The night was already well-advanced, dark and moonless. Thick clouds were running in the sky, and Napoli was almost deserted, save for the occasional patrolling of drowsy guards, and the surreptitious movement of shapes entering and leaving brothels before the first lights of the day—as if obscurity would have swallowed all their sins.
Sheikh Khalil was sitting on a wicker chair, sheltered from the wind by the porch of a small inn. He was watching the horizon of this foreign city. The horizon stopped at the restless waves crashing on the pier of the harbor. In the darkness, the height of the waves could only be guessed, save for their white foaming crests as they curled around nearby the coast, right before loudly shattering over the rocks. The pier broke them, but it did not put them in check; the water inside the port was seething and shapeless, swaying all the ships that had taken refuge there in a cyclic back and forth motion. It would have made a mountaineer dizzy before even thinking of embarking himself on a boat.
Khalil was surrounded by two other men, also sitting, and facing the sea. Besides them was a three-legged wooden table, with a brown, half-empty glass bottle, three wooden cups and a folded map. A small lantern, hanging on the vaulted ceiling and swinging with the wind, dimly lit their faces as well as the table.
“The thunderstorm will hit us before dawn,” dropped the captain.
Khalil didn’t reply anything for a while. For the last time, he was pondering over the decision that he had taken earlier. He then said: “We’ll take the sea right after the thunderstorm. The wind will have calmed down quite a bit.”
The captain frowned, and his white, bushy eyebrows sent a sparkle in the night. Khalil knew what was coming up. The captain said: “It’s a bit risky my Sheikh. It’s been four—no, five days the wind has been this strong, plowing the sea. There will be very high waves, foul waves. Isn’t it better to wait three other days? April is about to start, and we’ll have a better sea…”
Sheikh Khalil knew well how to speak with his men, getting his own way at the end, while keeping their affection and their whole-hearted loyalty. He replied soothingly, putting an affectionate hand on the captain’s shoulder. “Captain, you’re right. I’m known for my boundless bravery, but with years I’ve learnt to be prudent. I don’t like taking unnecessary risks putting lives—the greatest gift God has made us—in danger. But you know that my beloved uncle Hanna has died—may the heaven welcome his soul!—I have received this sad news two weeks ago, and it’s dated back to January. I have already lost too much time! I must go back and comfort my cousins, and help them taking care of everything…”
Khalil then added with his cheerful tone: “I trust your legendary abilities, Captain Estefan, and I know that we’ll survive this storm! We have gone through much worse together. And Virgin Mary is on our side today.”
The captain gravely nodded. “My Sheikh makes me an honor in trusting me. Whatever you order, it shall be executed. Ask for the moon, and we will take you to the moon!”
Khalil had known Captain Estefan since he was a restless kid. Back then, the captain’s eyebrows were still gray. Khalil loved the sea, and the captain took him on his tartan, and later he had taught him to sail and brave the waves.
Khalil said: “I knew that I could count on you. Gather the sailors and make sure that everything is ready, so that we leave during the lull, as soon as the rain stops. We’ll have a strong northern wind during the day, right?” The captain nodded. “Well, tell the sailors that they’ll all be generously rewarded at the end.” The captain was about to rise up and head to the dock, but Khalil stopped him. “Wait.” He grabbed the brown bottle, which was cold at the touch, uncorked it and filled two of the three wooden cups with rum—for the third man, Muallim Yusef, seemed to be profoundly asleep—and he handed one of the cups to the captain. They both swallowed the content of the cups in one large gulp, warming up their throat and belly.
The captain exclaimed: “May God grant you a long life! You are the most generous man I know.”
“May you to live to see your great grandsons!” Khalil replied. “I only wish to be fair with my men.” He knew that he was exceedingly generous, but it was always pleasing when someone noticed it.
Khalil then made a slight gesture of the head, as if to signify that their conversation was over, and the captain immediately took notice that it was time to complete the loading of hassan el bahar—the sea horse, their sturdy vessel. It had never betrayed them since they had sailed away from the little port of Batrun, eight months ago, after the completion of the harvest of silk, tobacco and grape. The captain rose; he slowly but decidedly crossed the dock with his heavy footstep, and he started giving orders to the sailors who had been drowsing on bags of rice and sugar.
The sailors were quick to get up, as their discipline had been trained in the last eight months, and they started bustling around, loading hassan el bahar with various crates and barrels and jars, fleshing out provisions before the long trip they were to undertake with the advent of Spring.
It was a tiresome process, for they needed to progressively charge the provisions on a small boat and row to the vessel, which was standing a little farther; the port was not deep enough for the ship to accost. The sailors then had to carry and hoist the barrels and the jars over the rope ladder; it was a burdensome operation, involving several men. To complicate everything, the sea was restless, even inside the port, threatening to overthrow the small boat, and to overbalance the seamen climbing on the swaying ladder.
Khalil attended the scene from far, hardly distinguishing the sailors who looked like puppets, yet feeling all their tension by the shouts he could overhear despite the gusting wind and the sound of elongating ropes and that of cracking wood.
In reality, Khalil was quite concerned with their safety and that of their vessel, even though he didn’t want to show the captain that he was worried—for courage lies in the capacity of not showing and communicating your fears to others. He had to stand as firm as a rock in front of his men, and he was quite skilled at it—how could it be otherwise? He was a descendant of an illustrious family that was believed having once controlled most of the northern range of Mount Lebanon; he was a Sheikh, the equivalent of a duke or an earl in the Christendom—Khalil had that ability of shutting down all his negative thoughts, focusing on the rush of excitement that braving unbridled elements brought to him. However, when he was not in the fire of action and that others were risking their lives for him, it was harder to ignore the danger.
Khalil tried to change his ideas by letting his gaze wander over and inspect the mighty castle standing at the side entrance of the port, on a small rocky island connected to the land by a drawbridge. He enviously admired its perfectly symmetric shape; it was built on a square plan, and its walls were impressively high. Some of its windows and the top of its towers were dimly lit with flickering torches, and sometimes he could distinguish the fleeting face of a guard making his round. The castle seemed unshakable by contrast with the vulnerability of the wooden vessels, glorious under a shining sun in their white adornments, but frail twigs in the midst of a raging storm.
The clamors of the first thunders, still behind the mountains and at large over the sea, indicated that the storm was irremediably tightening its grip on the city caught between these two elements. It was indeed a frightful vision to see these tiny creatures, sailors and vessels, suddenly illuminated by a dazzling light, frozen the time of few seconds in a deadpan posture, and tossed by the ruthlessness of the tempest.
Khalil felt a sudden pang of remorse. What if something bad happened to one of his sailors? What if they didn’t make it through the storm tomorrow? What if the sea at large of Napoli was to become his grave? He, who still had so much to give, to his beloved ones and to his fiefdom and to his nation!
However, his reason swiftly discarded these thoughts after a while. They had to sail away. It was already very late. His family needed him back as soon as possible. And Khalil was suddenly convinced that they would go through the storm wholly unhurt.
Smiling to himself and rejoicing over his more positive thread of ideas, Khalil headed toward where the sailors had been drowsing. The rain had not started yet, but the sky was often streaked with lightings, and the drumming of the thunderstorms blended with the gusting wind and the fury of the sea and all the other anxious noises of the storm.
There were some sailors who were still idly sitting on the bags and crates, while others were standing nearby the sea, their bare feet and their ankles drizzled by the seething water, helping to charge the small boat every time it came back. The remaining men were either maneuvering the small embarkation, or they were already on hassan el bahar, helping to organize the loading and the provisions under the supervision of Tannus, the cook and the cellarer of the ship.
Khalil greeted the sailors: “May God give you the strength and the health!”
They all greeted him back. He noticed in their manners a mix of excitement and fright, for taking again the sea in such daunting conditions. He asked for the captain, and one of the oldest sailors replied that he was already on the vessel.
Khalil observed how they proceeded with the operations. They were loading a pile of wood for cooking, barrels of fresh water, jars of wine and rum, barrels filled with salted meat and salted fish and hardtack, sacks of rice, flour and salt, chests filled with fruits, cages with hens and pigeons, two sheep and a goat. The animals were fussing and stirring, furious to be confined to small cages, feeling the nervousness of the men bustling around, and already terrified of the roaring sea.
Fortunately, the captain had done a good job in making sure to get everything ready, without knowing for sure when they would have left. And for the umpteenth time in his long trip, Khalil thought that this was a man he truly could count on. He didn’t brag much and he was very effective and disciplined in his responsibility—contrarily to most of his fellow countrymen who often pushed their distraction and improvidence to the point of not embarking enough fresh water on vessels. And one of the worst things which can happen in the midst of the sea, boundless stretch of salty water, is suffering from the thirst under a burning sun.
Khalil now addressed his servant, Butros, who had been sitting with the sailors, and rose as soon as he saw his master approaching.
“Butros, please prepare a soup for everyone. And cut at least ten lemons—There’s nothing like lemon not to be sick onboard!”
Butros acquiesced with a slow nod. “And what to put in the soup, my Sheikh?”
Khalil rolled his eyes. He abhorred this kind of questions. “You know better than me! I already explained to you not to ask these questions!”
Yet, by noticing Butros’ genuinely confused face, Khalil reminded himself to make an effort to be graceful. “You know what? Make it beefy with wheat and meat and whatever else you can find. It should hold our stomachs. And don’t forget the lemons! Do we have lemons?”
“Of course! It’ll all be done.”
“And we’ll complete the meal with some bread.”
Butros could be quite dull sometimes, but Khalil did not have the heart to blame him, for he was extremely dutiful. Despite Boutros’ surly manners, those of a man who had been bred in the harshness of the high mountains, he had an excellent core. He would have walked barefoot through the thorns and braved the fire for his master; he would have thrown himself in the sea, even if he didn’t know at all how to swim. On top of that, he was known as the strongest man of Khalil’s entire fief. Butros was unusually tall and his body was massively built, and these qualities had resulted quite useful in more than an occasion.
Khalil advised his servant to settle the firebox under the vaulted porch where he had been sitting, to avoid the rain ruining the wood and the fire when it’d start pouring down. Muallim Yusef was still blissfully sleeping there. May he enjoy his rest, for his face will be all white and sulky when he will find out that we are taking the sea this morning, thought Khalil.
Sailors had been cheered up by the talk of the soup and they were now singing a song they loved while waiting for the small boat to return. Its melody was blending with that of the foul waves crashing on the pier and the castle. The song was about long journeys and exotic places, ghouls and wizards, heroes and epic deeds. It boosted their courage, while keeping them warm.
The air was moist and cool, pungent with the breath and the spray of the sea, and Khalil was shivering despite his woolen tunic. He thus decided to take a walk through the city to bid it farewell while warming up. Besides, exercising would drive drowsiness away. And he was secretly too nervous to stand idle and watch the loading of the ship by such a rough sea. He preferred coming back when all would be ready to sail away.
Khalil started walking in the opposite direction of the sea, and he soon found himself in a maze of narrow alleys surrounded by tall and dark buildings, high of five or six floors. Most of the alleys were paved, but they were hardly lit. There were few oil lamps, here and there, under wealthy houses and palaces, people who could afford the expensive cost of the oil to burn. The remaining of the town was immersed in darkness. Commoners did not even have enough olive oil to put in their dishes, Khalil guessed, let alone for burning to light the streets all night long for the rare passersby. With its three or four thousand inhabitants, Napoli was very impressive in size compared to the small towns and villages of Mount Lebanon that Khalil had always known. However, since the start of his trip through the Christendom, he had seen many marvels, and his eyes were not anymore as astonished as they used to be in the first months.
Since the start of winter, they had been coasting from one port to another: Palermo, Syracuse, Cagliari, Palma, Malaga, Valencia, Barcelona, Marseilles, Genoa, Livorno, and now Napoli. They had not been at sea for more than three days in a row, waiting for favorable weathers to sail, and Khalil had spent the rest of his time visiting the cities that surrounded these ports, and trying to tie commercial bonds with some of the big merchants who were involved in the maritime trade.
They now had to make sure that everything was ready for a much longer trip; Khalil wanted to stop the least possible to arrive the soonest to Mount Lebanon. He was in a hurry to get back home, to take matters in his own hands after the sudden disappearance of his uncle Hanna; and besides, he was enthusiast to start putting to good use all the great things he had discovered in the Christendom—spiced up with some fancy ideas of his own.
He had been impressed by the level of technological advancement of Christian nations, both in the decorative and military architecture as well as in the fabrication and use of weaponry. The highly organized nature of their societies had also struck him; almost all the laws were written down in thick books, and they weren’t changed or broken with the whim of each lord; this made cities quite orderly, despite their huge size.
Sheikh Khalil was proud of being from an old and respected family which could almost trace its origins back to the deluge; but he liked to think of himself as a particularly modern and open-minded man. He uncompromisingly believed in the primacy of courage and valiancy and fighting, yet he was a firm supporter of science and progress and civilization. He never hesitated to trample old customs if things could be bettered off. Moreover, he thought that his fortune as a sheikh and as a fief holder depended upon the blind loyalty of his subjects, which could only be acquired by actively improving their welfare, for they often lived miserable lives.
The wind was fiercely shaking the sheets and clothes forgotten hanging on the windows, wooden shutters were rattling, and it gave an eerie touch to this night of March, with its loose linens and pollen and sand whirling across the streets, occasionally lit up by the dazzling lightning. The other occupants of the city were not to be outdone, for dogs had been nervously barking since the nightfall, interspersed with the neighing of horses and the crowing of roosters, as well as other indistinguishable and frightful cries, coming from the stables and from the countryside, all troubling the sleep of honest townsmen.
The cries reminded Khalil of his expeditions in the high range of mountains above his family’s fiefdoms when he was a teenager. He was often surprised by stormy, thundery evenings, and forced to take a shelter in a small grotto (if he found any) or under a prominent rock, to spend the night, in company of the hideous laughs of hyenas and cries of jackals. He had to sleep with a saber in his hands in the case the wild beasts took him by surprise. And when he went back home a few days later, he was invariably—storm or no storm—scolded by his parents, especially his mother, for his imprudence. His poor, poor mother was always worried for him, and he surely didn’t make her life easier with his bravadoes.
Khalil had been a fiery and energetic child, and it was too much of a hassle for him to live the quiet, mercantile, urban life his parents led in the small coastal town of Batrun. It was like living confined by a cage, eventless and boring, and he felt each and every muscle of his body longing for vigorous outdoors activities. The call of the sea and that of the mountain—on which he had a full view from his house—were too strong to passively submit to his fate.
When he was a mere kid, he escaped from home every time he had an occasion to do so, and he became acquainted with all the courageous and interesting men of his father’s and uncle’s fiefdoms. With time and training, aided by his natural skills, he started being regarded as one of the most accomplished horsemen of the region. He could go through all the equestrian acrobatics—the gun powder game and the djerid—and galloping by mountains and valleys along steep narrow paths that most considered impracticable by horse. He perfectly executed the dance of the sword, which he had learnt in Smar Jbail, the main village in the fief of his uncle Hanna; he had mastered fighting with Hanna’s men at arms, battling until sheer exhaustion, and rolling himself in the dust and in the mud and in the little river bed when he still had too much energy left after a long day of military exercises. And when he got bored of the mountain, he’d run away by the sea; he knew most of the fishermen and had learnt to row on their little boats; Captain Estefan had taught him to sail on his tartan, and Khalil had a small gullet of his own to be able to sail along the coast. These were the real pleasures of life!
Learning had been such a torment at the time, especially when playful sunrays pierced through the stained glass windows, lighting up the dusky library and drawing arabesques on the pages of the books where he was studying, tauntingly reminding him that the mountains and the sea were awaiting for him with open arms. He had the temptation to drop his books open and flee, running down the stairs unnoticed, crossing the orchard, taking his horse, and riding on the rocky beach along the sea, or toward the steep hills and mountains—depending on his mood and on the weather (if it was too hot, mountains could offer some freshness). And most often he acted upon this impulse, under the slightly disapproving look that his brother, Francis, who’d be assiduously studying in the library, launched him.
When Khalil lapped along the sea and when he sailed his gullet along the coast, he often dreamt of the day in which he would explore the world hidden behind the blue immensity. He imagined it in various shapes and colors according to the few stories he heard about it; very few men of his nation could undertake such a long, dangerous and expensive trip, and all they could do was reporting exaggerated stories they had heard from seamen, as well as vague and fancy tales about the Crusades that some grandparents had recounted them—it was even said that Crusaders had used the half-ruined castle of Smar Jbail. Khalil had often heard that Italian was one of the most used languages beyond the seas, and in prevision of when he’d sail away to discover the wonders of the Christendom, he poured in some efforts in learning that language—contrarily to his attitude toward most of the other disciplines which his father wanted him to master, to the great displeasure of the latter who constantly scolded him for being so unruly.
And now, of course, Khalil was immensely glad of having studied it. His perfect knowledge of Italian had helped him no little in his expedition through the Christendom. Indeed, it was one of the most used languages by the seamen, the travelers and the traders in the coastal cities. Each port spoke its own dialect of Italian, and people of other nations mixed it with their own languages and accents, but communication remained possible. Besides, Khalil was often considered with amazement and respect by the haughty noblemen and the merchants he met; they had never heard of his little nation—lost in the meanders of the much feared and revered Ottoman Empire—and they couldn’t imagine why and how he had learnt speaking Italian so well.
In truth, it all was the merit of his father. Yet, when his parents were still alive, Khalil had always been in open opposition with them, even though he dearly loved them and would have bled himself out to defend them in case of danger, or to save their honor.
His father—whom everybody called Abu Francis (father of Francis, Khalil’s eldest brother)—was a wealthy merchant and landowner, who had been the own artisan of his fortune, despite being highborn, as a Sheikh. The family’s lands had been equally divided from generation to generation for centuries, according to the custom of the country, and no much land was left for each branch of the family. Abu Francis had inherited some unproductive, rocky lands surrounding Batrun, and his brother Hanna had inherited of the woody and rocky hills overlooking Batrun; one of these hills was crowned with the village of Smar Jbail, at one or two hours of riding from Batrun. Driven by his commercial intuition, and helped by the modest yet down to earth education he had got from a priest, Abu Francis became one of the wealthiest men of the entire region, and his affair was the turntable of all the trade of Batrun and its back country, helping countrymen to find the best market for their productions, and importing all the goods that were not produced there. Abu Francis had no inclination whatsoever toward warship, and what he wanted the most for his two sons, Francis and Khalil, was them getting what he called ‘a decent education’, with a strong emphasis on languages and mathematics. Francis—of a calm and composed nature—was the perfect son, doing all what his father wanted of him. It had been the exact contrary for Khalil; he forsook all his studies, except Italian. He was no friend with mathematics, and his innate hate for Ottomans made him strongly distaste the study of Turkish language; he made a bold point in not speaking it at all. Growing up, Khalil acquired some interests in geography, history, architecture, medicine and navigation, and he read all the books and the treaties he could find on these disciplines. But this did not make more apt to take over his father’s trade, and it was Francis who was managing it now—with Khalil’s help, now and then, when there was some outdoor mission to carry, such as the long trip across the Christendom.
As a teenager, Khalil was secretly ashamed of his father’s active implication in trade. In his conception of the world back then—and in the point of view of many other nobles—it was unconceivable and dishonoring for a Sheikh not to know how to fight, and it was particularly degrading to engage in commerce. That was none of noble’s business; it was reserved for lower classes. It was still more honorable to live poorly but with dignity, from the meager production of their lands—as Khalil’s grandfather and his other forebears had done. Princes of cheese and olives were they called; haughtily managing their small rocky fiefs, and proudly hastening to Deir El Qamar (the capital) with their men at arms when the Great Prince of Mount Lebanon called on them, to contribute to the war effort and keep the relative independence of their little mountainous nation. That was Khalil’s ideal; he thus looked up at his uncle Hanna, and spent all the time he could in company of his small court and his men at arms. Hanna was a much more traditional Sheikh than Abu Francis was, he administered the daily business of his fiefdom—collecting taxes, hearing countrymen complains, administering justice and enforcing peace—and he took great pleasure in military activities as well as outdoors exercises, such as falcon hunting and horse riding. Save that Khalil later discovered that he was much more ambitious; in his own dreams, he saw himself positively and energetically improving his fiefdom—not merely being content with things as they traditionally were. And with every new moon, Khalil grew more and more impatient to put his ideas into practice.
Hanna had announced that Khalil would be entrusted with his fiefdom after his death; he had taken that decision out of affection and gratitude for his nephew—as Khalil had saved his life on the battlefield quite heroically—and because he deemed that his own son, Abdallah, was still too young and inexperienced. It was a common practice to have several fief holders—or muqata’ji as Ottomans called them—of the same family (brothers and cousins for instance) managing the same fief.
Growing up, Khalil started to increasingly appreciate the life that his father had lead. Without money, no improvement whatsoever could be brought to their fiefs. And he had his uncle’s example under his gaze: Hanna was almost as poor as any fellow countrymen, despite all the money that Abu Francis gave him, because he didn’t care about it and he didn’t know how to manage it; this resulted in much embarrassment for his uncle when the Pasha of Tripoli—the Ottoman officer in charge of collecting the taxes from all the fief holders of the region—abruptly raised the amount of the tribute that was asked from them. It happened quite often—too often—and Hanna was forced to extirpate the money that was lacking from the already poor peasants living in his fief, causing them to starve to death all winter long, which Khalil deemed to be wholly unacceptable and had accentuated his hate against the Ottomans.
With some shares of his father’s fortune, and a couple of visionary ideas, a lot could be done to fortify their lands against invasions, and to improve the general welfare of townsmen and peasants. Unfortunately, Abu Francis unexpectedly died of a fever that had been raging all summer long along all the coast—two years ago—without leaving the time for Khalil to show him all the earnest appreciation and gratitude he felt; that was one of his deepest regret of his life, for he would not have been the same person without his father. The bits of education Khalil still managed getting helped him to better canalize his exuberant energy, and they gave him a good basis for self-teaching as he grew up and that his tastes evolved.
His relationship with his mother, Nahida, was even more conflictual, for she had been deeply marked by the loss of an uncountable number of children she had after their birth—most because of a poor health, and one of drowning (Samir, who was older than Khalil and younger than Francis)—and she was terrified and sick at the idea of her son abandoning the quietness and coziness of their house, for several weeks and without giving any news, traveling by the sea and the mountains, always eagerly looking to defy new dangers, and returning home exhausted, his body covered with bruises and scars, and his face as sunburned as that of sailors. At night, Nahida had tragic, repetitive dreams of her dear, dear son being killed; she sometimes saw him drowning; other times he was lying down and bleeding on the battlefield; she even saw him beheaded on a scaffold. She’d rise up crying like a madwoman and rush to the boys’ room; and the rare times he was sleeping there, she’d frantically kiss his forehead, waking him up, and caress his hair, singing him melodies of when he was a small kid.
It was very exasperating and stifling for Khalil to have such a protective and fearful mother—when he well knew that noble blood flooded in his veins and that he needed to live up to it—and it excited him to be even more reckless in his behaviors. Yet, when he spent too much time away he felt remorse, and every time he came back, he promised her to be more considerate in future (which did not happen, for his whole body itched and burnt for braving the unscathed elements as well as the most hopeless battlefields after a couple of weeks spent at home). If Francis could definitely be called the favorite of his father, Nahida showed to have an odd predilection for Khalil who made her suffer so much. She’d always make sure Khalil got the best piece when they ate, and that he got fine clothes for summer and winter; she constantly worried about his health and about him not catching a cold. That was way too much to bear for Khalil, for he abhorred this treatment of favor, and did not hesitate to rebuke her.
Nahida died some weeks after her husband—victim of the same plague—and this further aggravated Khalil’s remorse toward his parents that he had so unfairly treated—he, who attached so much importance to the welfare of his family. Their death was a big shock. But, with time, it helped him becoming a better and wiser man, and it encouraged him to grow closer to Francis; he had made the pledge to always support and protect his eldest brother, as a way to compensate the ill behavior he had with his parents.
Khalil was rehashing all these reflections as he walked up through the narrow and tortuous steep streets of Napoli, his heart racing with pangs of remorse when recalling a fond memory with his parents, and bubbles of excitement at the perspective of their imminent sailing.
Between all the grisly and restless rumors of the storm, it suddenly seemed that someone was shouting. The voice of a woman, but it was coming from far away. Khalil stopped walking, lending a more careful ear. He could distinguish the noise of a race on the cobblestone. And then it all vanished, lost in the dark maze of alleys, without leaving him a clear impression about what had happened. Maybe some altercation with a public women, he thought. There were so many of them—at least ten thousand people said—and their revenues served to finance the galleys of the viceroy of Napoli.
Khalil arrived past a church. Water was streaming from an adorned marble fountain in front of it, filling out several basins of various shapes; the highest basins were reserved for drawing fresh water as it was still clear and pure, the middle ones were used by women to do the laundry, while horses and donkeys drank in the lowest ones. Building aqueducts and fountains will be an essential step to bring civilization to our fiefdoms, he reckoned. He started imagining the sea creature that adorned the blazon of his family carved in stone and spitting water, proudly standing on the main squares of every town, refreshing and quenching the thirst of brave townsmen.
After an instant of hesitation, Khalil pushed the heavy door. The door opened. The whole church was only lit by a couple of flickering candles, and he could not see much of its interior. It was not a cathedral, yet it was adorned with rich mural paintings, which he could hardly distinguish. However, what really mattered in his situation was feeling, not seeing; and to focus and have an intense and powerful prayer, it is better not to see sometimes. Besides, the church was warm, and sheltered from the chill of the wind. Khalil knelt down and started praying. He pleaded for a safe trip back home. He thought of all the people he loved there, especially Francis; he also thought of the ones who were no more, his uncle and his dear parents. Once again, he asked for their forgiveness, shedding a few tears. He prayed that his cousins Abdallah and Asma—the son and the daughter of Hanna—would not make misguided decisions now that they were left alone in life. He ended his entreaty by asking the heaven to assist him in his plans to develop the towns in his fiefdom according to his ambitious ideas—arguing that it would enhance the life of his subjects and that it would strengthen the position of Christians in the Levant, a region that had been under the yoke of Caliphates for centuries.
As Khalil stepped out of the church, the gusting wind nastily rushed in his tunic and tried to snatch away his turban, and his face was splashed with the chilly water of the fountain. He felt his skin shivering, but praying in the solemnity of the church had doubled his determination. A surge of passion was flaring inside his chest, fueling his bravery and giving shape to his fanciest dreams. It was in these precious moments he thought that he would eventually succeed in bringing a change; that he, a little lord of an obscure province, would stand up, with his loyal subjects, against the yoke of the Ottomans, and finally free his lands and his nation from their loathsome influence. His trip in the Christendom—with all its share of discoveries and lonely times—had been very propitious for reflecting (he now saw many things in a new light), and it had only reinforced his conviction that things could be so much better respect to what they had been, if only the country were to be ruled by honest hands and clever minds.
Khalil was walking with a firm step, starting to head back toward the sea and the port, guided by the distant bellowing of the sea. The thunderstorm was getting closer and stronger and the sky was of a muddy dark brown. It would soon start raining. He marched along the southern fortifications of the city and he passed in front of a closed gate, and at least half a dozen churches (the city was full with churches), and under the walls of another castle, not far from the castle of the sea, but even mightier and seeming more modern and sophisticated; it was surrounded by deep and wide ditches, and its four square towers were impressively massive and tall.
Khalil arrived on the dock while the soup was ready and fuming, and Butros was serving it. It smelled great. Sailors started eating in wooden bowls, dipping in pieces of the fresh and mellow bread. Khalil ate his soup exactly as they did, careful not to burn his tongue, sitting down on a wicket chair by Muallim Yusef, who had awakened and was also savoring his hot dish.
“So, we are taking the sea this morning, my Sheikh,” said Yusef, to initiate the conversation. As Khalil had anticipated, his expression was sullen. Yusef was already distressed about the nasty troubles his sensitive stomach would cause him on the ship.
“So we are, Muallim!” Khalil firmly replied. Giving Yusef the title of professor was a way to please him, for he was an erudite, speaking more than five languages and knowing the history of all the nations. “We’ll take the fastest way to Batrun now… Aren’t you glad to be on our way home?”
“I’ll be glad when we’ll be back in Batrun, and that we’ll kiss the feet of our Lady of the sea!—Oh God… who knows what awaits us!”
Khalil was feeling quite enthusiastic, and he wanted it to be contagious, especially that Yusef was the only one on the vessel to whom he could wholly expose his ideas and his plans. “Come on Muallim! Don’t make this face. Aren’t you happy of all what we’ve discovered during our trip? It will be great material for the books you plan on writing—Our children need to know about the land of the Christians, about their history, their advancement. We have so much to learn from them, don’t we?”
“Of course, my Sheikh’s right, as always. And you’re too graceful to worry for my person.”
Yusef took out a rosary from a pocket in his belt, and he started muttering some litanies to the Virgin and to all the Saints he could remember.
Khalil greedily swallowed the rest of his soup, before saying: “Well, tell yourself that we’ve already gone through the worse. Take another piece of lemon, and be valiant, like a real man ought to be. It’ll all be perfectly fine—with all this sailing you’ll soon get yourself sea legs!”
Muallim Yusef nodded with a warm and sincere effusion, but his lips made a small skeptical pout that his thick, dark mustaches could not conceal to a keen observant. Yusef was always complaining about his health onboard, and regretting to have undertaken this journey.
Depending on his mood, Khalil could react very differently to Yusef’s tiresome whining, but he often strove to be compliant.
Yusef had been extremely precious for the success of his expedition. Khalil could only speak Lebanese Arabic and Italian and he understood bits of Turkish, whereas Yusef fluently spoke, in addition to Lebanese, Syriac, Turkish, Italian, French and Greek and he had some notions of English and German—acting as a dragoman (translator) for his Sheikh in more than an occasion. Moreover, Yusef was a well of knowledge; he had read a lot about history and geography, and helped by a prodigious memory, he remembered every detail of his readings.
Khalil knew some tricks to get Yusef out of his worried humor. He grabbed the map that was on the wooden table, unfolded it, and started looking intensely at it. As if he were thinking aloud, he ponderingly pronounced the word “Gallipoli” several times.
“Gallipoli?” Yusef asked, suddenly reemerging from his litanies.
“Are we planning to stop there?”
“Maybe… But I don’t want to bother you with it now!”
This answer further aroused Yusef’s curiosity. “Gallipoli of Italy? Why? Or maybe–the Ottoman Gallipoli?”
“No, I was thinking of calling at the Italian Gallipoli…”
Khalil then added: “By the way, what could you tell me about it Muallim?” Upon asking that question, he was guessing that Yusef would probably not have known anything about it, for it was a minor town. Khalil took a mischievous pleasure in asking complex questions about which he had made previous research, as Yusef was annoyed to discover that even his knowledge about history and geography was somehow bounded. But it wasn’t done nastily, and at the end both men enjoyed these little intellectual challenges that brightened up their long journey.
The question had the intended effect, for Yusef was obviously looking around to gather some bits of information to give to his master, and he was repeating in a knowing tone: “Gallipoli? Gallipoli…” as a way to gain some time. He had produced his notebook out of his belt, and he was speedily leafing through it, using saliva to ease up the process. The pages were covered with a narrow and tilted handwriting, in an elegant yet sober Arabic script. Yusef had to lean on his notebook to be able to read, as the darkness was only contended by the dim light of the solitary lantern that was hanging on the ceiling of the porch, wobbling with every gust of wind, and by the occasional lightning. It had started raining, and the sky over the city had become a huge, messy battlefield where the clouds and the wind gave vent to their wildest fantasies.
It was in that precious notebook that Yusef had taken notes during their entire journey, taking it wherever they went; besides, he always carried an inkwell at his belt, like all the scribes did.
Yusef finally said: “Gallipoli, it’s a town built on a small island, linked to the land with a wooden bridge, counts around four thousand souls. It has a castle and a port. But why to stop in such an… insignificant place?”
“Aha, so you deem it insignificant! Well, do you know the Salento? It’s this region, at the very south of Italy, hills and plains, a huge olive grove. And guess what? They send most of their olives to Gallipoli. Not to make olive oil… They have a famous lamp oil industry!” Khalil was speaking slowly and he was deliberately repeating himself, building up his interlocutor’s curiosity. “From what I’ve heard, all the palaces of Paris and Saint-Petersburg are lit with the oil coming from this insignificant place, as you called it! And they make soap from it…” Yusef had started nodding, as if he understood it all now. “And if Gallipoli can do it, why not Batrun? Our land is filled with olive groves! It’ll be interesting to understand how it works there, and see if we can also introduce it in Batrun. We need a lot of money, and weapons, if we are to boldly stand up against those dogs of Turks!”
Khalil interrupted himself; it was pouring, and the dock had already become a swamp; the city was built on an abrupt hill sloping toward the sea, and all the rainwater was streaming toward the port, for the whole city was built up and paved, with very few trees and grasslands that could soak up the rainfall. Some of this water was finding its way to the sea in the shape of a torrent, in a furious brew of whitish flows. The sailors had eaten their soup, their bread and their slice of lemon, and most of them had already embarked on hassan el bahar, to make the last preparations before the departure.
After a moment that appeared tediously long—as any idle waiting time during a trip—the rain started to quiet down and everyone knew that the time to sail away had almost come. Khalil was in the small room he had rented in the inn, where he had spent the previous nights, and he was hastily packing his personal effects in a small trunk, careful not to forget any of the maps and books he had acquired, and the notebooks he had filled with observations and drawings. He went down the stairs, a candle in his hand, and he pulled the wooden door (he had already paid for his stay last evening, leaving a generous tip). As he went out under the porch, he blew the candle and put it in his belt, between the sheath of his yataghan and his gun. He took off his shoes and put them in his trunk, for they would become sponges with all the water trapped between the irregular cobblestones paving the dock; besides, it was safer to be barefoot on the vessel to avoid slipping on the slick damp wood.
On an average day, seamen and fishermen would already be bustling around the dock one hour or two before dawn: singing songs, discussing about the weather, the latest news and their latest catches, repairing their nets and their sails, and leaving the port for a long day of work, lulled by the reassuring smell of the sea, blend of salt and fish and algae. However, the port was grim and almost empty that morning, save for the sailors of hassan el bahar.
Heading toward the sea, which seemed slightly less rough than it was before the thunderstorm, Khalil overheard an animated discussion in Italian between one of his sailors—a dauntless forban from Cyprus (whose experience with corsairs’ boarding techniques could become quite useful at any time)—and a stranger, a woman by all appearance. He stopped and listened. He couldn’t see their faces.
“I really need to take the sea!” she was crying.
“I told you, I can do nothing for you woman!” the forban was saying, in his patois, a mixture of Greek and Venetian.
“Please! I will pay for my place!”
Her accent of distress struck Khalil.
“Pay?” the forban asked, his tone appearing a bit sneering.
“Yes! If I tell you so!”
She didn’t seem to understand. “I will pay, I’ve got money!”
Khalil heard the rustling of a dress, and the jingling of silver coins.
“No, in nature I said!” sniggered the forban.
Khalil next heard a shriek.
“Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me! Leave me alone! Go away!”
Khalil rushed and yelled at the forban to stop. The latter made a jump backward. He had dared putting his calloused hands on the woman’s chest. “Wretched man! Is this how my men treat ladies?” he shouted in Lebanese.
The forban looked down at the floor. They all respected and feared Khalil. He ended up stammering: “I didn’t—I didn’t know…”
“Next time I surprise you laying a dirty hand on a lady, I’ll chop off your hand! Understood?” Khalil sternly said.
The forban nodded, still looking at his feet.
Khalil now addressed the woman. She was thanking him profusely, having understood that he was rebuking the impudent sailor from the intonation of his voice. “My lady, what is the matter?” he asked in Italian.
“I’d like to embark on your vessel, and—and I propose to pay for my place,” she breathed.
She was dressed all in black, with a hood that hid part of her face. Her dress was threadbare, but her manners were not vulgar.
“Where are you going?” Khalil asked.
“Uhm… Where are you heading to?
“To southern Italy, Gallipoli… Then some ports in Greece and Cyprus… Our final destination is the Levant, Mount Lebanon.”
She hesitated an instant. “That’s fine for me,” she whispered, as if she were trying to convince herself of that by saying it out loud.
“But—where do you want to go?”
“It doesn’t matter, really, it doesn’t matter, I just need to take the sea. Today! Now!”
“Look at the sea!” said Khalil. “Can you see how big the waves are? It will be painful, and distressing! You will be sick and—”
She took a thoughtful gaze at the sea. It was graying with the first lights of the day, and massive rolls of water were frothing and colliding with the pier of the harbor and the rocks of the coast, sloshing the vessels, spattering the castle, and shrouding the port in its salty breath. It was less impressive than a few hours ago, but still, it must have been quiet impressive for the woman, who had not seen it before.
“I must really go!” she ended up saying.
“Did you ever take the sea before?”
“No—but I shall be fine. Please, I implore you! I must leave today. I can’t explain to you why, but it’s… it’s a matter of life or death for me.”
Again, her tone struck Khalil. Her voice was soft and sincere and desperate. He looked at her eyes, and she held his gaze. She had large clear eyes; he couldn’t distinguish their color but they were radiating with something like earnestness and purity.
Troubled, Khalil reflected. For an instant he imagined taking her aboard. No, no! It definitely was not a good idea. The sailors would probably be dead-struck of superstition before agreeing on having a woman on hassan el bahar, he reckoned. Could he impose such an additional burden to them? They were already worried about not making it through the storm. And besides, he knew nothing about that woman. Maybe she wasn’t being honest. Her attitude, and her urge to sail, despite the fury of the sea, was odd. Of course, she must have very good reasons for wanting that. But after all, maybe her reasons weren’t that pure… But maybe they were! And if they were, it would be a crime not to take her. Perhaps it was God who had put this woman on their way. Yet, he ought to make everything in his power to discourage her, to make sure that she was really as desperate as she claimed to be.
“Vessels are not places for young women. See what could happen!” Khalil eventually said, pointing at the forban who had taken a few steps toward the sea and was ruminating in silence—and launching impudent gazes at the woman from time to time.
“You’re an honest man, you’ll protect me,” she said in a hushed voice. “Take me onboard. I’ll pay. I’ll do anything to help you out… I’ll cook. I’ll clean.”
Khalil fell silent again. There were many rational reasons not to agree on her request. Yet he was finding it increasingly hard to repel it. It was strange and touching and destabilizing to notice the boundless trust that this woman was putting in him. He felt that he was starting to yield, internally.
She was noticing his hesitation. “Please! Have pity upon me! Yours is the only vessel that is leaving! If I stay here, my fate… it will be worse than death. And believe me… Believe me, I didn’t do anything bad. I didn’t, I didn’t!”
Her eyes had filled with tears, and she seemed to be struggling hard with a sob that had started filling her chest and was choking her throat.
It was against all the customs of the sea to embark an unmarried woman onboard. It was believed to be a very bad omen. Besides was she unmarried? He felt the urge to ask her who she was. Yet, he didn’t speak, and he couldn’t look away from the face of this odd lady. If the forban hadn’t seen her, he could have asked her to cut her hair—dressing her up as a young mousse. But now, that was impossible.
“And I will disembark at your next stop, if you wish so. Will you take me? Will you?” she fervently whispered.
She readjusted her hood, throwing a shadow over the intense emotions that her eyes and her voice had betrayed.
Her last words had dissolved in the chill of the air laden with sea spray, but they had filled the morning breeze with an odd and indefinable emotion. It was a mixture of melancholy and hope and betrayed trust. It was bitter and sweet, like almonds. It was assailing his sight and his hearing. For a long instant, there was nothing else in the world but this odd lady. Nothing but her. Her and her large imploring eyes, and the salty tears that had slipped down along her cheeks.
Khalil heard his own voice saying “fine,” as if he were speaking in a dream, and hearing his own voice.
This realization scattered a thousand of confused and contradictory thoughts that were encumbering and numbing his mind. “Come, we must leave now,” he added, heading toward the sea.
“Thank you…” she managed to say, in a choked voice.
The small boat with the oarsmen was arriving, and it was time to bid farewell to the land, and to Napoli. Khalil took the woman’s hand, which was soft and cold, and he helped her climbing in the boat; there were four oarsmen who were rowing, in addition of the Cypriot forban and himself. They gave an odd look to the dark shape that had embarked with them, but no one was bold enough to ask Sheikh Khalil who she was, and why she was there.
The sea was whitish and woolly and it was restlessly jolting the small boat. Khalil was feeling invigorated, fiercely rowing and stretching all his body while deeply breathing the fresh air of the sea. Now and then, he sneaked at their unexpected companion, who kept quiet at the back of the boat, her gaze lost in the tumult of the water. He was growingly convinced of the soundness of his spontaneous decision. Surely, it was fate that had put this woman on their path, and they ought to help her.
All the occupants of the small boat blenched as a gun shoot pierced the morning quietness, saluting dawn. So was the custom in the Christendom. It meant that they guards were about opening the metallic string that enclosed the harbor’s entry during the night to avoid pirate raids; the metallic string was fastened from the castle to the pier, and it prevented any ship from entering or leaving the port. The scent of gunpowder soon tickled Khalil’s nostrils, reminding him of hunting and warring memories that came back in flashes.
They eventually came close to hassan el bahar, which looked particularly mighty from their modest viewpoint. After some struggling, they managed to fasten the boat to the vessel, and they started climbing the rope ladder. The woman was certainly not helped by her long constraining dress, and by the small bundle that she loosely held on her shoulder. Khalil had to pull her up, despite her embarrassed protestations. She was surprisingly light in his robust arms and her dress was soaked with water.
When they had all safely landed on the damp and warped wood of the deck, they howled the small boat onboard, and they stew it in the middle of the deck, between the two masts of the vessel, under the careful supervision of Khalil. If it got loose, it could kill a handful of sailors, crushing them or knocking them over in the sea. For similar reasons, any heavy object could become extremely dangerous by a restless sea.
The captain, Muallim Yusef, and some of the sailors had been sitting cross-legged on the deck of the ship, and they were smoking their long pipes, exhaling the strong and perfumed scent of the tobacco of Batrun—recognizable between hundreds by the delicate nose. Batrun’s tobacco was known in all the Levant—and hopefully soon through the Christendom. They apparently kept some reserves of their cherished tobacco, despite their non-stop smoking since when they had sailed away from Mount Lebanon, for special occasions that required extraordinary amounts of courage.
The seamen had welcomed their Sheikh, and they were starting to get up and head to their respective tasks. However, some of them were inquisitively looking at the dark shape he had helped hoisting. She was standing, both hands on the wooden rail to keep her precarious balance on the swinging vessel, and she was gazing at the sea and the castle, away from the eyes of the seamen who were silently confronting her. Only now, with the increased luminosity, did Khalil notice that her clothes were muddied and torn, at the level of her elbow and her knee, as if she had fallen down.
The captain eventually spoke up: “What is it, my Sheikh?”
“She’s our guest,” Khalil firmly said.
“A woman aboard? That’s unheard of, my Sheikh!”
Encouraged by the words of their captain, which were spreading from ear to ear, the sailors had started murmuring, voicing out loud their concern. “A woman aboard!” their lips were muttering. “A woman aboard!”
“This lady is our guest!” Khalil repeated, raising his voice so that all the crew could hear him.
His words did not have the intended effect, for the seamen were continuing to murmur, and they had formed several groups, rallying around the oldest and most experienced of them, to decide what ought to be done.
Khalil could also hear the Cypriot forban telling his own version of who this woman was, and what had happened, with a small committee around him, and he was definitely enjoying his newfound attention. His hard scarred face had illuminated with a large smile, exposing crooked and missing teeth.
As a matter of fact, the woman was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. The seamen were not at all convinced of sailing by such a rough sea, but they had shut up out of respect for their Sheikh. But now, he had completely lost his mind in their eyes, and they thought that it was admissible to protest.
It was the first time in eight months that anyone on the ship had dared defying Khalil’s authority (and that had never happened in his country in the past). It was as if a wildfire had started at the four cardinal points of the ship, threatening to burn it down if nothing was done to extinguish it fast enough. Khalil felt a knot in his belly, combined with an odd rush of excitement. Too easy things had never been very interesting for him and he took pleasure in confronting challenges and uncertainty. Khalil sensed that a sly, defiant grin was taking possession of his face—the same grin he had when he defied his mother as a teenager—and he endeavored to make it disappear, because he was ashamed about it, and because it surely was not the right moment to let his temper getting out of hand. He was trying to stay cool and think of the best way to douse the fire, without showing any anger.
The captain was not saying anything, seemingly torn between the ill spirit of his sailors, and his absolute obedience for his Sheikh.
Understanding that the captain would only have protested flabbily, Ali, the oldest and most respected sailor, came forward. He had a long white beard, a wrinkled face and very dark eyes. He respectfully bowed to Khalil. “My honored Sheikh, your unlimited wisdom shall certainly understand, it is considered as a bad omen to have an unmarried woman onboard.”
“The woman cannot stay!” cried a young sailor.
“If the woman stays, I won’t move from here!” said another one.
Ali frowned, and silenced them by raising his hand. “Shut up! That is not a proper way to speak to your Sheikh.” He then addressed Khalil with his quiet, deferential tone: “Pray, forgive them my Sheikh, they are young and empty-headed.”
Khalil was not speaking, still pondering over the best course of action to adopt, and closely observing and listening to his men.
The captain whispered: “You know that sailors are extremely superstitious. I can’t do anything about it, especially in this situation.”
Meanwhile, the lady had of course understood that she was the sole object of the discussion; she was gazing at the sea, and taking brief looks at Khalil, as if to reassure herself that he wouldn’t yield. She seemed even more embarrassed than before, and her body was nervously shaking. Was it the cold? She would be sick if she stayed in her wet dress, Khalil worried. He imagined her fear to be betrayed and left in Napoli. No, if a bunch of sailors made him—a Sheikh with the noblest of bloods running in his vein—go against his own wisdom and his conscience and the will of God, then he would be a truly unworthy man.
His silence had raised the hopes of the sailors who felt that he could only surrender to their demand, or, if he absolutely wanted to take that woman, perhaps they could wait a couple of days in Napoli before taking the sea.
They needed to be undeceived of their fancy hopes. Khalil took some lithe steps and climbed on the aftcastle of the ship; he raised his head, deeply inhaled a breath of the chilly morning air, and everybody went silent to let him speak. “I will repeat what I said—for the last time now. This woman is our guest, it is God that has put her on our path. She needs our help, and we’ll all do our utmost to help her. Now go back to your tasks. Let’s weigh the anchor, and bid goodbye to the land. Don’t forget, you will all be generously rewarded at the end.”
Old Ali lowered his head; with his experience, he obviously understood that it was useless and maladapted to further discuss. However, one of the sailors who had spoken came forward.
“I’m not staying, Sheikh,” he said, with a defying and fearful look stamped on his ingenuous face.
Other sailors had soon adopted the same position; a woman onboard was too much for them to bear. Some were supplicating Khalil to change his mind, while all were making it clear that they would not let hassan el bahar sailing away.
Levantines rarely dared to challenge their masters, at least not face to face. When they came to hate their lord for a reason or another, they were expert to continue being exaggeratedly polite and affectionate—to the point of servility—and they only tried to stab him in the back in a moment of weakness. Poisoned coffee cups were one of the most practical and efficient ways to get rid of unwanted people.
However, these customs stopped being valid on a vessel that was far away from their lands, and from a real authority that could punish them; or so they thought!
Most people—even sailors—were terrified to die swallowed by the dark, bottomless waters, away from their lands and their families, knowing that their corpses would forever rot in these unattainable depth (depending on their religions, some thought that they would not go to heaven if they were not properly buried.) This wholly explained why the sailors were so disquiet about having a woman onboard; a woman could only preannounce a sinking ship.
Chilly, the northern wind had started blowing, whipping their faces and penetrating in their tunics and under their turbans, and it would only get worse as the day would blossom. When it was gusting, this was one of the most dangerous wind to navigate with. If they did not sail right away, it’d become impossible to get out of the port and reach the open sea. And the sailors perfectly knew that!
Only one solution was left to get out of this deadlock: the use of force, as any Sheikh who respected himself would act.
The thought of staying three other day prisoners of the port of Napoli—like a donkey trapped at the bottom of a well—was enough to make Khalil’s stomach boil with rage, and he thus did not have any difficulty in unbridling his emotions and bawling out his men.
“Band of cowards! Aren’t you ashamed? This is why our lands are under the yoke of enemies since centuries!—If you don’t retract immediately what you said, I will cut down your ears, and your tongues, and I will pull out your eyes! That’s what you deserve!”
Khalil had unsheathed his yataghan and was pinwheeling its sharp curvy blade in the air, seemingly ready to cut down necks.
He threateningly jumped from the aftcastle to the deck. “And Butros will throw your corpses in the sea, in pasture for vultures and ghouls! Is it what you want?”
The contact with the chilly metal of the yataghan had calmed him a bit. “You are still in time to be pardoned if you retract what you said, one by one, in front of me.” It was humiliating, but they needed a lesson. He briefly met the luminous gaze of the woman who seemed to be silently thanking him.
The sailors who had dared defying their master were looking anything but daring now. Khalil was very well respected, and he usually was quiet with his men; and showing them a facet of his personality they were not used to was a deadly arrow at his bow. The threat of the cold ruthless blade was even more imminent than the threat of the unscathed elements. They knew that it was perfectly acceptable for a Sheikh to put this kind of threats into practice, as he had the right of life and death over his subjects. Throughout their commencement of mutiny, they might not have imagined that he would have arrived to such an extremity to defend the unwelcomed and unknown passenger.
As Khalil had asked, all the agitators came, one by one, and they threw themselves on their knees, in front of their lord; they kissed the hem of his tunic, asking for mercy, which he granted by giving them his hand to kiss. Khalil did not enjoy it much, but he told himself that sometimes harshness was needed to keep men disciplined and obedient. And the next time, they would surely think carefully—the time to thrice say Hail Mary—before contesting his orders.
When this little process was completed, under the astonished eyes of the woman (obviously not used to the Oriental customs)—she had had the wisdom to look away not to excite further rancor against her—Khalil announced a couple of minutes to pray to their respective Gods. That would ease up all the tensions and restore sailors’ faith and courage in the success of their brave enterprise. He then announced the departure, promising marvels as they would first set feet on the rocky beaches of Batrun.
No more time was lost, and hassan el bahr soon set off, moved by an increasingly strong northern wind, and tossed about by restless and foamy masses of water. The sky was of a lead gray, and the sea was of a dark-gray blue, wreathed with white. Most of the seamen were busy and bustling around. Many were perched on the ladders along the masts, raising and adjusting the sails, trying to follow the sudden changes of direction that the wind made, while desperately clinging to the ropes not to lose their tenuous balance. They followed the orders that the captain shouted from time to time, and they sang repetitive couplets of a song about vessels and seamen, which gave them courage and helped each man to work in cadence and remember the tasks he had to perform. Other men were helping their fellows when they yelled for help, and meanwhile they made sure to drain the water that the splashing and crashing waves brought on the deck and in the hold. Finally, the remaining of men were either sleeping, as it would be their turn to maneuver the ship in the afternoon when their fellow seamen would be resting, or they were wholly sick because of the rolling of the ship, and completely useless. These were laying down pell-mell on the less exposed parts of the bridge and in the hold, and they were moaning and gasping for air, their faces yellow and crimson, spreading nauseating, milky substances around them on the slippery wood, which smell made them feeling even worse. Muallim Yusef and Butros were among those unfortunate.
The caged animals were not to be left out, as they often reminded the seamen of their presence by cackling and whining and bleating.
Meanwhile, Khalil had given some assistance to the lady. She had exchanged her soaked dress with a dry, woolen tunic, in the Levantine fashion, and he had installed her inside the small boat, at the center of the ship, where the rolling was the faintest. He had improvised a mattress spreading some straw inside the small boat, covering it with cotton sheets, and she was now resting there, sheltered from the wind and from indiscreet glances by a piece of canvas. He had tied her up, to avoid that she hurt herself bumping against the wooden cockle because of the rolling of the waves.
Khalil was now checking on the maneuvering of the ship. He had also made sure to attach all those who did not have their hammocks. There were only a few hammocks aboard; they had discovered them on a British ship they had been invited to visit, as they had both been endlessly waiting for a wind to rise, trapped in the port of Malaga. Hammocks were extremely practical to sleep in, without the risk of being hurt because of the rolling; on top of that, they reduced the jerks you felt, as they swayed with the ship. It was an awesome feeling to sleep in them—instead of sleeping on the hard polished wood which was not the least softened by the thin cotton sheets—and being able to contemplate the stars and the moon and the clouds, looking novel every night, and telling yourself that other great men that lived at other more glorious times had also been in awe in front of them, until sleep took you on its own journey.
It was not time to think of sleeping though, despite not getting any during last night, as they had tough hours before them; and if they did not confront the storm valiantly, they may never see again the night and the stars—they would then see a different kind of night, a moonless one, in the darkness at the bottom of the ocean. The northern wind was fiercely cracking the masts and trying to snatch the sails. The flag of Khalil’s family was twirling at the top of the front mast. It was his beacon in the tempest; the dark blue marine creature on the white canvas reminded him of his homeland and of his childhood, which he had mainly spent outdoors, exploring every rock, every inch of ground and every thorn of his family’s fiefs, and making plans for the day in which the Ottomans would dare sending an army to attack them. He had always secretly wished for such a confrontation, and he had thought for hundreds of times of the best places where to lay his ambushes. This had all started as a game and a pastime when he was but a young kid, but these thoughts had accompanied him all through life, and he was now convinced that he just could beat any army who would enter their fiefdom; the (pillars of victory rely on) alley of victory lays between hard rocks, strategy and preparation, and the boldness and spontaneity of the wind and the sea.
This flag always called back one of the wildest dreams of his childhood: hundreds of hardened and determined men, afoot and on horses, going on the top of mountains and through hazy valleys, reaching snowy summits proudly carrying their blue and white flag adorned with the ferocious yet reassuring creature, cleansing all the neighboring fiefdoms from the old enemies of his family, uniting the nation under a single banner (theirs!), chasing away the Ottomans, and freeing all those mystic cities of the Levant that he had never visited but which made his imagination blooming: Damascus, Jerusalem, Alep. And the lead of this small but heroic troop was him, Sheikh Khalil. He imagined himself covered with laurels and at the head of a small empire, powerful and respected and feared, and able to make all the changes he wished to see.
His perspective with regards to the changes he’d like to make had evolved a lot since he was a kid, but he had kept his fiery and energetic nature; nature that had made learning a real nightmare at the time.