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Journalist Aleksandra Lipczak talks about her latest book, “Lajla znaczy noc” [Layla Means Night], ...
2020-12-09 10:00:00

On Beauty and History
An Interview with Aleksandra Lipczak

On Beauty and History

“The story of Al-Andalus complicates the image of a white, Christian Europe that supposedly owes everything innovative and important to Paris, Bologna and London,” says Aleksandra Lipczak, author of Lajla znaczy noc [Layla Means Night].

Read in 14 minutes

Anna Piwowarska: Your new book, Layla Means Night, tells the story of Al-Andalus. It’s the southern part of Spain, which remained under Arab rule for almost 800 years. Three great religions co-existed on the peninsula: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. What exactly do you write about when you write about Al-Andalus?

Aleksandra Lipczak: I write about history from a contemporary perspective. And, to some extent, about the present from a historical perspective. Describing such far-away times as the 10th century may give the impression that I’ve written a historical book. However, it was created in the here and now; it’s rooted right here, in the present moment. And, to a large extent, it is a reportage.

I am not a historian. I am a modern European woman and a citizen of Poland, which once was a multicultural country. To me, the history of mediaeval Europe under the influence of Arab culture is a mirror in which I see my own reflection.

Layla Means Night. A beautiful title.

I’m fond of it, because it is both beautiful and complicated, just like the history of Al-Andalus itself. Not only is the title poetic, it also refers to a very specific case of cultural and spiritual influences that became intertwined, which is what really interested me when I was writing this book.

What does ‘layla’ mean, apart from ‘night’?

Perhaps I can mention St John of the Cross here. It’s surprising that I’m referring to the Catholic saint and mystic in this context. In the times of St John of the Cross – that is, in the 16th century – Al-Andalus had ceased to exist. The Inquisition was wreaking havoc on the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic manuscripts were either being burned or kept hidden. In spite of this, the poetry of St John of the Cross – who came from a family of converts, Jews converted to Christianity – clearly bears the marks of Sufism.

The image of erotic love as a metaphor of the communion with God was perfected in Islamic mystical poetry. It was a way of expressing what could not be put into words. In a poem by St John of the Cross entitled The Dark Night of the Soul, there is a description of a meeting between two lovers that actually symbolizes a totally different aspect of reality. At night time, the woman leaves a quiet house to meet with her Lover. After the meeting, she contemplates lilies in the garden. Lilies are one of the key words in Sufi poetry: a symbol of oblivion. The same goes for Layla – night personified – who is called the lover of the Sufi. She is an object of adoration and contemplation, and offers a space of immersion in spiritual experience, as well as respite from daily chaos.

The researcher Luce López-Baralt expressed this in a quite poetic manner: “The lover of St John of the Cross could have been called Layla.”

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordóba, view of the mihrab
The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordóba, view of the mihrab

And so the title of the book is also an attempt at portraying this connection and mutual interpenetration of seemingly different cultures and religions. Especially if we analyse them from a contemporary perspective. I suppose the mysterious Layla kept you company since the very beginning?

Unfortunately not. I envy authors who have the ability to formulate a title in the early stages of their work, because titles often illuminate the way. Both in the case of Layla Means Night and my first book, Ludzie z Placu Słońca [The People From Sun Square], the last words I wrote were the titles.

Did you have any other ideas for this title?

At some point I wanted to title the book 781 – that’s how long the Iberian Peninsula remained under Muslim rule. Almost 800 years of domination. It stirs the imagination. More so, once we realize that fewer years have passed since 1492, when the Catholic Kings conquered the Emirate of Granada, which was the last Arab stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula. I believe this time frame sets everything in the right perspective.

The year 1492 was crucial in the history of Spain. The conquest of Granada, the colonization of the Americas, the exile of the Jews.

For some, it was a key moment in the history of modern Spain, a country supposedly forged in the so-called ‘fight with the Moor’. For others, the year 1492 marks the beginning of evil: exiles and the persecution of immigrants, genocides in the Americas, the Inquisition.

Those two visions of Spain, usually very difficult to encounter, meet on Plaza del Carmen in Granada on 2nd January every year. The meeting takes place during the controversial Toma parade, which commemorates the Christian conquest of the city. You call it the ‘screaming holiday’.

The feuds and disagreements that surround the La Toma festivities or the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordóba show that history is still alive and well, and that it continues to influence present-day events. But there are groups of activists in Granada that try to organize alternative forms of festivities, bringing attention to the diverse origins and rich roots of the citizens. For Granadans, the mythical Moors driven from the Peninsula were simply inhabitants of the same city. Granada still bears the marks of their presence.

The fact that we are descendants of the Moors is also part of our collective memory, although we have long repressed it. At school, the 800 years of Al-Andalus history are condensed into five textbook pages, mostly names of monarchs and a few battles. There was a surge in books and other publications only after the death of Franco. Our past was difficult to ignore any longer. After all, its traces are visible everywhere. In the soul as well,” says one of your interlocutors.

The famous Arabist Emilio González Ferrín went even further and simply titled his book When We Were Arabs.

Moreover, there’s this advertising slogan that promotes the region of Andalusia: The Spain of Three Cultures. Isn’t this notion too beautiful to be true?

The history of Al-Andalus is complex. It wasn’t heaven on earth. It was brimming with blood and violence. At the same time, it offers incredible cultural wealth, which may be a source of unrest, igniting various questions and doubts. It is a history full of beauty, as well. Arab culture on the Iberian Peninsula was extremely refined, it had spectacular architecture.

This beauty seems to be strongly commercialized.

I remember my disappointment when I saw the Albaicín quarter of Granada. I was participating in a literary residency programme in Granada while gathering material for my book. Having gone through all those historical readings, I couldn’t wait for my next meeting with the city, this time in person. When I arrived, however, my enthusiasm subsided, at least initially: it took some effort to look past the fairy-tale, touristic and commercial aspect of the city, and see something very interesting behind it.

You drew an amusing image of the city in your book: “Sometimes Granada brings to mind the cover of the rock single ‘Rey Baobdil by Pony Bravo. It shows Baobdil wearing a turban and dark sunglasses, looking like a weary wise guy with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He is serving a glass of wine and olives, most probably to foreigners. Behind him there is a camel decked out from head to toe, and further in the background a pot-bellied drunk is leaning against a pair of speakers. However, Granada may also be the complete opposite, and the symbiosis between past and present becomes visible at every step. A deep and unrestrained symbiosis.”

Granada is intense. On the one hand it is a touristic hotspot, exploited without any restraint. On the other hand, it is a student city with an intense and alternative cultural life that is quite surprising given its size. Additionally, there is the Alhambra palace complex set upon a hill, looking dreamy, like something out of a fairy tale.

Such doses of beauty become irritating at times. I remember going to one of the suburban districts, looking for a mosque frequented by Moroccan immigrants. I felt relieved I was finally seeing something ordinary.

What was Alhambra like in its heyday, apart from being beautiful?

It was an incredible place in mediaeval Europe. From today’s perspective, Cordóba in the 10th or 11th century was a modern-day New York. A city that attracted those who sought the latest gossip, knowledge and scientific developments. A cultural hotspot frequented by artists, scientists, translators and traders. Cordóba set new trends and became known as the ‘ornament of the world’. This myth – because it was a myth, even in those times – was extremely influential.

The story of Al-Andalus complicates the image of a white, Christian Europe that supposedly owes everything innovative and important to Paris, Bologna and London. Universities in southern Spain taught classes in Arabic. Books imported from the Middle East, including the works of Greek philosophers translated into Arabic, were transcribed in libraries and scriptoriums. Moreover, many women worked as scribes. Ideas that have shaped modern-day Europe are the cultural legacy of this region.

We seem to know little about all of this, with snippets and fragments of information here and there. But I only started seeing the bigger picture once I finished reading your book.

We still lack research on Islam, the third pillar of European history and culture, and on all of the notions, architectonic and poetic styles that came to us from the Middle East and Northern Africa, passing through Al-Andalus, among others. A careful examination of the history of the Iberian Peninsula proves that both Islam and Arab culture influenced Europe for hundreds of years.

One may think that convivencia, the peaceful coexistence of three great religions within Al-Andalus, is one of the very myths Europe so desperately needs right now.

It seems that we are looking for a utopian vision of co-existence in the history of Al-Andalus. It’s hard to imagine that there used to be a place and time for Jews, Muslims and Christians to live together peacefully. Of course, this idea should be approached with suspicion. There were tensions as well, it was not idyllic. But there is something incredibly refreshing about the fact that the Iberian Peninsula was inhabited by people of so many religions who did not massacre each other, and even managed to create a remarkably rich culture together. From our point of view, this seems straight up revolutionary.

However, convivencia does raise many doubts.

In academia, there is an ongoing discussion about convivencia; what it really was and whether it existed in the first place. I summarize the main arguments of this dispute in my book. It is quite lively, since it reflects various modern ills, as well as the worldviews of those who study the past.

To illustrate the many ways in which convivencia functioned in practice, you portray a Jewish doctor who played an important role at the khalif’s court.

You mean Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who came from a Jewish family. He lived in the 10th century. He was an incredibly talented diplomat and an erudite who spoke many languages. He also was a doctor. It was his medical knowledge that earned him the trust of the first khalif of Al-Andalus. Ibn Shaprut quickly became a high-ranking official, serving as the informal vizier – that is, the minister of foreign affairs.

I devoted a whole chapter of my book to him, but there is one anecdote I find particularly moving. It is the story of Sancho, King of León, who came to be known as Sancho the Fat. Not without reason, since he certainly was obese. He weighed 240 kilograms and became incapable of governing. He could neither ride a horse nor participate in battles, and thus lost the respect of his people. For this reason, he was deposed by the nobles.

At this point, his grandmother Tod, Queen of Navara, enters the scene. A very charismatic figure. She understood that there was no point in seeking help from other Christian countries, since no-one had the necessary knowledge, and so she addressed her cousin, the Khalif of Al-Andalus. In exchange for recognizing his sovereignty, the khalif promised his learned doctor would help Sancho lose weight, and offered the support of his army to help the former king reclaim the throne.

Hasdai ibn Shaprut put Sancho on a draconian diet. He served him herbal mixtures, tied him to the bed and forced him to do physical exercises. Sancho lost over 100 kilos and became king once again.

Alhambra in Granada
Alhambra in Granada

You claim that today, the headlines would have read: ‘The Jewish Doctor of the Khalif Cured the Christian King!’ But newspapers did not exist in those times. And the flashy title itself seems to reflect a contemporary understanding of history.

That’s why I tell this historical anecdote so often. It shows the more somatic and down-to-earth aspect of the lifestyles of elites and their rulers. We’re used to thinking about history in grand, monolithic terms. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, north, south, while here we have alliances, negotiations, influences and interests. Daily co-existence. Dialogue. And a surprising kinship between Christian rulers and Islamic kingdoms. A kinship that wasn’t unusual. The mothers of the emirs and khalifs of Al-Andalus were most often Basque, Frankish or Catalonian.

Which leads me directly to my favourite question: what language did these mothers use to lull the future rulers of the Arab world to sleep?

It is a question without answer, but I love the idea of formulating such questions.

The American art historian D. Fairchild Ruggers created a genealogical tree of the Umayyads, a dynasty of Al-Andalusian rulers. She found that most of their mothers were not Arab. The monarchs themselves often had blue eyes or red hair. Although Rugger’s text is academic, the author puts forward such questions as: “Did these mothers remember the taste of smoked ham from the North?” or “What games did they play with their children?” These everyday matters are followed by even more questions: What does it mean to ‘be Arab’? What is Spanish-ness? What is identity?

It was she that encouraged me to ask difficult questions.

Even the word ‘lullaby’ in Spanish (nana) has Arabic roots. Just like 8% of all Spanish words.

I was surprised to learn that Arabic words have influenced the Spanish language in virtually every field of life.

I, on the other hand, was surprised that the word ojalá, ‘hopefully’, which I really shouldn’t use so often, comes from the word ‘Allah’. It makes sense, but I’ve never thought about it.

The ultra-Spanish exclamation olé! has the same Arabic source.

While reading your book, I was under the constant impression that you have done a solid piece of historical work.

Fortunately, many people did this work before me. I only took a peak into their long-standing research. The knowledge we have amassed about Al-Andalus is enormous. If you start to delve deeper into the subject and have access to both English and Spanish sources, a whole ocean of data appears. My role on the historical level was to wade through this ocean and select the right material. The biggest challenge was to choose subjects and stories that can still appear interesting today.

With this book, have you written a historical reportage or a collection of essays?

It’s not for me to judge. I’ve allowed myself many excursions into the field of theory. I’ve also included my own historical reflections in the book by speculating and intertwining various motifs, or by putting forward unanswerable questions.

Historical books written in Polish are much more academic, while the English-language tradition presents similar topics in such a way that they almost read like novels. It is no coincidence that there are many English-language books in my bibliography. Of course, there are even more Spanish sources on the history of Al-Andalus, but they do not read as easily, since they are niche and academic. And sometimes I couldn’t find what I was looking for, since I needed history and figures that could be brought to life. English-language authors have mastered this skill, and so they became my guides.

We talk about history a lot, and yet your book really isn’t about that.

That’s true.

In his newly-published book On Time and Water, the Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason includes stories about icebergs, his grandmother and a conversation with the Dalai-Lama, but what he really does is look for a new language to discuss the biggest challenge of our times. Almost everything has been said on this subject and no-one wants to hear about it anymore. Magnason’s book about time and water actually deals with the climate crisis. He writes about all the things we may lose with great tenderness.

I find this philosophy of writing from a different point of view very convincing: to move around the margins in order to catch the reader’s attention at the end, and cast an entirely new, surprising light on urgent issues and on-going problems. I’m glad you understand Layla in the same way.

In that case, I will ask once again: what do you write about, when you write about the history of Al-Andalus?

My book arose from a desperate need to find another way of discussing the most urgent problem Europe is currently facing.

And now I hesitate to ask, because if we discuss it here, we may lose the effect of surprise. A reportage on mediaeval Spain may be a light read because it seems distant and safe. For this reason, I’m not sure what should or should not be said. And at the same time, it is a topic I find extremely interesting.

Let’s talk about it.

First, I would like to ask you about your activism.

These aren’t spectacular things. From the beginning of the European refugee crisis in 2015, I have tried to participate in various activities as a form of protest against what’s been happening. When the crisis started, I felt enormous shame, even disgrace. I thought the existence of such camps as Moria was impossible in a Europe founded upon democratic values; a Europe that cried ‘never again’ after the tragedy of World War II. I try to be an engaged citizen and at least do the small things. I am convinced that the refugee crisis, the way the European states have reacted to it, and everything that is happening in refugee camps – all in all, everything that has become transparent and normalized nowadays – will cause enormous regrets tomorrow. Just like all other European sins, from colonialism to concentration camps.

How should we talk about this?

There is something called compassion fatigue; the exhaustion of compassion. Indifference to a certain kind of story that brings on the normalization of this state. Something very bad has to happen, like the fire in Moria or children sleeping on asphalt and at gas stations, for this topic to attract the attention of the media.

I realized that there is a need to tell this story from a different angle, to broach the subject from a different point of view. Going well beyond the beaten path allows us to see everything with a fresh pair of eyes. To maybe even defamiliarize what is happening right now. To feel the terror and horror behind all of this. Or simply feel angry. Maybe that is the healthiest reaction.

During last year’s edition of the Non-Fiction Reportage Festival, the Salvadorian reporter Óscar Martinez, author of an extremely horrifying book about migrants from Central America crossing Mexico entitled The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, was asked about the reaction he expected from his readers. He answered that he wanted neither sadness nor terror and compassion. He wanted to arouse anger. Because anger is the driving force of action.

I was also meaning to ask you the same question.

I wrote this book in response to today’s Islamophobia. We call it ‘the problem with Islam’, however it is nothing but an aversion towards people who come from Islamic countries. A dislike lined with racism and classism.

The problem of migration influenced my book in a natural and organic way. It is closely connected to the historical dimension I constantly refer to, and it is part of the issue of how we treat our historical heritage. I wonder what our thoughts on Europe would have been today if its history had been formatted in a different way. If we were more aware of the fact that, as one reviewer put it beautifully, many different people called Europe their home before us.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Aleksandra Lipczak. Photo by Gaby Jongenelen Photography for CELA
Aleksandra Lipczak. Photo by Gaby Jongenelen Photography for CELA

Aleksandra Lipczak:

A journalist and reporter. She is a scholar of the CELA European programme for emerging authors and translators. Her debut, Ludzie z placu Słońca [The People From Sun Square], was well received by readers and critics, and was nominated for the Witold Gombrowicz Literary Prize. She works with the magazines Polityka and Przekrój. She is one of the founders of the citizens’ initiative Witajcie w Krakowie [Welcome to Kraków]. Her new book Layla Means Night was recently published in Polish by Karakter.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Piechura

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