A rich and wide-ranging article by María Rosa Menocal, one of the heroes of Ammiel Alcalay‘s ongoing investigations into the ancient culture of the Mediterranean that was the common property of Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike before the cultural fencing-in and shutting-off of later centuries produced separation and historical oblivion. I guarantee you will learn things you didn’t know about that period almost a millennium ago, with its very different patterns of sharing and influence. Some excerpts:
Throughout medieval Europe Arabic had a far more powerful impact on the transformation and shaping of culture than most narratives of our history reveal. This was true not only in Spain, where Arabic was the lingua franca of educated people of all three religions for many centuries, but far beyond. The new and often revolutionary cultures of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe were often provoked or shaped by an Arabic culture that traveled throughout Europe in many guises, in translations of a hundred varieties, in attitudes about culture, or in songs that were sung and heard and then played again in a different language. It would even be fair to say that European culture from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries is a culture of translation whose monuments are not only new texts in a new language but, no less, the memory of the older language and civilization….
Translation was at the heart of a great deal of the vigor of early Islamic culture, and although I cannot do it much justice here it is necessary to begin with an evocation of the remarkable translation projects of the seventh through ninth centuries for which the Abbasids are justly famous. While the Umayyads of both Damascus and Cordoba were culturally voracious and syncretistic, it was not they but the Abbasids of Baghdad—and in Baghdad—who sponsored the astonishing multigenerational project to translate major portions of the Greek philosophical and scientific canon without which, arguably, much of that canon might have been permanently lost. This establishment of a scientific and philosophical tradition is far more complex and deeply engrained in Islamic culture than the word “translation” conveys, since these texts ended up in Cordoba’s libraries—and later Toledo’s, and thus Paris’s and Bologna’s—because they became so central to a tradition of commentary and exegesis. This powerful intellectual and overtly rational tradition is iconic of this chapter in the history of Islamic culture: imperial in its capacity to both absorb and internalize and recycle so many of the cultures it encountered. It also plays a crucial role in making the culture of Arabic so much more than Islamic, and thus ultimately so accessible to Christians and Jews, beginning with those who worked in the incomparable libraries of Cordoba, which were legendary throughout Europe already during Umayyad times.
But Cordoba, unlike Baghdad, had no culture of translation at all, and the Cordobans themselves could not read Greek. They didn’t have to, and in fact by the time they got those texts they were already a part of a scholarly tradition that lived in Arabic. It also never seems to have occurred to anyone in Cordoba to translate anything into Latin. And why should they have? Every civilized person—including the Jews and Christians who were citizens of Cordoba—could of course read Arabic, and the uncivilized people who lived to the north, beyond the mountains, well, after all, it was up to them to come and learn Arabic if they wanted to be able to read real philosophy or if they were curious about how astrolabes could so radically alter navigation. And a handful did. But mostly they did not….
This great cultural revolution—the vernacular revolution that would establish the new languages of Europe as the legitimate languages for high culture, lyric poetry first and foremost—began in the Iberian peninsula in the eleventh century, in an astonishing combination of political maelstrom and cultural flourishing. The political story is itself quite revealing, since the caliphate was succeeded by a number of city-states, the Muluk at-Tawaif, which were at great odds with each other and competing, often ferociously, for the succession to Cordoba, a competition to some extent political and military, but just as ferociously cultural. But now there is a Christian dimension to all of this, since some of the Christian kingdoms to the north—both to the east and to the west—enter this competition for the Cordoban succession. It is in this competition that Toledo comes out on top and thus begins its translation enterprise. This is in many ways a moment shockingly—for us anyway—nonideological, quite different from how we have come to imagine this age of “crusade” or “reconquista”: any given battle in the eleventh century was far more likely to be between two Islamic Taifas than between an Islamic and a Christian one. The most decisive political events of the eleventh century, leading up to the taking of Toledo, were the murder of Sancho of Castile, a political assassination most likely engineered by his brother Alfonso VI, and the assassination of the great al-Mamun of Toledo, probably engineered by his rivals in Seville. But there is far more than mere lack of true ideological division here, there is also a shared cultural universe. At the end of the day all those Christian and Muslim warriors and kings were all likely to be interested in listening to the same thing, the whole range of new Andalusian songs that were the rage throughout the peninsula—and the Jews too are a vital part of this remarkable picture….
The case of the new Hebrew poetry is perhaps the clearest and worth dwelling on. The Andalusian Jews had long been not only Arabophone but comfortably a part of the literate elite, and what the complexities of Arabic letters and especially poetry revealed to them was a universe of poetic and linguistic tolerance. At some very profound level a pious Jew could unashamedly recite a pre-Islamic ode or a homoerotic poem because a pious Muslim could. Poetry and piety were not to be confused with each other, and this was at the heart of the great power of Arabic as a literary culture (and at the heart, too, of Alvarus’s lament that young Christian men were in love with Arabic poetry). The new Hebrew poetry was thus born not out of “translation” in any conventional way but out of that intimate understanding, gleaned directly from the use of Arabic as a religious and a secular poetic language, and born not in the comfort of Jewish society of Umayyad Caliphate but rather in the exile of the Taifas. There, for the first time in a thousand years, Hebrew was brought out of the confines of the synagogue and made as versatile as the Arabic that was the native language of the Andalusian Jewish community and, almost miraculously, it was once again used as the language of a vibrant and living poetry. Listen to that voice as it has been rendered by one of the master translators of that new Hebrew in our own time, Peter Cole:
I’d give everything I own for that fawn who betrayed me—
my love for him locked in my heart.
He said to the rising moon:
“You see how I shine and dare to be seen?”
And the circle was set in the sky like a pearl in a dark girl’s hand…
Via wood s lot.
Addendum. Don’t miss the exploration of Cordoba’s history and architecture (with gorgeous pix) over at Laputan Logic
—scroll down until you hit the title Cordoba and the boxed “olé.” John is mulishly refusing to move to MT, so permalinks are only a distant rumor.