IIn the Palace there was a real bustle: the Shaikh's second wife's
family, going to the hajj to Mecca, stopped to call on their relative
and were being hosted in the Palace, whereas the rest of the caravan was
encamped outside the city walls. In the Palace, however, there were many
guests: the wife's father, the influential Shaikh Mussa ibn Saleh, who
reigned over a territory bordering ours in the north-east and who was
one of the Dhimmi of the Khalifa; his five sons with their servants,
slaves, officials and escort guards.
Everybody had been received with all honours. In the evening there had
been a great banquet at which Prince Amin had also taken part. I was in
the escort shift, therefore I was in the banquet hall for the whole
evening, at my Prince's back, so I could watch all the guests and their
guards. I had been struck by one thing: there were no women, no old men
and no children. It is true that normally the women participating in the
hajj are few, and that the large majority are men, but, especially in
important people's caravans, there are at least the principal wives,
even if at the last they must remain out of the Caaba temple.
At the end of the banquet we accompanied the Prince back to his
quarters. I was on shift at the door of the Prince's bed-chamber with
Abdul. The night was late and was rapidly advancing. All was silent. I
did not dislike the night shift: there was time to reflect, to daydream,
without being distracted or bothered.
Abdul seemed particularly tired and at times I had to touch him because
I saw him start to slip into sleep. Then he would abruptly reopen his
eyes and remain awake and tense, doing all in his power not to fall
asleep again. I did not feel sleepy and felt that I could have resisted
sleep without problems till dawn, when the new shift would take over
from us. From the window of the anteroom, it was possible to catch a
glimpse of one of the walls of the harem, lit by the setting moon: it
was the external wall, the one without windows, onto which looked also
the Prince's servant courtyard. At the bottom of a precipice there was
the wide courtyard of the Shaikh's Guards, with the stables and the
training field. Then another short precipice and, at the very bottom,
outside the city walls, the countryside. Sometimes from the stables rose
a neighing, the only noise breaking the night stillness. My comrades
found the night shift longer and boring, on the contrary I, as I said,
"How is it that today you are so sleepy, Abdul?" I asked him.
"Last night I did not sleep..."
"But you were not on shift..."
"No, but Kamel neither. He kept me awake all the night long. He was on
heat more than usual," sniggered my comrade.
"You mean that you and Kamel..." I asked looking at him, my eyes wide
open, amazed by this candid acknowledgement.
"Of course. We enjoyed ourselves. He is really good at sex..." he
answered with laughing eyes, then broke off, becoming serious again and
whispered: "Shut up! Don't you hear a strange noise?"
I listened, but did not perceive anything unusual, anything new. I was
about to answer him negatively when there were sounds like far away
thuds: it seemed as if somebody was knocking insistently and with vigour
on a door somewhere. It was impossible to understand from where the
noise was coming. Everything was quiet again for a while, but then we
heard muffled and far away shouts, a sound of excited voices brought to
us at periods by the fitful breeze. Again we listened carefully.
"It seems... people quarrelling. Perhaps it comes from the servants
quarters, or else from the harem..." Abdul suggested.
"No, from the servants quarters we would hear more strongly than that,
and from the harem, I think we would hear nothing at all..."
"In night time noises can be heard from far away and also those close up
We shut up. Again silence. This time there was no sound for a long
while, and we were relaxing when we heard again thuds and shouts, now
nearer and stronger.
"Something strange is happening."
"Yes, but not here: it does not concern us," I answered.
But now we both we were on the alert. We could not move from our place,
therefore we remained still, but we were both tense in an attempt to
decipher these unexpected and incomprehensible noises. They grew,
strengthened, became nearer and more frequent: it seemed really a brawl
or perhaps... people fighting! In the Palace? It seemed impossible to
Suddenly we heard a strong knocking at the door of the precinct of our
wing. I heard immediately the voice of Amal, who was watching the only
external door, asking something with a loud voice. Then from the open
antechamber door I saw Karim running towards our quarters. After a short
while he was back with El Ramad. Again excited voices, then the external
door squealed open, to close again immediately with a thud. Moments
later Karim was running again to our quarters, while El Ramad entered
the antechamber followed by one of the Shaikh's Councillors, visibly
shaken. El Ramad told us:
"A treasonous attack: Mussa's men are fighting in the Palace against
ours. Be ready: we have to defend the Prince if they try to enter here."
Then he knocked at the Prince's door and entered, followed by the
Councillor. I heard all three of them speaking animatedly, in discussion
for a long while: at times their voices alternated, at times they were
speaking all together. Then the Councillor and El Ramad came out again
and our chief said to us:
"The Prince must remain in his room at all costs: it is the safest place
in this building. From the windows, in fact, nobody can enter, thanks to
the precipice that surrounds on three sides. You two don't move from
here and don't let anybody enter, apart from myself and the Shaikh in
person. Nobody else must enter, you understand? Not servants, not
guards, not the Councillors or the Visir, for any reason, until new
orders are given by the Shaikh or by me personally. Whoever tries to
enter, kill him!"
We both nodded. In the mean time all our comrades had been awaked and El
Ramad gave orders to defend the place. All the servants were locked in
their rooms, all the doors barred and bolted and our comrades were put
in strategic points to prevent any possible attack from wherever it
could be attempted. When we were again alone, I whispered to Abdul:
"Mussa Shaikh betrayed the hospitality: it is incredible! But, why?"
Abdul shook his head: "I don't know... but perhaps... probably because
our Shaikh preferred Prince Amin, son of the third wife, to Prince
Hassem, son of the second, grandson of Mussa..."
"But Hassem, even if two years elder than Prince Amin, is a weak person,
he would not be a good future Shaikh, everybody knows that. Everybody
agreed about the succession..."
"I know. But if Hassem becomes Shaikh, our territory will practically be
controlled by Mussa..."
Suddenly we shut up, tense and alarmed: now at the precinct door there
were thumping strong rhythmic strokes. From outside they were trying to
knock down the door, with a battering ram. We heard El Ramad's voice
shouting orders. The strokes continued relentlessly, until we heard a
loud crash: the door must have yielded. Shouting, screams, collisions of
scimitars... Mussa's men, even if they were many, were definitely
inferior in number to those of our Shaikh, but they had on their side
the surprise factor; moreover they certainly must have had their men
infiltrated amongst the Palace servants and soldiers. Probably for that
reason El Ramad had all Prince Amin's servants locked in their rooms.
Behind the barred door of the antechamber we heard the rage of battle.
It cost me a lot to remain there still, doing nothing, while my comrades
were struggling, but orders had been clear. After a short time the door
opened and we unsheathed our sabres. El Ramad entered with three of
number, dirty with blood. They closed the door, bolted it and our chief
ordered us to barricade it, pushing against it all the furniture. Then
he looked at me closely, as if he was measuring me, and said:
"Yes, you Nadim are the most suitable. Enter the Prince's room, take him
on your shoulders and try to go down the precipice and get him to
safety. Can you accomplish this task I give to you?"
"I can try, but..."
"It is the last hope. Before you go, barricade the room door. We will
stop them as long as possible, but out there they are all dying... Too
many enemies and not a few traitors. Bring the Prince to the ruins of
the khan on the old road to Damascus, you know where it is, right? You
will wait hidden there for a full day. If none of us comes to look for
you, flee with the Prince to the mountains. His life is now in your
hands. You must save him at all costs. Go, straight away, there is no
more time to waste!"
I had just time to nod and to enter the Prince's rooms before they were
yet again trying to knock down the antechamber door. Prince Amin was
standing in front of his bed, completely dressed in his banquet attire,
a scimitar in his hands: it made me feel tenderness to see him so young
and still so frail and yet so determined. I informed him of the
situation and, with his help, I barricaded the door.
"Now, let's climb the windowsill: there you will cling to my shoulders
and I will climb down the precipice: I'm skilled in this kind of thing,
you can trust me..."
"No, we will wait here. I prefer dying while fighting than while
"But my Prince, you have a duty to save yourself: from you depends the
continuity of your family, of the legitimate power if something has
happened to the Shaikh, be not Allah will! This decision has certainly
been made by your father... you have to come with me!"
"I'm not a coward, I am not! I will wait here."
"All my comrades are dying for you to give you time to save yourself: is
their sacrifice to be useless?" I asked, tense.
But the Prince didn't desist from his decision. On one hand, I admired
this proud fourteen year old boy, determined and courageous, but on the
other I had to obey my orders. What to do - even more because those
orders seemed to me right and reasonable. I too would willingly die in
battle for my Prince. I argued a little more and was almost resigned to
put into action a desperate project: to stun my Prince with a blow, to
tie him on my shoulders and bring him down that way, when Allah sent me
an idea and, without thinking about, I said:
"I understand, Prince Amin, you are scared by the climb. That is why you
do not want to come, to hide your fear!"
"What dare you say!?" my Prince answered, insulted, striking me down
with his glance.
Undaunted I continued: "Your fear must be really great if you prefer to
wait for a certain and useless death in this room, instead of risking it
in the descent..."
The Prince was now really furious but, thanks be to Allah, reacted
exactly as I hoped:
"I will show you who is scared!" he exclaimed and, fastening his
scimitar to his side, climbed onto the windowsill.
"My Prince, forgive me, but it will be better if you fasten your sabre
at your shoulders as I am doing now, that way it will not hamper us in
the descent. Moreover, to climb down is very difficult and you are not
trained to do it, while I am the best climber amongst all your guards,
that is why El Ramad chose me."
"I will never climb down on your shoulders as an unweaned baby or an
invalid old man. I will climb down with my own skills!" he replied.
I nodded and said: "Then we will do so: we will tie each other with a
rope by the waist, then I will start to climb down looking for points to
cling to and then you will follow me. Look very carefully where I will
place my hands and my feet and cling on those points, but never look all
the way to the bottom, dizziness is the worst enemy. And may Allah
The descent of those sixty five feet of vertical rock was extremely
slow, endless and several times my Prince risked sliding and falling,
and once very nearly he dragged me along. We were a little over half way
when from the window several soldiers leaned out. Thanks to the darkness
of the night they could not see us: we were still hard against the rock.
We also could barely distinguish them. We heard their voices, somebody
said we had escaped from there, but someone else objected that it was
impossible, asserting that even a spider could not go down there and
affirmed that the Prince Amin was likely hidden in some other place,
perhaps amongst the servants.
When at last from the window no more voices came, we restarted our slow
descent. Reaching the bottom, we squatted amongst the bushes of the
horseyard: now we had to cross it, pass over the low parapet and descend
the rock for some thirty five feet more. But the last part was the one
that worried me least, in fact was completely stone wall and the holds
would have been better.
The court seemed empty. Horses were neighing irritably in the stables.
It would have been convenient to take a couple of them to go away from
this place, but the only way out with horses was toward the part of the
Palace where the battle was raging, therefore there was not possible.
Running, we crossed the courtyard and passed over the parapet. Turning
around to descend, we saw tall flames rising from various points of the
Palace and far away shouts made us understand that the battle was still
taking place. We descended the last stretch and we were finally at the
true bottom of the precipice, in the countryside. We ran. Arriving on
the old way to Damascus, I stopped and said:
"My Prince, I have at any price to find two horses. It would take too
much time on foot. Moreover, you cannot to be seen dressed in that way:
if our enemies are looking for you, they would recognize you at once.
Hide in those bushes and wait for me."
"Where do you think to go?"
"Towards the city, probably. Pray Allah that He will bestow upon me his
protection, my Prince."
I removed my uniform, put down my weapons, took a handful of soil and
dirtied my arms, legs, face and the undergarments I still had on. I now
resembled more a faqir, a ragamuffin, a country boy than a guard. I
quickly headed towards the city walls. From the Palace were rising
thick, black smoke spirals reddened by the flames, and saw also that
Prince Amin's quarters were burning. Arriving under the walls, I heard a
clamour coming from inside. I ran alongside the walls until I arrived at
the door that said "Of the Greengrocer". It was wide open and people
were coming out with bundles and parcels, walking or on donkeys.
"What is happening?" I asked feigning surprise.
"The Palace is burning, it is in the hands of enemies."
"But... the Palace Guards? And the soldiers watching the city walls?"
"Mussa had accomplices both outside and inside and someone opened the
gates to them..."
"All is in their hands and they are plundering, raping, killing..."
"Take flight, boy, do not enter!"
I did not listen to them and, walking against the flow, I resolutely
entered the city. I wandered in the streets until I reached the Bazaar.
Here for the first time I saw Mussa's men. They were sacking, breaking
and burning everything. I joined the confusion of people in flight who
were trying to save something. I succeeded in stealing some clothes from
the burning small workshop of a tailor. I put some on and went out from
the bazaar. I was looking all over the streets asking myself where could
I find at least one horse, when suddenly I saw three Mussa's soldiers
coming quickly on their horses. I threw myself down on the ground, just
avoiding a sabre stroke from one of them. Horses had passed me at
gallop, but I heard them stop. I feared they were coming back to kill
me. I looked, ready to stand up and to flee. But the three men had
stopped in front of a house door, had tied their horses to an iron ring
on the wall and with their sabres they were knocking down the door.
After a while they succeeded in their intentions and entered the house.
>From inside I heard women's shouts and yells. At that point I sprung up
and ran forward, jumped on one of the horses and, freeing the reins of
the two others, flew at full gallop toward the "Beautiful Gate" hoping
it also was open. Twice someone tried to stop me, but the only result
was that one of the spare horses was injured and I had to leave it.
Downtown the confusion was incredible.
When I saw that the "Beautiful Gate" was wide open, I spurred on the
horse I was riding and crossed it at full speed, sweeping away some
people. At last I was again out of the city! I left the road and cut
through the fields heading for the old Damascus road. Often I turned and
looked back, afraid I was being followed, but I saw no-one and carried
on with my crazy gallop toward the point where I had hidden my Prince.