Rock in the Casbah

Rock in the Casbah

Stone Time in Lisbon

In the 1980’s, the British punk band The Clash hit it big in the United States with a song called “Rock the Casbah.” 

A big fan of The Clash, I remember speeding down the 101 Highway with my friend Robin on my first-ever parent-free road trip. We were headed to San Luis Obispo to check out the college with The Clash blaring from the single speaker of my silver Datsun Nissan. “Rock the Casbah” is playing. Robin and I sing-scream the lyrics which make absolutely no sense to either of us. 

Flash forward to 2022. I am standing alone in the ante room of the former Moorish casbah-turned-Christian fortress known today as the Castle São Jorge—St. George’s Castle. Just like that, I’m singing the words of the song under my breath as I study the stone wall in front of me.

Sharif don’t like it. 

Rockin’ the Casbah

Rock the Casbah

Though I still can’t explain the lyrics, it feels an appropriate serenade for the moment, this being a casbah and all. A casbah hewn from rock—

–a rock in the casbah.

In Cordoba, I fixated on how stones hewn from warring epochs co-exist centuries on.

Here in Lisbon, it’s the nature of the stone that has my grindstone spinning.

Until this trip, I thought of stone and rock (the one begets the other) in terms of their physical value to things like walls, bridges, casbahs and castles. 

But stones also construct time. Not just human time but all time.  

Why this didn’t resonate with me when I was studying geology in high school and listening to The Clash, I cannot say—

But it does now.

With the magnifying glass feature on my phone, I study the surface of a single stone. One of many that line the wall, this stone is its own mini-time capsule.

There’s a tiny dent that could be from an iron chisel and a fleck of old mortar. On closer look, I make out the crest of a clamshell and the bone fragments of more than one primordial fish. I see grains of an ancient volcanic eruption and the settled sand of eons.

I see the beginning of the world and possibly its end, too.


One epiphany begets another. After my stone study at the Castle São Jorge, I decided to revisit the lyrics of “Rock the Casbah.” I come to learn the song wasn’t about Arab oil affluence as I originally suspected but freedom of artistic expression. Like walls and bridges, the sheik and his Cadillac were the edifices atop of which The Clash staged their ethical protest over musical persecution in the Middle East.  

Now the King told the boogie man
You have to let that raga drop
The oil down the desert way
Has been shakin’ to the top
The Sheik, he drove his Cadillac
He went a-cruisin’ down the ville
The muezzin was a-standin’
On the radiator grille (ow!)

Sharif don’t like it
Rockin’ the Casbah
Rock the Casbah
Sharif don’t like it
Rockin’ the Casbah
Rock the Casbah

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