Book Reviews

The Moorish Whore, a novel by Rebekah Scott

As I walked the Camino, I realized how little Spanish history I knew.

Being in Spain for almost a month between my two trips in 2013 and this time in 2015, I was struck by its singularity within Europe. As a gigantic Peninsula, it’s essentially an island, cut off from France by the Pyrennes. It never went through the turmoil of the Reformation in the 16th Century. Although there was that thing called the Inquisition! Spain was not involved in the two World Wars.  After the Civil War of the late 1930’s, Franco became dictator, and Spain stood alone for more than 50 years.

I also didn’t know much about its early history. I knew the Moors had occupied much of Spain in the Medieval era. Statues of St. James as Matamoros, or Moor Killer, were everywhere in churches along the Camino. El Cid was remembered as a great hero in Burgos. In Najera, I saw tombs of the Kings of Navarra. In Leon, there was the Pantheon of Kings, going back before the 12th Century. The Knights of the Templar churches and the Castle in Ponferrada were spectacular. There was a rich history in Spain. The Camino drew me in to learn more.

14672620Rebekah Scott’s novel, “A Moorish Whore” took me back to the 11th century of Medieval Spain.

The main character, Zaida bint Mu’tamid, is a princess of Moorish Seville who was carried off by Alphonzo the I, King of Castille and Leon, as a prize of war. She was baptized a Christian, given the name Isabel, the King married her, and brought her to the north of Spain, to San Fecund, which is now Sahagun.

We see the world of 11th Century Spain through Zaida’s eyes. The novel’s female perspective is one of its strengths. She loves the King, and the children she bears. She brings cleanliness and running water to her town. She is more educated than the monks in power in San Fecund, who never accept her, and see her as an infidel. We witness and cheer her on in her struggle to survive in a harsh land run by violence and intrigue.

One of the delights of reading the novel was recognizing a place in the book. It’s just outside of Sahagun. It  had a feeling of being “out of time.” There’s a little bridge over the river, and a stone chapel built in the 11th Century.

Spot just before Sahagun.

Spot just before Sahagun.

In the novel, Zaida finds understanding with the hermit Esteban who lives there, and Pilgrims walking to Santiago stopped for respite. Zaida adopts the little waystation, brings in running water and sanitation, and builds the chapel. She befriends the people who live on the riverbank, who catch crabs and fish. It was a wonderful reimagining of what a place was like centuries ago. There are so many ancient places along the Camino just like it. Each of them has a history that has been lost to time. As Pilgrims, we go by quickly, snap a photo, and move on.

Scott reveals Zaida’s strong character through a swirl of memories and the story deepens as we learn more about her life back in Seville. Her parents are notable characters, and we learn that life was not at all perfect before she was “chosen” by Alphonzo. There were power struggles within the court, and, as a young woman, Zaida was used as a pawn by her own family, too.

The plot thickens towards the end of the novel, and builds towards a surprising finish. Zaida/Isabel is a survivor and a strong woman. “The Moorish Whore,” brings her and her time, back to life.

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Reflections on a Guidebook

A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierley

A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, A Practical & Mystical Manual for the Modern Pilgrim by John Brierley

If you learned to drive before the Internet, like I did, you probably spent a lot of time with the DMV Handbook learning the rules of the road. I’m sure I spent just as much time with John Brierley’s Guidebook, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago” as I prepared to walk the Camino. And then I studied it everyday I was on the Camino. My copy is dog-eared and water-stained. But I love it. Unlike a lot of guidebooks, this one has a definite voice, of John Brierley, who’s very male, Anglo, fit, and for some reason, doesn’t much like pilgrims to spend time in cities along the Camino. After all the time I’ve spent with his book, I feel like I know the guy.

What I like most about Brierley is his interest in the “Inner Path” of the Way of St. James. The subtitle of the guidebook is, “A Practical & Mystical Manual for the Modern Day Pilgrim.” He includes a self-assessment with questions like, “How do you differentiate pilgrimage from a long distance walk? “What do you see as the primary purpose of your life? Are you working consciously towards fulfilling that purpose?”

Those are very big questions for a travel guidebook. But the Camino is a very big walk. Brierley keeps reminding you that you’re on a Pilgrimage. Even on the days when you wonder why the heck you are walking for in the rain for five hours.

Brierley balances these big, philosophical questions with a ton of practical details. He breaks the Camino into thirty-three stages. Each stage is meticulously researched and has its own map and contour guide so you can see what kind of elevation to expect from day to day. The listings of amenities, down to individual villages, are very accurate. Access to this kind of information in English was priceless to a tired Pilgrim.

Each stage in the guidebook begins with a quote. Some are familiar, like: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Mahatma Ghandi, and “Practice random acts of loving kindness and acts of senseless beauty.” Some of them sang to me as I walked: “Worrying is praying for what you don’t want,” and “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today a gift—that is why it is called the present.”

He also includes “Personal reflections” from Anonymous Pilgrims. When I read them before walking the Camino they seemed sentimental or even surreal. But once I was a Pilgrim myself, they made much more sense, and now they remind me of what it’s like to be in the Pilgrim state of mind. You’re often bone-tired, sore, and nursing an injury. You’re also full of joy, endorphins, and having the time of your life, all at the same time. Being a Pilgrim means entering an altered state of wonder.

In that altered state it’s easy to forget your physical limitations. Even though Brierley recommends taking it easy in the first few stages, and listening to your body, the fact that he’s chopped the Camino into 33 stages makes it seem like everyone should be able to walk 20-30 kilometers every day. His stages have become normative for American Pilgrims.

Beware! In your “regular life” you would never walk a half-marathon a day thirty days in a row. Even after training for the Camino, most people need more than the 2 rest days he recommends. It’s easy to overdo it, injure yourself, and have to stop, or even go home. That’s what happened to me in June, 2013.

When I returned in October of the same year, I cut Brierley’s stages in half—to 12-15 kilometers a day.

It opened up the Camino for me because I was no longer focusing on getting to a certain town at the end of each Brierley stage. I stopped whenever I wanted to. The journey became more about the journey than the destination. And that is what the Camino is all about.

As time went on, I found myself leaving my Brierley guide in its ziplock bag, and just enjoying where I was on the Camino. That’s what the Camino is about, too. The maps began to seem unnecessary. The yellow arrows marking the Camino were enough.

Yellow Arrow along the Camino

Yellow Arrow along the Camino

Perhaps the best thing about the Brierley guide was that it helped me to have more faith in myself as a solo traveler, and to claim my own Camino.

I’ve sometimes wished that Life had a guidebook that gave Brierley-like advice: “at this point the trail splits into three and you have to choose your level of difficulty”, or “here’s the contour guide for young adulthood, and middle age.”

But life is more unpredictable than that. We sometimes find ourselves on the most difficult path that we would have never chosen. Or have long phases of sameness, like the section on the Camino called the Meseta.

Who’s with you on the journey makes all the difference. Even at his most mystical, John Brierley never mentioned this: Jesus kept showing up to walk with me, through my fellow Pilgrims.

Dear Pilgrim, I hope you enjoy Brierley’s guidebook as much as I have. It points you toward the good stuff. But remember to take your eyes off the guidebook and live in the moment. It’s even better than what Brierley describes.

Categories: Book Reviews, Camino Guidebooks, Camino Logistics, Reflections | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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