Thursday, October 19, 2006

Last week I had a hunch that it wouldn't be worth my time to track down the Arabist professor at the University of Granada, the one that Besam, the Syrian student, said knew a lot about Ibn Al-Hatib and Sufism. I decided instead to get a hold of Pablo Beneito Arias, an Arabic specialist at the University of Sevilla.

I emailed Professor Beneito last week, told him that I had read one of his translations, and said I'd like to meet him to talk about Ibn Arabi. He responded with his phone number and said to call him this week.

I called him on Monday and he gave me approximate directions to his office. The University of Sevilla, at least the campus where he works, is set in an enormous building that used to be a tobacco factory. These days it's called the Fabrica de Tabaco Antigua. After tobacco was brought to Europe from America, King Phillip III of Spain tried to establish Sevilla as the tobacco capital of the world. Various punishments, such as execution, were in effect for Spaniards who violated the crown's monopoly. The factory produced cigars. Cigarettes were invented by beggars who used paper, not tobacco leaf, to roll something out of the used cigars they found on the street.

In the brief taxi ride from the hotel to the university, the driver gave me a whirlwind lecture about the tobacco factory and the history of the spread of tobacco in Europe. At least that's what I think he was talking about. ¿Entiendes? he asked. Mas o menos, I replied. I had to say Necesito ir ("I have to go") from the back seat of the cab because he kept on with his high-speed lecture even after I paid the fare.

One of the frustrating things about not being fluent in a language is that it's difficult to be polite when you want to. I try to be careful to begin certain sentences with lo siento ("I'm sorry" or, more literally, "I feel that") to establish some ground for patience between me and whomever I'm talking to. There are times, however, when it's difficult to remember the delicate aspects of a language and culture when you're struggling to say something simple. Even if you're not having the most sophisticated conversation, it's nice to have a good sense of fellow-feeling with people. Another thing that gets in the way of this, at least for me, is the fact that I tend to look away from whomever I'm talking to so as to concentrate on what I'm trying to say. It's bad body language, and it must be confusing and frustrating for them, too.

Back to the tobacco factory. The offices of the Arabic department are not all in one place, but two friendly professors guided me to Professor Beneito's office. The office was shared with perhaps a dozen other faculty members. It was a long room with a number of desks, each with its own computer, lined up along the wall facing the windows. There was only one man in the room. He was sitting at the very last desk in the row. It was Pablo. He greeted me warmly and, speaking very good English, suggested that we talk while we walk around the factory.

I didn't have any specific questions for him, so we spoke a little about Ibn Arabi, a little about Rumi, a little about Sufism, and a little about each other. He knows about existing Sufi groups. A number of years ago he visited Irina Tweedie in London, and he has read a few of Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee's books (e.g. Moshkel Gosha). He grew up near Murcia, Ibn Arabi's home town, which was his initial connection to him. I told him that when I read his translation of Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries, I found myself thinking of many of the paradoxes as facile, and that now that I've started reading William Chittick's (appropriately) dense summary of Ibn Arabi, the paradoxes seem much richer. He smiled when I said that. He said that, unlike Rumi or Attar, who are immediately accessible, Ibn Arabi takes some work; his subtlety reveals itself only after you know some of the terminology, context, and so on.

When I mentioned that I had considered seeking out a professor at the University of Granada, Pablo said that he knew that professor, and that the only work he did that I would be interested was from a long time ago and, moreover, his research since then has gone in a completely different direction. So my initial hunch was a good one.

Earlier today, I went to a teteria (tea house) near my hotel to write for a while. I sat down on a sofa in a corner room, laid back, and stared through the courtyard window at (I thought) nothing in particular. I started thinking that maybe there wasn't anyone else in Andalusia to talk to about Ibn Arabi. Right then, the thing I was staring at, a board on the wall above the archway of the entrance, came into focus. It read:

Hubo un tiempo en que yo rechazaba a mi projimo si su religion no era la mia. Ahora, mi corazon se ha convertido en el receptaculo de todas las formas: es el pradero de las gacelas y clausto de monjes cristianos, templo de idolos y Kaaba de peregrinos, tablas de la Ley y pliegos del Coran. Porque profeso la relgion del Amor y voy adonde quiera que vaya su cabalgadura, pues el Amor es mi credo y mi fe.

- Ibn Arabi (1165-1240)
I immediately recognized this as the text of the Arabic calligraphic print I bought in Granada from the Iraqi man, who recited his own English translation of it for me at the time. Roughly (with some expeditious help from Google Translate):
There was a time in which I rejected a fellow if his religion were not mine. Now, my heart has become the receiver of all the forms: the grasslands of gazelles and cloisters of monks, temples of idols and travelers to the Kaaba, books of Law and pages of the Koran. Because I profess the religion of Love and go where it leads me, because Love is my creed and my faith.
So I guess I'm done.

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