May 29th, 2015
A very nice feature article in the Western Morning News:
The incredible double life of author Jane Johnson
The website of author Jane Johnson, aka Jude Fisher, aka Gabriel King
A very nice feature article in the Western Morning News:
The incredible double life of author Jane Johnson
It’s a long way between there and here, and a huge transition between cultures. As we made our slow progress back to England, passing from the Berber heartland to Europeanized Agadir – a long drive over the mountains – Abdel told me about one particular phenomenon that is singlehandedly changing the way Berber women view their own lives. Magnificent Century is a Turkish soap opera that has been showing all over the Arab world for the past 3 years, and it has Berber women in its thrall – resulting in burned dinners, arguments, divorces, and huge societal changes. The women in our traditional, agrarian culture in southwest Morocco – used to rising at 5am to deal with the livestock, make the bread, milk the goat, gather forage, tend the crop, all before the rest of the household stirs – have downed tools, seeing the gorgeous indolence of the women on the TV, and are complaining bitterly about the hardship of their own lives. One old woman in our village, unable to discern fiction from the real world, upon seeing one of the sultan’s courtesans throttled to death for her lies, demanded the telephone number for the Turkish police so that she could report the murder, for: ‘I saw it with my own eyes!’ I expect by the time I return to see handsome black eunuch-slaves, bare chests and scimitars gleaming, to be stationed around the town…
In fact, it’s not just the women here who work hard or endure tough conditions. As we drive past the striking perched village of Ida Ougnidif we see a road gang out widening the precipitous road through the mountains, and pass their camp, where they are housed in little square ‘tents’ of wriggly tin, which must be iceboxes by night, ovens by day. The dust generated by their assaults on the granite hangs balefully overhead, waiting to descend and reclaim its place.
We chug up onto the high plateau, our borrowed 20-year-old Renault stinking unhelpfully of diesel and criminally underpowered for the hills, and as we crest the last rise of the Anti Atlas Mountains we can see the High Atlas blue and hazy in the distance, snow still glazing the tops as a last reminder of the hard winter. Every so often the rear speakers blare into unexpected life, as if a wild boar has suddenly woken in unfamiliar circumstances in the boot. It’s a miracle anyone from our community travels far from home. Between Tafraout and its nearest exit point – the airport at Agadir – lies a challenging 3-hour mountain drive involving such hazards as wandering sheep, goats and feral dogs, men sitting side-saddle on donkeys, women on mule-carts, rockfall, flood-damage, roadworks, and highly decorated lorries adorned with talismans to ward off the Evil Eye and keep the driver safe as he barrels along with little regard for other road users even when the tarmac narrows to pinch points and sheer drops.
It would be easy to be discouraged by the prospect of undertaking this odyssey – and that’s before adding the random bureaucratic hell of acquiring an exit visa in the first place: having to be accepted by your wished country of destination, even for a 2-week visit, of your ‘cultural and social ties’ to that country, of the health and independence of your bank account and body, and the sheer physical stamina to withstand multiple journeys to consulates more than 500 miles away and the rude, blank officiousness of the consular staff and guards. And all this in the teeth of the bigotry, discrimination and irrational fears brought about by the West’s ‘war on terror’ – at once the most distorted piece of political chicanery and the most ridiculously ungrammatical misnomer of modern times.
Yet here we are, Abdel and I, a decade later, bowling northwards to the airport, driven by a cousin in a borrowed car, ready to take up life again in our ‘green country’, after several months here in the ‘red country’. We’ve endured the worst floods the region had seen since Noah’s time (costing the lives of over 50 people), the hardest winter, the worst tourist season as the geographically challenged expect IS to abduct or shoot them even in this peaceable and liberal country, and we’re leaving during the hottest April temperatures for a Britain still beset by winter weather. Farewell Maroc!
As we passed under the Lions Head at the outset of our journey this morning, I gazed up at its shaded right eye and briefly remembered that gut-clenching traverse, with the rock shield my climbing partner and I were perched on hovering over 1000 feet of yawning void; of that strategic retreat via abseil to the gully for that terrifying, freezing night on the mountain, before our joyful return to the warmth and hospitality of Abdel’s restaurant. What a journey it has been, and continues to be. I wouldn’t change a thing.
If you’d like to add a bit of sunshine and spice into your kitchen why not have a look at my husband’s wonderful new website, on which he blogs about Moroccan cuisine, tells stories about Berber life and culture and gives up some of his favourite recipes? I guarantee you’ll love the food!
“This is to protect you wherever you go in the world,” his mother said to him as she pinned the talisman box on his cloak with a long pin, for this was in a time before he wore it on a string around his neck. And it was also at a time before it was damaged so that it would no longer open. The talisman was square. Its four corners indicated the compass points, and were sharp, to ward off djinns and the Evil Eye – “because you attract their attention with your light eyes,” she explained.
Abdullah had been born light-eyed. It was a rare thing in their village, but not unknown, for a baby to have light eyes even if the father didn’t, but they usually darkened with time. Abdullah’s did not. This fact made his mother fear for her reputation, but worse: she feared her baby was possessed. As he grew she feared more: he was a strange boy, given to collecting odd objects – pebbles and feathers, stray cats and sun-bleached bones. And he made stories about them, weaving words until truth blurred and was lost. She prayed for him and ranted at him, but the words slipped off him like water from a cat’s back (and this more than anything persuaded her he was true born, for he was just like his father, who had always been a storytelling rogue).
When he was seven, almost a man by the ways of their people, she cut his topknot off. “Now the angels cannot catch you by your hair as you fall, so you must wear this all the time,” she told him as she pinned the talisman box that had been his grandfather’s (also Abdullah) to his burnoose. Inside the box – for it had a hidden spring catch – she stuffed little morsels of paper: verses from the Quran, a scrap of the skin of a long-dead mountain lion for strength and dignity, the broken quill of a porcupine to keep djinns at bay; and a line of poetry from her desert ancestors – where love is, stay. Then, though her heart broke to do it, she sent him over the mountains to his father in the city. “He is a storyteller in the central square,” she told him. “You will have no trouble finding him, for he has a pet chicken that sits on his head as he tells his tales. He calls it Baksheesh because it brings him money.”
The family was too poor to afford a horse but Abdullah’s aunt lent him their ancient mule. Like the boy it had light eyes, which is a strange thing in a mule and not much prized. It was said to see things other beasts could not, so tended to spook at odd moments. It shied when a gecko scurried across their path and the boy almost fell off. After that he held on tighter. When a mountain hare jumped in front of them and the mule bucked, he laughed. “You won’t get rid of me that easily!”
They made good progress, so good that soon Abdullah could not even make out the conical hill on which his village lay if he looked back over his shoulder. But he would not cry. He would NOT. Blinking hard, he turned his face to the winding track, now pitching down at a fearsome angle. The mule picked its way steadily enough until suddenly it stopped, bristling and twitching. It snorted and rolled its light eyes. In the falling gloom, Abdullah saw a dark shape crouched across their path. Everything about it was dark. Except for its eyes, which were as light as the rising moon. A djinn, a giant djinn – perhaps the king of all the djinns, Abdullah thought. He clutched his talisman but felt no fear. And then the djinn gathered itself and roared like the sound of a mountain avalanche, the crashing of a thousand stones. The mule leapt sideways off the path as if pushed by the force of the noise itself, and Abdullah found himself airborne, then falling. He flew through the air until an argan tree caught his burnoose and almost ripped it from him with its spiky fingers. It slowed his descent, but then came the rocks. Abdullah steeled himself for the impact. He would never see his mother again. Nor reach his father, telling tales in the square with a chicken named Baksheesh sitting on his head.
And then, as suddenly as it had started, his flight stopped. Abdullah opened first one light eye, then the other. Nothing hurt. He flexed fingers and toes. Nothing broken. The rock was right in front of him, pressing against him – had he not been seven he would have said like a lover. He looked down. The amulet his mother had given him – his grandfather’s old talisman box stuffed with scraps of prayers, beasts and poetry – was wedged in a crevice in the rock, taking all his weight. His cloak was like a papoose and he a baby in its embrace. Carefully, in the dark, he found hand and footholds, extricated the magical box and climbed down to solid ground and slept pressed between two boulders listening to a quiet growling in the night air, with the amulet held tight in his hand. Where love is, stay…
Day dawned as day always does. The first thing he saw was his talisman box, its southern corner bent out of shape and the intricate engraved silver on it scraped away. It would never open again. The second thing he saw was the old mule, or what was left of it: a crumpled, bloody, much-chewed heap. The third thing he saw was not a djinn but an enormous black Barbary lion, a breed long thought extinct, sleeping with its head on its mule-bloodied paws.
Abdullah crept past it with his heart in his mouth and the talisman in his hand.
The lion did not wake up and he did not look back, not once, until he came to the city’s central square and found a man telling stories with a chicken on his head.
copyright Jane Johnson 2014, all rights reserved
It’s been an intensely busy summer for me as a publisher, but one in which there have been some very memorable times and some notable successes. It’s not left much time for writing, so I am hugely behind schedule with my current projects, but hoping to steal some time away to write soon.
It was very gratifying to see Joe Abercrombie’s wonderful novel HALF A KING hit the Sunday Times bestseller list and stay there for a month, all the while garnering great reviews, my favourite of which was one from the Sun: ‘Another great tale from a master. His medieval, post-apocalyptic land is full of such brilliant banter it would find a laugh at a funeral. It is macabre, menacing and Machiavelli himself would have enjoyed the way half-handed “hero” Yarvi triumphs.’ We launched the book at David Headley’s wonderful first editions shop in Cecil Court, Goldsboro Books, and while it may look as if I’m addressing an audience of three, there was a good crowd gathered.
A few weeks later George RR Martin arrived to headline the Edinburgh Book Festival to sell-out audiences and despite arriving from the US just a day before managed to stay up till 3am and still beat me down to breakfast. I do find it grimly amusing that fans agonise over his health and worry he won’t finish A Song of Ice & Fire: he has immense stamina.
I flew down from Edinburgh in time to attend Robin Hobb’s signing at the Forbidden Planet (300 books signed) and her publication dinner. It’s extraordinary to note that this is our 27th year working together, ever since I published her as Megan Lindholm with THE REINDEER PEOPLE. The new book is a return to her most beloved characters, Fitz and the Fool, as has been evident in the outpourings of love from hordes of fans at her tour events and the wonderful sales of FOOL’S ASSASSIN, so beautifully packaged with artwork from the brilliant Jackie Morris.
It is so pleasing to see it sailing away on the hardback bestseller list and receiving such plaudits from the critics. Jane Shilling in the Sunday Telegraph: ‘Groping for comparisons, you ﬁnd yourself in the company of the great compendious literary novelists. As the best writers do, Hobb shows us ourselves in her characters. Their longings and failings are our own, and we ﬁnd our view of the world indelibly changed by their experiences. That is the ambition of high art. The novelists in any genre are rare who achieve it with Hobb’s combination of accessibility and moral authority.’
The next day at Waterstones on Kensington High Street we saw another sell-out crowd arrive for the Grim Gathering, a unique event celebrating Joe Abercrombie, Peter V Brett, a rare outing for Mark Lawrence (whose marvellous PRINCE OF FOOLS I published in June) and Myke Cole.
The next day (what a ridiculous week!) we celebrated 19 years of the Voyager list, with a wonderful party at the top of the Gherkin, a spectacular setting, and I was surprised when the speeches turned into a celebration of my 30th year in publishing, and suddenly there was Jackie Morris, come to see me given her beautiful painting of Robin Hobb’s wolf, Nighteyes, as my gift from HarperCollins. More of which later…
Ten thousand fans converged upon the ExCel Centre in London’s Royal Docks for this year’s WorldCon, for which Robin Hobb was the author Guest of Honour (and worked very hard for that privilege). Five immensely busy days for the Voyager team and our authors – including Joe Abercrombie, Peter V Brett, Robin Hobb, Emmi Itaranta, George RR Martin and Peter Newman. I interviewed Robin Hobb on stage.
And immediately after that was over came the biggest event of the year: those fantasy titans onstage at the Freemasons’ Hall, with me interviewing George RR Martin and Robin Hobb in front of a live audience of 1300. But first, time to take the chance to pose on a throne, because you don’t often get the chance, do you?
Preparing for the event was especially nerve-wracking since George had told me earlier in the week how bored he was getting with the same old questions in interviews (since fame hit him, he is fielding interviews about GAME OF THRONES day in, day out) so I had to try extra hard to come at things from a different angle. In the end, since I am the UK publisher for both authors, and also write, I decided to go for a fairly intimate interview that went to the heart of their inspiration and practice, for the art and mysteries of writing, and in the end I think it turned into a very illuminating discussion.
The event was sponsored by Blinkbox (Tesco) and they also enabled a global audience to watch the event across the internet by livestream. There’s a link to the whole event here:
It was deemed a triumph (not my word), and for me an immense relief: all had gone as well as could ever have been imagined. There now remained a final special day: a trip to walk with wolves at the UK Wolf Conservancy Trust with Jackie Morris and Robin Hobb (and the painting of Nighteyes in the boot of my car). Megan (Robin Hobb) and I seen below with Jackie’s magic dragon-van (which also contained a Tibetan singing bowl and a gigantic tiger).
Jackie has been illustrating the Hobb book covers ever since a weird bit of serendipity. I had been sent by a friend a Christmas card during my first December in Tafraout (2005) with Jackie’s artwork on it and at once had said to Abdel: this artist would be perfect to do the new Hobb covers. After a lot of detective work I tracked Jackie Morris down.
But when I asked her if she illustrated book covers she was adamant. “No,” she said. “Never.” There was a short pause. “Unless it was for Robin Hobb!” “It is.” Thousands of miles apart, we both stared into our telephone receivers disbelievingly: what an absurd coincidence. And the rest, as they say, is history. Her artwork (and life) is magical: check it out here http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/
Now her beautiful gilded Nighteyes adorns my kitchen wall: what better view to inspire dreams while you’re washing up?
The beautiful Anchor edition has just been delivered into my hands, hot off the press! So Canada will have a paperback of THE SULTAN’S WIFE imminently.
This comes at the end of a busy couple of weeks, starting with a packed week in London launching Joe Abercrombie’s brilliant fantasy novel HALF A KING (seen here with our regular interloper, Gemma, who likes to make herself comfortable on my reading seat). It’s deservedly gone straight into the bestseller chart. It’s a terrific read and I feel privileged to have published it.
I zipped back home just in time for our biennial Sea Salts and Sail festival, at which Abdel and I always run a book and jewellery stall. The old boats came into harbour and looked beautiful. I sold lots of books – always lovely to meet fans old and new – and Abdel and local artist Tom Rickman cooked the crew supper of Sicilian fish stew and Moroccan couscous with raisins and chickpeas: truly delicious.
Artist and jewellery-maker Hannah Willow came to visit with her husband, green-fingered forester, Phil to stay in Abdel’s netloft, Hopway Cottage (which he is now letting out in conjunction with our friend Helen – check out https://www.facebook.com/pages/Hopway-Cottage-Mousehole/721837887873373?ref_type=bookmark – if you fancy a holiday in picturesque Mousehole) and we talked books and art and silver-working and changing your life. We had only ever ‘met’ online, via Facebook, before so it was a real treat to become proper friends in person. Here’s one of Hannah’s lovely paintings. I am wearing one of her amazing bracelets, complete with Cornish turquoise and a bead of topaz and a tiny silver hare, right now, along with my Berber bangles.
Hot on the heels of the festival came a talk to a readers’ group in Madron, from which I came away loaded with plaudits and flattery, honeycakes (for Abdel) and beautiful yellow roses. And immediately after this was the annual Penzance Literary Festival and two very successful and thoroughly enjoyable events with historical novelist Robyn Young, and talking exotic places and people in literature with fine contemporary novelists Kate Lord Brown and Sara MacDonald and non-fiction writer Tim Hannigan. And then Abdel cooked us all up a veritable Moroccan feast, at which we were joined by the novelist hailed as ‘the thinking man’s John le Carre’, Edward Wilson. What an excellent evening!
Next month will be even busier, with the publication of the new Fitz and the Fool novel by Robin Hobb, a return to her much-beloved characters who made the first appearance in ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE way back in 1995, the very year in which I launched the Voyager list. It really is the most wonderful series, perhaps my favourite of all time (a tight race between this and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire) and I am very proud to have been Robin Hobb’s publisher all that time – a rare thing in modern publishing, where editors move houses all the time. In fact this is my 30th year in publishing: and every time I tell myself that I cannot believe it. I barely feel 30 years old in my head: though the mirror tells a different story…
Tickets for events at the Penzance Literary Festival have just gone on sale. I’ll be in conversation with historical novelist Robyn Young at 4pm on 18 July and at 5.30pm on Saturday 19 July talking with historical novelists Essie Fox and Wendy Wallace about the English and the Exotic in fiction; other guests at the festival include Kate Lord Brown, Patrick Gale and Liz Fenwick. It’s always lively and informal – do come if you can!
I was sitting in a restaurant in the coastal town of Agadir on the southern Moroccan coast with my husband. We were on our way back to England from several months in the Berber village in which we live for part of each year and were relaxing over a very good Italian meal. I glanced over his shoulder as a group of people came in, and suddenly became aware of a portrait on the wall behind them. The room was dimly lit, but I could make out an imposing African man in a dark red turban, the look in his eye sullen, yet proud. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I realized it was a nicely framed print of Delacroix’s famous portrait of a Moroccan court slave – known colloquially as ‘The Turk in a Turban’ (the original is in the Louvre). It was familiar to me, yet at the same time I was struck by how powerful and fresh the treatment of the subject seemed.
“When King Hasan II died in 1999,” my husband said suddenly, “his bier was carried out of the palace in Rabat by six of his most cherished slaves. They looked just like that. So proud to be doing their final duty by their king.”
“Slaves? In 1999?” I was too amazed to be outraged.
Abdellatif explained that slavery was abolished in Morocco only in the 1960s and that his mother remembered having slaves in the household. A man cost a bucket of salt; a woman a dish of salt. The royal family’s house-slaves would have been made free men in the sixties, but spent their entire lives within the palace walls. Bearing the coffin out of the palace would 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 chap in the painting.” All male attendants in the inner court would have been castrated in order to guarantee the validity of succession: no entire man could have been allowed near the sultan’s precious harem.
I looked at Delacroix’s handsome ‘Turk’ (a lazy historical term referring to any North African or Middle Eastern Muslim) in a different light. How could he maintain such dignity and pride and defiance in the face of such physical and social insult? And so the central character of my third Moroccan novel, THE SULTAN’S WIFE, Nus-Nus – the Arabic word for a half-and- half coffee – was born. A man taken captive in the jungles of West Africa during internecine tribal feuding, sold as a slave and castrated as a gift to the all-powerful sultan, who had come to the throne by ruthless and bloody means, and held the reins of power in the same manner for all his long life.
Moulay Ismail was the Sultan of Morocco from 1672 to 1727, a remarkably long time to rule over his subjects, whom he charmingly referred to as a ‘basketful of rats’. His glittering empire stretched from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of North Africa all the way through the desert to Timbuktu. One clue to his success lies in the name by which he was often known by: ‘Safaq Adimaa’ or ‘The Bloodthirsty’. He earned this soubriquet by his utter ruthlessness towards his enemies and rebels, a taste for inventive torture, and his habit when bored of testing the sharpness of the sword he carried everywhere on the neck of the nearest slave.
Another derives from his policy of exerting authority via display; by generating awe in the populace through the pomp and grandeur that surrounded him. In this, as in the extent and application of his power, he was the last sultan who can genuinely be said to have been on a par with his European counterparts.
In his fifty-five years as absolute monarch he humbled the wild mountain tribes of the Rif and Atlas, recaptured the coastal towns of Tangiers and Mamora, Asilah and Larache from foreign powers, maintained Moroccan sovereignty by defending it against the Ottoman Turks; rebuilt mosques, shrines, bridges, kasbahs and of course the extraordinary palace complex at Meknes, the remains of which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1703, a visiting ambassador asked one of Ismail’s sons how many brothers and sisters he had. After three days, he was presented with a list of 525 boys and 342 girls. In 1721 he was reputed to have ‘700 Sons able to mount Horse’. (The last of Ismail’s sons is said to have been born to him eighteen months after the sultan’s death: which is quite a feat.) His wives and harem members are even harder to keep track of, since even in official records most are noted only by a single Arabic name, often bestowed upon them only on their conversion to Islam, whether by choice or duress. Amongst them all there is only one constant: Lalla Zidana, bought as a slave from his brother for the sum of 60 ducats. By all accounts in her later years she was a huge and monstrous presence, vastly fat, strangely dressed and dreaded by all as ‘the witch Zidana’. Despite this – or maybe because of this – she maintained a thirty-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, the Scylla and Charybdis of the Meknes court.
Meknes has been called a second Versailles. Moulay Ismail and Louis X1V shared a fervour for building as well as for power, and both were passionately involved in the construction of their respective palaces. Versailles may not have been built with slave labour, but Louis was heedless of the lives and safety of his workmen. In the bitter winter of 1685 there were almost forty thousand men working on the site, despite the terrible cold and the ravages of disease and many of them died. Of course, the fate of the thousands of slaves at Meknes was even more terrible. But where Versailles was symmetrical, ordered, elegant, the palace complex at Meknes, with its fifty connected palaces, mosques, courtyards, barracks and parks, was vast and rambling in its ever-shifting design, as walls and pavilions were constructed then demolished at the arbitrary whim of its creator. His successors continued with his building programme, but in 1755 the shocks of the huge Lisbon earthquake, which is believed to have reached a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale, severely damaged the site, reducing to rubble in minutes what had taken many decades and thousands of lives to create. Of Ismail’s madly ambitious project only his extraordinary mausoleum, parts of the Dar Kbira, the vast granary, some of the outer walls, and the city gates remain. Despite this, the ruins are well worth visiting to gain a sense of the sheer scale of the sultan’s megalomania.
During the latter years of the seventeenth century Morocco found itself at war with England over the strategic port of Tangiers, which had fallen into English hands when King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza: it came as part of her dowry. Sultan Moulay Ismail was determined to have the foreign presence removed from Moroccan soil; but years of siege and bombardment, of guerrilla warfare and vicious raids had 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, sometimes known as ‘the Tinker’. The almost-seven-month visit is well documented in the records of the day, and is particularly colourfully described in the diary of John Evelyn who describes ben Hadou as ‘an handsome Person, well featur’d, of a wise looke, subtill, and extreamely civile’. Evelyn and the court were impressed by the modesty and intelligence of his retinue, who found themselves feted by the smartest society, becoming the hit of the season, invited to all the best houses. In the course of their visit they would encounter the most brilliant creative minds of the age: the Royal Society’s Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and alchemist Elias Ashmole; Samuel Pepys, John Dryden and a young Henry Purcell.
Delacroix’s ‘Turk in a Turban’ was not my only visual inspiration for the novel: three other paintings found their way into the text. The first of these is a portrait of Charles II’s mistress Louise de Kéroualle by Pierre Mignard, a portrait that would have been in progress while the Moroccan embassy was in town: such fun to incorporate it into the novel, as Nus-Nus recognizes her little ‘blackamoor’ slave as a boy from his own tribe.
Louise – the Duchess of Portsmouth – hosted a grand dinner for the Moroccan embassy at her glorious apartments at Whitehall where there was a ‘greate banquet of sweetemeates and musiq, but at which both the Ambassʳ and his retinue behaved themselves with extraordinary moderation and modesty, tho’ plac’d about a long table, a lady between two Moores, and amongst these were the King’s natural children, viz. Lady Lichfield and Sussex, the Dutchess of Portsmouth, Nelly, & concubines, and cattell of that sort, as splendid as jewells and excesse of bravery could make them. The Moores neither admiring nor seeming to regard any thing, furniture or the like, with any earnestnesse, and but decently tasting of the banquet.’ Wine was served, but the Moors confined themselves to milk and water; throughout the meal they conducted themselves with the most ‘courtly negligence in pace, countenance, and whole behaviour’, returning witty replies to the questions which were put to them. The King himself looked in just as the ambassador was leaving.
The ambassador had his portrait painted twice while he was in London, both by anonymous artists. One of these handsome portraits can be found in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in London, as can the Mignard portrait of the Duchess of Portsmouth.
I’ve visited the paintings many times now: their subjects have taken on a life on their own in my imagination, so vividly did they inhabit the novel. It’s curious to note that the portraits of Ben Hadou show him with the typical dark eyes of the other Moroccans, although he was reputed to have an English mother and to have had grey eyes – which Ismail inveighed against on occasion, damning him for his foreignness. Perhaps the artists took a liberty to make him appear more exotic? 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. He will always be my favourite character.
This post first appeared on the Printsasia site in shortened form:
I am delighted to say that THE SULTAN’S WIFE is at last available as an ebook in the US. I love Gere Donovan’s description of the novel:
Sidi Kabour was the greatest poison expert in all of Morocco, a tidy old man operating from an obscure stall in the back of the Henna Souq. He was also dead, and the blood was all over Nus-Nus.
Nus-Nus, the eunuch. Nus-Nus, the food taster, scribe and keeper of the royal couching book. Nus-Nus, the innocent, framed in some twisted palace intrigue between the Empress and the Grand Vizier.
Alys Swann was a blonde, blue-eyed English rose whose pale complexion made her particularly valuable to the Barbary corsairs who’d taken her ship. She wasn’t dead, but she might wish she were—Sultan Moulay Ismail was known to have a taste for the exotic, and compared to the hundreds of other women in the royal harem, Alys Swann would be exotic indeed: an alabaster pawn in great strategic game of the seraglio.
Thrown together, Alys and Nus-Nus form an unlikely alliance. Two powerless prisoners in a world of brutal, 17th century intrigue, each finding strength in the other to endure that which must be endured in the hope of a better tomorrow. “And that, at the final count, is all any of us can ask.”
Rich in detail with compelling characters and an ambitious scope, The Sultan’s Wife is a remarkable tale of adventure, romance, history, and friendship.
We had idernan – Berber pancakes – for breakfast today, nothing to do with St Valentine’s Day. Abdel says that back in the time before Islam came to Morocco (in the 8th century) local tribes were at constant war, decimating the male population. They wanted to end the conflict but neither side could lose face. At last a travelling wise man negotiated a truce. The agreement was that on a certain day each year the tribes would make breakfast for one another, turn and turn about; and idernan – like very thin crumpets, served hot with butter and honey – were the result. The tradition has been kept in this region all this time, for 1300 years or more. Which puts most of our fake-antique ‘traditions’ into context!
250g fine semolina durum wheat
45 cl of warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
8g fresh yeast or 1 tsp dried
1 tsp sugar
In a bowl, combine the semolina, flour, salt and baking powder. Then add the warm water and yeast, diluted in a little warm water, and sugar. Leave the batter to rise for an hour. Just before cooking, stir it gently.
Pour a small ladle of batter onto a hot frying pan. Cook only on one side, without turning. When you take it out, look on the other side and you’ll find there are many tiny holes. An alternative name is ‘the pancake with 1000 holes’.
Serve hot with either a mixture of honey and melted butter or with argan oil or jam.