Guest Author: Jane Johnson
Sitting in a restaurant in the Moroccan town of Agadir, I became aware of the haunting gaze of an African man in a red turban, his expression sullen, yet proud. He was the subject of a painting on the other side of the room and I couldn’t stop looking at him. He was, I discovered later, the famous ‘Turk in a Turban’, Delacroix’s portrait of a Moroccan court slave (the original is in the Louvre).
“When King Hasan II died in 1999,” my husband said, following my gaze, “his bier was carried out of the palace in Fez by six of his slaves. They looked just like that. Proud to do their final duty by their king.”
I had met and married Abdellatif after researching my first Moroccan novel (The Tenth Gift), and was still experiencing regular culture-shocks. “Slaves? In 1999?” I was too amazed to be outraged.
Abdel explained that slavery was abolished in Morocco only in the 1960s: his mother had slaves in her household. A man cost a bucket of salt; a woman a dish of salt. The royal family’s house-slaves would have been free men by the 90s, but even so, bearing the coffin out of the palace would probably have been the first time they had set foot into the outside world. “Of course,” he went on, “in earlier times they would have been eunuchs, like the man in the painting.” All male attendants in the inner court were castrated to guarantee validity of succession: no entire man could enter the sultan’s harem.
I looked at Delacroix’s handsome ‘Turk’ again. How could he maintain dignity, pride and defiance in the face of such physical and social insult? And so the central character of The Sultan’s Wife, Nus-Nus (the Arabic word for a half-and-half coffee) was born. Taken captive in the jungles of West Africa during tribal feuding, he was sold as a slave and castrated as a gift to the sultan.
Moulay Ismail was Sultan of Morocco from 1672 to 1727. His glittering empire stretched from the coasts of North Africa through the desert to Timbuktu. He was known as ‘Safaq Adimaa’ or ‘The Bloodthirsty’ for his ruthlessness and habit when bored of testing the sharpness of his sword on the neck of the nearest slave.
In 1703 a visiting ambassador asked how many children the sultan had. After 3 days he was presented with a list of 525 boys and 342 girls. His wives and concubines were even more numerous but amongst them is one constant: Lalla Zidana, bought as a slave from his brother, dreaded by all as ‘the witch Zidana’. Despite – or maybe because of – this she maintained a 30-year ascendancy over Ismail’s affections and exercised absolute power over his harem. In the novel, Nus-Nus has to navigate a safe passage between these two extremely dangerous presences in the Meknes court.
Meknes has been called a second Versailles. Moulay Ismail and Louis XIV were contemporaries, both passionately involved in the construction of their palaces. Versailles may not have been built with slave labour, but Louis was heedless of the lives of his workmen. In the bitter winter of 1685 many of the 40,000 workers died. Conditions, of course, for the thousands of slaves at Meknes were far more terrible.
During the latter years of the 17th century Morocco was at war with England over the strategic port of Tangiers. Moulay Ismail was determined to expel the foreigners; but years of siege and bombardment had little effect. At last the sultan decided to send an embassy to London to negotiate a treaty. The Moroccan embassy of 1682 arrived in London in January under the command of Mohammed ben Hadou Ottur, and in my novel Nus-Nus accompanies him. The embassy was feted by the smartest society and encountered in London the most brilliant creative minds of the age: Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and alchemist Elias Ashmole; Samuel Pepys, John Dryden and a young Henry Purcell.
A portrait of Charles’s mistress Louise de Kéroualle by Pierre Mignard was in progress while the embassy was in town. Louise hosted a grand dinner for the embassy. Wine was served, but the Moors confined themselves to milk and water and conducted themselves with the most ‘courtly negligence in pace, countenance, and whole behaviour’ according to diarist John Evelyn, managing not to ogle the ladies, who included several of King Charles’s mistresses in shockingly immodest garb.
The ambassador had his portrait painted twice: both paintings are in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in London; the Mignard is on display there. The subjects of these paintings took on a life on their own for me, so vividly did they inhabit the novel. But of them all, Nus-Nus, inspired by Delacroix’s masterpiece, remains my favourite: he represents the contradictions of the age, on the cusp between the ancient world and the Enlightenment, between continents and cultures, between traditional gender roles and identities.
Jane Johnson has worked in the book industry as a bookseller, writer and publisher (amongst other writers of JRR Tolkien, and George RR Martin). In 2005 she was in Morocco researching the story of an ancestor taken by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa, when she met and fell in love with her own ‘Berber pirate’ to whom she has now been married for 8 years. She is the author of three Moroccan novels – The Tenth Gift, The Salt Road and The Sultan’s Wife- and has also written several books for children.