Sunday, November 7, 2010

So what do you call this place, anyway?

The first time we visited the Mezquita in Córdoba, we admired the extraordinary red and white pillars and arches, we examined the detailed stonework and elaborate inscriptions, we noted the chapels, and then we emerged into the front courtyard, visit completed--certain we'd missed something. Was that it? we asked the guards. We took a wrong turn, we skipped part of what we came to see. Can we go back in?

The guards were accommodating. We retraced our steps. But where were the endless, unbroken ranks of columns we had seen in photographs, images carefully framed to block or elide any evidence of the imposition of the Christian cathedral on the prior structure?

English language guidebooks to Spain almost invariably highlight the Mezquita, using the Spanish term. Mosque appears below the heading, in the body of the description, for clarity, and cathedral appears lower still. The fact of the cathedral built within (or on top of) the mosque is explained, often critically, sometimes in considerable detail. Still, before I went there, my impression was of a largely untouched mosque, with some later Christian detail off to one side.

The politics of place names are complicated. So, too, their translation. This past week, I read in the paper that the bishop of Córdoba has proposed changing the signs that appear around the city, directing visitors to the "mosque-cathedral," dropping the mosque reference to reduce confusion. As might be expected, the idea is not universally endorsed. []

I read about the mosque/mezquita/cathedral/catedral signs in a week when I was already thinking about names. Like individual names, place names carry a host of associations. Names of towns or monuments or mountains might derive from historical events, notable inhabitants, conquerors, rebels, accidents, points of national pride or public embarrassment. Character names carry baggage as well, connotations that may be intended or accidental. A writing blog raised the question of how different people name characters--always an entertaining challenge. What's in a (fictional) name? It might be anything. Revenge on the hated sixth-grade art teacher who trashed your favorite painting; homage to the neighbor who always feeds your cat. In fiction there's not the same risk of causing misery--I might saddle a character with a moniker I'd never have left my flesh-and-blood child to struggle under on the playground.

But there is the question of getting it right, of finding the name that adequately evokes the place or person described or invented. I am also reading with great enjoyment (several years now after it first came out) Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. It's a book to dip in and out of, almost trolling for found poems, to enjoy terms like "frost hollow" or "ganderbrush" or "ramadero." These are not just definitions, but short narratives, records of settlement, change, restoration, misperception. Possibilities to savor, opportunities lost.

Somehow, for me, the question of what a place might be called, and how the people who move through that place might be imagined or understood, are connected, and connected as well to an image of arches or columns that recede toward an uninterrupted horizon, but only if the observer stands in the right place.


  1. Lots of food for thought here, Amalia. The Cordoba mosque/Cathedral issue is played out repeatedly every time a single place is claimed by more than one people or ruled by more than one government. Think of St Petersburg/Stalingrad/Leningrad/St Petersburg. The towns in Israel/Palestine that have a Hebrew and an Arabic name.

    The issue comes up in my novel, which takes place in part in an area that is now western Ukraine, but has been part of Poland, the Austrio-Hungarian Empire and the USSR. I had to think long and hard about which version of the town's name to use, and I was a little sad when I realized the one that sounded the prettiest note in my ear was not the one my characters would have used.

  2. It does get complicated when the music of the story clashes with the reality (even if it's an imagined one) of the characters. Of course, the stakes are different in fiction than on, say, the streets of Córdoba (or the pages of the tourism authority brochure). But not, I think, unrelated.
    Thanks for reading, Ruth.