by Saima Usmani
I never thought I would wake up in a convent-turned hotel in Spain to say, “Let’s go to Africa for a day.”
Driving through Spain for a week with my family was certainly an adventure, but a whole chapter of our adventure still lay in Morocco. From Cordoba, the once-booming Islamic Empire’s capital, down to Granada, the Muslim’s last stronghold in Spain, down to Morocco, the flight of the Moors some 600 years ago was being relived by us (without the peril, of course).
We drove four hours, stopping in towns and sea-side restaurants, even further south. In beach-side Tarifa, the southern-most town of Spain and closest to Morocco, we got a chance to ride beautiful Andalusian horses. I rode a horse by myself, which had the tendency to break out into runs, down a mountain, across the beach, and up a mountain after only 5 seconds of Spanish instructions I did not even understand. It was awesome.
After Granada fell, Isabella and Ferdinand enacted the Inquisition, which would bring back Christianity to Spain by forcing the remaining Muslims and Jews to convert—or face the consequences. Those who could leave Spain across the water did, but those who didn’t were either washed of their Iman or buried deep in the ground.
The ferry for Morocco leaves Tarifa around eight times a day, and the trip is a little more than an hour at sea. We bought our tickets and set sail, watching Spain recede in the horizon behind us, wondering what it must feel like to leave your home permanently, after being driven out by those that used to be your neighbors. The flight of the Moors was coming to an end; in Morocco they would remain.
The city we would arrive at was the ancient city of Tangier, what we knew to be a fantastic blend of Afro-Arabic and French culture. We entered the Medina Ancien, the Ancient City, a labyrinth of homes, shops, hotels, and masajid nestled within crumbling walls from the ancient days. After a lot of searching through shady ally ways, we found a small hotel cramped between two narrow roads, Dar Jameel.
As the manager opened the heavy metal doors, we were awestruck. We found a diamond in the rush. The hotel, a house with three floors, two rooms on each, was like the inside of an Arabian palace. Each room, each hallway, even the bathroom doors made us feel like we were sultans and queens living in the Alhambra’s Nasrid Palaces. We collapsed on the bed wondering how we ended up in a dream palace for only $60 a night.
The next morning, armed with Euros and empty bags, we set upon the souks, the famous Moroccan marketplaces of Tangier. We bought everything from lamps to knock-off Beats by Dre, eating halal McDonald’s and having a grand time. Everyone in the city was extremely friendly, and spoke either French, Arabic or Spanish, which between the four of us we could all communicate in.
Inside the ancient medinah there was also a historical site known as “Kasbah,” and old Moorish fort that looked out over the Mediterranean and housed a museum. We went, passing by a group of Americans fascinated by a snake charmer, and browsed through the museum. We stopped at an ancient world map when we realized we could not recognize anything on it. It took us a minute, then it dawned on us, the map is up-side down. Captivated, we began to read the small Arabic labels of lands we knew and our own Pakistan. I moved all the way to the left and picked a word in Arabic, reading it slowly. “Ya’juj.”
Chills ran over my entire body and my heart stopped. Ya’juj? On a world map? No one knows where the apocalyptic nation resides—it was impossible that they were here. I read the inscriptions around it. “Ya’juj, Ya’juj, Ya’juj, Ya’juj. Ma’juj, Ma’juj, Ma’juj.” I called my family over and I could tell by our silence we were all a little bit scared. I looked at the snake-like structure that housed the supposed Ya’juj and Ma’juj. It was labeled “Wall of Zulqarnein.”
“Oh my god,” I exclaimed. “It’s the Great Wall of China.” China had been so isolated at the time, blocking off invaders along with the rest of the known world that the Middle Easterners did not even know what lay on the other side. The wild guess that beyond the Great Wall lived the Ya’juj Ma’juj was not beyond them. Shaking my head, I moved on.
For lunch we wanted to eat at a fancy place. We found a French restaurant perched atop a strip mall, and went inside and got a table. We looked at the menu, a little bit astonished at the prices and how little we understood the French, when Nauman got the attention of the waiter for what looked like a pressing matter. “Is your ‘boef’ (beef) portion grande,” here he made a two foot-long space with his hands, “or petit?” after which he brought his hands about a foot and a half apart.
The waiter’s face fell. Perhaps Nauman’s options had confirmed his fears that the Americans would not like what they were about to hear. “No,” the waiter said as though he was grieving, and put his fingers about an inch apart, “tres, tres, tres, petit.”
Nauman’s face was a sight to see. His disappointment at coming to a halal restaurant that would only give him an inch of beef was eminent, so much so that the waiter was not even surprised when I called him over after our family meeting.
“I am so sorry,” I said in French while my mother failed at holding in her giggles, “but my brother needs…beef that is big.”
The waiter only nodded sadly, and we made a run for it, bursting out in uncontrollable laughter, the four of us, as soon as we left. We looked up and saw the waiters lined up at the windows watching us, which we didn’t understand, but we kept laughing. We ended up eating at a typical pizza-place. And it was exquisite. Amurica! Nauman later said, matter-of-factedly, “I’ve been having a very Mo-rocky day.”
The last ferry to leave Morocco for Spain was at 6:30, and as the time approached we knew we would be running late. So we told my mother specifically, “Ammi, you have to be fast, okay? Put the video camera away.” As we ran in a line out of the decrepit alleyway that housed our palace, Dar Jameel, I chanced a glance behind me. My mother wasn’t there.
The men who sat loafing around the shops had come to know us, and laughingly they pointed back and told us she was still in the alleyway. It turned out that she got distracted by a cute Arab baby and was giving him candy. Facepalming ourselves, we told her to hurry, and laughing hysterically the four of us descended the steps of the Ancient City and ran to the ferry station. One man saw us, pointed at the time, and said we could take it easy, there was still time. The next man saw us, pointed at the time, and said, “What are you doing?! The ferry is about to leave!”
The ferry employees grabbed some of our bags, gave us our tickets in a rush, and what seemed like half of the ferry terminal ran with us to where the ferry was docked. It was literally just about to leave when we approached, and the employees shouted for the crew to halt the departure for us to board the ship. Pink in the face and smiling, we jumped on, and began our voyage back to Spain.
As we we sailed to Spain, in the year 711 CE the first Moorish Muslim army landed with an “Allahu Akbar” on the banks of Gibraltar. They were led by the fearless general Tariq ibn Ziyad, a former slave. The Muslims were terribly outnumbered by the Spaniards, and skepticism was rampant amongst the ranks. And so Ibn Ziyad ordered for all of their ships to be burned. As the fleet rose up in flames, the men looked behind them, knowing there was no way back home.
Tariq ibn Ziyad addressed his men. “Brothers in Islam! We now have the enemy in front of us and the deep sea behind us. We cannot return to our homes, because we have burnt our boats. We shall now either defeat the enemy and win or die a coward’s death by drowning in the sea. Who will follow me?”
Needless to say, the Muslims won the battle, creating the first Muslim settlement on the Iberian peninsula that would precede 800 years of a prosperous Islamic empire.
The trip back to Madrid was quick, and we saw a few beautiful sights along the way as we drove deep through the mountains.
It took a little bit of time to adjust to life back home. Nauman missed the delicious freshly squeezed orange juice the Spanish drank every morning. Sunya missed not being judged as she asked the food trucks at NYU for a gyro that was “solo carne” (only meat). I had to lie to my Spanish class telling them that I learned “so much Spanish” during my trip.
It would be a lie to say we weren’t a bit disillusioned by our tours of the remnants of Al-Andalus. If there was one thing to remember, for the entire Muslim Ummah to remember, it’s that we cannot cling to the good parts of our past, the golden days. We have to come to terms with the mistakes that were made, why our Golden Age plummeted—and no, it was not because of “the West.” We have historically been our own enemies, fighting amongst each other and using our wealth to build palaces around us. It is important for us to stop looking behind us, thinking that our past was better than our present and future.
At some point, we simply have to make like the Moors: burn our ships and plough forward.