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Authors: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud

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BOOK: The Holy Sail
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The two men discussed the rumours circulating in Europe that a wealthy Christian king by the name of Prester John ruled vast lands and commanded a strong army that he used to fight the Muslims. Many legends had been woven about him and the vast amounts of gold in his possession, but no one had ever seen him, and no one knew the exact location of his wealthy kingdom.

Covilhã brought his face closer to Paiva and continued, ‘Remember our families. They're waiting for us to return and save them from the Inquisition and those who look down on us because of our faith. If the king honours and
rewards us as we have been promised then we shall be safe from the treachery of fate. Remember that, my friend.'

Covilhã took his eyes off his companion for a few moments. There was nothing else to look at in the room save for the small window overlooking the alleyway. He carried on, ‘We will meet a year from now in Alexandria, in this same month – August.'

Paiva lifted his gaze from the letter to Covilhã's face, and with an air of sorrow said, ‘What will you do?'

‘I will travel to the port of Muscat,' Covilhã replied. ‘From there, I shall go to Hormuz and then to Calicut, the city the Venetian merchant Niccolò de' Conti mentioned to the Pope. I think I might also look for Sofala.'

As Covilhã spoke, his eyes seemed unfocused. Then, remembering something, he said, ‘The rabbi in Alexandria gave us a message to a vizier named
Attar in the kingdom of Hormuz, which he said was not too far from here. The vizier might assist me in my mission. He is the only person this side of the world that I can go to. I pray he receives me well. I have started feeling like a stranger in these lands.'

He exhaled deeply, taking stock of the magnitude of the task entrusted to him. ‘Sofala could also be of significance. I was told it is somewhere along the east coast of Africa, but where exactly, I do not know! Manuel also wants to learn more about it.'

Covilhã looked at the container that housed the secret map before he continued. ‘Thank the Lord that we were able to recover our goods from the harbourmaster in Alexandria. If the rabbi had not paid the duties and got
them back, our mission would have ended before it even began.'

Pointing at the goods that were with them in the room, he then said, ‘Take with you half of the goods we brought with us. This will be your insurance policy during your journey. You must sell as much as you need to cover your expenses, but you must also factor in the journey back. It's fine if you want to trade what you have if you think this would earn you enough profits.'

Paiva's eyes twitched and his voice was that of a man who felt he was about to march into certain death. ‘I am afraid, Covilhã. Should I be risking my life for the sake of a legend? We may never meet again or return home, all for the sake of one maniac's obsession!'

Covilhã put his hand on his friend's shoulder and spoke with more conviction than he felt. ‘Don't worry. We will meet again. Remember, our future and the future of our people in Portugal depend on us succeeding in our mission. The state of the Jews in Portugal is tragic, but if we succeed, we might start being treated like citizens equal to the Christians. Think of the cross hanging from Moses's neck: though this wise man is close to the king, he has to wear a cross to avoid being harassed because of his faith. I have seen with my own eyes an
where five men and two women were burned alive – two Jews from Beja and five Muslims from Alhama. It was a sight I do not wish to see again.'

Covilhã's gaze drifted away as he spoke to Paiva. He was trying to peer into the unknown trials and tribulations that awaited them. Their missions were not easy. Even failing was not easy.

The next day, the pair started playing their roles as merchants, selling their goods and buying others, which they then sold again. They made thorough investigations at the port about the currencies used in trading; the points of origin for the goods traded and how much they were priced there; how long they stayed in the sea; who owned the ships; how shipping costs were estimated; and what risks were involved, and other matters they needed for their report.

Several days into their stay in Aden, they decided to visit the rabbi in the city. The innkeeper told them the man lived near the synagogue in the Jewish quarter. Covilhã and Paiva made their way through the alleyways leading to their destination. They got lost several times, each time stopping to ask for directions. Aden's alleys were mazelike, and reminded them of the Arab cities they had seen in Spain and Portugal: they must have started out as little more than makeshift paths carved out by people's footsteps until they became passageways and arteries.

They were now close to the Jewish quarter. A young boy wearing a multicoloured
ran out towards them. Two small, barely visible side locks of hair flowed down from under the dirty cap. The boy wore a tattered
reaching to his small knees. The rest of his body was bare. The boy cried out, ‘Do you seek the rabbi?'

Covilhã smiled. ‘How did you know?'

‘Many merchants who come here ask for him. There isn't much in the Jewish quarter worth seeing other than him. He's an important man, but you're going to have to pay me if you want me to show you where he lives.'

‘Fine, we will pay!'

The boy marched them to a mud-plastered stone building, which had a small door beneath a faded drawing of the Star of David. The boy went in ahead of them and then asked them to follow. They hesitated a little before Paiva caught sight of the Jewish symbol and pointed it out to Covilhã, who in turn felt reassured. They followed the boy inside.

The interior of the building was dark and it took a few moments for their eyes to adjust. They heard faint humming and saw the rabbi standing opposite a wall, reading from a scroll he was holding in his hands. A large prayer shawl with striped and knitted edges was draped around his neck and shoulders.

The boy came up behind the rabbi and pulled his cloak to get his attention.

‘What do you want, boy? Have I not told you not to disturb me when I'm praying? Go away, go, you little pest!'

The boy was obviously used to the rabbi's temper; he stood there and did not budge. He pointed toward the two guests, and then went back to Covilhã, stretching his palm out flat. Covilhã handed him a coin, which the boy kissed and touched to his forehead in a gesture of gratitude, before he placed it under his cap and left.

The rabbi finished his prayers and then greeted the two men warmly, asking them to sit with him in the synagogue.

Covilhã decided to try his luck with the rabbi. Without any introductions, he said, ‘The Holy Sail!'

The rabbi frowned in confusion, as though expecting Covilhã to finish his sentence. An awkward moment of
silence followed. The rabbi then said, ‘What happened to the holy sail? What holy sail?'

Covilhã knew that the rabbi had no idea whatsoever about their mission, and understood that he and Paiva had to be careful but, at the same time, try to extract as much information from him as possible.

The rabbi was a treasure trove of information. He became very forthcoming once they told him they were Jewish Moroccan merchants who were solely interested in making profit before travelling back home. But the rabbi also started complaining about financial hardship, and asked Covilhã and Paiva to donate to the ageing synagogue, which he said was on the verge of collapsing from disrepair.

Like all other people, Jews, the rabbi explained, left for other countries when they became better off, and many Jewish merchants ended up in India, Egypt and Palestine. ‘It's also the weather. It's too hot here, most people can't bear it.'

Covilhã was curious about how Jews lived in this part of the world. ‘Does anyone harass you here, Rabbi?'

Feeling warm, the rabbi removed his prayer shawl and folded it in a ritualistic, neat manner, and put it on a shelf next to a pile of scrolls. ‘No, not at all,' he replied. ‘No one harasses us. As you can see, we are part of the people here. We dress the same and eat the same. Some Jews work at the palace. The emir trusts us thanks to our good education and connections.'

The rabbi sighed and then continued, ‘But the problem we have is that our people are emigrating. The climate here is unbearable in the summer. Around a month ago, a Jewish family left to India for good. If things carry on
like this, we might disappear from Yemen altogether, and only elderly people like me will be left, merely because they can't leave.'

The rabbi explained to Covilhã the Jewish community's role in commerce in Yemen, and told him about some Jewish tribes that lived in isolation in the highlands, which he had not been able to visit as frequently as he had done before. To Covilhã's surprise, the rabbi said he was working hard to prevent marriages between Jews and Muslims.

‘But why would you stop them marrying, Rabbi?' Covilhã asked, with his usual pragmatism.

The rabbi waved his hand in front of Covilhã's face, as if throwing something at him to get his attention. ‘We have beautiful young women that many young Muslims would like nothing better than to wed. But if we let those women marry outside their community, the Jewish faith would be lost! I am trying my best to prevent this intermixing, which will be harmful in the long run. But believe me, it's very difficult. Love stories in this country are too many; it's as if the Yemenites were born to love!'

Covilhã stood up and gestured to Paiva. The two men then bade the rabbi farewell and left.

Several days passed. By now, they had gathered a mountain of information. Covilhã and Paiva stood at the port of Aden, saying goodbye to one another. Paiva had to board a ship manned by an African captain and crew to take him to his destination on the African coast. Then, a few days later,
Covilhã would be going to board an Arab ship, which would take him to Muscat.

Covilhã embraced his friend tightly. He said, ‘We will meet in Alexandria in August a year from now. If anything happens, you must write a letter to our friend in Alexandria informing him of your situation, and I will do the same. Now go, my friend!'

Paiva reluctantly boarded the ship, and turned to wave silently to his friend who was still on the pier. Moments later, noises echoed from inside the ship. Ropes dropped from the top of the mast, and the sail filled with wind. The ship began to move westward.

Covilhã sat down and watched the ship carrying his friend as it sailed further away. He wiped the sweat from his face with the tail of his turban.

He thought back to the mountain village near the Spanish border where he had been born and his tireless efforts to recover his family fortune, which had consisted of a farm located at the foot of a hill overlooking a secluded green valley. His elderly father had sobbed as he told Covilhã that the farm had been confiscated by order of the king because Jews and Muslims no longer had the right to own property. Covilhã had not understood why the farm was taken from them, and how worshipping the Lord in a different way could cause such pain. Why would the king intervene between people and the god they worshipped? Covilhã had decided afterwards to get close to the centre of power; if power was the cause of the disaster that befell him and his family, then why should he not be close to it and benefit from it? He had put a cross around his neck and made for Lisbon.

He ultimately became an interpreter at the court of the Portuguese king, and used his language skills to get closer and closer to the king himself, learning Arabic and Latin and French, in addition to the Portuguese and Castilian that he already knew. He once served as representative of the king of Portugal on a mission to rescue Prince Fernando, the king's brother who had been captured at the Battle of Tangier. Not long after that, he worked as a spy for the king in the court of the king of Castile to identify his opponents. The king staged a bloodbath after Covilhã sent him a list of people conspiring against him. This was a pivotal moment in his career, following which he became close to the king and part of his retinue.

Aden's intense heat brought him back to the present. He glanced toward Paiva's ship, now barely visible in the distance, and leaving a broad wake in its trail.



Alexandria, Egypt

Hussein Al-Kurdi lay on his bed in the fort. His gaze was fixed on the ceiling. A light breeze blew in from the window. As was his wont, his mind was crowded with too many thoughts: the endless battles between the Mamluks and the Ottomans; the collapse of trade in Alexandria; the rampant poverty, corruption and violent crime. The road between Cairo and Alexandria was no longer safe, conflict was raging between top Mamluk leaders, and people fleeing from the countryside were now pouring into the cities – all because of bad decisions made by the sultan or his entourage to raise money and buy loyalties by any means.

Hussein shuffled out of bed and looked out the window. He spotted an empty nest a dove had started building several days ago. He stuck out his hand and pushed it into the ground below; he hated it when birds built their nests near his window.

Hussein was torn. He abhorred corruption, weakness and bad governance, which he saw as the main causes of the sultanate's sins, failures and divisions. These matters preoccupied him almost constantly, but he was unsure of how they should best be dealt with or resolved. He felt the rise of a strong leader to power would change all this, but he began to despair about seeing this happen in his lifetime.

For Hussein, weakness equated to death, which was why he reacted harshly towards the weak in general. That included the doves that came to his window, which to him were pathetically fragile creatures that did not deserve to live.

Hussein did not have many friends. Not many people could tolerate him and his non-stop grumbling over the dismal situation. Only Suleiman knew how to deal with him and accommodate him. Without Suleiman, he felt lost and lonely, and sometimes angry and incomprehensibly violent. He scanned the road in front of the fort. Not long ago, it would have been crawling with caravans travelling from Suez, and carrying goods from India and China. Where were they now? How did the road become so deserted and miserable? Who was responsible for all this? Where was the sultanate headed?

BOOK: The Holy Sail
13.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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