05/28/2011 05:13 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2011

Mixing It Up in 11th Century Spain

I just turned the last page of The Arts Of Intimacy, a fascinating book written by Sarah Lawrence College's Dean, Jerrilynn D. Dodds, with co-authors Maria Rosa Menocal and Abigail Krasner Balbale. Not surprising the book was named as a Book Of The Year by The Times Literary Supplement, and won the 2010 Albert C. Outler Book Prize. It's crammed with startling information about how Spain's Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side-by-side, their weaving cultures at times melding, opposing, and reinforcing each other in a fascinating period that runs roughly from the 10th century to the end of the 15th century (when Ferdinand and Isabella stamped out Spain's religious pluralism during the Inquisition.)

On every page I learned something new: how Gibraltar is named after the Berber conqueror, Jabal Tariq; how the dhimma, the relatively tolerant method with which the Muslim rulers had governed the Jews and Christians during 700 years of Islamic Spanish rule, was initially adopted and adapted by the new Castilian Christian rulers; how the Mozarabs (Christians who spoke Arabic) distrusted the Catholic Alfonso VI when he retook Toledo in 1085 (they rightly feared their autonomy would be curbed) and were frequently inclined to support the parting Islamic rulers to the south.

But most of all I loved this, just one example of how the living "arts" meld and mix opposing cultures: one popular and distinct form of Andalusian poetry was called "ring song," or muwashshah in Arabic, and began with a very formal and classic verse in Arabic (or in Hebrew) before circling around to its final lines, which were usually impertinent and in a vernacular language. (That local language used was frequently a form of Romance, or Mozarabic, which was a local take on the Latin spread through Europe by the conquering Roman Empire almost a thousand years earlier, and a language still spoken by a minority of Swiss living in the Alps.) The first formal and classical stanzas of the muwashshaw were often "sung" by men waxing lyrical about a beautiful woman, and the woman finally answering, in the local tongue, with a slap-up-the-head rejoinder.

Fantastic stuff. Forgive the writer's narcissism, but I was so taken by The Arts of Intimacy because Dodds and her co-authors are examining (albeit from a completely different angle) the colliding and accommodating and adapting that miraculously takes place when people of different cultures meet, that I, too, am compelled to explore in my novels, The Hundred-Foot Journey and Buddhaland Brooklyn.