Let’s set the record straight – I’m no exchange student. I’m just a Londoner remembering SOAS while away and sending my thoughts back home. My time in Andalusia, Spain was not long but so packed with culture that I left feeling I knew the place, like I know London — which is to say lovingly, but not well. Andalusia is a southern region in Spain widely known for its flamenco dancers, bull fighting rings, and orange trees (which you should, and I write from experience, not eat from out of season). What might surprise you is the presence of Muslims, and Islamic history in an otherwise Catholic state. Muslim dynasties in Europe are often glossed over (cough buried) under various narratives, mentioned briefly as “The Classical Age” but the Islamic influence I saw was undeniable. As a British Pakistani (Pakistani British?) Muslim I’m quick to love any culture that resembles my own.
Our first two days in Seville and Cordoba were nothing if not mesmerising. Gothic and Islamic architecture combined, transported me to the eras they were created. Sharp spires against rounded arches had my eyes wandering. Truthfully, the first few days of the trip were mostly spent adjusting my focus, practicing taking in my surroundings. When I got back to London, I remember finding my eyes soaking up little details I never thought to notice. Nevertheless, we trailed from sight to sight. From Plaza de España, to the Cordoba Mosque (now a cathedral on the inside), each stop captured our interest as much as the last. Our tour guide Abu Bakr, a Granada native, delved deeper. He told us, the defining characteristic of the Ottoman Empire was the co-existence of different belief systems. The empires following, unfortunately, had less tolerance. Cathedrals next to mosques, and minarets next to bell towers only existed in Abu Bakr’s descriptions, while the erasure of mosques and Muslim spaces was the reality we saw. Although the Arabian influenced kufic calligraphy and geometric designs were clearly displayed at Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba, Muslims were not allowed to pray inside. Tour guides, like Abu Bakr, were not allowed to offer commentary inside the monument. The hidden history had us all leaving a little sadness behind in Cordoba.
The remaining days were spent in Granada (meaning pomegranate!). If quaint could ever be used for a city so alive I might use it now. Although most of the focus was on the Alhambra Palace (definitely worth the hype) my newfound friends and I found beauty in more than that. A street artist named Ahmed, by a fountain in Granada shuffled through four languages before beginning a conversation with me. My friend, Firdowsa, exchanged compliments with a beautiful woman sitting on her balcony. A vendor invited us into his store, ignoring his sales in lieu of discussing the importance of women in Islam. These small encounters showed me what travelling is really about — the people.
There’s really nothing like learning history in the place that it happened. As my imagination played catch up with my surroundings, filling in the gaps that Abu Bakr left in his little stories and anecdotes, the world continued around us. I felt trapped in a moment that had long passed and left me behind. What I didn’t expect to leave Andalusia with was a feeling of bittersweet familiarity. As with any break from reality, I wanted to stay, but more so I wished to be a part of that place. I left with a longing for a time where iconography didn’t bombard you so that when you saw it, you really saw it; a space to unapologetically exist. I know I’ll be back someday, but next time I won’t try the oranges.