The unrelenting Spanish sun beat down on me as I wiped the sweat from my forehead for the umpteenth time, wondering what in the world 44*C was in Fahrenheit. [It turned out to be 110*F.] So this is why they have the siesta, I thought. My brother and I were the only ones walking around the city streets of Granada that afternoon, foolishly searching for tapas and a place to spend the night, when everything was very clearly closed. Scholar-me knew that the siesta existed, knew that it was a part of Spanish culture, but to live it was something entirely different. The “CERRADO” (closed) signs weren’t really necessary: heavy iron doors and gates prevented anyone from even looking inside.
We began to quarrel as the heat got to us. My back ached from carrying a heavy pack (I would learn about ultralight packing after this trip), and my feet were burning through the thin soles of my sneakers; you could literally see waves of heat rising from the sidewalk. I was hungry and exhausted, and losing patience.
“You speak Spanish; what did she say?” His voice was sharp. In Madrid, everything had been crystal clear; but here, in the heart of Andalucía, a mere 2.5 hours south, the accent had changed dramatically. The words blurred together; the cadence, unrecognizable. “I don’t know. I only caught a little bit.“
I tried to stay calm, but in reality, my mind was racing: I was mortified. I didn’t understand. I had looked up so many words in my paperback dictionary over the years that it actually fell apart one day; I had read Don Quijote and graduated with a degree in Spanish; and now here, in the center of it all, I was lost. All that studying for naught. It was beyond comprehension and incredibly humbling–a serious blow to the ego. Why was southern Spain so different from northern Spain?
Years later, I would return to this question both in academia (pursuing my master’s) and in practice (hiking 500 miles of El Camino de Santiago). Northern and southern regions often vary significantly in culture as well as language in many states and countries, and Spain is no exception to the rule.
To get our bearings, let’s begin with the linguistic topography: in northern Spain, five languages are spoken, namely, Spanish, Galician, Basque (Euskara), Aranese, and Catalan. In Southern Spain, Castilian Spanish is the primary language, with other dialects peppered throughout.
However, as the maps above indicate, this has not always been the case: Arabic and Mozarabic were the official languages in the Iberian Peninsula a millennia ago. The Moors ruled Spain from the 700s to the 1400s, leaving their influence in the architecture and culture as well as in the Spanish language itself.
Nowadays, Moorish culture is still very present in Spanish society, particularly in Andalusia. One example of the confluence of Islamic and Christian influence in architecture includes the beautiful Mezquita in Córdoba (arches below). Another example of Islamic architecture is, of course, the Alhambra, or “red fortress” [الْحَمْرَاء], in Granada. Here, beautiful, hand-painted geometric tiles–in Spanish, azulejos; in Arabic, الزليج [az-zulayj]–line the floors and walls inside; outside, aqueducts and numerous fountains and pools of water point to the Arabs’ knowledge of irrigation systems.
What is arguably most interesting, however, is the fact that Arabic and Spanish today share about 8,000 words. Eight thousand! Language and culture are inextricably tied here. For instance, Arab cuisine found a home in Spain when the Moors introduced new spices and foods to the Iberian Peninsula (e.g., saffron, coriander, apricots, eggplant, citrus, rice, artichokes, sugar cane). Many desserts in Spain have Arabic origins. Watch the short video below to listen to words that sound similar in Spanish and Arabic.
But before you do, remember that Arabic in its proper form is written from right to left, unlike English or Spanish (left to right). The words below are transliterated, to help non-native speakers hear and see the difference. Sugar, for example, is azúcar in Spanish, but السكر in Arabic (“sookar“). It is amazing that the two can appear so different in their written form but sound so similar, right?!
A warm summer breeze wafted through the air as the sun began its slow descent on the horizon. Palm trees and tropical green shrubbery divided the lanes of traffic. Shops were beginning to reopen. People suddenly appeared from out of nowhere, filling the sidewalks with couples and strollers, a mixture of old and young and everything in-between. We turned down an alleyway, no longer vigilant travelers in a foreign land on the lookout for pickpockets, but rather bleary-eyed tourists dragging our weary bodies to a chair, any chair. Some place to rest our exhausted minds and bodies and escape the unbearable heat.
The first sip of salmorejo–an ice-cold tomato soup native to the region, similar to gazpacho–brought us back to life. Nothing had ever tasted so delicious. I inhaled the bowl of liquid so quickly that my stomach immediately cramped in pain. But I didn’t care. I glanced around the tiny restaurant, saw colorful azulejos tiling the floor, heard Spanish and Arabic languages intermingling at the bar; felt waves of heat trying to force their way inside; and smiled.
Andalucía was more than foods and historical landmarks; it was more than the intersection and summation of two radically different cultures and languages. It was a feeling. It was an experience.