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Authors: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud

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BOOK: The Holy Sail
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Disorganised ideas shifted in his head in rapid succession. There were so many things that needed fixing, but he was ultimately only a junior officer in the Mamluk army. All he could do was follow orders without thinking twice. ‘Curse these ranks we hold,' he muttered to himself. ‘They are just meant to tell us our place in the pecking order, and what proportion of our brains we must not use.'

Suleiman had sailed away with a large campaign to fight pirates near Rhodes; Hussein missed him terribly. His mind was teeming with worries and concerns that he wanted to tell Suleiman about, the only person in the world who would listen to him and his complaints.

Suleiman had not changed much since they were teenagers. He had always been witty and sarcastic, laughing at everyone and everything, and finding a joke in every
situtaion. Everyone loved him for his big heart and good nature.

‘Oh Suleiman, where are you?' Hussein sighed.

As adolescents living in the Mamluk barracks, the older boys used to humiliate and beat them for no reason. In those days, he wished he were older and bigger so he could fight back; he hated being weak. He remembered the time the older boys beat Suleiman so severely and left him crying for hours. He could not bear to see his friend sobbing. He took a small knife from his pocket and put it in Suleiman's hand, and told him to stab one of the older children who attacked them as a matter of habit. When Suleiman refused, Hussein took the knife back and stabbed the boy in his thigh. It was the first time he had stood up for himself. Afterwards, the other boys understood that Hussein's anger was fierce and his wrath cruel, and they avoided him, fearing his reaction. Since that time, Hussein glorified might and loathed weakness.

He could no longer bear to stay in that depressing room. He put his clothes on and left, taking the stairs down to the courtyard of the fort where new slave soldiers were training. He felt sorry for them; they must have endured much pain and anguish on their way here. He did not want to remember his own story again, and cried out to the groom to bring his horse.

Hussein heard someone calling his name. It was the chief of the guards at the fort who was running towards him. ‘The amir demands your urgent presence,' he shouted out to Hussein, panting.

‘Why? What happened?'

‘His Highness is going to Cairo and wants you to be with him. Something seems to have happened at the palace there. Clearly it is serious, because the amir ordered preparations to be made for a long sojourn, and wants all commanders to be with him without exception, including you.'

The road from Alexandria to Cairo straddled picturesque stretches of farmland. Over the years, palm trees had been planted on both sides, and now served travellers, providing them with shade and dates. There were many inns along the way, built by Mamluk amirs and the sheikhs of Sufi orders, offering food and lodging for their guests. The entire roadside was almost a charitable endowment to travellers, with the inns, kitchens and planted trees serving all those passing by, free of charge for those in need.

The convoy of Qansouh al-Ghawri, the amir, included twenty camels laden with baggage. Fifty fully armed and armoured horsemen escorted it and mules carrying sundry cooking wares followed closely behind. A company of penurious Sufis trailed the caravan as well; they usually followed Mamluk amirs when they travelled, to take advantage of their magnanimity.

Ghawri rode at the front of his horsemen, his most trusted officers, including Hussein, riding behind him. Hussein turned to Amir al-Ghawri, and was able to see part of his face. The amir had a distinctive long white beard. Though life's trials and ordeals had left their mark on his face, and age – he was well into his sixties – had bent his back, he still retained a commanding presence. He had served as a commander of a military detachment in Syria and a Mamluk
chamberlain in Aleppo, before he returned to Alexandria, retiring from politics.

The amir was not a talkative man. He kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead, issuing orders from time to time to his officers and aides in a quiet, confident voice. There was something about him that made Hussein gravitate towards him, but he was not quite sure what it was. Had a solid sense of loyalty to his master been ingrained in him during his training? Was it the paternal way Ghawri always treated him? Or was it the charity he showed the poor often and generously? Hussein held him in a higher regard than the sultan himself, who was squandering the realm's resources, abusing the populace and stealing from the funds of public endowments.

Hussein desperately wished that his master would decide to contend for the throne to set everything right. But Ghawri seemed content with merely watching the power struggle from a distance without taking part. That had been his decision since he returned from Aleppo, and he had not changed his mind.

When the cavalcade reached Cairo, it was received by a band of flautists and musicians beating on cymbals and drums, announcing the amir's arrival. Ghawri and his party cut their way through the crowds into the sultan's castle, which then closed its gates in the face of the interlopers following the convoy. At the main courtyard in the castle, the travel-weary riders dismounted and adjusted their garments before entering the sultan's court.

Hussein was not pleased with what was happening. He did not know why the amir and his entourage had come to Cairo, and did not dare to ask. Coming to the capital with
the amir was no reason to celebrate; Hussein preferred Alexandria, and the noise the waves made, the smell of the sea, and the sight of the sailboats there. Cairo would deprive him of all that.

The band was still playing outside, as though declaring that glad tidings were to be expected shortly. Amir al-Ghawri entered the sultan's hall followed by his delegation. Sultan Qaitbay and the senior members of his court stood for Ghawri. Even the
slaves stood up in the back; the amir commanded great respect in the palace, thanks to the services he had done for the sultanate and also because he was disinterested in the official titles and positions that had been offered to him.

By the end of the meeting, the sultan had appointed Amir al-Ghawri as his
, the Bearer of the Sultan's Inkstand, the sovereign's vizier and spokesperson. From that moment, Hussein realised that life as he knew it in Alexandria would never be the same again. His master had become an executive of the sultan's court in Cairo, and Hussein was now expected to be at his side there. He realised that he quickly had to get used to this bustling metropolis, which he had disliked ever since he was a boy.

Time in the Cairene court passed quickly. Not long after their arrival, Sultan Qaitbay fell gravely ill and soon passed away. He was succeeded by his son, al-Nasser Mohammed. The new sultan tried his best to improve relations with the Ottomans and put an end to the armed conflict that had raged with them under his father's rule, though sporadic scuffles continued between their armies along the borders.

At first, Hussein thought things would improve with the accession of Qaitbay's son. The new sultan launched several campaigns to supress rebellions by the Bedouins in the countryside and to crack down on bandits. However, things – as Hussein saw them – became more and more complicated after that, especially with reports coming from merchants saying that the Portuguese had reached India. The Egyptians did not understand how the Portuguese had pulled off that feat, and rumours spread that they had found a secret route and would soon appear in the Nile coming from the south.

People wavered between outrage and disbelief. Then after a period of time, fear of a Portuguese invasion gave way to jokes told first by the hashish-fiends in Cairo. They were a common sight in the alleyways, smoking and laughing so loudly that everyone in the vicinity could hear them. At night, those roars of laughter were all too familiar – and irksome – for the somnolent residents of the city as they tried to sleep.

Hussein was pining for his friend Suleiman. Pirates in Rhodes had captured Suleiman after he was wounded in battle. The Ottomans paid a ransom to get him and other prisoners released, and took him to Turkey. But Hussein did not know his exact whereabouts, and had no way to get to him or find out what had happened to him since; all he could do was wait. He would let out a frustrated sigh before muttering his usual refrain to himself, ‘Where are you, Suleiman?'

As time passed, the convoys of the Karimi Guild stopped coming to Suez and Alexandria. Revenues dwindled, the state's coffers emptied and social unrest spiralled
gradually out of control. Bedouin uprisings returned to the countryside with a vengeance, and bandits were now so brazen that they were raiding Cairo markets in broad daylight. The Hajj pilgrimage had stopped too as highwaymen now did not spare even the women and children travelling with the Hajj convoys.

People revolted and there were many disturbances. Discord grew between Mamluk amirs and there was little security to be found outside the sultan's palace. Hussein felt things were fast approaching total disaster if nothing was done to alter the current trajectory of events. He had despaired of any attempts for reform by now and, again, all he could say to himself when such thoughts overwhelmed him was, ‘Where are you, Suleiman?'

On one sleepless night – now a frequent occurrence – Hussein's train of doomed thoughts was once again debilitating him. He punched his pillow with his fist, trying to adjust its form, as though blaming it for his insomnia. He struck it again, having no other way to vent his anger and frustration. He threw his head on the pillow, trying to close his eyes and clear his mind, in the hope of getting some sleep. But he kept tossing and turning in his bed, without managing to drift off.

At midnight, he was roused from his haunted slumber by voices and loud sounds coming from the courtyard of the palace. He could make out horses whinnying and the clanging of swords. He was now wide awake, anxious that a conspiracy was – yet again – unfolding at the palace and wondering who the victim was this time.

A servant knocked on his door. ‘The amir wants you in the sultan's hall, now and without delay!'

He splashed water on his face quickly, put on his turban and made himself as presentable as possible under the circumstances. He hung his sword over his shoulder and scurried to the sultan's hall. When he got there, he saw that all the soldiers, bodyguards, amirs and the
had gathered, and spotted Amir al-Ghawri sitting on the right side of the hall. At the centre of the hall sat the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustamsik and the four chief judges in their large ceremonial turbans.

Hussein walked quietly towards Ghawri. He nodded to Ghawri and then took up his place behind his master. One of the amirs stood in the middle of the hall, addressing those present.

‘What should we do then? The country is in turmoil and the treasury is empty. Our armies fighting the Ottomans in Syria have not received their wages for months. Uprisings in the countryside have forced peasants to flee to the city, only for them to be ambushed by bandits on the way. Our servants are being lynched in the streets of Cairo, because people see us in them.'

Another amir suddenly stood up and interrupted him. ‘Who is the cause of all this? Isn't it the sultan, who has fled and left the throne without warning?' He pointed to the empty chair at the top of the hall and continued. ‘This throne has become vacant. No one wants to shoulder the responsibility. This tedious debating will lead us nowhere. Let us decide who should assume the throne right here and right now.'

At the other end of the hall, an amir stood and cried out at the top of his lungs, ‘Yes! Appoint whomever you want so you can kill him as usual when you decide you want to replace one sultan with another! How will the new sultan govern if you are going to meddle in every decision he makes, and draw your swords against him when he does something you do not like?'

The amir made a dismissive gesture as he headed for the door, and said, ‘I will ride to Fayoum. I will let you choose a puppet sultan by yourselves. If you agree on someone do let me know.' He paused and then, looking at them with utter contempt, exclaimed, ‘Something is rotten in Cairo! I cannot bear it, nor can it bear me!'

The hall reverberated with loud, angry voices. Swords were unsheathed and everyone felt that a catastrophe was about to take place. Hussein looked to his master anxiously. He now understood why Ghawri ran away from politics whenever political intrigue came too close for comfort.

Abruptly, an amir approached Ghawri. He grabbed the back of his palm, which Ghawri was resting on the armrest of his chair, and held it high. ‘Let us elect Amir al-Ghawri as the sultan of Egypt, gentlemen, and I think you will agree this is the most sensible choice,' the other amir proclaimed, looking straight into Ghawri's eyes as though imploring him not to object.

Ghawri was caught completely off guard. To him, this was nothing less than a death sentence. He had only come because all Mamluk amirs were here, but he had never
wanted or even thought about sitting on the sultanate's throne. In a trembling voice, he said, ‘I do not accept this!' Ghawri stood briskly and repeated loudly, ‘I do not accept this at all.'

He sat back down. His cheeks were flushed and his face was red with emotion. Pandemonium ensued as the amirs and
pleaded with Ghawri to accept the appointment. They drew their swords and raised them above his head in a dramatic attempt to persuade him.

The Mamluk leaders present were not overly fond of Ghawri, but they wanted a malleable figure to serve as a front through which they could wield their power, to blame when mistakes piled up and to use as a scapegoat if the masses rebelled and demanded the sultan's head.

Ghawri asked them to sheath their swords before he said, ‘We all know that what the amir of Fayoum said was true. You change sultans like you change your clothes, and I, with God as my witness, have no interest in becoming sultan. So spare me all of this, I beg you!'

BOOK: The Holy Sail
10.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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