Yet there is
no return: rolling up out of chaos,
a nine month’s wonder, the city
the man, an identity—it can’t be
interpenetration, both ways.
-W.C. Williams, Paterson
I was in Spain when I learned of Uncle Bashir’s death. I read the text message several times, but the words seemed elusive, meaningless. There must have been a mistake. How could a man so full of life be dead? I stared out of the hotel window and for a few minutes, I could no longer remember where I was; for the last two months, my wife and I had been traveling through a string of cities–Seville, Granada, Valencia–and now they blurred together. Then I noticed, far below, an ancient courtyard, planted with rows of blooming orange trees, and I remembered: Yes, we were in Cordoba.
My Uncle Bashir had died of a heart attack in Calcutta, India, five thousand miles away. I tried to remember the last time I had seen him.
Bashir was a short, rotund man with silver-gray hair combed across his bald head. In his youth he had fought in the street with knives and knuckledusters, and even in his sixties he thought that he was a tough guy. Whenever I visited him, he tightened his round stomach and said, Look, it’s solid. Go ahead, punch me. He always told me obscene jokes: the one about the six-inch pianist, the one about the cowboy and the widow.
I quickly dialed my mother in India, and she said, without preamble, “Everybody is saying that it’s my fault that he died. They’re saying that I caused his death. What was I supposed to do? I had to sue him. It was the best thing for the family…”
A few years ago, my mother and her three siblings had filed a lawsuit against Bashir, their own brother. I knew that it would end badly, but not this badly, not in death. To comfort my mother, I told her that Uncle Bashir was a grown man, that he had chosen his own path, but she wasn’t really listening.
“At least he wasn’t in any pain,” she said. “He died in his sleep. And you know what? Last night I saw his face in my dreams. So this morning, when I heard the news, I already knew he was dead.”
My mother said that she could not talk anymore, that she had to rush to the funeral at the Khoja kabristan across town; it is the Muslim custom to bury the dead by the next sunset. My Uncle Bashir would go into the ground on a wooden plank, wrapped in a cloth shroud. There would be no coffin and no headstone.
Standing helplessly in my hotel room in Cordoba, my mind turned to Calcutta. I could imagine it so clearly: My mother standing at the gravesite, the earth red and raw, flanked by her three remaining siblings. My mother’s two brothers would no doubt be wearing too-short kurta-pajamas that flapped around their ankles; my mother’s sister would have her head covered. They were all so similar to their dead brother—short and round, with robust laughs—but what set my Uncle Bashir apart was his deep-rooted stubbornness, which ultimately killed him.
After I talked to my mother, I felt the urge to pray, which surprised me. Growing up in Hindu-dominated India, being a Muslim had been a source of shame. I was one of three Muslim boys at my boarding school, and during the festival of Eid, we were forced to visit the local mosque with an elderly Muslim teacher. Because of the potential of religious riots, the mosque was surrounded by khaki-clad army troops armed with submachine guns, and the tension was palpable. Afterward, our teacher, a frail old man, was obligated to invite us to his home for a feast of mutton biriyani that he could ill afford. When I thought of Islam, I thought of those men with guns, and the greasy meal afterward, which always left me indigestive.
Yet, as I grew older and left India, Islam became more appealing to me. I found myself seeking out the local mosque in strange American cities, found myself craving the sense of belonging to the umma during Friday prayers, of being part of a community of Muslim men, rising and falling in harmony.
Surely finding a mosque would be no problem in Cordoba. In the middle ages, Spain had been ruled by North African Muslims, and Cordoba had once been the capital of the Caliphate of Al-Andalus; my guidebook said that there were, at one time, thousands of mosques here. Just the day before, I had visited the Grand Mosque, the Mezquita, and marveled at its rows of striped arches stretching to infinity, its courtyard of fragrant orange trees, and its jeweled mihrab, pointing towards Mecca.
Yet when I enquired at the hotel’s front desk, the receptionist raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“Oh no, sir,” the man said. “The Mezquita has been consecrated as a cathedral. Muslims are banned from praying there.”
I was incredulous. “Are you telling me there are no mosques in the whole city?”
“There is perhaps one mosque somewhere in the Jardins de Colon, used by the immigrants, but I do not know exactly where it is. Maybe a priest would be of use? I can find you one who speaks English.”
Declining his offer, I walked into the courtyard full of decorative orange trees and inhaled their fragrance, trying to figure out what to do. The joke was that the Arabs brought these trees to Spain from the Orient. The joke was that the man behind the counter had the swarthy complexion and curly hair of an Arab.
During my stay in Spain, I had heard Spanish tour guides describe the eight-hundred-year Muslim rule as an ‘intervention.’ All over the country, the Islamic architectural heritage had been systematically erased: In Seville, all that remained of the grand mosque was its tall minaret, now turned into a belfry; in Granada, the brooding hilltop fortress survived, but its history had been lost, and replaced by fairy-tale stories about Muslim decadence. Everywhere I went, the Islamic motifs had been stripped away or hidden, leaving fragments of pointed arches and bricked-up mihrabs. Paradoxically, traces of Islam permeated everyday life in Southern Spain: in the swarthy North-African features of so many Andalusians; in the Arabic words which peppered contemporary Spanish; in the food, with its grilled meats and chickpeas, its pastries flavored with rosewater.
That morning of Uncle Bashir’s death, there was no way to mourn, and I did not know what to do. My wife and I decided to go ahead with our plans for the day, and take a bus to the ruins of Medinat Al Zahara, a tenth-century Muslim city that was built outside Cordoba.
We asked the receptionist for directions, and walked through the labyrinthine streets of Old Cordoba, trying to find the bus stop. Rounding a corner, we came face to face with a skinny Pakistani immigrant, his leather jacket much too thin for the December chill. His face registered surprise at seeing another bearded Muslim man, and I asked him the way. He pointed out the easiest route, his breath making puffs of condensation.
The words were on my tongue: My Uncle Bashir just died. Is there a mosque where I can pray?
But the man had ducked his head and hurried away. We watched him disappear down an alley, and then my wife and I continued silently through the maze-like streets.
The question that tormented me was: what really killed my Uncle Bashir?
I considered the facts. My Uncle never left Calcutta. His other siblings all moved away from the decaying, sleepy city, but he stayed on in their ancestral house, a vast bungalow with a covered courtyard at its center. Bashir’s one constant companion was Yunus, the last remaining servant. As the family fortunes faded and the other servants died or moved away, Yunus was promoted to cook and majordomo. In the end, he was the only one left, and moved silently, sardonically through the long corridors of my Uncle’s house, seeing everything and saying nothing. He ended up dying in my Uncle Bashir’s house, having known no other home.
I too was deeply attached to that house; I was born into it and spent a large part of my childhood there.
Even after so many years, I could close my eyes and imagine walking through its cool, high-ceilinged rooms with their slowly-turning ceiling fans. I could see the sun shining through the stained-glass transoms set over the windows, casting lozenges of color across the white marble floors. I could walk across the bridge that connected the main house to the servant’s wing—a bridge! In a house! I could imagine sitting on the giant swing in the center of the long verandah—a black painted slab of wood, hung from the ceiling by metal rods—and setting it in motion, the arcs lengthening till the swing curled up, higher and higher, and it seemed that I would burst out of the verandah and hurtle out into the garden beyond.
I was born just in time to partake of this world, and my life overlapped with that of my Uncle Bashir. Now he was dead. Yunus, too, was gone. And miracle of miracles: the house, with its eighteen-inch-thick walls, its beams of Burma teak, its creaking wooden stair, its ornate metal window grills, its garden, with its massive banyan tree, its beds of purple and yellow pansies: This house, which contained a world within it, had vanished. It existed only in my memory.
I think that my Uncle Bashir died because he lost this house.
After getting lost in the twisting alleys of old Cordoba, my wife and I finally located the bus stop and boarded a tourist bus to the lost city of Medinat Al Zahara. Because it was December and chilly, there were few foreigners, but many elderly Spanish tourists, the men nattily attired in fedoras and jackets, the women in dresses and shawls. I had given up trying to converse with this generation of Spaniards: having grown up under Franco’s fascist regime, completely isolated from the outside world, they regarded brown-skinned foreigners with great suspicion. Instead, I examined the other visitors: a huddle of Malaysians, the women wearing the hijab, and a curly-headed girl in a long black overcoat. I knew from their solemn expressions that they were Muslims like me, here to see traces of their cultural inheritance, the glory days of Al-Andalus.
For us, the lost city of Medinat Al Zahara had a deep significance. Intricately laid out, with a fortress, palaces, mosques and bazaars, it was mysteriously destroyed, and its very existence forgotten till 1911. Unlike the rest of the Islamic heritage in Spain, which had been meddled with, Medinat Al Zahara fell intact, and slumbered for centuries under a blanket of earth. Maybe here I would finally feel the undiluted power of Islamic Spain, its magical synthesis of East and West. Maybe here I could find some measure of peace, far from the polarized present.
The tourist bus trundled out of Cordoba, and it was shocking how quickly the city ended. Soon there was only the parched, brown countryside, bare except for a few whitewashed farmhouses, shielded by windbreaks of tall poplar trees. Sheep grazed in drowsy herds.
During the eighth century, Cordoba had somewhere between half a million and a million people, and attracted the best Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars, who worked together on theoretical and ethical texts. There were thousands of schools and public baths, a famous library, street lighting and running water- all at a time when European cities were collections of mud hovels. After the re-conquest of Spain and the purging of the Jews and Muslims, Cordoba declined, till in the eighteenth century, there were just 20,000 inhabitants left; it was now a small, cramped, provincial city, “worth a day’s visit” as my guidebook said.
A certain dreaminess persisted in Cordoba, a sense of a weighty, glorious past, a diaphanous, barely-existing present, and a future that would never arrive. The city seemed unmoored in time, adrift in it, like a dreamer who could not wake from a vivid, persistent dream.
Having grown up in a dreamtime city, I was particularly sensitive to this atmosphere. My hometown, Calcutta, was the capital of colonial India till 1912, when it was abandoned in favor of New Delhi. Calcutta never really survived the British departure, and was further brutalized by the Partition of 1947, when millions of refugees flowed into its wide streets, parks and slums. Weary and disoriented, Calcutta was then ruled by the Communist Party for half a century, and the communists–who hated the imperial history of the city–deliberately let it fall into disrepair. Trapped in an inhospitable present, with no hope of a future, the population of Calcutta retreated into memory, and the city remained frozen in time.
Growing up in the Calcutta of the late ’60s and the ’70s, I remembered the endless, sleepy bundh days, when competing Communist factions declared citywide shutdowns. Shops and offices were shuttered, there was no traffic, and street urchins played cricket matches in the middle of the streets. On other days the city would erupt in massive demonstrations, and processions of sweating, angry men marched through the streets, carrying red banners imprinted with the hammer-and-sickle logo.
This was the city of my childhood. I accepted it for what it was, but for my Uncle Bashir, the experience was of things just getting worse all the time. He had grown up in an orderly colonial city where the streets were washed every day and marble gleamed everywhere. Now the roads were full of potholes, the statues of Imperial Britain had been dragged away, leaving their plinths empty; the green grass of the Maidan–the great public park–was littered with trash, and grazed by flocks of goats. Policemen stopped cars and openly took bribes in the middle of the road. Calcutta was like a train, shunted onto a siding and forgotten, its passengers going feral and forgetting their final destination.
In this climate of stagnation and corruption, my Uncle Bashir found it hard to maintain his vast house. Because it had an open courtyard in its middle, he could not rent out the bottom floor to another family. Instead, he let a small business use it during the day, and the sound of their clacking manual typewriters echoed up through the courtyard. But soon, the clerks who worked there went on strike, and wrote out their demands on paper posters that they pasted all over the walls of the house. It took Bashir years and many bribes to evict them. After that, he just locked up the rooms and let them sit, dark and empty.
It was unthinkable for him to leave that house, or sell its contents to survive. Even though he had very little cash, he did not sell even one of the carved mahogany beds, or the oversized cupboards with their clawed feet or the delicate dressing tables with their folding mirrors. Even their contents remained undisturbed; when I visited, I would open the drawers of my dead grandmother’s dressing table, and find within them her embroidered handkerchiefs, cut-glass bottles of eau-de-cologne, hairpins, and old postcards. My dead grandfather’s chest-of-drawers smelt woody, like the tobacco he used to smoke, and held his eyeglasses, his razor blades still sharp in their paper sheaths, his collar stays, and his daily diaries, meticulously marked: To the cinema with Lulu. Very good show.
The house was a complete world to me, and in my early twenties, tired of America, I came back here to stay for three months.
It was the mid-nineties by then, but the city was still the same world from childhood. There were still bundh days, when the city was paralyzed and silent. I sensed Uncle Bashir’s strained financial circumstances, but he was too proud to accept money from me. Anticipating the dullness of a bundh day, I would buy, in advance, three or four bottles of beer, and when the city ground to a halt, we would drink beer out on the verandah, and Bashir would tell me funny stories about the house. Do you remember the time the story about the monkey? No? Well, what happened was that a monkey squeezed through the bars of your Aunt Rehana’s bedroom window. She found a bloody animal sitting on her dressing table. It had picked up her hairbrush and was mimicking brushing its hair. Obviously it had been watching her for a while…
But after a few bottles of beer, Bashir’s dark side would emerge. Leaning back and looking hard at me, his voice could take on a booming, bullying tone. Where did you get the cash for this booze? Is your father still sending you money? Why are you taking time off from graduate school, anyway? When I was your age, I couldn’t spend the days lying around and writing and whatnot. No, I had to work. Work, you understand? Ah, you don’t even know what that is…He would trail off disgustedly, and stagger to his bedroom for a nap.
I never took it personally. Calcutta was decaying around my Uncle, and he was saddled with a bankrupt business, and he needed to vent his frustration. He was still the master of his large, gloomy house, and he liked people to know that.
The tourist bus groaned up into the brown, dusty Spanish hills and came to a stop at a museum constructed below the ruins of Medinat Al Zahara. The Spanish tourists jostled each other and walked expectantly toward the flat-roofed modern building, but the Muslim tourists hung back. We were here to experience something somber: the political and intellectual might of a Muslim Europe, manifested in these hills for a moment, then smashed and destroyed and ultimately forgotten. Why did I feel the pain of this distant event? Back in the tenth century in India, my ancestors were probably still Hindus, and had not yet been converted by imperial Islam.
Within the stark, modern museum, I watched a film about the vanished glories of Medinat Al Zahara. Its impressive sun-bleached stone ruins were shown, and then an animation traced over them and rose upward, re-creating walls, windows and staircases, recreating the buildings in all their original glory. The courtyards and the gardens came back to life, planted with palm and lemon trees, and animated men in skull caps and colorful robes moved through them, pausing to talk and smile at each other. The animation was realistic, and the protagonist of the film was a man in a canary yellow robe, who walked from the royal palace, high up on the hill, through the lower terraces, and out into the sprawling medina, the town that served the palace. The sheer scale of the city was stunning: buildings, terraces and battlements were connected by gardens and courtyards, creating an integrated tapestry of architecture and nature.
I was in an elegiac, heightened mood when we took the final bus ride up the hill to Medinat Al Zahara. It was mid-afternoon and the winter sun was low in the sky. The brown landscape flowed into the distance, and plumes of smoke rose from the isolated farmhouses. Somewhere, far below us, a dog barked, a harsh, aggrieved tone. Then it stopped abruptly and the silence was vast.
I closed my eyes and try to imagine what Medinat Al Zahara sounded like in medieval times: the call to prayer, certainly, carrying through the air five times a day; the clanking of swords and armor as the soldiers moved in and out of the city walls; guttural Arabic everywhere, shouts and orders and conversation; the cries of horses and donkeys, the twittering of caged songbirds: and then my imagination failed me. I knew too little about this ancient world. Was there music, for example, or was it a rarity, only for the ears of the nobles?
When we reached the top of the hill, the Spanish tourists raced down into the ruins and started taking photographs, but the Muslim contingent was more circumspect. We lingered at the ramparts of the North wall, tracing our fingers along the pitted blocks of stone.
From the movie, I remembered the layout of the city, descending in terraces down the steep hillside. I tried to keep it in mind as I descended into the half-walls of stone, following green arrows that led me deeper and deeper into the ruins. I went up and down steps, through fractured arches and the shallow, rectangular depressions of stone patios. There were a few placards here and there, lacking any narrative or context, and in pedantic Spanish style, they just stated a few facts:
This was thought to be the house of Yafar.
The stables were here.
This was thought to be barracks or administrative offices.
As I moved deeper and deeper into the maze-like ruins, I recognized some features: the deep pit of a latrine, the curved roof of a boiler, but these were isolated in space, without context. They reminded me of enigmatic, rusted car parts sitting out in a field, after the cars themselves had disappeared.
The ruins grew denser and more incomprehensible. I told myself that surely I could imagine my way into them and recreate the magnificent spaces that I saw in the film, less than an hour ago. Sweating, I stopped and squinted at the piles of stone. Scraps of narrative from my guidebook floated through my head:
In the hall of the Kings was a great bowl of mercury. When rocked by a slave, it cast flashing, disorienting shadows on the walls, as though the world had been taken apart, and when the Caliph ordered the slave to stop, it was as though his command had put the world together again.
I walked deeper into the bewildering ruins, past thigh-high walls that followed their own abstract logic. When ambassadors from the northern lands came to pay their respects, the Caliph’s troops lined both sides of the pathway and crossed their swords, creating an immense archway. Yet, all I saw was shattered stone.
When I finally reached the one reconstructed part of Medinat Al Zahara, the Caliph’s throne room, it was inexplicably closed to the public. By now I was exhausted, and the sense of loss was overwhelming. It was simply too late: Medinat Al Zahara did not exist anymore. I turned my back on it and trudged back up the hill to the bus stop.
It was deserted up there. The rest of the tourists were still traipsing through the ruins. The dog started barking again, far below in the valley, and its sound carried through the still air. I sat on a stone wall and stared out at the burnt brown landscape. I looked at my watch: my Uncle Bashir’s funeral would definitely be over now. His blotched, battered body would have been washed by the men of the family, his gray strands of hair combed across his head. He would have been wrapped in white cotton and put on a plank of wood. He would have, by now, been interred in the reddish-brown alluvial soil of Calcutta.
Why exactly did my Uncle Bashir die?
It had to do with the future, which arrived in Calcutta, like a much-delayed train pulling into a station. The Communists lost their stranglehold over the city, and, dazed and confused, Calcutta was pulled into the capitalist, consumerist hubbub of the New India. The land on which my Uncle Bashir’s house sat escalated in value, till it was worth tens of millions of dollars.
My Uncle Bashir’s other friends sold their ancestral properties and made millions; men who had worn shabby clothes all their lives suddenly had shiny cars and took trips to Singapore. Yet my Uncle continued to live in penury in that massive house.
All around him, the colonial city that he’d known all his life was disappearing fast. The city was hungering for commercial space, and entire streets were being demolished to make way for shopping malls and offices. ‘Promoters’ thirsting for land targeted old ancestral houses, made offers that could not be turned down, then tore them down and put up shoddy apartment buildings. Colonial Calcutta, with its shadowy gardens, its verandahs and cornices, its air of murk and mystery, was being transformed into a standard, stained, concrete, third-world city.
Uncle Bashir held out. He has spent his entire life as custodian of his house, and somewhere along the way, it had gone from being an unfair burden to a source of his identity. True, he drove a car from the 1950s; true, he had no money to travel, or even to buy himself new clothes, but he had the house. The 1950s lived on in its hushed, dusty rooms, filled with the relics of his parents. Uncle Bashir’s identity was derived from being the owner of the house.
By then, my mother and her siblings had returned to Calcutta. Whenever they met my Uncle Bashir, they asked him what his plans were for the old house. As the custodian of the house, Bashir had become identified with it, but it still belonged to all five siblings. All these years, they had not been concerned with it, but as it grew in value, they began to pay sharp attention.
My mother and her siblings tried to talk to Bashir about the fate of the house, but he railed at them and said, I will do what I want to, do in my own time. You can’t force me to do anything. Bugger off. Frustrated by this, all Bashir’s siblings–including my mother–decided to file a lawsuit against him. It dragged on for a few years, but in the end, the siblings won: Bashir was forced to sell the house to a developer. Though he received the lion’s share of the proceeds, my Uncle Bashir raged and railed against his brothers and sisters. In the end, he stopped talking to them. Soon after his house was demolished, Bashir had a heart attack and died. I believe that his heart was broken.
How long did it take to knock down my Uncle Bashir’s house? Days? Weeks? Months?
It was solidly built, its masonry walls eighteen inches thick. Its beams of Burma teak must have fetched quite a sum at some scrap yard. Each window had a transom of purple and violet stained glass, six heavy wooden shutters that could be opened and closed to create gradations of light, and a grille of ornate wrought iron. Were these removed and re-sold, or crumpled into the debris? What happened to the huge cupboards with their mirrored fronts? What happened to the beds with the carved headboards? What of the bric-a-brac that filled the drawers and cupboards?
I will never know.
A few months before his death, I saw a picture of him posted online. This was after his house had been demolished and he had been forced to move into an apartment. My Uncle Bashir was sitting at the head of a table, his cheeks puffed out as he blew out the candles on a birthday cake. The room he was sitting in was unfamiliar, and had small, modern, steel-framed windows. There was something odd about the photograph, and I stared at it for a long time before realizing that it was a question of scale.
The furniture was too big for the room. The table filled the space, and seemed to press against Bashir’s chest. The carved cupboard in the corner scraped against the ceiling. I realized that Bashir had taken some of the old furniture with him, and that it was too big for his modern apartment.
My Uncle looked gray and old and shrunken. He was performing having a good time—puffing out his cheeks to blow out the candles—but his heart was not in it. He was no longer the ‘master of the house.’ He was just a small man in a badly knitted sweater vest, living in a cramped apartment.
I wished that I had a chance to say goodbye to my Uncle Bashir. Because my mother was part of the lawsuit, he would have nothing to do with me. I never talked to him again, and I never again set foot in my childhood home.
Driving away from Medinat Al Zahara, the Muslim tourists on the bus were silent and withdrawn. You could not see destruction on this scale and avoid thinking about catastrophe. From the scorch marks on the stone floors, historians surmised that the city had ended suddenly, in a raging conflagration. The ruins of the city provided the farmers of the valley building materials for generations.
As the bus rumbled through the darkening countryside, my thoughts were full of death. I read in my guidebook that the Catholic re-conquest started in the North, and finally reached Cordoba in 1238. The Muslims who had lived in Cordoba for endless generations were defeated and had to hand over their city.
That last morning, they prayed in the Mezquita for the final time, and then rode out of the city. The Christian conquerors entered the mosque at dusk, set up a portable chapel, and said Mass, consecrating the building as a chapel. No Muslim would ever pray in that mosque ever again.
What did the city sound like as the Muslims left? Did they take their carpets with them, their manuscripts, their songbirds? Did they take cuttings of plants, soil from their gardens, pieces of stone?
What do you take with you when you leave your entire life behind?
Amin Ahmad was raised in India, educated at Vassar College and MIT, and was an architect for many years before turning to writing. He is the author of two crime fiction novels and teaches creative writing at Duke University. He is currently working on a family memoir, THE LOST HOUSE.