Ever wondered who created toothpaste or introduced three course meals? Why fashion houses design according to the seasons? Do you prefer separate classical music tuned for each 24 hour of the day? Does the guitar tear you heart? Ever wondered when the first music school for the masses started? How Chess entered Europe? Hold your breath. Only one man is associated with all the above and a few more. He lived more than a thousand years ago and graced the courts of Harun Al Rashid in Baghdad (Iraq) and Abd-Al Rahman II in Cordoba, Al Andalus (Spain). Abul Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi (789-857 AD), a freed slave of Kurdish descent, was known to the world as Ziryab (Zaryab) or Blackbird for his dark complexion and melodious voice. Blackbird was much more than just a musician. He was a genius!
Ziryab was born in Baghdad during the rule of Harun Al Rashid, the fifth Caliph of the Abbasid Dynasty. Baghdad was then a global centre for arts and sciences with its House of Wisdom (Baitul Hiqmat) that rivaled Alexander’s Library. The Caliph’s Court patronized the arts. Ziryab was the favourite student of the Caliph’s chief musician, Ishaq Al Mawsuli. Ishaq had no idea how much Ziryab had learned until one day the Caliph wanted to hear Ziryab perform. Alas! Ziryab had hidden his talents of singing and playing the lute (Oud) from his Guru. Ishaq had met his match. Ziryab would replace him. Ishaq forced Ziryab to leave Baghdad. Caliph Harun Al Rashid lost one of the greatest treasures of his Empire. Blackbird flew to the West.
Ziryab went to Tunisia in Al Maghrib at the invitation of Caliph Ziyadatallah I. Ziryab’s eyes were on Al Andalus (Spain). Within a century after Tariq Ibn Ziyad crossed Gibraltar (Jabal Al Tariq) in 711, Cordoba (Al Kurtuba) was blossoming into a cultural jewel under the Umayyad Dynasty. At the request of an influential musician of the Cordoba Court, Caliph Abd-Al Rahman II honoured his late father Caliph Al-Hakam’s invitation to Ziryab. In no time, Ziryab made his presence felt in the entire of Al Andalus and Europe.
Blackbird’s voice made him a living legend. He knew 10,000 songs and tunes by heart. He used his influence in the Caliph’s Court and Cordoba. He founded a music school that was radical for its times. The school was open to talented singers of all classes. Based on the musical traditions of Baghdad, Blackbird encouraged experimentation and improvisation. He created rules that govern the nuba, the classical music of Al Maghrib (Libya, Morocco, Algiers and Tunisia). Ziryab developed 24 separate nubas- each for the 24 hours of a day, matching the Ragas of Hindustani Classical Music. The 24 nubas (suites) were instrumental in the development of Church music that later became what is now known as Western Classical Music. Even more! The guitar as we know today was exported from Arabia to Europe initially in the form of the lute (Oud). Ziryab added a fifth pair of strings (G). Later developments lead to the Flamenco Guitar.
In gastronome and fashion Ziryab’s legacy is unmatched. Improvising Baghdad recipes, he revolutionized the dining table of Al Andalus. Desserts like Guirlache, a mixture of walnuts, honey and sesame is still popular in Spain. Zalabia is thought to be a forerunner of Jilebi or Jilapi. The French three-course meal is Ziryab’s innovation. As a starter, soup, preferably asparagus; then comes the main dish; followed by desert in sweets, fruits and nuts. Ziryab also introduced crystal glasses and leather furniture to the dining table.
Ziryab was the Sultan of Style. He developed the world’s first toothpaste. He introduced the concept of using salt to wash clothes. He popularized shaving among men with hair designs that were his. For women Ziryab developed various designs of tying hair in bangles. He also started shaping eyebrows. Not only in music and food, Ziryab also experimented in perfumes. Some of the French fragrances can be traced back to Ziryab. He was also the first to introduce a dress code for men and women that was based on the four seasons of the year. Blackbird’s story goes on. Through Indian and Baghdad astrologers, he introduced Chess to the Cordoba Court from where it spread throughout Europe.
Rising from humble roots, Abul Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi went on to become one of the most influential personalities of his time. There are not too many Ziryabs in history. This was possible not only because of his immense talent, but also because Al Andalus was one of the most tolerant civilizations of its time. It was this tolerance that brought the best out of its citizens. Due to unfortunate events in history, Ziryab and many other luminaries who shaped not only the Iberian Peninsula, but also influenced a lot of Europe as we see it today have been forgotten. Next time you have a three course meal in a French Restaurant, silently smile as you raise your crystal glass. Al Andalus gave to Europe much more than Europe ever gave back or remembered!
(The author teaches economic theory at Jahangirnagar University)