Living and Re-Living Al Andalus: Review of Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s, Baker of Tarifa

Living and Re-Living Al Andalus: Book Review of  Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s, Baker of Tarifa, by Sam Hamod

Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s book of poems, Baker of Tarifa, speaks, in a sense of her journey to Al Andalus (Andalucia)where she walks the streets, smells the baking, the cooking and lives the life of that era during the golden age of Spain, when the Muslims, in all their learning, culture and glory ruled Al Andalus. In this fine collection of poems of varied styles and lengths, she explores her subject, her poetic abilities and styles, and gives us a sense of history, time, place and the real essence of living and re-living Al Andalus.

The greatest of Spanish poets, Federico Garcia Lorca, once said the greatest tragedy to befall Spain was that the Muslims were driven out of Spain.  In this book, Shadab captures some of that wonderful era, that life that has been seen as a beacon for centuries of how mankind of differing religions may live in peace and harmony.

Shadab, in a fine poem “Montage,” writes of the Muslims, Christians and Jews, who all lived side by side, with each respecting the customs and religions of one another, with her poem concluding,

                     The highest commandment

                     For Jews, Muslims and Christians;

                     Love God with all of your heart, soul

                     And mind.

In other poems, she gives us parts of the lives of Zoroya the cartographer, Samuel the physician and Yusuf the book merchant  ( mother, father and son, respectively), with solemnity and also humor, as when “Yusuf Recalls the Day His Father’s Donkey Ran Away,” all this in section I, Coals Left Over From Breakfast Will Be Enough and in II, Because My Heart Became A Kiln,

Shadab enters the souls and bodies of the people of the time, from the queen of Al Andalus, suffering after its loss, to the arrival of Isabella of Spain into the famed Al Hambra, as well as people having tea, and the dough that makes the bread of the people and enters their bodies and souls. Even the keys to the Alhambra that are surrendered gain their significance in these poems; thus, her sense of detail makes the poems come alive.

The last section of this fine book is entitled, “Lambent.”  Like glowing embers, these are the final, and among the strongest poems in the book. In these poems, there is a bright glow, a lingering in  us, just as the memories of Al Andalus lingered in Shadab as she penned these poems, while she transporting herself to that wonderful time, with its joys and sorrows, even as she walked the streets of Cordoba and Granada.

The poem, “Mosaic,” captures his lambent, almost melancholy, in one of the finest poems of the book:

                    The sun’s brash mirror

                     has fissures,


                     at this latitude

                     becomes lambent


                          Piecing together in the middle of the earth

                          A Mediterranean psalm

                          tagged to a guitar

                                    floating you home    


In this section of the book, I felt the poems were the strongest, and that Shadab had come to the depths and to terms with her understanding of Al Andalus– what it meant to the Muslims, Jews and Christians who lived in that golden time, and what it meant to her to have lived in it spiritually while she spent time there physically.

The final poems have a strength and rhythm, a music that reverberates through them, whether it be in “Mosaic,” or a longer prose poem, “Soul in Mezquita Antigua” (Cordoba, 2003), when she says, “There are old songs in the breeze,”  or in “Etymology,” a short poem speaking of “blame,” (for the loss of Granada) in Spanish, Arabic and Urdu. The word goes from blame to sorrow, then is transformed in Ashk, or “tears in Urdu.” Such is the sense of loss she is able to impart in these poems. She moves then to a poem to still herself and her book, “Sleep –sill Canvas,” wishing to have painted it , in “mahogany; rich, impenetrable.” In the poem, she then goes on to say she has “paint enough for a life-time.”  In these poems she has captured that lifetime, and has put herself into it and stored enough so that I am sure there will be more poems that will come from these experiences in Al Andalus.

Finally, the book of poems ends with an allegorical insight into reality that one perceives, that others may pass by, when talking about a knob and a door an old man opens and enters, in “A Bakery Window in Algeciras.” Though the old man and Shadab enter, “The youth believes it is not an actual door.”  But we know that the doors to reality, the deepest reality open only to a few who Allah gave the ability to open and to write about, as Shadab has done here.

She concludes the book with “The Return of Happiness,” as she leaves the scene, but closes with a knowledge of Al Andalus, her life and more, with “I packed my heart in a clock for you.” And so it is that she packed her heart in the box of time, Al Andalus, but has found a happiness even in its passion and sorrows, even as time brushes by, as the clock, but the heart is still alive and beating on, as these poems resonate onward into us through her pages of poems.

As a coda, she then gives us in her Notes at the back of the book, backgrounds on the people, places and times of her poems for some who may need to know more of this golden era of which she writes, in her sense of the past and in her present experience as she lives in this past, that is yet present in her poems and affects her life in Al Andalus unto this day.

Allah Ma’aak,  Vaya Con Dios

BAKER OF TARIFA     POEMS   c:  by  Shadab Zeest Hashmi,   2010

Poetic Matrix Press; PO Box 1223;  Madera, CA     93639