Thursday, April 21, 2005

Mourning for Another Place

In much Sephardic literature, Spain took the place of Israel in the affection of Jews. Following the expulsion in the late fifteenth century, Jews longed to return to Sefarad (the Jewish name for Spain) as they had for returning to the Holy Land. Ironically, Spain is also a territory of memory for Muslims, although al-Andalus is a different place than Sefarad.

The poetry of Mahmoud Darwish uses Andalusia, particularly Grenada, to discuss the loss of homeland. The translations in Agha Rashid Ali's Rooms are never full reveals the desire to recover this memory and history. They also serve as a reference point for critiquing the evolution of Islamic Civilization since the reconquest.
Soon we will search
in the margins of your history, in distant countries,
for whatever was once out history. And in the end we will ask ourselves:
Was Andalusia here or there? On the land ... or in the poem? ...

How can I write my people's testament above the clouds if they
abandon me as they do their coats at home, my people
who raze each fortress they build and pitch on its ruins
a tent, nostalgic for the beginning of palm trees? My people betray my people
in wars over salt. ...

Water, be my memory, let me see what I have lost.
Who am I after this exodus? I have a rock
with my name on it, on a hill from which I see what's long gone ... .
Ali's own poem, From Amherst to Kashmir (in the same book), does the same trick: realizes replacing mourning in one place for the tragedy of another. The poem describes the return of his mother's corpse after her failed medical treatments in the US. The journey flies them over the terrain of the history of Islam, into India and finally, to Kashmir at the peripheries of both Islam and India.

The return of the mother focuses the sorrows of Kashmir for the recent violence: the death of a woman who prayed for those who died in the violence since the 1990s.

The mother's suffering has a complex geography. She identifies with Zainab, who tried to protect one of the sons of Hussain (Muhammed's grandson) as his armies were massacred at Karbala. (The Battle of Karbala is commemorated at Ashura.)
One majlis stays -- Summer 1992 -- when for two years Death had turned every day in Kashmir into some family's Karbala. We celebrated Ashara with relatives ... . That evening, at home, my mother was suddenly in tears. I was puzzled, then very moved: Since she was a girl, she had felt Zainab's grief as her own. ...

Zaibnab wailed. Only Karbala could frame out grief.
"How could such a night fall on Hussain?"
Mother, you remember perfectly that G-d is a thief.

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