Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I dine out rarely, guess it takes me a lot to go out often and do the drill of long hours; a five course meal, followed by an Irish coffee or a glass of Tempranillo. But then this fall I decided to do the holy grail of dinning ala-carte from appetizer to post dessert cocktail.

While appetizers trickled in with a fresh bowl of Pisto, a traditional Spanish dish from chivalrous fictional Don Quixote’s La Mancha, made with cooked and fried vegetables which followed a plate of Mashed Eggplant Dip (Baba Ghannouj) of Ottoman culinary and then an enticing Gravlax – a Scandinavian appetizer made with salt cured salmon seasoned with fresh dill, my mind breezed back in times, to 8th century Baghdad, a dazzling cultural hub of Abbasid Caliphate ruled by legendary Harun Al-Rashid. It is here the protagonist of this story Abul-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi popularly called Ziryab was born and raised.

Ziryab was an innovator, a polyglot – a man of many parts, a poet, composer, musician, fashionista and a high priest of fine life to whom the world owes much. Of his many pioneering acts, he is credited with the concept of ‘meals in courses’ as we know today and for introducing the Middle Eastern musical instrument of Oud to Europe that transformed into lute and still later divergently lead to becoming of guitar! Ziryab till date remains the most enigmatic character of his era.

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American anthropologist and expert of Middle Eastern music and culture Jonathan Shannon has described Ziryab as a “discursive trope in which people hear their own cultural roots and heritage” and Dwight Reynolds another authority of ethnomusicology of Al-Andalus and master of Arabic literature noted Ziryab as almost ‘mythicized’. On both accounts Ziryab’s importance is irrefutable – he was ahead of his times, simply put.

Sources differ about Ziryab’s life events and his ancestry. While some believe he was an Arab, others listed him as a man of Kurdish, Persian and or of African origin. What have been universally accepted is his year of birth ca. 789 and his nickname ‘Ziryab’ which means a blackbird in Arabic, a connect that his dark complexion and melodious voice fetched him.

Many Arab scholars are of the opinion that he was a slave – freed and his family served the Caliph Al Mahdi. Debates also center around what prompted him to leave Baghdad and travel westwards to his final destination in the Umayyad emirate of Spain.

The stories have it that it was the jealousy of other court musicians which compelled Ziryab to leave Iraq. He travelled to Syria and Tunisia, finally reaching present day Andalusia. Al-Andalus, as it was called then was an Umayyad emirate of Muslim Spain whose ruler was Al- Hakam. Hakam was invested in heightening his kingdom’s image to the entire Islamic world.

He invited Ziryab to be a part of his court, however when the maverick finally reached Córdoba, the capital of the Moorish emirate, the king had already retired being succeeded by his son Abd al –Rahman II. The new king was a generous ruler with fine tastes, a great connoisseur of music. His court had trained musicians both male and female (qiyans) from far away Damascus, Baghdad and Medina.

The ruler showered them with lavish gifts, accommodations often extensive than norms and constant patronage. Ziryab was no exception. Along with a generous honorarium, he was also entitled to an exclusive palace and foremost a free hand over all things cultural of an otherwise slightly rough and tumble land.

The Rise of the Blackbird

With Ziryab’s arrival in 822, the Córdoban court which hadn’t manifested its best till then would soon transform swiftly into a glorious cultural seat. Ziryab have been reported to have made many refinements to the existing courtly culture but it is primarily the dining and the music to which he left his undeniable mark. To that fashion, hairstyle and personal hygiene got added.

He personified high points of Muslim culture with in-depth knowledge of astronomy, geography, poetics and music, consequently earning the epithet of a nadim or a boon companion, a musical genius with an elegant voice, by his 11th century biographer Ibn Hayyan.

Indeed, he was a nadim to the king Abdl- Al Rahman. In no time Ziryab would bring unheard of innovations to existing Andalusian music introducing the North African ‘nawba’ or the suite. Such was his passion for music that rumors mills churned stories of Ziryab having communications with jinns at night, helping him conceive remarkable musical pieces the very next day.

In no time, he came up with an additional bass string to the Arab lute – which led to revolutionizing existing music of Andalusia and would impact the orchestration of western classical music in times to come. As if this wasn’t enough a musical goal, Ziryab promptly founded music schools, introduced new ways of singing.

In retrospect, Ziryab was perhaps in a personal, creative quest of a lifestyle like no other and thus experiments spilled over other aspects of courtly life of Córdoba! Earlier dinning did not hold much importance until Ziryab decided to train the royal kitchen importance of elegantly served meals.

He implemented appetizer to the dessert norm for the first time, completely altering the way, how food was served and consumed thereafter. Meals were served in an order with soup as an entrée followed by heavier dishes of meat, fish, grains, finishing with a medley of fruits and nuts.

Salad was introduced in its rudimentary form, and it included asparagus previously limited to Far East’s cuisine. Additionally, he came up with the use of tablecloths, napkins, discarded the use of heavy pots and plates, replaced them with crockeries of glass and crystal, cutleries of silver. Tumblers, cups and fine goblets showed up at the dinner tables.

The original fashionista

Ziryab enchanted the court of Cordoba, transforming life in Al - Andalus.

In no time the artist became cultural icon of entire Iberian land. People looked up to him. They even sought his advice on how to dress up, what to wear, how to do their hair. To that the blackbird (nickname) had fascinating, and valuable tips to offer. For Ziryab Nature was the greatest source of inspiration. He asked people to follow Nature round the seasons.

He considered it an ‘ideal wardrobe’ if it had a mild set of colours for Spring days, and rich earth colours of reds, browns, chrome yellow, burgundy for Fall and long days of Winter. In retrospect this was the beginning of the seasonal fashion that we know today.

As my prolong lunch reached its finality, my mind (like many others before me) thought of Ziryab as almost a mystified, mythical character or how else would one justify the phenomenon called Ziryab! I pondered on the detracting historical discourse which had often discredited medieval texts as rather eulogical in their depiction of the man. But in reality Ziryab remains a serious subject matter for academics.

Contrastingly only a handful of cultural and lifestyle aficionados in the realm of larger public life know of this 9th century Iraqi trailblazer who had truly revolutionized European living. But wasn’t Ziryab a niche himself and thus it is justified that only few of us would remember an alchemist of such extraordinary talent, whose novelties dominate our cultural lives even today and may be would forever.

By then my Tempranillo had arrived in its crystal goblet – surely this was a Ziryab innovation that Europe mostly forgot to credit him!

Nilosree is an author and filmmaker