Authors: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud
CovilhÃ£ and Paiva knew that turning their families over to the Inquisition meant they would be tortured to death in an unimaginable manner. Blood rushed to their faces as they were gripped by horror at the prospect, but it was clear that the matter was not up for discussion. Paiva, who had been silent throughout the meeting, tried to defuse the tension. He wanted the meeting to end on a cordial note, rather than with this menacing threat.
âWe will do what we can, sir. We hope that the king will be pleased with us, for all that we have is at His Majesty's disposal.'
But Paiva's words fell on deaf ears, and failed to alter Manuel's demeanour as he gestured to them to leave.
Hussein Al-Kurdi entered the port in Alexandria on foot, leading his horse behind him. He stopped to look at the ships unloading their cargoes down into the wharves. He took pleasure in watching the sea, in watching the movement of boats and people, and he often came here, to the docks, when something troubled him.
He approached the edge of a wharf, stroking the neck of his horse. The horse swished its tail and whinnied happily, and drew its head closer to its master's shoulder, as though asking for more.
Hussein was dressed in his best robes. He wore a small turban and flowing black trousers decorated on both sides with gilded threads. He had similar embroidery on his waistcoat, which he wore over a white shirt. He had a dagger around his waist, and carried a curved Mamluk
sword suspended from his shoulder. Hussein always dressed immaculately whenever he left the citadel; after all, he was an Amir
of One Hundred, a rank he had not attained easily, which was perhaps why he felt he now had every right to show himself off.
Hussein had been born in a village near a river, whose name and location he no longer remembered. He knew it was somewhere in the mountains of Kurdistan, because his former master had told him so; this was how he became known as Hussein al-Kurdi
â Hussein the Kurd
His village had been poor and tiny, and the few homes there were built from rocks quarried from the mountainside. When the sky lit up with lightning and thunder, the villagers shared what little food and firewood they had. Hussein remembered how much he enjoyed playing in the mud after the rain with his friends, and running to the cold river at the bottom of the village to wash their dirty clothes and bodies. His mother always cautioned him against going there alone. The last time he disobeyed her, he found a hand grabbing him from behind and covering his mouth. The fading image of his village, as he screamed and tried to free himself from his captor, begging to be allowed to go back, would forever be engraved in his memory.
First, as he followed his captor, he did not know where he was going. Many days passed in which he suffered hunger and exhaustionÂ â eating leaves, drinking filthy water and sleeping out in the openÂ â until they reached a huge city that he had never seen or heard of before. He was told the city was called Aleppo. He had clutched at his captor's clothes and begun to cry. He had never seen so many people swarming in one place before.
He lived in Aleppo for several years, learning the Quran and the
of the Prophet, and various arts of combat. Soon enough, he grew into a strong and tough boy. He was twelve when his master took him to Cairo. The city seemed too big, too crowded and too unpleasant to young Hussein. He had travelled along dusty, sandy roads, across crowded markets and between camel caravans loaded with all kinds of goods. He then had to cross a large stone bridge over streaming water; it was nothing like the luscious green
land he had left behind. He then saw a high hill at the top of which rested a mighty citadel.
He climbed up the hill and entered the building along with his master and a large number of children of different ages. The citadel was teeming with soldiers, who started laughing and exchanging jokes with his master, as he pointed at Hussein and the others. The boy did not understand what he was doing there. An ugly, burly man came in and ordered the children to undress, then examined them one by one, ordering them to open their mouths.
Hussein could still remember how the man stuck his dirty finger in his mouth to make sure his teeth were in good shape, and how he pressed down on his tongue several times and ordered him to fill his chest with air, before he punched it hard. Young Hussein did not quite understand what the man wanted from him, but he was afraid to cry and disgrace himself in front of his peers in the process. He suppressed a scream that nearly escaped from his lungs, as the man continued his examination, in the manner of someone buying an animal for slaughter. The brute grabbed Hussein's arm and bent it in all directions. Then, signalling that he was now done, he smacked the boy's head and ordered him to join one of two rows further behind.
The brute then took out a purse and tossed it to the boy's master, who opened it and counted the dinars inside before he shook hands with the man. Hussein knew then that he had a new owner.
A sudden tap on the shoulder brought Hussein back to the present. âHow are you, Hussein? Poring over the sea, as
âSuleiman! I didn't expect to see you today.'
âI was supposed to leave for Cairo with my amir but he has postponed his trip. Come with me, we will get a bite to eat. I'm starving.'
But before Hussein turned around, something caught his eye. âWait a moment, Suleiman. Do you see those Venetian merchants on that ship moored over there? Look at the incredible way they dress, though I don't know how they can fit themselves into those tight trousers or how they can bear wearing them. Look at their stilettos; they're almost as thin as needles. What I wouldn't give to accompany them on their way back. I want to see the world, Suleiman. I've never seen Venice or any other city beyond this sea. I love the sea but I have only seen it from a distance, and never truly experienced what it is like.'
Suleiman replied with his usual sarcasm. âI don't understand your obsession with the sea, Hussein. It's like a beautiful woman; you know it may be risky to get too close, and yet your instinct compels you to do it anyway. That's the sea for you; you know how dangerous it can be, but you would love to try it all the same.'
A caravan entered the port, its great rumbling echoing throughout the place. There were hundreds of camels laden with spices arriving from India via the Suez, belonging to the Karimi Guild, a mysterious group of merchants who monopolised trade from Aden all the way to Suez. The Red Sea was almost their private property, and they were often the sultan's partners in business. All this set the shadowy Guild apart from other merchants, as the Karimis developed their special practices, jargon and communication
networks, making it difficult for an outsider to learn their secrets. But they, like their Venetian partners, always paid their duties to the port, and that was all that mattered to the harbourmaster, who turned a blind eye to the mess the caravans usually made throughout their stay.
In the inn nearby, Hussein and Suleiman sat at their favourite table under the shade of a fig tree. The waiter there knew them well, perhaps too well. He was a large man who had a crooked shoulderÂ â the right one was noticeably lower than the leftÂ â and who walked with a slight limp. He had once served in the army, but suffered a serious injury in battle, which left him unfit for service. He was subsequently discharged, and ended up working in the inn. He had known Hussein and Suleiman for many years; they liked his banter and he enjoyed teasing them.
âIf it isn't the two generals, the
! Welcome, welcome, delighted to see you here! I hope your pockets are lined with cash today, because I haven't had a single decent tip all morning. Has everyone become stingy? I hope you will prove me wrong.' He moved his face closer to Suleiman's, pretending to analyse it. âI don't see any sign of magnanimity in this face today. Maybe your face will turn out better than your friend's, Hussein!'
The waiter's laughter roared. Hussein gave him a broad smile. â
, no less? Are you trying to get us executed, Jaafar? We are only ordinary amirs, and we would like it if things stayed that way for a while.'
As Jaafar wiped the table, he spoke quietly, stressing every syllable, in a suddenly serious tone. âYou will be Amirs of One Hundred, then Amirs of One Thousand, then you
. Someone will then kill you or you will kill someone. That's how things always work in Cairo.'
âBut we're in Alexandria, my man,' Suleiman replied, turning an inspecting gaze towards Jaafar's massive belly. âHave you not noticed that you started talking too much ever since you retired from the army? I think that paunch of yours is where all the chatter must come from. It's bigger than the paunch of any
I know. Now go and bring us the best food you have before I draft you back into the army with us.'
As Jaafar gave a hearty guffaw, his abdomen wobbled. âEven if you should appoint me an
in your army I would still decline. You people enjoy hatching plots against one another,' he said. âBy the way, I'm going to start calling the innkeeper by that title. Maybe someone will kill him and rid us of His Irksomeness. He asks us to work all day, and then makes us clean the inn until everything is shiny. God, I hate the man. I thought I was done polishing things after I left the army, but no. There we used to polish our weapons and helmets, and clean our horses, and here we have to polish the kitchen, the cutlery and the boss's rotten bald head.'
The waiter left to get the food. Suleiman looked at Hussein, who now seemed distracted. âWhat are you thinking about, my friend?'
Hussein was pensive by nature, and he rarely opened up to anyone other than Suleiman, his friend since childhood. But as he started talking, Suleiman felt he already knew what Hussein was going to say.
âI'm thinking about the mess we're in. The never-ending rows among the bands of slave soldiers and the
comrades-in-arms have become unbearable. All those rebellions in the countryside, in the sultan's forts, and with the foreign mercenaries make it impossible for the country to be stable. Were it not for the spice trade, we would have been finished.'
Hussein noticed a bird as it landed on a branch nearby and waited to hear it chirp, his eyes still on the bird. âThe state's finances are in ruins, and yet Sultan Qaitbay has been spending much of the money he extorts from the merchants to fortify his castles and buy more slave soldiers. But for what reason? Did you know he has not paid the army's wages for three months running? Even the sultan's
, his bodyguards and cupbearers, are complaining.'
He turned away from the bird and looked at Suleiman. âOr how about his monopoly of the spice trade with India? Why is the sultan interfering in everything and not leaving the marketÂ alone? One Karimi merchant told me that the Guild might stop trading in Alexandria because the sultan cooperates with them sometimes, only to increase duties on them at other times. Recently, the sultan issued a decree banning Karimi merchants from selling their goods in Jeddah or any other port on the Red Sea. Can you believe it? Why would the sultan bar his own partners from trading?'
Jaafar returned with their plates, which he placed promptly in front of them, before he asked loudly, âWould you like anything else,
Jaafar followed his gibe with another boisterous laugh that sent his belly dancing up and down. Hussein and Suleiman decided to ignore him.
Suleiman grinned at Hussein. He was used to hearing him speak his mind. âSlow down, Hussein. You still have the habit of thinking about everything under the sun all at once. Can't you set yourself some priorities, man? You will kill yourself seeing only the downside in everything around you.'
Hussein was incensed by the comment. âI wish I could be as heartless as you are, Suleiman, but I'm not. I see disaster coming and I can't keep silent about it. Everything around us is in a miserable state: trade, the government and the army. Tell me, for God's sake, what do
think about what is happening?'
Suleiman felt that he had to offer some response. This was his last day before he left for Cairo with his master, and he did not want to upset his friend. Suleiman's face took on a serious expression, and he looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping.
He whispered, âEver since he became sultan, Qaitbay has been living in a state of permanent anxiety. He's afraid of the Portuguese, afraid of the Ottomans and afraid of the Safavids all at the same time.
âThat's why you find him monopolising any successful tradeÂ â and then he destroys it with his greedÂ â so he can finance the army and send it to Syria to fight the Turkic kingdoms there, or dispatch campaigns to the Ottomans' borders to let them know the area is his and warn them not to come any closer. If he had been serious about fighting the Portuguese, he would have sent his fleet to assist the
Andalusians. They still send delegations to camp outside his palace, while their letters have been piling up on the desk of his vizier.'
He dipped a morsel of bread into the dish in front of him before he proclaimed, âIt's all a right mess, my friend!'
Preoccupied with his thoughts, Hussein had not yet touched his food. âAnd can you believe that the Portuguese are attempting to reach India by circumnavigating Africa, behind our backs? If they pull it off, they would be able to enter Egypt via the Nile!'
Suleiman frowned. âWho told you that?'
âA Venetian merchant who was recently in Alexandria.'
âIs this possible?'
Hussein looked toward the sea again before he said, âWhat's stopping them is the huge distance from Portugal to the southernmost point in Africa. Whenever they send a ship, a mutiny erupts on board, forcing it to return.'