I live on two lands; one foot in soggy old England; the other is in the challenging soils of Andalucia. I drive along the sparkling coast, with the sun behind me, guiding my way towards the mountains behind Malaga. This land is blessed and vast in its wisdom, and despite its appearance, the coastline is the place to start to strengthen this belief. Everyone has a relationship with Spain and mine is a sweet obsession I am proud to carry. You have to be obsessed to come here at every opportunity and visit it more than your own country, my mother tells me often and I keep crawling here, as if I was begging for mercy or the opening of the skies above. I have been besotted by it as much as its layered personality for a decade. Each time a new coating was revealed, only to weave more reality and connection into my joints, this place became home. I treat it like that because it has hosted me with an open heart and this is all you need for a place to be called home. The tierra (land) never lies, and I believe every whisper of it.
New places usually put me in a state of sweet admiration, but Andalucia humbles me to the ground. It is a whack on my head, beating me down to the red soil where I kneel with tears in my eyes and tremble with excitement. It is with reverence I walk amongst the olive grooves and remaining ruins, waiting for them to offer me a whisper; perhaps a truth I have been wanting to know all my life. Maybe they tell me I no longer need to be afraid of anything; the truth that took me decades to be comfortable with.
The colours of Andalucia are clear and sharp, a distinctive feature of this vastness of calm radiating from the land here. The rows of olive trees turn the terrain into a blanket you want to hide under the sky and find refuge from the occasional cold air. This air clears the dust and heat haze, giving way to the excitement at the vastness of the panorama that matches the profound sense of peacefulness I feel when I am driving around here. I come here to rejuvenate and reshape my spirit. An hour of sunshine fills my spine with enough to go on for weeks. I am besotted and not at all ashamed. Driving along the coast is not spectacular for history lovers but I could not help and dip my toes into some forgotten facts.
There are a few villages with the name Ben in it- Benalgabon, Benajarafe – both referring to “the son of..” a local tribe or a people who inhabited it through ancestry. The town of Benalmadena is one of them and by now, together with Mijas, have become notorious for their tourist traps and golf holidays. What lots of people do not know is that they are also famous for historical figures who shaped the life of the continent in some ways. Mijas was the military headquarters of Umar Ibn Hafsun, who led an uprising against the Naziri kingdom. Ibn Hafsun was a character who can easily step out of the history books and reappear as the likes of political populists today. Hafsun was a man who could not make up his mind. He could not decide what power to support. His fierce outburst were nothing but venting his own frustration about his very own powerlessness, but his clever mind made up tricks to deceive anyone from knowing who he really was. One day he was a Muslim only to convert to Christianity the next to gain a few acres of land from the Christians of the north of Iberia. He played it nicely, acting like a populist Robin Hood, defending the peasants from a grasping monarchy, when, in reality, all he wanted to do was to do the grasping himself. As a muwallad (a person of mixed ancestry, a descendant of one Arab and one non-Arab parent, who grew up under the influence of an Arabic society and were educated Muslim culture) he led uprisings from the hills from Parauta where he was born. A lovely little village I visited many a times on my walks, he reminded me of a simpler times with the same challenges as our 21st century.
Hafsun played with foreign power and invited the Abbasids to lead Andalus as a client state and he conjured up that himself should be the caliph of the state. He was ambiguous, presenting himself both as Christian and Muslim, depending on the audience, when the only thing he worshipped was power. His failure was the lack of appeal in rural areas when cities like Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada and Malaga were growing in wealth and opulence. He could not stand for the people he stated he would champion because he was only interested in power.
Benalmadena was the birthplace of Ibn Al Baytar, a famous botanist, pharmacist, scientist, whose contribution was a systematic record of four hundreds Muslim physicians to adding medicine to the previously known ones. Together with Abu Al Abbas Al Nabati they collected plants in and around Spain and developed an early scientific method introducing empirical and experimental techniques. After 1224 Ibn Al Baytar became the chief herbalist for Al-Kamil, the Ayyubid sultan and he settled in Damascus where he died. His chief work is a Compendium of medicinal plants and foods, that lists over 1400 items.
The sun is bright, I can barely see the road but I am following the coastline; it is my only companion. I have no GPS and I do not want one today. There is a natural instinct that drives my car as I turn uphill, towards the olive carpets above Malaga- a sight that puts me in a trance immediately. I live my life with a proselytizing belief in the conquering power of small and humble. Small and humble actions put together make a powerful movement. Small and humble thoughts create masterpieces. Just as much as small and humble shifts create a life that is handmade. There is immense power in our ability to notice those little tweaks that hold a life together, no matter how flimsy or wobbly. Here, on this forgiving land, I am reminded of the vistas for the small and humble actions we can all take to make our life of meaning.