-rhymed prose and full of learned allusions, and carrying Walladah’s forged name, turned her love to deep hatred and drove her to loath her former lover.
The bond between them was thus severed. At the same time, the influential Ibn ‘Abdus did not forget the insult. He conspired with Ibn Zaydun’s enemies and had him jailed. Still the love-struck poet did not give up hope. These words addressed to his former ladylove show the confused and unhappy state in which he lived:
“For my fidelity with treachery you rewarded me,
And without justice, cheaply you sold my love.
And yet if I could only of Destiny a commander be,
From its blows, I’d guard you with my soul, love.”
In prison he wrote a number of long poems to Ibn Jahwar, the ruler of Cordova, pleading his innocence and asking for clemency, but to no avail. After over a year in jail he escaped and roamed the countryside villages near Cordova, still hoping to regain Walladah’s affection. Amid the ruins of the nearby Madinat al-Zahra’ he composed a lengthy epic in which he bemoans in delicate stanzas the shattering of their romance. The Arabs consider this jewel of balladry which begins: “The closeness we had for each other is replaced by division, and brutal words, the rendezvous we had before”, as the most brilliant love poem ever written.
Strolling in the ruined flowerbeds of Madinat al-Zahra’ on a beautiful sunny day, he dreams of Walladah and the happy hours they had spent building castles of fantasy together. He is saddened by his fate and he still cannot believe that the days of passion between them are now over. He writes Walladah a poem in which he says in part:
“It was a day not different from those gone by
When the joys of life we stole, while our kismet slept.”
However, the days had long passed when Walladah would be moved by his verses. In her bosom their love had died forever.
Ibn Zaydun’s roaming of the countryside ended when one of his former teachers, al-Lubbanah, interceded for him with the ruling prince. After returning to Cordova, he changed his role from being a poet of love to a palace bard. In this period his verses were to a great extent in praise of his benefactors and friends.
His poems to Walladah ended, yet, he still felt a longing for his former sweetheart. His burning passion for her was never completely healed and according to his friends remained with him for the remainder of his life. There is no doubt that without this love sickness, Arabic poetry would have lost some of its greatest masterpieces.
Ibn Jahwar, now Ibn Zaydun’s patron, admired his literary qualities and sent him on missions to the other courts in Muslim Spain. He believed that by going on these diplomatic visits away from Cordova, Ibn Zaydun would forget his pains for a lost love. These commissions raised his stature in the other states of al-Andalus. However, they caused him much trouble at court.
Taking advantage of his absence, his enemies’ intrigues began to bear fruit. During one of these missions, fearing that he had lost favour in the court of Ibn Jahwar, he did not return. He spent the subsequent years in Badajoz, Málaga and Valencia, honoured in the courts of their potentates.
In 1049 A.D. he went to live at the court of al-Mu’tadid in Seville. Enthralled with his scholarly and poetic qualities, this sovereign, who, at that time, was the most powerful ruler in Muslim Spain, made him his vizier. His splendid verses in praise of al-Mu’tadid and later his son, al-Mu’tamid, and his valued advice earned him great esteem. However, many in court were jealous of his influence and he made numerous enemies. Yet, he never lost favour. In 1071 A.D. he died an honoured and respected advisor-poet.
Walladah, soon after Ibn Zaydun became a court bard, went to live in the harem of Ibn ‘Abdus, but she did not give up her literary activities. For many years her wit and verse were the subject of discussion in the salons of the intellectuals throughout the Muslim lands. In 1091 A.D., long after her one time lover Ibn Zaydun had passed away, she died at over 80 years of age. Sybil Fitzgerald In The Track of the Moors, comparing Walladah to the other important women of her period, writes:
“Walladah, unmarried and living to a great age, excelled them all with her poetry, her reunions, her patronage of literature and art, while the historians filled their works with anecdotes of her beauty and talent.”
Countless centuries have passed and in Spain the noble Moors are but a memory. Yet, until now in Cordova, the passionate love affair of Walladah and Ibn Zaydun has not been forgotten. At the foot of their monument, near the old city walls, where we rested that day, I was moved reading these two verses by Moorish Spain’s most celebrated lovers. With emotional words Walladah addresses her swain:
“I am jealous of you from my soul, from myself,
From you, from this place and this age,
And if I should hide you within my eyes,
Til the Day of Judgement it would not suffice me.”
I could feel the tenderness which must have been experienced by Ibn Zaydun when he replied:
“You who are well-known among the people,
My heart pains for your worries and troubles.
If you should go away I will not find a person to keep me company,
And if you are present all the people are present.”
Some years have passed since I stood reading these lines, yet, I am still thrilled when I think of what they meant to these lovers of long ago. True are the words of an Arab poet who wrote:
“There is no more beautiful sight in the eyes of
God than two lovers whispering verses to each other.”