Chapters 1 and 2
The Chosen One.
The woman who lives in with us has gone to her family for the feast. Ramadan is now long past, and yet she’s not returned. It sometimes happens; they are with us till we learn to love them, and then they go. But recently, it happens with all the servants. It’s as if they had been told to stay away. We hope that soon, some of our own people will travel to us and remain to replace the ones who left. Now the Harira is brought in from the shop; it’s not the same, but none of us say anything. Only Saul, the youngest, refuses to eat.
“Mama, why can we not eat Fatima’s food, Mama, where is Fatima, when is she coming home?”
“Saul eat your food, leave your mother in peace. My father speaks with his gentle authority, he is strong, and everyone respects him. With his family, he is tender but also strict. My father says that a good father really must sometimes be hard in loving his people.”
“I don’t like the Harira; I won’t eat it.”
“You’ll stay seated till it’s eaten.”
‘Afra, he’s just a boy; he misses her, we all miss her.” My mother looks chidingly at him, ‘Saul you will eat it, for me, please.”
Later, I walk with my father into the street where the shops are. The wail of the muezzins tells people it’s time for prayer and that Allah is watching over them. We visit the perfume shop where the aromas of Azahar, jasmine, Kalkan, patchouli, and millions of other flowers and herbs load the fresh night air with delightful scents that are carried away on the breeze.
Who knows what passing ships may pick up the wandering scent, where a traveller may notice it at tantalizing moments with a change in the direction of the evening breeze and wonder where it originated. One day, I will go away on a sailing craft to far-off lands and will, myself, ponder what strange people live in the towns on the darkening horizon.
‘Papa, what’s really happening?’ I speak to him in English as I always do; he says it’s the language of the world. He looks at me quizzically. ‘It’s not just Fatima and the house girls. I don’t know; it’s like a nervous tension in the air.’
‘Masuhun, you are fifteen years old now; surely you understand. At school, reading the papers, I give you, what you hear from your friends and the teachers. You’re an intelligent boy.’
‘You mean we don’t fit, Papa. We are outsiders, and it’s coming to a head?’
He turned and clasped me, his eyes flashing. His easy-going mask slipped before my eyes, and I saw him as never before.
‘Never say that, my beautiful son. We are the issue of a long, long line, and have lived here since time immemorial. From long before Islam was born, we have lived here, and we have been Christians since the time of the Romans.”
‘Masuhun!’ He says my name loudly, ‘Masuhun! I never told you, your name, the name your mother and I and your grandfather chose for you.’ He still held me, pinning me ferociously by my arms as he looked into my eyes. I felt his strength. Many times, he had had to defend our shop against intruders I never understood, and here he was now, holding me and loving me, his eldest son. ‘Your name means, “He who has been anointed.”’
I felt the hairs bristle on the back of my head; why I don’t know. It was as if all my daydreams about my destiny, the kind all boys have, were suddenly about to become true.
‘Papa, does a name truly mean anything? After all, it is normally just a random choice or taken from other relatives of the same name.’
His mask had fallen back into place, and he again became the man of easy demeanor, gentle and patient; the man we all knew and held dear.
‘What do we know, boy? What do we know? Only what is revealed to us? How many parents, upon discovering the meaning of the given name of their child, wonder how it is possible that the child bears most of the characteristics attributed to the name, to its meaning? I believe that in many cases the child already bore the name long before birth.’
‘Salaam aleikum.’ As we walked, we exchanged greetings with many people. Everyone was polite and kind. In the herb shop, the chameleons were sleeping on their tree. I could always spot them immediately. So many different herbs were all displayed in their hessian sacks ablaze with reds, oranges, greens, and hues of brown, each with their own distinctive aroma. The big, smiling giant of a man who ran the shop awarded me my three sticks of candy, one for each of us children. He didn’t see we were growing up; he was just too busy smiling. One morning as I ran through the souk on an errand for my father, I came round a corner and found him sitting outside his shop. A big book in his arms, and with the first early rays of sun piercing through the roofs of the souk lighting him up, he chanted the mantras of the most holy Koran. Most of the shopkeepers were kind, some in a rough way, as they knew no better. It was an enchanting place in which to be brought up.
We turned to go back home. It was time for Holy Mass, and today it was our turn to be the house church. It was something we never mentioned outside of the home for fear of persecution, although officially, where we lived, it was within the law to worship freely regardless of your creed. Not everyone agreed though, especially the authorities.
That night, late, they came again, many of them. When I heard voices raised in argument, I pulled on my robe and ran to the front of the house. As I peered from the balcony, I saw them around my father, striking him, and he was punching and knocking them down. There were so many, like a pack of hungry wolves worrying a buffalo. Screaming, I leapt from the house and threw myself at one and then another, flailing wildly with my fists, striking flesh and bone, but there was a blinding flash. Later my mother woke me with wails and kisses, followed by exclamations of relief when she saw I was alive. They told me he had fought like a tiger, but they’d left him for dead. The house was filled with men, cousins, uncles, and brothers. When I awoke, I screamed at them, ‘Cowards, bastards, where were you when the killers came?’
They said he was dying. They had come, the Amazigh, our people, but they were too late. I ran crazily through the house, saying he was not dying; they wanted him dead, but he was not dying. I reached the bedroom where he lay, and they took me into him. He spoke to me as I kissed him, asking him not to go.
‘Masuhun, find the place on the stone where the blessed mother comes.’
I fought against the tears. I didn’t want him to die; I wanted to walk with him, fish together, ride, sail; I just wanted to be with my father. I swiped angrily at my face—at the tears—but they were flowing fast and free now, blinding me.
‘No papa, don’t go; please, papa, papa, papa.’
‘Masuhun, ask her to protect us again as before. She will listen to you; you are named for her son.’
That night, I swore on the sacred grave of my sainted murdered father that I, Masuhun al-Rasheed ibn Afra ibn Youssuf al Imazighen, would not rest until I had found the holy rock, and knelt at the feet of the blessed mother. I was just fifteen years of age, but fate had ordained that I should become a man.
Do you know how in spring, early in the morning, some days, you wake to find a blanket of white sea-mist hiding and muffling everything? The landscape becomes alien to you, and it’s only as you start to pick out the occasional landmark that you remember where you are. I wasn’t really in the mood for enjoying a mysterious start to the day; I wanted to get organised. I had packed a knapsack with provisions, some tins with easy opening tops, Berber bread, water, and a thermos with hot mint tea. I knew my mother, Saul, and my sister were safe, as several family members had moved in. My father had been taken to the hospital; I didn’t want to think about it, as it would water down my resolve.
So I had come down to where my father kept the boats in a sort of sailing club on the beach that he had formed with some friends. A night watchman lived there, in a shed. I saw the boats, at least some of them, and then the hut loomed out of the mist. Further along the beach, a group of Africans were playing football. What they were doing playing at that hour was beyond me; maybe they were cold. There were many Africans all over, seeking a ride or looking to devise a way to get to Europe and the West so they could realise their dream.
‘Aleikum Salaam Ali,’ I replied. ‘La bas alek?’(standard greeting)
‘Al hamdulilah. What are you doing up to so early, and where´s your father?”
‘He will come in a while; I am going out now, help me, Ali. ” I threw my bag onto the canvas tarpaulin which was the deck, as it were, of my craft. He followed me, shaking his head.
‘I don’t know; I don’t know; there are mist and wind, and a strong levanter is coming in. Does your father know you are here?”
I needed to take control of the situation, so, much against my nature, I shouted at him.
‘Who are you to question me? Help me and stop being stupid, or I will tell my father, and you will have to find yourself another job.”
He sullenly gave in and wordlessly helped me as I hoisted the coloured sail and installed the double tiller and blades. I then locked on the pulley, which when attached with a rope to the sail, would allow me to play with the wind. The line was long enough to permit the sail to go all the way to the en Popa o Transluchada positions. I had been taught to sail by a Spanish guy, so it was bizarre, but I sailed only in Spanish; just like if you adopt a dog who lives with Russian people, well, the dog speaks only Russian. En popa was where you sailed before the wind, and the sail formed a sort of balloon. It was a marvelous way to relax; being pushed by a gentle breeze; although you needed to be careful, as a sudden strong gust could well push the sail forward faster than the craft was moving, thereby forcing it under water or making it tip head over heels. So you held the sail, and you did not put the rope into the dientes de perro (Dogs teeth, slang name for instrument for retaining the tautened rope); you kept it firm, grasped it. If the gust came, you could relax the sail, let it go so that the gust just swept past. The transluchada was the way of changing the direction the boat was travelling in by changing the side the sail was on, with the wind behind you, but when you made the change, the wind could well gust violently into the sail and overturn you. The safest way was the ceñida por Avante which is changing into the wind. Here you can control the sail strictly as you turn, so you are in no danger.
I tied my knapsack and warm jacket to the mast and put on the short neoprene wetsuit and life jacket. As I did I remembered my father threatening to thrash me soundly if ever I put out without either. I put him out of my thoughts, as I could feel the tears coming, so I gruffly ordered Ali to lift. We carried the cat to the water’s edge. The waves were pounding on the shore, but they were just levanter waves, all bark, and little bite. We pushed her in a mite. I got behind, gripping the rear bar and ready to shove to launch the boat as Ali held her against the movement of the water. I had left the sail loose, but with the rope close to hand so I could instantly pull on it as I leapt aboard. As the last breaker spent its energy crashing onto the sand, I shouted, ‘Ca va, ca va!’
We pushed her into the next wave, and I leapt aboard, and dropping quick as a flash onto the right fin, sat facing the sail. With the wind coming from the front right of the boat, nor ‘westerly, I pulled the sail taut so that wind filled it, and suddenly the little craft was majestically riding the crests of the waves and out to sea in a ceñida sailing position, which is one of the fastest and most exciting.
I could hear Ali asking Allah to protect me. ‘Allah soigne-le qui est seul un enfant et ne sache pas ce qu’il fait.’ (Allah look after him as he is only a child and does not know what he is doing.)
So he knew, he knew this day was not like others, but he did not know why. Muslims are good people, like all others, although also like all others, amongst them are good and bad. Ali was one of the very good. He lived on the beach alone with his prayer mat on which he spoke to his God many times each day. Sometimes he bought meat from the boulangerie and made kefta on his makeshift fire. My father would buy chai nana, mint tea, and Berber bread. We would sit under a blanket spread into a sunshade outside his shed and have the most delicious meal ever.
Then I saw that he was running along the beach waving and shaking his fist shouting, his chilaba blowing out behind him as he ran, but the wind took his words.
She was pulling to one side; I pushed the tiller over to right her, but nothing happened. Maybe the tiller was fouled. Then I saw him hanging onto the rear, his fists were big and closed on the bar, and he just dragged out behind. It looked like one of those African fellows off the beach. The boat was pulled down at the back by the extra weight pulling on us, and the waves were starting to buffet us side on. She was just a tiny cat, and the waves we had to climb to get out of the shore area were big. If I couldn’t get her nose down and straighten her out so that she met the waves head on, we would be overturned. So I leapt forward, having fastened the sail, and jumped out onto the starboard hull as a counterbalance—like with a patin Catalan, a sailing boat whose only steering mechanism is the sailor using his body weight. Well, it worked; we rode the breakers, albeit more sluggishly than usual. Out beyond the waves, where the swell diminished and the waves were broad, I relaxed the tension of the sail. The boat slowed down, and the man clambered aboard. He seemed quite sheepish about things and didn’t look me in the eye.
I shouted at him, ‘Qu’est ce que tu veux? Es tu fou? Qu’est ce que tu fais?’ (What are you doing? Are you crazy? What do you want?)
‘I don’t spik da lingo. I spik English.’
Thanks to my father, who always insisted we speak English at home and that we studied and read English classics and newspapers, English was as much my mother tongue as were Arabic and French.
‘What do you want? Why have you come onto my boat?’
‘My name is William. I have come all the way from Ivory Coast to get to da Europe, and here at da last step, I am held back by this beet of wata. And so I saw you and your bag, and I knew at once you are going to cross to da Europe.’
‘Sorry, friend, better you return to the beach. I am going on a mission, a quest, from which perhaps I will not return.’ Even as it came into my mind that I was being pompous, I knew I was speaking as much to myself as to him. For the first time, I realised as I spoke that following my normal impetuosity, I had embarked on a voyage to cross one of the most treacherous stretches of ocean in the world. ‘Jesus, be my light, help me,’ I silently uttered, but it mustn’t have been that silent, as William burst out.
‘Then we are braadas, you and me. We are braadas. I also am a Christian. I will come with you. Together, we will be OK.’
‘Are you a strong swimmer?’ I asked him.
‘Da best. I can swim like a shak, don you worry none abbaht, William. I can swim foreber even in da heavy seas.’
I liked him; he was so natural. Pictures flashed before my eyes of William out at sea hanging onto a piece of wood, so I pulled the sail tight and laid her, side on, to the increasing wind. The cat suddenly went up onto one fin; a trick I had learnt and perfected with constant practice. In fact, I could sail on one fin for as long as five minutes. William slid off the wet canvas and into the sea as the boat forged ahead.
‘Why, my braada?’ he wailed. ‘Why you do dat?’
‘Because you seem a nice man and I don’t want you on my conscience. I will come to find you when I return,’ I shouted, and whether he heard me or not, I don’t know. I did know, however, that he could easily regain the shore in just a matter of minutes. He was, after all, a swimmer as strong as a shak.
I sailed into the mist in the general direction of Spain, which is the southernmost country of the European continent. The wind had veered slightly and was coming from the general direction for which I was heading, so I needed to tack, which means changing direction every so often to maintain a reasonably straight course. People are surprised when they learn that sailing ships sail at the wind that powers them. It’s a simple physical law, so that as the wind hits the sail, if this is set slightly to one side, the energy you anticipate would drive you backward actually powers you forward, albeit on a sideward tack, hence the term tacking.
Slowly, the mist began to lift, and I could see Spain far off, appearing and disappearing. The boat was making little headway, as due to the strong headwinds, it would be tacking all the way. I came out from behind the shelter of land and was exposed fully on to the Atlantic on my left. The swell was massive here, so that the land ahead in the distance appeared and disappeared, though now not because of the mist, which had gone, but because of the big troughs I sank down into as my small boat rode the waves. The wind was also much stronger, so I needed to concentrate all the time, which was quite exhausting. The hours passed. The sun was beating down and I was grateful it was not yet summer. I began to have some doubts; the seas were so heavy, and I was so tiny. Don’t be a wimp, I told myself. Jesus is with you; God is with you. Rather than going forward, I realised the cat was moving west and rather than getting closer, the land seemed to be moving away.
The sun started to go down. The seas seemed to calm down a little, reacting to the thermic effect, the cooling down of the sea and the land ahead. Suddenly, I knew it would be dark soon, and I would be lost in the night without even a light. I put on my warm jacket, which was now wet through, and tied myself to the mast. I was so afraid I felt like crying but remembered I had promised that the tears I had shed for my father would be the last until I came to the place of the Lady where my father had sent me. Any big ship passing would run me down, or I would be caught up in its propellers. I asked the Lady, the mother of Jesus, to intercede for me to keep me safe. I was freezing, my teeth were chattering, and I was so drained.
I awoke suddenly with a jump. It was pouring, with the rain sheeting in clouds that were pushed across the surface of the sea by the wind. I could see all of this thanks to a big beam of light cutting through the darkness directly at me and blinding me. The foghorn that had startled me out of my sleep sounded again, and again startled me. Shielding my eyes against the beam, I saw a rope that was attached to something snake across the water and land on the other side of the cat. I knew I was being pulled towards the vessel, a grappling hook or something must have been on the end of the rope. A man was gripping a ladder on the side of the big boat as he gestured to me. At the same instance, a voice blared out of a megaphone.
‘Catamaran, as you approach us, grab the ladder. The seaman will help you.’ Then it repeated the same thing again and again.
Easier said than done. As the cat came closer, the other vessel was shifting with the heavy swell. Somehow, I grabbed the ladder, but the cat squashed my leg against it violently. I screamed, but the man on the ladder had me and pulled me up by the armpit, somehow getting his bearlike arm around me. Other men took me from him and pulled me up to safety.
Once inside, someone took my wet clothes. I still had my neoprene wetsuit on, so I dried with a big stiff towel and curled up in the blankets they gave me. Then I took off my wetsuit under the cover, which made them laugh, and they made comments in a language that seemed like Spanish or Portuguese.
‘Are you all right, boy? Que tiene escondio picha? What have you got hidden there?’ They all roared with laughter.
‘Yes, thank you,’ I politely replied, which set them off again speaking their language with bits of English thrown in. I knew they were joking with me, but they were men; men who worked and sweated and sailed, who loved their women and children.
‘How’d you get here, boy? It’s a long way from the beach. What happen, el Perkins te fallo? Your diesel engine have problems?’ Again, they all laughed raucously. Another asked my name, and from where had I come. I suppose it was a novelty for them to have a newcomer on board, especially one fished out of the ocean. A big man came in, and as they stopped asking me things, I decided he must be the captain. He came over to me, took my head in his big hand, and looked into my face.
In a deep sonorous voice, he said, ‘My name is Frank. I am skipper here. What is your name?’
‘Masuhun, sir. Thank you for saving me. I don’t want to appear ungrateful, but is my boat safe?’
‘You are safe, and that is all that is important. But yes, your boat, we slung several lines over and have secured her. Jimmy, give the boy, Masuhun, hot tea and something to eat.’
‘When you feel better, come up to see me on the bridge, Masuhun. I want to talk with you.’
‘Yes, skipper,’ I said.
Well, they gave me tea, lots of it, and food. The tea was incredible though very different from the mint tea to which I was accustomed. The men told me it was tea that had won many wars, and I believed them, although I also knew it had caused at least one. The one called Jimmy looked at my leg and said it was Ok. Then he cleaned the wound above my eye and bandaged it with cream and dressing. That wound had happened at the house, but I never knew it.
I clung onto the brass bannister as I made my way to the bridge. The ship was lurching and throwing everything from side to side. Thank God they found me, or I’d be out there. I felt cold and shivered at the very thought.
The skipper was standing at a window gazing out to sea. The visibility was adequate, as the windows had wipers that fought valiantly against the rain and heavy spray. We could see the progress the ship made against the heavy seas as she staggeringly lifted her head, only to fall again into the next trough.
‘Tell me, Masuhun, what were you doing sailing a catamaran on high seas?’
‘I was on the beach, and I sailed out and must have fallen asleep.’
‘Tomorrow, I will hand you and your boat over to the Spanish authorities, or to the Gibraltar police, so if you want to help me decide what is to be done, you must tell me the truth. ¿Dormido, dice el niño que se quedó, tú la oído? Mañana, we put in y avisamos al Spanish authorities, de chulería nada.’ (Asleep, the boy says he fell asleep, you heard him. Tomorrow, we put in and advise the Spanish authorities; I don´t like clever stuff.)
‘Hombre Frank, es un chaval.’ (Frank, man, he’s just a kid.) This was the helmsman who spoke. I more or less caught the gist of what was being said, although it seemed like a mix of English and Spanish.
‘Por mu chaval que sea, coño casi naufraga, y ahora no quiere hacer a clean breast of it.’ (Sure he might be a young lad, but he nearly was shipwrecked, and now he won’t make a clean breast of it.)
I spoke up in a small voice, as he seemed to be getting quite angry. ‘My father sent me.’
‘No. No father would send you to do such a reckless thing. Don’t say silly things, boy.’
‘He didn’t know I would come in this way. He was dying, and he told me to go to Europe to find the mother.’
‘¿Sera verdad?’ (Can this be true?)
‘Escúchalo, Frank joder. Allí en frente pasan muchas cosas.’ (Listen to him, Frank. Hell. Over there on the other shore, many things happen.)
‘How long ago was this?’
‘Yesterday. He died yesterday. They killed him.’
‘Shit.’ The skipper looked at the seaman who was steering, and they exchanged glances.
‘You don’t believe me.’
The skipper sat down and took a pipe from his pocket. ‘Sit down, boy.’ He looked at me. ‘Please.’
Then he took a packet from his other pocket and slowly and deliberately started to fill his pipe. Only when he had finished and lit it did he look at me again. ‘Who did this?’
‘We don’t know. Many men; they came by night. I tried to stop them. Afterward, the Amazigh came, but it was too late; he was already badly wounded. He told me to find the mother. My grandfather had once told me of the mother, and that she was in Europe.’
‘Who’re the Amazigh?’
‘And where will you go to find this mother; whose mother is she, anyway?’
‘She is the mother of the anointed one. I am named for him.’
The steersman looked at the captain. ‘Skipper, I think he means Mary. The anointed one is the Messias, her son. Messias means the anointed one. Esta hablando de María y Jesús.’ (He’s talking about Mary and Jesus.)
‘My grandfather says she protected us before, many hundreds of years ago when Christians were being slaughtered. We have been Christians for more than one thousand years, since the Romans, since the times of St Augustine of Hippo.’
‘Masuhun, go now and sleep, ask Jimmy to give you a berth. Tomorrow, we will see what is to be done.’
As I left the bridge, I could hear them talking.
‘¿Oye Freddie, y el Augustine de hippo quien fue?’ (Hey Freddie, and who was that Augustine of Hippo?)
So I went and slept till the change in the movement of the boat woke me. I said a prayer of thanks, as I knew I was in Europe and closer to the Mother.