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Authors: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud

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BOOK: The Holy Sail
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Halima looked shocked. ‘I think you know what that means, Father! Those people could take over our kingdom or ask a lot of money in return. Have you thought about that? They are Bedouin brutes and—'

Her father interrupted her with his quiet voice. ‘I have thought about all of this. But there is no other way. If
Vays stays on the throne, this means that Hormuz could lose control over its trade in the Gulf because of his foolishness. People already hate him. Hormuz would lose its possessions across the sea. With the Jabrids, we might find a compromise that satisfies both sides.'

Attar returned to his chair. Halima followed him and sat across from her father. She took one of his legs and put it on her lap and started kneading it as she often did. She knew it helped soothe him.

Attar gave her a smile. Her questions were now more difficult and intelligent than ever before, and he had to find convincing answers. He said, ‘I have sought the Jabrid sultan because I could not find anyone else, Halima. Everyone wants our money but none of our problems, which I believe we have to deal with on our own.'

He paused, looked at the sky, and then continued. ‘We live in obvious affluence. Our trade is prosperous, at least so far, and we have been able to avoid our enemies by paying them off.' Then he struck the armrest with his fist, as though a scorpion had bitten him. ‘Our foolish kings will ruin everything with their senseless quarrels!'

Attar returned his gaze to his daughter. ‘True, the Jabrids are brutish Bedouins. But we have so far not been at war with them. We have a good relationship with them, and they pay their taxes to Hormuz. But I know this could all change as soon as they realise the state we're in.'

He gave his daughter an affectionate look. ‘Halima, half of the blood in your veins is Arab, not much different from the blood running in Sultan Muqrin's veins. In our city different races have mixed, Arabs, Persians, Indians and Balochi. We intermarried and became a unified people
whose allegiance is to the king. But I don't know to which king this allegiance should be now!'

He said his last sentence in a tone that suggested he wanted to put an end to the conversation. Halima moved her father's foot away from her lap and lifted the other one up, trying her best to help him relax. ‘But you didn't answer my question, Father. What do you expect the Jabrids to ask in return?'

He reacted as though hearing the question for the first time. He shook his head and bit his lip. ‘I don't know, Halima, I sent a messenger to Sultan Muqrin asking him to intervene. The messenger will soon return with his answer. I don't know what he will ask in return, but I hope it won't be something we cannot provide.'

They were interrupted by the procession of the king on his way to the palace. Halima put down her father's feet and ran towards the balcony.

Attar was taken aback by his daughter's inquisitiveness. ‘Haven't you tired of seeing the procession yet?'

Halima continued to watch the procession. ‘Yes, I'm sick of seeing it. It no longer arouses my curiosity like it did when I was little. But it tells me so much. For instance, it tells me who the new vizier is, who the dignitaries visiting the kingdom are, and who the king's new favourites are. There are so many things you can learn by just watching the procession.'

Halima knew what the procession looked like by heart. It had not changed since the new king had taken the throne several months earlier.

Usually, a camel-mounted escort in a dark red uniform led the procession, beating on two large marching drums.
Another drummer followed with four smaller instruments, in front of two bearers each carrying the flag of the kingdom of Hormuz. Two cavaliers rode behind them on stout horses that had been plumped up deliberately. The riders each held a staff bearing the ornate silver standard of the monarchy. Trailing them closely were two cymbalists and four trumpeters.

Servants in expensive robes marched next, directly ahead of the king. The king rode on a grey Arabian horse with a gilded saddle and reins. Long, colourful feathers stuck out from its head.

The king wore a dark red robe, interspersed with green and gold threads. Underneath he wore an embroidered shirt with matching trousers. A fabric girdle around his waist held a jewelled dagger; his turban was made from Persian silk and decorated with golden trim.

The procession and its blare passed in front of the homes by the seaside, reminding the public who the new king was. Halima shook her head as she watched the rear of the procession, then turned to her father.

‘I don't know what fate has in store for us, my dear girl,' he said absentmindedly. ‘I don't feel reassured.'

She sat in front of him and put her hands on his knees. ‘I have always known you as an optimist, Father. Are you also afraid of the Jabrids?'

‘If the Sultan of Jabrid agrees to help us, then there will be a price that we would have to pay. I don't know what he will ask from us, but if we remain under this king it will end in disaster for everyone anyway!'

A servant entered the room abruptly and interrupted the vizier. ‘Your Excellency, there is someone here to meet you.'

‘Who is it? Has the messenger returned from Al-Ahsa?'

The servant answered quietly, ‘No, sir. It seems from his appearance that he is an Arab merchant travelling from faraway lands. I'm not familiar with his accent or the way he is dressed. He says he has an important message for you.'

Halima asked to remain with her father in his
to see this strange visitor, and her father obliged.

Covilhã entered dressed in Moroccan robes. He greeted the vizier courteously, bowing in a slightly exaggerated manner. Covilhã could not help but glance at Halima, whose beauty immediately captivated him. He bowed to her before quickly turning his gaze back to the vizier.

The vizier noticed Covilhã's odd style of greeting. He had not seen it with the Arabs from the Peninsula before. He enquired about his country of origin.

‘Your Excellency, I am a merchant from Morocco. I passed through Alexandria on my way to India, where I was given a letter addressed to you.' Covilhã gave the vizier the letter with both of his hands in a theatrical gesture of veneration, while resisting the urge to peek again at Halima.

‘Please, sit down.'

Covilhã sat focusing his sight on the vizier, studying his face and reaction as he read the message.

Silence reigned over the room until Attar spoke. ‘This letter is from my friend the rabbi of Alexandria. He asked me to help you on your trip to India, and to keep nothing from you. Clearly he holds you in the highest regard. Will you tell me more about yourself? What is the situation like in Morocco?'

Covilhã knew that the rabbi in Alexandria traded in spices with Attar, but he did not want to declare it. It doesn't
matter, Covilhã thought, at least he wouldn't feel alone now. He said, ‘Our kingdom is at war with Portugal and Spain, Your Excellency. We now trade with the East rather than the West. Our coasts come under frequent attack from the north, and people are grumbling about these endless conflicts.'

The vizier gave Covilhã a strange smile, before he said, ‘The world is no longer as safe as it used to be, my Moroccan friend!'

Attar turned to his daughter, pointing at her. ‘This is my daughter, Halima. She has not yet travelled outside our kingdom, but she likes to know what's going on in the rest of the world.'

Covilhã smiled. This was his chance to take a good look at her and admire her beauty. He said, ‘I will be happy to answer any questions. I have travelled far and wide, and have many stories to tell, but I would like to know more about your kingdom first, Your Excellency.'

Attar smiled again and said, ‘It would seem we are going to tell each other many stories. Very well, I'll start.

‘Ancient Hormuz was located on the Persian coast. It was a small forgotten village when a Yemeni sheikh called Mohammed Koub arrived. The sheikh started opening up prospects for the locals to trade, and encouraged them to do business with India and China in the east, and the African coast in the west. He took advantage of the seasonal winds that blow in the summer from the west to the east, making them ideal for ships sailing to India and China; and in the winter from the east to the west, which are ideal for ships travelling from China and India to the Gulf and Africa.'

Attar explained the wind patterns with the help of hand gestures, as though there were a large invisible map floating in the air. ‘As the years passed, this village prospered and became a large, wealthy city. Sheikh Mohammed minted his own coin, which he called the “dirham”. He became known as Sheikh Mohammed Dirham Koub.

‘In 1301 in the Frankish calendar, the Mongols attacked Hormuz and destroyed many parts of it. The king decided to abandon the city and move to the island of Jirun, which was a few thousand cubits away from the coast. This is the location of our present kingdom.'

Halima saw there was an opportunity here to ask Covilhã a question. ‘What do you trade in exactly?'

‘I trade in everything, my lady. But I found that trading in spices was the most lucrative. I was told in Aden that I could sell one consignment of spices in Alexandria at ten times the price I pay in Calicut, sometimes twenty if sailing conditions are rough.'

Attar interrupted. ‘Don't believe everything you hear. Most merchants do not tell the truth. They are envious of one another, and consider everything they know a secret that no one else must know. If they have to divulge something, they first distort it and stretch it until it becomes wildly inaccurate.' He then asked, ‘Do you know anyone in India? I will give you a letter to some of my acquaintances there so they can help you in your business. Clearly you are a newcomer.'

Covilhã raised his hand to his forehead then to his chest, and said, ‘I am deeply grateful for your generosity and courtesy, Your Excellency.'

The vizier's face changed suddenly. ‘We have received news that the Portuguese have reached Yemen and the coast of India. Have you heard anything about this?'

Blood rushed to Covilhã's face. He had not expected Portuguese ships to arrive here so soon. He had kept the Portuguese plans secret even from the people closest to him, but clearly ports kept no secrets. ‘Are you saying they arrived in India? I was in Aden nearly two weeks ago and heard nothing about it! Are your certain, Your Excellency?'

Attar replied plaintively, ‘I heard that they've burned a ship called the
near the Indian coast. The boat was carrying pilgrims back home. It was a tragedy that all sailors have been talking about on our shores, but people forget quickly on this side of the world.'

Covilhã was still struggling to believe the news. ‘You are sure the Portuguese have arrived there?'

‘Yes, definitely. Some in India are hopeful about their arrival, because they pay more for the spices than other merchants. Some kings in India have even agreed for the Portuguese to establish their trading forts on their territories.'

Covilhã tried not to appear too keen. ‘Why did no one talk about them at the ports?'

Halima replied this time. She said, ‘You must know that there are many ships that come from all around the world to trade in spices, and pass through our seas. Portuguese merchant ships would not draw too much attention.'

Covilhã whispered to himself, ‘I hope this remains the case.'



Cairo, Egypt

Hussein spurred his horse after emerging from the gates of the castle in the direction of Muqattam Mountain, galloping the animal towards the edge of a cliff where he liked to go to watch Cairo from up high and afar. Once there, he tethered his horse and dismounted, contemplating a city he neither loved nor liked, but where he was now forced to live. Cairo to Hussein would always be the troublesome, noisy city he first encountered many years earlier. It did not help that this was also the place where his captor had sold him into slavery for a fistful of dirhams.

He listened attentively to the noises around him: his horse chewing dried plants nearby, and the rustling of the wind as it blew over the edge of the mountain, making a sad whistling sound. He heard the echo of the
coming from a mosque at the edge of the desert. The call to prayer brought back many memories, the most recent of which was what happened that night when he heard the imam yelling at the worshippers, ‘Woe to the Arabs for evil is approaching!'

It was many days ago that Hussein had heard the imam's speech. It had distracted him from the big Eid celebrations. He remembered the sheikh's expressions as he spoke about a massacre that had taken place at sea and his strange, cryptic shouts of ‘Woe to the Arabs!' Hussein had waited until the cleric finished his speech to try to get an
explanation. The people's shouts and cries of ‘God is great!' made it impossible for Hussein to hear anything, and even now, the noise and pandemonium still clouded the way he remembered the episode.

When the sheikh was finally alone, Hussein went towards him to ask him about what had happened. The imam's eyes were tearful, his face pale and his voice hoarsened by emotion. He dried his eyes with the edge of his sleeve.

The imam told Hussein how, several months earlier, a ship called the
left the port of Jeddah, with 300 Muslims on board – women, children and elderly people. After they performed their pilgrimage, on their way back to India, Portuguese ships attacked them. The Portuguese boarded their boat and stole the money and cargo it carried. They sliced off the fingers of the women and stole their jewels. They then took the girls and boys that they liked. They cut off the hands of the ship's captain and crew before throwing them into the sea. ‘And as if that were still not enough, they put the rest of the women and elderly in the belly of the ship and burned them alive. The Portuguese watched as their victims drowned in their fiery grave. They did it all in front of the Indian coast, as the victims' loved ones watched the massacre helplessly,' he said.

BOOK: The Holy Sail
9.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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