My grandfather and great uncles used to sing it when I was very young: the story of Al-Quivir. And even now, on a summer night when the orange trees are sleeping, dusty and warm, and the grapes hang heavy and sweet, you can hear it. It is well-known among all of our folk. Al-Quivir, the cricket who taught the Caliph, instructed the teachers, danced the words and lived long in the palace of the Alhambra. It is a long story; from dusk to moonfall it is chirped and sung, retold and recited.
Here is how it begins.
Under a prickly grape leaf, in a farmer's field, outside the town of Jerez, in the country of Al-Andalus, 10,000 tiny crickets struggled to be born. By nightfall, 4,976 had been gobbled by the busy sparrows that hopped about working at the ground under the grape vines. 4,923 had skipped away to live their useful lives in the vineyards and barns of Senor Perez. One sat dreaming at the center of a fat bunch of grapes as green as moonlight, ripening to gold in the sun.
As he munched the tender leaves, he moved slowly, spiralling, hopping this way and leaping that way. Behind him the leaf took on a pattern of graceful lines where he had eaten and munched, tasted and crunched. As he rested on the curve of a grape, Al Quivir saw what he had made on the leaf and was pleased. Turning about to retrace his path he felt better still. When other crickets were singing and leaping, munching and taking care of the business of the cricket world in the fields of Senor Perez of Jerez, Al Quivir made more and still more swirls and lines.
Al Quivir, young cricket, had a poet's soul. That is what the people came to say of him, but he didn't think of it that way; he merely hopped and munched to an unheard music in a way that pleased him.
And so life went on in this pleasant way for some time, until one hot afternoon, when Javier, Senor Perez's son, came picking along the grape vines, filling his broad basket with bunches of grapes to be sold in Cadiz. "What a perfect bunch that is!" he said to himself, "I'll put that one on top and bring it in to Mama for our dinner." And so he did.
Mama Perez lifted the golden dusty grapes, heavy with Andalusian sunshine. "Such a fine bunch of grapes for the table," she said to herself, "deserves something special. Ah, I know the perfect thing."
Inside the house, she set the grapes on the scrubbed table, and squinted in the dim light as she rummaged around carefully on the high shelf where the candlesticks were kept. Sure enough, there was the bit of parchment her husband had brought home. All covered with elegant black lines; writing, he said it was. Good Christian farmers, not a one of the Perez family could read, but they had seen writing around the windows of the mosque, like vines and branches running up the sides of the painted carvings. Senor Perez had noticed when this scrap fluttered from the sleeve of a scholar as he argued with a merchant in the market at Cadiz, and he had quietly put his foot over it until the scholar had strode away. They had smoothed it out on the table when he came home and wondered at the lovely patterns.
Senora Perez set the perfect bunch of grapes on the parchment and went to the fire to stir another handful of onions into the soup.
When the jostling stopped and did not start again, Al Quivir ventured out from between two grapes where he had been clinging, curious and cautious, alert and hungry. Hopping down he landed on something that whispered beneath his feet. It tasted dry, not like leaves at all. A little further on there was a strong smelly darkness, and just as suddenly the dry stuff began again. Though none of this seemed good to eat, Al Quivir began to follow, sensing a pattern unfolding. Since there was less of the darkness, he followed that, and began to crawl along the letters, for we know what they were, do we not? Over and over he traced the lines, turning and swirling, smooth and curved, even more beautiful than his own lacy marks on the grape leaves.
He did not heed the slurps and munchings of the family as they ate their dinner, any more than he would have paid attention to the wind or the rustles of the vines around him. He was in love with these lines and crawled and hopped over and over again. "Go on with you, cricket," a big voice boomed, "on the hearth not on our table for you." A big hand casually swiped Al Quivir from the paper, from the table and through the air.
Stunned, Al Quivir huddled where he landed while the big boots and bare feet thudded and thumped around him. As soon as it was quiet again, he felt ravenous, with a curious hunger beyond a cricket's ceaseless craving for food. Crawling and hopping, sniffing and feeling his way across the floor, the pounded clay not unlike the flattened dirt between the rows of vines, he set off to search for food in this new place.
Al Quivir, the cricket who taught the Caliph, lived for a time in the house of the farmer Perez - searching for food and hiding places, singing and chirping through the night. His songs were restless, and gave the sleepers yearning dreams they did not understand. And all day long as he searched, the beautiful patterns repeated themselves in his mind. So time went on, days and nights, cold and hot, darkness and light.
One day Senora Perez took down the big broom and began to thump about, raising big clouds of dust. Al Quivir took refuge, climbing higher and higher. Perched on the back of a chair, the cricket sensed a quiet space behind him. Just before Senora's big hand descended to move the chair out of her way, Al Quivir jumped. Slipping on a waxy bit of candle, he squeezed underneath the clay sides of an oil lamp. Senora Perez bustled out of the house, coughing in the dust, and quiet reigned again.
Al Quivir's antenna quivered. There was food here, but also something else. Something tantalizing, something he had been looking for. Ah, it was the dark inky smell of the lines! Al-Quivir was overjoyed. Undisturbed on his high shelf, Al Quivir dreamed along the line of writing, from one end to the other and back again. More days and nights passed by, noisy and quiet, wet and dry, darkness and light.
Chewing on a sticky bit of tallow, Al Quiver was running his line one day without paying attention and ran right off the paper. He kept right on twisting and dancing just as though he were smelling and tasting his line as he hopped. "Interesting!" he thought. The dance could be danced even without the tastes and smells. He kept on.
About a grape's length from the end of the line he came to the end of the shelf. Al Quivir's momentum carried him right into empty space. Through the air, through the dust motes, through hot sun light and cool shadow, thump onto the floor he fell into a patch of sun streaming in from the open door.
Al Quivir leaped instinctively, and found himself in a familiar world of farmyard smells and tastes. A line or two brought him to the solid wheel of a cart, and he climbed up the crannies and cracks in the wood, drawn by a familiar smell above him. As Senor Perez gave the harness on his cart horse a last tug, Al Quivir settled happily on a grape leaf and began to munch. The horse clumped down the path, Senor Perez waved to his wife as she called, "Sell to the highest now, and don't forget my salt!" The jolts and bumps of the cart reminded Al Quivir of the wind in the vines so long ago and he settled in comfortably wedged between two golden grapes.
There was no room for more than a bit of his line on a grape leaf, but Al Quivir did his best to engrave as much as he could as they travelled along. As they bumped over the bridge into town, the leaves on the top layer of grapes took on the appearance of lace as fine as a green mantilla.
Now in this time the port of Cadiz bustled with turbanned Moors, bearded Jewish musicians, Etruscan diplomats black as night in their long white robes, merchants of maps, paper and salt, veiled housewives fingering silks and sighing as they bargained for cottons. Donkeys brayed and stamped, chickens protested their cages and their fate, flies buzzed and quarreled, ducks stretched out their necks and added to the din.
Through the dust and the shimmering heat, the calls of the vendors and the cooing of doves, strode Muhammad Ibn Arabi, scholar and friend of the Caliph Banu 'l-Ahmar. In his head a new poem spun its silky lines, fine as a spider web, sweet as a dream. The poet scholar mused in his poem on the tendrils of a grape vine, delicate and clinging, tender yet strong. The poem dwelt lovingly on the heavy grapes testing the strength of the vine and the tenacity of its holding tendrils. The scholar hoped to share his poem with the Caliph when he returned to Granada, and for the Caliph to see in his poem praise for his own gentle strength. Suddenly he paused, the image in his mind visible before him in Farmer Perez' harvest, laid out for sale.
Down came his hand, sweet and fine, white with dust and black with ink. Gently cradling, swiftly rising, his scholar's hands held up the golden grapes with the lacy leaves, his voice asking, arguing, agreeing, laughing. A cool white cloth shut out the sights of Cadiz; a perfect bunch of grapes to accompany a poem and a cricket with the soul of a poet were tucked away as a gift to the Caliph in Granada itself.
Quiet and contented, Al Quivir clung to his grape leaf in the bright white light as the sounds of the port town gave way to the slap and roll of waves, the gruff calls of sailors, the yearning cries of seabirds and the high thin song of the scholar's prayers.
A darkness later the scholar walked musing up the winding road to the Alhambra, intoning the passwords when challenged, humming bits of sailor's songs and the Christian Cantigas de Santa Maria he had heard on his travels. In the clear light of the sun, he brought the gift of grapes to his lord and they sat in a courtyard murmuring with water falling, dappled with leaf screened light, glowing from sun-warmed walls, refreshed by the lightest of breezes.
The scholar had been instructing the Caliph in the latest style of poetry that he had heard was popular in Baghdad so far away. As illustration he offered his own poem, modestly, just as the Caliph was enjoying the grapes from Jerez. His pen swirled the ink across the page as the Caliph watched and plucked the grapes one by one. The motion wakened Al-Quivir, who crawled sleepily away from the quivering grapes and took refuge in the shadow of the scholar's sleeve. As Al-Quivir warmed and wakened himself he was delighted by the smells of oranges cut and juicy, wine sour in the cup, figs sweet and sticky, and a pomegranate sharp and dry. Venturing away from the scholar's elbow, the first thing that the cricket encountered was a small pool of spilled ink. His hopping progress began to leave a trail.
As Caliph and scholar sucked their oranges and watched, bemused by the tiny life of one of Allah's humblest beasts, Ibn Arabi laughed and quoted a familiar poem about the songs of crickets heralding the coming of summer. Al Quivir was feeling contented and somehow at home on the Caliph's table and when he was content he invariably fell into his favorite activity. As he began to twist and wind, hop and crawl in his beloved pattern, his ink-stained feet left a message behind for any eye to see. "Wa al-Ghalib bi'llah", read the scholar in wonder. "Only God is the Conqueror," repeated the Caliph.
"So I must say to all my people," he said in a loud and sure voice, so that Al-Quivir paused, uncertain whether he should seek cover from a summer storm approaching. But the Caliph, Banu 'l-Ahmar, of Granada, was delighted and grateful to Allah for the gift of Al Quivir. Only God is the Conqueror! Just the message he wanted to carry to his people in these hard and conflicted times. A message of humility, yet comforting in the reminder of Allah's everlasting strength. Wa al-Ghalib bi'allah.
And this was the way that Al-Quivir's message came to the lips of the Caliph Banu 'l Ahmar and to the people of Granada and on into history. And his beloved swirls and lines were inscribed around every niche and lacy window, across the clay tiled lintels and carved doorways of the great and lovely palace of the Alhambra. And so they remain until this very day.
Now people tell this story, too, not only we crickets. But in their story they say that this Caliph had gone away to march and fight at the side of the Christian king Ferdinand. We remember that time. There was a great trampling of feet and a stomping of hooves; insects all over Granada hid away from the glare and shine of the swords and shields. Then after a time of quiet and unease, of murmuring and watching, the Caliph returned. Then the bells and yelling, the toasting and singing, and the Caliph saying over and over, in answer to their praise and cheering, "Wa al-Ghalib b'llah," "Only God is the conqueror," for he was a man both great and good, proud and pious.
All that may be true, but who whispered into his ear those words to say to his people, and who showed him how to decorate his windows and walls, fountains and halls with the curves and lines of these thoughts and words? Surely that was our ancestor, Al-Quivir, the humble cricket who taught the Caliph greatness from his poet's soul.