:: Article

No Victor But God

By Molly Crabapple.

There is no victor but God

There is no victor but God.

So reads the Arabic calligraphy that adorns the façade of the French restaurant at 311 Calle de la Fortaleza in San Juan, Puerto Rico, right above the Moroccan tiles. There is no victor but God. How many people have stopped to look at this saying? How many can read the elaborate Arabic script? The same saying, in the same font, also borders the tiles in the antechamber of El Ateneo Puertorriqueño, the island’s oldest cultural institution. Some ceramicist must have made them in bulk.  

The saying was the motto of The Nasirids, the last Muslim dynasty to rule a corner of Spain, and the builders of The Alhambra in Granada. In 1492, The Nasirids surrendered their exquisite capital to the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella, good Christian monarchs who immediately expelled all the Jews from Spain. With the lucre they looted from the last outpost of Al Andalus, Ferdinand and Isabella financed an Italian named Cristobal Colón to cross the ocean blue. Thinking he would find India on the other side of the Atlantic, Columbus brought along a forcibly converted Granadan Jew, Luis de Torres, to translate for him in what was then considered the lingua franca of the civilised infidel. When Columbus crashed his boat off the coast of an island its Taino inhabitants called Quizqueia, Luis de Torres attempted speak to his rescuers in Arabic. The language of the Nasirids thus became the first foreign tongue uttered in the Caribbean. The next year, Columbus landed in Borinkén, a smaller island to Quizqueia’s East, also inhabited by the unfortunately peaceful Taino. Once Spain learned of the gold that clogged Borinkén’s rivers, they named the island Puerto Rico. Rich Port. 

The Tainos are gone now, murdered by Columbus and the “explorers” who came after him. Isabella lies in the dirt beside her Ferdinand, and the globe-spanning Spanish Empire they founded is dead as well, impoverished by a sequence of calamities that began, perhaps, with the Inquisition, and culminated in the popped housing bubble of 2008. In the region once called Al Andalus, unemployment now brushes 27%, and Spanish squatters appropriate farmland in the formerly Moorish countryside outside of Seville. Spain lost Puerto Rico in 1898 to a new empire: The United States of America. President William McKinnley’s gunships shelled the San Juan harbour, but his armies entered the island bearing sugar monopolies and race science and promises that they would be far nicer colonisers than the colonisers who came before. A hundred and twenty years later, Puerto Ricans can be the judge of this. The US is now an empire in its early death throes. To demonstrate the remnants of its power, it shoots missiles at evacuated military facilities in Damascus, after the Syrian regime murdered civilians with chlorine gas in Douma. 

Damascus was, of course, the capital of the Umayyads. In 750, Abdul Rahman I, last heir to the Umayyad dynasty, fled Damascus, with his whole family dead at the hands of his Abbasid enemies. Five years later, he landed in Spain. There, he founded the great city of Cordoba, the sprout from which all of Al Andalus, including the Alhambra, would bloom. Not bad for Europe’s first Syrian refugee. 

But where is Abdul Rahman now? And where is Al Andalus? Does it exist only in traces, like those on 311 Calle de la Fortaleza?

There is no victor but God. This calligraphy (copied, unread, from the Nasirids’ Alhambra, brought over, un-comprehended, as decoration for a French restaurant on a hurricane-gutted island) might just be the best epitaph for our age. Who wins, really, in the end?  Is it Columbus or William McKinley? Isabella or Abdul Rahman? Who built the thing that lasts? Or are the winners merely those who find their most cherished mottos repurposed as ornament, in glazes of blue and emerald, glazed over by bored tourists’ eyes?

There is no victor but God. I do not believe in God, which is to say that I believe that after death comes an all-consuming blankness, a void that my mind conceives of as eternity, and I know that this, in truth, is the only thing that lasts.  

Over the last three years, I commuted back and forth to Istanbul to write a book with a Syrian journalist about his country’s nightmare. On one visit, I saw graffiti that read: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” War is the factory that produces victors, along with its far more numerous victims. This sentence, scrawled on the walls of a city that has seen victors and victims for 2.5 millennia, makes a nice rejoinder to the Nasirids’ favourite quote.  

There is no victor but God. Keep on fighting, humans. Only God wins in the end. As for all you others, you Columbuses and McKinleys, you Abdul Rahmans and Isabellas, you mortal beings whose wars led the way for this calligraphy to end up on this French restaurant on this Caribbean island. All the rest of you, just you wait.


Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple is an artist and and the author of Drawing Blood (Harper Collins, 2015). Brothers of the Gun, her illustrated collaboration with Syrian war journalist Marwan Hisham, will be published by One World/Penguin Random House in May 2018. Her reportage has been published in the New York Times, New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, Vanity Fair, The Guardian and VICE. Her artwork is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 8th, 2018.