Convent and harem: the cármenes of Granada

The Spanish name Carmen is familiar to most people, and not only because of Bizet’s opera. You can’t go far in Spain without coming across a woman called Carmen, just as you can’t go far without meeting a man called Paco.

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However, in Granada (and exclusively in Granada), carmen has another meaning. The word derives from the Arabic karm, meaning vineyard, but in the colloquial Arabic spoken in Granada, it was just the term given to a rustic dwelling with a garden. If you walk through the cobbled streets of the Albaicín, Granada’s Moorish quarter, you’ll see houses surrounded by high walls, with plaques outside naming them Carmen de la Media Luna, Carmen de la Estrella, Carmen de Alcazaba… Not that you’ll see much of what’s inside. Unless you’re lucky enough to find the heavy, iron entrance gates open, all you’ll see of the lush gardens are a few trailing plants – honeysuckle, jasmine or wisteria – overhanging the walls, hinting at further delights within. But if you look across from the Alhambra, you can catch glimpses of the secret gardens that lie behind these walls – green oases amongst the jumble of whitewashed houses, with tall cypresses thrusting skywards above the rooftops.

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In fact, few of the cármenes in the Albaicín date from Moorish times. The Arab cármenes were generally located outside the main part of the city, in Fajalauza just above the Albaicín, along the banks of the river Darro and on the slopes of the Alhambra hill. The Albaicín, especially during the last years of Moorish rule, was tightly packed with houses, its population growing rapidly as waves of incomers arrived, fleeing the Christian troops advancing southwards. Many of its occupants were artisans who lived off their produce in modest houses that took up little space, although a few houses belonging to nobility did retain their orchards and gardens. Only towards the end of the 19th century did cármenes resembling urban villas start to appear, some of them created by joining together two or three of the old Moorish houses to provide sufficient space.

When I first moved to Granada in 1999, I rented an apartment in a carmen (from a couple called – guess what – Carmen and Paco). The family lived on the upper floor while the ground floor had been converted into three small apartments. In my novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate, Deborah buys a run-down carmen in the Albaicín in the late 1980s (shortly after it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site). At that time, the barrio was still in a dilapidated state, one of the poorest parts of the city. Now, having benefitted from all the funding that goes with world heritage status, the Albaicín has been transformed, with many of its buildings beautifully renovated.

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Ramón Pérez de Ayala considered that a carmen had something of both the convent and the harem: the seclusion of the convent, the intimate sensuality of the harem. The Arabs liked the idea of living concealed from the outside world, able to see without being seen. It was to indulge this inclination that they surrounded their gardens with high walls and covered them with leafy canopies, making them mysterious and invisible to passers-by. They attached much importance to meditation and the beautiful secluded gardens of their cármenes provided the perfect setting for this, offering inspiration for both the mind and the senses, for contemplation and for enjoying the more intimate pleasures they were also partial to.

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Much of the novel’s action and some of its most dramatic scenes take place in Deborah’s carmen. I like to imagine Deborah and Hassan at the height of their romance, enjoying ‘intimate pleasures’ in the seclusion of its small but delightful garden.

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