Hanging Out in Islamic Spain

“Es esta frita in la manteca de cerdo?” That’s the line that Google Translator told me to say if I wanted to ask “Is this fried in lard?” in Spanish. I figured I would need to know how to say that to find out if the churros a particular place sold in Spain were fried in lard. I practiced it a few times and it worked! However, folks? Having churros at the fair at Cordoba wasn’t such a great idea.

The above was only one part of the trip I took to Spain with my sister as part of a tour of Islamic Spain. Led by Haroon Moghul, an expert on Islamic history, the tour took us through several days in Seville, Cordoba, and Granada, with stops in Medinat Al-Zahra and Ronda.

There is no doubt – I had an amazing time.

As we navigated through Andalucia through all the historical sites, we all marveled at the structures that were built by the Muslims and although some of these places (well, all of these places) weren’t Muslim spaces anymore, their legacy and influence is still quite apparent in parts of Spain. For example, the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba (which is beautiful, by the way), although it has been consecrated as a Cathedral, still retains the arches and other architectural elements it had back when it was a mosque, even the mihrab is still there.

The arches in the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba (taken with the iPhone)

When we boarded the bus to leave Seville and then a few days later, Cordoba, I was excited to see what was next even though I had enjoyed my time in the cities. When we left Granada though, I couldn’t help the feeling of sadness that came over me.

There wasn’t one experience in Granada that made the trip, it was a series of them that really cemented how awesome Granada is.

We visited the Alhambra on one afternoon. It was hard to take a picture clear of all the tourists that were there but as a tourist myself who probably got in the way of a ton of other people’s pictures too, I could hardly complain. If anything, I was struck by the number of people that were visiting the Alhambra just on that day, taking pictures of the architecture and the Arabic calligraphy that adorned the walls, a lot of it consisting of the phrase “God is the only Winner” (or “Victor” or “Conqueror”), over and over again. People were taking pictures of this! They were looking at this site for what it was and embracing it, not looking at the Arabic and letting their knowledge that this site was constructed by Muslims prevent them from visiting this place.

During our guided tour of the Alhambra, I asked our designated guide, Margarita, about where the postcards that have a picture of the Alhambra from an outside perspective were taken from. Mirador San Nicolas, she told me, in Albayzin. The Albayzin was the old “Moorish” area that goes uphill the further you walk up its narrow, winding streets. Fortunately, the entrance to his whole area was just across the street of the hotel we were staying at.

The next morning, I got up early and took a cab to that viewpoint. I had consulted a map with one of the guys who was working in the reception area of our hotel (Javi) and he said that it was walkable but it was early, still a bit dark, and I didn’t know where I was going so I went via cab.

The streets were still pretty quiet as the cab driver took me through Albayzin and dropped me off at the spot. He left me his card in case I needed a cab again and drove off as I walked over and… wow. Masha’Allah. There it was in all of its glory – The Alhambra.

I had a stupid grin on my face as I took it all in. Even though there were a couple of other people there, they were sitting off to the side and were immersed in their own conversation (I did say “Hola” to them though, which they acknowledged and said hi as well). I felt like I had this entire place to myself. I wanted to stay until sunrise at least so I stood around for a while, stared at the structure that seemed so close, and also took a few pictures. Besides the Alhambra, I could see a lot of the city from my vantage point. Soon, parts of the city started to light up from the sunrise and then the Alhambra started to change color too. I took out my phone to send a text update to my Twitter account to say something about what I was seeing but I put my phone away. For a little while at least, I wanted this moment to be mine and mine alone.

Later that day, I debated whether or not to go back to Mirador San Nicolas to see the sunset there as well. It was our last night in Granada and I didn’t want to have any regrets.

This time, I walked up through Albayzin starting at Calle Caldereria Nueva, taking a bit of time to take a look at the Middle-Eastern themed shops and the menus of the tea places.

When I finally got there, the scene was much different than the one from the morning – the restaurants were open and a lot of people were milling around. There were small tour buses and taxis going through the area as well. Nothing bigger would actually be able to fit the streets of the Albayzin. I joined the large group of people at the lookout point- the camera hanging around my neck was not out of place in this sea of tourists. I ended up talking to a few people – an older guy who turned out to be an American from Half Moon Bay (not too far from where I live) and some students from Belgium, one of whom was there that morning and recognized me.

Alhambra During Sunset - Pictures don't do it justice (taken with the iPhone)

I took some more pictures, hung out for a while, and then went looking for the mosque so I could do the Maghrib prayer. The problem was that I didn’t know the exact location of the mosque, just that it was nearby. It turned out it didn’t matter as I (accidentally) walked straight to it since it happened to be pretty much right next to Mirador San Nicolas.

This mosque was built in 1992, the first mosque to be built after Spain made it officially “OK” to be Muslim. Before, it was kinda sorta illegal even though there were Muslims living in the country. Before the prayer started, I happened to meet a lady there who was visiting from Abu Dhabi for a calligraphy class that was being taught there. Look at me! Meeting new people!

When I got back to my hotel, I couldn’t shut up about my experience at Mirador San Nicolas to my sister and some other people that were part of the group. I was like a little kid who had too much sugar: “And then this happened! And then that happened! And then…! And then…!” I couldn’t help it though, this was all so much fun for me.

Later that night, I went to have dinner with a few of the girls from the group when we stopped off at a vendor on the main road who was selling customized Arabic calligraphy. The girls were picking up their pieces and even though the guy was ready to close up shop, so to speak, he worked on a few last minute orders from me and one of the girls. She and I hung back as he worked while everyone else set out for dinner while we waited for him to complete our pieces. We talked to him for a bit and it turned out that he was originally from Iraq, where he taught microbiology before he left due to all the chaos there. He bounced around a few places before ending up in Spain. He seemed like a pretty nice guy.

It didn’t occur to me until later about how random it was that some of my souvenirs consisted of Arabic calligraphy. I mean, I wasn’t visiting a country in the Middle East, I was in Spain and it was on one of the main streets in Granada, Reyes Catolicos (The Catholic Monarchs), that I bought custom Arabic calligraphy from an Iraqi Muslim. Before 1992, nothing like that could have happened. I loved it. Just one more cool thing to happen while in Granada.

Arabic calligraphy being sold by a vendor in Granada

I could keep on going on and on, but I’ll end it with this:

Words and this blog entry can’t do it all justice for how incredible it all felt to me. I felt so humbled to have had this opportunity to go on this Spain trip, meet all the cool people in my tour group, and have a chance to see all those parts of Islamic Spain. It was very inspirational and really makes me want to make something of my life. InshAllah, may we all make something of ourselves and InshAllah, let us all be able to travel (or continue to travel) to see all the cool things that are out in the world.

Here’s hoping the jet lag wears off soon…

35 thoughts

  1. What a great post. I love the ending. Let’s keep traveling and learning. The world is big! I want a post about what types of people made the trip. Was it buses full of coffee swigging, comic reading, Muslim proposal writers? Tell us more. I am glad you had an amazing time.

    1. Thank you Tony! Hmm…. that could be something to write about although I wouldn’t want to accidentally say anything bad about anyone. I will tell you that there were almost 40 of us and there were a few others that drank coffee but methinks I was the only one into comics ;)

  2. The entry has made me smile making me remember of my that kind episode. It happened to me once travelling to Slovenia (my part of the world:)) that I asked young guy working in fast food what kind of salami sandwich was made of. Obviously ne didn’t have a clue why I m asking that and just said me like well, the ordinary one. It was not really that I was asking about how many stars salami was ranking with, but it made me smile too:)
    It s really nice to read about ur trip. Without knowing u personally, but reading ur blog, I still can imagine ur pretty enthusiasm. I didn’t know for that ‘1992’ fact, so after reading this I got my google homework ,)
    And as I loved beginning I love the end too since two days before I bought my ticket for Switzerland in July, yay:) Ur ending words made me even more excited.
    Greets x

  3. Bushra,

    What a lovely post. I am headed to Granada/Cordoba/Seville next week and was (manically) looking for halal food options when I found your blog. I just put Mirador San Nicolas at dawn on top of my list!!

    Do you have any words of wisdom about what to eat? We are taking our parents and the whole family, so I really am freaking out about what their diet!!

    1. That’s a tough one. It’s definitely easiest to find halal places (doner kabab, etc) in Granada on your own. In the other places, the group my sister and I were in actually arranged halal food for us in a few restaurants when we ate out.

      I would say this – I like seafood so I thought I wouldn’t have any issues but I realized I wasn’t too into seafood over there is more “fishy” if that makes sense so I wasn’t too into it.

      There were places in Cordoba as well that were halal but I didn’t get a chance to explore Seville that much. I think it also depends on where you are staying in the cities.

      Apologies for not being too helpful on the food front!

      I’m really glad though that you will be checking out Mirador San Nicolas!!

  4. Hi love your article, it’s getting me all hyped up to visit Spain.. I know this is a dumb question, is it easy to find halal food in Spain??

    1. Not a dumb question at all! There were actually some halal places around and, from the places we went on the trip, Granada had the most. On the main street- Reyes Catolicos, there were quite a few halal gyro/doner kabab places and there was even an Indian/Pakistani restaurant I believe. This was all close to the Alhambra and the Albaicin, which is the Moorish part. I was pretty surprised!

      The cool thing was that it all tasted really good.

      I want to point out though that I didn’t go to Northern Spain so I can’t speak for those places :)

  5. Salam! I am curious about this guided tour you embarked on as it is hard to find an Islamic Spanish tour. Any recommendations or are you willing to share your contact?

    Thank you :)

    1. Salaam, I went with a tour group through Dar el Salam http://www.darelsalam.com/ They don’t seem to have that Spain tour though right now (according to their website). There seem to be a few Islamic Spain tour group websites out there though. I don’t know how good they all are but they seem comprehensive.

      Hope you find what you are looking for and get to go, InshAllah!

  6. – I loved your blog, you are so correct the vista and panoramic view from ‘Mirador san nicholas’ is stunning, awesome.. I just returned 2 days ago back to London from a group tour with http://www.islamic-tours.com , they gave us professional tour guides who had such a great insight into the islamic history of Al-Andalus and all the herirage sites. Me and my wife, kids loved it, the great service they provided with British airways flights, airport transfers and an amazing 4*star hotel with Sierra Nevada mountain views in Granada and a hotel opposite the Umayyad mosque in Cordoba. I will definitely recommend these guys

    1. Thanks for reading and providing the comment Adam! I appreciate you putting info about the group you went with here as I wasn’t sure who else to recommend as the travel agency I went with doesn’t seem to have the tour anymore.

      Having that Islamic historical information enhanced the tour so it’s cool that there are other groups out there who are providing that service.

      Thanks for reading and glad you got to see the view from Mirador San Nicholas – it’s definitely something :)

  7. Salaams Bushra

    I read your blog on your visit to Islamic Spain and was intrigued .

    We are visiting Morocco for two weeks and Spain for a week in December . I will appreciate it if you can advice me the places to stay in Islamic Spain and to visit.



    1. Salaam Jamila,

      I really liked the hotels we were at in Cordoba and Granada.
      Cordoba: AC Hotel Córdoba Palacio
      Granada: AC Palacio de Santa Paula

      Hope you have a good trip, InshAllah!

    1. Salaam, thanks for reading and for the link to your tour site! Definitely good to know what options are out there for travelers who want to see places that are linked to the Islamic heritage.

  8. Assalamu alaykum sister,

    Could you inform me of which tour you went on? I’d really like to visit Spain and take in the heritage with me do you think this tour is long enough to do both? How many days/nights was it?


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  10. salam sis, i like your articles, i really want to visit Spain,.. may be one day, i know Spain totally amazing place to visit,.. i hope my dream come true…~thanks~

  11. salam sis,.. i am sorry because i wrote the same comment for the few times cause i thought it was already sent,.. sis, i know you like to travel, i read your article it’s great, i want to become like you(traveller)… sis, if you don’t mind, i hope you can visit ‘malaysia'(my country)… it a great,here we have many races here,.. and many cultures…

  12. Salaam Bushra!
    Wow sounds fabulous MashaAllah! My family and I are looking for a similar holiday to Spain and what you’ve just described sounds perfect. Could you tell me how this was all planned as you’ve mentioned that you travelled with a tour group. We would like to visit the different areas you’ve described and were these all lead by a group leader? I don’t drive and my husband isn’t keen on driving abroad anyway! So basically, we’re after a holiday where we are able to visit other places in Spain but with an experienced tour leader. What can we do?
    Kind Regards

  13. Salaams. What a vicarious description of ‘Muslim’ Spain. I’m South African and intend visiting in Dec 2016 and would appreciate advice and contacts for Córdoba. Jzk

  14. Very beautiful to read, I am British and my wife is Japanese – the day we went to Granada changed our lives. Within a week we had bought a place next to Mirador San Nicolas (our terraza has a better view) and started studying the unique confluence that is Andalucia.Only the other day a friend of mine mentioned the word for pomegranate in Farsi and I recognised it as being the root of the name Granada.

    1. Hi Tim! Thanks for reading and wow, pretty amazing that you two bought a place in Granada after visiting! I totally understand. I love that place so much, I can’t wait to go back again.

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