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"THIS STILL FLICKERING LIGHT": READING AND TEACHING THE WOMEN POETS OF AL-ANDALUS Lourdes María Alvarez Catholic University ofAmerica "Three centuries after these departures with no return, just before the 1 920s, my mother was born there, in the midst of these families who still displayed , with a naive pride, the keys to their lost houses in Córdoba and Cjianada. What was this legacy that she inherited and what did she transmit to me of this memory already covered in sand? ... A few details in the embroidery ofwomen's garments, some slight accent distorting the local dialect, the only trace ofan Andalusian Arabic maintained as long as possible.... Above all, the music known as 'Andalusian' that was called 'classical,' the music that simple artisans -Muslim andJewish cobblers, barbers and tailors- practiced conscientiously whenever they gathered in the evening. At the same time, among groups ofwomen, one heard the cantilenas offemale musicians, and thanks to their languorous rhythms, rhetorical figures and old-fashioned prettiness, the sweetness masked the pain ofthe glorious epoch which, back there, had been an intermingling ofraces, languages, and knowledge." Assia Djebar (1995, 170) Invoking the mixture ofraces, languages and forms ofknowledge in Andalusian culture, the Algerian writer Assia Djebar tells of her mother's attachment to the songs ofthe land from which her ancestors were expelled centuries ago, recounting how her barely literate mother lovingly transcribed those verses and grieved at seeing the precious sheets destroyed by French soldiers. Djebar places her own writings in that line ofArab women's voices, adopting the language of the French colonizer so that her voice might carry back across the Mediterranean . Contemporary media representations ofArab women, the heated controversies over the status of women in Islam, and especially the influx of North African migrants into countries such as Spain, have stirred up new interest in the legacy ofArab women's voices. Indeed, La corónica 32.1 (Fall, 2003): 79-87 80Lourdes María AlvarezLa corónica 32.1, 2003 crucial to Djebar's work is its contestation ofsimply parceling national histories and literatures, showing instead the critical way in which histories and cultures were, and remain, intertwined. Yet despite our frequent acknowledgments of how die medieval period predates (and transcends) the national and disciplinary borders that define our departmental identities, too often in our universities the study of these histories and cultures is divvied up according to retroactively imposed national borders. As a result, Andalusian writers -women and men alike— who composed their work in Arabic are rarely given serious consideration in courses on the literature(s) of medieval Spain. The questions I wish to address here as part of this critical cluster on women writers of medieval Spain are threefold and interconnected: What place do Andalusian women of letters have in the canon of Spanish literature? Should graduate (and possibly undergraduate ) students in Spanish literature be required to read them? Does the addition of new material such as this perforce work to the benefit or the detriment of the field? The recovery of those Arab female voices that Djebar seeks is in some ways a simpler task than might be expected because of the encyclopedic impulse that runs strongly through Arabic letters. The ancient Arabs admired and recorded for posterity the poetry of a good number of women. Among the great poets of theJahiliyya, the preIslamic period, the foremost is al-Khansâ' (d. 646), renowned for her elegies for her brothers fallen in battle.1 As Gabrieli notes, Al-Khansa' is praised for her "undeniable personal talent in expressing a deeplyfelt sorrow" and her creation of "new stylistic and metrical embellishments ". Although printed editions ofher dlwän such as al-Bustânî's are comprised of slightly more than a hundred poems, Gabrieli counts approximately a thousand poems attributed to her. Even discounting many of dubious provenance, this is an impressive body ofwork, unmatched by any European female poetuntil many centuries later. While this great elegiac poet's verse—and that ofa few dozen more medieval Arab women—has been well-preserved, we know diat much more has been lost. For example, the iconoclastic poetAbu Nuwäs (d. 815) speaks 1 For an introduction to Arab...


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