Lacrimosa, Convivencia, the Book of Games
Diakonia, a Swedish human rights organization that focuses on protecting vulnerable communities, is providing a nearly daily account of the resurgence of violence in Gaza. Objective accounts like these are important because this war, like any 21st century conflict, is actively playing not just on the ground but in the arena of public opinion and the control of the narrative around the war. What cannot be denied is the unspeakable toll that this conflict is having on families and children. The brutal terrorist attack by Hamas resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Israeli civilians and now violence is being inflicted onto hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who are trapped inside Gaza. The median age of a Palestinian citizen is 19 years, and about half of the population enduring a terrifying, constant bombardment are children. Regardless of who perpetrated it, the latest explosion of a hospital in Gaza, which killed hundreds, is being considered a war crime by many.
Like many of us who are seeing the war from afar I have felt distraught and helpless. In the meantime, in the rest of the world, people continue their lives and carry on with their daily work. In my case, these recent days my work has involved researching the history of board games for an upcoming exhibition project. But even there, in that process, I encountered something that brought my mind back again to Gaza.
I have been studying a Spanish medieval manuscript from 1283 commissioned by King Alfonso X (also known as Alfonso el sabio, or Alphonse the wise) known as the Book of Games (Libro de los juegos), or, in its original transcription, Juegos diversos de Ajedrez, dados, y tablas con sus explicaciones, ordenados por mandado del Rey don Alfonso el sabio. It is considered one of the most important books for the research of the history of board games. The only surviving original copy is at the library of the monastery of El Escorial in Madrid.
The book, which has 98 pages, mostly focuses on chess (with many illustrations depicting a chess game in progression), but also provides instructions to play Alquerque (also known as Qirkat), dice games, and tablas, which is a historical precursor to Backgammon. All of these board games came to Europe via the Arab world, during the Al-Ándalus period, the time when the Iberian peninsula was under Muslim rule (while chess was invented in India, it first came to Persia, was later absorbed by the Muslim during the Muslim conquest of Persia and finally made its way to Spain). In one famous illustrations of the book, we can see a Jew and a Muslim playing chess.
The Libro de los juegos illustrates was made during the apogee of the Convivencia (“living together”) period in medieval Spain— that is, the seven centuries during which Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted in the same place in relative harmony. I have often thought of Convivencia while walking around my own neighborhood in Brooklyn, where one can find both a Yemeni restaurant and a Jewish deli as well as mosques and synagogues —including the Kane Street Synagogue, which is one of the oldest congregations in Brooklyn and the one that the composer Aaron Copland attended as a child. The owner of my local laundromat is Muslim. Work and commerce have been the equalizing language of the city ever since the trading days between the Dutch and the Lenape —who, of course, later had their land taken away. So much for that utopia, and in fact some of the same might apply for that halcyon era in Spain.
There are a lot of key nuances to note in regard to the Convivencia period. The term, coined in the 1940s by the Spanish philologist Américo Castro, describes a time of religious tolerance in the Iberian peninsula both in the Moorish Iberian kingdoms as well as the Christian kingdom of León, Castile and Galicia. This perspective endured among scholars for many decades, and the fact that Castro’s influential book where this view is expressed, España en su historia: cristianos, moros y judíos, was published in 1948 after World War II and the Holocaust, might now be seen a form of historical wishful thinking. In an essay titled “The ‘Golden Age’ of Jewish-Muslim Relations: Myth and Reality”, Princeton University scholar Mark R. Cohen spells out how the historical narrative of an Islamic-Jewish utopia glosses over key facts such as that Jews had legal inferiority under Muslim and/or Christian rule and the fact that there was no real religious tolerance (at least in the modern sense of the world) among monotheistic religions during the Middle Ages. Cohen explains how this idealized conception of religious harmony continued as a theoretical basis for Muslim scholars to attack Zionism, and, as he continues,
“The response on the Jewish side has been to turn the idea of the Golden Age utopia on its head. Muhammad , the revisionists insist, was bent on extirpating the Jews from the very beginning. The Qur’an and other early Islamic sources are packed with anti-Jewish, even anti-Semitic, venom. And, rather than protecting the Jews, Islam persecuted them relentlessly, often as badly as medieval Christendom. This undisguised rejoinder to Arab/Muslim exploitation of the old Jewish depiction of interfaith harmony constitutes a “counter-myth of Islamic persecution. Adapting the famous coinage of historian Salon W. Baron , who labeled historiography about medieval Jews living under Christendom a “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” we may call this a “neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history.””
On the other hand, Cohen does note that in spite of the imperfect balance of religions in medieval Spain, this so-called interfaith utopia “contained a very large kernel of truth”. In the case of the reign of Alfonso el sabio, he was a pragmatic monarch who gave prominent positions to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. He also was a poet (author, among other things, of the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria), interested in the arts, and surrounded himself with scholars of all these faiths to promote learning. While he established Castilian as the official language, he had many books in Arabic translated, which had a direct effect on the development of philosophy, science and literature.
This multicultural absorption is perfectly exemplified in El libro de los juegos, which as I mentioned incorporates games that came from the Muslim world. There are two aspects about this book which I find most interesting. The first is the paternalist pedagogy of the project, which appears to both promote and regulate play (as Fidel Fajardo Acosta notes, Alfonso X sought to “ascertain and regulate virtually all aspects of the lives of his subjects”); so in a way it seems contradictory to make entertainment into a compulsory activity. But the king took games very seriously, not only because he felt that pastimes were important for attaining “toda manera de alegría” (“all forms of happiness”), but most importantly, as he himself asserts in the book of games, he also stresses, that games are illustrative of the political realities of the past, present and future. In the view of Fajardo-Acosta, the king understood games “as capable of representing not only the interactions of human agents with one another but also with larger, natural and transcendental forces […] and their role in the unfolding of human history and destiny.”
Alfonso clearly saw board games as microcosms of the world with a pedagogical function. Not articulated, but perhaps inferable, in his preface to the Libro de los juegos, is what is a commonly accepted fact in contemporary psychology that board games allow for social bonding in that they offer collaborative experiences, communication and quality time. There are also active experiments in academia in constructing board games that can foster mutual understanding and sensitize participants toward race and environmental issues.
This past summer in Mexico City, Francis Alÿs presented an exhibition of a series of videos titled Juegos de Niñxs (Children’s Games) at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo. Since 1999, Alÿs has been documenting children’s games in different parts of the world, from a park in Denmark and a neighborhood in Hong Kong to a refugee camp in Iraq; he also has documented games in the Congo, Mexico, and more. The children in the videos invent, play and reinvent games with the simplest materials and the purest joy.
Citing a 17th century description of Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games, Cuauhtémoc Medina titled his catalogue essay for Alÿs’ exhibition “Innumerable Little Allegories,” which remind me in turn of how Alfonso X also thought of games as small simulations of the dynamics of the real world.
Chess, in particular, is indeed an allegory of combat strategy in war, but it is also a gentle way to engage with others. Like my brother (who was an excellent chess player himself) once wrote, “chess is the only civilized way to make life impossible to a neighbor.” Yoko Ono clearly understood, and artistically subverted, in a very Fluxus way, the chess game by creating “White Chess Set”, where all the pieces are white so they all get mixed up in the process of playing— a simple message about how the imagined differences among us, which prompt wars, obscure the fact of our universal humanity.
In the 2003 preface to his book Orientalism, Edward Said wrote: “The paramount thing is that the struggle for equality in Palestine/Israel should be directed toward a humane goal, that is, coexistence, and not further suppression and denial. Not accidentally, I indicate that Orientalism and modern anti-Semitism have common roots. Therefore, it would seem to be a vital necessity for independent intellectuals always to provide alternative models to the reductively simplifying and confining ones, based on mutual hostility, that have prevailed in the Middle East and elsewhere for so long.” While art might feel irrelevant amidst the brutality of the war, I do think that artists like Alÿs and many others such as Michael Rakowitz and Bouchra Khalili do show us models to fight that reductive and racist perceptions of the other; they engage in re-humanizing individuals who are made invisible by religious and nationalist conflicts.
Lastly: the term “lachrymose”, as employed in the quotes above, creates discomfort in me— a use of the term that feels overly accusatory, contemptuous, and unproductive. Instead of entering a competitive blame board game that will undoubtedly spiral into further violence, we need to mourn and honor the innocent dead by taking collective responsibility for the world we have created and take active steps to improve it.
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