Ziryab- Influencer Extraordinare.

Hi everyone, welcome to this week’s blog. Just a quick word on what I had planned – and why I have shelved it.

My original plan this week was to tell the tale of the largely forgotten anarchist Martial Bourdin, and his untimely – pun intended – death in 1894. Without dwelling too much on Mr Bourdin, he accidentally blew himself up outside of Greenwich observatory. It is believed he was there, not to attack the observatory itself, as to blow up the clock tower in protest of the standardization of time across the globe into zones in 1880. The clock tower being ground zero – literally – where Greenwich mean time emanates from. My interest in the tale is in how it highlights the ways in which we impose human made structures to various phenomena to get stuff done, but how there is often a hidden cost to us in doing so. I also figured it a timely reminder of how things which seem to have been around forever (time zones in this case) are sometimes far more modern than we credit them for. I intended to finish off the tale by writing about Sommaroy, the Norwegian island who have abolished time, as they have decided it does not serve a purpose for them.

I ran into a wee problem with this however at 8am Saturday morning, New Zealand standard time – if anyone is wondering that is GMT + 13 at present – we are in daylight savings time (FYI we adopted GMT 2 November 1868 – before it became almost ubiquitous – and daylight savings time November 6th 1927). I was just grabbing a coffee and some toast, and reading the news, when I read of a terror attack by a knife wielding man with an alleged bomb vest on – having taken place on London Bridge No.2, down by the fish markets. The terror attacker stabbed five, killing two, before he was disarmed, then shot by police. You may well see why a tale featuring a bomb wielding terrorist could be seen as disrespectful and tone deaf to anyone affected by the current attack. Empathy for those touched by this tragedy and solidarity in calling out all “jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions. And terrible sexual repressions.” (thanks Christopher Hitchens for your 10 commandments) easily beats ‘this is a tale that simply must be told’.

So, for now, Martial Bourdin goes back in the vault, next to Tamar of Georgia. This does leave me with a dilemma though, not only do I have to cobble together a quick tale, a ‘tales of history and imagination are all around us’ moment (to the newer readers the ‘all around us’ bits were meant to be spring-boarded off everyday conversations I’ve had) but I want to make the topic something nice today. Well, playing ‘I spy’ around my living room I spotted the below scene – a crystal glass mostly emptied of bourbon and cola. Yeah, that’ll do us –

A crystal glass full (well mostly empty) of bourbon.



today let’s talk about Ziryab, a Persian musician, whose influence went on change European society in a number of ways which – just like standardized time- we rarely think about how these things began. Ziryab, aka Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Nafi, I lift my crystal glass in your honour.

So… Who is Ziryab?
Our tale, this will be a pretty quick one, begins tonight in Cordoba Spain, then in the Islamic domain of Al Andalus. The year is 822. I promised to keep the tale nice today, but probably should mention very quickly that Hispania, as it was previously known was being run by the Visigoths in 711AD when the first of the Umayyad Muslim armies landed – a bunch of not very nice things happened, and by 788 the Umayyads were firmly ensconced in the region. They set up court, and by the early 9th century were looking to establish themselves as a beacon of learning, culture and music as much as they had to date a military presence in the area. Enter Ziryab.

Now Ziryab was born Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Nafi in 789, in either Baghdad or Mosul, Iraq. His sobriquet Ziryab comes from the Persian word for jay-bird. Early in his life he trained to be a musician under Ishaq al-Mawsili, one of Baghdad’s more legendary court musicians. Tale has it Ziryab was very much a Steve Vai to al-Mawsili’s Satriani – besides having a great voice he played a mean oud – an Eastern precursor to the lute. Like Steve Vai, with his universe 7 string guitar, Ziryab reputably added an extra string to the oud. Legend has it Ziryab’s life got upturned as a young man. The story goes he was asked to play at the court of caliph Harun al-Rashid, and his performance was breath-taking. After this performance his relationship with al-Mawsili became more akin to Mozart and Salieri, bitter rivals – and after an ugly altercation Ziryab suddenly had to pack his bags and leave the ‘land between the rivers’. I couldn’t state with any confidence how true this is – Harun al-Rashid died in 809, Ziryab appears to have left, for Syria, then later Tunisia in 813. Having not found his niche in either land, he jumped at an opportunity to make 200 gold dinars a month in the Andalusian court of AL-Hakam I. By his arrival in 822 his patron had passed, but he would stay and work for his successor Abd ar- Rahman II.

So…. why is Ziryab important?
Let’s start with that oud. Because he was both a virtuoso player unlike anyone else in Europe at the time, and a highly influential composer, his music would influence western medieval music – giving rise to the lute. Not unlike another composer, J.S. Bach, he would go on to father several sons who all became master musicians also, and further spread his music. Besides adding an extra string to the instrument Ziryab would also dump the cumbersome wooden plectrum oud players currently used for an eagle’s quill, which was much faster. He established a music conservatory, where many of the ruling elite sent their children to study under his tutelage. Not enough?

What about the concept of seasonal wardrobes, and dressing for the weather? While it may seem common sense to wear lighter fabrics in summer, heavier in winter – before Ziryab made it popular it wasn’t. He pioneered the wearing of white in summer, and also advocated for the adoption of daywear and evening wear around the court. Being an erudite, handsome, influencer kind of guy his example took off, and spread outside of Andalusia. Besides this he pioneered short hair for men, shaving regularly, and bathing twice a day. Further to this it is said he created an early shampoo, a popular toothpaste, the ingredients of which have been lost to history, and a deodorant. From a culinary perspective Ziryab introduced the tablecloth, and the concept of the three course meal – a soup as an entree, followed by a main, then a dessert. He also kicked off a trend in drinking from crystal glasses, replacing the metallic tumblers of the time.

Ziryab would pass on 27th January 857, aged 67 or 68. Though he never conquered a land himself, his effect on the cultural lives of many generations is notable. I could make a point that, not too unlike our tale of standard time zones, there is an element of artifice to his innovations, and yes in his time doctors and scientists were making discoveries which go a long way towards moving humankind forwards, while he just changed the little things. Sometimes those little things are incredibly important – and yes this is a thesis almost 180 degrees off where I was planning to go this weekend.

Well…. at the very least some of this may show up in a pub quiz some time for some of you?

I send my love to the people of London.

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