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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Al Sabbini


People in History

Welcome to the history page, if only to find refuge from the madness of the current crisis. As a native New Yorker, it is hard for me not to mention the recent terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

I worry about us, the human race that is, and wonder how, at this advanced stage of our development, some of us still feel the need to resort to tactics that are more in keeping with the cruelty and religious hysteria of the Middle Ages or even the mass exterminations of the Roman Era. Until we learn that the written word is a far more powerful instrument for change and revolution than violence, all of our strides will come to naught. How can it be that there are still those among us who have not learned that violence only begets violence?

I heartily grant that both poles of the Arab/Western dichotomy contain an element of truth. However, out of respect for Gary's wishes that this website be non-political, I will refrain from that discussion . . . unless I can devise a way to work it into a future history page. Forgive my ill-advised attempt at humour at this bleak hour.

As I write my column today, the day set aside by the US and the EU as a day of mourning, I seek my personal reconciliation by reaching deep into history to retrieve the very best of the Islamic world: its accent on learning and erudition, especially poetry. It seems uncanny to me that last week I should have put forth al-Sabbini, the Moorish poet, as a possible topic for this week's page. I now stand by the inner voice that prompted me to do so and present you with:

Al-Sabbini: the Ibicenco Poet

During the exotic years of Moorish rule, there was born in Ibiza an illustrious poet named al-Sabbini. His literary career was well documented, both during and after his life, for he was considered one of the greatest poets of Islamic Spain. His fame outlived him by several centuries, a fact verified by his inclusion, nearly two hundred years after his death, in an anthology of Andalusian poets called 'The Book of the Champion' Banners' (1253). The anthologist, Ibn Said al-Magribi, ranked al-Sabbini as THE foremost poet of his time, a bold superlative considering the abundance of bards spawned by Moorish culture.

Unfortunately, very little is known about the poet on the personal level - where he lived in Ibiza, who his parents were, whether his upbringing was humble or privileged, etc. The most I can provide is a general description of the times in which he lived.

Al-Andalus: Erudite Empire

Though the date of the poet's birth is unknown (due to what I romantically assume to be his humble origins) his death occurred in 1077. This point of reference situates the prime years of his life during the reign of King Ali, the benevolent sovereign of Denia and the Balearics (1044/5-1058/9). Islamic Spain was renowned for its achievements in the arts and sciences, and despite a progressive political disintegration, the level of cultural and intellectual activity remained high throughout the Middle Ages. Ibiza, its small size notwithstanding, was no exception.

Once the island was integrated into the al-Andalus sphere of influence, the literacy rate among the general population rose considerably. As Erna Paris points out in her excellent work 'The End of Days': "Public literacy was a government policy." One indication of this upturn is that tombstones from the Moorish period were engraved with very few grammatical and spelling errors. Obviously, the most important members of society could afford the best in funerary rites, but even the roughest grave markers, crafted by the simplest masons, were chiselled with surprising accuracy - in Arabic, of course.

Based on these archaeological findings, it can be assumed that basic reading and writing skills were possessed by at least a small sector of the lay population. When compared to the rest of medieval Europe, where mass illiteracy was the rule, punctuated only by the clergy and civil servants, even a five or ten- percent literacy rate is remarkable. Paris informs us that, " a parallel class of educated laypersons did not emerge elsewhere [in Europe] until the thirteenth century." As a point of interest, the first university ever founded, Karueein, was built by the Moors in Fez in 859. Compare Oxford (1170), Bologna (1160) and Paris (1150), the first European universities.

Widespread Fame

All of this indicates that al-Sabbini lived in a society which put a high premium on literary prowess. Paris explains that: "Poetry was the medium of history, thought, satire, desire, love, courtly patronage, and communication in general." Sabbini's balladry was therefore rewarded by lucrative financial returns. Here is one poet who never starved in a garret! Obviously, with a gift as appreciated as his, the Ibicenco was swept away from island life and into the most elevated circles of mainstream Moorish culture.

His most prestigious appointment was as poet laureate in King Ali's court, but he also accepted assignments on commission from other kings and noblemen. Al-Sabbini's verses did not come cheaply. He charged a set fee of one hundred gold dinars for a 'qasida' or 'eulogy poem'. The poet once allowed himself the immodesty of explaining his high rates to al-Mutadid, King of Seville, saying, "I hope you understand my insinuation: the daughters of my inspiration are so highly appreciated, as you know, that he who would wed one of these virgins must pay a handsome dowry."

One of al-Sabbini's most famous poems is 'The Goblets' written for King Ali. The following fragment was translated into Catalan by the prestigious Ibicenco author and poet Marià Villangómez and, in turn, translated rather clumsily by me into English:

The Goblets

Heavy were the goblets when, in emptiness,
They were brought to us,
But when filled with the pureness of wine,
They became so light they fairly soared,
In the same way that bodies are lightened
When infused by spirit.


Well, the Islamic world is not what it once was, nor, unfortunately, is American statecraft. God Bless this global society we've gotten ourselves into.

Emily Kaufman