Voices from the Pastrana Tapestries

Poem by Marybeth Rua-Larsen

<i>The Conquest of Tangier,</i> c. 1471-75, The Pastrana Tapestries

I.  King Afonso V (1438-1481)


Oh Africa, my Africa, speak to me –

surrender, and you can leave unharmed. I’m here

for Christ, to take back Christianity,

and if your sugar and your wheat are dear,


they’re dearer still to us and half the cost.

Take pots, your jewels, your children and step through

the city gates. Don’t let your blood be lost. 

Evacuate. Invent your life anew


before the House of Avis stakes its claim,

crusades against you Infidels. The Pope

insists you’ll only have yourselves to blame.

Seek glory elsewhere. Cast your eyes down low.


But Asilah fought, and dubbed my son a knight:

a “perfect prince,” his red cross drowned in white.


II. A Citizen Fights for the City of Asilah


A“perfect prince,” his red cross drowned in white, 

he sat astride his horse in triumph, earned

his knighthood with our blood and sealed our plight

with thirty-thousand men. His father turned


our mosque into a church, relentless in

his need to restore Christ, and when he tried

to treat with us, to salvage lives within

these ancient castle walls, his men defied


him secretly: they took what they were owed,

they killed because they could, and when his majesty

learned of their treason, he let them load

up all their loot to keep his dynasty.


How could we leave our homes, our god to them?

Three days of pounding rain.  We did not bend.


III. The Soldier


Three days of pounding rain.  We did not bend,

not standing for hours, soaked from boots to mail,

not beggared by the storm – we tried to wend

a dozen cannons from our ships and failed,


but a pair would be enough. Surprise would be

the key: when captains steered us down the Strait

at summer’s end, the winds were fair, the seas

were calm. We took a chance to seal their fate.


Our orders were to wait while they made peace,

but we’re not idle men who strum guitars.

We’re here for gold, for jewels, for blood – to sneak

through blasted walls, to take what should be ours.


Those women and children hiding in the mosque –

they’ll be in chains – or they’ll be dead – by dusk.


IV. A Mother Walks Away from Tangier


They’ll be in chains or they’ll be dead by dusk.

Why won’t they leave? The king has granted

clemency. He wants the port, not us,

and if we walk away as we’re commanded,


we live. I wind a scarf around my head,

pack all the clothes and trinkets I can hold

and fill my pockets with the morning’s bread.

I take my daughter in my arms and go.


We won’t return. We’ll walk and hope our god

shows us the way, we hope a city takes

us in without the need to shed more blood.

We hope there’s more for us than constant ache.


Don’t look back. Your city’s not your own.

Don’t look for Gabriel. He’s cried and flown.


V. A Belgian Weaver


Don’t look for Gabriel. He’s cried and flown.

These are not tapestries of faith or myth.

They tell the story of a cunning throne

and genuflect toward King Afonso the fifth.


He knew our work was neither equaled nor

surpassed, and he commissioned us to weave

his army’s triumph, to find the grace in war,

and we stared out our windows, rolled our sleeves


and dreamed the details: monkeys in the masts

of ships, white curls in docile seas, the snow-

topped pines beyond the walls, the posies splashed

in ports of call, their faces bright hellos


A bloodless coup despite the many reds —

his glory born with wool and silken threads.


VI. A Priest at the Parish of Pastrana  


His glory born with wool and silken threads, 

we must preserve it. Our “Defender of

the Faith” should be revered. He spread

the word or Christ, and the Portugal he loved


could be much more, he knew. As parish priest

I did my duty, I kept the panels safe 

amid the Spanish Civil War, not the least

because they’re beautiful and don’t debase


the Infidels. There is no twisted cunning

in their mouths, their eyes are calm, not wild.

These Africans don’t cry for blood; there’s nothing

but the tender face of God to show the world.


The crowds who view the tapestries are blessed.

What will those peasants think, the ones who left?


VII. The Second Generation Immigrant 


What would those peasants think, the ones who left

the Azores and came here, who shared

a tenement or cold water flat, who hefted

their wet laundry up three flights of stairs


and rolled it out to dry? We’re not descended

from Afonso’s line, from the royal genes  

who ordered swords and daggers extended,

who glorified themselves in tapestries.


But history’s in our blood. We reinvent

the conqueror as pacifist, and trust

that we can turn from mastering lands and men

to preservation – we want our culture just


and claim it as our birthmark on the sea.

Oh Africa, my Africa, speak to me.