Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem; 1181-93
Everything has changed. Fortunes fluctuate like the price of diamonds in the Cairo market. When I left his side, nearly two years ago, the Sultan had conruered every pinnacle. His eyes were bright, the sun had given colour to his cheeks and his voice was relaxed and happy. Success dispels tiredness. When I saw him this morning he was clearly pleased to see me, and he rose and kissed my cheeks, but the sight of him surprised me. His eyes had shrunk, he had lost weight and he looked very pale. He observed my surprise.
‘I have been ill, scribe. The war against these wretched infidels has begun to exhaust me, but I could cope with them. It is not simply the enemy that worries me. It is our own side. Ours is an emotional and impulsive faith. Victory in battle affects Believers in the same was as banj. They will fight without pause to repeat our success, but if, for some reason, it eludes us, if patience and skill are required rather than simple bravery, then our men begin to lose their urge. Dissensions arise and some fool of an emir thinks: “Perhaps this Salah al-Din is not as invincible as we had thought. Perhaps I should save my own skin and that of my men”, and thinking these ignoble thoughts he deserts the field of war. Or another few emirs, demoralised by out lack of success, will think to themselves that during the last six months they and their men have not enjoyed the spoils of war. They imagine that it is my brothers, sons and nephews who are benfiting and so they pick a quarrel and go back to Aleppo. It is a wearying business, Ibn Yakub.
I have to fight on two fronts all the time …’
This is a long slow book, and I do not like long slow books. However, it does redeem itself more than adequately by recreating, in such detail that we willingingly suspend all doubt and disbelief, the world of Yusuf Salah ud-Din ibn Ayyub, Commander of the Brave, and if you have the time and the patience to read all the anecdotes (preferably lubricated by glasses of mint-tea – which must be made with fresh mint and green tea, and rock sugar, though this last is not essential – then you will end the book well satisfied.
I say anecdotes, for that is what it is: a series of ancdotes cleverly strung together by the device of a narrator/biographer, one Isaac ibn Yakub, friend of the physician Ibn Maymun (known to us as Maimonides). Both are Jews and both, when the book opens, are resident in Cairo, Ibn Maymun having reached there as a refugee from Cordoba in Andalus via Fes in Morocco (where he had to pass himself off as a Muslim – and about which he is still furious!).
Also resident in Cairo is the Sultan Salah ud-Din. Ibn Maymun is now the Sultan’s physician, and it is through him that Ibn Yakub meets the Sultan, becomes his personal scribe and is commissioned to compile the Book of Saladin, the story of the Sultan’s life and times.
As the book progresses and Saladin moves to Damascus en route for al-Kadisiya (Jerusalem) and the expulsion of the Franj (the Crusaders from the west), so we gradually piece together his life and the lives of those around him. For Ibn Yakub goes everywhere with him, and not only spends hours day after day, year after year, listening to the Sultan himself, but also has access to all those who are close to the Sultan.
Some of whom are great characters. For instance, Shadhi, the old Kurd (an illegitimate son of Saladin’s grandfather and now in his nineties) who knew Saladin when he was a boy, taught him to ride and to fight, and has remained at his side ever since, totally loyal, irrepressible, tactless and wise, and a fund of tales, few of them politically correct (even for that society!) and many of them not for those under 18 (in this society). An example? I like this, for instance (Shadhi is speaking now of himself when he was young back in the mountains): I was nineteen years old. Every spring my sap would rise and I would find a village wench on whom to satisfy my lust. I was no different from anyone else, except, of course, for those lads who had difficulty in finding women and went up the mountains in search of sheep and goats. You look shocked, Ibn Yakub. Recover your composure. You asked for my story and it is coming, but in my own fashion. When we were children we used to tell each other that if you fucked a sheep your penis grew thick and fat, but if you went up a goat it became thin and long!
It is good on men and women. There is a beautiful woman of twenty or so who is guilty of adultery and due to be stoned. She has been brought before Saladin to confirm the sentence. He puts her in his harem, thereby saving her life. This is Halima, who is later interviewed by our narrator (who was present when Saladin spoke to her and saved her, and himself fell more than a little in love with the girl). Now Halima is telling him about the Sultana, Jamila, a princess from Arabia who has become the Sultan’s favourite wife. Since you will never set eyes on her, Ibn Yakub, let me describe her to you. She is of medium height, not as tall as me, dark skinned and dark haired, with eyes which change colour from grey to green, depending on where you catch sight of them. As for her body, what can I say? I embarrass you again. […] It is Jamila who keeps our minds alive. Her father was an enlightened Sultan. He adored her and insisted that she be educated, just like her brothers. He refused to tolerate any attempt to restrict her learning. What she has learnt, she tries to teach us.’ Among those things is the writings of the Andalusian Ibn Rushd, who claimed that the world of those who believe in Allah is crippled by half its people being disempowered and unable to function in that world.
Saladin’s mother would have agreed. He tells Ibn Yakub that his father could never resist a pretty serving wench: He would feel the sap rise in him, and he never wasted his seed. Once my mother reproached him for this and he hurled a hadith at her head, according to which, if it is to be believed, ‘the share of a man to copulate has been predestined and he will have to do it under all circumstances.’ My mother, who was a plain-speaking woman, after a few sentences of the choicest Kurdish abuses which I will not repeat, then asked him how it had come about that men could find a hadith to justify everything they did to women, but the opposite was never the case.
In fact, Ibn Yakub does set eyes on Jamila, for the Sultan gives him permission to interview her whenever he wishes and they soon become close friends: so it is not just the story of Saladin but of Jamila also, and of Halima, and others – like the handsome – indeed, beautiful – young Coptic boy-scribe, Tarik ibn Isa. And the young poet who becomes involved in a murder of passion. When Ibn Yakub tells Jamila that the Sultan has saved him by sending him to join the army assembling for the attack on Jerusalem, Jamila is not impressed. Typical. [She mutters.] The Sultan has lost interest in poetry. Twenty years ago he could recite whole poems with real passion. Sending poets to fight in wars is like roasting nightingales. I will have that boy returned.
The more I read of the book, the more I liked it. And the better I understood Saladin and the others who dreamt of retaking Jerusalem, and succeeded, against all the odds – which is why Saladin is so famous – but then with the arrival of Richard (yes, the Lionheart) things began to go wrong and although the Crusaders never regained Jerusalem, Saladin’s star was waning (he was twenty years Richard’s senior) and in 1193, at the end of the book, he dies, with the reputation more of a saint and a sparer of life than of a ruthless killer like Richard.
So. Not for the easily-bored or those in search of an exciting read, but extremely well written, and strongly recommended.