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

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2004_0923Image0060                Sacromonte and the old Moorish wall

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IMG_1941Bar Aixa, Plaza Larga

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The fish stall, Albaicín

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Paseo de los Tristes and river Darro

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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.

Granada launch of Secrets of the Pomegranate

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The Granada launch on 18th May at the Carmen de la Victoria was a great success with around 45 people present and a delightful recital on the oud (laúd arabe) by Otman Ya’kubi in the beautiful gardens. Diana Kelham, ex-Honorary British Consul in Granada introduced me with a colourful description of my life and work!

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Ideal interview 19th May 2015Local publicity in Granada’s daily newspaper, Ideal, 19th May 2015

And in the Costa del Sol’s English language paper, Sur in English, 22nd May 2015

Sur in English feature

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Legacy of the Moors

Not long after the new mosque opened in the Albaicín in 2003, I went to a talk there by British historian and writer, Farhat A Hussain. Its title was ‘The Impact of al-Andalus on the History of Humanity.’ It was a revelation to me. I knew, of course, about Islamic Spain’s legacy of beautiful buildings – the Alhambra in Granada, Córdoba’s Mezquita and the Alcazaba of Sevilla, among others – but I knew very little about the Moors’ contribution in other fields. Their civilisation was way ahead of any found in the rest of Europe, which in the 8th century when they arrived was one of the most backward areas in the world. 2006_0320Image0042Deborah, the central character of my novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate, becomes fascinated by al-Andalus, the name used by the Moors for the kingdom they ruled until 1492. It is her Moroccan lover Hassan who first sparks her interest by telling her about the extraordinary achievements of Muslim Spain. Agriculture, medicine, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy were all advanced greatly during the nearly eight hundred years of Muslim rule. After studying other civilisations such as those of China, Greece and India, they developed their own ideas, based on Islamic ethics and the way of life dictated by the Prophet. Health, medicine, agriculture, the design of cities and social justice are all included in the instructions for living found in the Qu’ran and the Sirah. ronda 4Islamic knowledge was highly respected by scholars in the rest of Europe, who came to Spain to learn about their culture. During the European Dark Ages, the works of Greek and Roman philosophers were lost. The Muslims studied and commented on them, translating them into Arabic, which was then converted into Latin by European scholars and thus recovered. It was in this way that Europeans became reacquainted with Aristotle, for example. IMG_5071In agriculture, it was the Arabs who invented the water wheel for power and who brought irrigation to Spain. Their acequias (irrigation channels) are still very much in use. They introduced oranges, sugar and rice, among other foods. Every season produced crops so that Spain became much greener and had a healthier, better nourished population.

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Medical knowledge made huge strides in the prevention and cure of diseases, hygiene and surgical techniques. Spanish Muslim surgeon Zahrawi wrote an encyclopedia of surgery over a thousand years ago. Most of the instruments he invented are still used today. Modern dentistry and optics are also based on his knowledge and methods. In mathematics, the concept of zero, along with nine other digits, meant that mathematicians could express any number. The Arabs invented the binary system used now in computing. The words algebra and algorithm come from Arabic. Modern financial systems also owe their origins to the Islamic civilisation. Being great traders, they introduced cheques, also an Arabic word. Paper and ink were Arab inventions.

The centuries of Islamic rule were considered a golden age of religious and cultural tolerance. Muslims, Christians and Jews collaborated in many spheres and non-Muslims held prestigious positions in the civil service of Islamic rulers. They were not forced to convert or prevented from following their own faiths. Some intermarried. The population (of all three religions) came to share a distinct culture which they regarded as Andalusi. IMG_2177What interests Deborah in particular is the role of women, which for the more elevated classes at least was surprisingly liberal. They played an important part in society, again well ahead of the rest of Europe. Girls and boys studied together, girls had access to higher education and became doctors, teachers and traders. Deborah embarks on research into this aspect of al-Andalus, focusing on a number of prominent women.

Walladah bint Mustakfi, one of Deborah’s heroines, was a female poet of the 11th century, unusually liberated and bold, who considered herself ‘fit for high office’ and entitled to take any man she chose as her lover. Alice, Deborah’s sister, sees parallels between Deborah and Walladah – both women being free-spirited, fiery and outspoken – qualities that can and do sometimes get them into trouble.

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.

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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).

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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.

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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 (www.sacromontegranada.com), where you can see some of the caves, furnished to demonstrate the history, customs, occupations and lifestyles traditional in the barrio.

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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.