Spain, Morocco, and West Africa, 1350-1357 CE
Kamal’s grandfather was alamin, or trustee, of the perfume-makers of Granada, one of the Moorish emirates of Andalusia, in southern Spain. The task of the trustee of the guild was to inspect and certify all weights and measuring tools used in the trade. Kamal’s own father was a glove-maker. These two crafts – perfumery and glove-making – were intimately connected, the glove-makers applying perfume to their materials to dispel the natural odor of the leather. However, when Abu-Ishaq Ibrahim ran away to Cairo, Kamal, who was a younger son, was taken on by his grandfather as an apprentice. Perfumery, after all, was a secretive trade, and these secrets could not be allowed to die out.
“Why did Ishaq Ibrahim run away?” Kamal often asked.
“God knows, and he’s not saying,” replied Kamal’s grandfather. “Now, mind your work – you’ll spoil the batch. Making an excellent scent requires patience and attention.”
With a sigh, Kamal returned to his chores. The workshop was a strange place, full of wonders. In one corner of the room, water lilies were being cold-steeped in animal fat, to create a kind of scented gelatin. Another batch of scent was hot-steeping. Kamal carefully measured out various astringents – ginger grass and aspalathus – which he added, pinch by pinch, to a pot of olive oil. This prepared the oil, making it more receptive to floral and other scents that would be imparted to it, later. Bottles of pure alcohol, derived from distilled wine, stood ready to hand. Alcohol was forbidden, as a drink, but the qadi, or Islamic judge, of Granada had delivered a fatwa, long ago, permitting its use as a raw material. In any event, the Prophet himself had recommended the use of perfume, as Kamal’s grandfather frequently remarked.
“Not surprising,” Kamal thought, impiously. Muhammad, after all, probably had been employed, before the Revelation, hauling frankincense and myrrh to supply the perfumeries of Egypt and Palestine.
Why did Ishaq Ibrahim run away? He just could not pry the thought from his brain. Noticing that his grandfather had slipped out of the room, Kamal walked over to the window, pushing open the shutters to allow some fresh air into the heavily-scented chamber, which reeked of oil and musk.
Inside it was dark, outside brilliantly sunny, the white-washed walls of the town gleaming among pomegranate trees. At the top of the hill – for Granada was a hilly town – stood the fortified qasbah, and behind its battlements the russet-colored walls of the Alhambra, the Emir’s new palace. Kamal had never been inside the royal complex, but he had heard it was incomparably beautiful, with a garden of spouting fountains laid out like a vision of Paradise. By all accounts, however, the resemblance to Paradise was superficial. Despite the beautiful inlay work, the delicate painting, and the fanciful arabesques and columns, the palace was a place where slave girls became queens, and where brothers murdered each other. No wonder Allah had decided to scourge humanity, first by sending the Mongols, and now by ravaging the world with a terrible plague. The Mongols, at least, had converted to Islam, but the plague was like a demon – it didn’t care. It killed Christian, Jew, Muslim, and pagan without distinction, and sooner or later, surely, it would find its way to Granada.
Kamal hurried across the workroom, grabbing an oily rag, and quickly removed one of the pots from its charcoal-fueled burner. Some of the precious liquid had bubbled up vigorously, splashing out, filling the chamber with acrid smoke as the essence sizzled among the glowing coals.
“Damn you!” his grandfather cried. “Do you realize how much a mistake like that costs us!”
Kamal was cuffed on the head, but accepted the punishment with resignation.
“Next time you do that, I’ll send you to Serendip yourself to fetch us more cinnamon sticks, you fool! Those spices are nearly worth their weight in gold.”
“Sorry,” Kamal said, hurriedly, taking up a bar of wax, for it was time to melt wax in one of the pots, to reduce the intensity of an especially harsh scent.
“There are three notes to every scent, Kamal,” his grandfather said, sharply, standing close to him. “What are they?”
“The top, middle, and base,” Kamal recited.
“Which ones are the most important?”
“The middle and the base; the top is just the first impression – it evaporates after less than an hour. The middle and base notes of the scent last longer, and interact, but the base lasts the longest of all.”
“I tell you, Kamal – this is better than glove-making. Your father will go blind, stitching Moroccan goat hides together. You could be a great perfumer if you apply yourself – you know how to read?”
His grandfather was being facetious. True, they were artisans, but they were hardly destitute, being in a luxury trade. All the men of the family had been educated.
“Read Ibn Sina’s treatise on distillation; read Al-Kindi’s Kitab Kimiya’ al-ʼItr, which is the very textbook of our craft! And memorize every hadith of Bukhari concerning scents, because there will always be these fanatics who will try to tell you perfume is evil….”
Kamal glanced through the open window toward the Alhambra’s walls. The call to prayer was rising from the minarets of the city’s mosques, wavering across the tile rooftops. While his grandfather spread out his prayer mat and prepared to offer his salat there on the workroom floor, Kamal took up his oily rag and carefully slid the hot-steeping pots from the burners before hurrying to say his own prayers.
I don’t want to make scents, he thought, closing his eyes as he knelt down and prostrated himself in the direction of Mecca. I want to study sharia.
* * *
The plague eventually reached Granada, and it turned out to be a boon for the perfume trade, as everyone wanted scents to cover up the reek of death. A letter also arrived from Morocco, from the Marinid Sultan, addressed to “Abu Ishaq Ibrahim es-Saheli.” The letter astonished Kamal’s grandfather so much that he nearly died, on the spot, and had to be led to his bed and made to lie down, rubbing his chest.
“What is it, grandfather?” Kamal asked.
“That boy who ran away,” was all his grandfather could say, at first, trying to catch his breath. “Ya Allah! He is dead.”
“That’s terrible news,” Kamal said. “But why would the Sultan of Morocco send word of his death?”
“It’s complicated – here, read it for yourself….”
Kamal took the letter and walked to the nearest window. The seal was large, thick, ornate. The finest parchment had been used, and the calligraphy was beautifully-rendered – curving Arabic script speckled with dots and dashes. Ya Allah! Kamal’s eyes devoured the Sultan’s words… well, probably the words of some scribe. But still….
“One of us will have to go sort all this out,” Kamal’s grandfather said, from across the room. “You should go, Kamal. The plague is getting worse. The Emirate is divided, and the Christians are on the march. I did not train you, and pass on all my secrets, to have them lost. Go to Morocco. I know you’ve always wanted to travel. Now’s your chance….”
* * *
The news about Ishaq Ibrahim es-Saheli was hard to believe, and yet it had to be true: the Sultan of Morocco would not have written such a letter in jest. Kamal hurried at once for the coast, and he managed to find a ship, bound for the nearby African coast, just before the Christian armies advanced and laid siege to the ports. As he made his way to Marrakesh, traveling afoot by day, and sleeping at the zariyas, or lodges of Sufi shrines during the night, he thought about what a wondrous life his uncle must have led. He wanted to tell everyone he met the amazing story, but he did not dare reveal it – most people would laugh and say it could not possibly be true.
I know why Ishaq Ibrahim ran away now, Kamal thought, laying down one night in a moonlit courtyard alongside other travelers. He wanted to be an architect, not a perfumer….
And what luck! Ishaq Ibrahim had made his way to Cairo, informing his parents only that he intended to make the Hajj, and would return eventually. But he never did return. Instead, he met a fabulously rich African king, a black prince whose pilgrimage caravan included one hundred camels laden with gold, a man so rich and generous that the gold markets collapsed wherever he went. The king’s name was Musa, and Ishaq Ibrahim, passing himself off as a skilled Andalusian architect, managed to talk his way into the ruler’s entourage, returning with him to the Bilad al-Sudan – the mysterious lands lying south of the Sahara, the great Sea of Sand.
In due course, Kamal reached the red-walled city of Marrakesh, the capital of the Marinid Sultans, but his luck ran out: he presented his royal latter at the palace gate, only to be turned away without explanation by the guards. Intimidated, he withdrew to the great open marketplace, the Jamma al-Fanaa, situated next to the qasbah, in front of the great mosque. It was a chaotic place, but Kamal allowed the chaos to cheer him up – and, indeed, it was entertaining. Here he saw jugglers and snake-charmers, boys leading Barbary apes on chains, sellers of brassware and glass bangles, magicians, men pressing oranges and lemons to make juice, dancing boys, and story-tellers. All sorts of people were here, in the marketplace – Arabs, Berbers, and the black men and women of the Sudan, who were so numerous in the bazaar that one might think the city belonged to them. Kamal paused, at a corner of the market, to listen to a poet reciting the following:
Morocco blest, in size, in health!
Brave in nobles, great in wealth:
Here will the homeless wanderer find,
Welcome to cheer his drooping mind:
One doubt only can now remain,
Such as to give a moment’s pain:
Whether the eye or ear can boast,
The privilege of blessing most!
“Why is the palace closed like this?” Kamal asked, sitting down in a tea stall. “Are they afraid of the plague?”
“No,” said a well-weathered old fellow, sipping his tea at the table where Kamal had seated himself. “There is some sort of trouble, that’s all. The old Sultan marched off, a few years ago, to try to recover Ifriqiya, but he was shipwrecked, on his way home, and now his son, left behind as regent, is seizing power.”
Kamal ran his hands over his face and said, “I came all this way to see the Sultan!”
“So did I, lad,” the old fellow laughed, “but don’t you worry – they’ll get it sorted out, one way or another. As the Persians say: takht-ya-takhta!”
“What does that mean?”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re either on the throne, or you’re dead,” the old man replied, chuckling. He sipped his tea, adding, “Trust me, lad – if you want to live a long, peaceful life, stay away from thrones. I’ve come all the way from Egypt through one plague-ridden city after another, but I’ve never been in more danger than I was when I was friends with a Sultan.”
The old fellow introduced himself as ʼAbu ̔Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, of Tangiers – he was forty-six years old, he said, and he had been to every part of the Dar-ul-Islam except the Sudan, which was where he wanted to go next, if the Sultan would allow it.
“You’ve been everywhere, really?” Kamal asked. “You’ve been on the Hajj?”
“Several times,” Ibn Battuta replied.
“You’ve been to Persia?”
“Persia and Byzantium.”
“Yes – I was a qazi, in Delhi, in fact. I knew the Sultan there, at the time, Muhammad ibn Tughluq, who was crazy. He had an elephant stomp on a man’s head, in my presence, just to make a point clear.”
“Ya Allah!” Kamal muttered, not sure if he believed this story.
“I’ve been to the Maldive Islands – I was qazi there, too – and to the Zanj cities on the Swahili Coast… and to Sumatra and Java, and even to China.” Laughing, he added, “I’ve also been to Andalusia… where you’re from, if I don’t mistake that accent?”
“How did you come to make such a remarkable journey?”
“I went on the Hajj,” Ibn Battuta smiled, signaling the waiter to bring him another cup of tea. “It sort of got out of hand…. I was your age, just a pup, when I left. Would you believe I only just returned? I’m addicted to travel, you see.”
“But what about getting married, having a family?”
“Oh, I just got married and divorced as I went along – sometimes I was given concubines, as a gift – it’s all God’s will anyway.”
“How did you support yourself?”
Ibn Battuta laughed again, leaning forward with a conspiratorial wink. “You get yourself to the frontiers of the Dar-ul-Islam, lad, and you can pass yourself off as anything you want: in the new Muslim lands, they’ll snap up anyone who sounds like they might be Arab or Berber. They think we’re all scientists and scholars: I’ve been to places where they think any white fellow who can recite a few passages from the Qur’an must be descended from the Prophet himself.”
“But isn’t that cheating?”
Receiving a new cup of tea, Ibn Battuta shook his head. “No, lad. It may have been a stretch, when I first made the claim, but I actually have become a scholar of sharia, over the years, and now there’s nothing on this earth I haven’t seen and can’t judge.”
* * *
Ibn Battuta befriended Kamal, and together they explored the sights of Marrakesh, the garrulous old traveler persuading the muezzin to take them up to the top of the highest minaret of the Mosque of the Kutubiyin, from which they enjoyed a remarkable panorama.
“Most of the city seems to be ruins,” Kamal pointed out.
“It’s very old,” Ibn Battuta explained. “It reminds me a little of Baghdad, though the bazaars of Baghdad were much better.”
Kamal was far more interested in the madrassa, with its library, built by Sultan Abuʽl-Hasan, whose son was now in revolt. They tarried a while, attending a few fascinating lectures on the sharia together, and Kamal confessed his desire to study Islamic law in earnest himself.
“What is your family’s trade?”
“We make perfume – and gloves.”
“Well,” Ibn Battuta nodded. “Learn everything you can. You never know when it might become useful.”
At last, word arrived that the Sultan would receive his petitioners – but not in Marrakesh. He was returning to Fez, which was to be the new capital. To those in the know, this change could mean only one thing: the father had been vanquished.
* * *
The Sultan’s son, ʼAbu Inan Faris, had won the battle against his father, and returned to Fez with his victorious army – a stunning cavalcade of warriors in chain mail, bearing long lances and carrying fluttering red flags. They rode through the city gates shouting, “Allah-u akbar! Allah-u akbar!” The palace gates were opened, and the khutba was read, in the grand mosque, in the name of the new Sultan, thereby letting everyone know that a new regime was in power.
“ʼAbu Inan Faris spent several years at Fez, ruling the country as regent during his father’s absence,” Ibn Battuta explained as they traveled northward, via Miknasa. “He has supporters there – and his own palace. Marrakesh, no doubt, would be too dangerous….”
Shrewd despite his age, the young Sultan first received at Fez those petitioners who claimed scholarly credentials as well as those with mercantile connections. After all, having the lawyers and businessmen firmly in one’s camp was a strong opening move in the chess game of kingship. Ibn Battuta, who could claim justly to be both scholar and trader was one of the first visitors to be received, and he took Kamal with him as a favor, and because he had taken a liking to the young man, who reminded him of himself at the same age.
When the vizier introduced Kamal, explaining who he was, the Sultan said, in a gracious aristocratic accent, “Your uncle was late ambassador to our court, from Mansa Musa, Sultan of Mali. He made a name for himself down there. He is credited with building several mosques and palaces – the largest and most beautiful buildings of the Sudan.”
The Sultan explained that an agent of the Maqqari – a family of merchants based in Sijilmasa – had sent word of Ishaq Ibrahim’s death from Timbuktu. Mansa Musa apparently had given Ishaq Ibrahim architectural commissions worth forty thousand mithqals of gold during his long sojourn in Mali.
“My lord – forty thousand mithqals?” Kamal was aghast. A mithqal was four and a quarter grams, and each mithqal was equal, in coinage, to a gold dinar.
“Yes, which is why you must go to Timbuktu to sort out your uncle’s affairs: indeed, you should go with our esteemed subject, the Hajji Muhammad ibn Battuta. No one knows more about the world than he does, and he is to leave for Mali with the next season’s caravans, with our leave and blessing.”
“I’ve no money for such a long journey, my lord,” Kamal replied. “I scarcely had enough money to come here.”
“Arrangements will be made,” the Sultan smiled. “Go to Sijilmasa and apply to the Maqqari family in my name. Meanwhile, an advance shall be provided to you, sufficient to attend to your immediate needs.”
“I could never repay it,” Kamal said, lowering his head.
“You will soon be very rich, Kamal,” the Sultan assured him. “The Sultan of Mali does not confiscate the property of foreigners who die in his country. He waits for their relatives to come claim it.”
* * *
When Kamal received his advance, he immediately gave thanks to Allah, for a Sultan’s notion of daily expenses far exceeded anything he had ever dreamed of. It was exhilarating to have so much money at his disposal, but also a little frightening. After their interviews with the Sultan, Ibn Battuta and Kamal retired to tea shop, in the souk, where the old traveler said, “What’s your plan, lad?”
“I don’t really have one,” Kamal answered, still awe-struck by the small fortune he had been given – a pittance, perhaps, for a Sultan, but more money than he had ever seen before.
“Well, there’s no point in going down to Mali empty-handed. Acquire merchandise and do some trading.”
“When do the caravans leave?”
“Oh, not for another four or five months. It’s the month of Rabi al-Awwal right now – this is when the caravans return from the Sudan. We’ll go to Sijilmasa and join the caravans when they return to Mali. I know a jurist there, named Muhammad al-Bashiri, who is the brother of a man I met in Qanjanfu, in China. We can stay with him.”
Sijilmasa lay on the other side of the Atlas Mountains, and was the central town of the Tafilalt Oasis, which had been created by turning the waters of the Wadi Ziz into a number of irrigation canals, watering fields of grain and groves of date palms. The town stood on the east bank of the river, between the oasis and the desert – a fine, walled city inhabited by the wealthy merchants who controlled the caravan trade with Mali. The farmers of the Oasis were Berbers, and most of the merchants were from Arabia or Andalusia, but the leaders of the caravans were mostly men of the Sanhaja, the “Veiled Ones,” whom the Berbers called the Iznagen, or “Oasis People.” As promised, Ibn Battuta arranged temporary lodging with the theologian, Muhammad al-Bashiri, who was overjoyed to hear news of his brother, so far away in China.
Kamal, meanwhile, enjoying the hospitality of the jurist, was able to invest the funds advanced to him by the Sultan, through the Maqqari family, in the ingredients and implements necessary for making perfumes: he rented a little workshop, in the qasbah, the Suq Ben Aqla, near the busy potteries, and at once set to work making small batches of excellent perfume, which he measured out carefully into the most beautiful, ornate, colored glass bottles, some of them rather large, but others very small. Never in his life had he devoted so much care and even love into his grandfather’s art, but as he worked he kept thinking that these bottles of perfume might buy him a new life. Carefully, he packed the bottles in straw and wrapped them in sackcloth.
To Kamal’s delight, Muhammad al-Bashiri had agreed to begin his instruction in the Maliki tradition of sharia. This was the legal tradition, or madhhab, followed by Ibn Battuta and, indeed, by almost every jurist in the Maghreb and Andalusia.
“All of the madhhabs in the Dar-ul-Islam base their findings on the following four kinds of evidence,” Muhammad Al-Bashiri taught. “First, we look to the Qur’an, to see if Allah himself has given us direction. Next, we consult Sunnah, the statements and decisions of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Thirdly, if no guidance can be found either in the Qur’an or in Sunnah, we must fall back on Ijmaʼ, which is scholarly consensus. Finally, all the madhhabs agree that Qiyas – analogy – may be used for any new situation unforeseen by the previous three methods of deduction.”
“Analogy?” Kamal asked. “Why would Allah not give us all the knowledge we might need in the Qur’an?”
“Well, the Qur’an was given to the people of that time: Allah could not very well reveal the entire future of the universe to them, could he? No one would be able to survive, having such knowledge. But we believe that the Qur’an is perfect, being a gift from God: contained within it are clues that allow us to extrapolate – by analogy, you see – and so discover an answer to every legal question.”
“I see,” Kamal nodded.
“Now, we of the Maliki madhhab allow one other source of evidence for deduction: ʼurf. That is, local customs. If these do not contradict Islamic principles, then we believe they are permitted.”
Kamal studied hard when he was not busy in his rented shop, making perfumes. Under Muhammad al-Bashiri’s direction, he copied out two books in their entirety, the ‘Muwattah’ of Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki madhhab, and the ‘Mudawwanah,’ consisting of notes and deductions compiled by two of Malik ibn Anas’s own students. Ibn Battuta himself explained that individual hadith were not as important to the Maliki as they were to jurists of the other madhhabs. The hadiths approved by Maliki were all to be found in the collection made by Bukhari, but in general the Maliki jurists tended to put more stock in the recorded traditions of the first three generations of Muslims who lived in Medina after the Prophet’s death.
“Their examples and their ideas are the living Sunnah of the Messenger, peace by upon him,” Muhammad al-Bashiri said. “If these traditions are not contrary to the principles of Islam, we must assume they represent the earliest, most accurate interpretation of the teachings of the Qur’an and the wisdom of the Prophet.”
Ibn Battuta, meanwhile, purchased four camels and forage enough to last them four months. Kamal also equipped himself thus, for that was the custom: merchants traveled to Mali with four camels – one for their provisions and three laden with merchandise. Several caravans were organized over the course of the season, which began in the autumn. Khabirs, or Leaders, set up their headquarters in the caravanserai on the edge of the Suq Ben Aqla, recruiting merchants to join them. It was far too dangerous, Ibn Battuta explained, for anyone to try to reach Mali alone. The Sanhaja of the desert-dwelling tribes – who hired themselves as guides to the khabirs – would not allow anyone to pass through their territory without paying for protection. Then there was the matter of paying to use the wells belonging to the Sanhaja – it was easier if such delicate matters were handled by one man.
Kamal and Ibn Battuta left Sijilmasa with one of the last caravans of the season, which departed at the beginning of the month of Muharram.
* * *
The caravan included not only merchants from Sijilmasa, Fez, and Tilimsin in Ifriqiya, but stray pilgrims returning from Mecca, and a few faqirs, unaffiliated with formal Sufi orders, who were leaving Morocco on account of the new Sultan’s recent proclamation banning non-tariqa religious mendicancy. The khabir at the head of the caravan was a Massufa named ʼAbu Muhammad Yandakan. He wore a large blue turban with a long face-cloth that hid all but his nose and two discerning eyes. He was attended by two assistants, who acted as messengers, and a scribe, who looked after the caravan’s general funds.
Kamal was new to desert life, but Ibn Battuta had spent literally years of his life traveling with caravans, and was utterly unfazed by the new routine. On the first day, they marched from Sijilmasa following the afternoon prayer, and they did not halt for the sunset or dusk prayer: indeed, they continued right on until dawn, when ʼAbu Muhammad Yandakan called out the order to halt. The merchants and their servants immediately dismounted from their camels, but made sure to bend their left front legs and tie them in that position, high up, to prevent the beasts from running off. Kamal did not like to do this, for fear of hurting his camels, but Ibn Battuta snapped, “Do it! If your camels run away, you will die. Don’t worry – they’re tough animals.”
The camels clearly did not like being tied up like this, but Kamal had to admit that they stayed close by, hobbled up like that, giving everyone a chance to face eastward and offer their dawn prayers. Afterward, they pitched their little tents, lying down to rest until mid-afternoon, when the khabir would rouse them all for another march. They crossed sandy wastes, speckled with stunted acacia trees, and then followed the gentle curves of a dry desert wadi, snaking through desiccated hills composed of jumbled basalt stones the color of old iron. Finally, they reached level, sandy wastes, where there were only a few thorny bushes, widely-separated. Each night, they would light an aromatic fire of dried camel dung, and spend a little time eating their rations – sweet dates from the Sijilmasa oasis and millet pounded into porridge. The water in their leather bags was wretched, but palatable if boiled to make green tea. Ibn Battuta regaled his companions with stories of his travels – the manner in which strangers were received by the Swahili, and how they built mosques out of dried coral there; the entourage of a Byzantine princess, whose caravan he had accompanied into the steppes; the artful cookery of the Persians – which made everyone hungry – and the scent of the pepper markets of Malabar.
For the first two weeks, after passing through the hills, they found waterholes in the dry wadis where their camels could drink, although they often had to dig several feet, into the sand and gravel of the streambeds, to find any moisture. Eventually, however, they came to the sand – to the ʽarq, an endless undulation of dunes extending southward into an oblivion of haze and shimmering mirages. Here, there was no water at all, but the camels, Kamal was assured, could last fourteen days without a drink. The pale foxes that lived in the desert, in fact, were thought to pass their entire lives without drinking, deriving all their water from the few fibrous desert plants they ate, or from their prey. Even so, the camels were wretchedly thin by the time the caravan reached Taghaza.
* * *
Taghaza was the strangest place Kamal had ever seen – certainly the most barren. The entire town was built out of blocks of salt, with roofs made of camel hides – even the mosque. The landscape in all directions was sand, with not a tree in sight. There was but one well, but the water was so saline that no one could drink it; even the inhabitants had to send for water from a well situated a day’s march away.
“Ya Allah,” Kamal muttered under his breath as he walked through this oddest of towns, where there seemed to be nothing but salt, and no food at all except dates and a little grain from Sijilmasa, or the flesh of slaughtered camels.
The people spoke a peculiar dialect of Arabic, much infused with Berber, which Kamal could barely comprehend even though the men of Taghaza tried to speak simply, gesturing with their hands. They were all slaves, they explained, sent here by the Massufa. Caravans came from Walata, to obtain salt, which was highly-valued in Mali. They took Kamal out, a short distance, from the village to show him how they mined the salt, clearing away layers of sand and loose salt to get at slaps of rock-hard salt lying beneath the desert. Marveling at what he saw, Kamal returned to Taghaza to join Ibn Battuta, who was brushing away a buzzing cloud of flies with a sour look.
“Allah has forsaken this place,” the old traveler muttered. “There’s nothing good here.”
Kamal, however, noticed that many of the other merchants were purchasing salt, especially a man named Zayyan, who had come down from Tilimsin.
“Why on earth are you buying salt?” Kamal asked him as the merchant watched the Taghaza slaves carry huge rectangular slabs of salt off to the caravan’s camp, stacked and wrapped in camel-hide.
“It’s used as money by the blacks along the Nile. In some places, it’s even more sought after than gold.”
“It’s so hot they can’t survive without it,” Zayyan replied, laughing heartily as he gestured to his purchase. “That’s at least forty dinars’ worth.”
Kamal wondered if he should buy slabs of salt, too, but unlike the other merchants, he had not set out with his camels half-laden, anticipating this opportunity. In any event, he doubted if the toiling slaves of Taghaza had much need for his perfumes.
They remained at the salt mines for ten miserable days, until the fifteenth day of the lunar month of Safar, slowly collecting enough water to see them through the next leg of their journey. ʼAbu Muhammad Yandakan warned them that they would have to travel ten nights without water, but by a stroke of luck they discovered a temporary pool of sweet water, protected by two rocky outcrops. Here, they quenched their thirst, washed their clothes, and watched as the camels fought each other, thrusting their heads three and four at a time into small leather buckets.
The desert beyond this watering hole was dazzling – a wilderness of mirages and wind-blown sand. The well-beaten path they had followed from Sijilmasa this far disappeared completely, and they had to rely solely on the guide that ʼAbu Muhammad Yandakan had hired at Taghaza, who wore a patch over one eye and whose remaining eye was half-clouded over. Even so, they were assured that no one knew the way across the desert better.
“Be careful,” the guide warned them, but the merchants’ luck finding water had made them too cocky for their own good. They began to ride off on their own to hunt, or ranged forward seeking any sparse pasture for their camels. Zayyan, the fool, insisted on playing with snakes, although Kamal and Ibn Battuta urged him not to do this. One day, he seized a snake in its hole, but was bitten. Frantically, he tried to drain out the poison by scoring the wound with his knife, but even so his hand became painfully swollen. At last, he slit the throat of one of his camels and cut out its stomach, in which he laid his wounded hand all night, again with little improvement. In the morning, he chopped off his own finger, had his servants bind his wound, and did his best to keep up with the rest of the caravan.
Zayyan was lucky. After a quarrel with his maternal cousin, Ibn ʼAdi fell behind, out of disgust, and disappeared in the desert.
“We must go back!” Ibn ʼAdi insisted. “My cousin is out there somewhere!”
“Inshallah, he will survive, but probably not,” replied ʼAbu Muhammad Yandakan. “You will never find him, and if by some miracle you do, you will never be able to find your way back, or catch up with us. The caravan must keep moving.”
Further along, they passed another caravan which had backtracked, looking for several of their own men who had become lost; further along, under a lone bush, they discovered one of these men, lying dead with a whip clutched in one hand, only a mile away from the next watering hole.
They paused to bury the man, ʼAbu Muhammad Yandakan saying only, “The desert teaches by taking away” – an oft-repeated Arabic saying among the Mussafa.
While they were still several days’ from their destination, all of the merchants wrote to their agents or friends in Walata, or to anyone they thought might assist them, for no caravan could reach the city unless water and other provisions were brought out to meet the in-coming camels. Ibn Battuta wrote to Ibn Badda, a merchant from the town of Salaʼ, in Morocco, and this message along with all the others was given to a takshif, a Massufa messenger specially hired to ride on to Walata alone.
“It’s a dangerous job,” Zayyan explained, rubbing his bandaged hand. “Sometimes the takshif doesn’t make it. They say the desert ahead of us is full of jinn. They bewitch men and lead them astray. The takshif must stay focused if he is to survive, and if he dies, then so do we.”
Kamal took a deep breath. He was beginning to wonder if he would ever survive to see the Bilad al-Sudan, let alone return home to Granada.
* * *
Walata was the first proper Massufa town on the other side of the desert crossing from Sijilmasa, a town of low, red-walled brick houses plastered with red mud, on the edge of the Sea of Sand, with a rocky ridge of red hills rising immediately behind it, to the north and west. There were no wadis, but a little water raised from subterranean springs enabled the inhabitants to grow dates and a few fields of excellent watermelons.
“You can leave your camels and cargo in the square,” ʼAbu Muhammad Yandakan said. “No one will touch any of it. You must all go pay your respects to the Farba – the Sultan’s deputy.”
Kamal accompanied Ibn Battuta and the other merchants to the Farba’s house, where he sat on a thick carpet, under an archway, surrounded by guards carrying bows, spears, and onyx-hide shields. The soldiers all wore wide-brimmed hats covered with copper, curving up to a point, from which a plume of ostrich feathers sprouted. Behind them – immediately behind the Farba – stood the headmen of the Massufa. A court attendant showed the merchants where to stand, and although the Farba was seated only a few feet away, and spoke in Arabic, his every word was repeated by the attendant.
Afterward, the mushrif, or customs inspector, invited the merchants to his house, introducing himself as Mansa Ju, which meant ‘Sultan’s Slave.’ Ibn Battuta at first angrily refused to attend this gathering, but Kamal insisted that he come, saying, “He is a royal official – it would be unseemly not to put in an appearance.”
The merchants were given calabashes, cut in half, filled with a mixture of pounded millet, milk, and honey, which they all had to drink, each declaring the repast to be good.
“Intolerable!” Ibn Battuta snapped as they took their leave of the town’s governor. “Clearly, these black men hold us in contempt – they won’t even do us the courtesy of speaking with us! And what was all that with the calabashes?”
Kamal held his tongue, for although the reception of the merchants had been an oddly formal ceremony, he had not noticed any outright contempt on the part of the Farba – merely the aloofness typical of royal officials even in Granada. As for Mansa Ju, he had seemed a nice enough man, if unacquainted with the ways of Arabs and Berbers.
“Oh, it’s just the way they do things down here,” Ibn Badda assured them when they were finally installed in their host’s house. “The inspector was just being hospitable. By the end of the season, you’ll be used to everything.”
“Well, I don’t like it,” Ibn Battuta snarled.
“You don’t have to, but it’s their country. They make the rules here: you can either follow them or leave.”
Kamal tried not to laugh, for Ibn Battuta’s sake, but he had to admit that Ibn Badda had a point.
“I’ll leave with the next caravan heading back to Sijilmasa – and I shall tell the Sultan how poorly we are treated here.”
Ibn Badda chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, then, a group of pilgrims will be leaving for Sijilmasa in a few days’ time. They’re probably the last caravan that will make the crossing this season.”
* * *
Since it seemed as if Ibn Battuta was determined to return to Morocco, Kamal decided to hire a Massufa guide and continue on his way to Timbuktu. Ibn Badda assured him that the road was safe: there was no need to wait for the rest of the caravan.
Shortly after leaving Walata, they came to the Sahel, the “shore” of the Sea of Sand, a dry savannah country of sparse grasses and acacia trees that gradually gave way to a more wooded landscape filled with baobab trees. The Massufa guide explained that the trees were very old, and this Kamal could well believe, for they had very stout trunks. However, the trunks were not solid; like camels, these trees had the ability to store away enormous quantities of water in their interior hollows. Some of the trees were so large an entire caravan could have sheltered under one of them, and several hollowed-out trees boasted enormous bee-hives, while in one such tree Kamal was astonished to find a weaver working his loom, having made his home and shop inside the trunk.
“Who are the people of Mali?” Kamal asked his guide as they rode along through the vast and thinly-populated countryside.
“Mali people all Mandé, mostly Bambara,” the guide responded. “Different castes there are. Like us, being Muslims, foremost the Jula – the merchants.”
They had no need of provisions, not after leaving Walata. Kamal, at his guide’s insistence, purchased forty dinars’ worth of salt from Zayyan, and this they used as currency to purchase whatever they required. Indeed, when they came to villages, the women ventured forth, unashamed, with millet, milk in goatskin bags, chickens, lotus fruit, rice, haricot beans, and a small dark seed from which a sort of couscous was made. The guide urged Kamal to buy the couscous, which they called funi, as the rice was not healthy for white men.
Although Timbuktu lay to the east of Walata, they traveled south to the river in order to reach it. Arab and Berber traders long ago had decided that this river was the Nile, albeit hundreds if not thousands of miles upstream from Egypt. However, the river was not well known: traders from the north had only seen that part of its course in the vicinity of Jenne, Timbuktu, and Kawkaw. In the Manding tongue, the river was called Jeliba – “Great River” – while the Massufa simply termed it, “River of Rivers.” They passed quickly through the bustling market town of Zaghari, where a number of Muslim heretics had taken refuge, and came to the riverbank at Karsanju.
“From here it will be best to go on to Timbuktu by boat,” the guide said, taking his leave and accepting payment for his services. Kamal accordingly sold his camels to one of the Jula merchants, and to seal the transaction shared a calabash of juice with the man – an oddly effervescent, stimulating concoction made from something called the kola nut, which he learned was a significant article of trade in the region.
All the boats on the river were the property of the Bozo, the fisherman caste, who called themselves “Masters of the River,” although their Bambara overlords dismissed them as the “Bamboo House People,” on account of the little huts they constructed along the riverbank. Mostly they were former slaves, taken in the wars through which the mansas of Mali had expanded their empire: moreover, many of them were pagans, still honoring a totem shaped like the horns of a bull, and their long, narrow canoes, called kalungos, also were horn-shaped.
The river flowed toward the east, through many channels, forming wooded islands, but the main channel was over a thousand yards wide. Kamal had never seen anything like it, either in Andalusia or Morocco, but even more surprising were the alligators he sometimes saw, gliding through the water, or lying on exposed mud-banks along the shore. Every evening, they steered for the bank and camped at one of the villages, trading salt for fish, rice, and couscous. After several days, however, the woods along the north bank of the river became thinner, and soon sand dunes could be seen again, as well as a thriving village alongside a landing crowded with boats.
“Timbuktu, port this is – ashore going,” the Bozo boatmen explained. “Name Kabara is – this place.”
Kamal nodded, following the Bozos’ words as best he could. He was beginning already to learn something of the Manding language.
Kamal and his trade goods were set on shore, and he learned that the city was a short march north of the river, on the edge of the desert. So, hiring porters to carry his baggage, he made his way on foot to the gates of Timbuktu, on foot.
* * *
The Farba of Timbuktu received Kamal with every mark of respect, albeit according to the customs of Mali, and soon enough the young Andalusian was conducted to the house of the Maqqari family’s agent, one of the young scions of that famous lineage of trans-Saharan traders.
“Praise be to Allah, who created the world!” Ibn Maqqari cried, offering Kamal a warm greeting. “We did not know what to think! It has been so long since your uncle died – peace be upon him! But you have come – finally – and this makes us happy.”
Ibn Maqqari called for green tea, inviting Kamal to sit down. He was astonished by the merchant’s home – indeed, by everything in Timbuktu. The entire city was built of mud, shaped by hand, giving all the buildings, large and small, a rounded, slightly askew appearance. However, within they were very neat and tidy, decorated with carpets, brass and copperwares, intricately carved wooden screens, and even plastered walls painted with floral designs. Even more astonishing was the fact that Ibn Maqqari’s wife and daughter joined them, unveiled, serving the tea and honey-cakes with their own hands.
“Who is the stranger, father?” Ibn Maqqari’s daughter asked.
In Kamal’s country, women were not entirely confined and veiled, but he had noticed that in Morocco, where the fundamentalist Almovorid dynasty had reigned for nearly two centuries, prior to the rise of the Marinids, the men were considerably more jealous and unreasonable. Ibn Maqqari, however, had adopted the easygoing ways of Mali. He had married a Sudanese woman, and his daughter’s visage and form, therefore, was a blend of Arab and African features that took Kamal’s breath away, literally. All through the journey, the old traders had warned him that the women of the Sudan were as beautiful as the houris of Paradise, but he had not believed them.
“This, my dear, is the nephew of my old friend, Ishaq Ibrahim, the Andalusian architect.”
“Bismillah!” exclaimed the merchant’s wife, who was a queenly, stout Malian lady. “You have come all that way?”
“The journey was indeed difficult,” Kamal replied, “but much is at stake, I gather.”
“Yes, yes,” Ibn Maqqari nodded. “Your uncle left behind quite a fortune, and I will be very pleased to have it off my hands.”
Without further ado, Ibn Maqqari finished his tea and took Kamal to his well-secured storerooms, to show him his uncle’s treasure. The young man braced himself: four hundred pounds of gold is, after all, four hundred pounds of gold.
“Ya Allah,” was all he could say, staring into the large chest. He had to wonder, seriously, if there was that much gold circulating in all of Granada.
“Your uncle died after a short illness, but he dictated a will, which names you as his executor.”
“Me?” Kamal snorted. “Well, it’s a good thing they sent me, then, isn’t it?”
Ibn Maqqari nodded. “I will give you the document itself – witnessed by me as chief of the Arabs and Berbers. Now comes the hard part. I’m afraid your uncle married two women of this country, and let me just say that they will not stand for any funny business. Everyone in Timbuktu is a merchant at heart – even the women. You’d better deal straight with them, and have the qazi present to witness everything.”
* * *
Kamal was feasted by Ibn Maqqari, enjoying a proper meal for the first time in weeks – mutton pilaf glistening with ghee – but when he went to Ishaq Ibrahim’s house to meet his widows, the two ladies made it quite clear that the matter of inheritance was to be settled at once. They had waited for a settlement for years. Could Kamal not see what a state their household had fallen into? What had taken him so long?
Reading the will, Kamal sat down with his uncle’s widows in their dusty but sprawling mud-walled mansion and said, “The Qurʼan has laid out rules for inheritance in the fourth sura: that shall guide us in the division of the estate, but first we must tally up my uncle’s wealth.”
The counting was done by Kamal and Ibn Maqqari together, observed by the two widows, while the qazi offered advice regarding the proper division of the estate. Ishaq Ibrahim had left behind forty-five thousand dinars’ worth of gold, from which outstanding debts totaling three thousand dinars had to be deducted.
“Does Ishaq Ibrahim’s father still live?” the qazi asked.
Kamal hesitated, glancing at the two widows and the dismal condition of his uncle’s mansion. What a question! But having begun to study law, Kamal recently had memorized the fourth sura of the Qurʼan, in particular the verses concerning inheritance, and he knew that if his grandfather was still alive, the matter was finished – the old man would inherit everything.
“He died,” Kamal said.
It’s not exactly a lie, Kamal thought. The plague was raging in Andalusia… if I’m honest with myself, I must accept that probably my grandfather is dead by now. Perhaps everyone is.
Following the rules laid down in the Surah an-Nisa of the Qurʼan, they set aside seven thousand dinars – one-sixth of the estate – as the inheritance due to Kamal’s father. No small windfall for a glove-maker! But was he still alive to enjoy it? As for the widows, the youngest was to have one-quarter share, or ten thousand five hundred dinars, while the eldest, who had borne a daughter, received five thousand two hundred and fifty dinars. However, her daughter’s portion was fourteen thousand dinars – the one-third share laid down by Allah’s commandment. Following Maliki madhhab rules regarding inheritance, everything remaining was to be appropriated to the use of the residuaries. Since Kamal was the only residuary, his share thus was seven thousand two hundred and fifty dinars.
To Kamal’s dismay, however, the two widows seemed rather unhappy with this settlement, but he soon learned the reason for their displeasure.
“We have become accustomed to a high standard of living,” the youngest widow replied, sourly. “We have been living for years on borrowed funds, you see. Much of what has just been given to us has already been spent, despite economies.”
* * *
Kamal remained with the widows, whose names were Fatima and Noor. The eldest wife’s daughter, meanwhile, was named Heera, after the name of the cave outside Mecca where the Prophet had received the first revelation of the Qurʼan. She was only a little younger than Kamal, but as yet unmarried, and – to Kamal’s surprise – she was a black woman of Mali, like her mother. That evening, after Fatima and Noor had retired to their rooms, Heera joined Kamal in the antechamber, removing the scarf from her head to reveal strands of intricately braided hair. She smiled brightly, and Kamal was struck both by her beauty and her natural charm.
“I crave a private word with you, Kamal,” she said. “We are cousins after all.”
“Oh, no,” Kamal said, staring at her.
“Are you upset because I am not white, like you?” she asked.
“No,” Kamal replied, quickly. “No – it’s not that at all. You’re not Ishaq Ibrahim’s daughter, are you?”
“My father was your uncle’s business partner,” Heera explained. “When he died, your uncle married my mother.”
“Then you’re not adopted?”
“Thanks be to God,” Kamal smiled, closing his eyes and sighing with relief. “If you were adopted, you would not be entitled to your inheritance.”
Heera gave him a wry, inquiring look, and said, “Your grandfather isn’t dead, is he?”
“I have no idea,” Kamal admitted. “But he’s an old man. What need does an old man have for so much money? He is not poor. Anyway, trying to take all that back to Andalusia, I would probably get myself killed by bandits. My uncle made a new life here – he had a family. The money should stay here, with you.”
“What about yourself? Will you go back?”
“I think I might like to stay, actually,” Kamal replied. “I like it here. And I have a feeling the plague will remain north of the desert – Inshallah. This is a haven.”
“Will you become a trader, then?”
“I thought I might do some trading, yes,” Kamal nodded, “but I’d like to study sharia, too, and become a jurist. I hear there’s an excellent madrassa here in Timbuktu.”
“Yes! Your uncle built it – and the mosque, and the palace, too. You must see them for yourself. Wonders, they are. Mansa Musa praised your uncle to the skies and showered him with every blessing.”
Kamal stood and walked over to one of his bags, still unpacked. He opened it and produced a small bottle of perfume, which he gave to Heera.
“I made this,” he said. “My family are perfumers to the Emirs of Granada.”
Heera admired the beautifully crafted, shiny bottle, unstopped it, sniffed the scent, and placed a tiny dab on her fingertip, applying it to her neck.
“Beautiful!” she exclaimed, smiling.
“Keep it,” Kamal insisted. He blushed, adding, “The women of Andalusia do not hide themselves, like the Moorish women do, but still, I am unaccustomed to speaking so openly with a lady.”
“You’re doing a good job so far,” Heera laughed, gently, giving him an encouraging look.
“Everything is so different here,” Kamal said. “I’m afraid I still have much to learn.”
“Don’t worry – I will teach you. And don’t be so bashful. In our culture, it is normal for a man – even married men – too have female friends who are not their wives: and the women, too, have male friends. We are not a jealous people, like the Arabs and Berbers.”
* * *
Kamal quickly became absorbed into the routines of life in Timbuktu, and Heera and he soon became close friends as they spent each evening chatting, his cousin explaining to him how things were done here in Mali.
The city of Timbuktu had been founded by Massufa migrants from Walata. They had brought Islam and their language – Tamasheq – to the region, intermarrying with the Mandé, and their town also had hosted a few hundred Arab and Berber residents on a more or less permanent basis for nearly two hundred years. By now, with the city just coming into its own, nearly the entire population was of mixed ancestry. Kamal, however, soon learned to distinguish the different castes into which the population was divided, for apart from the tribal and clan divisions of the Mandé there were occupational divisions as well. The ʼulema, or Islamic scholarly caste, for instance, were called the karamogo, and they presided over the Sankoré Madrassa, which was attacked to the Friday Mosque. Most of the inhabitants were Jula, or merchants, but there also were members of the sixteen quiver-bearing clans – the military nobles whose lineages provided consorts for the Malian rulers.
Kamal was fascinated by the Sankoré Madrassa, for here in the African wilderness was one of the great libraries of the world. Keenly conscious of the isolation of Mali, and determined to build a great Islamic society in this far corner of the Dar-ul-Islam, Mansa Musa had brought literally tens of thousands of manuscripts to Timbuktu. Even more books, meanwhile, had been copied out by the scholars of Mali, who added new works to the storehouse of knowledge almost daily. Anyone who wanted to learn could study at the Sankoré: poor scholars were hosted for free, while the well-to-do – young men like Kamal – contributed to the waqfs, or endowments, that supported the academy. Alongside students of every color, Kamal studied diligently, and the curriculum was both rigorous and comprehensive. The scholars at Sankoré were expected to master the Arabic language and learn to recite the Qurʼan in its entirety from memory. However, that was just the beginning of their training. In addition to studying the reasoning and decisions of the Maliki madhhab, the scholars at Sankoré also learned history, geography, chemistry, astronomy, and algebra.
Kamal decided not to send his father’s portion of the inheritance off to Andalusia immediately, just in case his grandfather was still alive. Instead, he took charge of it, as executor, and invested in trade, purchasing stocks from the merchants who had come across from Sijilmasa. He bought cowries from the Maldives, cutlery, paper, sandalwood, spices, glass, and every other thing one could imagine; with Heera’s help, he formed a partnership with Jula traders who carried these goods to the southern forests, where white merchants were not allowed to go – to the secret places, hidden from Arab and Berber curiosity, where the Malians obtained their gold.
The heat of summer came, and the sun shone down so fiercely that wax melted, and the juxtaposition of interior shadows and exterior brilliance was extreme enough to hurt one’s eyes. Ibn Battuta, to Kamal’s surprise, turned up, complaining as usual. He had gone directly to the mansa’s court, near the town of Kangaba, and had come away, after a few months, disgusted and emaciated by sickness.
“These damned people haven’t figured out whether they’re Muslims or pagans,” the old traveler snarled, calling on Kamal at the mansion where he resided with his uncle’s widows and Heera. “You should have seen the ceremonies I had to witness. They learn the Qurʼan by heart, but the mansa has female slaves and even his own daughters running around naked at court, and all sorts of heathen sooth-sayers and what-not, and no end of ceremonies… and did we get any robes of honor? Any gifts of gold? Nothing. Mansa Musa may have had a reputation for generosity, but his brother is the lord of all skinflints! He gives me a calabash of mush and expects me to disrobe and cover myself with dust! Damn these people to hell. I can’t wait to get back to Morocco.”
Kamal heard Ibn Battuta’s complaints, but said very little; indeed, he was happy to bid the Moroccan pilgrim farewell, for he soon pressed on in the direction of Kawkaw, determined to find a place where someone might give him gold for doing nothing. After months among the people of Mali, he still did not realize that sharing a king’s own food was a gift far greater than mere gold. The mush, Kamal realized, was a symbol of respect and brotherhood – a symbol entirely lost on Ibn Battuta, who might as well have been blind and deaf, so constricted he was, by his own dark desires.
Ibn Battuta is a greedy, lazy man, Kamal thought. It was not a charitable idea, he admitted, but he could come to no other conclusion. How odd it was, he thought, that someone could be so well-traveled, perhaps the most well-traveled man who had ever lived, and still be a bigot, deep down inside.
Kamal dismissed Ibn Battuta: he had decided, rather firmly, to remain in Mali, and thus he set about learning the local languages. The Manding tongue spoken by most of the people in the empire was a relatively simple tongue compared with Andalusian Arabic. Sentences were constructed with the subject first, then the object, and finally the verb, whereas in Arabic – and in the Massufa language – the verb often came first, followed by the subject and then the object. Moreover, in Manding, there were no inflections for gender, while various relationships were expressed by means of post-positions. Finally, the language was tonal, so that slight adjustments in pronunciation could dramatically alter the meanings of certain words that otherwise were identical. All of these things Kamal learned from Heera, and, at some point – it was difficult to remember – they had started kissing, and, well… one thing led to another. There were few things quite as seductive, Kamal realized, as learning a foreign tongue from a beautiful young woman.
* * *
There was no prohibition against cousins marrying in Islam. Indeed, it was rather common: the Prophet Muhammad himself had married one of his cousins. In any event, Kamal and Heera were not related, strictly speaking, and since they were friends and lovers, no one saw any reason to impede their happy union. Indeed, Mansa Suleyman – the ruler of Mali – appointed Kamal to be his royal perfumer, and Kamal opened a new trade, exporting civet musk to Morocco, the musk being acquired by hunters in the southern jungles, beyond the frontiers of the Malian Empire.
Compared with Granada – even compared with Morocco – Mali was politically stable, which was, of course, good for trade. Mansa Suleyman was not especially popular, but he was a shrewd and just ruler. The only threat during his reign was posed by his queen, the Qasa, who conspired against him with one of the army commanders. Mansa Suleyman caught wind of the conspiracy, however, and imprisoned his queen. In accordance with Mandé custom, the mutinous army commander was shown no mercy, all the more so because his treachery aided a revolt by the Wolof people in the western part of the empire.
Years passed, and Kamal became one of the leading foreign merchants of Timbuktu, residing in his uncle’s old mansion with his wife, Heera. They multiplied their combined inheritance, year by year, becoming wealthy and well-known. Kamal, meanwhile, completed his studies at the Sankoré Madrassa and received a diploma declaring him to be competent to judge all cases concerning commerce, estates, or family law. Indeed, he was as proud of this attainment as he was of his fortune. He rarely thought about Andalusia at all, except when remembering how much better his life in Mali was.
And then it happened.
Kamal might have anticipated it, but he had been too caught up in the excitement and wonder of making a new life in a new land. We can’t escape from history, he told himself, when it finally happened.
A man turned up in Timbuktu, from Granada itself, with a letter from Kamal’s grandfather. The fellow had meant no harm, but he had heard that Kamal was in Timbuktu, and had applied to the qazi for an introduction. The qazi reported this irregularity to Mansa Suleyman, who summoned Kamal to appear at court. Sensing danger, Kamal did not obey the summons.
“You must flee,” Heera advised. “Don’t go before the mansa – he will kill you. The mansa is just, but he is very strict, and if he finds out you have lied….”
“But where will I go?” Kamal asked, terrified. “If I try to reach Sijilmasa, I won’t make it. If I join a caravan, they’ll catch me: if I try to make it alone, I’ll die. And I can’t go to the southern forests, either: the pagans would kill me.”
“I know a place,” Heera said, breathlessly, seizing his head between her hands, forcing him to look at her. “Go to the cliffs of Bandiagara. Seek refuge with the people there: but you must not let on that you are a Muslim or they might kill you.”
“What manner of people are there?”
“People of the old religion who have fled to the hills. It is the Dar-ul-Harb, and full of demons, but it’s your only hope.”
Kamal disappeared, while there was still time, although it was difficult to tear himself away from Heera. He crossed the river and traveled south and west, into the bush. It was a dry country, a country of red earth, yellow grass, and rocks, thorny bushes, scattered trees… at last, he saw the Bandiagara Escarpment, sweeping across the horizon, a line of cliffs over a thousand feet high, stretching on for as far as the eye could see.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Kamal proceeded toward the cliffs until he could see, perched high up the mountainside, under an overhanging rock ledge, the most peculiar town he had ever laid eyes on – a jumble of round and square structures, many of them shaped vaguely like people, with conical roofs made of thatch and wood. This was the secret land of the Dogon, a people no one in these parts could account for. They had come from the east, fleeing from those who were converting to Islam – from those who, lacking gold, hunted pagan men and women for the slave trade. Kamal took a deep breath, wondering what he should do next. The Dogon, after all, were trying to hide: to them, all Muslims were slave traders, but – perhaps worst of all – they were people who connected others to the larger world. The Dogon were a people of secrets: the Muslims were a people of revelations. Kamal could think of few sins worse than denying Allah and the Qurʼan. He wondered, looking up at the strange Dogon town, whether telling the truth or lying was the better part of valor?
Lying got me into this, he decided. I’ll tell them the truth, and – Inshallah – I will be spared.
This story is based on the history of the Kingdom of Mali during the reign of Mansa Musa and Mansa Suleyman; it also draws upon the Rihla of Ibn Battuta – the account of the Moroccan travelers’ journeys that was dictated to the Andalusian writer Ibn Juzayy. Kamal and the members of Ishaq Ibrahim’s family are fictitious, but the Andalusian architect is not: he did, indeed, design the world-famous monuments of Mali, and it is recorded that his family was involved in the perfume trade in Granada. All the people mentioned in connection with the caravan journey are historical. The poem inserted into the story is quoted by Ibn Battuta's amanuensis, Ibn Juzayy, but no author's name is given, and I have not been able to trace its origin.
My purpose, in writing this story, is fairly complex: I wanted to show how Andalusian, Moroccan, and African Islamic societies were interconnected in the 14th century, less than two hundred years before the European colonization of the Atlantic World. I also wanted to show a West African Islamic society in its formative stages: historians have noted that Islam in West Africa passed through distinctive stages – first, a period of encounter, in which Muslim minorities lived ensconced within pagan societies, followed by a period of “accommodation,” in which a Muslim ruling elite emerged, finding common ground with a still largely pagan society. This is the situation at the time of this story. Later, there would be a period of “reform,” when syncretistic (i.e., “melting pot”) Islam is challenged by fundamentalist “reformers” seeking to extirpate what they consider to be pagan accretions.
This is a very timely tale, especially when we reflect upon recent events in the modern country of Mali. Islamic fundamentalist rebels took over the northern and eastern parts of the country during the summer of 2012, including the cities of Timbuktu and Gao (old Kawkaw). The tombs of the Sufi saints of Timbuktu have been destroyed, but the fate of the Sakoré Library – one of the greatest medieval libraries in the world – hangs in the balance. As a center of tolerant Maliki learning, it is unlikely to be spared by the heretical and intolerant Wahhabi rebels. Officially, the library – indeed, much of Timbuktu – is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The stated goal of the main rebel army is to create a separate Tuareg state, but an Al-Qaeda connected sub-section of the rebel army also wants to impose a strict Wahhabi interpretation of sharia throughout the “liberated” territories.
Postscript: Since the writing of this story, Timbuktu has been liberated from the Wahhabi raiders, and - to the great relief of scholars - it was discovered that the people of the city had risked their lives to hide and protect the contents of the great library during the occupation. Consequently, although some items undoubtedly were lost, most of the library was saved.
Postscript: Since the writing of this story, Timbuktu has been liberated from the Wahhabi raiders, and - to the great relief of scholars - it was discovered that the people of the city had risked their lives to hide and protect the contents of the great library during the occupation. Consequently, although some items undoubtedly were lost, most of the library was saved.
 The Black Death had arrived in Europe in 1348, two years before the beginning of this story.
 Serendip was the Islamic name for the island of Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, off the southeastern coast of India.
 The Sudan, in this period, did not refer to the modern country, but to the whole of sub-Saharan Africa from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea.
 This is the famous “Market at the End of the World,” so-called because Morocco was, for a long time, the western frontier of the Islamic World.
 Ifriqiya, the origin of the modern word “Africa,” in this period referred only to the region corresponding to the modern countries of Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
 Literally, “A throne platform or a funeral bier.”
 A qazi is an Islamic judge.
 An archipelago of coral atolls off the southwestern coast of India.
 Allah-u akbar, meaning, “God is great!” A very common Islamic slogan.
 Anyone who had made the Hajj to Mecca was permitted to take the title al-Hajji. In the Middle Ages, most people could not afford to make the Hajj.
 In this story, the Sanhaja and Massufa are synonymous. They are better known today as the Tuareg.
 Dar-ul-Islam – the “House of Islam,” or the area of the world that either was under the rule of Islamic kings or else was predominately Muslim. A Muslim equivalent of the Western term “Christendom.”
 The Arabic term ʽarq is the source of the word “erg,” used by geologists for large fields of sand dunes.
 Medieval Muslims believed that the great river of Mali – the Niger – was actually the Nile. They had no proper comprehension of the shape or size of Africa in those days.
 The medieval Kawkaw is today’s Gao, in Mali.
 These “heretics” were members of the schismatic ʼIbazia sect, whose beliefs about the nature of Allah were different from those of other Sunni Muslims.
 Establishing the value of a dinar is difficult since we do not have good economic records from this period. However, the daily wage of an artisan in Granada in the 14th century probably was around 2-3 dinars per day. Prices in Mali seem to have been somewhat higher. A base annual income in Timbuktu might have been approximately 1,500-2,000 dinars a year.
 Loaning money at interest was forbidden in Islam, but loans were still possible: those incurring debt paid a loan transaction fee, and a series of loan maintenance fees, rather than interest.
 We are not certain what the Black Death actually was, but high altitudes and climatic extremes – intense cold, aridity, and heat – seem to have stopped it. According to our records, the plague did not reach either India or sub-Saharan Africa.
 Dar-ul-Harb, meaning “House of War” – this was how Muslims referred to the non-Islamic world, against which it was lawful to wage jihad.
Copyright, William Lailey 2012.