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August 31, 2004

The Green Gardens of Cordoba

I watched Lawrence of Arabia this weekend. I don't think I've ever seen it before, but it's possible I caught some portion of it on television somewhere in the past when I watched television. I added it to my Netflix queue because it's one of those must see movies that I wasn't sure I'd seen. I'm glad I did.

I'm unsure how much of the history is factual and how much is more loosely based on the events of World War I. That isn't a period I have studied much, so I am only aware of the larger outlines. I was, however, pulled up sharply by one line:

I dream of the green gardens of Cordoba.
It was one of the Arabs who said it, but I don't recall which. That really doesn't matter. What struck me was the allusion, and that this dream featured so prominently in a film made decades ago, and was based on the time of World War I.

It brought home to me in a new way the fact that the dream of a restored Al-Andalus is not the recent invention of mad mullahs or Osama bin Laden. It's a real part of the Arabic culture, or perhaps the culture of Islam. It isn't a reaction to American supremacy in the world, it existed long before that. It isn't the way American influence has changed the world that wakens that longing in the Arab chest. That longing for a time of green gardens, sparkling fountains, and temperate climates (by their standards) as emblems of a better life predate the 21st century's incarnation of modern life.

They dream of going back to the 1400s, not because those were better times, per se, but because those were the years when Islam and Arabic culture were, in their eyes at least, dominant.

But it's interesting that they do not project this dream forward into the future. They dream of going back to Cordoba. They don't, at least obviously, dream of going forward into a better future where Islam and Arabs are dominant. They seek to undo, to revert to, to somehow recover, not to make new, not to build upon the foundations of or improve upon the reality that exists.

I once bought unquestioningly the modern view that Al-Andalus was the exemplar of tolerance and prosperity for all. It is touted as a place and time where Muslim, Jew and Christian lived side by side happily. The libraries and universities were renowned for their openness, or so we're told.

But I now wonder how much of that is based upon the Arab dreams and how much on the hard facts. Much of the mystique and allure of Al-Andalus blossomed in the same era as multi-culturalism. In the same times great fables were created of African empires with advanced technologies pre-dating the entrance of Western Europeans. "Scholars" began arguing that the Greek families who ruled in Egypt were actually black Africans. We were told, suddenly, that Aristotle and Socrates were of black African ancestry. All bunk, of course. Bunk driven by an urge to mythologize a past to magically create more pride in the American black population.

I wonder how much of the modern view of Al-Andalus is spin. Looking at it from a distance, comparing it to modern governments and their tolerance, it compares better to Apartheid South African than to a modern liberal democracy. Jews and Christians were second class citizens. They had more rights than perhaps Muslims did in Christian kingdoms, but they were set apart and governed by different laws. In short, they were discriminated against. Their roles in society were limited by their identity as members of non-Muslim religions.

There was no blossoming of science in Al-Andalus of which I'm aware. I cannot name a single significant invention from that time and place. Someone more studied might name some, but the fact that a reasonably well-read individual cannot is, I think, significant. There was an important preservation of the accumulated science and wisdom from Europe, but that was not innovation. Al-Andalus provided no advance to humanity as a whole; it did preserve some ground in danger of being lost. Republican Rome offered more opportunity to the peoples it governed. All could become citizens and advance to any position given the right combination of talent, hard work, and luck.

All this adds up to the conclusion that the Arab/Muslim dream is not one of recovering land, or a way of life, or a poetic-perfect existence; the green gardens of Cordoba are a signifier for them of power and dominance. Green is their color, they wish to green the world.

It's interesting that to us, those brought up in Western culture, green is the color of envy.

Posted by dan at August 31, 2004 08:30 PM | TrackBack
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