“Ah, so you are the famous Lord Humphrey de Toron!” the elderly Saracen exclaimed with a smile and a gracious gesture, indicating that the prisoner should sit opposite him on a waiting cushion on the floor. He was obviously not a fighting man and wore neither arms nor armor. Nor was he a wealthy merchant clothed in the bright colors and elaborate styles of the souks and bazaars. Instead, he was dressed in the simple, striped kaftan of a humble man—except that the cotton was crisply clean and exceptionally fine, and he had several gold rings on his fingers.
Humphrey bowed over his hands in thanks and sank warily down on the cushion, acutely conscious of how badly he smelled. He had not been given an opportunity to wash since his capture at Hattin. The dried blood had eventually just worn off, but the accumulated dirt and the stench of his own body only got worse. “I apologize,” he said, bowing his head again, “for my sorry and unwashed state. It is not my habit to go about smelling worse than a stable and as dirty as a peasant.”
The man opposite smiled in sympathy. “Be assured, I do not think you ill-mannered. Rather, I will do all in my power to see you are given the opportunity to wash and obtain a change of clothes. Let me introduce myself: I am Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani. I had the great honor to serve the illustrious Sultan Nur ad-Din, may Allah show him mercy, as his secretary, and, undeserving as I am, the brave Salah ad-Din, may God’s blessing upon him a thousand-fold, has, in his infinite wisdom, seen fit to allow me to continue in the same humble position, for which I thank Allah five times a day.”
Humphrey bowed his head and crossed his hands on his chest as he assured the secretary, “I am deeply honored to find myself in such exalted company, and am even more ashamed of my unsavory condition.”
Imad ad-Din dismissed his concerns with a wave of his hand and a smile. “That will all be put right. But first, please partake of a little refreshment.” He indicated a beautifully displayed spread of delicacies, from goat’s cheese in honey to figs encrusted with pistachios. There was minced meat wrapped in grape leaves, rice with parsley and pine nuts, and more. Even before Humphrey could protest, his host clapped his hands, and a boy scurried forward to offer Humphrey a bowl of water in which to wash his hands. A second boy handed Humphrey a linen cloth on which to dry them, and a third offered him a tray on which a broad silver goblet containing iced sherbet, smelling of lemon and decorated with a sprig of mint, was offered.
Humphrey gratefully washed his hands, but did not partake of the sherbet until he had bowed to his host and exclaimed, “I am overwhelmed by your generosity and hospitality, and wish to understand why I have been honored by such undeserved kindness and attention, Excellency.”
“Ah.” Imad ad-Din smiled, and his leathery face crinkled along the deep lines cut in it by decades in the sun. “It is because, my dear Humphrey—if I may call you that?” Humphrey bowed his head in agreement, “It is because I was the man who read your recent missive to his magnificence Sultan Salah ad-Din, may Allah grant him long life, and I was delighted by your sophisticated and elegant style. Such a refined command of Arabic is a rarity even among educated men of my own people. But to find a master of Arabic in a faranj was so astonishing that I said to myself at once, I must meet this unusual man! When my lord and master, my Allah grant him long life, asked me to return to Aleppo on other matters, I took the opportunity to inquire after you. You can imagine my astonishment when I learned you were neither a scholar nor a man of my own generation, but hardly more than a cub and a man of the sword.”
Humphrey was deeply moved by the elderly scribe’s praise, and he bowed his head again. “You flatter me, Excellency. I have studied your literature diligently and have endeavored to imitate it to the best of my humble abilities, but I am only a novice. I am flattered that my efforts—poor as they undoubtedly were—were not too rude or ill-formed for the Sultan’s ear.”
“Not at all, not at all—though, of course, there were slight errors that I automatically corrected when reading aloud. Nothing that you could not master with more opportunity to study. It would give me great pleasure to be an instrument for helping you develop your gift for the language of the Prophet, may Allah’s blessings be upon him. I hope you will accept my offer?”
Humphrey stopped in the act taking a spoonful of the sherbet. “Your Excellency—I—I don’t know what you mean. I am your prisoner, as you see.”
“Young man,” the elderly scholar opened with a smile, “your condition is no reflection on your personal virtue or your intelligence; it therefore need cause you no shame. You are a prisoner because it was your misfortune to be born and raised a worshiper of icons at a time when Allah in his righteousness has given the Faithful a great leader who, in accordance with His will, has triumphed over his enemies. Do not be downhearted on account of that. We can still be friends. Come, tell me more about yourself.” Imad ad-Din gestured for Humphrey to eat and drink as he spoke.
“My grandfather,” Humphrey began cautiously, “was Constable of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He once had the exceptional honor of meeting the Caliph of Cairo to conclude a treaty with him.”
Imad ad-Din nodded and exclaimed softly, “Ah, now I know where I had heard your name. He too was a great scholar, I believe, no?”
“Yes,” Humphrey agreed readily. “He was a master of many languages and a scholar of both history and poetry. My father died when I was very young, and I was raised for ten years by my grandfather. He had a large library with many books of Arab poetry that he used to teach me the language.”
“How lovely!” Imad ad-Din exclaimed with genuine enthusiasm. “What could be a more perfect way to learn Arabic?—other than reading the Koran, of course.”
Humphrey shook his head, confused. He was only nineteen years old and he was feeling disoriented. The trauma of Hattin, followed by the brutal execution of the captured Templars and Hospitallers, sat deep. Spending more than three months in the dank darkness of a dungeon had done little to heal the scars of that horror. It did not help that Humphrey was younger than most of the other captives, and routinely ignored because he did not enjoy the respect of his fellow barons. They scorned him because he had given up his barony for a money fief and because he wasn’t a very competent fighting man, either. It was, he supposed, a wonder that he had survived Hattin at all.
Imad ad-Din was more than three times his young guest’s age, and it was not difficult for him to see how fragile Humphrey’s nerves were. The secretary sympathized. This young man was no brutal barbarian, like most faranj. He was sensitive and intelligent and educated. Imad ad-Din was finding it easy to like him, which made it all the easier to do his master’s bidding of befriending him and milking him for information as well as ensuring that he, the husband of the Princess Isabella, was turned into a friend of the Sultan—if not of Islam itself.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish