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'Wake up! Wake up!'
As the boy comes to he is aware of someone shaking him urgently by the shoulder. 'Get up. Now!'
Reluctantly he pushes the blanket down from over his head and opens his eyes. It is pitch black, dead of night. Yet the boy can distinctly hear hurrying feet and low, urgent voices elsewhere in the palace. The slave who has woken him, as black as the night himself, holds a lighted lamp close to his face so that the boy can see him. 'Your father says everyone must leave, now! The Amir says The Rashid is coming. With many men!'
The boy, young as he is, knows what this means. For all of his young life the Rashids have been his family's greatest enemies. Now they have sworn vengeance on his whole family. He rises hurriedly. Hastily pulls on extra clothes over the loose robe he is already wearing and prepares to leave. Meanwhile the slave is gathering together all of the boy's most important possessions and his bedding and tying them into one large bundle.
The boy is Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, eldest surviving son of Abd al-Rahman, Amir of Najd, a poor, isolated province deep in the desert-surrounded heart of what we know today as Saudi Arabia. It is January 1891. Abd al-Aziz is ten years old.
The room is cold. Outside it will be colder. Although for day after day in summer the temperature reaches more than 110°F (44°C), so hot that you can fry an egg by breaking it on to a rock, in winter there is often frost and sometimes even snow. The boy is bright, his father's hope for his family's future. He has been able to recite the whole of The Holy Qur'an from memory since he was seven and for the last two years has been receiving private instruction from the revered Islamic scholar Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Latif, grandson of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Islam's most austere creed, Wahhabism.
It is only three months since his father sent Abd al-Aziz with his uncle Muhammad and a delegation of Riyadh's citizens to negotiate an end to the years of hostility between his family and the Rashids. On first seeing Muhammad ibn Rashid, the head of the Rashid family, Abd al-Aziz had thought that he looked like the embodiment of pure evil. With the sharp eyes of a child Abd al-Aziz had seen that The Rashid's beard was flecked with grey hairs but that he had used dye to make it appear still black. In the words of an English traveller, Charles Doughty, who had visited The Rashid in his capital Ha'il a few years earlier, he was '... lean of flesh and hollow ... [his] looks are like the looks of one survived out of much disease of the world'. To an English couple, the Blunts, who had met Rashid a few years later, he had appeared the very archetype of a villain, calling to mind: 'the portraits of Richard the Third, lean, sallow cheeks, much sunken, thin lips, with an expression of pain, except when smiling, a thin black beard, well-defined black knitted eyebrows, and remarkable eyes – eyes deep-sunk and piercing, like the eyes of a hawk, but ever turning restlessly from one of our faces to the other, and then to those beside him. It was the very type of a conscience-stricken face, or of one which fears an assassin.' However, when The Rashid had spoken to young Abd al-Aziz he had shown him a more gentle and fatherly side of himself. He had consoled him on the recent death of his elder brother Faisal and said that perhaps God would cause him to grow into an able replacement.
The previous spring, before Abd al-Aziz and his uncle's visit to him, The Rashid and his men had laid siege to Riyadh, the town where the Sauds lived, for more than forty days. They had cut down almost 8,000 of the palm trees that grew in the date groves that surrounded the town, had damaged and poisoned many of the wells on which the townspeople depended. Yet still the Sauds and the 10,000 people of Riyadh had refused to surrender. As a result, as the heat of summer had come on and still Ibn Rashid's men had seen no prospect of the town surrendering, they had started to tire of the drudgery of the siege and had begun to desert. So Ibn Rashid had had no alternative but to call for negotiations. And thus it had come about that Abd al-Aziz had ridden out with his uncle to the The Rashid's camp to negotiate a peace. Agreement had quickly been reached. Rashid and his men had withdrawn, allowing Abd al-Aziz's father, Abd al-Rahman, to continue to rule in Riyadh and in return he had recognised Ibn Rashid as overlord of the whole of Najd and continued to accept a Rashid governor for the town.
However, a few months later a fresh alliance of tribes had risen against the Rashids in the north. There had been treachery, bloodshed and dishonour on both sides, ancient codes of chivalry and hospitality had been drowned in blood. Thousands of men had been drawn in to the struggle. For weeks one battle or skirmish followed another, but still neither side had gained the ascendancy. Seeing his chance to finally crush the Rashids, early in January 1891 Abd al-Rahman had once again marched out at the head of his fighting men to join the tribes opposing the Rashids. However, before he could join them news had reached him of a mighty battle near a place called Mulaidah, close to the vast rolling sands of the Dahna desert. Fifty, perhaps sixty, thousand men had been involved. Men were calling it the greatest battle in all of Arabia for more than a hundred years. At first the rebel tribes had appeared to gain the upper hand and The Rashid had seemed to withdraw. But then The Rashid turned. Having massed several thousand camels in the centre of his line he had tied bundles of brushwood to their backs and set fire to them. Terrified, the camels had stampeded headlong straight into the rebels' lines. Ibn Rashid's infantry had followed close behind. Finally, in the confusion he had unleashed his cavalry and mounted camel soldiers at the rebels' flanks. Many of the leaders and men of the rebel tribes had been killed or seriously wounded. The rebels had been routed
Learning of the defeat, Abd al-Rahman had turned and hurried back to Riyadh to prepare for a new siege. But the leading men of the town, hearing of what had happened, that Ibn Rashid had gathered a mighty army, that his blood was now up and he intended to show the Sauds and their subjects no mercy, had come to the palace and demanded an audience with Abd al-Rahman. Abd al-Aziz had seen the town's leading citizens arrive at the palace the previous evening, had sensed their agitation and seen them admitted to his father's audience chamber, the majlis. But Abd al-Aziz had not been allowed to sit in on his father's discussion with the leading citizens as he often was. Instead he had been sent to his bed. The discussion had still been going on when he had at last fallen asleep. Riyadh's leading citizens had told Abd al-Rahman that he and his family must leave the town. They had not had sufficient time to recover from the previous siege nor to gather in sufficient provisions to withstand another. They feared that this time Ibn Rashid would indeed show them no mercy. The Rashid and his men would not withdraw until they had crushed the town and taken vengeance.
Thus it was that later that night Abd al-Rahman roused his family and ordered that they must leave at once. Ibn Rashid's scouts had been spotted a few miles to the north west, making their way down the great Wadi Hanifah, through the outlying palm groves towards the town. There was no time to lose.
Leaving his room and walking down a corridor on to the balcony above one of the palace's inner courtyards, Abd al-Aziz immediately becomes aware of muted but purposeful bustle and activity down below. Dimly lit by oil lamps, more than a dozen of the palace's most reliable riding camels have been led into the courtyard. Under the direction of his father, 'amiable but austere', according to a European traveller, 'with an eagle eye and marvellously handsome, whole appearance ... suggesting a living episode of the Thousand and One Nights', slaves are moving back and forth roping bundles of the family's clothes and most treasured possessions to the camels' backs. Yet despite the urgency, there is an almost studied calm about the actions of the people loading the camels. They work in silence, commands being given in whispers. It is vital to avoid communicating any sense of alarm to the camels because if they pick up a sense of panic from the human beings around them they too are liable to panic and are likely to start rushing round in ever diminishing circles, creating mayhem, and make it difficult for even the most experienced camel master to regain control over them. Nothing must be allowed to signal the al Saud family's impending flight. If word of it reaches The Rashid in advance he will set off after them and send out parties of men to cut off their escape.
Once the loading of the family's possessions is complete, the slaves start helping the women and children up on to the camels' backs. One lifts Abd al-Aziz off the ground and lowers him gently but firmly into a saddle bag secured with stout leather straps to the side of a large baggage camel. His sister Nura is lifted into the saddle bag which hangs on the opposite flank of the same camel. With their heads and shoulders poking out of the openings at the top of the saddle bags both children have a good view of everything that is happening around them. By being in saddle bags on either side of the same camel they will be able to talk to each other during the journey. Nura is a year older than Abd al-Aziz and is the daughter of the same mother, Sarah, daughter of Ahmad al-Sudairi, one of Abd al-Rahman's most powerful chieftains. Already Abd al-Aziz and Nura are the closest of friends and over the coming years will become closer still. Later in life, even after Nura is married, Abd al-Aziz will seek his sister's advice before taking any important decision and barely a day will pass without them meeting and talking together.
Once everyone is safely mounted Abd al-Rahman quietly gives a command and starts to lead the fugitives in single file out of the courtyard of the palace, along a narrow passage up to the solid square tower that houses the palace's main entrance. As they approach a sentry silently swings open the two heavy gates and the party files out under the arch and turns right into the main square of the dark, still-silent town. Keeping close in the deep shadow of the high palace wall and still in single file, the camels and their riders pad silently east up the full length of the deserted town square. More than fifty yards away over to the riders' left, stands a long row of shops and warehouses. So full of life, noise and bustle during the day, they all now stand shuttered and barred. Not so much as the glimmer from a single lamp is to be seen anywhere. It seems as if, except for themselves, the whole town is asleep. To their rear stands a colonnade, which in the heat of the day gives shade to sixty or more women who sell the citizens of Riyadh fresh bread, milk, dates, vegetables and firewood. This too now stands dark and still. Above the colonnade there is an enclosed private corridor which connects the family's quarters inside the palace to the town's great mosque. This also is now silent and deserted. Almost every day, usually five times a day, for as long as he can remember Abd al-Aziz has walked along that corridor on his way to pray in the mosque.
Having made their way silently, without mishap or drawing attention to themselves, over the more than one hundred yards length of the square, Abd al-Rahman leads his file of camels and their precious cargoes into a dark, narrow, slightly twisting street. At the end of it he turns left and then some twenty yards further on right into another long and twisting narrow street, coming eventually to one of the eastern gates in the high, thick, turreted town wall. The watchmen have been forewarned and upon Abd al-Rahman's approach un-bolt and slowly push open the two thick, wooden, studded gates which just a few months ago withstood the whole wrath of The Rashid and his army. After the last of the camels has passed safely through, the gates swing silently shut behind them.
Now outside the protective walls of the town Abd al-Rahman, his family and servants are fugitives, exposed and on their own. Quickening their pace and turning south, they cross the fifty or so dusty yards of open ground that separate the town's walls from its encircling palm groves. Although greatly depleted in number following The Rashid's siege six months ago, the remaining palm trees still afford the fugitives some protection from the prying eyes of enemies. But at the same time, once under the cover of the palm trees the fugitives face an extra hazard. They must avoid the many massive felled palm trunks and decaying foliage that litter the ground and impede their path. Yet the Saudi caravan must maintain its speed. To have any chance of escape they must be securely out of sight of the town and well clear of the many tracks leading to it well before the night sky begins to be streaked with grey ahead of dawn. Yet, as they twist and turn, picking their way between standing trees, felled trunks, damaged water wheels and poisoned wells, over the narrow irrigation channels, called falajes, around the small fruit orchards and seed beds, which for generations have done so much to make Riyadh prosperous, Abd al-Rahman and his fugitive band must maintain the strictest silence. It is not only human ears they have to fear. Much of the ground they must cross is pasture for the small, broad tailed, Najdi Sheep of the central Arabian tableland, highly prized for their meat and fine, soft wool – regarded by many as the equal of Cashmere. The orchards and sides of the Wadi Hanifah are also home to numerous gazelle and game birds – partridge, quail, pigeon, even bustard. Any sudden sound or movement – the stumbling of a camel, a cursing voice, crack of a branch or animal crashing through fallen, decaying palm leaves – could cause game birds to fly clattering and clapping up into the sky, cattle to low in alarm, sheep or gazelles to bolt crashing through the vegetation and fallen trees, setting off a commotion which in the still night air will be heard for miles.
After more than an hour of picking their way through the ravished palm groves the file of camels and riders has covered barely two miles. Yet Abd al-Rahman judges that, still covered by the cloak of darkness, they have now reached a point sufficiently distant from the town walls to risk turning more towards the east. In doing so they begin to head out of the wadi bottom with its cover of trees, and gently upwards towards the wadi's steep and jagged eastern flank. In Arabia, even in January, a merchant travelling into town with his wares or a Bedouin caravan will be on the move early so as to have covered as much ground as possible ahead of the full heat of the day. Likewise the farmers and orchard owners will leave their beds long before sunrise in order to tend their animals, cultivate their fields and care for their palm gardens without having to endure the full energy-sapping glare of the Arabian sun. So Abd al-Rahman and his fugitive party must have ascended the steep zigzag path up the flank of Wadi Hanifah and disappeared from sight over the eastern skyline long before the first light of day can betray their direction of flight to anyone watching from either the town or travelling along the well frequented routes of the wadi floor.
As the file of riders begins to climb the ground becomes drier, the patches of pasture start to give way to stones and outcrops of hardened marl and rock. The tall palms give way to an increasingly sparse covering of smaller trees, until they in turn peter out, to leave only acacia, scrub and thorny brushwood clinging on among the loose stones and rocky outcrops of the wadi's increasingly steep side. As the camels pick their patient, sure-footed way upwards on the splayed pads of their generous hooves a still deeper silence seems to grip the entire caravan, the beasts too now seemingly as much in its grip as their riders. It is a silence to match the darkness and depth of fate at this blackest hour in the long history of the House of Saud.
Excerpted from IBN SAUD by MICHAEL DARLOW BARBARA BRAY Copyright © 2012 by Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray. Excerpted by permission of SKYHORSE PUBLISHING. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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