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Ziryab: Remembering the Sultan of Style

Ziryab is a name you're unlikely to have come across, but his single-handed moulding of modern tastes should earn him a place in 's Hall of Fame.

Although you may never have heard of this dandy 9th Century Arab, his genius touches the most private and intimate moments of all our lives – modern etiquette would be positively vulgar without his tasteful influence.

To be honest, I only had a vague recollection of the name until I attended an experimental play in Brussels co-written by the well-known Belgian writer on the Lucas Catherine. Entitled The Cook of Cordoba, the play was about multiculturalism in .

It featured a native Belgian, a Jewish Belgian and a Moroccan Belgian, all of whom were adorned in little more than a fig leaf. The three characters gave their own cultural perspective on Ziryab in the East Flemish dialect, Yiddish and Moroccan Arabic (subtitles provided on a screen in front of them).

The escapades of this eccentric tickled my curiosity and I have since become quite well informed about his exceptional life. Ziryab (blackbird) was his stage name and he earned it to describe his dramatic appearance. Born Abul Hassan Ali Ibn Nafie in modern-day Iraq in 789AD, he joined the court of the legendary Haroun al-Rashid (also of 1,001 Arabian Nights' fame) where he was the student of a gifted musician.

The Baghdad in which he flourished no longer exists as it has been sacked in the intervening years: first by the Mongols – under the leadership of the Great Khan Ogodei – in the 13th century, then twice by the Americans (in the late 20th and early 21st century). But, at the time, the city was perhaps the world's greatest centre of science, learning and culture.

Ziryab committed the big sin of excelling his teacher and so he fled Baghdad for the rising star of its cultural and scientific rival, Cordoba in Andalusia, where he joined the court of the Umayyad Prince of Cordoba Abdel-Rahman II – whose ancestors had fled Damascus for Iberia, after the Abbasids had successfully defeated them and shifted the capital of the caliphate to Baghdad.

Cool Cordoba

When Ziryab arrived in Cordoba, it was the capital of a flourishing and unified Andalusian kingdom set up by the fleeing Umayyads, descendants of the powerful and fearsome Quraish tribe of Arabia. This was one of the highest peaks of Islamic political influence in Iberia. Not long after, in the 11th century, the political edifice crumbled into petty factions known as tawaif in Arabic, each of which set up its own city state.

Islamic Cordoba was a beautiful and manicured metropolis of imposing public buildings, although it still lacked its most famous landmark, the 10th century Great Mosque (the Mezquita, as it is known today). It boasted about 1,000 mosques, 600 public baths, several hundred public schools and a university, not to mention the grand aqueducts in the surrounding countryside that fed the complex irrigation system introduced to the area by the Arabs.

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It was a city in which sound – including flowing water – and space blended to give an exquisite sense of tranquillity. Tranquil gardens and patios still dot the pleasant, if now more provincial, city. Walking through the streets of the old town during the stillness of the siesta, with the rich local flowing aromatically out of the odd shop that had remained open, is an experience my girlfriend (now my wife) and I found atmospheric.

The Mezquita retains some of its former glory, with its elegant trademark arches, and its use of geometry and space to create a sense of simple majesty that is at once austere and rich. But the effect, we found, was spoilt somewhat by the spontaneous appearance of a cathedral right in the centre of this massive former mosque.

The church looked like it had clambered out of the stomach of the Earth or fallen, like a meteorite, from the sky. It did not seem like it had been placed here out of design – which, of course, it had been, shortly after the city was taken by the Reconquista. Alfonso X – not a Spike Lee remake of Happy Days – oversaw the monstrous building project. In less puritanical times, King Charles I of Spain would complain, in 1526, to his priests: “You have built what can be seen anywhere and destroyed what is unique.”

Pulling musical strings

In between being an accomplished singer and musician – Ziryab is reputed to have memorised a repertoire of more than 10,000 songs (now who needs an iPod?) with which he could captivate the caliph's court – he added a fifth string to the Arab oud, creating the lute that would, through the Spanish, spread across Europe.

He also rearranged musical theory, setting free the metrical and rhythmical parameters and creating new ways of expression (known as mwashahzajal, and nawbah).

The modern university with its college system was created by the Arabs. Ziryab established the world's first known conservatory where aspiring young musicians learnt harmony and composition and were encouraged to develop musical theory further.

In fact, much of Europe's folk music tradition – its conventions and instruments – can be traced right back to the medieval Arabs of Andalusia. Morris Dancing, for instance, is derived from the word Moor.

He is also reputed to have brought chess and polo to Europe.

Fashioning the future

But one thing above all else constitutes Ziryab's gravest legacy to prosperity. Although this has brought a measure of glamour and colour to untold generations in the intervening years, over the centuries it has opened the door to massive abuses that have, today, resulted in an enormous underclass leading near-slavish existences.

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“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,” Oscar Wilde, that Ziryab-like Englishman, once retorted. But who, Mr Wilde, was it that first came up with the revolutionary idea of seasonally shedding our clothes?

Ziryab's earth-shattering innovation was to submit fashion to the cycle of the seasons. This trendsetter came up with the then outlandish idea that people should wear different styles – and not just more layers or an overcoat – in summer and in winter. He even invented in-between seasons.

However, the historical record is silent on whether the Sultan of Style profited from his brainwave by creating the world's first fashion house. Whether trendy Moorish Cordoba sported catwalks and supermodels will also have to remain an issue of contention – but Kordoba's Koolest Kats are said to have mimicked his hairstyles. His influence led to the establishment of a medieval fashion industry in and around the Andalusian capital.

Over the ensuing 1,200 years, the idea spread like wildfire and we now have styles for the four possible seasons. Nothing can match the modern world for its pace of lifestyle change, but the whimsical nature of fads and the fashion slaves that follow them are nothing peculiarly modern.

Ziryab was perhaps 's first pop idol and streets and restaurants in many Arab countries still bear his name. Thanks to his influence, the world has become so fashion-conscious that some top fashion houses have started their own baby lines, top stars – such as Nicole Kidman and Beyoncé – get paid millions for a day's work endorsing accessories, and anorexia is rife. But being the cultural icon that he was, Ziryab may have decided that, if he was going to sin, it had to be a damned original sin.

Putting courses on the menu

When people think of haute cuisine, their minds tend to go all Français. French may be the lingua franca for food – with its entrées, appetizers, aperitifs, desserts, etc. – and the French, despite the minimalism of nouvelle cuisine, have given us much to savour. However, the modern dining experience was forged in Arabic.

There was a time when dining was not the genteel affair we know today. Eating was a freestyle event, even at the highest and most prestigious levels. Before Ziryab came along, people ate savoury with sweet, fruit with meat, all in one big heap. Abundance, and not order, was the key to successful court banquets. But our man revolutionised all that.

Perhaps his highly refined sensibilities were offended by what he saw as a feeding frenzy, or may be he thought that different tastes should be savoured individually. Whatever the reason, our gastronome extraordinaire set about to tame his peers' eating habits by inventing the multi-course meal.

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The Arabs introduced many exotic forms of food in Europe, including coffee, tea, various spices, the aubergine, the artichoke, bananas, oranges, and various other fruit and veg. Ziryab added asparagus to the pantheon.

Raising a glass

To make the dining experience that much more exquisite, he also invented the drinking glass (fashioned out of glass and crystal). No simple earthenware or copper vessel would suffice, and gold may have been the age-old material of choice for the moneyed elite but its originality had somewhat lost its glitter.

And, to round off the complete fashion experience, this all-round man also found time to introduce the toothbrush and deodorant, paving the way for the multibillion-euro toiletries industry.

For all his immortal contributions to culture and fashion, this veritable Sultan of Style should be canonised as the patron saint of chic and his statue erected in the world's fashion capitals: Milan, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Antwerp. And, to show their eternal gratitude for the favour he bestowed upon them, Gucci, Chanel, Armani, Boss should declare his birthday an official holiday.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and . Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil . Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in and the , and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled’s life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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