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  • Looking Back at al-Andalus: The Poetics of Loss and Nostalgia in Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Literature
  • Michelle Hamilton
Alexander E. Elinson . Looking Back at al-Andalus: The Poetics of Loss and Nostalgia in Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Literature. Brill Studies in Middle Eastern Literatures. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2009. 190 pp. ISBN: 978-90-04-16680-6

In this monograph, Alexander Elinson examines al-Andalus as a literary construction through poems and prose works dedicated to Andalusi urban centers written over the course of several centuries, from the height of the Umayyad caliphate to the end of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula. It adds to a body of similar studies, including Ross Brann's Power in the Portrayal, Jonathan Decter's Iberian Jewish Literature, and Esperanza Alfonso's Islamic Culture through Jewish Eyes. Elinson's study is a comparison of Hebrew and Arabic literature written in al-Andalus, and he focuses on the cultural similarities that mark both as Andalusi. He examines "how different authors evoke the memory of their lost Andalus and how these expressions are affected by genre, language, and historical and personal contexts" (9). The work contains four chapters, an appendix that includes the Arabic and Hebrew originals of the works he cites, and a glossary.

In the first chapter, Elinson analyzes how the eastern form of the poetic genre of ritha' al-mudun (city elegy) was adapted by Andalusi poets to reflect the historical vicissitudes that ravaged Andalusi urban centers. He explores a corpus of poems elegizing the Umayyad cities that fell into different hands as the caliphate dissolved. These poems conform to an eastern model but also provide us with a "literary geography of al-Andalus" (15). The desert landscapes of the early nasib section of the classical qasida are transformed into the palaces and gardens of the city. This is the type of ritha' al-mudun we find in the work of eleventh-century Andalusi poets, who, as Elinson points out, combine the familiar eastern urban landscapes (Zamzam, Mecca, Najd) with distinctively Andalusi ones (Valencia, Cordoba, Sevilla). Elinson gives a detailed analysis of Ibn Shuhayd's ritha' for Cordoba and provides an English translation of the entire poem. His close reading points to how the poet makes use of the typical nasib and images of Arabian and Syrian landscapes to underscore the fate of the Andalusi places that are the real focus of the poet's lament. [End Page 205]

In ch. 2, Elinson examines how the use of poetry and poetic motifs (particularly those of loss and nostalgia) in the Andalusi prose of the eleventh and twelfth centuries in and of itself conveys a sense of loss. Building on the studies of Abdelfattah Kilito and James Monroe, Elinson argues that the prose of the maqamat underscores poetry's displacement as the genre par excellence in the Muslim world and simultaneously reflects the fracturing of central authority in al-Andalus. Elinson examines al-Saraqusti's Qayrawan maqama as an expression of "what it meant to be an Andalusi in the twelfth century" (60). The city of Qayrawan was sacked by Banu Hilal Arabs in the mid-eleventh century; Elinson posits that for al-Saraqusti it symbolized the subsequent fall of a string of Andalusi urban centers, including Toledo (1085), Barbastro (1064), Valencia (1094), and al-Saraqusti's hometown, Zaragoza, in 1118. By rendering what seems to be a traditional nasib over the ruins of Qayrawan and then interrupting it with a dialogue in which a trickster who recites a qasida that, although deploying several of the expected conventions, nevertheless encourages the main character to avoid the type of nostalgic ritha' he has undertaken in Qayrawan, al-Saraqusti subverts the tradition of the ritha' al-mudun and the Bedouin traditions from which it is derived. In Elinson's opinion the work underscores how the traditional Bedouin poet's position has been replaced by that of the urban elite, just as the maqama and prose have replaced poetry in society as the privileged form of Andalusi expression. Elinson compares this maqama and its use of the ritha' al-mudun to another roughly contemporary prose translation of the poetic genre of the mourning...


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