History is often kinder to the victor than the vanquished. All praise is for the victorious but sometimes even the vanquished find honourable mention in the pages of time like Horatius. However, there are battles where the tales of the conquerors are blown away by the winds of time like chaff from rice, leaving behind only dust.
What would it feel to have your name erased from the pages of history like dust, in spite of being a queen?
I was a queen once, holding dominion over both land and sea, the apple of the eye of my parents and a beloved wife to a worthy man. Men bowed before me in deference and respect. Enemies quaked at my name and sent curses my way. I had a Sultan come to me once, in deference to my wishes. I had everything in this world. Who knew then a time would come when no one would even remember my name?
I am Aisha Bint Rashid Al-Alami, the erstwhile governor of Tetuan, called Sayyida Al Hurra, the sovereign lady who bows to no superior authority. A0s Allah is my witness, I never bowed before anyone, human or spirit, other than Allah.
This refusal to bow before others is why I spend my last days all alone, away from a comfortable life and the presence of loved ones, all taken away from me in the blink of an eye. I have no one but time as a companion and it is cruel company indeed. It assails me with memories of a better time and tries to turn my stoicism to despair. But time is a human construct and I am a creation of Allah’s will. With Allah by my side, I shall want for nothing.
“Wake up, Ayesha! Quick! Not a sound. We have to leave right now.”
Ummi encouraged me as I got up, sleep refusing to leave the abode of my eyes. Sharp, but subdued words floated in from the next room where my brother Ibrahim slept. Baba was trying to wake him, with frequent admonishments to keep quiet. Some of our belongings were tied up in rude cloth sacks on one side. Muted sounds of hurried movements travelled the corridor outside. Everything was shrouded under silence as if the slightest sound was an enemy waiting at our heels. Once we were awake, we all left.
A big group of people was gathered in our compound. The families huddled together while the heads had a whispered talk. Mothers shushed little kids and pressed the infants to their bosoms lest they wail out in their terror and confusion.
Soon we all were herded into small carts. As we left our homes in the dead of night, the only sound that could be heard was the carts’ wheels moving over the gravel. Granada, the last bastion of the Islamic rule in Iberia. Granada, the last Islamic hold to fold before the Castilian might. Granada that had bravely fought but had finally been brought to its knees as much by infighting as well as a superior enemy.
Little did I know then that I would never again set my foot inside the alleys I spent my childhood in. I would never get to pick those scarlet pomegranate fruits, weighing down the verdant branches of the lush trees dotting our little orchards. Or smell the fresh air, pregnant with the citrusy tang of oranges, surroundings our house like a much loved veil.
With one treaty that had been signed between two warring parties, I had become an exile from my own homeland.
The terms of the treaty were generous enough but agreements are empty words on paper and worth less than the wind that blows across the moors if they aren’t enforced. Who knows what lies in the hearts of men? Life in Granada would be always dangerous for my father, one of the rebel leaders. So we were taking passage on King Ferdinqnd’s ships to Morocco, without persecution as promised.
The arduous journey would be the easy part. The difficult part would begin once we landed. To find a foothold in society… to make a home in the wilderness… to build a life from scratch. There would be no guarantee of food, shelter, or even warmth in this cold January for this harsh beginning.
The elders didn’t seem too troubled about leaving our lives behind. Most were actually hopeful of returning in a few years time, some of them foolish enough to take the keys to their holdings and houses with them.
My little heart, though, was beset with sorrow and eyes overflowed with bitter tears. My best friend, my sister, Hala and her family had decided to place their trust in the generosity of the Castiles and had elected to stay behind. Her Usman was going to wed my Laila in a couple of days. Now Laila lay abandoned in my room and I wondered if she would even get married? Who would care for her, deck her like a bride and ensure the bridal feast of sherbet, roast meat and dates? When you are fleeing for your lives, who has time to think of dolls or childhood games? I didn’t know it then but along with Laila, I relinquished my childhood too among those sprawling halls and the wide arched courtyards.
We reached Morocco and with the blessings of the ruler of Fez, settled under the mountains of Rif, where my father, The Qaid Moulay Ali established the city of Chefchaouen. The distance between Granada and Morocco wasn’t much but the distance that stretched between my past and present was as insurmountable as the number of drops in the sea we crossed. The journey severed a part of my life, and the wound was one that would always bleed raw.
Setting up life in a new place isn’t easy but childhood is a time of learning and wonder. When everyone is working together towards a common goal, the hard work involved isn’t recalled as a struggle endured, but a joy shared. Soon humble looking little houses sprung up in Chefchaouen, scrambled together from stone and rude mud bricks. Though they were humble they weren’t haphazard since we emulated the street plans of Granada.
The land didn’t have much to yield, except the date palm trees that dotted the little courtyards of the houses. As the palms craned their necks towards the sky with successive years, so did the kids.
Being a daughter of a chieftain, I was lucky enough to have an upbringing suitable to my status. Special teachers were brought in from Fez, Oran, Tunis and even Andalus to ensure I knew my languages, theology, history and arithmetic. I was fluent in Castilian, Portuguese and Arabic and could count swiftly in my head the big sums that were set as tests. I was taught to use weapons and warcraft lest a day arise when I needed to plan battles. Once a renowned teacher saw me and announced,
“She is destined for great things. She will indeed rise high in rank.”
How can I tell you how happy his words made me!! It felt like a prophecy. But just like the lying clouds of Chefchaouen, which came laden with the promise of rain and passed away without fulfilling their promise to the arid land, so did my destiny turn out to be nothing but empty promises.
I grew up, a prize catch for the rulers of the various cities around us, built and populated by my brothers and sisters in faith, fleeing the dreaded inquisition of Ferdinand and Isabella. The infidel royal couple had reneged on their word. They hadn’t waited even a decade to show their true colours.The Jews and the Muslims were being persecuted alike for practising their faith. Called Moriscos, my people of faith, were either enslaved, killed or exiled. Those who could flee did, with nothing but the clothes on their back and came either to Fez, Chefchaouen or found refuge within the bosom of the mountains among the Berber tribes. Their stories of torture and the glee with which the dreaded inquisitors carried out their nefarious deeds were sufficient to melt the hearts of even the mountains.
Innocence like ignorance can be a mercy. Would I have remained as carefree and with the ability to enjoy life had I witnessed the deaths of acquaintances and family members, ruthlessly murdered or converted to a religion that spoke of mercy as the founding tenet of its religion? A hundred thousand tortured, broken, or enslaved, and many more dead or vanished at the hands of the inquisition.
My father never ceased his efforts to persecute the Iberians and their holds on the the Northern shore of Morocco and nearby cities, like Cueta and Tangiers, in retaliation for being forced to leave. It was no surprise when the famous general Abu Hassan Ali Mandari, the one who held Granada till his last breath, came looking for refuge, he was granted permission to build the ruined city at Tetuan, turned to rubble by the Portuguese eighty years back. Along with his blessings for building the city my Baba gave him my hand in marriage.
Abu Hassan was like most Arabs from the Iberian peninsula. Unlike my fair skin and eyes like the deep blue sea, courtesy of my Christian mother, he had dark skin and darker eyes. His sombre eyes marched his swarthy complexion and the scowl on his face. To me it seemed that each breath he exhaled was laden with hate for the Castilians. Though I had grown up loathing those who displaced us from our rightful home, I was a little scared of his vehement hate for the Castilians. The thirty years that stretched between us didn’t help matters any.
I remember the day I came to know of my betrothal. I had dreams of a young and handsome husband, someone who would match me in fairness and beauty. How foolish I was. I didn’t know that in the games of kings, beauty comes second to power and prestige.
“Ayesha,” Baba said, my bed chamber dwarfed by dignified presence. “You value beauty above compatibility and love above honour. A marriage needs understanding, kindness and respect more than it needs love. Someone who will cherish you for your abilities and accomplishments is far superior to the one who values you for your beauty. If you marry Ali Mandari, he will love, honour, and cherish you. Once you marry him, you will be nothing less than a queen, a ruler alongside him.”
“He is quite older to you but his age sits well on his raven locks and broad shoulders. It bestows him with much more experience than someone your age. You are a daughter of kings and you will be a ruler in your own right one day. His experience will help you to achieve your destiny.”
I stood before him, my tongue cloven to my palate, and nodded in acquiescence. I wasn’t going to be the reason my Baba’s words turned to dust, even though despair tore at my heart like the mountain wind that ruffles the palm fronds.
I was fearful of a marriage with an older man, but all my fears turned out to be unfounded.
No man lived who was nobler, more dignified or who loved me more, barring Baba. Abu Hassan’s love and respect towards me was like the mountains, deep rooted, strong, and immovable. He involved me in the day-to-day management of the city, and would listen to my suggestions. When he would be away fighting the Iberians, I would manage the city’s affairs. Because of my education, and knowledge of statecraft, I soon gained the acceptance and respect of the city.
He was away so much! Fighting against the Spanish and the Portuguese. Oh! How handsome he looked when he came back victorious from one of his raids, his grin lighting up his eyes, the glow of the win on his radiant face reminiscent of a child’s joy at having received his favourite toy.
Alas! I must have tempted fate with my connubial bliss. It didn’t last for even a dozen years. When the women’s ululations had rent the air at my wedding, I had thought they were mirroring my despair. But I hadn’t heard true keening till the day my husband died. The city resounded with broken cries. His hearse was followed by a stream of people as large as the sea that separated Andalus with Morocco, the land that he believed was his and the one which made him his own.
My grief was palpable. I refused to groom myself. I renounced food and became as frail as the dry desert grass. Whispers would reach my ears that I had lost my mind, but I couldn’t care less.
Once again it was my father who brought me to my senses.
“Ayesha, The city is suffering as much from your neglect. Who would manage the affairs of the city and feed its coffers? There are murmurings among the wealthier clans about seizing the management of Tetuan. They question how a woman will govern a city if she cannot govern her emotions?”
“I realize you have suffered a great personal loss and are grieving, but we aren’t like the others. Increased responsibility expects greater sacrifices. Rise and claim what is yours.”
His words were like sunshine dispelling the fog of my grief. I was destined for great things and it was time to accept the responsibility that had been thrust on me.
I called a meeting of the working committee and informed them of my decision to assume the governorship of Tetuan. After all, who could do it better than me? They all pledged their support happily and the prophecy made long ago finally materialized. I became Sayyida Al Hurra, a noble lady born free and a ruler in her own right instead of just Ayesha.
One day, not long after I became Hakimat Tetuan, I sat with my aides, when a lady desirous of meeting me was announced. One look at her state was enough to invoke deep sympathy. Pale, wrinkled skin on a wan face that progressed into a frail thin body, like a grass of wheat. Her scalp had lost hair in clumps and wounds festered on her skin. She looked emaciated but her eyes shone with a manic gleam. She stared at me for a few moments, expecting some recognition or response. However, finding none, she broke into shrill laughter, cackling like the witches of children’s tales.
Everyone stared at her in amazement at her bizarre behaviour.
“It is deplorable how fickle human memory is. This skin becomes wrinkled and renders one unrecognizable. You called me sister. We two were inseparable once. Remember Hala, your friend from Granada? I stayed the same but you have changed. Maybe that’s why you can’t recognize me, Ayesha. Or should I say, Sayyida Al Hurra?
Hala? Ya Allah! How could this aged broken woman before me be my dearest Hala? She was my age and a radiant beauty with unblemished skin and even, milky teeth. This woman was full of scars and even her teeth were missing. I got up and clasped her in an embrace. I pledged to make those who did this to her, pay in full.
“I always remembered you, Ayesha,” she sobbed. “The day after you left, I went to your uncle who stayed behind. After needling him a lot, I took Laila from your room, to arrange her marriage just as you would have done. You remember your doll Laila? The one who was betrothed to my Usman? We two were like the grains of wheat on one stalk. How different are our circumstances now!!
She soon conveyed her whole sordid story. She and her family had been noticed by the inquisition for practising their faith in secret after being converted to Christianity forcefully. That she had endured unimaginable torture was evident from her marred skin and patchy scalp, where the infidels had pulled out her hair in clumps. They had somehow managed to flee on a ship run by the dreaded corsair, Baba Oruç and had come to me looking for refuge.
Such cruelty! Such treachery! Now I knew why Abu Hassan believed so strongly in fighting against these Castilians. I vowed to continue his fight, on land and on sea.
I arranged a meeting with the corsair Baba Oruç, whom the christians called Barbaross. They never seem to get their names right. When he strode into the room where I sat waiting, his tall and muscular bearing and flowing red beard was sufficient to know why the christians dreaded him so.
He bowed, and then said, “Sayyida Al Hurra, may I know the purpose of this meeting?”
I bade him sit. As I told him my plans for the Castilians, he listened gravely, while his fingers kept a steady rhythm on his gleaming silver prosthetic left arm, the gleam reflecting in his excited eyes.
And so was born the alliance that smote fear into the hearts of the Castilians like Mose’s staff. According to my terms, Barbaross would be free to attack and capture the European ships in the east of the Mediterranean Sea while I would take care of the west. I would supply the manpower and ammunition and he would be the one running the operations. We would divide the booty equally. He would also transport the exiles and those running away from the inquisition to the northern shores and I would pay for any expenses he incurred.
And so with this long and profitable alliance, I transformed into a pirate. The Iberians began calling me the Pirate Queen even though I seldom commanded ships. I preferred to carry out the ransom negotiations and manage Tetuan with the treasures collected from the attacks.
However, when the Pope’s ship itself was rumoured to be crossing the Straits of Gibraltar with him and his retinue, it was too good an opportunity to be missed. I resolved to handle this personally.
We lay in wait for the galley, our ships hiding behind a cave, invisible to a ship running through the sea and attacked swiftly. The Christians had no chance. My men swarmed aboard the galley and overcame the crew and the screaming passengers alike, in no time. Most cowered witnessing the hulking frames of my men, clad in black leather, faces covered in colourful beards. Sadly, the Pope wasn’t aboard the ship, though we amassed a lot of treasure. There were many important dignitaries on board and their ransom would fetch me a substantial amount.
This daring deed multiplied the fear and hatred the Iberians had for me. Calls for my head were made among the Europeans even! My deeds were noted in the accounts by infidels themselves, however grudgingly.
Under my thirty years of governorship, Tetuan witnessed prosperity unimagined earlier. Business flourished. Peace reigned.
When everything is turned to dust by time, only stories are left behind. I earned my place in stories with my actions. Sayyida Al Hurra, the noble born free lady, who bowed before none. Not even to the King of Fez, Ahmed-Al-Wattasi who proposed marriage as a political consolidation of our domain. I agreed on the condition that the King would have to come to Tetuan if he was to marry a queen. History is witness that it was the only time a Sultan of Fez married outside their own capital.
Every star that rises, has to set sometime and my time too was nigh. Busy in the ransom negotiations and governing Tetuan, I ignored the grumblings that were taking place among my own. The blow came from within, in the form of my dead husband’s grandson, Ahmed-Al-Hassan who sided with the tribals against Ahmed-Al-Wattasi.
I sat in my chamber overlooking records when, with the sound of rude footsteps, soldiers surrounded me from all sides. I stood there, silent, waiting for the happenings to unfold when Ahmed-Al-Hassan arrived. He informed me that he had taken over the city and I had been stripped of all my powers. I was to spend my future days in isolation, without perks and benefits. My name would be stricken from all records and no mention would ever be found of me, erased like the ever shifting sand dunes.
I wasn’t going to beg him for anything but I did request him to let me spend my days in Chefchaouen where I had spent my childhood and he agreed. And here I am, in a modest mud dwelling, with one serving lady and the dust of the desert for company. I live a simple life, subsisting on the produce of the desert. It is a hard life but I have my memories to ease my solitude and the knowledge that I walk tall, once much loved and respected. I was and will remain Sayyida-Al-Hurra, the noble lady, who never bowed before anyone.
Sayyida Al Hurra was the last queen in her own right in Islamic history. She witnessed great upheavals in her life. Her life story can be found at this link.
There are hardly any records about her life available. The only mentions are found in the Spanish documents noting the ransom negotiations.
This is a fictionalized account of her life and times. The language is suited to her thoughts and is not intended to hurt anyone’s sentiments.
Iberian peninsula comprised an area that included both Spain and Portugal and was ruled by Ferdinand of Aragorn and Isabella of Castille. Arabs called Spain Al Andalus.
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