ZengiBard of Burgh Conan / History & Fiction
This story, which is complete in itself,
is a taster extract from the novel CRUSADER
Bard of Burgh Conan
Copyright © 2017 Christopher Webster
aka Bard of Burgh Conan
All rights reserved.
About the Author
ZENGI is a 'taster' extract from my novel, CRUSADER, which relates the adventures of William de Warenne and his squire on the Second Crusade. Most of the novel is written from the crusader point of view, but in this section I attempted to present things from the Muslim point of view as seen though the eyes of Zengi's (fictional) court poet, Fadel.
CRUSADER covers the main events of the Second Crusade. It begins with that period known as The Anarchy in King Stephen's reign, and goes on to describe the Fall of Edessa, the Battle of Lisbon, and the Battle of Mount Cadmus. It is available here here and here. Another taster extract is available, entitled CYRA THE BYZANTINE SIREN. This extract tells the story of how the crusader, William de Warenne, is distracted from his high religious aims by a dancing girl in Constantinople.
Fadel sighed with satisfaction and took another sip of wine. It was cool on the roof terrace. The sun was well past its zenith and was sinking behind the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, a perfect setting to listen to Aaliyah, his concubine, read to him. She was wearing a long, ivory coloured abaya of finest silk, and a hijab of a delicate rose colour, pushed well back from her face to make the most of her beautiful domed forehead. She was sitting on a low diwan and leaning back on a heap of brilliantly coloured silk cushions. Her voice was low, caressing, though it was actually a battle poem that she was reading, an ancient masterpiece by A’sha Maimun, describing before the battle of Dhu Kar:
“Had all Arabia joined our ranks
there were honours for all who saw Dhu Kar.
The Persians came as if led by the night
sweeping dark across the land;
nobles, their sons, and men of rank
wearing rings of gold in their ears,
and pearls—close-sheltered once by the sea
in the oyster’s lap untouched by the clay.”
“Read the last two lines again, O fair one,” said Fadel musingly.
He took another sip of wine while he listened, then with a sigh, he said, more to himself that to Aaliyah, “What wonderful idea!—to describe the beauty of the pearl and the oyster before going on to describe the horrors of war. Go on.”
Aaliyah turned the leaf of the beautifully decorated book and continued:
“Forward we faced, no glance aside,
no flinch as we drove our lances home
again and again in relentless charge
as the hawk picks off the birds of the marsh.”
“Ah! The hawk; the bird of prey—what a superb image! I wish I could write like that!”
“And I’d rather you didn’t write at all!” said a stern voice from behind him. It was his father, a tall, spare man whose face had been tanned by relentless desert suns until it looked like a wrinkled piece of old leather.
Fadel jumped to his feet and gave a respectful bow, following which his father placed his hands on his head in blessing. Meanwhile Aaliyah had prostrated herself before him, but he only said, “Leave us.”
“When I was your age I had five camels,” his father said, sitting down on the diwan. “I took glass, knotted rugs, cotton cloth along the Silk Road to China and brought back silk for fancy dresses, paper, furs, lacquerwork, porcelain, and jade. I faced white-hot sand dunes in the desert, forbidding mountains, brutal winds, poisonous insects, and reptiles, not to mention bandits and pirates, but bit by bit my wealth grew.”
“You are indeed worthy of honour, oh father, but...”
“And I used it to send you to the House of Wisdom that you might be trained for an honourable profession.”
“Indeed, father, you sacrificed everything for me and I am grateful.”
“Above all, you should be grateful to Allah for his goodness, for is it not written that the deed most beloved of Allah is prayers performed on time?”
He frowned and looked around him as if unsure how to continue. Perhaps the book which Aaliyah had left gave him an idea.
“I hoped you would take up an honourable profession and add to the family honour and your own honour. The military is such a one. Why do you not petition the atabeg for a position in his army? I am not without influence and I have no doubt that I could persuade our lord, Zengi, to admit you as a captain—though it might cost me a few bolts of watered silk.”
“Please, father. I can think of nothing worse.”
“What about law? You have studied the Maliki school of Islamic law, I believe.”
“Then why don’t you practice it? I will set up with a in the in the souq-market and buy slaves to be your clerks.”
“But... I have decided on my profession. I wish to be... a poet.”
His father could contain himself no longer. He jumped to his feet, and stamped up and down while de delivered the following diatribe:
“A poet! You are no poet! You are a dreamer at best, and a waster at worst. I come here to speak to my son about his profession, and what do I find—he is sitting with a concubine, drinking wine, and listening to poetry.”
“But they are not all haram, father,” protested Fadel, mildly and in a respectful tone.
“Concubines are for men who have established themselves. You should take a wife first, as I did when I was your age. As for wine, did not the prophet—may peace be upon him—say: ‘Satan only wants to cause between you animosity and hatred through intoxicants and gambling and to avert you from the remembrance of Allah and from prayer. So will you not desist?’”
“Indeed, father, you are right, and I will abstain if it will please you...”
“Not me, but Allah,” his father reminded him.
“And I will even send Aaliyah away—but please do not ask me to give up poetry.”
His father heaved a deep sigh as though he knew he was wasting his time but felt he had no choice but to try.
“Does not the Holy Book say, ‘only those who are lost in error follow the poets’, and elsewhere: ‘we have not taught the Prophet poetry, nor would he ever have been a poet’?”
“Father, your knowledge of the Holy Book is exemplary, you are indeed an hafiz. In that case, you also know that poetry is not haram. The Quran also refers to those poets ‘who believe, do good deeds, and remember God often’.”
Far from being annoyed that his son was arguing with him, he smiled with pleasure.
“My son, it makes me proud that you too are an hafiz, and that you can debate the Holy Book like the best of Islamic scholars.”
“Then I may be a poet?”
“What, and write rubbish like this?” said his father picking up the book and throwing it down again.
“Read it first, father. This is the poem I was reading. It is a battle poem, so it might interest you.”
His father read the part of the poem silently, then, as he warmed to it, began to read aloud:
“As they bent to fling their arrow storm
we rushed them, man to man, with our swords,
and our horse incessantly battered the field
till the sun stood high and the Persians broke.”
He put the book down and looked thoughtfully across the rooftops of Aleppo to the setting sun, but said nothing.
“Well?” said Fadel.
The old man turned to Fadel, and said with a pained expression, “It is a fine poem, but it is jahiliyya.”
“It is indeed, pre-Islamic, as you say, father. But is it not a fine poem?”
“How can it be fine if it is jahiliyya?”
Fadel wanted to scream and shout, but he remembered that, second to Allah, a Muslim must revere his parents.
“But,” his father continued, though grudgingly. “If you could write a poem as fine as that about our noble leader, Zengi, and his jihad against the Infidel, I could almost excuse you the wine and the concubine.”
He was still wearing a sad expression when he left the terrace for this was only the latest of several conversations on the same subject, all which had achieved nothing.
A moment later, Aaliyah appeared as if from nowhere and threw her arms around Fadel, but he made no response. All he said was, “No—and take that wine away,” for his father’s words had struck him like a bolt of lightening, and he could now see his way clearly. He walked slowly to the carved balustrade and, leaning on it, gazed at the Great Mosque glowing in the halo of the setting sun, and thought, “Yes, that is what I shall do. I shall write like A’sha Maimun, but in praise of Imad ad-Din Zengi!”