I was lost in a maze of white houses with shuddered windows. The sun had gone down and my only company was the occasional bat flapping above the rooftops. For the better part of an hour I had been walking through one empty street after the next in the old city of Córdoba, trying to locate a flamenco club on the other side of this darkening labyrinth.
I probably should have just stayed at my hotel. I had endured a sweltering day where the weight of history pressed against me like the summer humidity, remorseless and inescapable. My expectations for a routine morning of sightseeing were upended by a pilgrimage to a 12th century synagogue.
Although I visited the temple mostly out of architectural curiosity, I soon found myself grieving. I stood before ornate wooden arches, contemplating distant ancestors who had been driven from Spain months before Columbus made his own departure: calls to prayer silenced by royal edict.
Returning to the cobblestoned streets, I found an old Gitana smiling at me. Dressed entirely in ragged denim, she was crouched on the sidewalk, cradling an infant in her lap. The woman passed her hand over the sleeping child and I stepped closer for a look. A cloud of flies hovered over the tiny, blistered face.
I dropped some coins into a plastic bowl at the old woman’s feet and then retreated to my air-conditioned room. I wanted to love Córdoba for its rows of flower baskets, for its shaded patios, for the striped columns adorning the hallways of its mosque. All I could think of were bloodstains hidden beneath whitewashed walls.
I drew the curtains and spent the afternoon packing, organizing my duffel bag as an endless loop of crashed helicopters and flooded farmland played on CNN International. Only when the crescent moon began to rise across the darkening sky did I emerge once again into the maze of the old city, searching for the flamenco club whose name I had jotted down on the back page of my guidebook.
I was not someone who had a particularly romantic view of flamenco. The hairs on my neck did not stand up at the first notes of a Soleá. An overzealous high school teacher had soured me on the music years ago. I simply needed a distraction that would keep my mind off the afflictions of that infant.
After wandering for an hour through empty alleys and abandoned plazas that seemed to have materialized out of a de Chirico painting, I finally heard someone strumming a guitar through an open window. I passed through a wooden doorway and found a room designed with Andalusian elegance: brick arches, tiled floors, ochre walls. A group of tables were set in front of a low stage. I found an empty spot near the back as the first agonized syllables erupted from the singer’s throat.
The cantaor didn’t sing the lyrics so much as hurl them at the audience, each note hovering between ecstasy and an exorcism. The dancer seemed possessed, overtaken by the melody. She stomped and strutted and contorted to a music older than the stone walls surrounding the city.
This was the song of the Jews evicted from their synagogue, the Muslims ousted from their mosque and the Christians drafted into the king’s army. The desperate lullaby of a mother trying to sooth her child under a buzzing black canopy.
They would never escape the labyrinth of history and neither would I. We had no choice but to live within its narrowing passages. Not even the agitated riffs of an emaciated guitarist could liberate us. All flamenco could do was provide a stark affirmation that we were not alone. The night’s music was the collective sigh of everyone lost in the corridors of time, each of us haunted by intimations of an exit.
Featured Image Credit: J. Laurent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons