Authors: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud
Bin Rahhal had never met a Portuguese before. He did not know what they looked like or how big their galleys were, or anything other than what sailors had told him. He knew that sailors' yarns were infused with myths, and did not want to convey news to Hussein that was not credible. âSultan Muqrin ordered me to come here and join the war effort against the Portuguese. I shall have the honour of taking part in the
alongside you. We have heard so many things about you since you came to India from Egypt.'
Hussein smiled at Bin Rahhal's flattery. âWe are delighted with your presence, brother. Having you with us will help in our battle and make us more confident in ourselves.'
The bond between Bin Rahhal and Hussein grew gradually
stronger. They became good friends who easily opened up to one another. Being so far from home was a catalyst for friendships, as it made them a more urgent need and source for safety and reassurance. They would meet at the end of the day on one of their ships or at the palace, to share their hopes and concerns.
One night, as the two men sat together, Bin Rahhal suddenly asked his friend, âDo you know what love is, Hussein?'
âI know love, but I have not experienced it.'
Bin Rahhal slapped the front of his turban and then adjusted his seating position. âYou should experience it, but don't go looking for it. Like fate, it will come to you without you planning it.'
âClearly you speak from experience?'
âYes, I do. It happened to me in Hormuz, the kingdom that now lies devastated.'
âIn Hormuz?' Hussein asked in surprise.
âYes. I had just come out of a battle there when I first saw her. I couldn't take my eyes off her. Everything about her face and body captivated meÂ â her eyes, her nose, her lips, even her eyebrows. I couldn't sleep that night, a night that felt as though the sun had decided not to rise the next morning. Days passed slowly afterwards, until I decided to ask her father for her hand in marriage, having despaired of the prospect of ever forgetting her.'
âThat quickly, huh, Bin Rahhal? Couldn't you have waited a little?' Hussein teased.
âYou can imagine what it was like as I sat waiting for what her father would say after I told him I wanted to marry her. I felt he wasn't too fond of the idea. Oh, Hussein, I could barely believe that she was finally mine when the order came for me to leave Bahrain. My heart was broken. She was standing on the pier of the harbour crying bitterly, while I pretended not to see her to avoid being embarrassed by my affection for her. She came to bid me farewell. I didn't want her to be there but she insisted on coming, without my permission. I know her too well. She is stubborn, and her heart is so full of pure love that it can almost accommodate everyone in the entire world!'
Hussein thought it best to change the subject. âWhat have you heard about Albuquerque, Bin Rahhal?'
âI was told he likes to drink ale from the skulls of dead children. Terror travels ahead of his ships, and ruin and destruction accompany him wherever he goes. I heard that he is a bloodthirsty person who enjoys tormenting others. He is not a normal person. A person who dismembers people and cuts children in half in front of their mothers can't be human. There is a monster under his human skin.'
Hussein knew what the Portuguese were like. He knew that they had no mercy in their hearts, and saw other people as heretics who must be expunged from the Earth. Albuquerque was not going to be any better than his predecessors, and was possibly much worse.
The Mamluk admiral was once again given to his thoughts. He also wanted to include Bin Rahhal in his next plan. âWe must be ready, Bin Rahhal. A lot has been said about this man. What I think we have on our hands is a cunning and brutal enemy. He has not yet arrived and
he is not familiar with the plan we used with LourenÃ§o de Almeida in our first battle. We might be able to implement the plan to the letter against him again. However, your ships are not fit to take on the Portuguese fleet. They are small and carry no guns, though we might be able to use them as bait when he arrives.'
Bin Rahhal was surprised. âWhat do you mean, bait? I'm going to need those ships for my return journey!'
Hussein laughed. âIf we are defeated, your ships will be no good to you either. Your men are not used to dealing with cannons, Bin Rahhal. They may be good with daggers and swords but guns are something else completely.'
Bin Rahhal responded with resolve. âTrue, but you must train us on how to confront and deal with them.'
The two men soon became like brothers. Bin Rahhal had no qualms about sharing his most intimate concerns with Hussein, whenever he had the chance. One day, Hussein asked him about the reason for the sadness on his face.
âBeing apart from Halima is killing me. And I know nothing about what has happened to her since I left. I asked her to leave for Hormuz as soon as I set sail, but the Portuguese have conquered the island. I don't know whether she is there or whether she is still in Bahrain, but either way I'm fearful for her safety.'
Hussein tried to comfort him, but Bin Rahhal continued, âShe's completely cut off from me. I don't know where she is. After what happened in Hormuz, mail stopped travelling between ports. I truly despise those Portuguese for managing to ruin everything beautiful about the sea.'
Bin Rahhal lifted his head and looked at Hussein. âWhat do you intend to do about Albuquerque?'
âWe must be prepared for him. We don't know his combat tactics, though we have been told he uses artillery to level cities and kill civilians, and then lands with his forces to finish everyone off. He doesn't take prisoners, as his ships have no room for them, being already crowded with soldiers. If he takes prisoners, it is to use them to send warning messages after he dismembers them and sends them to the cities he intends to attackÂ â to tell his enemies: “If you don't surrender, this is what I'm going to do to you.”'
Over the next days, Bin Rahhal and Hussein became preoccupied with training troops, building fortifications, and upgrading and supplying their ships. They relied on Qasimul Haq to provide them with intelligence on the Portuguese movements. The Portuguese now had a trading post in Calicut, and it was from there that news about their activities was leaking.
Jawhar made his way to the palace of Emir Nasser before sunrise, holding a package in his hand protectively. He sat with the servants who were sipping coffee in a yard outside the palace. He detested the bitter black beverage that a Yemeni merchant had brought a while back. Jawhar had heard him tell the emir coffee was a magical drink that banished sleep and reinvigorated the body. But the drink did nothing for Jawhar, save for leaving an unpleasant bitter taste in his mouth.
He poured his cup on the floor and watched the ground quickly absorb it. Jawhar grabbed the package and felt its contents to make sure the dagger was still inside. He had managed to sleep with Farah, but he had not told his master yet, and preferred to wait until he got his reward when he delivered the dagger.
Emir Nasser entered his
a short while after sunrise. Jawhar approached him wearing a knowing smile that Nasser recognised well. The two men, who went a long way back, had by now developed their own unwritten and unspoken language. âWhat do you have for me, Jawhar? That smile tells me you've done what you were asked!'
Jawhar sat down quickly and set the package before his master in the manner of someone laying down the hunted carcass of a rare animal. âI have devoured the
small bird. Now all that is left to do is for you to devour the big one, Your Highness!'
Nasser was astonished. He sat up quickly as was his wont whenever a woman was mentioned. âWhat are you saying? Tell me everything, quickly!'
Jawhar smiled, revealing his teeth. âAs you know, I've been courting her maid Farah for months. I told her you wanted a hefty sum in return for my freedom. She gave me any valuables and jewellery she stumbled upon so that I could buy back my freedom.' He pointed at the package in front of him. âThis is the surprise I told you about, master!'
He paused for a brief moment before he took the package and opened it slowly, savouring his master's tense anticipation. Jawhar took out the dagger and brought it to Nasser, who let out a strong exhale before he said, âWhat the devil is this? I've never seen anything so beautiful!' Nasser turned the dagger over, scrutinising each jewel embedded in it and relishing its workmanship. âIt's glorious, Jawhar. Did she tell you how much it's worth? It must be worth a fortune!'
As the emir spoke to his slave, his eyes were transfixed by the bladed artefact. Deciding he had seen enough, he put it in his cummerbund. He was pleased to have it there, complementing his waist.
Jawhar, concerned that his master had decided the dagger's best use was ornamental, shed his smile. âAllow me to explain the importance of this blade, master. This dagger comes from a raja of India, who had it made from jewels belonging to his mother and wife, as a gift to the caliph in Cairo. The raja's messenger brought it to Sultan Muqrin to deliver it to Egypt, and the sultan left it with
Bin Rahhal for safekeeping when he had to put down the rebellion in Najd. I expect the sultan to ask Bin Rahhal for the dagger at any time.'
Jawhar paused and then continued, âBin Rahhal feared more for this dagger than for his own life. Halima hid it in a chest containing his clothes and private effects, and hid the chest in her room. Bin Rahhal did not want the dagger to leave his sight, not even for a second, but Farah knew about it, being Halima's trusted maid, and was able to steal it and give it to me. She asked me not to tell anyone about it, expecting the dagger to go a long way towards buying back my freedom.'
The emir did not take his eyes off the masterpiece at his waist. âYou are a demon, Jawhar!'
The slave laughed. He loved it when his master flattered him. Then, in a half-whispering voice, he said, âThe dagger's presence in your possession means that you've been in Halima's bedchamber. You can blackmail her with this. People, even her husband, will not believe any story other than that she gave it to you herself. You can use the dagger to get her. You have no better leverage. But you must do it quietly and without a fuss, master. It might take a bit of time before she falls into your trap.'
The emir laughed out loud. His demeanour became brisk and his face reddened with euphoria, as though he had just won a battle. âIf you weren't my slave, I would kiss you. I have a great prize for you, Jawhar, if I manage to have Halima.'
Jawhar's smile disappeared again. âWill you not give me anything in return for this dagger, master?' he asked in disbelief.
âYou will not get anything until I get Halima. Do you understand?' Nasser stressed every syllable of the sentence; Jawhar took it as a veiled threat and did not persist.
After a moment of silence, Emir Nasser spoke again, in an impatient tone. âYou must go to Halima now and tell her I want her. Tell her I have the dagger and, if she resists, then I will declare that she is my lover and that she has gifted me the dagger her husband kept in her bedroom. Say this clearly, and make her understand that everyone will know about it if she hesitates.'
Jawhar was shocked, not out of compassion but because he knew that such a scandal would cause nothing short of an earthquake in the city, and that heads would roll as a result. Bin Rahhal was Sultan Muqrin's trusted vizier, and Halima was the daughter of
Attar, the famed vizier of the kingdom of Hormuz. In his mind, Jawhar had imagined that the whole affair would be conducted inconspicuously. True, Emir Nasser could blackmail Halima with the dagger now, but Jawhar thought the matter needed the sort of subtlety that this fool was so lacking in.
Dismayed by the prospect of a full-blown scandal that would be the result of his own actions, Jawhar held his head in his hands. He wanted to explain to his master the disaster that awaited them if Halima rejected him, but it was clear that Emir Nasser was determined to go down this road.
âListen, Jawhar. I cannot bear to wait any longer. You shall go to Halima and tell her I have the dagger and tell her that I want her. Tell her if she doesn't submit, then I will tell everyone that she gave me the dagger her husband hid in his private chest in his bedroom as a gift, after she fell in
love with me. Everyone will believe me and doubt her; I am the emir. Tell her so.'
Jawhar tried to explain his point of view. âYour Highness, you have the dagger now. You can use it as leverage to get to Halima in a different way. You can get close to her, then talk to her about the dagger quietly. She will understand that she is at your mercy without you having to declare it. But to threaten her like this exposes us to a big scandal that could be our undoing!'
The emir's expression hardened. âCurse you, you lowly slave. You will never change no matter what I do for you. Go and do as I command, and never dare second-guess me again!' Jawhar was about to move when the emir said, âHave you heard about how the Portuguese ransacked Hormuz recently? After that crushing defeat, her father is no longer the vizier. He may have even died in the battle. She has no one now. She is all alone and at my mercy. Tell her she will not be able to resist me and that she must submit. Now go. Come on, go.'
Jawhar left reluctantly to Bin Rahhal and Halima's farmstead to meet with Farah. She alone could convey Emir Nasser's demands to Halima, and she alone could convince her to surrender to the prince's lust.
Jawhar stood coolly in front of Farah. âYes, Farah, he wants her. And if he doesn't get her, he will slander her. He will tell everyone that he slept with her and that she gave him the dagger as a gift.'
Farah's eyes rolled and she began to shake. Her face flushed as though she was looking at a terrifying beast. âWhat? What are you saying, Jawhar? How did the dagger end up with
Emir Nasser? Didn't I give it to you to sell in order to buy your freedom?'