Ziryab: Songbird of Andalusia

October 4, 2021

“The fifth string is the soul.”

That’s how our ICMEP friend, composer/musician/educator Ronnie Malley, began his one-person musical play, Ziryab: Songbird of Andalusia. We hosted Ronnie this past weekend for his play as well as for three community workshops, “When the World Spoke Arabic,” with partial financial support from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Indiana Arts Commission, and Fort Wayne Arts United.

The first draft was written for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then added to and finalized as part of Chicago’s Silk Road Rising series, which highlights the cultures along the land routes between China and Syria and the sea routes linking Japan with Italy between the 2nd century BCE until around 1600, especially focusing on pan-Asian, North African, and Muslim experiences.

I asked Ronnie a couple of times over the weekend, “Who doesn’t know Ziryab?” and he replied, “You’d be surprised.”

My PhD work is in Islam, and every student of this great faith and culture knows the story of the 9th century, Abul-Hassan Ali Ibn Nafi, nicknamed Ziryab, “Blackbird,” because of his dark complexion and sweet, melodious singing voice. I think of his influence on Western culture in the same way I think of other Islamic influences on the wider society – Rumi on the mystical life, Ibn Sina on medicine, al-Ghazali on philosophy, and Suleiman the Magnificent on law and politics.

During the period of history the West smugly calls Europe’s “dark ages,” art, science, philosophy, and more were all thriving in other parts of the world, particularly in the Islamic Middle East and Andalusia. And they were bridged by Ziryab, a former Baghdad slave, who captured the heart of Harun al-Rashid, founder of Bayt al-Hikma, the “House of Wisdom” in Abbasid Baghdad, then after a journey through North Africa, into the courts of the Andalusian courts of Abd Al-Rahman II in Cordoba.

His musical talent with the oud brought him fame throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and al-Andalus, where Christians, Jews, & Muslims co-existed for centuries in a diverse society. He not only revolutionized music, founding the world’s first conservatory, but he also influenced the fields of dining and culinary arts, hairstyles and fashion, hygiene and health.

By introducing the story of Ziryab to a wider audience, as someone who bridges two of the great Islamic political, scientific, and artistic capitals, with their respect for ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious diversity, Ronnie hopes that just as it was possible in the 9th century, so, too, might it be possible in our day.

Watch my interview with Ronnie at our Indiana Center for Middle East Peace YouTube page.

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