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Joyce Yarrow Searches for Convivencia

I met Joyce Yarrow virtually last year through another writer friend and was immediately intrigued by her book Zahara and the Lost Books of Light. Today, she shares with us some of the history that inspired the book and how she came to write it.

A few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Samia Panni and I formed the vocal ensemble called Abrace. Our mission was to counteract the drums of war by creating harmony between cultures through music – a modern Convivencia. Little did I know that this concept would someday inspire me to write a book.

My first clue came when the Seattle Times published an article about Doreen Alhadeff. Doreen, who has since become a dear friend, was the first woman to apply for Spanish citizenship under the new, right-to-return law. Her pioneering story intrigued me—both as a writer and as a Jew from a very different background, one’s been fascinated by the vibrant culture of the Sephardim who’ve lived for generations in my Seattle neighborhood.

Since the protagonist of my book would be following in Doreen’s footsteps, I decided to fly to Spain and  experience it through Alienor Crespo’s eyes. On my first night in Andalusia, I found this plaque inscribed with the legend of two star-crossed lovers – Muslim and Christian – whose spirits are said to meet whenever water flows down into the fountain. There are many tragic stories like this one… yet… 

There was also a time in Medieval Spain when Christians, Muslims, and Jews blended their creative efforts to create works showing off the very best of their artistry. I became fascinated with the era of La Convivencia, when great works of art were produced by Jewish and Muslim artists – such as the Kennicott Bible, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew Bible illustrated with Islamic motifs. 

Unfortunately, the Convivencia was brief and in 1498, in the Plaza de Bib-Arrambla, thousands of precious manuscripts hand-written in Aramaic, Arabic, and Hebrew were burned by order of the Inquisition. Today tourists like me visit the square, where there is no indication that anything untoward .happened. It was here that the premise for Zahara and the Lost Books of Light emerged.

I asked myself – what if some of these invaluable cultural and religious treasures were rescued from the flames of the Inquisition by two powerful mystics? What if Ibn al Arabi and Abraham Abulafia had worked together to find a pair of human hands to save this precious knowledge and transport it to a salt mine in La Alpujarra? This fictional underground library became Zahara – designed by Hasdai the Seer in the shape of the Tree of Life – a hidden refuge that has survived into modern times.  

Of course, there’s nothing like a strong, female protagonist – Alienor Crespo – a journalist from Seattle’s thriving Sephardic community – a woman capable of pulling all the pieces of the mystery together when she is called upon by her new Spanish friends to save the libraries of light. Alienor is gifted with second sight in the form of vijitas – visits with her female ancestors. One of these ancestors is Jariya Sadiqui – whose bravery Alienor calls upon to help her when Zahara is invaded by their enemies and she must find a way to enter the tunnels undetected. 

After publication, my search for La Convivencia did not end.  I discovered—through my readers and the members of cultural and inter-faith organizations who have sponsored events—that this unique era from the past is also a living, breathing concept in the present—one we need more than ever to heal our fractured world. 

You can find out more about Joyce Yarrow or buy her books at her website,

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