A chance encounter in the Alhambra leads Jason Webster to believe Christian Spain’s obsession with sex and sensuality stretches back to when the country was ruled by the Moors
THEY used to say Spain was the only country where power was more important than sex. But that was in the dark days of Franco, when Catholicism and fascism combined to ensure that even those who escaped the firing squads were not allowed to have any fun.
The Caudillo himself was said to be a passionless creature – at least according to a confidential remark by his wife that quickly spread across the whole of Spain – but follar (f*cking) particularly within the confines of family life, was officially at least, a strictly joyless affair.
All this, as everyone knows, has now changed. With the death of Franco, Spain went loco por el sexo, a trend which, 30 years on, I can report is still pulsing vibrantly through the veins down here.
But the current overflowing of physical vitality is not simply a reaction to the repressive years of the dictatorship. Anarchists in the Civil War spread the word of free love and open marriages, while ‘liberating’ prostitutes from sexual slavery – some of these later fought in the trenches of Aragon.
Promiscuity on the Left in the 1930s became the norm, and even the rather austere-looking widow at the head of the Spanish Communist Party, La Pasionaria, was said to keep a young party member as a lover back home while she emboldened the troops at the front with cries of ¡No pasarán!
Yet the deep eroticism of the Spanish is older than this, and to find its roots you have to go back much further, as I have discovered, to the times of the Moors.
Muslims ruled parts of Spain for 800 years, creating a rich, vibrant culture way ahead of their Christian rivals. When London was a mere group of huts in a marsh by the Thames, as the dusky Arab reminds the blond lieutenant in Lawrence of Arabia, Moorish Cordoba had street lighting, a thousand bath houses and more than 300 libraries.
Moorish Spain was hippest place to be in Medieval Europe, whether you were looking for knowledge, a wash, or the best looking girls, most of them following the latest fashions and trends from Baghdad – even today las codobesas are renowned as being the prettiest women in Spain.
Cosmopolitan culture and vast wealth combined in this southwestern corner of Europe to create a powerhouse of sophistication and sensuality.
Stroll through the pleasure palace that is the Alhambra in Granada today and you will see what I mean. Rivalled only in beauty by the Taj Mahal, it is a dream-scape made of stone, where fresh mountain water trickles from white marble fountains, forests of fine needle columns reach up to snowflake ceilings, where Arabesques and geometric patterns draw you into other worlds while you shade yourself by a myrtle bush from the relentless Andalusian sun.
This was once the Sultan’s harem, perhaps the most erotic place in the Medieval world. Who could not be stirred by such a place?
Most of us, however, must be content with the workings of our imaginations. To enjoy the sensuality of Alhambra today as the Moors once did is nigh on impossible.
Although, not entirely impossible. I know someone who actually did have sex in the Alhambra once – something I can testify to personally because I caught him at it. Not actually in the ancient harem itself, unfortunately – doing that amid the camera-clicking crowds of today would have been quite a feat – but in the luscious gardens next to the palace, overlooking the old Moorish quarter of Granada. But then, as Zine tried to explain, as a Moroccan he was virtually Moorish himself, which kind of gave him an excuse. And the girl he was with was Spanish and actually worked at the Alhambra – as a security guard, strangely enough.
“Just doing my bit to improve relations between Islam and the West…” he said when I accidentally stumbled upon him in the undergrowth near the path up to the Sultan’s summer palace.
The girl by this time had already buttoned up her regulation blouse and had scuttled off. A shame, really, as it had not been my intention to cut short such a wonderfully daring tryst.
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“There’s no more racism when these girls find they’ve got a bit of Moor inside them.”
Who could complain? It certainly beat bombing Iraqi wedding parties as a method.
Zine was my companion as I travelled round Andalucía trying to get to the bottom of a long-held obsession about how far the Moorish legacy in Spain ran. Was it all just a bunch of old mosques? Or was modern Spain also the inheritor of the rich culture that flourished under the Moors?
I had intended on travelling alone, but then I bumped into Zine just as a fat Andalusian was about to break my legs for trespassing on his farm. Forced to work on his land as a slave labourer, Zine was not too keen on the farmer either, so we managed to escape together and forged a friendship as we travelled around Spain in my old car, one of us looking for clues to the legacy of the Moors, the other searching for work and women.
As I dug deeper I found that everything from food to language to recreational pastimes such as cards or chess, had some Moorish element to them somewhere.
And thanks partly to having Morocco’s Greatest Love Machine in the passenger seat, I discovered the true origins of the innate passion that flows through this country.
The Thousand and One Nights sensuality about the Alhambra was only the most visible manifestation of the wider hedonistic culture that prevailed in Moorish Spain, or Al-Andalus, as the Moors called their Spanish territories.
And this love of pleasure reached a climax during its final years, in the mountain kingdom of Granada, a place steeped in debauchery as it staggered towards its eventual and inevitable collapse.
“In Granada the use, and abuse, of wine and hashish along with prostitution and sodomy extended to all levels of society,” the historian of Moorish sexuality Dr Antonio Arjona Castro has written.
A culture that developed erection creams out of musk, mustard and the oil of lilies, or birds’ brains mixed with jasmine, was one that clearly paid these matters much thought.
In fact, Al-Andalus produced some of the greatest medical minds of the Middle Ages, and sexuality was often an area of study they applied themselves to rigorously. Although some might have baulked at their prescriptions of elephant dung as a contraceptive.
Oranges are the only fruit
Granada’s greatest sexologist was a man called Ibn al-Khatib, doctor, historian, poet and politician. While the Christians were beating at the gates of Granada and handing down sentences of eternal damnation to anyone who even thought about sins of the flesh, Ibn al-Khatib was working on a theory stressing the benefits of sex for overall health, and insisting on the importance of female orgasms.
“A man must satisfy the needs of a woman more than his own,” he wrote in the 1300s, “as it is common for women in this regard to be left with mere failure and disappointment, except occasionally by accident.”
Ibn al-Khatib also handed down details of the sex lives of some of the rulers and high officials of Granada, usually satirising their homosexuality. He recorded one of the poems of the time:
O you who have made such fortune from your anus
You got wealth through one door and forgot to close it.
So much advantage did you wish to gain
You can’t even push a finger through it now.
From Ibn al-Khatib’s writing it was clear that sexual corruption in the Granadan court was rife. The Sultan Ismail II, for example, was characterised as indolent, effeminate, with a penchant for dressing in women’s clothes, and always happy to accept sexual favours in lieu of debts owed to him, an option which hard-up Granadinos were often to fall back on.
The sensuality of the Moors, however, did not leave Spain when Granada was finally conquered for Christendom in 1492. It is worth remembering that the Alhambra is Spanish. The people who designed it, built it and lived in it were Spaniards. It is just that they were Muslims and spoke Arabic. When the Christians came, many changed religion and language and stayed on. Spaniards today still refer to their lover as their “half orange,” a phrase handed down from the Moors, for whom an orange was a symbol of perfect love. The Moorish influence is also to be found in the Spanish for cunt, chocho, which comes from the Arabic shusha.
Now that Franco has gone, sex is accepted once again as something to be enjoyed to the full, even at ages younger than is commonly accepted in the rest of Europe – the age of consent here is 13. At the same time, though, there is little sense of living in a country of perverts.
Physical contact is much closer than in other European countries. English friends of mine were shocked once to see a grandfather teasingly squeezing the sprouting breasts of his pubescent granddaughter on the beach. Here there is nothing ‘dirty’ about such behaviour – it is just playful fun.
Although God knows the Generalísimo would be turning in his grave.
Jason Webster has written three books about Spain. Duende, Al-Andalus and Guerra are published by Black Swan and are available at all good bookshops. Visit his website: web.mac.com/jason.webster/iWeb/JasonWebster/home.html