Malaqah 1040 – 1042 AD
At first Ben-Yahya didn’t know where he was. He opened his eyes expecting to see the sun streaming through his bedroom windows, their muslin hangings fluttering in the warm breeze, to smell the sweet scent of orange blossom and hear the call of the imam as he did every morning. Instead he could see nothing and the smell that assailed his senses was of excrement and putrefaction. Was he in hell? Had he been struck blind? Gradually his sleep-stopped eyes adjusted to the gloom and then he remembered. A tiny glimmer of the pale dawn squeezed through the slit in the wall and lighted his dingy cell. Instead of his soft bed of silk-covered cushions, he lay on a stone floor with straw for a mattress. A burst of anger overwhelmed him as he remembered how he had come here, and he leapt to his feet and kicked the straw pallet to one side. Why, in the name of Allah, had he been arrested? But, more importantly what was he doing in this hell-hole? And how was he going to get out? He’d seen enough of the dungeons to know that they were unassailable. He’d never escape without help. His mind was racing; whom could he trust? And how on earth was he going to be able to contact anyone?
He felt in the pockets of his robes. Yes, his purse of money was still there. That filthy quaid may have taken his dagger but he hadn’t the wit to take his money. He had two hundred silver dirhams in his purse and another two hundred gold dinars sewn inside his djellaba. He took the purse and tucked it inside the straw pallet for safety.
The beam of light had grown stronger and now the voice of the imam began calling the faithful to morning prayer. All at once the door of his cell opened and the gaoler came in, carrying an earthenware bowl of water and a cloth.
‘Here you are, my fine friend. Clean water and something to dry yourself on. You must be someone important to warrant such special treatment.’ He put the bowl and towel on the floor, and backed out of the room. Once more the door slammed shut.
Ben-Yahya bent over the bowl and began to wash himself. At least he could still perform this part of his morning ritual. Once he was clean he placed his cap on his head, knelt and began the Fajr prayer. Allah wouldn’t abandon him. He’d always been a good Muslim, went to the mosque regularly and never missed a prayer-time. True he occasionally drank wine, but only in moderation. Allah wouldn’t condemn him for that. Allah would save him.
The gaoler must have been waiting outside because the minute Ben-Yahya finished praying and sat back on his heels, he opened the door. ‘All done?’
‘Tell me something, friend. Who is Khalifa at the moment? I have only just arrived in this land and would like to know by whose authority I have been arrested.’
The gaoler hesitated for a moment. Ben-Yahya could see that he wasn’t a cruel man; he was just obeying orders and he could feel no ill-will towards him. The prayers had stilled his anger.
‘Well, I don’t suppose it can hurt if I tell you. All they said was no visitors. They didn’t say I couldn’t speak to you. It’s a lonely life I have here. It’d be good to have someone to talk to, and you’ve travelled, I can see that; you’ll have some interesting tales to tell, most likely. You see, most of the prisoners have been in here a long time, and those that haven’t gone off their heads by now, well they don’t have anything new to talk about. I can understand that. They just have the four walls to look at and that would make anyone go mad. Some of them turn to religion and they pray day and night and believe Allah will save them. Others rant and rave about being innocent and how someone is going to realise their mistake and set them free. All nonsense of course. Nobody ever leaves here.’