On this weeks theme, language, an essay I wrote before leaving for Spain in 2009.
Last winter, I fell in love again with the Spanish language. I remember being in love with it before, some years ago when I read Neruda’s poem “Juegas Todos Las Dias” and it occurred to me that the verse “Quiero hacer contigo lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos” – I would like to do to you what spring does to the cherry trees – was among the most beautiful, most erotic I had read (and have read since), and that its beauty was as much in the way the words came off the tongue as in their particular meaning. I was sure then that some divine order had created Spanish with the intent of birthing poetry. In the months after that encounter, however, my love for the Spanish language waned – our relationship became increasingly academic and often rather forced. Spanish became a tool - for my IB language exam, for my resume – and I forgot for a time what Spanish was like as a creative instrument, as a way of seeing the world.
But like I said, I fell in love again with the Spanish language last winter; it was a Wednesday and I was sitting in Chelo Perales’ Spanish conversation class and the words of Joan Manuel Serrat’s rendition of Antonio Machado’s poem “La Saeta” washed over me like a prayer. Machado’s description of that age old spring ritual of Andalucia where the faithful walk the streets begging for ladders so that they might climb the cross and let Jesus down, and his declaration, full of love and agony, of his need to break with the faith of his ancestors, awakened in me that same awe, that same love that I had felt years before. There was more this time though; I came to understand that day what Carlos Fuentes had tried to impress upon me in “El Espejo Enterrado” - that a language is more than grammar and syntax and words; it is vested with the stories and collective memories of many peoples, and these form its character and underpin its expressive power.
So to say that I have fallen in love again with the Spanish language isn’t to say just that I like the way the words feel on my tongue, or that the work of some elder statesman of Spanish literature suits my fancy; it is to say also that I have come to understand something, something profound, about the peoples and places that birthed and continue to nurture the Spanish language into ever ripening maturity. It is no coincidence that the description of the ritual of “La Saeta” is compelling to me in Spanish in ways that it could never be in another language; the Spanish language itself is colored by Catholic traditions, and by the traditions and dreams of a thousand peoples in Latin America and Spain and elsewhere that today dream in Spanish. And it is impossible really, to engage the Spanish language without knowing something of the stories and traditions that color it.
This is why I want to live and study in Spain - to steep myself in the cultures, the stories that have both nurtured and been shaped by the language of Cervantes and Garcia Marquez. I want to be permeated with the imagery of El Torro the way that the Spanish language is. I want mine to be the justice of Baltasar Garzon. I want to dance dances with narratives akin to that of Saura’s Carmen. I want to experience Andalucia as Machado did. I want to savor the earthy, full-bodied flavors of Rioja Gran Reserva and listen to the stories of guitars the likes of Pepe Romero’s. I want to walk El Camino de Santiago, to understand something of the millions of pilgrims that found meaning in that passage. I want to be wise and funny and eternally young like Serrat.
This wont be my first experience in Spain; I have marveled at the intricate designs and engineering marvels of La Alhambra, experienced the majesty of El Palacio Real de Madrid and explored the scenic reaches of the Cabo de Gata nature reserve among other adventures. I remember being transfixed by the drama and agony manifest in Goya’s Black Paintings at Museo del Prado and the quotidian delight of Tapas and wine in good company.
And how could I forget my host family in Carboneras on the southern coast - the morning trips to the market, telenovelas in the afternoon and cooking dinner in the evening with Mama; the drinking songs and fast driving with Mari and her boyfriend; Cigars in the evening with Papa; Teresa’s shyness and cautious smile and Dori’s devious grin and quick whit; the ageless whitewashed houses and the smell of the the salt air where the desert hills meet the sea. And then there were those young gregarious companions from the States - Nat, JK, Arjun, Lexi and the gang who made it all a bit less foreign.
These fondly remembered experiences aside, I was incredibly young and fresh and unprepared then and the experience of growing into Spain and into myself at the same time was lonely mostly. What really excites me abut going back to Spain is experiencing Spain for the first time as the person that I am now, with the awareness that lives in me.
I am excited at the opportunity to engage Spain as it is today (and not just the imagined Spain from my readings of Lope de Vega and Unamuno) but also to delve into metafiction and history. For a long time now I have been fascinated by the history of Islam on the Iberian peninsula (particularly the footprint which Arabic has left on the Spanish language and imagination) and the history of Spain’s contact with Africa through colonial times. I share my name with Tariq ibn-Ziyad, the Berber chieftain who first landed at and conquered Gibaltar and for whom it is named. Growing up my father, an amateur historian, would regale me with stories about this conqueror - Tariq’s “burning of the boats” became a metaphor in my experience for the will, the audacity that greatness demands.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his poem, “Otro Poema de los Dones”, “Gracias quiero dar al divino Laberinto de los efectos y de las causas[…]Por los ríos secretos e inmemoriales que convergen en mi” - I’d like to give thanks to that divine labyrinth of cause and effect for the rivers, secret and immemorial, that converge in me. For me, that verse has become a grand metaphor for the legacy carried in the Spanish language. As I prepare to depart for Spain I am excited to be part of that legacy again but I am also not so naive as to think that Spain will always be kind - Spanish is after all the language of Cortes and Franco, of conquest and political drama, of telenovelas. I am a little afraid, but the fear tastes good in my mouth - it tastes like sea salt in chocolate, like adventure.