Authors: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud
Suleiman waved his hand over his food, chasing the flies away, before he dipped his bread again into the plate. âIf the distance between Portugal and the outmost point in Africa is too great, then why should we be concerned? They will die of hunger and thirst before they ever get there.'
Hussein adjusted his turban away from his forehead. âBut what if they succeed in their mission? Just imagine what could happen!'
Suleiman replied, chewing his food quickly, âThey won't succeed, and nothing will happen. Even if they did, we will fight them like we fought many other enemies. We will erect a great chain between the banks of the Nile to stop their ships from sailing upriver. We will fight them in the south before they get to Cairo.
Hussein held his hand to his forehead, trying to calm himself. âHow will we fight them? It would be the end of Egypt and the end of the world!'
Suleiman stopped chewing his food. âThe end of the world? Says who? Have you read about it in the Quran or in the
of the Prophet? Please don't talk about something you are not certain of. I know your faith has its ups and downs, depending on your mood and whim, but you are in a bad state and you are over-thinking.' He paused, and suddenly seemed hesitant. âYou need to be careful about what you say.'
Hussein smiled. This was what he liked about his friend Suleiman; he put up with him, his temperament and his almost never-ending questions. He laid his hand on Suleiman's shoulder and said, âEat, my friend. You won't find food like this in Cairo tomorrow.'
At this point, a group of soldiers burst into the inn. Their leader spoke to Jaafar briefly before the posse went upstairs.
A commotion ensued, and Jaafar hurried up to find out what was happening. Moments later, the soldiers came back down carrying a large chest, some luxurious garments and bundles tied up in strings.
Hussein called out for Jaafar. âWhat was this racket? Who were those soldiers?'
This time Jaafar did not smile. He said, âThose bastards were sent by the harbourmaster to deal with two merchants from Morocco who didn't pay their port duties. They said
they would pay within two days after they arrived, after they sold some of their goods, but unfortunately they fell ill and couldn't go out for the past few days. So the harbourmaster sent his goons to confiscate their merchandise, and the two frail menÂ â dear meÂ â couldn't do anything but scream!'
âHow do they survive and pay for their food and drink if they are so unwell?' Suleiman asked in surprise.
âIt's odd. After they arrived on a boat from Rhodes, they checked in at the inn and paid me only for two nights. One of them asked me the whereabouts of the synagogue in Alexandria, though they don't look Jewish. They have a Moroccan accent and Muslim names. Strange, isn't it? Anyway, I reckoned maybe they had a message for the rabbi there. The rabbi is like the caretaker of this entire sultanate and many merchants ask about him or vice versa.'
Jaafar did not want to stop talking. By virtue of his work, he had a lot of gossip on the guests of the inn. âThe rabbi came here a few days later and paid me a week's worth of lodging and food for the pair, and asked me to serve them a special diet and look after them as best as I could.'
Suddenly remembering something, Jaafar slapped himself on the head. âThey asked me just now to go and find the rabbi. They want him to plead with the harbourmaster to return their belongings. I must hurry. He's paying me a lot of money these days, unusual for him.'
After a moment of silence, he turned towards them, and said loudly, âIt would be unusual for you too.'
The bright, fully formed disk in the sky gave the water a silvery lustre. It was a gorgeously moonlit night, its quiet interrupted only by the subdued voices of the sailors. They spoke almost in murmurs, trying not to disturb their sleeping colleagues. The fires they had lit on board their ships were starting to die down. It was nearly midnight, and the gently rocking sea would not allow them to resist sleep for much longer.
One of the sailors lifted his head, alerted to the sound of a ship approaching from afar, propelled by eight oars hitting the water in impressive harmony. But the sailor quickly lost interest, put his head back on his makeshift pillow and slept.
The boat glided quietly between the anchored ships until it reached the port. A whistle blew and the oars were lifted and then quickly drawn inside. A man jumped from the deck onto the pier and tied the boat to a post. Minutes later, a group of men disembarked from the ship. They spoke to one another briefly before they disappeared up a path leading to a palm forest nearby.
On the dawn of the third day after the ship's arrival, the
of Sultan Muqrin bin Zamel al-Jabri was buzzing with visitors. The
sat in the middle of a large farmstead in Al-Ahsa. Caravans carrying all sorts of goods from India, China, Iraq, Persia and Yemen were parked outside.
Throngs of people filled the entrance to the sultan's estate, chatting away in a multitude of languages. The place had become a bazaar of sorts, frequented on a daily basis by those wishing to see the exotic wonders it had to offer.
In front of the farm's gates a group of slaves, all wearing the same uniform, stood in two lines facing one another. Tightly gripping their long swordsÂ â the tips of which were touching the groundÂ â they watched the people entering and leaving. Their demeanour was unwelcoming, as their eyes scoured the premises, meaning to prevent any undesirable folk from slipping in. Because of these cruel eyes, perhaps, many poor folk gathered outside the door, not daring to enter yet hoping someone charitable would come out and give them money.
Under the branches of fruit trees that had gracefully come together to create shade, carpets and cushions were laid for the sultan and his guests. A stream flowed along to the right of the
, originating from a nearby spring. Fish were swimming in the cool and sweet water, trying very hard to overcome the current. No one was allowed to get too close to the sultan's favourite place, where he came to swim on hot days.
Sultan Muqrin sat in the centre of the
, as usual, his legs stretched out. The fifty-year-old man had a light brown complexion and long braided hair that reached his shoulders. The sultan wore an embroidered
wrapped with a circlet of plaited cloth, making it appear like a large turban. He had a thick, fist-long, salt-and-pepper beard, and was dressed in a long cotton shirt with wide sleeves that almost touched the ground when he stood up.
An Indian merchant sat opposite the sultan. He wore the turban typical of Banyan
merchants. The turban had a tail that hung down to his lower back and it spread outwards from the top in a fan-like fashion. The merchant seemed tense as he showcased his wares to the sultan, arranged neatly in front of him: jewels made from onyxes, diamonds and rubies; marvellously engraved rings; gilded Indian swords; daggers inlaid with diamonds; and curled-toed shoes interlaced with golden threads.
The sultan had become used to being presented with such merchandise and had learned not to look too impressedÂ â even when he wasÂ â to ensure he always secured the best price. When he liked a certain item, he would pick it up, inspect it thoroughly between his hands and then pass it on to his vizier, Ghurair bin Rahhal. When the sultan wanted to go ahead and buy an item, he left it to Bin Rahhal to bargain with the merchants. He paid either in cash or in pearls, a commodity the sultan monopolised in the area stretching between Bahrain, eastern Qatar and the Omani coast.
On occasions such as these, the sultan's guests took great pleasure in getting a peek at the precious goods on display. People who sat close to him were envied for being able to listen in on the conversations and examine the coveted items first-hand. These articles were not easy to move between ports and required many provisions to be transported. Only the Indian Banyan merchants could manage such a feat, with their intricate network of relations with local rulers, harbourmasters and even the pirates infesting the seas.
There was now a hoard of sundry artefacts in front of Bin Rahhal. He reached out and took hold of a ring studded with precious stones, and held it up to the merchant. âHow much for this ring, Banyan?'
The Banyan merchant, by virtue of his experience, sensed a deal was in the offing. However, he had to be very delicate about naming his price, because he did not want to appear greedy, but at the same time he wanted to maximise his profit. âConsider it a gift to the sultan from his humble servant, the poor merchant standing before him.'
Everyone laughed at this expression, which they had heard many times in varying versions from Indian merchants.
Ghurair bin Rahhal was not a gullible man, easily fooled by such flattery. He had come to Al-Ahsa with his father from Najd when he was fifteen years old. His father found work in the palace, teaching the Quran and Arabic to the children of Sultan Ajwad, Sultan Muqrin's brother. Bin Rahhal was nimble and tactful, and after his father's death, he was raised in the palace as one of the sultan's children. Over time, he became a close companion and counsellor to Sultan Muqrin, despite their twenty-year age difference.
Bin Rahhal was a handsome man. He had a piercing look that could almost see through people. He applied kohl to his eyes every day, which made his gaze that much more mysterious and intense. He was tall and had long plaited hair. He worked in trade, shuttling around the ports of eastern Arabia and travelling to India on many occasions.
Bin Rahhal gave the man a knowing smile. âCome on then, tell me, how much for the ring?' he asked.
âOne thousand dinars, sir.'
As was his custom in matters such as this, Bin Rahhal made a dramatic frown, squinting at the man opposite him. âWhat? A thousand dinars? Too much!'
The Banyan started sweating. He pressed his palms together and brought them close to his face. âI swear by all that is sacred to me, this is the right price, sir. I am willing to dip my fingers into boiling oil to prove it.'
The sultan was listening to the discussion, although he appeared preoccupied with something else. âBoiling oil? Can you enlighten me, Bin Rahhal?'
Bin Rahhal loved to tell strange stories to the sultan, and the sultan enjoyed listening to them. âThey have an odd custom in India, Your Grace,' the vizier said. He told the sultan of one of his visits to Calicut, when he had seen authorities bring forward a man accused of committing a crime. He had been placed in front of a pot of boiling oil and ordered to plunge his forefinger and middle finger in the oil for a few seconds. The fingers were then wrapped in a cloth, which was sealed with wax. They imprisoned the man for three days. âI didn't stay long enough to know the outcome of the ordeal,' Bin Rahhal said. âBut usually after three days have passed, the enforcers meet again and open the sealed wrap: if the fingers have fused together, the accused is found guilty, and if they have remained separated, then the accused is found innocent.'
Bin Rahhal had extended his right hand and made an incomplete fist, without the index and middle finger, to illustrate the encounter to the sultan. He continued, âAnd let me tell you, Your Grace, the man's screams did not suggest his fingers were going to come out unscathed.'
The sultan gave a boisterous laugh and, glancing at the Banyan, said, âShall we bring some boiling oil? Or will you reconsider your price?'
At this point, the Banyan merchant knelt before the sultan and said emphatically, âI will do as you please, Your Grace, but believe me, this is the price this precious ring deserves!'
Bin Rahhal examined the ring again, more thoroughly this time. Made of pure gold, its shank alone was as thick as his little finger. A magnificent diamond centre stone sat on top, guarded on both sides by two intricately engraved demi-lions. The remainder of the ring was decorated with small diamonds that gave the band extra weight and complemented the masterpiece.
A guard entered through the door, and whispered something to the bodyguard standing behind the sultan. Moments later, the bodyguard came and knelt beside the sultan and gave him the message. The sultan nodded his head and signalled to the Banyan merchant to leave. But then, in the manner of someone who had suddenly remembered something, he said, âBuy the ring from him, Bin Rahhal. We shall gift it to the caliph
The sultan's bodyguard gestured to everyone in the
to leave, except for Bin Rahhal, who stayed close to the sultan.
The sultan, addressing his bodyguard, then commanded, âBring in the messenger.'
The Hormuzi messenger entered the room and walked to where the sultan was sitting. The messenger's face was gloomy as though he was bearing bad news. He stood in
front of the sultan, sat on his knees and bowed his head slightly. The messenger then leaned over and kissed the sultan's right hand. âPeace be upon you, Great Sultan.'
The sultan was used to receiving many visitors, yet a visit by a messenger from the kingdom of Hormuz was always for a very important reason. Though the sultan paid tributes to the kingdom, he was in fact independent from it and did not have to consult with the king of Hormuz over anything. As the sultan thought of this, he became even more curious as to the purpose of the messenger's call.
âAnd peace be upon you too, messenger. How was your journey here?'
âIt was clear sailing, Great Sultan, but as soon as we approached Bahrain, the wind died away. We had to row to reach Al-Uqair, and by God's grace we had come in a military ship equipped with eight oars. Otherwise, we would have been stranded there until the wind blew again.'
As was the custom for the noblemen of Hormuz, the messenger wore fine linen garments, which India was famous for making. His robes consisted of a mid-calf-length tunic and trousers ornamented with gold trim near the ankles. He wore a turban wrapped in a somewhat unusual manner, with chains of gold and silver attached to its front. The messenger had a silken cummerbund around his waist, in the middle of which was sheathed a small dagger of pure silver.