After a troubled wedding night, Asghar and Zahra hope to revive their relationship during their honeymoon in southern Spain. While Asghar is entranced by the legacy of Islamic Andalusia, Zahra is less impressed. When they meet a Spanish convert to Islam called Tariq, the pair are unwittingly drawn into his dramatic plan to revive the caliphate from the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba.
They climbed up to the Alhambra through the misty dawn. Already there were a hundred or so tourists queuing at the entrance, like medieval petitioners waiting for an audience. Standing with Zahra, Asghar read aloud from the Islamic history book he had borrowed from the new mosque’s library, authored by one Dr RS Hassan, PhD.
After the conquest of Spain eighty years after the Prophet’s death, Asghar informed Zahra, the Muslims created the first multi-faith society, in which Jews and Christians were free to practise their religions.
“It says here,” said Asghar, “that even the Jews call it their Golden Age.”
“Some amazing Muslims were Spanish—Averroes and all that lot,” said Zahra. “They were close enough to the Europeans, you see, to pick up their learning.”
“Wasn’t it the other way round?” asked Asghar. He quoted Dr RS Hassan’s words: “The Muslims translated ancient Greek works—Plato, Aristotle—when Europe was still in the Dark Ages. They were the best for poetry, medicine and philosophy, while the Christians were busy fighting each other.”
“Well, I’m sure it was a two-way process.”
“Dr Hassan says Granada fell in 1492 because people like Ibn Rushd were too Westoxified. They became too settled in their ways and soft—not like the old tribal warriors of the desert.”
“Have you read any Averroes?” she asked.
“I haven’t,” he admitted. “Why, what does he say?”
“Well, it’s very complex,” she said vaguely. “Look—we’re nearly at the entrance.”
By the time they reached the head of the queue, the sun was beating down hard. Entering the cool palace was a welcome balm. The buildings were smaller than Asghar had expected and not as impressive as the monumental shrines in Iran he had visited. Zahra informed him that the subtle beauty of the courtyards lay in their perfect proportions—the bright ponds and intricately carved calligraphy. Perhaps that was why, she said, after quickly glancing at Wikipedia on her phone, that the conquering Castilian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella did not destroy the Alhambra as they had the other Muslim splendours of Granada. Instead they took up residence and frolicked about in Moorish dress.
Asghar and Zahra left the palace and climbed the crowded tower where Boabdil, the last caliph of Spain, had been forced to surrender the city’s keys to the Christians. Looking out at the stunning mountain landscape that had once belonged to the Muslims, Asghar felt incredibly sad. He had hoped that visiting Granada would make him feel proud of these early European Muslims, whom he regarded as his spiritual ancestors. Yet he found the city suffused with melancholy: every church was built on a destroyed mosque; the palace of Charles V, next to the Alhambra, was a grey stone monstrosity that had replaced the grand mosque. All that was left of a great civilisation were a few quaint tourist spots: all Spain’s Muslims had either been converted or expelled. It might have been a long time ago but Asghar took the Reconquista personally. For him it recalled the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnians only a few years earlier; perhaps, he thought gloomily, given the way things were going, something similar could happen in Britain. He looked at the Western tourists sitting on the floor scoffing squashed ham sandwiches. They seemed oblivious to the tower’s significance or else saw it as a relic of a lost world that could be admired only because it had been defeated. Asghar, though, looked at the Alhambra as a warning from history. He wanted to explain all this to Zahra, but she was too busy re-tying her hair into a bun. She pushed her large sunglasses over her head.
“Time for a selfie?” she asked.
After wandering in the gardens for a while, they returned to the Albayzin for lunch. Moroccan immigrants had recreated a souk-like atmosphere among the steep alleys, and opened halal places to eat. They spent a pleasant hour at Ricote’s Cafe where they ate chicken wraps and chips, and spoke to the waiter in madressa Arabic. Returning to Casa Benengeli, they lay in bed and dozed.
Asghar woke up feeling aroused. He put an arm on Zahra’s shoulder and pulled her round to face him. Still half-asleep, she resisted at first but then gave way into his arms. He kissed her neck and she gave a little moan. He stroked her shoulders with his hands. She seemed aware of what he was doing, but didn’t open her eyes. He carried on for a bit and then stopped, feeling both disappointed and relieved. Their failed wedding night had raised the stakes for every subsequent physical intimacy. One misplaced word or misperceived gesture could make a fragile situation worse. Zahra snoozed with her mouth slightly open—a picture of innocent pliability. He touched her cheek with the back of his hand and slowly disentangled his body from hers. She must be just as nervous, he thought—all this was new to her as well. He tried to be cheerful: if they both kept taking small steps, they would eventually meet in the middle.
That evening they walked hand-in-hand from Casa Benengeli to a plateau from where, their landlord Ian had told them, they could get an excellent view of the Alhambra. Under a cold moon the Moorish palace was bathed in golden light. Zahra was wearing a floral-pattern summer dress just above the knee; it looked pretty daring to Asghar, but no one knew them in Spain so he figured it didn’t matter. And it did make her look achingly sexy.
Just then a familiar sound drifted on the wind: a muezzin reciting the call to prayer. They followed the voice down an alleyway and round the corner, where they found a brightly lit mosque. Asghar saw a man standing by the entrance; noticing his curiosity, the man beckoned them to come forward.
“As-salaam aleikum,” said the man, who had fair skin and a wispy ginger beard.
“Wa aleikum salaam,” replied Asghar in his best accent. The man told them his name was Tariq, and that he was the mosque’s guardian. Asghar said they were visitors from England.
“Welcome,” he said, inviting them inside and staring disapprovingly at Zahra’s legs. “Please come for Isha prayers.”
“I’m not dressed properly,” said Zahra, crossing her bare arms self-consciously.
“Don’t worry,” said Tariq. “My wife will bring proper clothes for you.” He phoned his wife and spoke a few words in Spanish. Asghar glanced at Zahra but she betrayed little emotion. Other worshippers rushed past them—including, Asghar noticed, the Moroccan waiter who had served them that afternoon. After a minute or two, Tariq’s wife emerged with a bag of clothes. Her face was veiled except for her startling blue eyes. Zahra wore the scarf she was offered and wrapped another round her exposed legs. Following Tariq’s wife, she walked awkwardly towards the ladies’ entrance. Tariq directed Asghar to where he could perform wudhu. Inside, the mosque was beautifully decorated with a low chandelier and bejewelled prayer niche. He joined the prayers, which were led by an imam wearing a brown cloak and green fez.
Outside, Asghar found Tariq speaking to Zahra alone. She looked uncomfortable wearing a large green woollen cloak.
“Wow, you look like a Jedi!” he said. Zahra tilted her head at him sarcastically.
“I was telling your wife the history of our Granada mosque,” said Tariq, whose English was fluent but accented. The mosque, he told them, had been the first built in Spain since 1492. Planned since Franco’s death, it had only been completed a few years earlier, in the teeth of opposition from the Church and conservative Spaniards. That was why he, Tariq, stood guard at the entrance during the call to prayer.
“I do not look for trouble,” he said, “but we must be careful.” The imam and most of the congregation were Moroccan; but Tariq was a Spanish convert to Islam—the word he used was “revert”—who claimed he could trace his ancestry to before the Christian reconquest.
“My family were forced to practise Islam in secret, praying and fasting behind closed doors. Eventually, the pressure was too much and they forgot where they came from. But they were Muslim for hundreds of years—”
“Longer than ours!” said Asghar, enchanted by the story. “—so it could not all be erased.”
“We’re staying in an old Arab guesthouse,” said Zahra. “Casa Benengeli!” said Asghar.
“Just like the one my ancestors lived in,” said Tariq. “Did you notice the door?”
“The big black one?” asked Asghar.
“You will find a hatch,” he said, framing his face with his palms, “built by the Catholics to spy on Muslims. They checked to make sure that you were drinking wine and eating pigs—that you weren’t fasting in Ramadan or celebrating Eid.”
“Astaghfirullah,” said Asghar, tutting in the way his father did whenever he heard about some shameful calamity that had befallen Muslims.
“Even today you can’t eat in a Spanish restaurant without pig meat in your food.” Tariq’s grey eyes glistened. “They slip it in the soup even if you say you’re Muslim—especially if you say you’re Muslim. That’s our situation in al-Andalus. Nothing has changed in five hundred years. The Castilians will never accept this is our land, not theirs.”
Asghar felt a rush of vindication. Tariq was articulating exactly what he had felt on Boabdil’s tower.
“Tell me,” continued Tariq, turning to Asghar, “will you visit Qurtuba?”
Tariq looked briefly vexed but then regained his composure. “Cordoba. It’s a famous city, not far from here. There is a wonderful mesquita.”
“Is that the Cordoba Mosque?” asked Asghar. “Apparently it’s amazing.”
“Some of us are going there tomorrow for Friday prayers. You must join us.”
“That sounds great,” said Asghar. “We planned to go anyway.” “We’ll try to make it,” said Zahra.
Tariq insisted on walking them back to Casa Benengeli. On the way he told them the story of his reversion to Islam. Visiting his grandfather in the countryside as a boy, Tariq had seen him wake before dawn and wash his face and arms at the farm faucet in the yard, and then do some stretches—“a bit like yoga.” Only years after his death did Tariq see Moroccans performing wudhu and praying salaat; and only then did he recognise these half-remembered rituals as unconsciously preserved from his Muslim ancestors.
“I pray for my grandfather every day. I say the prayers he wanted to speak but he never knew the words.”
Opening the black door, Ian looked surprised to see Tariq and greeted him warily. They spoke in Spanish while Asghar and Zahra stood quietly. When Tariq was ready to leave, Zahra remembered she was still wearing the green woollen cloak from the mosque. She told him she would go and change and bring it back.
“Keep it,” he replied. “You can wear it tomorrow. Women are welcome.” She protested but he insisted.
“Let’s swap numbers,” said Asghar, already looking forward to the Friday adventure.
Once the door was closed, Asghar told Ian he thought Tariq was an interesting guy.
“What did he tell you?” asked Ian. Asghar repeated the story about his Spanish Muslim ancestors. Ian chuckled.
“His name isn’t Tariq,” he said, “it’s Alonso. I’ve known him since he was a teenager. His parents are lawyers from downtown—Catholic as the hills, especially the mother. They helped me buy this place.”
“What’s his deal?” asked Zahra.
“Alonso always changes his story. First he was a surrealist, then a punk, and now he’s a Muslim. His parents sent him to an American school in Madrid, away from a bad crowd. He met a Turkish boy whose father was some big cleric. When he returned to Granada he claimed he was now a Muslim—and that his family was descended from Mudéjars. Al-onso, do you get it? We thought it was another phase, but this time it appears to have stuck.” Ian ran his fingers through his slicked-back hair. “For me all religions are the same: -money-making schemes run by powerful men with beards. The stories I could tell you about the Church.” He stopped on the stairs and half turned around. “But still, you hear funny things about his mosque.”
“What things?” said Asghar, alert to Ian’s suspicious tone.
“Someone told me they invited a preacher who wanted Muslims to reconquer Spain, bring back the caliphate—that sort of thing.”
“We didn’t hear anything strange,” said Zahra.
“I’m not saying Alonso is into anything dodgy—he’s always been a polite kid. But a couple that stay with me every summer, their cousin was killed on the trains in Madrid. So we have to be vigilant.”
Now the atrocity had been invoked, the conversation had nowhere to go.
Back in their room, Asghar said he thought it was inspiring that Islam was finding a home where once it had been so ruthlessly suppressed. Zahra said Tariq was creepy. She hadn’t liked how close he had stood to her while they were alone in the mosque’s courtyard. And why had he insisted on walking them home?
“He’s standing up for Muslims—in a place they were ethnically cleansed, just like in Bosnia.”
“Those things were five hundred years apart.”
“Tariq said people hate the mosque. They had a pig’s head thrown in the courtyard.”
“Why are you suddenly in love with Tariq?” She started to take off her Jedi cloak.
“Just because he reverts to Islam, that makes him bad?” “He’s not a revert; he’s a convert.”
She was struggling with the cloak and so he came over to help. “When one member of our family is being oppressed,” he said, “we have a responsibility to support them. That’s all Tariq’s doing.”
They finally got the cloak off. Zahra scrunched it up and threw it under the bed.
Zahra had risen at dawn but Asghar had taken so long to get ready they almost missed the coach to Cordoba. Taking her seat, she was sweaty and palpitating—definitely in no mood to chat about what the day might bring. After attempting to share his excitement a few times, Asghar got the message and, after closing his eyes, slumped awkwardly on his side, fast asleep. Once she was awake, Zahra couldn’t nap and reading on coaches always made her feel sick. She stared out of the window. In the distance the snowy tips of the Alpujarras looked majestic above the lemon trees. She wondered about Tariq. Was he rebelling against his Catholic parents, as Ian had said, or was he seriously exploring his Islamic heritage? Either way there was something disconcerting about his harping on 1492. Surely, she thought, history was the story of one group of people conquering another, from east to west and west to east? How did Asghar think Spain had become Islamic in the first place?
They arrived in Cordoba late morning, and followed the pretty streets towards the mesquita. They walked along the river bank, watching smaller vessels trying to navigate around the larger tourist boats. “Tariq said he would be leading Friday prayers at the mosque,” Asghar said. “We should hurry up.”
“We have time,” said Zahra, who would not have minded missing Tariq.
At the mesquita, Zahra was surprised to see signs announcing it as a cathedral. She had assumed both religions shared the space, but Tariq had given the impression that the mosque predominated. Stepping inside the imposing walls, there didn’t seem to be anywhere to put their shoes. She picked up a leaflet printed by the Church authorities. Upon their conquest of the region, it read, the Moors destroyed the Visigothic church that had stood on the site and built a mosque in its place. When the Church reclaimed the building in 1236, it reconsecrated the site and built a cathedral within the old mosque walls. Where they were standing, the pamphlet made clear, was a purely Christian place of worship. Zahra felt like an interloper. Tariq’s green cloak stayed tucked in her bag: the stern guards patrolling the place did not look like they would appreciate her wearing it.
Further inside, they saw the red-and-white banded pillars sprouting from the floor like palm trees.
“That’s the mosque part,” whispered Asghar. A statue of a man riding a horse caught Zahra’s eye. A sign described him as “Santiago Matamoros”; below the horse’s hooves were the crushed bodies of Muslim soldiers. She shivered. Back home, her family would sometimes visit old churches, and she would happily rest on the pews while her mother lit a candle. Mrs Amir had been to a Catholic school in Nairobi and liked to say a prayer for the nuns who taught her. But here the ghost of the Moorish mosque was discomfiting: taking a pew would mean taking sides in an ancient battle; lighting a candle meant approving what the Church had done to the place.
She left Asghar staring upwards at the wave of pillars, and took refuge in a museum-like display in a nearby alcove. A glass case housed medieval gravestones, which had Latin inscriptions on one side and Arabic words on the reverse. Rather than make new tombstones, the sign said, the Christians had reused the Islamic monuments for their own purposes. She felt relieved to find a place that offered some anthropological neutrality. The only reason the Muslim tombstones had been saved was because—like the building itself—they had been too valuable to discard. The gravestones, she concluded, were moving emblems of the true multicultural inheritance of Muslim Spain. She circled the stones respectfully.
Asghar, however, did not see the gravestones in the same way.
“It makes me want to cry,” he said when he saw them. “Our Muslim brothers dug up and disrespected so Christians can steal their treasures.”
“The gravestones must have been lying around.”
“Now they display their triumph over us, for all and sundry to witness. Just like the statue of Santiago Matamoros—Moor Killer.”
“That statue must have been put up ages ago,” she said, although she too had felt a chill when faced with the gold-flecked stone saint, his sword raised in triumph.
“They should pull it down. It’s offensive to Muslims.” After knuckling the glass where the gravestones were kept, he went round to the Arabic side and recited prayers for the dead. Zahra spied a portly security guard looking at them. She pulled Asghar’s sleeve. “Let’s see what’s over there,” she said.
They found the large glass screen that protected the old prayer hall. There was a magnificently inlaid mihrab—the niche from where the imam led the congregation—whose design the new Granada mosque had imitated. She pressed her nose to the glass trying to make out the Arabic words framing the arch, which was engraved with flowers. The ebb and flow of its pattern was hypnotic—inspired by a love that had never waned or faded.
“Tariq’s going to lead prayers here,” said Asghar. He looked at his heavy silver watch, still loose round his wrist. “I wonder when they open the place up?”
“It’s very open-minded that the Church lets Muslims pray here,” said Zahra, still hoping Tariq wouldn’t come.
“This isn’t a church: it’s a mosque,” said Asghar emphatically. “You can’t stop a Muslim praying in a mosque.”
“Well, it looks a lot like a church to me.” She waved her hand towards the grey walls and plaster saints.
“You know they changed all the mosques in Granada to churches? Every one.”
“How do you think Christians felt when the Turks took Istanbul?” asked Zahra, who was determined to be the reasonable, rational one in the conversation. “Weren’t their churches turned into mosques—wasn’t this originally a church?”
“That was different.”
“Islam spread peacefully. You could keep your religion if you wanted.”
“You sound like bloody Tariq,” she muttered.
Their voices attracted the attention of the security guard, who pointed to the ceiling as a reminder of the cathedral’s sanctity, before putting a finger to his lips. Zahra raised a pacifying palm and drew Asghar away from the prayer hall. Just then she heard a loud cry from the entrance. Three men dressed in knee-length white robes and Palestinian head- scarves were arguing with a black-cassocked priest. She recognised Tariq’s voice.
“They’ve come!” cried Asghar. Zahra stood paralysed as Tariq and his sidekicks wrestled their way past the protesting priest, and strode towards them. The security guard kept his distance but spoke a few panicked words into his walkie-talkie. In front of the prayer hall, Tariq unfurled a red and gold mat, touched his earlobes with his stretched thumbs, and called out “Allah-u-akbar, Allah-u-akbar!” in poorly accented Arabic. The two followers behind him crossed their arms. Before he started the prayers, Tariq turned round to invite Asghar and Zahra to join them. Zahra, still holding her husband’s sleeve, felt a strong tug. Fearing he was about to join the prayer invasion, she pulled him back. Asghar stumbled and looked over angrily. Taking out his phone, he began filming Tariq bowing and kneeling as he led the others in prayer. Other tourists appeared and started taking pictures. For a few moments all was calm.
Suddenly, a dozen Spanish policemen rushed towards them, their boots clacking menacingly on the stone floor. The security guard shouted with relief. Tariq continued praying, serenely oblivious to what was happening. Asghar and the other tourists raised their phones again. Without allowing them to finish praying, the policemen grabbed Tariq and his followers. There was chaos and shouting as blurry batons struck the men’s robed bodies. As he was being put in handcuffs, Tariq shouted something in Spanish. Zahra shrank back, fearing he might have something more spectacular planned.
Once Tariq had gone she felt ashamed of her fears; she had reacted just like those prejudiced people who avoided Asian men on the Tube. Asghar was watching the footage he had just shot on his phone. She was about to say something, when the security guard ordered them and the other tourists out of the cathedral and into the harsh afternoon sun.
This is an edited extract from Sameer Rahim’s novel Asghar and Zahra (JM Originals)