Recreating the peaceful co-existence of Al-Andalus

I first met Nizar Liemlahi in May when I was looking for an oud player for the Granada launch of Secrets of the Pomegranate. A Moroccan living in Granada, Nizar is not only a musician but also a qualified psychologist and the founder and director of Dar Loughat here in Granada. Dar Loughat offers Arabic language courses and cultural immersion programmes for an international clientele.


In Arabic, Dar Loughat means ‘Home of Languages’ but its meaning is broader than that. Dar has classical connotations and Loughat includes the idea of cultures, the civilisations where the language is spoken. It’s an apt name because the school’s aim is to broaden people’s knowledge of Andalusian culture and create dialogue between different cultures as a way of promoting coexistence and tolerance. Students can be accommodated with local Arab families to increase their immersion in both language and culture. To this end, they can learn about Moroccan cookery or music or how to write in Arabic calligraphy. Various activities and visits are laid on, designed to show the Arab legacy in Europe – including, of course, the Alhambra.IMG_5071


When I met Nizar last week he talked enthusiastically of a new weekend course he is designing: a workshop to be called The Andalusian Way to Happiness. ‘It’s a practical workshop,’ he told me. ‘The idea is for participants to share their own experiences while exploring the beautiful human experience of al-Andalus, where people of all religions lived peaceably together.’

This history of peaceful coexistence – along with the difficulty of achieving it in our times – is a theme that figures prominently in my novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate, where Deborah, the main protagonist, discovers the richness and advanced knowledge of the Arab civilisation in Granada and begins to research it in more depth, in particular the role of women. Dar Loughat would have been right up Deborah’s street.


For Nizar, a Sufi Muslim, the spiritual aspect of al-Andalus is the most important. Since 2007 he has been making connections with spiritual teachers from all over the world, not all of them Muslims. ‘Sufism connects with something that existed long before Islam,’ he says. ‘Islam teaches us to recognise and accept other religions. We come from a big energy that some may call God, others nature, others the universe, but it’s all the same thing. He talks about exploring the meaning of life and finding the beauty in ourselves; about how we can feel happiness in our hearts and share it; about purifying our souls.


Most importantly perhaps, he sees language as an instrument for peace between cultures, language as a way of preventing wars and conflicts. ‘We need to believe change is possible, to recognise that those of us who want peace and the chance to live in dignity and fulfil ourselves as human beings are in the majority. We must stop feeling fear and be positive. Beautiful things happen every day.’


At one of Granada’s many teterías (the Moroccan tea-shops that also figure in Secrets of the Pomegranate), a group of Nizar’s students and friends from Spain, Morocco, and several European countries meet to make music, converse, read poems… We drink tea and nibble delicious Moroccan pastries. It is another of Nizar’s ideas for sharing experience between cultures. See

Where the action takes place: photos for SECRETS OF THE POMEGRANATE

A pictorial blog this time, showing some of the locations mentioned in Secrets of the Pomegranate – for those who’ve read the book and those who might intend to.

IMG_1312                                                               Sunset behind the Alhambra


2004_0923Image0060                Sacromonte and the old Moorish wall

IMG_1938Trini’s stall in Plaza LargaIMG_1933

IMG_1941Bar Aixa, Plaza Larga


The fish stall, Albaicín

 IMG_1951 IMG_1952

Paseo de los Tristes and river Darro

2004_1031Image0070          Tetería2004_1031Image0063


Moroccan shops in the Calderería

Quique's bar 3Quique’s Bar, Sacromonte

For more pictures, see my other blog posts, e.g. for the caves where Mark lives and some typical carmens in the Albaicín.

Mezquita of Granada

Visitors to the mirador of San Nicolás in Granada’s Albaicín, a viewpoint frequented by many tourists for its wonderful vista of the Alhambra set against the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, will see next to the church a beautiful purpose-built mosque blending in perfectly with the Albaicín’s Moorish architecture. What they won’t be aware of is battle that had to be fought to achieve it. The existence of the mezquita is a tribute to the patience and determination of Granada’s Muslims, who purchased the unwanted plot on which it stands in 1981. It took twenty-three years of struggle for their vision of a mosque in the Albaicín to be realised. This was the campaign that Deborah in Secrets of the Pomegranate became involved in.

D4CV3742The roof terrace of the carmen where I lived for several years was within a hundred metres or so of the designated site. The building was already underway when I moved there in early 1999. I would look across at the unfinished minaret, observing the progress made each week and then wondering why all work had suddenly stopped, the crane standing stationary and redundant for month after month, eventually stretching to years.

When the Catholic monarchs conquered Granada in 1492, the Albaicín had thirty-four mosques. Most of them were transformed into churches, the minarets becoming church towers. San Nicolas itself was once a mosque. However, this counted for little with some of the more conservative elements of the local community, who instigated a campaign in the neighbourhood to try and prevent the mosque being built. The petition presented to the municipal authorities resulted, in 1984, in a reversal of the original approval granted to the project. The mosque site was designated as for residential use only. The mosque, it seemed, would never become reality.

It wasn’t until 1994 that building permission was finally granted although obstacles still remained and it took another nine years before the mosque was completed and opened its doors to the community. Opposition persisted – Islamophobic graffiti appeared on walls in the vicinity – but the mood was changing: local authorities, the press and general public were becoming more sympathetic to the idea. When work finally recommenced, I watched with excitement as the building progressed, culminating in the mosaic decoration under the eaves of the minaret with the Muslim declaration of faith in kufic lettering.


The tower of the minaret is designed and constructed in the original Albaicín style, while famous mosques from across the Muslim world have provided the inspiration for other elements of Granada’s mosque. The Mihrab or prayer niche, adorned with beautiful panels of cedar wood from the Atlas mountains, is an exact replica of that in Cordoba’s Mezquita. The multi-coloured marble tiles are copied from the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the windows are identical to those of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Master craftsmen from Fez in Morocco designed and made the mosaic fountain in the patio leading to the prayer hall, following a thousand year-old tradition.


From the beginning, the mezquita has demonstrated a policy of openness to everyone. The prayer hall itself is for Muslims only, but visitors of all beliefs or none are welcomed in the rest of the building and in the beautiful, tranquil gardens with their uninterrupted view across the valley of the river Darro to the Alhambra on the opposite hill, Mount Sabika. Standing there quietly, looking across at that magnificent legacy of al-Andalus, you experience an almost palpable sense of Granada’s history.


As one of its pamphlets proclaims, “The Mosque of Granada signals, after a hiatus of 500 years, the restoration of a missing link with a rich and fecund Islamic contribution to all spheres of human enterprise and activity.” The fascinating mix of cultures in Granada is one of the features that has long attracted visitors to the city.

But now a battle is on for the famous Mezquita of Córdoba, which incorporates the city’s cathedral. Despite it being a World Heritage site, the Church managed to appropriate it in 2006, at a cost of €30, and re-designate it as a Cathedral rather than a Mosque-Cathedral. A Change.Org petition addressed to Unesco and the government of Andalucía has collected thousands of signatures protesting at this takeover and attempting to keep it in the public domain.


Cultural Viewpoints

Living in Spain, one of the first words you are likely to learn (one they don’t teach on any Spanish course in the UK) is guiri. This slang word for ‘foreigner’ (but only those foreigners who come from affluent countries) is the one normally used to refer to those of us who live in Spain as well as to turistas. It’s not really meant to be derogatory. Less flattering epithets like moro are reserved for the inmigrantes from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa, while those from Ecuador and South America may be referred to as sudacos. Because these extranjeros are seen as poorer, they are not generally regarded with the same tolerant amusement as the guiris. I don’t mind being recognised as a guiri, though I do object to being taken for a tourist.

In Granada, where Secrets of the Pomegranate is set, most of us resident guiris are, like Deborah, well integrated. I think this is inevitable in a city, whereas on the coast or in some urbanisations, such as those based around golf courses, the foreign community is more isolated. They may consider themselves ‘ex-pats’ – a word that makes me cringe.


Living in a foreign country is very different from being there as a tourist. After a few years you forget certain things about your birth country and take for granted the ways things are done in your adopted country. Often you only notice when you have visitors from abroad or you go back to your country of origin. The divergence in how a resident and a visitor view Spanish ways is very apparent in the novel. Deborah has lived in Granada for nearly twenty years while Alice has only holidayed there from time to time as her sister’s guest and doesn’t speak Spanish. Surface appearances can be deceptive and without speaking the language, it is difficult to penetrate the subtleties and complexities of another culture. Both sisters feel irritated at times by the other’s failure to understand her viewpoint.


Although it is often visitors to Granada who are more wholehearted in their enthusiasm while residents tend towards a more balanced view, in the timeframe of the novel, with Alice’s anxiety about her sister dominating, it is she who takes a negative view while Deborah (through her diary) is seen to react in a far more positive way, especially in her early days in Granada. The sisters’ character differences are, of course, also a factor. Deborah is more adventurous, unafraid to embrace challenge and take risks. She is fiery and rather unpredictable. Alice is steadier and more cautious; often fearful of the unknown. But many of their differences in perception are due to their positions inside or outside the culture.


Between guiris a kind of mixed English/Spanish is common currency. Even when you’re communicating in English, certain Spanish words seem to creep in and are universally used. To give a few examples that appear in the book:  fijo rather than ‘landline’ – a word I struggle to remember – or salón rather than ‘living room’, horario rather than ‘timetable’. Talking of horarios, the difference between Spain and northern Europe is one that visitors take time to understand but that once you live here you very quickly adjust to. Getting up later, going to bed later, eating later, having your main meal at mediodía, which is not midday as in 12 o’clock but between 2 and 4pm (workers do get a breakfast break to keep them going) and eating very lightly at night. It’s quite normal for music gigs to start at 11 or 12 at night; for the streets to be more populated at 4am than 4pm, siesta time.

Lecrin Valley tapa

Attitudes to privacy and personal space, to showing affection by touching and kissing (not just family but friends, strangers, your doctor, your hairdresser, your children’s teacher…); punctuality, spontaneity, the level of tolerance to noise… All these are aspects of the lifestyle that differentiate Spain and Britain and can make them seem a world apart. Deborah has long ceased to notice but for Alice, beset by fears and insecurities in addition to her grief over her sister, these differences along with the language barrier contribute to her sense of alienation.

Sacromonte caves

My last blog described Granada’s cármenes, the beautiful villas with gardens to be found in and around Granada. In my novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate, Deborah is lucky enough to live in one of these. Her son, Mark, however, chooses at the age of eighteen to live in rather more primitive conditions in one of the caves dotting the hillside in Sacromonte, traditionally the gypsy barrio of Granada.

If you look across from the Alhambra to the opposite bank of the river Darro, you will see the parched hillside above the Albaicín, divided by a medieval wall separating the two barrios: the Albaicín and Sacromonte. Amongst the vegetation of sisal, pita and prickly pear, the hillside is dotted with caves, dug out of the hill hundreds of years ago and inhabited through the centuries by the marginalised population of the city.


Some of the caves date from the 16th century, when Muslims and Jews, expelled from their homes by the Catholic monarchs, united with the gypsies, also out of favour in spite of having arrived with the conquering Christian armies. There on the Sacromonte hillside outside the city walls, they could live beyond the control of the authorities and the church.

According to one story, many of the caves were dug by the black slaves of the Moors who before their enforced flight from Granada had secretly buried their gold on the hillside in Sacromonte, or so the rumour went. El Barranco de los Negros (Black Men’s Gully) owes its name to this legend. The slaves’ attempts to find their masters’ hidden treasure were apparently unsuccessful despite the use of witchcraft to try and locate it. However, they stayed and the holes they had dug became their homes.

Although it was the gypsies who gave the area its distinctive culture and there are still many gypsy families living in the barrio, the real boom time for the caves of Granada was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when poor people from the rural areas migrated to the city and needed cheap accommodation. In 1900 there were 660 inhabited caves in Granada. By 1950, the number had increased to 3,682 (most but not all in Sacromonte).


Then, in the winter of 1963, severe floods inundated the caves and forced many families to flee to other parts of town. The devastation caused was so great that Franco came to visit and a whole new barrio had to be built in the city to accommodate the displaced residents.

Their homes did not remain unoccupied for long. The caves’ long tradition of being inhabited by marginalised sections of society soon reasserted itself in the form of an alternative community of the unconventional, impoverished or those who simply liked living close to nature. Mark, in my story, is one of a motley group of what are usually referred to as ‘hippies’: young or not so young drop-outs from all over the world. A few, like Ed and Dani in the novel, are addicts of one kind or another or deal drugs but most scratch a living by selling handicrafts: homemade jewellery, leatherwork, carvings; or by busking. There are some talented artists among them.


Free accommodation is of course the main attraction of the caves, but they do have other advantages, in particular their capacity to maintain a fairly constant temperature, staying cool in summer and offering a certain measure of warmth in winter. The degree of comfort that can be provided without running water or electricity is limited, though. Water has to be fetched from one of the fountains of the barrio, quite some distance away.

Two or three years ago, a decision was made by the Town Council to evict those who live in the caves near San Miguel Alto and prettify the area for tourists. Occupants are resisting, pointing out the long tradition of shelter for poor families in the caves and the fact that they have nowhere else to go. There is considerable support for their case and the battle is still going on.

Sacomonte has a unique character – peaceful during the day, lively by night but although its population is now more diverse and includes quite a few foreigners, the rhythms of flamenco still resound – whether the spontaneous and authentic kind or the shows put on for tourists. Well worth visiting is the open-air museum in the Barranco de los Negros (, where you can see some of the caves, furnished to demonstrate the history, customs, occupations and lifestyles traditional in the barrio.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The pomegranate – fruit of heaven

When choosing a title for my novel, I finally decided on Secrets of the Pomegranate, largely because it is set in Granada and the pomegranate is a symbol of the city. The Spanish word for pomegranate is granada although the origins of the city’s name lie elsewhere. The district now called the Realejo was, by the time of the Muslim occupation in the 8th century, home to a large Jewish population and the city was therefore known in Arabic as Gárnata al-Yahud, Granada of the Jews. Garnata later became Granada, although the Jews were expelled almost immediately the Catholic monarchs made their conquest in 1492.

Numerous myths feature the pomegranate and in many religions it is considered a sacred fruit. In the Greek myth of the abduction of Persephone by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, it is a symbol of fertility and abundance, the story being a metaphor for the cycle of growth, dormancy and regeneration.

IMG_1494The Qur’an refers to pomegranates growing in the gardens of paradise. A legend tells that each pomegranate contains one seed that has come down from paradise, while the Jews believe each pomegranate has exactly 613 seeds, one to represent each of the Torah’s commandments. (I must admit, I’ve never had the patience to count!) In the Song of Solomon, the cheeks of a bride behind her veil are described as like the two halves of a pomegranate. Christianity regards the fruit as a symbol of resurrection and eternal life: pomegranates appear in many statues and paintings of the Virgin and child. In some parts of the world it was believed to be a pomegranate rather than an apple that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Buddhism considers it one of the three blessed fruits. In China, a popular wedding present is a picture of a ripe, open pomegranate, symbolising fertility, abundance, posterity and the birth of many virtuous children. It had symbolic importance and was used for many rituals in the Zoroastrian religion too. In Persian mythology, Isfandiyar became invincible when he ate one.

Dreaming of pomegranates can be interpreted in various ways. It can signify fertility, good health and long life. Alternatively it can represent blood or the allure and invitation of sex. According to gypsy lore, unripe pomegranates foretell sickness and scandal although to dream of gathering them indicates fortune through a person of influence.


IMG_1212According to one myth, eating a pomegranate signifies that you will yield yourself captive to the personal charms of another. Which could explain Deborah’s attraction to Hassan in my novel – although by the time he presents her with the pomegranate she is already thoroughly charmed. Their relationship being somewhat explosive, it is interesting to note that the fruit gave its name to the hand grenade, which has a similar size and shape.

Aside from its religious and legendary significance, the pomegranate is highly beneficial for health due to its anti-oxidant and other properties. Pomegranate juice is widely sold in health shops, with claims that it can lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, diabetes, skin and prostate cancers and osteoarthritis, to name just a few. This is no new discovery. Pomegranates have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years as well as in recipes from all over the world. The Greek physician, Dioscorides wrote: ‘All sorts of pommegranats are of a pleasant taste and good for ye stomach . . . The juice of the kernells prest out, being sod and mixed with Hony, are good for the ulcers that are in ye mouth and in ye Genitalls and in the seate, as also for the Pterygia in digitis and for the Nomae and ye excrescencies in ulcers, and for ye paines of ye eares, and for the griefs in ye nosthrills . . . The decoction of ye flowers is a collution of moist flagging gummes and of loose teeth . . . ye rinde having a binding faculty . . . but ye decoction of ye roots doth expell and kill the Latas tineas ventris.’ This last, I discovered, means tapeworm infestation. So now you know!

Bienvenido. Welcome to my first post

sunrise from terrace

Granada is rightly famed for its beautiful sunsets but I thought this equally spectacular sunrise, taken from my terrace at 8.30 on an October morning, would be a fitting image for my first blogpost. Welcome and congratulations on finding your way to this site. I’ll be writing about life in Granada and giving some background to my soon-to-be-published novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate.

Granada in winter means dressing in layers that have to be repeatedly taken off and put on again. This morning, as usual in January, it was below freezing and with tiled floors and no central heating, the house was COLD. A few hours later, I was sitting with friends in the sunny garden of Quique’s bar, near my house in Sacromonte, feeling my face beginning to burn and wishing I’d worn a T-shirt instead of my thermal vest so I could take off my jumper. Quique is a retired flamenco dancer, always elegantly dressed, often in a white suit and cravat with a carnation in his buttonhole. Decorating the walls of his cave are large, close-up,  black and white photos of the lined faces of his mother and grandmother, who were also flamenco dancers in their day. Until her death a few years ago, I used to regularly see his mother sitting at one of the tables in the garden, solicitously attended to by Quique. Often she would appear absorbed in the music, adding her own accompaniment with the palmas, the rhythmic hand-clapping of flamenco. Paintings by local artists as well as all manner of traditional gypsy artefacts adorn the rest of the wallspace above and around the bar. In the garden, classical or flamenco music issues from a speaker but at a volume that’s relaxing rather than intrusive. It’s a great place to while away an hour or two absorbing the ambiente of Sacromonte and watching the sun set behind the Alhambra.

Quique's bar 3

Now it’s evening and cold again – at least in the parts of the house my wood stove doesn’t reach, like bedroom and bathroom. In the salón though, the heat is enough to bring the geckos out of their hibernation. If I get up in the night, I’ll often find a gecko or two on the wall, revelling in the warmth of the still smouldering fire. The downside to this contrast of heat and cold is chillblains – a problem I vaguely remember from childhood but never since – not till I came to Granada. Now every winter my fingers are covered in itchy red swellings. However, when I look out at the mountains, sparkling white after heavy falls of snow this week and clearly defined against a deep blue sky, I think: I can live with chillblains.