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O’ sacred place of Córdoba,
You exist because of Ishq,
Ishq that’s wholly eternal,
Which does not come and go,
Muhammed Iqbal – The Mosque of Córdoba.
I’m moving through the dark,
Of a long black night,
Just moving with the moon,
And the light it shines,
And I’m thinking of a place?,
And it feels so very real,
The War on Drugs, – Thinking of a Place.
Every now and again I get this strange sensation; the feeling comes over me that I’m actually in a film. Or rather, that my life has been a film all along. Not only do I feel as if I’m in a film but I feel as if I’m in the penultimate scene: the dénouement as the French like to call it. I suspect most readers of this column will have some idea of what kind of film I feel I’m in, based on the type of encounters that have made up this series. But they’re probably wrong. Because it’s a sort of hybrid of the European art film in the vein of an Antonioni or Tarkovsky – think L’Eclisse or Nostalgia – and the borderline arty-road movie fashioned exclusively in the US; think Vanishing Point or Easy Rider. Splice to the two types together and you get at my tastes.
And then, when I get this weird experience that I’m actually in a film it’s usually something particular to these kinds of films that marks the experience. Typical of a Tarkvoksy or Antonioni film is the feeling of weight: the full weight of Europe bearing down on us; bringing an immense pressure to bear. The protagonist feels the weight of history contained – more often that not – in buildings, whether, for example, those of a post-apocalyptic variety as found in Tarkovsky’s Stalker or of a more classical bent in an Antonioni film. Because the Spirit of the past, the weight of history, is found in the material buildings that surround us, a deeply felt encounter with them connects us to the past. We come to realise who we are – our identity as such – in such encounters.
The road movie however, is of a rather different constellation. It is only by escaping this weight, getting out into wide open spaces that freedom – in a practical sense – can then be realized. Only when the unexpected, that which is alien to the senses as a given time, is encountered, can we properly connect with the world. This is why I love Easy Rider so much, or why Thelma and Louise is so compelling.
The latter critiques the weight of patriarchy and celebrates freedom of the road. The acid scene in Easy Rider, singled out as the great psychedelic-hippie moment, interests me for this same reason. It’s about a psychedelic trip. But it’s also about the drug of the road; when we realise ourselves as nomadic creatures on the road. If the great American hero is a nomad, then the great European hero, by contrast, is someone who feels the weight of history as a precursor to realising who they really are. Think Andrei Gorchakov in Tarkvosky’s Nostalghia, a poet who misses his Russian homeland so much he can’t function, but who realises his true feelings for his homeland amidst the ruins of Italy. He peers into his soul only when connecting with the history around him.
Both heroes – in their different ways – appeal to my tastes. My perfect film brings (the one I’m in) brings these heroes together, with history and freedom dominant narrative tropes. It is therefore not surprising that my ‘I’m in a movie’ moment came over me travelling through Spain last week. As those who read this column may well be sick of hearing, I went on a road trip from Madrid to Córdoba (and on to Malaga) with my wife and two sons, doing things that don’t generally go together: visiting museums and football stadiums, fast food joints and bodegas.
The rationale for visiting Córdoba, however, was both simple and complex: I wanted to see the city, the capital of Andalucía and home to the most significant number of heritage sites given over to the legacy of the Moors. And I wanted to expose my children, who are growing up in a time of political tension, inequality along with terrorism, to a part of Europe that is marked as much by the tolerance of religions as intolerance. Put simply, I wanted to furnace a memory that would help them understand their standing amidst the ruins of a Europe given over as much to the Moor legacy as its Christian other. This was the gist of what I was doing. But visiting the ruins of Europe was one part of an endeavour, another of which was to realise the joys of travel: we were on the road for ten days, never allowed to settle too long in one place. It was a trip designed around the idea of a European art film wedded to American road movie.
And that’s how it panned out. Well kind of. At least that’s how some of it panned out: mostly, the moment I had this weird sensation I was actually in a film. We arrived in Córdoba by train, and found to our surprise – as we taxied our way across the city – that our hotel– which wasn’t by any means a five star – was situated within touching distance of the major historical site in Córdoba: the glorious, majestic and often spellbinding Mezquita. The Mezquita is a Mosque and Cathedral in one, the Mosque having been built by the Moors in the eighth century, the main features of which were then preserved as part of a Cathedral built on the same site during the Reconquista/reconquering of the Moors in medieval Spain. I’m not going to pretend I know the history well – it’d be moonlighting as some kind of authority – a studious historian. I prefer to get a sense of a place and do the research afterwards: in the aftermath. And I haven’t got there yet. I’m still in the sensation fulfilling moment.
We arrived in Córdoba when the temperatures had risen to the high thirties. For a middle-aged ‘strawberry blonde’ (sometimes defined as straight-up ‘ginger’) from the West of Ireland this is ‘tomato ripening’ warmth; heat that whacks us across the cheek until we beg for more air conditioning. But I’m one of the Irish abroad who can’t even enjoy air conditioning in the moment because I keep thinking of the heat outside as if it’s just about to come inside, all too aware I have to re-engage with that heat again soon. I can’t hide in the room like a pint of milk that has to be chilled. I’m on holiday: I have to go out. It’s a low-level anxiety: unable to enjoy the moment because that fear of not being able to enjoy the moment later, when in the heat again.
After checking into the hotel, and then wandering around the old town, we went to eat (and generally acted as if we weren’t actually weirded out by the suffocating heat) and then passed the walls of the Mezquita. We decided not to go in that afternoon in fear of the relentless heat, the queues. Later that afternoon I sat in the Moorish patio gardens of the Hotel Conquistador drinking non-alcoholic mojitos thinking they were of the other variety, wondering how Oscar, my dog, is doing at home, and falling into a heat-induced stupor. I stumbled from one hour to the next, dreaming of a time when
I can go for a leisurely walk again, a run even, and imagined such luxuries as a non-sweaty existence. When I switched to beer later that day it seeped out of me as quick as it went in, impressing upon me the idea that alcohol in heat is a pointless exercise, akin to defusing a bomb destined to explode. The simple explanation is God hasn’t planned for me to visit this hot a place. Pack your bags son, the big man in the sky says, ‘have you not seen your DNA? It states: you’re not meant to be here in June.’
Having twisted and turned in bed that night, I awoke to a balmy twenty degrees morning – as if the Gods had taken pity on me. I then headed off on my own as the gang slept in, and found myself walking out to glorious sunshine. I actually felt human wandering around the walls of the Mezquita before being ushered in. The old gardens outside the main buildings constitute a significant part of its charm. Tourists line up, taking pictures of the buildings, and generally gathering their bearings before entering.
And then, as I sit and allow the immensity of the moment, the realization that centuries of history and toil are woven into the matter all around me, seep in, the ‘I’m in a film moment’ occurs. Swallows are dancing over my head, in entrancing patterns, and it feels as if the whole journey is a pilgrimage now reaching its pinnacle. I’m here because, like those heroes of the European art films I love so much, there’s something about a Mosque doubling as a Cathedral that appeals to the poet in me: a coming up-close to that Spirit Hegel found in history that sweeps through the generations and preserves one form under the auspice of another. One form under the auspice of another. Metaphor: one word that stands in for another.
In moments like these, when it feels like destiny has brought me to this place, the ‘I’m in a film moment’ occurs. The experience is uncanny, because it feels as if someone is pulling the strings on my life, dragging me to this place. Yet – at the same – the choice to come here seems absolutely my own. It is no surprise I noticed the swallows flying in circles above me, at this time, as birds have long been symbols of the freedom I associate with travel, and movement across space.
It feels as if it’s something approaching an art film – like La Dolce Vita – I’m living through, experiencing a moment like Marcello when gazing at the bizarre sea creature on the beach, and everything changes in his life for the better. But it is also the end of Easy Rider that now encroaches upon my experience of this place, when I think of the history Billy and Wyatt find hard to connect to in New Orleans, just as the road trip concludes. The freedom in being on the road, emphasized by the swallows I see all around me outside the entrance of the Mezquita, is aligned to a heritage I also want so much to connect to: the immense yet deeply convoluted history of Europe.
I enter the Mezquita. Everywhere there are tourists, people moving in random directions, without pattern. But the standing columns built by the Moors, that hold up the building, stare at me, sing of the perfect language, perfect symmetry of design. All around I see the minimal simplicity of the Moors side-by-side the expressive eloquence, the intense ‘fussiness’ of an art inspired by the Catholic tradition. This is, of course, a Cathedral. But it was once a Mosque too. It’s one as another, another as one (however, it functions only as a Cathedral today, even though Muslims have campaigned to be allowed to pray in the Mosque as an historical condition of their faith).
I walk around for an hour and leave. Later my kids walk through this same space. And later again, when given time to reflect, to think of the immensity of this historical site, I wonder what impression it will have on my children. Is it a positive impression? An impression growing, like it does for me, into dreams of a shared space? A Mosque and a Cathedral? A Cathedral and a Mosque? Can a building function as both? Or is history always the negation of one by a more dominant force?
Perhaps in another city, a Córdoba of my dreams, or the film I feel I’m in, this site of grandeur and beauty, functions as both a Mosque and a Cathedral. It is both because it functions as both. But it is also space where anyone can kneel and pray: to whatever God takes his or her fancy. It is something of an irony the Caliphate that presided over Córdoba, when the city developed into one of the key social, economic and cultural centers in Europe and the wider world, was undone for cultivating in the city such a shared space of tolerance. When I leave the next day, a city so hot a taxi driver describes it to me as ‘the gateway to Hell’ I dwell upon an idea: that the Córdoba of my dreams is not a dream: it’s a glimpse of what might be because it has already been.