Al Andalus: Ziryab and the Winds of Culture

Free-lance journalist and former film correspondent at The National newspaper, Abu Dhabi

The intoxicating story of the 9th century Iraqi artist-innovator now being made into a film.

The Ziryab Project: A cocktail of ingredients and musical spices in progress. A musical and gastronomical glimpse at The Ziryab Project: “Ziryab and the Arab Footprints in Spain”

If you’ve ever eaten asparagus, danced the flamenco, or even washed your hair or eaten a three-course meal, you may be surprised to learn that it could well be courtesy of an Iraqi gentleman by the name of Abul Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi.

Ibn Nafi was a ninth-century Baghdad native, believed to be of Persian or Kurdish descent, who usually went by the more manageable moniker of Ziryab, or Blackbird. A talented musician and singer who lists adding the fifth string to the oud, also know as “the soul” ,among his sizeable rosta of achievements. Ziryab fled Baghdad in around 809 AD, having fallen foul of his jealous master who threatened him as he was becoming the favourite of the Abassid Khalifa of Baghdad, Harum Al-Rashid. After a long journey South and West, he found himself settling in the then-emirate of Cordoba in Al Andalus, on the very far edges of the Islamic empire and now modern-day Andalucia in Spain.

Karen Lugo Universal Dancer 1

As a courtesan to Spain’s Moorish rulers of the time, Ziryab’s influence is nothing short of jaw dropping. The musician, courtesan, polymath and astronomer is credited with introducing asparagus, at the time considered a weed that should be eaten by horses, to European palates.

He brought the tablecloth and the starter/main/dessert meal orthodoxy, then considered standard in Iraq but alien to ninth century European tables, to Spanish diners; he introduced glassware to the Western drinker in preference to the metal goblets of the time, and as a fashion influencer of his day is noted for bringing the fringe to the hair of Spanish women.

EL AMIR guitar & oud

Ziryab popularised forms of deodorant, toothpaste, and shampoo that at the time were unheard of in the barbaric European territories. And of course, with his revolutionary five-string oud, he fused Western and Arabic musical traditions and is widely cited as fundamental to the creation of flamenco music.

Ziryab’s relative obscurity with a documentary that he hopes will not only bring the man himself to the fore, but also underline how the links between East and West have historically been a force for cultural and political good, despite the many tensions of the modern age. He wants to trace the influence of the original Ziryabs, musicians, dancers, chefs, and cultural icons of our time.

Ashti Abdo – Tanbur

Cantos admits that he himself hadn’t heard of Ziryab until he was filming the documentary Caravan (directed by Gerardo Olivares in 2004), about the salt caravans that traverse the Sahara Desert, and was randomly pointed in the direction of a magazine article about the millenium-old genius. He has a good idea why that is: “The problem with history is that, when you lose, as the Moors in Spain ultimately did, it becomes contaminated,” he says. “And let’s be clear too, he didn’t actually invent these things, that’s been exaggerated over the years. He brought them to Spain, which at the time was a bunch of fairly barbaric Iberian and Roman-Visigothic tribes and kingdoms not always very refined to say the least, while the likes of Baghdad and Damascus were the London and Paris of the age, the centres of all the advances of humankind. It was really just fortunate that he was invited to the Cordoban court of Abd Al-Rahman II, who was a very cultured ruler by the standards of ninth-century Iberia. He preferred art and development over war, so it was basically a really beautiful coincidence.”

Z Team Madinat al-Zahra Arches

Cantos is perhaps the perfect person to tell Ziryab’s story, as his own journey through life is almost as epic as his subject’s. A physical oceanographer by trade, the Spaniard resolutely avoided his homeland during the very last years of Franco’s dictatorship, instead studying in the UK and the US. He eventually abandoned ocean research having tired of the endless bureaucracy required to attain funding and moved into the human rights sphere, personally arranging the Dalai Lama’s visit to Spain in 2003 and boasts film making and writing on his packed CV too. Even our own conversation is delayed thanks to Cantos being trapped on a train midway from Los Angeles, where he had been meeting potential distributors for his film, to Seattle by the wild fires currently raging on the US West coast.

Paco Morales Noor Restaurant

This is clearly not a man that takes the easy route, so it’s perhaps not surprising then that he hopes his efforts to tell Ziryab’s story will be more than a simple historical document, instead using Ziryab’s musical fusions between Eastern and Western culture as a metaphore for how we could live our lives today:

“I think the world is becoming more racist, not less. Certainly, Spain is,” the director asserts. “And I want my film to send a message of tolerance. That cultures don’t have to destroy each other; they can actually live together. Cordoba at that time had more synagogues, churches, and mosques than it has ever had, and yet it was under Muslim occupation, so to speak. Then the Christians took over and not only destroyed a fair deal but expelled the Jews and the arabs and enforced Christianity to those who stayed in dehumanising ways. Flamenco music is in part, the musical expression of those painful years of hiding and pretending. The Spanish or Andalusian Blues, as I call it. And usually, even if the ‘winner’ doesn’t destroy everything, he manipulates the narrative, misappropriates cultural elements, or covers it up. That really upsets me because that makes us often impostors in our own culture. I think giving credit and merit to the mix that makes us all up is something that should come naturally, because we are all a mixture of tribes, of ethnicities, of cultures. I think that’s a healthier way to go, and I hope my film can show that with music, dance, food, and architecture as vehicles for my story. All creative collaborations and production facilities welcome in this task.”

Alan Cantos, director and scriptwriter

Alan can be reached on email

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