A few months ago I was sitting at a sidewalk café, in the shadow of the medieval walls of Cordoba - and just a few steps from a curious statue of two hands, which seem to be reaching towards one another. I knew, from my studies in Damascus, that it pays tribute to a great Moorish poet and the Princess, also a poetess, whom he loved.
It was Saint Valentine's day, a bright winter morning. I pretended not to know what the statue represented and, just to see what he would say, asked the young waiter if he did, as if I were any other tourist. "That statue is dedicated to los enamorados, the lovers". he said, as he served my cup of coffee.
The love story of the poet Ibn Zaydun and his beautiful, courageous Princess is still alive in the hearts of the people of Cordoba, the capital of Moorish Spain and of the Ummeyad Caliphs. But where I was born, Syria, their poems are studied in every high school student's Arabic literature class.
But who really was the passionate and daring Ummeyad princess?
When Cordoba was the greatest and most sophisticated city, not only of the Moorish civilization but also the entire known world, the Princess Wallada (born in 1011 and died in 1091) achieved fame for her court of learning, many centuries before France's legendary Madame de Rambouillet held sway over her literary salon. Wallada gathered around her the finest poets and musicians of al-Andalus, who would sit around her on cushions and rugs, improvising ballads and epic sagas to the sound of the lute and zither.
Wallada, who was the daughter of the Caliph al-Mustakfi, was greatly admired for her fair skin and blue eyes, which gave her a very special, exotic appeal for the men of Cordoba. In fact, she was so proud of her beauty that she refused to wear the veil when she went out in the streets of the city, thus enraging the local mullahs. It was the time of the great fitna, when the Berbers were rising up against the Ummeyad Caliphate, and religious tension was high.
But Cordoba was in many ways much more liberal in its customs than some Middle Eastern countries are today. This was because the Andalucian society of the time was a multi-cultural one, a mixture of the Islamic, Christian and Jewish civilisations, which made up medieval Spain. This meant that no single religion had full power over the men, and particularly over the women, of the city.
Wallada not only refused to cover her face, she also was very outspoken and free in her sexual behaviour, thus becoming a symbol of liberation for the women of her time. She resisted all efforts to keep her in her traditional place, and to prevent her from choosing the lovers she preferred.
When the great Moorish philosopher and supreme judge of the city, Ibn Rushd, known to Europeans as Averroes, accused her of being a harlot, she responded with an act of defiance. She had one of her own poems embroidered on her gown and wore it in the street, for everyone to read. It said:
"For the sake of Allah! I deserve nothing less than glory I hold my head high and go my way I will give my cheek to my lover and my kisses to anyone I choose."
She had many lovers, but the most famous was the Ibn Zaydun, one of the greatest Moorish poets of the time, born in 1003 and died in 1071.
Although Ibn Zaydun was a leading figure in the courts of Cordoba and Seville, he was most famous among the people of his day because of his scandalous love affair with Princess Wallada. They did nothing to hide their passion, and at her literary circle, when the poets began improvising, as was their custom, they would allude to it quite openly. On one famous occasion, Wallada uttered this impromptu verse, as she gazed upon her lover's face:
"I fear for you, my beloved so much, that even my own sight even the ground you tread even the hours that pass threaten to snatch you away from me. Even if I were able to conceal you within the pupils of my eyes and hide you there until the Day of Judgment my fear would still not be allayed."
And he, returning her glance just as ardently, responded:
"Your passion has made me famous among high and low your face devours my feelings and thoughts. When you are absent, I cannot be consoled, but when you appear, my all my cares and troubles fly away."
Ibn Zaydun's prestige, as the leading poet and the lover of the most beautiful woman of Cordoba, awakened much jealousy among his rivals, such as Ibn Abdus, the Caliph's Vizir. He created a venomous intrigue aimed at destroying his enemy's friendship with the Caliph and also his romance with Wallada.
At first he failed, but then succeeded in catching Ibn Zaydun making love to Wallada's favourite slave, an African girl. The proud Princess was so hurt that she wrote him a poem of rebuke:
"If you had been truly sincere in the love which joined us you would not have preferred, to me, one of my own slaves. In so doing, you scorned the bough, which blossoms with beauty and chose a branch which bears only hard and bitter fruit. You know that I am the clear, shining moon of the heavens but, to my sorrow, you chose, instead, a dark and shadowy planet."
Ibn Abdus then made his rival jealous by letting it be known that Wallada had taken him as her lover, and by walking beside her in the streets of Cordoba. The arrow hit its mark, and the wounded Ibn Zaydun bitterly wrote these lines to the woman he thought had spurned him:
"You were for me nothing but a sweetmeat that I took a bite of and then tossed away the crust, leaving it to be gnawed on by a rat."
This caused much amusement in the city, because Ibn Zaydun had compared the unpopular Vizir to a rat. The ugly old man went straight to the Caliph to complain, but rather than mention the insult to his own person, he pointed out that the poet had compared a Princess of the realm to a pastry crust.
Soon after, Ibn Zaydun fell out of favour altogether. Wallada discovered him with a man. Homosexuality is forbidden in the Koran, but was widely practiced by the Moors of the time nevertheless. She used the occasion to send him back an even more hurtful poem than the one he had addressed to her:
"The nickname they give you is Number Six and it will stick to you until you die because you are a pansy, a bugger a fornicator a cuckold, a swine and a thief. If a phallus could become a palm tree, you would turn into a woodpecker."
Although the Caliph was fond of Ibn Zaydun, the scandal reached such proportions that he had him thrown into prison, and later exiled him to Seville. The hapless poet languished there, far from the gardens of the great palace, Medina Zahara, and he passionately missed his beloved Princess. Fortunately for him, the Caliph died soon afterwards and Ibn Zaydun was able to return. The lovers forgave one another and for a while their affair continued, just as passionate and stormy as before. But Wallada now lived in the home of powerful Vizir, who gave her protection, and Ibn Zaydun, disenchanted, eventually decided to return to Seville, where he spent the rest of his life as the favourite poet of the Sultan.
The sculpture of the hands of Ibn Zaydun and Wallada was placed in the plaza known as El Campo Santo de los Mártires in 1971, to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the great poet's death.