Tales of al-Andalus: Lecture Review

Last Thursday, I gave a lecture at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria) for the second year in row. Coinciding with the anniversary of the surrender of Granada (the last Islamic Kingdom in al-Andalus) in 1492, this year’s lecture, titled ‘Tales of al-Andalus‘, offered a different perspective and some fascinating details:

A saint from the Orient is re-invented as the ‘Arab-Slayer’ (Santiago Matamoros)…
A man flees persecution in Baghdad only to revolutionize the cultural scene in Cordova (Ziryab)…
An Andalusi envoy to the Vikings enchants their queen (Yahia al-Ghazal)…
A group of 3,000 moriscos give up on farming and turn into pirates in Morocco (in Salé)…
Rebels exiled from Cordova found an Andalusi republic in Alexandria then another in Cyprus (9th century)…
A man from Toledo lays the foundations for the glory of Timbuktu (Ali ibn Ziyad)…
Ibn Khaldun sees the orange trees at the Alhambra and forsees the fall of al-Andalus (14th centrury)…
The stories told presented a potpourri of moments, events and encounters that define the ‘human condition’ in al-Andalus, a ‘paradise lost’ for some, a ‘poisoned paradise’ for others.

Among the questions asked following the lecture were the following two questions:

Why is it that the Arab World never witnessed anything similar to the Andalusi refinement again in history?
Why weren’t the Arabs of Andalusi origin granted the ‘right of return’ to Spain?

Questions and answers apart, lecturing at the Library is always a rewarding experience. Even more rewarding was the visit to some extraordinary places in Alexandria, but that’s another story. Many thanks to the BA team for the kind invitation and for making this event possible.

My Lecture in Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Tales of al-Andalus (2 Jan 2014)

(Scroll down for Arabic)
I am pleased to announce that I will be giving a lecture at Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Egypt) on 2 January 2014, titled ‘Tales of al-Andalus’ (2 hours, in Arabic). Through these tales, I will try to trace distance memories and present an alternative history of one of history’s most fascinating periods. The lecture starts at 18:00h and the tales are:

Bird of the Orient
Saint Matamoros
Between two ‘Hakams’
The Majus Crisis
A Manuscript’s Odyssey
From Yusufiya to Nasiriya
Ibn Khaldun’s Orange
The Hornachos Pirates

محاضرتي في مكتبة الاسكندرية: حكايات الأندلس (2 يناير 2014)
يسعدني أن أعلن عن قيامي بالقاء محاضرة في مكتبة الاسكندرية في 2 يناير 2014 بعنوان “حكايات الأندلس” (ساعتين، باللغة العربية). سأحاول من خلال تلك الحكايات أن أستحضر ذكريات بعيدة وأن أقدم تاريخ غير تقليدي لواحدة من أروع فترات التاريخ. تبدأ المحاضرة في تمام الساعة السادسة مساءاً، والحكايات هي:

عصفور من الشرق
القديس قاتل العرب
بين الحَكَمَين
محنة المجوس
رحلة مخطوط
من اليوسفية إلى الناصرية
برتقالة ابن خلدون
قراصنة هورناتشوس


The City – Constantine Cavafy

“When you set sail for Ithaca,
wish for the road to be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.” – From Ithaca by Cavafy

Most poetry lovers would recognize the name of Constantine Cavafy in correlation with his masterpiece, the immortal ‘Ithaca’. The Greek poet who spent most of his life in Alexandria showed a clear ‘Hellenistic’ imprint in his writings.

A few years ago, I stood in the balcony (photo below) of Cavafy’s house in Alexandria (house/museum). I stood there alone, then came an old man who stood next to me and started reciting beautiful verses. When he finished, I asked him what that poem was, and he told me it was The City by Cavafy. I will never forget that poem, and I invite you to do read and reflect:

“You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these very same houses.
You will always end up in this city.
Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.”

The view from Cavafy's House in Alexandria

Published: The Andalusi Legacy in Alexandria – I (Intro)

Few cities in the world can rival the glory of Alexandria’s radiant past. Throughout its history, Alexandria was always a cosmopolitan city (things changed in the 1950s). Much can be said about the city’s Ptolemaic rulers, its Hellenistic refinement, its Roman importance and its Coptic splendor. Nevertheless, one the most interesting chapters of the city’s history remains to be largely ignored: the Andalusi presence and culture in Alexandria, brought by medieval travelers, intellectuals, scholars and saints from al-Andalus (the name given to the territory governed by Muslims in present-day Spain and Portugal between 711 AD and 1492 AD).

My new series examines this ‘chapter’ as it tracks the footsteps of three of the most important and iconic Andalusi figures that left a lasting legacy in Alexandria and the Delta. Here is the link to the introductory article of the series, published 3 days ago:

Alexandria, the perfect destination for many Andalusi scholars and refugees

Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ – III: In Alexandria, Luxor and Qena

“It is probably here (in Alexandria) that the word cosmopolitan realized its true meaning.” – Carl Sagan

To me as Egyptian, one thing is to admire Carl Sagan for the great scientist (and person) that he way, and another thing is to see him walking the streets of my country, explaining the glorious history of the Bibliotheca of Alexandria or the journey of Champollion to the Temples of Dendara and Karnak on his quest to decode the hieroglyphs.

Apart from the ‘emotional’ value of these scenes, they also carry a ‘documentary’ value (they are from 1980, and show an interesting social and urban fabric).

You can watch him in Alexandria at the following link (minute 38:00 for a few minutes):

And at Qena, Luxor and other places in Upper Egypt (minute 12:18 to 28:15):

My Lecture on Granada in Alexandria: The Journey (Aug 29th)

Today I had the honor of being invited by the Journey Group in Alexandria as guest speaker to give a lecture about my ‘journey’ as an Egyptian living in Andalusia (Granada). After quitting the corporate life for good, I dedicated my life for what I really like: I headed to Spain where I did cultural studies and studied history.

Following an introduction about the turn that my life took, I gave a presentation about the history of al-Andalus and its relation to Mediterranean cities like Alexandria.

I would like to thank Marwa Medhat, Heba El Cheikh, Eman Ashmawy, Mohamed Nada, Radwa El Barouny and others for their hospitality.

My 1st Article in El Legado Andalusí: Alexandria, the Capital of Memory

Today the Andalusi Legacy Foundation (Fundación El Legado Andalusí) published my first article in its quarterly magazine. This is my very first article to be published in Spain, and I’m very glad about collaborating with this foundation. Based in Granada, its focus is to raise awareness about the history and culture of al-Andalus inside and outside Spain.

The article is about Alexandria, once a cosmopolitan city where Egyptians, Greeks, Italians, Cypriots, Maltese and Armenian communities lived side by side. Centuries prior to that, the city was a magnet for Andalusi intellectuals, scholars and mystic: names like al-Mursi (from Murcia) and al-Shatibi (from Shatibi) are among the most prominent. Going back further in time, one is awed by the famous Bibliotheca where the Hellenistic culture reached an unprecedented level of splendor and refinement under the Ptolemaic patronage.

But the city is much more that that. it’s truly a capital of memory with layer upon layer of history, but even more important, it’s the ‘great winepress of love’ as Lawrence Durrell once called it, and to many, it’s the ‘Ithaka’ that Kavafis once described.

You can read the entire magazine (including my article) in Spanish at:

You can read the Arabic translation for parts of the article at: