Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Flamenco For Beginners

In Arrabeh most people of all ages recognize me on sight. Unfortunately, the reverse is far from true: Age, my retirement from active medical practice, and my reserve and limited social circulation in the village have made most young faces new to me. Still, there is hardly a face I cannot pin to a specific clan in the village. Even when I am unable to specify whose son or daughter a young person is, I recognize the general features and am able to categorize the individual as the descendent of a specific age-mate or acquaintance. Facial features alone, if one were to liken the mental process of recognition to that of artificial intelligence, provide endless possible combinations necessitating perhaps a decimal bit and byte system instead of the binary one currently in use. Integrate that, if you please, with the range of variations in skin color, physique, gait, voice quality, etc. etc. and you end up with a failsafe system that leaves little to brag about for me. It would be the first sign of Alzheimer’s for me to fail the test of clan categorization of members of the new generation in Arrabeh.

This is all to explain to myself the strange sense of comfortable familiarity that I experienced at the Flamenco club we attended one evening in Seville. I know little about musicology and less about dance. Still, sitting in the front row I struggled all through the performance against the urge to jump to the stage and join the riotous footwork, the fast-paced clapping and the incomprehensible inspired singing. The entire act spoke directly to my heart in familiar and meaningful ways. It was as if I were revisiting a long-lost childhood friend, enigmatic but loved and trusted. Toufiq, my co-villager and fellow traveler, read the singing as an expression of pain and suffering. “Those Gypsies are singing their anguish,” he declared. It brought to mind my previous encounter with the musical genre from fourteen years before. I had travelled with my two dear international brothers and former roommates from college days in Hawaii, Djon the Indonesian and Jagy the Indian, to celebrate our sixtieth birth year in Andalucía. In Seville we stumbled on a major Gypsy occasion. The pope had beatified the first ever Gypsy on the way to sainthood and the best of their artists celebrated the occasion by composing a Flamenco opera to be performed at the famous Seville Cathedral, the gesture of the pope no more usual than the flock’s response. Though the only explanation we received was in a written sheet in Spanish, which no one among us three spoke, I remember understanding the entire opera and sympathizing fully with its Gypsy heroes.

As an Arab heir to the culture of Al-Andalus and perhaps a descendent of one of those most enlightened of humans of their era, I felt fully entitled to stake a claim to emotional, artistic and intellectual ownership of Flamenco as ‘ours,’ in partnership with Gypsies and native Spaniards. More convincingly, as a Palestinian, the olives of Southern Spain were truly mine. After all, the olive started in the hills of greater Syria and it suckled our forbearers with its delicious oil long before the Romans took a fancy to it and caused it to go viral across the far corners of their pan-Mediterranean empire. No wonder I feel such closeness to the olive and derive so much comfort fro the sheer sight of olives in a field. Wandering leisurely between its former Arab capitals, from Malaga to Granada, Cordoba and Seville, the limitless vistas of well-tended olive fields enveloping one hill after another of rural Andalucía stirred in me a feeling of deep comfort and belonging admixed with pride and romantic attachment akin to what I remember feeling on my return to my family and village after an absence of ten years. I wanted just to sit in the red dirt in one of those fields and do nothing. And that is exactly what we had the luxury to do. We lodged for one day at a hacienda in the midst of the olive groves of the village of Zuheros an hour’s drive from Cordova. The name of the village was derived from the Arabic word for ‘little tree,’ its church was once a mosque and its museum, hanging precipitously at the edge of a rocky cliff, was once an Arab fortress, both features that apply to many Andalusian rural communities. It seems that those Arabs and Moors of old had a fetish of sorts: wherever they came across a rocky crag they had to hang a fortress over it for the world to admire and a mosque with a high minaret for the inquisition officials who were to come later so they would have something physical about which to grill the conquered infidel souls. And the tall minarets made perfect bell towers.

The spacious rooms we were assigned in the hacienda were in the center of the compound. When we asked for ones with windows opening out on the fields the clerk explained that they would rather not use those for a couple of weeks: the heavy pollen of the olives covers everything in those rooms when guests open the windows, which they always tend to do. Indeed, the olives were so completely covered with flowers that the dark green of the fields yielded to a pearly whitish gloss that enveloped the entire land. I was struck by the fact that the olives in Andalucía looked much more youthful than ours in Galilee. I read and discovered the secret: In Spain the farming tradition dictates that an olive is allowed to yield its life-giving fruit for a hundred year cycle before it is cut. Two or three vigorous new shoots rising from the old root system are selected and nurtured into young adulthood for another one hundred year cycle. That is why all the fields look in their prime and why one sees two, three or sometimes four beauties in each flamenco circle of olives in the field. When I closed my eyes for a moment at the edge of the hacienda I could hear the clicking of heels and the sentimental crooning of Gypsies singing their pain and hope.

Toufiq, my fellow traveler from Arrabeh and closest soul mate in the village, and I spent hours delving into our most charged deep sentiments and attempting to put in words for each other and for our accompanying wives the rapacious yearning Andalusca awakened in our souls. Toufiq was enchanted with the proposition that the time has come for a new interpretation of history. He started his theorizing at the Cathedral in Cordoba: The accepted standard narrative is about a church that Abdul-Rahman tore down to build the Great Mosque only for part of it to be torn down by the Catholic Monarchs for it to revert to a church. Essentially the same narrative applies to the sequence of historical events relevant to Seville’s Cathedral and its bell tower, the Giralda, and to many a church currently in use in Andalucía. Why not reconcile history to fit with peace and friendship between peoples? Why not look at these miraculous edifices as the fruit of the integration and not the clash of two peoples and their combined cultures. I understood this to be Toufiq’s communist rhetoric resurfacing on demand to deal with an irksome and conflicted reality. But no, he insisted, it is his sincere wish to see the people of Spain and the Arab world linked in a positive way to allow for the culmination of such a promising possibility. He kept repeating that he felt at a loss as to how to share the same elation he feels at seeing the integrated architectural skills of the two peoples. And why is there not a single brochure in Arabic about all the rich archeology of the Arabs in all the sites we visited from Alhambra to the Giralda and Alcazar? And there are so few Arabs touring those sites, despite the fact that in Marbella there is a whole compound for the Saudi king and his family. But that is the money speaking, not the people. Why shouldn’t Arab and Islamic tourism thrive in Andalucía? I told my friend that I read somewhere that Spain is having problems with fundamentalist Moslems wanting to claim part of the Great Mosque in Cordoba. He immediately dropped part of his grand plan: “Leave Islam and Christianity out of it. Give me a few million dollars and I will start a cooperative effort with the Spanish ministry of tourism based on all the positive aspects of what the Arabs and the people of Spain have achieved and could do together,” he shouted. “It is the greatness of our two peoples that excites me, not their religious conflicts. Look at those red and white stone arches soar into that white vaulted space of the cathedral. Doesn’t that magic integration excite and inspire anyone but me?”

My own incredulity came to stymied and confused expression when I tried to express my enchanted elation at the site of the endless vistas of olive groves enveloping the entire terrain of Andalucía through which we were traveling. An Arabic expression that defied my translation skills came to mind. The verb implies that a scene or a scent opens one’s heart – qalb in Arabic -- or inspires the soul. But that is not all. The meaning of ‘yashrahu al-qalb’ transcends that; the verb actually implies a degree of violence and forced entry. Its closest English literal equivalent would be ‘to splay’ one’s heart or to slice it open. I struggled with attempting to share the full sense and flavor of the expression with my wife. To my admittedly limited knowledge, no single word in the English language, her mother’s tongue, carries the same psychological and sentimental connotation. The linguistic field having failed to serve my full purpose I tried to explain the word through examples from our shared experience: The olive scene we were looking at ‘yashrahu al-qalb,’ I explained. So does the vista of wind-swept endless expanses of brown wheat we saw earlier in the foothills after we left Malaga, its vast sea stirred into wave-like motion. And so does the smell of wheat bread fresh out of the oven. Pleasure aroused through the auditory sense doesn’t qualify for the expression; it is limited to sight and smell but not the other senses. But listening to Fairuz’s lilting rendition of Andalucía’s romantic Arabic poetry comes very close to the experience of something that ‘yashrahu al-qalb.’ And so does feeling the gentle caress of the afternoon Mediterranean breeze in our front yard in Arrabeh. I think my wife understood the concept. But Toufiq nearly ruined it for me by claiming that for him the thought of the synchronous greatness of human minds from different cultures ‘yashrahu al-qalb’ as well. I contested that claim at the experiential level.

Then, toward the end, my friend and fellow traveler threw a monkey wrench in the works that nearly ruined the whole trip for all of us, especially as I felt challenged to match his misgivings with a corollary of my own. Toufiq acknowledged that he found meandering down the Arabian memory lane in Andalucía in springtime particularly refreshing. Alas, a vague sense of impending aggravation had accompanied him all through the spree. He did not dwell on it but could not free himself completely of its nagging. As he shared this with the rest of us, its exact nature dawned on him: At the end of this most liberating two-week sojourn, he knew deep in his subconscious, we will be returning to Israel and its oppressive airport security procedures. Our Arab identity, the very same secret source of distinct pride and elation in Al-Andalus, will serve to discredit and disadvantage us in Israel. And it won’t end at any foreseeable geographic or temporal deadline like our trip does.

My own vague sense of trepidation came from different psychological concerns. All through our trip I couldn’t but harbor a mild feeling of guilt, an undercurrent of negativity that nearly always perturbs my joy and comfort in any pleasurable circumstance: By what right did I qualify for such a treat while so many others who I knew would have enjoyed it just as much did not? I know all the standard responses I could marshal to justify my occasional forays into pleasurable adventure. And these are likely to be convincing to most. Still, I failed to submerge completely the uncomfortable tug of so many disadvantaged others at my heart.

In the privacy of my dreams I came up with a plan that frees me from all guilt: What I doubt others would have contemplated after such a trip is my secret plan for endless joy and rejuvenation: I will open a school for Flamenco in Arrabeh. True, I lack the musical bend, the booming voice, the rhythm and the physical agility. But I have the suffering and the hope.

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