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'If things go on like this,' Ama was saying in a voice garbled by a gap-toothed mouth, 'nothing will be left of us except a fragrant memory.'
His concentration disrupted, Yazid frowned and looked up from the chess-cloth. He was at the other end of the courtyard, engaged in a desperate attempt to master the stratagems of chess. His sisters, Hind and Kulthum, were both accomplished strategists. They were away in Gharnata with the rest of the family. Yazid wanted to surprise them with an unorthodox opening move when they returned.
He had tried to interest Ama in the game, but the old woman had cackled at the thought and refused. Yazid could not understand her rejection. Was not chess infinitely superior to the beads she was always fingering? Then why did this elementary fact always escape her?
Reluctantly, he began to put away the chess pieces. How extraordinary they are, he thought, as he carefully replaced them in their little home. They had been especially commissioned by his father. Juan the carpenter had been instructed to carve them in time for his tenth birthday last month, in the year 905 A.H., which was 1500, according to the Christian calendar.
Juan's family had been in the service of the Banu Hudayl for centuries. In AD 932 the head of the Hudayl clan, Hamza bin Hudayl, had fled Dimashk and brought his family and followers to the western outposts of Islam. He had settled on the slopes of the foothills some twenty miles from Gharnata. Here he had built the village that became known as al-Hudayl. It rose on high ground and could be seen from afar. Mountain streams surrounded it, and turned in springtime into torrents of molten snow. On the outskirts of the village the children of Hamza cultivated the land and planted orchards. After Hamza had been dead for almost fifty years, his descendants built themselves a palace. Around it lay farmed land, vineyards, and almond, orange, pomegranate and mulberry orchards that gave the appearance of children clustering about their mother.
Almost every piece of furniture, except of course for the spoils looted by Ibn Farid during the wars, had been carefully crafted by Juan's ancestors. The carpenter, like everyone else in the village, was aware of Yazid's status in the family. The boy was a universal favourite. And so he determined to produce a set of chess statuettes which would outlast them all. In the event Juan had surpassed his own wildest ambitions.
The Moors had been assigned the colour white. Their Queen was a noble beauty with a mantilla, her spouse a red-bearded monarch with blue eyes, his body covered in a flowing Arab robe bedecked with rare gems. The castles were replicas of the tower house which dominated the entrance to the palatial mansion of the Banu Hudayl. The knights were representations of Yazid's great-grandfather, the warrior Ibn Farid, whose legendary adventures in love and war dominated the culture of this particular family. The white bishops were modelled on the turbaned Imam of the village mosque. The pawns bore an uncanny resemblance to Yazid.
The Christians were not merely black; they had been carved as monsters. The black Queen's eyes shone with evil, in brutal contrast with the miniature madonna hanging round her neck. Her lips were painted the colour of blood. A ring on her finger displayed a painted skull. The King had been carved with a portable crown that could be easily lifted, and as if this symbolism was not sufficient, the iconoclastic carpenter had provided the monarch with a tiny pair of horns. This unique vision of Ferdinand and Isabella was surrounded by equally grotesque figures. The knights raised blood-stained hands. The two bishops were sculpted in the shape of Satan; both were clutching daggers, while whip-like tails protruded from behind. Juan had never set eyes on Ximenes de Cisneros, otherwise there can be little doubt that the Archbishop's burning eyes and hooked nose would have provided an ideal caricature. The pawns had all been rendered as monks, complete with cowls, hungry looks and pot-bellies; creatures of the Inquisition in search of prey.
Everyone who saw the finished product agreed that Juan's work was a masterpiece. Yazid's father, Umar, was troubled. He knew that if ever a spy of the Inquisition caught sight of the chess-set, the carpenter would be tortured to death. But Juan was adamant: the child must be given the present. The carpenter's father had been charged with apostasy by the Inquisition some six years ago while visiting relatives in Tulaytula. He had later died in prison from the deep wounds sustained by his pride during torture by the monks. As a finale, fingers had been snapped off each hand. The old carpenter had lost the urge to live. Young Juan was bent on revenge. The design of the chess-set was only a beginning.
Yazid's name had been inscribed on the base of each figure and he had grown as closely attached to his chess pieces as if they were living creatures. His favourite, however, was Isabella, the black Queen. He was both frightened and fascinated by her. In time, she became his confessor, someone to whom he would entrust all his worries, but only when he was sure that they were alone. Once he had finished packing the chess-set he looked again at the old woman and sighed.
Why did Ama talk so much to herself these days? Was she really going mad? Hind said she was, but he wasn't sure. Yazid's sister often said things in a rage, but if Ama really were mad, his father would have found her a place in the maristan at Gharnata next to Great-Aunt Zahra. Hind was cross only because Ama was always going on about it being time for their parents to find her a husband.
Yazid walked across the courtyard and sat down on Ama's lap. The old woman's face, already a net of wrinkles, creased still further as she smiled at her charge. She abandoned her beads without ceremony and stroked the boy's face, kissing him gently on his head.
'May Allah bless you. Are you feeling hungry?'
'No. Ama, who were you talking to a few minutes ago?'
'Who listens to an old woman these days, Ibn Umar? I might as well be dead.'
Ama had never called Yazid by his own name. Never. For was it not a fact that Yazid was the name of the Caliph who had defeated and killed the grandsons of the Prophet near Kerbala? This Yazid had instructed his soldiers to stable their horses in the mosque where the Prophet himself had offered prayers in Medina. This Yazid had treated the Companions of the Prophet with contempt. To speak his name was to pollute the memory of the Prophet's family. She could not tell the boy all this, but it was reason enough for her always to refer to him as Ibn Umar, the son of his father. Once Yazid had questioned her about this in front of all the family and Ama had thrown an angry glance at their mother, Zubayda, as if to say: it's all her fault, why don't you ask her? but everyone had begun to laugh and Ama had walked out in a temper.
'I was listening to you. I heard you talk. I can tell you what you said. Should I repeat your words?'
'Oh my son,' sighed Ama. 'I was talking to the shadows of the pomegranate trees. At least they will be here when we are all gone.'
'All gone where, Ama?'
'Why to heaven, my child.'
'Will we all go to heaven?'
'May Allah bless you. You will go to the seventh heaven, my pure little slice of the moon. I'm not so sure about the others. And as for that sister of yours, Hind bint Umar, unless they marry her off soon she won't even get to the first heaven. No, not her. I dread that something evil will overtake that child. I fear that she will be exposed to wild passions and shame will fall on the head of your father, may God protect him.'
Yazid had begun to giggle at the thought of Hind not even getting through the first heaven, and his laughter was so infectious that Ama began to cackle as well, revealing the total complement of her eight remaining teeth.
Of all his brothers and sisters, Yazid loved Hind the most. The others still treated him like a baby, seemed constantly amazed that he could think and speak for himself, picked him up and kissed him as though he were a pet. He knew he was their favourite, but he hated it when they never answered his questions. That was the reason he regarded them all with contempt.
All that is except Hind, who was six years older than him, but treated him as her equal. They argued and they fought a great deal, but they adored each other. This love for his sister was so deep-rooted that none of Ama's mystical premonitions bothered him in the slightest or affected his feelings for Hind.
It was Hind who had told him the real reason for Great-Uncle Miguel's visit, which had so upset his parents last week. He too had been upset on hearing that Miguel wanted them all to come to Qurtuba, where he was the Bishop, so that he could personally convert them to Catholicism. It was Miguel who, three days ago, had dragged all of them, including Hind, to Gharnata. Yazid turned to the old woman again.
'Why doesn't Great-Uncle Miguel speak to us in Arabic?'
Ama was startled by the question. Old habits never die and so, quite automatically, she spat at the sound of Miguel's name and began to feel her beads in a slightly desperate way, muttering all the time: 'There is only one Allah and he is Allah and Mohammed is His prophet ...'
'Answer me, Ama. Answer me.'
Ama looked at the boy's shining face. His almond-coloured eyes were flashing with anger. He reminded her of his great-grandfather. It was this memory which softened her as she answered his question.
'Your Great-Uncle Miguel speaks, reads and writes Arabic, but ... but ...' Ama's voice choked in anger. 'He has turned his back on us. On everything. Did you notice that this time he was stinking, just like them?'
Yazid began to laugh again. He knew that Great-Uncle Miguel was not a popular member of the family, but nobody had ever spoken of him so disrespectfully. Ama was quite right. Even his father had joined in the laughter when Ummi Zubayda had described the unpleasant odours emanating from the Bishop as being reminiscent of a camel that had consumed too many dates.
'Did he always stink?'
'Certainly not!' Ama was upset by the question. 'In the old days, before he sold his soul and started worshipping images of bleeding men stuck on wooden crosses, he was the cleanest person alive. Five baths a day in the summer. Five changes of clothes. I remember those times well. Now he smells like a horse's stable. Do you know why?'
Yazid confessed his ignorance.
'So that nobody can accuse him of being a Muslim under his cassock. Stinking Catholics! The Christians in the Holy Lands were clean, but these Catholic priests are frightened of the water. They think to have a bath is a betrayal of the saint they call the son of God.
'Now get up and come with me. It's time to eat. The sun is setting and we can't wait any longer for them to return from Gharnata. I've just remembered something. Did you have your honey today?'
Yazid nodded impatiently. Since he was born, and his brother and sisters before him, Ama had forced a spoonful of wild, purifying honey down their throats every morning.
'How can we eat before you've said the evening prayers?'
She frowned at him to register disapproval. The thought that she could ever forget her sacred ritual. Blasphemy! Yazid grinned and she could not stop herself from smiling at him as she lifted herself up slowly and began to walk to the bathroom to do her ablutions.
Yazid remained seated under the pomegranate tree. He loved this time of day, when the birds were noisily preparing to retire for the night. The cuckoos were busy announcing their last messages. In an alcove on the outside of the tower house, overlooking the outer courtyard and the world beyond, the doves were cooing.
Suddenly the light changed and there was total silence. The deep blue sky had turned a purplish orange, casting a magical spell on the mountain-tops still covered with snow. In the courtyard of the big house, Yazid strained his eyes, trying to observe the first star, but none was yet visible. Should he rush to the tower and look through the magnifying glass? What if the first star appeared while he was still mounting the stair? Instead, Yazid shut his eyes. It was as if the overpowering scent of jasmine had flooded his senses like hashish and made him drowsy, but in reality he was counting up to five hundred. It was his way of killing time till the North Star appeared.
The muezzin's call to prayer interrupted the boy. Ama limped out with her prayer-mat and pointed it in the direction of the sunrise and began to say her prayers. Just as she had prostrated herself in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, Yazid saw al-Hutay'a, the cook, signalling to him frantically from the paved path at the edge of the courtyard in the direction of the kitchen. The boy ran towards him.
'What is it, Dwarf?'
The cook put his finger to his lips and demanded silence. The boy obeyed him. For a moment both the dwarf-cook and the child remained frozen. Then the cook spoke. 'Listen. Just listen. There. Can you hear?'
Yazid's eyes lit up. There in the distance was the unmistakable noise of horses' hoofs, followed by the creaking of the cart. The boy ran out of the house as the noises became louder. The sky was now covered with stars and Yazid saw the retainers and servants lighting their torches to welcome the family. A voice echoed from afar.
'Umar bin Abdallah has returned. Umar bin Abdallah has returned ...'
More torches were lit and Yazid felt even more excited. Then he saw the three men on horseback and began to shout.
'Abu! Abu! Zuhayr! Hind! Hind! Hurry up. I'm hungry.'
There they all were. Yazid had to admit an error. One of the three men on horseback was his sister Hind. Zuhayr was in the cart with his mother and Kulthum, a blanket wrapped round him.
Umar bin Abdallah lifted the boy off his feet and hugged him.
'Has my prince been good?'
Yazid nodded as his mother rained kisses on his face. Before the others could join her in this game, Hind grabbed him by the arm and the two ran off into the house.
'Why were you riding Zuhayr's horse?'
Hind's face became tense and she paused for a moment, wondering whether to tell him the truth. She decided against, not wishing to alarm Yazid. She, better than anyone else in the family, knew the fantasy-world in which her younger brother often cocooned himself.
'Hind! What's wrong with Zuhayr?'
'He developed a fever.'
'I hope it's not the plague.'
Hind shrieked with laughter.
'You've been listening too much to Ama's stories again, haven't you? Fool! When she talks about the plague she means Christianity. And that is not the cause of Zuhayr's fever. It's not serious. Our mother says he'll be fine in a few days. He's allergic to the change of seasons. It's an autumnal fever. Come and bathe with us. It's our turn first today.'
Yazid put on an indignant look.
'I've already had a bath. Anyway Ama says I'm getting too old to bathe with the women. She says ...'
'I think Ama is getting too old. The nonsense she talks.'
'She talks a lot of sense as well, and she knows a great deal more than you, Hind.' Yazid paused to see if this rebuke had left any impact on his sister, but she appeared unmoved. Then he saw the smile in her eyes as she offered him her left hand and walked briskly through the house. Yazid ignored her extended hand, but walked by her side as she crossed the courtyard. He entered the bath chambers with her.
'I won't have a bath, but I will come and talk to all of you.'
The room was filled with serving women, who were undressing Yazid's mother and Kulthum. Yazid wondered why his mother seemed slightly worried. Perhaps the journey had tired her. Perhaps it was Zuhayr's fever. He stopped thinking as Hind undressed. Her personal maid-servant rushed to pick the discarded clothes from the floor. The three women were soaped and scrubbed with the softest sponges in the world, then containers of clean water were poured over them. After this they entered the large bath, which was the size of a small pond. The stream which flowed through the house had been piped to provide a regular supply of fresh water for the baths.
Excerpted from Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali. Copyright © 1993 Tariq Ali. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 25, 2005
A marvelous book by a renowned writer and historian. This book starts at the setting of the decline of the Moorish empire in then Al-Andalus (Spain)and weaves a fictional but enticing intricate plot about love, heresy, royalty, power and demise of the grand empire by the barbaric Inquistion (Christians). This book takes the reader on a roller coaster ride from the apex to the abyss which can be best appreciated by an individual who is somewhat appreciative of Islamic history and its vast contributions to civilization.
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Posted November 9, 2013
The Banu Hudayl family has a momentous choice to make, convert to Christianity or die. A Moslem family proud of their heritage, they are proud of the ancient stories displaying wisdom and at the same time warning of what leads to the demise of great Arab cities. They lust as avidly as they brag about their Arab military history. But the family has been divided in many ways by the hidden relationships begun and ending in disaster. Now in 15th Century Spain a new danger looms. The story begins with a huge book burning scene, the destruction of religious, scientific and artistic works worth a fortune but seen as nothing but heresy by the fanatical Ximenes de Cisneros, who is also the private Roman Catholic confessor of Queen Isabella. Up to now the Church’s policy has been that reason would eventually compel the Moslem population to convert. But Ximenes knows that only force and an ultimatum of life or death will bring about this change and at the same time cleanse the country of its impure residents. He’s determined that his plan to guarantee this end is carried out to completion! Granada has fallen and now the outlying town where the Banu Hudayl family lives is next to fall!
A chess set serves as the appropriate metaphor for this historically devastating time, the pieces representing Queen Isabella and the great grandfather of Yazid, one of the Banu Hudayl sons, who was once a very famous Muslim knight. Yazid’s father doesn’t initially believe he and his family and peers are on the brink of annihilation, not until his brother Miguel, a convert and the Bishop of Cordova, begs and threatens him to convert or die. For Miguel, survival is better than being dead but his family does not see it that way at all, at least not all of them.
While there are innumerable names mentioned, at times providing annoying confusion, it is clear who the protagonists are herein. There is Yazid’s brother, Zuhayr, who’s been visiting a wise old man, Ibn Zaydun, whose past love story involved a family member supposedly gone “mad” because she could not marry her lover. But Ibn Zaydun has used the years wisely, studying the ancient writings of Muslim philosophy and culture, and these are what he shares with Zuhayr. The latter seems too interested in the story quality of what he hears, but later all these things will come to his mind’s foremost thoughts when he chooses to fight rather than surrender to the surrounding Christians. But this is no chivalric tale as Zuhayr comes to learn discernment between the time to strike, the time to do what needs to be done outside of a direct attack, and the time to withdraw to fight again at a better time.
There is also a feisty female character, Hind, a passionate woman who dreams of romanticized olden days that are rapidly dissipating, “Remember the shadows of the pomegranate tree during the full moon, Amira? Remember what we used to say? If the moon is with us, what need do we have for the stars?”
In between the constant debates about the Christian threat, there are lovely descriptions of the luscious Arab meals shared, palaces and homes with beautiful tapestries and artifacts within, snippets of quotes from famous Arab writers and scholars, and descriptions of clothing typical of the time and place of this notable Arab family.
Many more intriguing tales and family interactions fill these intriguing pages. This is the first of a planned quartet. One often hears about the Crusades of earlier times, but this is the first work of fiction this reviewer has read that is a powerful account of what it was like to be a Muslim family and community threatened with extinction, all because of the rise of Christianity. In one way, it’s a sad story but this family’s pride, humor, passion and pragmatic outlook are the noble characteristics that make this novel a wonderful read! Definitely highly recommended and definitely looking forward to the next addition to this talented writer’s opus of well-established historical fiction!