Tribute to Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Earlier this month, as I entered through the gate of Bibliotheca Alexandrina to give a lecture, I could hear my heart beating loud, not out of anxiety, but rather out of awe for the place and its history. As I addressed the 180+ attendees, I started my lecture with an introduction that explained it all:

“it’s an incredible feeling to be lecturing at an institution that, in its original version, was the main vehicle of the Hellenistic Culture (whose capital was Alexandria, the world’s most learned city at the time). Under the Ptolemaic rule –and later under the Romans- this institution along with other ‘sister’ entities witnessed the genius of such names as Claudius Ptolemy (Geography), Aristarchus and Hipparchus (Astronomy), Eratosthenes (Mathematics), Euclid (Geometry) and the great Hypatia (Philosophy, MAthematics, Astronomy, etc.) whose assassination in 415 AD symbolically marked the end of Classical Antiquity. This place used to be a temple to knowledge, a beacon of humanism, a dream for travelers, and we should have these meanings present in our minds before I proceed with the lecture.”

Attached are photos from my lecture.

Published: In the Footsteps of Andalusi Mystics & Intellectuals

Now that al-Andalus has become a ‘trending topic’ in the Arab World, another article of mine was published in Al-RAWI – Egypt’s Heritage Review, this time about the lasting legacy left by Andalusi mystics and intellectuals in Egypt, with a focus on Alexandria, Damietta and Cairo.

While al-Maghreb received a huge wave of Morsicos, Egypt and Syria had their fair share of Andalusi immigrations during earlier centuries. Celebrities like al-Mursi, Ibn al-Baitar and Ibn Arabi ended up settling and dying in both countries after having taught and shared their knowledge with devout followers.

The article tells it all, and the official website of the magazine is:

Magazine CoverTopics in this IssueCover Page for my article

The Perfect Artist

During my art course in Egypt, someone asked me about whom I would consider to be the ‘perfect artist’. She gave me options actually! I had to choose between Michelangelo and Da Vinci. I failed her down.

An artist can never be perfect without the innovation of Masaccio, the skill of Ghiberti, the grace of Botticelli, the quality of Raphael, the mystery of Da Vinci, the talent of Michelangelo, the attention to detail of Jan Van Eyck, the confidence of Dürer, the mastery of Titian, the monumentality of Rubens, the attitude (problem) of Caravaggio, the grandeur of Rembrandt, the ethics of Delacroix, the wisdom of Blake, the sharpness of Goya, the softness of Monet, the productivity of Picasso, the madness of Dalí, the brushstroke of Van Gogh, the freshness of Gauguin, the boldness of Matisse, the honesty of Schiele, the intensity of Munch, the creativity of Klimt, the bitterness of Lautrec, the sweetness of Modigliani…do you see how difficult it is?

Then you have the “Salieri”s and the “Barromini”s of this world, eclipsed by the “Mozart”s and “Bernini”s of this very same world…were they less passionate about their art than any of their more famous contemporaries? Not a bit. Artists will keep on trying…they should…but as Salvador Dalí once said: “Don’t be afraid of perfection, you will never reach it.”

The Last Judgment - Michelangelo

Published: The Patios of Cordova

Cordova may be famous worldwide for the Mezquita (the Grand Mosque dating back to the Umayyad Period), but what really drew my attention when I first visited the city was the elegance of the Cordovan patios. Recently, the traditional Fiesta of the Cordovan Patios has been added to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

An article of mine was published about this Fiesta in Ahram Online. You can read it here:

The delusional calls to ‘recover’ al-Andalus

Following the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (which they would call al-Andalus) in 711 AD, the Andalusi society eventually featured a very interesting ethnic and cultural mosaic. Then came the Reconquista, the Christian armies started gaining back territory slowly but surely, and the social mosaic became even more sophisticated. A couple of days ago, while lecturing on al-Andalus at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, I explained some interesting ‘elements’ of the Andalusi society:
1- Muwallads (muladíes مولدون)
These were the sons and daughters of Muslim conquerors and native Christian women. The term also extended to describe natives who converted from Christianity to Islam.
2- Mozarabs (mozárabes مستعربون)
These native Christians maintained their religion under Muslim rule, but adopted many elements or the Arab culture and language.
Later on, two more elements would come into play:
3- Mudajjan (mudéjar مدجنون)
As the Christian armies took back several cities, several Muslim communities chose to stay and live under Christian rule, maintaining their religion.
4- Moriscos (moriscos موريسكيون)
Following the surrender of Granada and the introduction of the Inquisition courts, scores of Muslims had to convert to Christianity, becoming new Christians of Moorish origin, better known as moriscos. They were finally expulsed from Spain (some 300,000 moriscos) between 1609 and 1614 under Felipe III following a tragedy that extended for over one century. The Jews were forced to leave much earlier (Sephardim), and also scores of them had to convert.

Obviously, from the Arab-Islamic viewpoint, al-Andalus was ‘lost’, while from the Western standpoint, it was ‘liberated’. Such is the case with history always: it can never be read in a unilateral way or a linear form, or based on a single discourse.

Calls among some Arabs to ‘recover’ al-Andalus are more than just absurd: they are delusional! For one thing, al-Andalus no more exists; because it is a historical concept and should always be treated as such. It was occupied by the Arabs and Berbers, but was never their homeland or their native territory. Moreover, calls to ‘recover’ territory just because, hundreds of years ago, it was under Islamic rule, is closer to intellectual terrorism than it is to rational thinking that would foster intercultural dialogue. With all the Islamic and Arab countries around the world that are lagging behind culturally and scientifically, wouldn’t it be a better idea to start with themselves and alleviate the suffering of their own people than ‘yearn’ for a land that their modern feet never stepped?

I yearn for al-Andalus myself, not the land but rather the state-of-mid, not the territory but rather the cultural renaissance, not the traditional geography but rather the moral one… and I will end it here.

Boabdil handing the keys of the Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs