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: