~~The great Syrian writer Abd el-Salam al-Ujaili wrote “The Lanterns of Seville” in 1950’s as tribute and mourning. Today, as Syria is cannibalized by external and internal forces, this gem of a story is as alive and resonant as it must have been six decades ago.
“The Lanterns of Seville” remains a great literary text, an enduring braid of sorrow and beauty, of loss and symbolic reconstruction. The translators are Tania Tamari Nasir and Taline Voskeritchian. This first English translation of the story appeared in Words Without Borders, the on-line magazine of international writing in translation. ~~
The Lanterns of Seville
Abd al-Salam al-Ujayli
To Julienne Peters of Brussels, who was moved to tears by the beauty of the Alcazar in the Seville of the Arabs, I dedicate these lanterns.
“Would you look down on a cousin of yours if he addressed you in a language other than his own?” said Professor Alsido—for this is how the dancer with the magical eyes had introduced me to him—as he gulped his first drink. “I’ve heard you speak fluent French, so allow me to converse with you in that language.”
I nodded in agreement and promised myself to listen to this intruder until the very end.
“I noticed that you were annoyed by Jacinta’s behavior. True, her manner is hurtful, but you were not its target, dear cousin. It was an arrow directed at me even though my skin has thickened like a crocodile’s. Still, Jacinta’s wondrous eyes absolve her of her sins.”
“Is that her name?” I asked.
“Yes. Jacinta. It is a beautiful name, and she is beautiful. Don’t you agree?”
I turned round. She had moved to the next table, and just as she had done with me earlier, she was talking flirtatiously with the casino’s other patrons. She was truly beautiful: her figure sensuous, her arms well-rounded, her eyes large and luminous-the intensity of their whites set against the deep black of the pupils. A purple rose was pinned to her black hair.
Only a little while ago she had stopped by my table with a question. When she saw that I was not fluent in Spanish, she said, “Is the gentleman Portuguese?”
I had shaken my head indicating that I wasn’t.
I laughed because I knew that my dark complexion had led her to this conclusion. I shook my head again.
“Then, where is the gentleman from?”
“I am an Arab.”
“An Arab? From Morocco?”
“No, from far away, an Arab from the mashriq.”
She had turned toward a table close by that was almost hidden behind one of the garden’s rose bushes and said in a loud voice, “Alsido! This gentleman is an Arab. He came here like you looking for his ancestors’ property.”
Her frivolity had annoyed me; it also brought Professor Alsido to my table. Alsido was white-haired, slim, his eyes deeply buried in their sockets but shining still like the eyes of a bird of prey. His long-veined fingers were suggestive of an inherent artistic bent and a life of leisure, although his elegant yet rather shabby clothes showed a semblance of false aristocracy. One look at him and I recognized the class of people to which he belonged, those hangers-on whose rare qualities of joviality, intelligence and savoir-faire insured them a place in one’s heart. I had seen many of these types in the countries I had visited, and here was a new one.
He drank the rest of what was in his glass in one gulp, looked at me and asked, “When did you arrive in Seville?”
“Great. You have done well to have begun your visit here, in the casino, with some of Seville’s most beautiful women. Jacinta is only one of them. I hope you will find among them one who will be your guide to the Alcázar and the Torre del Oro and would walk with you on the banks of the al-Wadi al-Kabir, in the moonlight. Look over there. ”
I looked up at the full moon slowly ascending the dome of the sky while Alsido continued. “A walk on the banks of al-Wadi al-Kabir in the moonlight is sublime!” He seemed to be whispering to himself.
“Does the moonlight remind you of things long gone?” I asked.
He laughed. “Yes” he said. “It reminds me of the past, of the time when I too came looking for the world of my ancestors.”
His words brought back to me Jacinta’s jeering remark. “Did your ancestors have any property in this town?” I asked.
He protested indignantly, “Property? They were its masters. Jacinta and her friends make fun of me, but we were once Seville’s masters.”
“You were? Who are you?”
“You and I, dear sir, we the Arabs.”
“You are an Arab, Professor Alsido?”
“Did you realize this only now, my dear cousin? It was stupid of me not to tell you the minute I met you. Here I am called Alsido, but you will call me al-Sayyed Baqlada. It is not my real name but it is close. You will probably go to Meknes one day and look for the Baqlada family and tell them how you saw their son drinking wine at the tables of a casino in Seville.”
I looked at Alsido again, examining his face and appearance. This white-haired man could very well have been of Arab descent; one sees a lot of his features in Andalusia. He looked back at me as if he was reading my thoughts, and to my surprise addressed me in Arabic in the Moroccan dialect. “Did you think I was Spanish? You are right. Who would imagine meeting an Arab in the casino in Seville? I myself would not have imagined it.” Then he reverted to French. “The waiter is coming to our table. Can you buy me a drink?”
I gestured to the waiter with my hand; Alsido turned his head to the sky and said, “A walk on the banks of Guadalquivir by moonlight is something glorious!” Then he fell silent while I turned to look at a dancer who had appeared on the dance floor in a flowing, sea-blue Andalusian dress. The lament of the guitars accompanied the clap of the castanets in her fingers and the tap of her heels on the floor; with each turn, the folds of her dress, like pulsating waves thrusting themselves against the thighs of a naked swimmer, would swirl and gather around her for an instant, then quickly recede to reveal her slender legs.
I did not attend to my companion until the music stopped and the lights went on again in the garden. Alsido suddenly broke his silence and said, “Don’t you want me to tell you my story?”
“The story of your ancestors?” I said, a cynical smile on my face. His eyes clouded, and a certain gloom seemed to descend on his face. I sensed that my tone must have hurt him even as I wanted to apologize. His silence suggested that he might not speak to me again, but his passion was stronger than his willpower, and he was soon calmly asking me, “Have you ever heard of the Keys of Return?”
“What are they?”
“The Keys of Return. People say that it is a myth, but in Meknes alone I know of ten houses where the Keys of Return hang from their portals. Five centuries ago our ancestors, yours and mine, dear cousin, were forced out of this country to the shores of Africa. In the confusion of defeat and the humiliation of loss, they could not carry with them the land that they had watered with their blood nor the palaces their hands had built or the art treasures they had created in the paradise of Andalusia. They left everything behind, fleeing with their lives. But some carried with them to the other shore the keys of their palaces as mementos of the lost paradise and as prompts for the return. If by chance you were to enter the old homes in the alleys of Meknes, Fez, Melilla, all the way to Kayrawan, you will find in any one of them, at the entrance, a rusty key, its meaning forgotten by the present owners who think that it is nothing but a useless object. But if you really know the extent of what the world owes our ancestors, you had better kiss that rusty metal object and lift it up to your forehead in reverence, for it is one of the many Keys of Return.”
After the last impassioned sentence Professor Alsido stopped talking, and in the silence I slowly began to see him in a different light. Alsido was not some social parasite drowning down glass after glass of Andalusian wine. To have found him in a casino in Seville was to have been reminded of the Arabs’ historic past in Spain. I had thought that only the stone lions around the pool of Alhambra Palace in Granada—there, for eight centuries—embodied the past. Everything that brought back the memory of the Arabs in Andalusia was either dead or fossilized, but here was a living remnant, speaking to me about the glory of Andalusia under the watchful eyes of Seville’s beautiful dancers. I sat up in my chair, ready to listen to Professor Alsido, or al-Sayyed Baqlada, who began telling to me the story of the Keys of Return and the world of his ancestors. I waited in anticipation signaling to the waiter. Alsido resumed his story:
“One of these Keys of Return was in the home of the Baqlada family in Meknes. It was not hung at the entrance but occupied the façade of the octagonal main hall after the entrée. Its ceiling was held by double columns at each of its corners. Its eight windows, which opened onto the garden, culled the light and then scattered it over the key so that it looked like a crucified Christ on a cathedral’s altar.
“As a boy I would often stand gazing at the key that my ancestors had inherited, my mind wandering to imagined worlds far away, worlds from which this key had come and to whose shores it promised a return. Like me, for five consecutive centuries all the boys of the Baqlada family had stood where I stood, but I doubt that any one of them was as preoccupied as I was. Where in Adalusia was the house whose key this was, on the plain or on the mountain, on the shore or in the valleys? Was it a cavalier’s fortress, a rich man’s palace, or the cell of an ascetic monk? I would then ask myself, This return, when will it be, how will it be, and will it ever be? Oh, the dreams of youth, dear cousin, the pain of all dreams.”
Alsido sighed before he finished his drink and continued.
“Then I grew up and bid farewell to my youth and crossed the Strait to Spain. No, better say, I returned to Spain. This was not the return that had consumed the dreams of my youth, but I nevertheless longed to see with my own eyes the land that was a lost continent to me. Dear cousin, you might be from Baghdad or Damascus or from Sana’a in Yemen, but wherever you come from, you undoubtedly have experienced here, in Seville, a moment when you thought you own a part of this place, that a unbreakable bond connects you to it. As for me, here—in Cadiz, Valencia, the mountains of Granada, and in the plains of Algeciras—I felt that I was discovering lost parts of my being. I was sure that whichever narrow alleyway I might take, in any of the neighborhoods of old Andalusian towns, I would surely end up at a locked rusty door, and that if I but turned the Key of Return, the key that hangs there in the octagonal hall in our old home in Meknes, I would open it as if it had been closed but moments ago. And so I ended up in Seville . . .
“I reached Seville one evening much like this one, exhausted from the Andalusian heat and the long, slow ride of the correos train. You probably did feel this kind of heat and exhaustion if you traveled by train from Granada or Córdoba. Much like the heat of Andalusia, which has not changed for thirty years, the correos train has remained the same all these years. My hotel was situated on a busy street. The steam created by the sprinklers, which had been turned on to humidify the air, seemed to rise from the street, where the feet of the pedestrians stirred up slimy dust particles that the stillness of the air then held like a thick, inert presence pushing against the frantic crowds. I stayed in the hotel for a while. Then after a cold shower I was off on my tour of the city.
“My wanderings did not have a special purpose, and if they did, I would not have known it in a strange city I was visiting for the first time, and at dusk. My feet took me to a semi-deserted street where a damp breeze blew as if it had just passed over the nearby river. Around the bend a street vendor softly peddled his prickly pears. On the opposite sidewalk I noticed something whose shape I could not make out in the darkness that had slowly begun to infiltrate the narrow streets. So I crossed over to see it at close range. It was a gate to a long corridor whose walls and ceiling shone with decorated porcelain tiles. At the end of the corridor was a door of plaited forged iron through whose opening one could see a circular hall, its walls beautifully embellished with a particular Andalusian style that gives the illusion of embroidered cloth rather than engraved stone. From the ceiling hung a lantern whose surfaces exuded a tender light that streamed through the intertwined patterns of the latticed iron door and created on the corridor’s floor an identical pattern of shadows. The entire hall seemed to be enveloped in an atmosphere of silence twinned with mystery, tranquility with charm.
“I stood for a long time contemplating this strange entrance with its latticed door, the soft lantern and the mist-filled hall. I did not realize, until after I had passed it, that I was in a quarter where all the houses had such alluring entrances. I roamed the narrow, empty alleys that were lit solely by the wandering rays of the lanterns hanging from the ceilings. The halls themselves were of different shapes and styles, some square, others round. Narrow benches of glazed tile and colorful flowerpots were spread across some of the halls, while in the middle of others stood small fountains of gently babbling waters. All these halls were visible through the beautifully decorated plaited patterns of the iron doors. Everything pleased the eye and captivated the heart, but the most glorious of all were the lanterns that silently diffused the rays, which in turn coiled around the intertwined iron and the engraved marble as if enamoured by their beauty. From the open sides of some of the lanterns light flowed in a wide, restful stream. The other lanterns, whose light seemed to have come from stars of a distant firmament, were girdled with filigreed brass. Some lanterns were still, as still as the halls themselves, while others swayed tenderly in the breeze that slid through the windows. A total calm pervaded everything, as though the lanterns were the sentries of an abandoned city whose inhabitants seemed to have fallen under the spell of a long sleep and had become one with the inanimate decorations on the walls.
“It occurred to me that I was in an enchanted city, a place of beauty and silence—not a sound, not a moan, save the sweet rippling waters of the fountains. The few pedestrians who once in a while walked in these desolate alleys moved with the stillness of a bird, as if they were ghosts sleepwalking. I was not content to just gaze from afar but moved toward the latticed doors, where I stood, touching the iron plaits and straining to no avail to hear the mere sound of a living soul behind them. Suddenly it dawned on me that the night had set, while I thought it was early evening. Leaning against one of the doors, I wondered, What if someone came out and saw me standing there so still? What would he think? Suddenly I realized that the door I was leaning against had turned round on itself, and without a single move I found myself in the midst of one of the halls I was only minutes ago contemplating from afar.
“I was instantly seized by a mixture of embarrassment and awe, and I felt compelled to return to the dark alley that had brought me here. But the calm of the place and the soft light of the hall’s lanterns gently diminished my anxiety and threw on everything a mantle of tranquility. It seemed to me that if I were to enter the hall and walk around, I would not have transgressed. I had entered this hall unknowingly, in spite of myself, and as I contemplated my surroundings, a curious peace came over me and my agitation passed. Indeed, the place was not strange to me; the walls seemed familiar, the double columns in each of its corners were identical to the columns I knew so well. I counted the number of windows encircling the hall. They were eight, covered with intertwined wooden panels of dark green, behind which I thought I heard the rustle of branches in a garden I could not see but I knew for sure stretched beyond the hall. I also knew that if I but pushed the small door near the latticed iron door from which I had entered the hall I would be in that garden. I remembered now where I had seen this hall before. It was indeed the octagonal hall of the Baqlada home, with its latticed window panels and its double columns in each of its eight corners. I was so certain that I suddenly turned around and walked to the front of the hall, looking for the key that should have been there, the key on which the light would fall like light from a cathedral window falling on a crucifix. The Key of Return . . . but on the empty surface of the key’s place the reflected shadow of the lantern, exposed to the passing breeze, was swaying back and forth, and with it the lights and shadows of perforated brass, intertwined iron, and the potted flowering plants on the window sills.
“The Key of Return was not hung in its place in the front of the hall, and this alone convinced me that I was not in the hall of the Baqlada family in Meknes but in a similar setting somewhere else, in Seville. This was the only difference.”
Here Alsido fell into a long silence, as if he had wanted me to absorb in this intermission the full import of what had happened to him or what he claimed had happened to him as he roamed the alleys of Seville one night. I, for my part, was listening to him with studied nonchalance, but in reality I was attentively following his story. It seemed to me that all he had said so far was really a prelude to what was to be stranger still. I urged him to go on. “Was the Key of Return with you?” I asked.
“It occurred to me then what has occurred to you now, dear cousin. I was sure that if I had turned the Key of Return, the one that hung in our house in Meknes, turned it in this door’s lock, I would have opened it, but the Key of Return was not with me. I was sure that my forefathers in Meknes, who built the octagonal hall with the double columns in its eight corners, were in fact re-creating this very hall and its architectural style. A torrent of emotions tugging at me, I moved as if in a trance to the small door at the far end of the hall and which, I was sure, would open onto a garden whose trees and paths I knew one by one. I moved toward it, and just as I used to push those gates every evening in Meknes, I pushed the gates that night in Seville and through them was propelled into the darkness and beyond.
“Indeed, there was a garden beyond the hall. Close to the door, the trees were of beautiful brushwood so densely thick that the lantern’s pale light could not break up the darkness, but wayward streams of moonlight crept through the tress, illuminating the leaves’ edges and turning them into specs of glittering silver. A clearing was nearby, barren except for weeds carpeting the surface, enveloped by the light of the full moon. I stood in the dark, scanned my surroundings, trying to note the degree of similarity between this garden in Seville and the other one in Meknes, but I could not see any difference between the two, and so I returned my gaze to the clearing, luminous against the surrounding darkness as though the spot was itself the source of the light. I heard a distant rustle, sensed a shiver under my skin: What had become of me? Where was I? Where had this courage and devil-may-care attitude come from? The sound was getting closer. It was clear that the intruder was a person slowly finding his way back, moving toward my direction and heading to the door through which I had come in. I stood still unable to turn back, watching, expecting to see any minute now in this clearing of light the gardener with muscular arms or the pot-bellied owner of this majestic estate. It was not long before the thick trees parted to expose a figure that stood in the illuminated spot as if it had reached its destination. It turned its head upward, its face open to the moon. My heart skipped a beat. The figure that had quickly disentangled itself from the shadows was a woman.
“Yes, a woman. She stood in the moonlight, a flowing black gown enfolding her stately figure, her naked arms clasped to her chest. Around her neck was a shawl that fell down to cover her shoulders. In the light cascading over her body, I could see her heaving bosom from under her white hands, as if it were that of a creature fleeing the hunter’s snare. As you know, the light of the moon erases features and dilutes colors. Her features were indistinct, and were it not for the youthful silhouette of the elegant figure standing not far away from me, I would not have been able to tell her age. I don’t know how long she stood like this. I was seized by a torrent of emotions—caution, lest any movement on my part divulge my presence in this place, at such a time; hope, that she would pass by me on her way to the hall; and desire, that she remain there, transfixed, statuesque and divine in the gushing light. In my present state of mind I could not tell how much time had passed. Why had she slowed down and stopped after seeming to be in a hurry to get here? Was she simply catching her breath, avoiding for a while her pursuer or was she on her way to an appointment, afraid that she would not make it on time? And again what secrets lay beyond these giant trees? Entranced, full of questions, I must have inadvertently made a move that resounded in the absolute stillness of the night . She turned toward me—in fear or anticipation, I could not tell. I was gripped by awe and terror as I saw her walk slowly away from the light and toward the darkness that surrounded me. I was sure that she would not be able to see me; I was leaning on the bark of a tree behind me. She walked, unwavering, toward me, and rested her hand on the tree’s trunk, her naked arm hovering over my shoulder so that I could almost feel it touching my hair. Strange, isn’t it, how an instant can absorb a thousand emotions all at once! Her fragrance overwhelmed me, and I seemed to be borne into a mysterious world, devoid of the familiar trees, octagonal halls, and lanterns of perforated brass—a world of secrets, its inhabitants mere shadows. Her towering figure was so close that more than anything else I wanted to draw her warm body into an embrace. Desire numbed me and a strange quiver gripped me. Was it the heat of the summer night or the uncanny situation in which I found myself? My heart sunk low, my head whirling with thoughts, I felt her lips searching for my ear, reaching it, almost touching it, then a word—mañana—whispered in a throaty voice. Then she pulled herself away and ran back to where she had come from, through the luminous clearing.”
Thus far, Alsido had drunk five glasses of wine on my account. He knew, like the writers of newspaper serial stories, where to stop, how to leave his reader in suspense until tomorrow’s installment. I gestured to the waiter and asked for more wine, but Alsido surprised me by putting his hand over mine and saying,
“If I drink one more glass, I will not be able to finish the story for you. Leave it for when we are to part.” I accepted his suggestion and continued, “Mañana, it means tomorrow, does it not?” I asked.
“Yes, it means tomorrow. Bakir or bukra in Arabic, but it is more poetic than our word. Mañana, she had whispered in my ear before leaving, entrusting me with the word. I remained transfixed for a long time, entertaining all sorts of possibilities, trying to understand her actions. Had she, thinking that I was a willing lover and yet fearing that she was being observed, given me a rendezvous for tomorrow? Dumbfounded and torn, I carefully gathered the fragments of my astonishment, walked through the small door to the octagonal hall where the perforated lantern and their shadows were swinging, and proceeded to the forged iron gate, then the entrance, and from there to the desolate quietness of the alley beyond.
“Mañana, the word rang in my ears in a throaty melodic voice. I interpreted its texture variously, by turn as the expression of a feverish desire or of fear and terror as though she were begging for help. Why was she afraid, this beautiful woman haunting the palace of my ancestors? . . . Yes, I came out of the quiet alley convinced that this was in fact the home whose keys my ancestors carried on the day they were forced by Isabella and Ferdinand’s armies and the whips and hot iron rods of the Inquisition, forced to leave the Andalusian paradise and take refuge at the frontiers of the African desert. There was no other explanation as to how alike the two halls-one in Andalusia on the bank of al-Wadi al-Kabir and another in Morocco at the foot of the Atlas Mountains-were in their architecture, their double columns, their eight windows with the deep green wooden arabesques, the two small doors that lead to the gardens beyond. What force of fate had driven me to this enchanted city, the city of ornamental lanterns, the light whispering over the Andalusian motifs to usher me into a hall no other than the hall I had left behind, where the Key of Return, the ancestral reminder to the generations that would follow, hung from its front wall? And I wondered, To what purpose did fate lead me here, to where this young woman bent over me, her fragrance intoxicating me, her voice shaking with desire, perhaps fear, whispering in my ear the word for both tomorrow’s terrifying unknown and its exhilarating possibilities. Mañana? What was destiny’s hand in all this?
“I could not sleep that night. The impulse that had made me leave my city and had led me to Andalusia had been masked with a thousand guises, all of which had dropped yesterday when I found myself in the octagonal hall. I was not a rich heir who had wanted to amuse himself and pass the time as a happy tourist. My cousins and friends would go to Paris, Geneva, Cannes, and the Lake District in Italy, while I alone went to Andalusia in the oppressive, sweltering heat of the correos train. I moved between those sheltered cities nestled in the bends of valleys and at the foot of mountains, looking for the old neighborhoods and what had remained of their houses. What amusement, what pleasure in all this? In the octagonal hall I indeed discovered that what I was really looking for—the door whose lock the Key of Return would open—and I had found it, in the folds of darkness and obscurity. The whole thing was a platform, so it seemed, set up for a mysterious drama whose meaning could only be unlocked with the key of a simple word: Mañana.
“That night, I tossed and turned in bed, asking myself, Was it in fact true that tonight I had entered a hall in Seville like the hall of the Baqlada family in Meknes? Did a young woman’s slender body lean over me, and did her lips whisper a magical word in my ear? Was there in the whole of Seville a quarter like this one where strange lanterns swing to the breeze? Or was all that I had seen a figment of my imagination, inspired by my reading of One Thousand and One Nights, tales that vanished as soon as they saw the light of day? What shall I say, my dear cousin? The brilliant light of day had come, tomorrow had arrived. Mañana. Do you think that all I had seen was an illusion? Of course not, definitely no. It was real, a reality engraved in the crevices of my forehead and in the whites of my hair. Mañana, mañana, how I wished you were but an illusion among illusions!”
Alsido’s voice was muffled and his eyes welled with tears as he repeated his last sentence. I was sure that the strong, aromatic Andalusian wine had played its trick on him. His story was still suspenseful, and his emotional state suggested that it had not ended yet. Wanting him to continue, I asked, “Then this was really your forefathers’ mansion?”
“Yes, it was, it was. In the days that followed I came across a thousand more pieces of evidence. I cannot describe to you the feelings that possessed me then—pride, dignity, confidence and benevolence. I would walk the streets imagining the waves of al-Wadi al-Kabir calling me, recounting the tale of my forefathers, and when the bells of the Giralda tolled, I thought I heard the minaret from my ancestral past calling the faithful to God. Everything that I have read in those tales of pride and glory I saw come to life in the dim light of the lanterns of Seville and in the arabesques of the Ambassadors’ Hall in the Alcázar and in the ancient, tall palms of the gardens of the old quarter. If you only knew what thoughts filled my mind during those days, what things I secretly planned! Ask about my young friends in Morocco, about my letters, and how they fired the embers of lost glory in the hearts of my friends. The old rusty keys that hung at the entrances of a hundred African homes came to life, and once again became the siren of an awakening, a blazing movement that was sparked by the swinging lanterns in the octagonal hall of the double columns. This all happened thirty years ago, dear cousin. If you had lived thirty years ago, you would have no doubt seen my friends gaze anxiously across the length of the northern shores of Africa—from al-Kayrawan to Sebta. You would have witnessed how they abandoned the light of the stars, and with determination and hope focused their sights on the tender light, the holy light of the land of mythical splendors, the light of the Lanterns of Seville.”
I interrupted Alsido, for I could see that he was agitated, and I asked him, “And what about that garden rendezvous with the girl?”
Suddenly, he lowered his voice and slouched in his chair. His voice was a whisper. “Yes, there was an appointment the next day, mañana. I met her then, my dear cousin . . .”
He breathed deeply as if he was about to begin a new, less exciting chapter in his tale, but before he could utter another word a woman’s voice was calling him. “Alsido!”
He turned around and so did I. It was the flirtatious young woman to whom I had spoken earlier and who had had brought Alsido to me; she was calling him.
I said, “It is Jacinta calling you.”
“Yes, it is Jacinta. I’ll come back to you.”
His back hunched; he got up and walked to where she was. I saw her throw a gown and a dancer’s colorful shawl on his arm. Then she walked, and he behind her, his head lowered, his gaze lifeless, his step a shuffle.
I waited for Alsido to return to my table, but he was late, very late; I had to leave. As the headwaiter was giving me the bill, I asked him, “Is the gentleman from Seville?”
He looked at me with a confused look. I asked again, “The gentleman, I mean this man who went with Señorita Jacinta.”
“You mean Alsido. He is Conchita’s servant.”
I corrected him, “I am asking about Alsido . . .”
He interrupted me. “It is he himself, sir, Professor Alsido. The dancer whom he accompanied is called Conchita, but he calls her Jacinta. He calls every beauty in Seville Jacinta.”
“Do you mean that Alsido is the dancer’s servant?”
“Everyone finds this shocking, when they see his aristocratic bearing and hear his sophisticated conversation, but this is the reality, sir. I’ve known him for at least eight years now, and I don’t remember that he was ever absent from the casino even for one night since I have been working here. He has a smooth tongue, and as you can see, his appearance is rather elegant. He has a long-standing claim to the historic palaces of Seville, but people here call him Jacinta’s besotted fool. They say that in his youth, more than thirty years ago, he had lost all that he owned—he was a very wealthy man at the time—when he had fallen madly in love with Doña Jacinta Alvarez.” The waiter then moved away, thanking me for the generous tip.
*** It was two o’clock in the morning when I went down the Number 2 tram in the Plaza Nubia, close to my hotel. I had thought that after a tiring day of touring and this long evening, I would want to sleep, but Professor Alsido’s, or al-Sayyed Baqlada’s, story took hold of me, I who had not believed him at first, and I could not sleep.
The Plaza Nubia was swarming with people. Andalusians are intimates of the night; they were not used to sleeping at this hour. So I changed my mind and did not go back to my hotel. Instead I let myself be led onto a street where there were few pedestrians. I wanted to go into the humid night, to walk under the shining moon. I needed to re-create for myself the tale of this wildly imaginative intruder I had met. Or was he a lover gone mad, or a proud man who suffered deep humiliation, or a Moroccan nobleman who was broken at the threshold of his lofty ideal? I wished he would come back because I wanted to ask him how he was able to find that octagonal hall once again, he who had entered it by chance? Who was the Sevillian beauty who had promised him a rendezvous, and how was it that circumstances crushed his pride and buried him alive in the slime of the casino? I do not know what he would have told me if he had returned and continued his story. He would have probably talked till dawn. Yet the headwaiter’s comments carried within them possibilities that were more than a simple story; they portended a violent tragedy or a comical farce.
I was possessed by Alsido’s story. I walked aimlessly in the narrow dim alleys, and when I came to myself I remembered the neighborhood of the halls with the forged iron doors and the hanging lanterns. I found myself in an alley exactly like the one Alsido had found himself in the first night he came to Seville. There were those low open doors, each one leading to a corridor covered with colored tiles, and at the end of each another forged iron door behind which appeared a hall with decorated walls, forged iron windows, water gurgling in its finely crafted fountains, flowering plants, each one a tiny garden in an enchanted city, creeping over the windows. In this dewy night, the halls seemed to be floating in curtains of light coming from the lanterns with their exquisite arabesques, as if, as Alsido had noted, the lanterns were sentries at the gates of a paradise abandoned by its inhabitants who had fallen asleep. What that wretched Moroccan had told me was not all false illusion, for I seemed to be reliving the moments of that memorable evening he had described a few hours ago. And it seemed to me that if I but pushed the forged iron door that faced me, I would have come to the octagonal hall, the one similar to the home of the Baqlada family in Meknes, and if I but pushed the small door at the back, it would have led me to a garden where he met his beloved Doña Jacinta Alvarez, as the headwaiter called her, and I would have but heard her whisper, mañana, mañana.
I must have spent a long time, my eyes closed, re-imagining Alsido’s story. The character of al-Sayyed was much like me, more so than I had realized when I first met him. Is he not an Arab, like me? And this enthusiasm that took hold of him as he came to Andalusia from Meknes, was it not the same enthusiasm that had filled the hearts of my compatriots at a period in our lives when we used to dream of the places touched by the hoofs of our ancestors’ horses? The difference between him and his compatriots, and at one time I might have been one of them, was that he had tried to break through the dream and step into reality, but his wings melted in the light of the sun. I grieved for him—the intruder who went searching for his glasses of wine amid strangers who came to the casino, the aristocrat whom fate had pushed into servitude, who carried the sheer garments and underclothes of Seville’s dancers. And in my sorrow I took him into my heart. With my own eyes—not his, but my own—open wide, I looked at the hall that was visible behind the forged iron door in front of me.
It was square, simply built; on its side two doors opened to the darkness beyond. In front of it stood another wide open door that revealed four small trees lit by the cascading light that seemed to have decorated it with brilliant red flowers cushioned by tiny green leaves. They were four flowering pomegranate trees, so similar to the four trees of our own backyard at home, seas and deserts away. I stood frozen in my place, cold shivers running over my skin. It was not only the pomegranate trees that were like the trees at home, but it was this hall behind the latticed ironwork that seemed to be the hall of our home. I could not believe my eyes. I blinked several times to make sure of what I was seeing, but nothing of what I had seen earlier had changed. Was this an enchanted city? I stared the at the four pomegranate trees, and in my mind’s eye I envisioned al-Sayyed Baqlada’s fate. I imagined that I could see among their blooms a tall woman motioning to me to open the forged iron door. The lights of the lantern hanging from the hall’s ceiling entangled me in their luminous web, pulling me to her and to the lantern itself, which was swinging like a pendulum, each of its movements whispering in my ear, mañana, mañana. With every bit of strength I resisted the desire to push the door and enter the hall, and in a desperate gesture I pulled my feet from where I stood and quickly ran away in the corridor that led to the door of the desolate alley. There I took in the fresh air, breathed a sigh of relief and started racing back to the city, the lanterns of Seville still calling me, their lights pursuing me, luring me in to the pit of their enchanted world as they had lured Professor Alsido-or al-Sayyed Baqlada-before me.
Translators’ Note: Al-Ujaili wrote this story in 1951. It was published five years later in 1956 in Beirut, by Dar al-Adab. The 1950s in the Arab Middle East was a period of considerable political change. The French and British mandates of the region had ended, and the newly independent countries were in the process of charting the post-independence nationalist paths. Ujaili, a physician by training, was involved in these changes as a writer, activist and diplomat. Arab Andalusia exerted great influence on the writers and intellectuals of the region not so much as an example of a lost empire that the Arabs wanted to regain, but rather as a period of immense cultural activity, political stability and tolerance. (See, in this regard, Edward Said’s excellent “Andalusia’s Journey.”) So Andalusia in this story and in other works of modern Arab literature is not meant to symbolize the longing for a lost empire. What is operative here is the cultural greatness of Andalusia and its loss. The loss of Andalusia is very significant because al-Ujaili was writing this tale in the wake of the Arab defeat and Palestinian dispersion after the creation of Israel in 1948. As Said says there is an imaginary line that connects Andalusia to Jerusalem. All these forces are at play in this text.