Remembering Al-Andalus
(Taken from yet-to-be-published Ebook “Whistle-Stops” by Husna Kassim)

Husna Kassim

© Copyright 2018 by Husna Kassim


Photo of the Alhambra grounds from the Palacio del Generalife.
    Photo of the Alhambra grounds from the Palacio del Generalife.

Remembering Al-Andalus” is about a short journey the Author undertook to the long-gone era of Moorish Spain in the spring of 2016. Travelling through Spain presented opportunities to discover fine architecture & lyric poetry, a Moorish legacy, which, looking back, triggered a sense of melancholy & a longing for time past. The Alhambra is one of Islamic World’s most beautiful creations, a result of intricate blend of the elements of Islamic art & architecture in combination with enchanting gardens and fountains. Deciding to watch a bullfight in Madrid and soaking up flamenco music in the gypsy caves of Sacromonte, all on a whim, was truly liberating. Caught in a myriad of colours of Sunday’s congregation at Cordoba’s Mezquita-Cathedral was unforgetable.
To Spain, by Train

For many hours, I used to stand by the window of the K3 coach, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the steppes. The steppes, populated mainly by horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands sometimes dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia today. After a total of 26,000 kilometres of changing landscapes crossing China, Mongolia, Siberia, the Baltic and the Balkan states, I was convinced that the most comfortable way of travelling long distances is by train……this, despite having to spend six straight days in a cubicle 1.5 metres wide, squeezing between oversized luggage bags, tight bunk beds and often, caught in the cross-fire of contentious travel mates…..” (reminiscing moments on the Trans Mongolian Express, “A Train To Catch”, 2016, Husna Kassim)

Train travel, as Paul Theroux would have it, is:

a far cry from the anxious seats of doom aeroplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger…”

(The Great Railway Bazaar)

Travelling on a train around Europe is far more complicated than crossing the Siberian. Even though crossing borders of most European countries was simplified by the Schengen Agreement allowing a passport-free movement, getting from one place to another can be a headache if you are unfamiliar with the local ways or don’t speak the local language. Carefully-laid plans get derailed. Our first class Eurail tickets got downgraded due to ineffective communication at the chaotic ticket office at Lyon train station.

Despite everything, the train is still the most delightful and generally pleasant way of travelling around Europe. We took the train about seventy percent of the time. With air travel, the checking-in at airports (especially now with the phobia of Islamist terrorism), are long and gruelling. The bus is probably the second most convenient travel option for journeys which take three hours or less because it is almost hassle-free. You get to see miles and miles of rolling hills with rows of olive and rapeseed trees carefully tended. The downside is the limited leg-room and the long hours.

There are many trains covering Europe. High speed trains travel through Europe covering large distances quickly. As these trains offer more comfort & service than regional trains, they are more in demand and reservation is necessary to ensure seat availability. Both and, recommended making seat reservations as far back as three months before travel but a traveller has to be vigilant about fine print, in case things don’t go as planned.

Renfe-SNCF en cooperation is one of the international high-speed trains that connects Spain and France. It allows you to travel quickly and comfortably between cities like Madrid and Barcelona in Spain to cities like Paris, Marseille, Lyon in France at speeds as high as 240 to 255 kilometres per hour. Some trains have facilities to charge-up your mobile phones which comes in useful. Depending on the train, a wifi-facility can also be available. Some train stations provide lockers for your luggage. I paid €5 for the storage facility for 5 kg bags.

But that afternoon, there seemed to be a lot more happening than lugging bags and boarding trains. Ten minutes after leaving the Valence train station, 100 kilometres from Lyon, I heard a thud as if the coach hit a wood stump across the track. The train stopped immediately to investigate. After what seemed like eternity, I heard the sound of a police patrol siren some distance away and I knew there was an accident on the track. Immediately afterwards, an announcement in French came on the air. The passenger seated in front of me (a “couple”) kindly interpreted that there was an accident. As we sat waiting, I was apprehensive. If the accident did not clear in time, we would all miss our train connections. An hour later, we were informed that it was a suicide.

It was another two hours before the train moved again. The French “couple” tried to explain that suicides on the train track was not uncommon. In 2012, 12 people committed suicides on French railways between Saturdays and Mondays (according to In France there are 11,000 suicides each year according to Figures from Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development or OECD, indicated that France has one of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe.
In France it seemed suicides tend to be public in nature than anywhere else, as if symbolic, making a statement or delivering a message to the society at large. It made me wonder what the push was to complete the “final act”. Throwing oneself in the path of a train travelling over 300 km per hour, takes a lot - ultimate desperation, hopelessness and despair for that final step into the realm of darkness, a ghastly escape from reality…….
The Alhambra & Moorish Spain

A mention of Spain usually triggers images of bullfighting, seafood Paella, Real Madrid & Barca dream teams, not forgetting Pablo Picasso, son of Malaga. But there is a lot more to Spain than these. The Islamic influence under the Moors is what made Spain a country with a rich culture with the evolution of the Arab Andalusian civilisation.

The Moors, of mixed Arab, Spanish and Amazigh origins, were formerly a member of the Muslim population of Spain, ruling portions of Spain for nearly 800 years. The Moors left a legacy of fine architecture, lyric poetry and science. A fusion of sophisticated planning and intricate use of elements of Islamic art & architecture resulted in one of the most beautiful creations of the Islamic World………. the Alhambra.

According to Washington Irving, the American writer and conservationist, the Alhambra is an object of devotion to the poetical as the Kaaba is to the devout Muslim:

To the traveller imbued with a feeling for the historical and poetical, so inseparably intertwined in the annals of romantic Spain, The Alhambra is as much an object of devotion as is the Caaba (Kaaba) to all true Moslems”

(Tales of the Alhambra)

The Alhambra was the brainchild of Muhamad ibn Yusof ibn Nasr (known as Muhammad I) the founder of the Nasrid Dynasty who were the last Muslims to rule in Spain (1232 – 1492). The construction of the Alhambra on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada called Sabika Hill, commenced in 1238, a year after he secured the region.

The Alhambra is a complex of palaces built in 10th century in Granada, Southern Spain. The complex consists of several living quarters, courtyards, gardens, streams, towers and mosque. It covers an area of about 26 acres with the different parts of the complex being connected by paths, gardens and gates. It was a fortified city and the last bastion of the Muslim rulers. After the Christian conquest, some parts were added on such as palace of Charles V. However, the complex fell into disrepair until some European scholars took over the complex for conservation and repair.

The word “Alhambra”, is an abbreviation of the Arabic Qal’at al-Hamra meaning red fort. As we walked towards the entrance to the Palacio del Generalife , (Fig:42) it became obvious why the complex is so named. Generalife is derived from Arabic Jannat al-arifa. The word Jannat means paradise and garden, which Generalife has in abundance. Its water channels fountains and greenery can be interpreted to reflect a passage in the Quran (such as Surah 2:25).

gardens underneath which running water flow….


As we walked through the Generalife, the atmosphere, the gardens, the fountains exude serenity and an atmosphere of peace and calm, heightened by the late spring and early summer fine weather.  
The Alhambra complex as seen from the Generalife, which was built in the 12th & 14th centuries, and designed as a rural villa in the vicinity of the Alhambra, with gardens, fruit and vegetable patches, courts and other structures. Generalife was used as a place of rest for the Muslim royalty.

What struck me as exceptionally significant in the Alhambra were the calligraphy & mucarnas . Among the thousands of inscriptions found in the Alhambra, many were verses from the Quran, or poems (that comment on the features of the different rooms), or praises of various kings (of the Nasrid Dynasty that ruled Granada) or witty aphorisms. They run along walls, frame doorways, on arches, and windows. 
Photo of the Alhambra grounds from the Palacio del Generalife.
 The most common inscription is the Nasrid motto “ There is no victor but Allah” ( What is striking about these inscriptions is the beauty of the calligraphy, a significant part of Arab culture.

Muqarnas is a major artistic contribution of the Muslim World. The muqarnas in the Alhambra, the Throne Room, also known as Hall of the Ambassadors (Salon de Comares) is probably the most impressive room in the Alhambra, displaying Nasrid deco arts and architecture.

Muqarnas is of Arabic and Iranian origin, developed around the middle of the 10th century in North Eastern Iran and almost simultaneously but independently, in North Africa. Examples can be found across Morocco; the Abbasid Palace in Baghdad, Iraq; and mausoleum in Cairo, Egypt; muqarnas style decoration in Palermo, Sicily etc. Muqarnas can be made of brick, stone, stucco or wood and clad with tiles or plaster. Stucco is the basis of most Muslim decorations known as baked lime or plaster of Paris. The arrival of the Muslims in Spain and the Nasrid period led to one of the high points of stucco decoration in the form of the muqarnas, in the Alhambra in Granada. Muqarnas is typically applied to the undersides of domes pendentives, cornices, arches and vaults. Usually muqarnas is a downward-facing shape and it does not have any significant structural role. It can be hung from a structural roof as a purely decorative piece.

Other characteristic elements of Moorish architecture include horseshoe arches, domes, courtyards and decorative tile work known as zellij in Arabic. Incredible patterns in ceramic tiling work adorn walls, paths and floors of the Alhambra palace complex. The architectural tradition is seen in such historical sites such as Mezquita-Cathedral of Cordoba (horseshoe arch); double horseshoe arches in Mezquita-Cathedral of Cordoba, allows for greater ceiling height; arches in Court of the Lions Alhambra, Granada; central court, Court of the Myrtles, Comares Palace, Alhambra.

The Palace of the Lions or Palacio de los Leones stand next to the Comares Palace but are really independent buildings because they were connected only after Granada fell to the Christians. The fountain in the Court of the Lions where a complex hydraulic system was installed, provided water pressure & constant water level. The 12 lions represent the zodiacs.

The Alhambra surely is serenely beautiful, a complex filled with Moorish history and architecture. I heard that if you were the type of tourist who like to be reminded of trips through collection of souvenirs or fridge magnets, a cheap place to buy them is Alcaiceria, a flea & street market in Granada.

The Moriscos

I would not do justice to the history of Al-Andalus if I did not mention of the existence of a group of Spanish Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity due to persecution of Muslims. This forced conversions by the Spanish rulers at that time, resulted in a new population called New Christians. The New Christians were referred to as Moriscos.

The term “Moriscos” denotes Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity after the fall of Granada in 1492. They converted to Christianity at different times and under different circumstances. The Spanish government, as well as the church and the inquisition threatened anyone who continued to adhere to Islam. Expulsion or death penalty would be meted out if found guilty. Echoes of anguish is evident in Morisco Ballad below:

We are forced to worship with them in their Christian rites unclean. To adore their painted idols, mockery of the Great Unseen. No one dares to make remonstrance, no one dares to speak a word. Who can tell the anguish wrote upon us, the Faithful of the Lord?”

(Muhammad Bin Daud, Morisco Ballad 1568 taken from “Blood & Faith” Mathew Carr)

For centuries, the Iberian Peninsula was a Muslim land with Muslim rulers and a Muslim population. The loss of al-Andalus was a tragic event in the history of Islamic Spain. At its height, Iberia (which included both Spain & Portugal) had over 5 million Muslims, a majority no doubt. Muslim rulers built an advanced civilization based on faith and knowledge. In the 900s, the capital of Muslim Spain, Cordoba, had paved roads, hospitals, and street lights throughout the city. At the time, Christian Europe’s largest library had only 600 books, while Cordoba’s calligraphers were producing 6000 books per year

The society was a peaceful mixture of European and African cultures, represented by Muslims, Jews, and Christians living in harmony side by side. The hallmark of convivencia  (coexistence) was the Muslim ability to allow Christians and Jews to participate economically, socially, culturally, and sometimes even politically in al-Andalus. Jews and Christians began to rise to high positions in the state, and find court patronage for their scientific and literary endeavours ( Unfortunately, this almost utopian society did not last forever.
 As the so-called Reconquista, or Reconquest, of Spain by Catholic monarchs progressed through the 11th to the 15
th centuries, Spain’s Muslims became a marginalized group. In 1492, when the last Muslim state of Iberia, Granada fell, Spain’s Muslims faced a new reality: genocide.

In 756 AD, almost the entire Iberian Peninsula was under Moorish rule. It was occupied by Arabs, Berbers and other Islamic people in that period (Fig 55). By 1265AD, the Iberian Peninsula was reduced to the Islamic Kingdom of Granada (Fig 56). By 1492AD, Granada fell to the Christians, marking the end of Islamic Spain.

Forced conversions of Muslims in Spain were enacted through a series of edicts outlawing Islam in Spain. This effort was overseen by three monarchs during the early sixteenth century. After the Reconquesta in 1492, the Muslim population stood between 500,000 to 600,000 people ( The Siete Partidas (Seven-Part Code) drawn up by the Castilian king Alfonso X outlined the practice of Islam in Andalusian Spain. This Code emphatically rejected the legitimacy of Islam as a religion or “law” which it described as an “insult to God”. A similar code was drawn up by James I of Aragon for the Mudejars in the Uxo Valley. These leyes de moros (laws of the Moors) went into extraordinary detail in their attempt to regulate daily interactions between Muslims and Christians to reduce potential conflict.

There was also another reality to the growing persecution of Spain’s Muslims: propaganda. According to Matthew Carr, author of “Blood & Faith“ Hurst Publishers London, the following is a picture of barbaric conquest painted by propaganda narratives of the Reconquista against historical accuracy described by anonymous authors of the thirteenth-century chronicle, Estoria de Espana (Chronicle of Spain) .

The sanctuaries were destroyed, the churches demolished, the places where God was praised with joy now blasphemed and mistreated. They expelled the crosses and altars from the churches. The chrism the books, and all those things that were for the honor of Christianity were broken and trampled upon. The holidays and celebrations were all forgotten. The honor of the saints and the beauty of the church were turned into ugliness and vileness. The churches and towers where they used to praise God, now in the same places they called Mahomat”

(Claudio Sanchez-Albornoz “Espana y el Islam”, Revista de Occidente 7 (1929) p.27, cited in Lopez-Baralt, Huellas del Islam, p32)

In 1499, the Archbishop of Toledo began a campaign of religious compliance with Christianity in the city of Granada, triggering a Muslim rebellion. The rebellion gave the Monarchs a justification to revoke the legal rights of the Muslims and an excuse to resort to forced conversion. By 1501, officially no Andalusi Muslims remained in Granada. In 1502, Castille’s Queen Isabella issued an edict to ban Islam altogether in Castille, then followed by Navarre in 1515 and then by Aragon in 1526.

Between 1609-1614, the Spanish government forced an estimated 350,000 Moriscos to leave Spain for North Africa. Today there are about 5 million descendants of Moriscos living in Morocco. There are millions more living in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Tunisia and Turkey ( According to Beebe Bahrami, 1995 (“The Persistence of the Andalusian Identity in Rabat, Morocco”, publically accessible Penn Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania), when the Moriscos fled to the Mediteranean and Atlantic coastal cities, especially in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, about 60,000 Moriscos, were assumed to have lost their lives while travelling by sea or overland to France or North Africa, between 1609-1611. Most Moriscos arriving in Morocco, settled in urban areas such as Tetouan, Fez and Rabat. Because of rapid assimilation into the Andalusian heritage, the Moriscos settled in quickly and therefore it was difficult to trace the Morisco ancestry. Rabat was the only urban settlement in Morocco whose origins were Morisco.

For those who remained behind, there was a need to survive the expulsion through practicing Islam in secret. A fatwa was written by a mufti from the al-Malikki sect Ahmad Ibn Abi Jum’ah, a North African scholar of Islamic law. The fatwa called Oran Fatwa was drawn up in order to allow Spanish Muslims to practice some flexibility in their everyday practice of Islam in order to survive expulsion or death. The Oran Fatwa ( stated in brief that Muslims of Spain continue to adhere to Islam and instruct it to their children when they reach maturity.

Despite the seemingly permeable boundaries of culture practised in the local market among Christians, Jews and Muslims, who bought and sold properties to each other, and despite Muslim tolerance in Andalusian Spain, in 1609 the entire Muslim population was given three days to leave the Spanish territory or else be killed…ethnic cleansing, without a doubt, by the Spanish authorities.


I have never been to a bullfight before and I could not appreciate the fascination advocates have for bullfighting ritual. However when we arrived at the hotel reception in Madrid on 24 May, we were told there was a bullfight at 7pm that very evening, if we wanted to watch one. Bullfighting is often considered a ritual, an art, but never a sport. Watching a bullfight for the first time, can be a mix of emotions…intrigue, artistic, dangerous, an art form with a sporting character, insisted the aficianados. Aficianados are lovers or fans of bullfighting and I was advised, if you are seeing a bullfight for the first time, go with an open mind. Even though bullfight was never on our to-do-list, we decided to give it a chance that Wednesday evening. After all, a bullfight is an art form not to be missed by a first-time traveller to Madrid, advocates would argue.

The best time to watch a bullfight is in May or June, when Madrid holds its world-famous bullfighting event called San Isidro Festival. Ticket price depends on how close your seat is to the ‘arena’ and whether you are in the sun or the shade. I saw a website called offering tickets at €149 for a platinum seat, €89 for a gold seat and €45 for a bronze seat. We got our tickets from the ticket counter at €10 each so it’s not hard to imagine where our seats were….. right at the top of the stadium, far ‘removed’ from the arena, with the late spring, lustrous sun beaming down upon us.


The best plaza de toros in Spain are in Seville, Cordoba and Madrid. Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is the 3rd largest bullring in the world (Fig 9) and is the most famous with a reputation for being the hardest bullring for matadors to succeed. It is located in Guindalera quarter of the district of Salamanca, east Madrid with a seating capacity of 25,000. It was built in 1929 and held its first bullfight in 1930. Every year, 2000 bullfights are held here which meant a total of 12,000 bulls would have been killed.

While some cities have banned bullfighting, Madrid has taken it to a new level, protecting bullfighting as an art form, of special cultural value. Given the huge economics of the bullfighting industry, it is understandable that the city refused to consider a ban. Anyone guilty of trying to stop bullfights is subject to fines for attempting to damage Madrid’s cultural heritage. In fact a Royal Decree was drawn up in 1996, which laid out standards for the characteristics of bulls to be used in a bullfight.

The magnificent bullring La Monumental Maestranza in Seville together with Las Ventas in Madrid are considered to be one of the oldest and most important in the world. The best bullfighters fought in it and is the perfect place to experience the electric atmosphere of a corrida (bullfight). The building with an impressive baroque façade dates back to 1762 to 1881 with a seating capacity of 14,000. Despite its size, the acoustics allow you to hear everything wherever you are seating.

Given the bloody nature of the sport I always thought that all matadors were men. I was wrong. There was a matadora named Patricia McCormick from Texas USA, who has killed 300 bulls in Mexico and South America. Remarkably, she fought on foot whereas another matadora, Conchita Cintron (a Peruvian woman) fought on horseback and dismounted only to kill the bull…a courage and strength, many men may not be able to muster.


I was wondering which culture commands a bigger following in Madrid - bullfighting or football ? Despite thousands of protesters demanding an end to bullfighting, that Wednesday evening saw the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas (Fig:9) overflowing with enthusiasm and brimming with excitement. The Plaza was full. Before the doors to the Plaza were opened, we decided to walk around the grounds of the Plaza. There were hawkers selling all kinds of nuts, sweets, drinks and souvenirs. Enthusiasts were lingering around waiting for friends to show up. A group of matured Spaniards were deep in discussion, some laughing away in the shade of the endearing copper statute of El Toro. This must most probably be those highly opinionated group of enthusiasts called aficianados.

The majority of the enthusiasts were elderly or matured male Spaniards. It seemed bullfights attract real ‘aficianados’ of the bullfighting world and they are ‘devotees’ of the bullfighting ritual. It seemed good aficianados watch the bull as closely as they watch the bullfighter. But some older aficianados watch mainly for the bull’s courage, strength, determination and ferocity. They spend time to speculate on the bull’s character and look for defects. One can easily recognise these aficianados ; they come in small groups, armed with crates of beer in their arms, ready for the two hours or so of an adrenaline rush.

There was a fairly good mix of age groups. Some were a younger (most probably) local crowd and some were tourists like me, with a dubious curiosity for the sport. I was seated next to some tourists from Taiwan, who came armed with cameras and field glasses. A beautiful green-eyed Spanish young lady came “dressed for a party”, carefully picking her way through some 10 or so flights of tight, narrow steps on her 6-inch stiletto!


The traditional and most common bullfight format sees three matadors alternating in facing and ultimately killing six bulls over the course of roughly two and a half hours. This format is followed for bullfights in Spain, Mexico, France and other countries with this tradition.

The opening parade or paseíllo was led by two horsemen called marshalls, in black velvet with ruffs around their necks. Behind the two horsemen came the bullfighters with their support crew. The three matadors ( the star performers distinguished by wearing a suit of lights with gold embroidery) entered the ring together with their cuadrillas, their support crews of banderilleros and picadors.  The parade also included the red-shirted monosabios who smooth out the sand between bullfights.

After the opening parade, the bullfights commenced. The bullfight was divided into three phases (or tercio) : First Phase : The Bull’s Entrance and the Act of the Lances; Second Phase: The Act of Banderillas; and Final Phase: The Muleta and Moment of Truth. Each phase is distinguished by the equipment used to maim or kill the bull - the lances, the banderillas and the seemingly-innocent ‘muleta’.

Fighting bulls are wild animals and bred specifically for the bullfight with very little human contact ( The fighting bulls were a hefty mass of muscles and bones, weighing between 500 to 700 kilogram. The first bull entered the ring through the gate charging with a soft galloping rush. The matador and his team immediately began assessing the bull’s reactions using their capote and their voices. The work with the capote is often seen as one of the most visually appealing parts of the bullfight. The basic and most classic pass performed during this phase is called the "veronica"; each bullfighter tries to give a personal interpretation of this pass. Hemingway could not have described a ‘veronica’ pass better, than below:

Without hesitation, the bull charged at Chicuelo. The kid stood his ground, simply swung back on his heels and floated his cape like a ballet dancer’s skirt in to the bull’s face as it passed. “Ole” roared the crowd. The bull whirled and charged again. Without moving Chicuelo repeated the performance again. His legs rigid, just withdrawing his body from the rush of the bull’s horns, he floated the cape with that beautiful swing. Again the crowd roared! Each time he gave the bull a free shot at him, missing him by inches”

(1923 Hemingway Papers, Ernest Hemingway)

I heard many ole from the stands that evening, a testimony of approval from the crowd. Once the matador gained control over the bull, a picador (wearing wide flat hats) sitting squarely on horseback, would enter the arena. Their horses were well protected with blinkers over their eyes to prevent panic when the bull attacked. A lance was used to inflict injury to the large muscle on top of the bull’s neck, the "morrillo".


The final phase was the matador's one-on-one encounter with the bull during which he employed the famous one-handed red cape, the "muleta. The performance with the muleta, was the main part of the matador’s artistic display. During the faena the matador strove to display an aesthetically and technically coherent performance which culminated in the killing of the bull. A skilled matador could kill a bull with one artistic pass and a swift, precise single thrust of the steel blade into the bull’s neck (the coup de grace). Instant death was caused by cutting off the aorta. The perfect kill comes from a perfect sword thrust accompanied by a stroke of good luck. Out of the six bulls killed that evening, I thought only two or three were near perfect kills.

A few tourists left halfway through the bullfight, unable to continue watching the gory scene. For me, there were two especially heart-wrenching moments. One was when the bull’s legs buckled under him, staggering and collapsing as the steel blade was driven into the back of his neck while enthusiasts cheered on, screaming their approvals. My heart sank further when the dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses for everyone to see. Even in death, the bull was not spared as spectacle for human entertainment. The afficionados in the stadium were aesthetic, chanting all the time, rushing into the midst of the arena to ‘shoulder’ and parade the king of matadors around the arena.

Other than the artistry of matador passes and technical precision using the banderillas and the cape, a bullfight was just a systematic and brutal killing of an animal for sport. Ernest Hemingway may have had a different opinion. He never apologised for bullfighting:

Bullfighting is not a sport. It was never supposed to be. It is a tragedy. A very great tragedy. The tragedy is the death of the bull played in three definite acts. Bullfighting symbolises a struggle between man and beasts”

(Hemingway Papers)

But the animal rights activists have a different opinion. Bullfighting is a cruel, barbarous blood sport in which the bull suffers severe stress and a slow tortuous death, claimed the activists. Opinion polls have shown that 60% of Spaniards do not want the bullfighting tradition to continue. Despite the argument that bullfight enthusiasts put forth that execution of passes and the final kill is a dance of skill and art, bullfighting is not a sport. It is a cruel, unfair disadvantage to one party….the bull. But only in Spain, the bull is killed at the end of the bullfight. In Portugal, it is unlawful to kill the bull. Rarely if the bull shows exceptional skill is it pardoned, rather than be killed, and is allowed to live on the ranch where it was raised.

I suspected, many do not know what really happened to the bull that is killed. After the matador killed the bull, the bull is sent to a slaughterhouse. Bullmeat has a wild taste because the bull dies in the fever of the fight, according to I saw an advertisement by a restaurant around the area of Madrid’s Las Ventas, suggesting “ rabo de toro de lidia” which is a stew made of the tails of fighting bulls which came from the bullring. It is probably as cruel as the Hong Kong Chinese who dined on ducks feet while the poor fella is swimming frantically in the boiling water.

During the long walk back to the hotel, I began to understand why, on my way to the Plaza de Toros, the taxi driver kept asking me if I knew anything about bullfights and if I was really sure I wanted to watch one!



I could almost hear the sound of faint trickling water in the fountains on the evening we took a walk in the Albaicin. Making our way through narrow alleys of cobblestone paths and stone steps in the dim light proved quite an experience. At every turn, you can almost catch glimpses of the Alhambra, lighted up in the warm spring evening. The quaint white-washed houses and the sound of the fountains lent Albaicin a romantic serenity and an almost fairy-tale atmosphere. Dramatic views of the El Albaicin could be seen from the rose gardens of the famous Alhambra Nasrid’s palace. The Alhambra and the Albaicin are situated on two adjacent hills, as if reminding each other of their past romantic charm of medieval Moorish history of over 1000 years old.

El Albaicin is a district in the autonomous community of Andalusia, Spain. In 1984, it was declared a world heritage site along with the famous Alhambra. El Albaicin is a “barrio” (neighbourhood) of Granada which has been built on a hill opposite the Alhambra. The barrio came about when Granada was ruled by the Arabs, long before the advent of cars. The streets form a narrow, cobblestoned maze interspersed with small squares. The walk along the cobbled, narrow, winding streets that evening, triggered a mix of emotions for me stirring up a kind of nostalgia for the Islamic presence that once was, and now forever erased. When the Catholic monarchs conquered Granada in 1492, the Albaicin had 34 mosques. During the period of the Reconquista, a lot of churches were built on top of these mosques. Minarets became church towers.

The evening tour of the Albaicin started from Flamenco club/restaurant. We made stops along the way, listening intently to the guide spinning stories and histories. We saw houses with typical Spanish architecture and we were finally brought to gaze at the stupendous lighted Alhambra. The view was breath-taking. The walking tour ended with a visit to the Venta el Gallo restaurant. Venta el Gallo restaurant is in a cave in Sacaramonte of Granada, overlooking the Alhambra & Albaicin neighbourhood.


Sacramonte is famous for gypsy caves and according to, a community of Granada’s gypsies still live inside mountain caves above Granada. The gypsies were not the first nor the last to live in such dwellings. The Arabs had discovered the soft stone of the hill was ideal for carving out underground homes. The gypsies just moved into them when the Muslims or the Moriscos were expelled during the Reconquest.

Venta El Gallo is a restaurant set in a cave carved into the hillside. It is located in Sacramonte part of Granada overlooking the Alhambra and Albaicin neighbourhood. Sacramonte is famous for its Zambra style flamenco which is normally performed at gypsy weddings. A small tour bus picked us up from the hotel and brought us to the restaurant. The restaurant has a small entertainment hall situated past the dining room. Visitors were seated on the chairs placed in neat rows for the performance.

I was looking forward to a highly energetic night of flamenco soulful music and dance that evening. Flamenco is one of the most characteristic elements of Spanish culture, especially throughout southern Andalusia. It is a solo dance characterised by hand clapping, percussive footwork and intricate hand, arm and body movements. Venta el Gallo came alive with flamenco music and dance performed by a group of dancers who I learned were mainly family members. However I did not expect to watch the footwork of a little girl that evening. But there she was, hardly four feet tall, probably 12 years of age, all dressed up in a typical flamenco dress in red, complete with her hair worn into a bun. She was in a line-up of six or seven dancers, taking turns with their sweeping arm movements and rhythmic feet stomping with an ‘attitude’.

Flamenco dancers dance from their heart. Sad rhythms make you sad and happy rhythms should make you happy, I was told. I was made to understand that the role of the flamenco dancer is to physically interpret the words of the song. Both flamenco music and dance involve a great deal of personal improvisation which requires spontaneous expression of the performer’s emotions. The 12 year old dancer tried to emulate her elders that evening, as she probably did every other evening under the watchful eyes of the father, a dancer himself.

As I moved to leave the restaurant at the end of the show, I caught a glimpse of the little girl again. She was no more the dancer with an “attitude” but just another 12 year- old with a ready smile and innocent eyes as she waved us goodbye. The Spaniards……. they are very warm people.


Cordoba is the cultural centre of Al-Andalus. Cordoba was also the intellectual centre of Al- Andalus with translations of ancient Greek texts into Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. Advances in science, history geography, philosophy and language occurred during the Umayyad Caliphate between 929-1031. One of the most important monument of all Western Islamic World was the Great Mosque of Cordoba (now known as Mezquita- Cathedral of Cordoba). The mosque is a combination of Muslim and Christian architecture.

We took a bus from the Granada Estacion Autobus on 22 May to Cordoba . It was a 2 ½ hours journey. On the way we passed by a small Mozarabic settlement called Almedina. Almedina is the oldest part of Baena. Almedina is from the Arabic word al-madinah or “the city”. It is purely Moorish in outlook. Bus 103 took us to Cordoba Mezquita. Unfortunately it was a Sunday and the crowd waiting to get into the Cathedral was rather long. We traded for a glass of coke at the Tabana La Romano round the corner.

But I was fortunate to get a snap of a group of Sunday church-goers dressed in traditional body-hugging dresses with multiple layers of ruffles in bright red, blue and black complete with flowers in their hair, posing in the grounds of the Cordoba Mezquita Church.


Malaga is one of the oldest cities in the world with close to three thousand years of history. The city has a population of close to 570,000 in 2012 making Malaga the second most populated city in Andalusia.

Having spent a few days in Paris before coming over to Spain, I found the people here were quite different. While the French were slightly aloof to foreign tourists, the Spaniards were quite charming and friendly, a pleasant surprise. If you have heard of the Paris Syndrome, first detected in Japanese tourists who visited Paris for the first time, with their heads full of romantic notions before landing at Charles de Gaulle, and then going home, completely disappointed, you would understand what I mean.

Due to Spain’s Reconquista & the long history of banishing other religions, there are very few non-Catholics in Spain and very little understanding of those who practice other religions. It is therefore not surprising that the 2008 Pew Research Survey on global attitudes & trends called “Unfavourable Views of Jews & Muslims on the Increase in Europe” confirmed this upward trend of intolerance of these groups in Europe in general. History also showed that the Moors (& the Gypsies) are the two distinct ethnicities that suffer from discriminatory behaviour in Spain. Without a more recent survey of opinions, it is not possible to say if the widespread unfavourable view of Muslims, still persists today. I just hope goodwill and tolerance reside somewhere out there.


Spain has a lot to offer in terms of history, art and culture. The Alhambra, the bullfight, the flamenco dance, the cave dwellings, the colourful people etc made Spain in general and Granada in specific, very interesting destinations for me. Even though Spain’s Reconquista and long history of banishing other religions resulted in very few non-Catholics in Spain, yet it is the Muslim architecture and art that tourists from all over the world lined up to see in this very Catholic country. Granada’s Alhambra is a treasure of Islamic art & architecture with Moorish history behind it. The Moorish palace is a reminder of the contribution of Islamic civilisation to Spain. Like it or not, the Muslims ruled part of Spain for 800 years and their legacy is phenomenal, says Boris Johnson in January 2016 (“ Amid dystopic vision of an Islamic Europe, remember Alhambra”).

Husna is 67 years old, residing in Malaysia. She is an analytical chemist by discipline with an MSc from Loughborough University, UK. She had extensive research experience in the field of product development (especially in biofuels) in the oil & gas industry. She is now retired. Her passion lies in travelling, writing and photography. She has written her first book entitled “A Train To Catch” published by Partridge Singapore in 2016. She is in the midst of completing her second book “Whistle-Stops” to be published in an ebook format. This chapter on “Remembering Al-Andalus” is part of the book. She is also in the midst of setting up a travel blog, in between granny duty.

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