There are so many colourful characters in 9th century Andalus but one stands out for his charm and mischief- Ghazzal. He was a diplomat at the Umayyad court and many of his foreign trips brought Andalus alive. Ibn Hayyan wrote that “together with his education, he had varied and abundant wisdom; he was able to play the knowing fool when speaking, and he was funny, intense and always at ease in his expression.”. I say, just the right type of man for a political job and the Umayyad amirs knew it.
He was an impulsive, independent, impudent and insubordinate diplomat known for his skills as a politician as much as for his fleet wit and extraordinary good look that left many women bereft. His life was a beautiful set of lies as he waded through power, charming women, flirting with kings’ wives and the tales we must be careful to tell- here are some of astonishing moves that also moved history.
He was born in Jaen in 780 into a socially influential family and in his youth, he moved to Cordoba where his flirtation with power and women started. Power got into his head quickly and he moved swiftly to secure one diplomatic job after the other, never running out of prestige and influence at the court of Abd Ar Rahman II.
He had several diplomatic missions. One of his jobs sent him to Constantinople where he made some dangerous moves to flirt with the wife of Theophilos, the Byzantine king. Theodora, his wife became besotted with Ghazzal quickly who charmed her at the first instance. The emperor was fully aware that Muslims visiting his palace would not bow down to anyone except Allah, so he purposely built a low door, forcing his Muslim visitors to show respect. Ghazzal was not phased, he entered through the back door making the queen smile before she even saw him.
After the poet asked for a glass of water, a glass of gold and pearls was offered to him and after finishing it and emptying the remainder, he kept it inside his sleeve. The emperor then ordered the interpreter to ask the reason why al-Ghazāl was acting like this, and al-Ghazāl answered: It is a rule of our caliphs, of whom you are allied with, that if in their presence water is requested by a noble ambassador, and he is honoured with a fine glass, he may take it and after drinking from it, he does not give it back, usage that I have been following, but if it is not customary amongst you, I will return it.
Theodora’s fascination continued and one evening visited him in his private chamber bringing her son. She said: “I bring you my son, the light of my life, so he can spend the night with you drinking and benefitting from your culture”. To which Ghazzal has responded with a poem:
Me tiene afecto el que aprecia mi persona
Y a menudo de tarde me visita;
me vino un día con odre de vino
De aroma perfumado como almizcle en mecha,
A beberlo conmigo, pernoctar,
Y afirmar nuestro amor de amigos
Con él venía su madre y parecían
Cierva y cervatillo de alcoholados ojos;
Me lo confiaba diciendo: ‘Temo Que sufra frío en la larga noche’,
Mas dije en mi locura tontería:
‘Por favor, no soy bebedor’ ¡
Que ocasión, Dios sea loado,
De haber sido yo sensato!
..skilfully saying how he does not drink and has no interest in becoming a drinker. His religious convictions have been questionable throughout his life but let God be the judge of that.
His other famous mission led him to the land of the Vikings, Majus that is most possibly today’s Denmark. There, he continued his manly charm with Queen Nud who did not shy away from continuing the flirts Ghazzal initiated. She was impressed with his beauty but critisied his greying hair to which he pulled out a poem leisurely:
“Do not disregards the shine of white hair!
It is the flower of understanding and intelligence
I have now what you have longed for from your own youth
God manners and education”
…a punchy answer to a longing queen.
His trips brought essential information to the Umayyad court as well as fostered diplomatic relations with Byzantine empire and the Abbasids. He ended up in Baghdad for a mischievous poem he wrote about a Persian poet and musician, Ziryab (See his story here: The King of Style in Andalus )
He challenged the court poets’ intelligence and for this criticism he was sent to exile to modern day Iraq. Ironically, he ended up studying poetry form one of the most well-known and revered Arab poets of the time, Abu Nawas from whom he learnt prose and constructing poems. He made his exile work by using every opportunity he had, bringing back essential skills to the Umayyad court that later on became the yardstick for teaching poetry.
Diplomacy was not the strength of the Umayyads but Abdur Rahman II was a clever amir- he selected the most suitable people around him and brought the idea of pomp into his court as a way to engage and conduct political affairs. Ghazzal was certainly part of this process of political maturity that continued to flourish in the centuries that followed.