❖ In the beginning… ❖
Along the winding streets behind the Valencian Aqueduct, and down towards the Lycos river, with its worried monasteries and vacant palaces shorn of Byzantium’s power since Mehmet the Conqueror took the city, we began to meet with our birds, who would sing and sing until one of them and its owner would be declared the winners. They had come—or their avine forebears had—from the Canarias…
At the edge of the world lay their islands–some say the remains of Atlantis, some say the garden where first grew the Golden Apples of the Sun, where monsters lay and where an island was known to rise in the mists and just when the sailor who saw it thought to land, it sunk again–from thence came a marvelous, rather modest-looking bird who, by the Prophet, sang like the birds in Paradise. No, not a nightingale. Not a Kungumapoo from the Spice Islands, not even a Hua Mei, descended from the Emperor’s gift to that Venetian, Marco Polo. This little bird had no glorious plumage, no entertaining antics; rather it was a dull greenish yellow, ordinary, modest sized but bright as a Frankish penny. Who was it that first arranged that such a bird would be sent to us? Well, often you can tell what is going on in the world by watching what arrives in the marketplace, what, under more favorable circumstances, would have stayed at home. Take tulips, for instance. Were they not a foreign flower to the Low Lands? Did that not tell the world that our remarkable empire, that of the Ottomanes, was “found” by those clumsy northerners, somewhere to their East?
So a modest little bird, who did not migrate, came by ship to these shores and to our dear city. What, we might ask, does that mean?
* * * *
A damp night, cold, with winds that swirled around the lighthouse on the cliffs of Sagres, that also housed Henry the Navigator’s observations and his school, so they say, and so constructed that when you looked out its windows, you had the sense of being in the sea. That is, the currents and the waves that crashed against the point seemed to surround the tower as if there were no connections to the mainland, nor a foundation to the pharo, at all.
He was not in that tower, but in hidden rooms in Lisboa, sitting in front of the fire, sipping port, mulling over what on earth he should do next. It was the Christian’s year of 1484; and the Portuguese king, Joao II, had refused him and his plan. How could he? An alternate route to the East, to China? Ophir! Tarsis! Spices! Gold! A route perhaps even faster if one were to take the Alexandrian Ptolemy’s calculations as seriously as the Portuguese did. Your ships will not survive, said the king’s advisors; but their ships had survived Cap Bojador… Portugal had circumnavigated the continent of the Moors and the blacks, had ports east in Goa, in the Spice Islands—why not encircle the globe? Had they only listened, Portugal’s supremacy would be established once and for all. Was it that the rulers of Castile and Aragon, next door, in their war against the Moor in Granada had asked Joao for his aid? Was that it?
“Fools!” Cristobal Colón swore.
The fire needed another log–add it, or simply go on to bed and decide what to do now that Lisboa had closed its doors…
PART ONE: Prologue
And on a narrow street in Garnata al Yahud, near the walls of the great red fortress where stood a row of modest houses, with only their gardens separating them from these same walls, in one house in particular the lights burned late into the night. If you were able to enter, you would have heard the sounds of a woman in labor.
— Take Yitzak to the neighbors! Quickly! Now! the father of the little boy to be sent out of earshot, the husband of the woman in pain, shouted at his servants. —I must go to her, let me go to her!
— No, no Don Elazar, this is woman’s business! the women at the door held him back. —The midwife is with her!
— This is much worse than it was with Yitzak! Listen to her!
Another shriek. Then silence. The mewling of a newborn infant. The father pushed the women at the door aside. The women tried to block him from going any farther, and one held out a tiny, red-faced baby with a full head of dark hair:
— It is just a girl, Don Elazar.
Ignoring the newborn, the father tried to push them aside— Miriam? my Miriam? how is she?
— Call the Rab, Don Elazar. There is nothing more we can do.
The family sat shiva for seven days. All mirrors were covered, a candle burned throughout that time, relatives outside and neighbors all brought food. Don Elazar and his young son sat solemnly on two low stools, each with a tear in their clothing above their hearts, each pale and still, while mourners joined them; then after Miriam, the beloved wife and mother, was interred in the cemetery and family shared that first meal, they continued, even into the interminable hours of the days that followed. Elazar’s wealthy cousin Yakob, gave them a slave, a Moorish woman named Amina, who also had a newborn, so that the woman could nurse her own and this poor infant whose mother had died before she could utter her first cry.
After the seven days were over, the house of scholar, Don Elazar ben Faraj al-Bagdadi and his small son, Yitzak ben Elazar ben Faraj al-Bagdadi, was, as is so often said, like a tomb
* * * *
Don Elazar immersed himself in his books and never remarried. Inconsolable at the loss of his beloved Miriam he became not so attentive to his children; for although he loved them with all his heart, for some time sentiment appeared to be locked inside of him. Never having been a practical man, he was quite ignorant of the care of two young children; nor did he know even so much as one of the many children’s games that one plays with infants to make them gurgle and, later on, to laugh. However, Yitzak, in spite of the loss of his mother, was a cheerful soul. He liked to climb the apricot tree in their yard, steal birds’ eggs, and roughhouse with the other boys in the neighborhood. Though clearly a bright little fellow, this boy child —no, sighed Elazar— no, this child is not to follow in my footsteps. He will never be a scholar.
And truth be told, for the first several years of her life, Elazar shamefully neglected his little daughter, Cara, as if this child were a djinn, the clear cause of her mother’s demise and her father’s sorrow. At the end of the street, his Moorish neighbor, Salman, only shook his head at such sentiments —Don Elazar, clearly the djinn was not human but that djinn of childbirth—the Tabia—and it possessed your midwife. Perhaps, he said, ever so gently— perhaps you angered the Tabia in some way?
And although Salman and Elazar had shared many a long night in deep discussion over the contents of their several books, Elazar refused to speak to his friend for nearly a month. That is, until something in the writings on optica, by Ibn al-Haytham, sparked both of their curiosities, and, book in hand, Elazar cautiously knocked on his friend’s door one night. Salman could not resist.
Amina was a perfect solution to Elazar’s paternal ineptness. After a respectful pause, she came to stay at the house, bring her new baby and the little infant girl whom Elazar, in his sorrow, had left with her and barely seen since. Amina was grateful to join the household, for Cousin Yakob, who gave her to Don Elazar was far more strict and not above an occasional beating. A Moor of generous proportion and evidently endowed with superb milk, Amina fed her own and the little Cara bint Elazar ben Faraj al-Bagdadi, as well as watching over the five year old Yitzak, Cara’s big brother. As they grew, she was the warmth they curled up to when the winter rains came, when their father was lost for days in his studies.
Little did they know what Cara, as she grew into a toddler and then a four-year-old, what this little “imp” was up to.
* * * *
—Master, master! La hija! she has disappeared! Amina appeared at the door of Don Elazar’s study just before the midday meal, wringing her plump hands as Salih, her son, clung to her skirts weeping— She was by my side and now she is gone!
Don Elazar leapt up. Soon the whole neighborhood scurried to look for this little girl, even the Rab. Some less generous neighbors clucked their tongues while, nevertheless, joining in the search:
—No wonder, it is. That poor child has nearly gone wild!
They looked in all the back yards, the orchard nearby, the stables at the end of the street near Salman’s house, at the silk weaver’s shop; they looked in all the nooks and crannies of occupied and empty buildings. Some of the men went so far as to walk to the gates of the Alhambra where the Nasrid Princes’ guards stood, fierce and impassive— Have you seen a little girl? She is only four years old, with very curly dark hair, almost African. She often loses the scarf she should be wearing on her head…
The guards, of course, had seen no one. Indeed, no one had succeeded in finding the child, even Amina who had called and called her name —Doña Cara! Doña Cara! Doña Cara! —until she was hoarse. She and Don Elazar and Amina’s little one returned to the house, defeated. Even Yitzak, who had pressed his playmates very hard, threatening to beat up anyone who laughed—where is my sister?—was discouraged.
It was dusk and the demon Quiet settled over the house. No one ate but a scrap of the traditional megadarra, lentils and rice, which Amina had prepared for long ago almuerzo.
— It is my fault, mi kulpa! Don Elazar recriminated —I paid so little attention to her! I am the djinn that your Moros talk about —
—No, Master, Amina interrupted. —We have a very old djinn who can change shape as it feels like it, but loves to steal things. We are supposed to watch not only our possessions, but also our children. I should have been more careful! Oh what have I done? She began pulling at her hair.
— Stop, Amina! Sto —
That knock on the door no doubt saved Amina’s hair, for it was the Rab.
— You have news? Elazar asked fearfully.
—Come! We have found her. She is alive and unharmed, but I do not know if it is good news! announced the Rab.
—Of course it is! shouted Elazar with relief. Everyone rose.
The Rab held up his hand —No, only Don Elazar.
We still do not know how this little girl managed to sequester herself right under our noses, but the Rab led the relieved father to the Rab’s house, through the courtyard to a room in the back where the Rab kept his study. There, completely oblivious to all, sat little Doña Cara, for all intents and purposes, reading a book.
—Look. And what is the book, you may ask? Imagine! It is my most valuable book, outside of the Tanahk—a copy of Geographia as written in Arabic by Ibn Sina —
— Yes. What are you going to do about it? I have heard her reading passages aloud and she knows what she is looking at! She can read! She must be possessed!
—What am I going to do? Why do you think she is possessed?
—Come now, Elazar, she is a girl! Can woman be educated? Even if she could, if she reads too much she be unfit for marriage. It must be a demon!
—Rab, thank you. But what you say is nonsense. You know my son, Yitzak, he will never live the life of the mind. But my daughter…No, this is wonderful news! What about, in our Moorish brothers’ tradition, the wife of Mohammed, Ā’isha b. Abī Bakr? Lubna of Cordoba? the jurist and mathematician, Fāṭima b. Abī al-Qāsim ‘Abd al-Rahmān b. Muhammad b. Ghālib al-Ansārī al-Sharrāṭ ? Or Zaynab b. Ahmad, who taught Ibn Battuta?
— They are are Moros!
— Oh, I see, Jewish women not only cannot be educated, but should not be. Leave that exception to Moorish women? Elazar cocked his head, almost like a giant stork— Come, Cara, we must go home.
By this time, at the sound of two grown men arguing, the little girl had looked up from her reading. Cara climbed down from her seat in the windowsill and took her father’s hand—Baba! Where is the Great Ocean Sea from here? I want to go there! I want to learn —
—You see, Elazar! She will be the shame of you yet!
—Good night, Rab. I am very happy that you found my little girl. She is all I have left, in a feminine way, of my beloved Miriam who, you might be surprised to know, also knew how to read.
And that is how Don Elazar of Garnata al Yahud, a very impractical man, took Doña Cara, his little girl, under his scholarly wing and taught her the old classics, ciencia, astronomy and astrology, languages, matematica, the arts of the ancients and the work of the scholars of Al Andalus that preceded them. In time, even the Rab consented to let the child see certain books in his library, though he made Don Elazar promise that he would tell no one that he, the Rab of al Yahud, had opened his library to a young woman.