Sayyeda al-Hurra

Fatima stood on the quayside at Marsa Mdiq gazing northward to al-Andalous. Like all refugees, her heart was perpetually taut, held so by the many threads reaching back to the place where it was happiest: al-Awda – Return. This one desire pulsed in the hearts of all the Muslims and Jews that had fled the cruelties of Ferdinand and Isabella, and their Grand Inquisitors. Love of al-Andalous unified them in exile as it had done for so long, in that golden age when all three peoples of the book had lived harmoniously together, before the Portuguese opened the trade routes, before the calamitous union of Aragon and Castile.

She gazed down at the little galliots in the marina, bobbing and soughing in the sun-rippled wavelets. A free man could row them to exact revenge on Portuguese and Spaniard, but no woman could, however free. Yet that made her no less free, knowing these vessels all lay at her command. The corsairs that manned them brought her great wealth and power; with it she rebuilt Tetwan and crowned it with a serene palace from whence she ruled for three decades. Returning sailors called Tetwan the White Dove, for its whitewashed houses rising up from the coastline. White, the colour of mourning, for the inconsolable loss of al-Andalous. Yet it was some comfort to know how proficient these men were in exacting revenge, how uncountable the lives they had ended. Yet she never truly felt sated by this vicarious talion, the tension in her heart remained unrelieved. A nostalgia for something you’ve never really known. For Fatima was a small girl when they fled, and her brother Ibrahim a babe in arms. That was when she first met Arūj, the captain of the rescue fleet.

He was one of four brothers and two sisters from Lesbos, the son of a Christian renegade, who had gone to sea to seek his fortune. The Knights of the Order of St John were on Rhodes at that time; they had killed his brother Ilyas, captured and tortured Arūj before making him a galley slave for a couple of years. Eventually his brother Khiḍr succeeded in arranging his escape.

Arūj was a big bold man with a strong red beard, and a score to settle. Baba Arūj - she adored him. Back then, when she was a child, he’d swung her round and round on the deck, made her dizzy and promised to marry her when she caught up with him in age. Even after her family gave her in marriage to the young al-Mandri Prefect of Tetwan, the burly corsair still felt protective of her, and indeed of all her people. But after five years she was widowed, and as she assumed sole power as Prefect, the alliance with the corsair grew stronger: she had brought the tribes wealth and revenge, and Andalousian mores had no issue with female leadership, so nobody thought to question it.

Tetwan was an ideal port to use as a base for piratical activities in the west of the Mediterranean, making an unbroken line to Algiers, the corsairs’ base in the east. It was on just such a raid against the Portuguese that Arūj had his left arm blown off by an arquebus.

So as Fatima sat dreaming of a home she’d never known, the man who’d brought her to Maroc from it came into the harbour. As soon as she saw his green colours flying she ran down to greet him, horrified by the sight of him bloodied and unconscious, being carried up the pontoon on a stretcher. She fussed and flurried and brought the best medic; he lay for weeks in her palace cauterised and healing. Lovingly she took a plaster mould of his strong right arm and had a mirror image of it fashioned in pure silver, decorated with precious stones and an embossed amulet for protection, the Hand of Fatima. He wore it out of love for her, his little dove, until the day he died just three years later saving his men from that unholy emperor Charles V. Cut of as they were from escape by a river, Arūj had stayed back to make sure no-one was left behind. To prove they had done what others had only ever claimed to do, the enemy hacked off his head and sent it in a bag of honey to the king of Spain.

That same year her husband passed. Fatima went into deep mourning, some said more for the corsair than the husband. She wore only white and ate nothing sweet for more than twenty years.

Then her brother Ibrahim died, the sultan’s vizir: to retain political relations with the ruler she came under pressure to marry al-Wattisi. She conceded, demanding that—for the first time in Moroccan history—the sultan leave Fez and come to her for the wedding. He came to Tetwan, and there she remained after he returned to the capitol, to signal to the people her intention to continue to rule. However, the Sa’di dynasty was gathering strength and the al-Mandri heir, in a show of support for them, deposed and dispossessed her. She retired to Chefchawen and lived another twenty years, a free woman, Sayyeda al-Hurra.

Historical context

Tetwan had been destroyed by Castile in 1400, its population enslaved, then again by Portugal in 1437 not long after it had been rebuilt. Fatima had been a young girl when her father, Moulay ibn Ali ar-Rachid, a descendant of the Prophet, ﷺ, brought her mother, a convert from Christianity to safety under the protection of the Wattasid sultan of Morocco. Her tribe, the Beni ar-Rachid, were given the principality of Chefchawen to govern semi-autonomously, and over the years they built up good relations with the local Berber tribes.

In the late 15th century as the flow of Andalousian refugees turned from trickle to flood, the Berber sultan gave the neighbouring principality of Tetwan to the Beni al-Mandar, after they lost the fort of Pinar, in Grenada. Al-Mandri brought his soldiers, nobles and families to build up again the last remaining major port of Morocco not under European occupation. Fatima married al-Mandri’s son, an alliance which bestowed some of the tribal support enjoyed by Beni ar-Rachid on the newcomers. When her husband succeeded his father and became prefect, she shared his role, governing adroitly and when she was widowed Fatima took the title Prefect of Tetwan, and continued to rule without challenge from the Beni al-Mandri for three decades.

Arūj made it his business to exact retribution on the Spanish and Portuguese by taking their lives and worldly goods at each and every opportunity, building up a reputation as an accomplished and fearsome corsair. Personal suffering had not marred his natural compassion, and he spent 1503-1510 ferrying the Andalousian refugees to safety in Maroc, far from the terrors of the Inquisition. In home shores this earned him the honorific Baba Arūj. The west came to know him as Barbarossa.

So, when in 1510 she went to Tetwan to wed the al-Mandri heir, and her brother Ibrahim was sent to Fez as vizir to the Wattisi sultan, she took steps to ensure the alliance with Arūj and his brother Khiḍr continued. Arūj lost his left arm in battle in 1512, a shot from a harquebus; a prosthetic was fashioned from pure silver. Then in 1515 al-Mandri died, and Fatima became sole prefect of Tetwan, a free woman. Around this same time Arūj lost his life defending his sailors against emperor Charles V. Fatima’s alliance continued with the brother, Khiḍr, who came to also be known as Barbarossa, Redbeard, though his was sandy in colour. Together they ensured decades of wealth and vengeance for the Andalousians, and with that righteous fund Fatima rebuilt Tetwan.

Khiḍr’s piratical success rested in his military acumen and his use of small galleys and galliots. Both types of ship had sails and oars, relied not on slaves at the oars, but trusted crew members, fighting men who could take the European slaver galleys and relieve them of the merchandise they carried. Galliots especially were highly manoeuvrable, and could encircle and outrun bulky mercantile galleys, dodging their fire. They were not usually reliant on cannon, as they preferred to keep their quarry saleably intact. This alliance between Fatima and the Barbarossa brothers ensured their control from Tetwan to Algiers. Khiḍr consolidated his successes by sending Suleyman the Magnificent, caliph of the Ottoman empire, a suitably excessive gift of lions, tigers, camels, silk, gold cloth and slaves for the harem, securing the post of admiral of the navy, with 2,000 elite janissaries at this command.

With such an ally Fatima perhaps felt invincible, but in 1539 her brother Ibrahim died. In 1541 she agreed to wed the Wattisi sultan, refusing to go to Fez for the ceremony and making him come to her in Tetwan, as a signal that she intended to remain there and continue her rule of the principality. Unfortunately for her, not long after the wedding she was overthrown by the al-Mandri heir, who took the palace and all her wealth, putting his backing behind the Sa’di contender for the sultancy.

Khiḍr died in 1546 in Istanbul, and rests in a mausoleum built by the great Sinan. Turkish sailors salute him still.

Sayyeda al-Hurra ruled Tetwan for over three decades, retired to Chefchawen in 1542 and died in obscurity in 1561.