Like most cities and towns in Europe, tourist sites invite travelers to explore magnificent buildings with histories that inspire and horrify. The United States is no different, but a shorter history means less architectural grandeur of the Cathedral sort and fewer stories of religious and cultural takeovers of the barbaric sort. Isabella and Ferdinand, sporting dreams of global manifest destiny, extended their bloodbath of entitlement to the New World, where our post-colonial, so-called democratic rulers continue to exercise their privilege to oppress. In Spain, the reconquistas tore open the ceilings of grand mosques like the Mezquita in Cordoba, building Gothic steeples that climbed towards heaven. Yet, they so revered the architectural genius of the Moors that the 14th century rebuild of Sevilla’s Alcazar, originally a 10th century Moorish palace, home to King Pedro the Cruel, was designed and crafted by Moorish workmen in the intricate, awe-inspiring Mudejar style, that turns stone and wood into delicate lace.
I have experienced the discomfort that is a by-product of historical awareness. in my own country. Most recently I felt shame walking through the remnants of the slave market in Savannah and seeing statues in Charleston, South Carolina celebrating the “heroes” of the Civil War.
In Spain, I have walked through the winding and mystical “Jewish quarters” of Toledo, Cordoba, and Sevilla, devoid of Jews and experienced the consequentquestioning of my own attraction to this country. In Granada, I witnessed the remnants of what many Moslems describe at their own Holocaust—-the excisions of all mosques and almost all Moors.
The history of Andalucia and maybe all of Spain contained the hope of a golden age. Christians, Muslims, and Jews, living in relative harmony, exploded with a renaissance of scientific and artful knowledge and creativity that moved civilization forward. In the end, the urge to conquer rather than respect one’s neighbor gave way to darkness. In each town I have visited, history is presented through a “saccharined” array of guidebooks, bi-lingual plaques, and audio devices. Guides memorize, package and deliver it in a host of languages to tourists from every part of the world. Yet, the intricate plaster lattice-work covering the walls of cathedrals and palaces, the horseshoe arches that lead in and out of city walls, the still-brilliant designs painted on tiles, and words etched in Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew reveal their own stories. My suitcase of memories is overflowing with feelings and questions, as I prepare to fly to Israel in a few days. Condemning what others have done is easier than confronting the sometimes tarnished past and present of my own ancestors and contemporaries.
Ah, Flamenco! The soul of Spain lives in Flamenco.
Flamenco is a visual and auditory feast,
but it also feeds the heart.
Flamenco has no commas or periods, only exclamation marks.
Exploding in a brilliant symphony of calloused clapping hands,
The sensual clicking of castanettes,
Fingers flying over guitar strings,
Hard-pounding dancer’s heels,
Her legs vibrating into a blur,
and the deep wail of men’s voices,
arriving from a place of mystery.
The flamenco dancer struts onto the stage.
Slowly, she looks through you and past you,
A sensual twist and turn of arms,
A dragon’s tail of ruffles,
Intricately laced like the stonework of a Moorish palace,
All eyes on her,
She lifts her chin,
In a whisper of a movement,
Removes her fan hidden in cleavage,
Spreading it across her face,
Like a tease.
In less than a pause,
She takes off like a rocket,
Raising her skirt, like a theater curtain
Feet tapping, pounding,
The audience goes mad.
And then as suddenly as it began,
Clapping rhythmns lighten,
Flamenco voices soften,
the guitar leaves only vibrations,
in this pause,
before a quiet tap of her toe,
the singer’s slowly rising moan,
a hand drumming guitar wood,
the clapping intensifies,
the audience goes wild,
as the passion begins yet again,
and again, and again.