TOM’S FIRST MEMORY: his mother kneeling in a ravine, shielded from the sun and other human beings, hunched over in a sing-song prayer. He came to know the chant well. She barely murmured it, but it comforted him as he lay quietly on his mat.
He learned to cherish those moments with shade from the heat, with brief escapes from the slave’s existence, with deep emotional bonding he could find nowhere else. Only here did he ever see his mother cry, her fist sometimes clenched in rage, sometimes hugging her head. Only here did he see the serene and peaceful countenance that blessed those who draw strength from a faith that runs deeper than human cruelty. Only here did he feel safe.
In these secluded moments, she educated her son. She told him his real name, Suleyman bin-Fatad. She fired his soul with the secret knowledge of his father, Youssef, reputed to have been the greatest Commander in all of West Africa in the tenth century aH. She was a fool, the older slaves told her, but she was proud.
She swore him to awful secrecy. And he slipped only once. He must have been five or six when the overseer burst into the slaves’ quarters bellowing her white-man’s name, Mattie. Tom could not even remember whom he had told, playing with the other slave-boys, but she glanced at him as the overseer and another big man dragged her off her feet and out the door. He knew in that glance that she knew he had slipped.
Tom started up after them, getting a kick for his trouble, which flung him hard against a table. The other slaves threw themselves against the wall and stared silently at the whole scene. Tom understood even then that any motion on their part would bring the whip or worse.
Before anyone moved, Tom dashed out the back and around the cabin. He did not want to lose sight of his mother, but he knew that he had to stay out of sight. He watched them take her out behind a barn. He could not understand everything they said, something about reading and books. His mother lay there, crying quietly, wincing when one of them would kick her hard in the ribs. They whipped her and punched her. She told them she could not read their books. After a while, they seemed to be kicking her just for the fun of it. They stopped asking questions and just punched her back and forth across a circle. After a while she fainted. They left her and walked away, laughing.
Blinded by tears, Tom ran to his mother’s limp body and threw himself on her. Other slaves came out of the shadows and led him away.
It was many weeks before he saw his mother move quietly toward the ravine during work break. She glanced at him and shook her head. He did not follow.
He grew quickly the next two years. A rage and a fire burned in him as he suddenly found himself a good four to six inches taller than his playmates. It was not a blessing. Soon, he was running errands and messages around the plantation, and fetching small loads. A working hand before his time.
When he turned seven, she took him aside one night and led him out to the woods behind the slaves’ quarters. She asked him if he was ready to learn the truth about himself and the world. He said yes. She said she forgave him for his indiscretion and trusted him to keep a secret. His tears told her the seriousness of his promise. Over the next few nights, she told him their story.
Al-Arun was a glorious city, the gleaming capital of a fertile land that lay along the bank of the Niger River. The river gave life to the land and prosperity to its inhabitants. For many years there had been peace between the Moslem people of Al-Arun and the pagans who dwelled far to the south and west. The Aruni were descendants of desert nomads who had settled long before the messengers of Islam had brought the Koran to them. Though nominally a fiefdom of the Sultan of Timbuktu, Al-Arun was left pretty much alone. This was partly because Tom’s grandfather and father had organized the country into a network of well-defended villages and a system of rapid alert that allowed them to muster the most powerful army in West Africa faster than any marching enemy could reach Al-Arun.
Tom’s mother was the eldest daughter of the Bey of Al-Arun, and so a logical choice to become the bride of the most powerful man in the country. It did not hurt that the two of them were also fond of each other. The wedding was arranged for her twelfth birthday. Tom’s father, Youssef bin-Suleyman, was almost twenty, but he had already proven his skill and his leadership in repelling two invasions from the region of Ouagadougou. The people called him Al-Fatad, the General.
It was a memorable event. She was long and gangly already, bursting with pre-pubescent growth. Two years later, her beauty was a legend throughout the land. Not only was she beautiful, but she was also educated and brilliant. She was a voracious reader and by the time of the wedding, she had read almost every book in her father’s library. Some, like Sheherezade’s Thousand and One Nights, she had read many times. But her father also had books about natural science. They were Greek classics, translated into Arabic by scholars at the great libraries of Alexandria, Damascus and Baghdad.
The feat that made her father most proud was memorizing the Koran. A man destined to become an imam might memorize most of it, but for a woman to read it, much less memorize it completely, was a remarkable thing indeed. The Bey did not worry about those who might criticize his letting a woman read the Koran. He recognized a gift when he saw one. He was a very devout man, and Fatima had a beautiful, musical voice. That combination brought hours of pleasure to his harem, as Fatima recited a different sura (chapter) for her father and his wives in the evenings. Al-Quran means The Recital: how appropriate.
At first she recited only to please her father, whom she loved very much. Later, she came to love those verses. Her husband was also a man of great faith and of a like mind with her father. Both had spent time in apprenticeship among the sufi in the desert; both were deeply aware of God’s blessings and His will at work around them. Fatima and Youssef were intellectual equals and loved to debate the meanings of the evening’s recital deep into the night. For Youssef, marrying a woman he could love and respect was the greatest blessing of all. They were very happy together.
When Youssef had to travel, Fatima had spare time, even with the responsibility of supervising the harem. She took to writing down the sura she would have recited each night. The next day she would check herself. She became frightfully accurate.
In those days, memorizing long tracts of verse was not as rare as it seems today. Storytellers were the principal entertainment of the day. Most people could not read, so reciting from memory was a necessary skill.
Such a happy union could not go childless forever. Fatima was fifteen when Youssef bin-Youssef was born. Naomi arrived the following year. The General’s harem never quite settled down from then on.
Today, the English use “harem” to mean the collection of a man’s wives, but it was the private part of the house, where the family could relax without outsiders. It was where the women and children lived, and children always unsettled a house.
Fatima’s beautiful voice brought calm to the harem every night, as little Naomi and Youssef nodded off during the recital.
Then came the war, terrible and bloodier than any before it.
The chief of the Ibo had conquered the tribes on both sides of the river and established a mighty empire stretching over a thousand miles from the Atlantic to the edge of the Sahel desert and the southern borders of al-Arun. The defensive structure of al-Arun worked against the light, fast-moving armies of nomads that came from the desert to the north and east. But the Ibo had more warriors in this new army than al-Arun had people. Unlike the nomadic strike forces, the Ibo were not simply raiding and leaving.
Word of the new threat filtered into the capital from the south: villages burned to the ground, wholesale slaughter, with the few survivors being herded down the Niger toward the jungles. In some cases, Ibo settlers showed up and began farming the Arun lands, but more often the Ibo simply abandoned burned out farms and villages and moved north to the next one.
Youssef was gone a lot that year. Messengers brought reports to the Bey (and Fatima) of brilliant ambushes and raids that had slowed the Ibo advance. Even though the Aruni had slain more Ibo warriors than there were Aruni people, the Ibo kept coming.
One day, Fatima rose to find that a southeasterly breeze carried a hint of smoke and roasting meat in it. Over the next week, the smell became stronger. At last, she could see the smoke of burning villages and smell the death and destruction of warring armies coming up the river. Youssef came home one night at dark. He was exhausted, sweaty, and dirty. Two arm wounds were healing. His haunted eyes told the story. He reported to the Bey, and they organized themselves to defend the city.
That night Fatima chose the sura for her recital, a verse of peace, hope and courage. Youssef wept as she recited. It was short. Afterward, he tried to convince her to leave for the north, to Timbuktu. She refused saying that if God willed that Al-Arun should die, she would stay and die, too. She and Youssef spent a final night together. He went back to his army before sun-up.
It took more than one moon for the Ibo to take the ridge that overlooked the pass through which the Niger left the valley. Then the killing began in earnest.
Youssef and his army fell back to the city gates. Fatima watched the final battle from the roof of her father’s palace. Youssef died surrounded by Ibo warriors. It took six of them to kill him. By then he had held the gates with a hundred men all day.
The garrison at the city walls could not hold the town against a large army. By nightfall, the city was in flames and Ibo warriors were everywhere, tearing down houses, looting, raping and killing. Many got drunk celebrating that night.
Fatima waited in the prayer room of the harem. Her father went out to meet the Ibo general to surrender the city and was slain by a pillaging Ibo’s spear before he could reach the city square.
Palace guards kept the looters out until the Ibo guard arrived to take charge. The Ibo guard captain ordered the palace guards and the Bey’s family taken prisoner.
There were only about a hundred survivors from a city of 10,000. The smell of rotting and roasting flesh, of burning thatch and the screams of the dying assaulted Fatima as they were led to large rafts on the river. The Ibo kept them tied up on the rafts, which scared Fatima. She could swim, but one day one of the rafts farther down the river ran into some rocks and broke up. The prisoners drowned in the swirling rapids.
Insects and hunger tormented them, and the guards molested some of them. But the Ibo general had given strict orders to leave Fatima and her two children alone.
When they reached Lagos, Fatima and the others were taken to a large empty building and locked up. Their captors had brought them to Lagos to present them to the emperor, noble prisoners being very special.
However, the emperor was in a foul mood. The exhilaration of capturing Al-Arun had long worn off by the time the prisoners arrived. The emperor did not want slaves from Al-Arun, because they reminded him of the terrible losses the Ibo had suffered in conquering the Aruni. They had lost more warriors in Al-Arun than all their other campaigns combined. Youssef had cost the emperor two of his own sons and had exhausted his treasury. In fact, Al-Arun became the outer limit of Ibo conquest. The empire could afford no more.
Fatima and the others lived in the warehouse for a month.
She realized she was pregnant while she was in the warehouse. After a month, they were led out in the sun and taken to a corral. The sun blinded them, and they were so weak they could hardly walk.
In the corral they were given more food and allowed to exercise and move around. They gained weight and strength. A shelter without walls allowed them to stay out of the rain and sun. There were always a few guards, and the fences were too tall to climb. Each day, one of the men led prayers and Fatima recited by the fire each night.
Three weeks later, they saw a marvelous sight. A ship bigger than any they had ever seen, moving without oars from the open ocean under white sails. The ship anchored in the harbor and sent rowboats to the shore.
The guards herded them all tied together to the square by the harbor. White men with strange costumes and stranger odors bargained with the Ibo. The language of the Ibo was foreign to Fatima, but the white men spoke an even stranger tongue. By afternoon, the prisoners understood that the Ibo had sold them to the white men.
The white men replaced their ropes with metal chains. They were led to boats and taken to the ship.
The slaves were huddled on deck while the hatch was pulled open. The stench made Fatima faint.
When she came to, she was in the steerage, her hands still chained. In the dark, she could make out the rest of her people and many strangers. There must have been two hundred people crammed into the space.
[As she recounted the daily horrors of the Middle Passage, Tom sat in terrified amazement. When she told him how his siblings had died and been tossed overboard, he broke down sobbing against her chest. While she hugged him, she jumped ahead in her tale.]
When the ship docked, she was four months along and showing her condition. By now she understood that the whites spoke at least three or four different languages, including a pidgin that they all understood. She wondered if ‘zucar meant “sugar” like it did in her language. There were other pidgin words that seemed familiar. She guessed that the traders worked the whole west coast of Africa, including the Arabic-speaking regions west of Timbuktu.
She could hardly walk when the crew pulled the hatch back for the last time. They tossed six more bodies overboard but let the air and sunshine come into the steerage.
The ship moored in Norfolk, Virginia, in the year 1784 aD (1198 aH). Fatima and the others were soon “living” in the pen by the slave auction block. Though they had no privacy on the ship and had been molested and many starved during the passage, nothing had prepared her for being stripped of her clothing and paraded naked on a stage, her pregnant belly distended before everyone. White men she did not know opened her mouth to inspect her teeth. They squeezed her breasts and pinched her on the buttocks and arms, apparently to see how firm her flesh was.
The bargaining for Fatima ran longer than the others. She understood that the child she carried increased her value, but that did not make her feel better. It scared her.
In the end, a man who had not gotten on the stage won the bidding. He had other slaves with him, who dressed her in clean clothing. She was given a name, Mattie, which she did not understand until they arrived at Mr. Jones’ plantation on the Northern Neck.
“Are you ready to learn, my son?” she asked him.
“What will you learn?”
“To write and read, please, and to recite.”
“This is very dangerous.”
“I know, mother. I saw.” He stood so he could look her in the eye as she sat. “Teach me, please.”
“Other slaves will report us. We can trust no one as you learn.”
“Then we will begin…”
Over the next seven years, Fatima taught Suleyman all she could, including writing out the Koran in Arabic script. Knowing that either Mattie or Tom could be sent away at a moment’s notice – or sold – imparted a special urgency to their project. They developed a language of gestures so they could set up secret meetings or reschedule them instantly. After Tom was eight years old, they used Arabic exclusively until it was his native language.
They had many close calls hiding their lessons, but by the time Mr. Jones sent Mattie and her fourteen-year-old son Tom to Highland near Charlottesville to help Mr. Monroe, he could recite the Koran from memory and write fluently in a beautiful cursive hand.
Fatima died when Suleyman was twenty years old. After the burial in the slave cemetery, he returned that night to recite the sura and the Ninety-nine Names of God over her grave.
Tom went on to learn to read in English using books and newspapers that he hid and studied. His mother had taught him how to read upside down and other tricks so that people could not tell that he was reading. The newspapers taught him much about what was happening in the world. He also carefully acquired skills that would help him escape and travel. Like his mother, he was an excellent swimmer (also a secret), and he could make and shoot a bow and arrow.
In 1813 aD (1228 aH), Tom turned 29. By then he was a trusted servant, recognized for his confidence, his strength, and his quick intelligence. Mr. Jones had often wished that he could teach Tom to read and do numbers, but that was illegal in Virginia. He did, however, like to have Tom accompany him on his trips to see his friends and to conduct business.
One such trip put them in Portsmouth as the British fleet was trying to take Craney Island. The Americans considered the Battle of Craney Island to be a victory, because the British failed to land and moved up the Chesapeake Bay. However, it was a great loss for Mr. Jones. Tom slipped around the fighting and swam to a British ship offshore.
Slavery being illegal in the United Kingdom and the Royal Navy being shorthanded, he was welcomed and sailed with the British fleet. His English name, Tom Jones, caused the officers to smile, and many bawdy songs were sung about him below decks.
After he was paid off upon the ship’s return to England, Tom disappeared into the anonymity afforded men with that name. About 1825 aD (1240 aH), one Suleyman bin-Fatad was known to be teaching English and recitation at Timbuktu University…
© 1992, 2022 JT Hine