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!”
Fadel rose early next morning, determined to put his plan into action. While the rest of the household were still sleeping he slipped out through a side door and made his way towards the Citadel. His idea was to find out as much as he could about the hero of his projected poem.
The Citadel at Aleppo is situated on a large mound about 160 feet high. A huge outer gate stands at ground level, and an even larger gate about halfway up. That gate is so high that its battlements are level with the wall of the Citadal’s highest level. It is an impressive sight, and to Fadel, spoke volumes about the power and vision of his subject—for had not Zengi himself caused these imposing fortifications to be built?
Two guards were stood in front of the outer gate. They were dressed in typical Saracen fashion: a conical helmet with forehead plate and nasal, a leather neck-guard, and lamellar cuisse made up of rectangular plates laced into horizontal rows. A sword belt encompassed the waist, and from it hung a straight-bladed sword. A Zengid touch was the glimpse of scarlet bantaloon between the cuisse and the brown leather gaiters, matched by a scarlet tassel dangling from the sword hilt. Fadel went up to the least fearsome of the two and said, “Salaam. Peace be with you. May I enter?”
The guard looked at him with a stony-faced expression, and answered without the customary response, saying instead
Fadel hesitated. Now that it came to the point, it seemed a foolish thing to say, but he said it anyway:
“I wish to find out more about our honoured atabeg, the lord Zengi.”
The guard eyed him suspiciously.
“Are you a spy?”
For a moment, Fadel was cowed, but then the ridiculousness of the accusation struck him, and he laughed out loud.
“If I were a spy, would I ask such a thing? No, I am a poet, and I plan to write a qasida about our honoured atabeg.”
It was the guard’s turn to laugh, but ever mindful of his master’s strictness, he bit his lips and said nothing. Fortunately, the other guard, the fiercer-looking one, turned out to be the most helpful.
“We can’t let you in without a pass, lad, but if you want to find out more about our honoured atebeg, try the Albali—you’ll find it in Al-Madina Souq.”
With those words, he resumed his formal stance and would say no more.
Fadel had never heard of the Albali, but he knew the Al-Madina Souq very well, and made his way there as fast as his legs would carry him—with due regard of course, for the rising heat, for the sun was now well above the horizon and beginning to beat down mercilessly on the white limestone buildings of the city. The Al-Madina Souq was the central market place of Aleppo. It was a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from rugs and spices to leather goods and love-potions, and already it was bustling with early shoppers. Fadel went to the first stall and said, “Salaam. Peace be with you. Would you be so kind as to tell me the way to the Albali?”
The merchant gave him a disgusted look for wasting his time with idle questions instead of buying his wares—oil lamps of the kind that Al ad-Din liked to rub—but, as is expected in Islam, gave a polite response: “And peace to you also. Go ahead twenty paces and it is on your left.”
The Albali turned out to be a wine shop, and the name suddenly made sense. For ‘Albali’ means ‘swallower’, and it is the name of a constellation which the Infidel call Aquarius. He pulled aside the curtain that hung over the door and went into a dark room smelling of alcohol. He saw at a glance why the guard had sent him there, for it was full of off-duty soldiers; not that they were sitting there in full armour, but the occasional scarlet bantaloon and pair of brown leather gaiters made it plain enough.
Wine shops were tolerated in Aleppo, though every now and then there was a purge, usually after a drought, famine or other natural disaster, which was taken as a sign of Allah’s disapproval.
Most of the men ignored him, but there were some curious stares. They were obviously wondering what a wealthy rich lad was doing ‘slumming it’ among the ne’er-do-wells of the Zengian Guard.
Fadel, the sensitive poet, almost turned and fled, but his burning ambition overcame his natural shyness, and he said to the serving man, “Salaam. A skin of wine for house!”
A ragged cheer ran round the room. This was the kind of guest they appreciated. At a table not far away, an old soldier, judging from the grey in his beard, signalled for Fadel to join him.
“Salaam,” he said. “What brings you here, lad?”
This time, Fadel was more cautious, and tried a more indirect approach to getting the information he wanted.
“I have heard of the exploits of the Zengian Guard, and want to know more about them.”
“Well, you are talking to the right man,” said another soldier. “Bazzu, here, has been in hundreds of battles.”
“Come now, Ahmed, you know it was only five,” said Bazzu, “but it was enough. Look!”
He lifted his tunic to show a great scar across his chest.
“An Infidel did that with his great sword; cut straight through my cuisse, though it was only a leather one. Zengi equips us better!”
“Here, take wine,” said Ahmed.
“I forswore it, yesterday,” said Fadel awkwardly.
“Allah will reward you,” said the man, “and I hope he will show mercy on us. But after a day on the burning parade ground we are as dry as the desert!”
But Fadel was not listening. He had his lead in the mention of his hero’s name, and he didn’t want to miss it.
“Is he a good leader?”
Bazzu took a deep draught of his wine, then began a panegyric in praise of his master.
“Listen, and I’ll tell you, lad, the story of a real soldier. Even as a youth he prepared himself for a life on the battlefield. Despite his father’s riches, he lived simply, ate simple food, and avoided strong drink...”
“Aye, that’s the way,” put in the other. “Perhaps I would have risen to captain if it had not been for the devil I put in my mouth!”
“...he spent his time on furusiyya: horsemanship, archery, charging with the lance, and swordsmanship...”
“Don’t forget chess,” put in Ahmed.
“Yes. It teaches tactics and strategy.”
“That teaches horsemanship, and our lord, Zengi is the finest horseman in Aleppo. Why, when but a youth of fourteen years he led his father’s cavalry. He was a magnificent sight, riding out in all weathers, winter and summer. I tell you he was predestined by fate to champion Islam against the Franks!”
“I bet he never dreamed he’d have a drunkard like you riding behind him,” laughed Ahmed.
Bazzu shook his head. “Drunk on duty? Me? Never—well not after what happened to Abdul.”
Ahmed shook his head too, and they both looked thoughtfully into their cups as though wondering if they should not stop drinking there and then.
“What happened?” prompted Fadel.
Bazzu took a deep breath and told him.
“He arrived in the parade ground so drunk that he couldn’t march straight. Our lord, Zengi, was furious: ‘We have the devil outside our walls—he was referring to the Infidel—and now we have the devil within. So I will make an example—crucify him!’”
“And he did,” continued Ahmed. “He had him crucified there and then on the parade ground and left him there till he died, and for many months after, so that his rotting corpse would be a reminder.”
“Then he closed all the wine shops—but they reopened after a while as they always do.”
There was silence for a while, and it seemed that the wine had lost its savour. Fadel reflected on this darker side of his hero’s character. It must be hard to discipline an army of independent-minded Bedouin tribesmen, but crucifixion! The thought made him uneasy until he decided that it had no bearing on his great project—he would simply ignore it. He rose to leave.
“Aye, lad, that’s the idea. I think I’ll come with you,” said Bazzu.
Ahmed rose too.
Outside, in the brilliant sunlight, Bazzu blinked and shaded his eyes.
“Masalaam, goodbye,” he said, “and come and see me again if you want to hear about my battles.”
Fadel thanked them both and hurried back to his father’s house to do battle with the jinn. He climbed to several flights of stairs to the roof terrace, not forgetting to pick up writing materials on the way.
His first sight was the Great Mosque glittering white in the harsh midday sunlight and he remembered that Zengi had built that, too—the same man who had built the citadel and meted out such harsh punishment. Yet, was it not written: “Allah is severe in punishment”, and was it not right, therefore, that a leader of his jihad should also be severe?
Zengi by Bard of Burgh Conan / History & Fiction have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes