Intense and dynamically temperamental, Maria Rosa Menocal, a literary historian with an accidental flair for news, has an aversion to simplifications about the past as a way to understand the present. To her, life is an unending story of exile and survival.
Menocal, the author of five books and a Yale professor, captivated an audience at the National Building Museum on Tuesday with her thoughts on the endurance of art, philosophy, science and architecture during great and terrible times in history.
Menocal was in town this week to participate in a cultural series called the Al-Andalus Festival. Andalus is the Arabic word for Iberia. The program, under the patronage of the Mosaic Foundation in conjunction with its annual benefit gala, was inspired by the complex interaction among Christians, Muslims and Jews during seven centuries of Muslim rule over the Iberian Peninsula.
The program kicked off several events, including an exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on Wednesday and a symposium at Georgetown University on Thursday. Recitals and a film are also scheduled.
Menocal pointed out that the vibrant culture known as the Golden Age during the Moorish rule of Spain transcended religious identity and political systems. But extremists who felt threatened by the tolerance of other communities brought about historic disasters. For example, it was Muslim purists who burned the books of Ibn Rushd, an Arab philosopher from Cordoba, in the 12th century, as infighting caused Al Andalus to unravel. Queen Isabella capitulated to the church, ignoring her loyal advisers and the Arab writings that adorned her palaces, when she decreed to expel the Jews from Spain in 1492. People were forced to flee their homeland or convert to Christianity.
Irrespective of who won the battles or stayed, people lived in a universe in which Arabic script remained on the walls of some monasteries, as well as on murals of a synagogue in Toledo. "This is what you did then in such an age, whether you are Christian, Muslim or Jew. They were not identical cultures, circles were shared and conflicts were always there," she said. "Great culture can also flourish under great political strain."
Menocal is author of a best-selling book, "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain," in which she used vignettes to travel through time to reveal events that shaped that world and continue to affect our own. She also spoke about the Jewish litterati of the age, whose training was in the Arab tradition, the language of intellectual discourse and literature. Using that model, they transformed their sacred Hebrew from a language of liturgy into one in which poetry could be written in the 11th century, going against early religious norms to reinvent it.
The ideal blend of power, grace and pluralism as ingredients of harmony never seemed in such jeopardy as they are today, yet Menocal is reluctant to extrapolate from that special medieval era to comment on what is happening now in Iraq and elsewhere, and where the world is headed in the quandary over clashing civilizations.
Menocal insists the true measure of success lies within ourselves, "with our ability to cultivate the memory of cultural achievements . . . the philosophy that claims it can contradict religion and yet be the centerpiece of the library of a pious man. The ability to coexist is to be able to suspend that disbelief. Knowing that yours is the true faith, but the other two can also there."
Born in Cuba 51 years ago, Menocal came to the United States when she was 6 years old to join her parents and siblings. Her parents, though of aristocratic stock, were revolutionaries at the time. They were caught smuggling arms and imprisoned. Strings were pulled, however, and they were smuggled out. Menocal was initially left behind.
After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, she remembers returning to Havana on the first press plane from the United States. But that triumph was short-lived. Eighteen months later, the family returned to live in Philadelphia for good. Her father missed his homeland but managed to build a new life. "The two are not mutually exclusive," she insisted.
In "Ornament of the World," she writes about Abdel Rahman, whose family was massacred in 750 by the Abbasids in Damascus. He followed the trail of Berbers who traveled west under Syrian Arabs and crossed the sea at the Strait of Gibraltar, which separates Africa and Europe, to Iberia. Though the Abbasids took over the Muslim Caliphate in Damascus, he never looked back. Nor did he wallow in self-pity or bitterness. He built a new world from the ground up, though he yearned for his native palm trees. Her father did the same.
"There are trade-offs, but I feel I had a charmed life," she mused at a cafe in Georgetown about her family's displacement.
"To me it is not about getting everything you want," she said. "You have work that you do and you love, and I ended up in a place that values that, Yale. I've been thwarted many times. . . . Life for me is a 19th century novel with complex characters. In medieval literature and in "One Thousand and One Nights," the moral of the story is more stories, not the simple extractable meaning. It is about truth, and there are many truths, and the story is not yet over."