Why Ottoman Algiers?
Charles Marlow, a recurring character in Joseph Conrad’s fiction, once referred to “the blank spaces on the map.” I have always been...
A student of Ottoman Law among the corsairs of Algiers? The nine (and counting) novels in the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries feature the adventures of Chief Commissioner Muhammad Amalfi and, after the first few volumes, his savvy and resolute wife. Against the backdrop of political intrigue, despotism at home, and the turmoil churned up by the French Revolution abroad, the mysteries recount the Chief Commissioner’s quest for justice in a society spiraling toward self-destruction. From his beginnings as an orphan in an Italian bordello, to his conversion and years as a student of Ottoman Law, to his unexpected appointment to Caid al-Fahs, Chief Commissioner of the Hinterlands of Algiers, he uses his learning, instincts, and dedication to the ideals of justice to uncover the truth in the political and cultural maze of Algiers. In the later books of the series, Muhammad’s observations are balanced by his older and more experienced wife whose knowledge of the inner workings of Algiers, especially the society of women, exceeds that of her husband. With close attention to historical details, the series brings to life an obscure but important chapter in history through the keen observations of a gifted but inexperienced and flawed young man.
They called it Algiers the White, and those who saw it from the sea for the first time immediately knew why. That striking vision of the city called to mind a bleached and sparkling pyramid rising from the depths of the deep blue sea and flanked by rolling hills lush with greenery and overspread with cultivated fields, flower-covered villas and carefully-tended orchards. The defenses of the city, the seven fortresses clearly visible from the sea, explained much about its other names; Bastion of Islam, the Protected, the Sheltering, the Empire’s Western Outpost.
The story of the Turks in Algiers began with the fires of Inquisition in Spain that sent tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims to find refuge in North Africa. Together, Algerian Arabs and Berbers, Moriscos, Jews and renegades transformed a sleepy coastal town into the Gatekeeper of the Mediterranean. When the Algerians needed help with the Spanish who had returned to subjugate their duplicitous ruler, Selim ben Hafs, they turned to the seafaring Turkish brothers, Uruj and Khairuddin Barbarossa who liberated the city early in the sixteenth century and governed as regents of the Sultan in Istanbul. By the 1790s, their Turkish successors had ruled Algeria for more than two and half centuries.
Corsairs commissioned by the Dey of Algiers were known in Europe and around the world as the Barbary Pirates, when in fact they were privateers, legally sanctioned in the manner of militias everywhere. In their own societies they were celebrated as defenders of the faith.
Corsairs commissioned by the Dey of Algiers were known in Europe and around the world as the Barbary Pirates, highway robbers of the high seas, brigands in boats, cutthroat killers, slavers and Saracen infidels. The give and take between Muslim corsairs and those who confronted them in the Mediterranean Sea continued unabated for centuries. Between 1740 and 1798, Malta-based privateers took 148 Muslim ships. In the last two decades of the Eighteenth Century more than 500 Muslim sailors were enslaved each year and taken for sale in the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies. During the same time period, Algerian corsairs took 150 ships as prizes and likewise enslaved thousands. In August of 1783, a Spanish fleet of seventy ships sent to bombard Algiers into submission fell into a trap and was destroyed. In July of the following year, a fleet consisting of even more warships from Spain, Portugal, Naples and Malta was similarly repelled and forced to retreat without success. In the downward spiral of bloody conflict, it began to appear that for every ship lost by one side, another was lost by the other side.
Bloodshed in the Mediterranean continued for the reason that it was far too profitable to quit. If it appeared to many that the centuries-old struggle there was between the two religions, the truth was otherwise. In fact, it was the clash between the Turkish and the Austro Hungarian empires that was the true reason for the hostilities. The mainly Protestant enemies of Catholic Austro Hungary in Europe, the French, the English, the Dutch, the Swedes, the Danes and others had long since sided with Algiers and the Turks. After all, a great deal of wealth was to be had from trade in the Mediterranean. Trade between Algiers and the southern ports of France flourished. Algerian traders had even constructed a mosque in Marseilles and were granted land there for a graveyard of their own. The other reason the Northern Europeans signed articles of peace with Algiers was that any enemy of the Spanish was their friend. The great American statesman, Benjamin Franklin once said: “If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England's while to build one.”
In exchange for tribute, the Dey allowed safe passage through waters controlled by the Algerians to ships carrying passports from treaty countries. The Beys of Tunis and Tripoli did the same. When the British colonies in America declared their independence, the North African city states no longer honored their British Admiralty passports. Though the Dey tolerated the Yankee traders in his waters for several years thereafter, they refused to pay him tribute, and the Algerians detained the first American ships and crews in 1785, barely three years before this story begins.
With regard to Algiers and the Turks who ruled over it, however, all was not as it seemed. The assumption about Algiers on the part of most people was that the city thrived on the business of piracy, from the sale of ships and cargo taken at sea, from the ransom of wealthy merchants and the occasional noble, and from the trade in slaves. That was only partially right. From Roman times, and even before, North Africa was the bread basket of Europe, owing to its rich soil, sunshine and multiple growing seasons. The city of Algiers, for example, is surrounded by a fertile plain called the Mitidja which extends for forty to sixty or more miles in every direction other than the sea. For centuries Algerian ports have handled shipping from all over the world.
Internally, a dispute continued unabated between proponents of trade and commerce and those of the Corsair Captains Guild who maintained, under the banner of jihad, that the best use of the Algerian fleet was in defense and privateering. For the Deys of Algiers, the argument over maritime policy was often won for the jihad faction by the continuing aggression of European enemies. By 1788, both traders and raiders had strong arguments to make, and either profitable cargoes or booty from rich prizes to back them up. On the one hand, the Revolution in France displaced landowners and farmers, resulting in the need for Algerian imports to feed the French people. On the other, European attacks on shipping during the same period necessitated an increase in the arming and fitting out of corsairs.
The internal politics of the period were therefore based on conflict and compromise. Though the Turks had ruled Algiers for nearly three centuries, they were interlopers nonetheless, and had remained in power, despite their small numbers, through the considered use of force. Their brutal methods were often resisted by their Arab, Berber and Morisco subjects; and the Kabyle mountain people, mostly Berbers, revolted frequently against Turkish tax collectors.
Throughout their history, the Turkish Deys had either to deal judiciously and diplomatically with each contending party or else suffer the consequences, often leading to their overthrow by rival Turkish factions. The law laid down by the Sultan in Istanbul stipulated that the rulers in the Regency of Algiers in the West, the Beys and the Deys, must be chosen from among the Turkish military class of janissaries, and that the Dey might come from even the lowest ranks if he had sufficient support to form and maintain a government. In short, the best peacemakers from among the warriors usually made the best rulers.
In 1788, the year this saga begins, Dey Muhammad Ben Osman had ruled for nearly thirty years, the first Dey in more than a century to do so.
Conflicts During the Final Ottoman Years in Algiers: 1775 – 1830
1775, July: Spanish-Tuscan armada of 74 warships and over 200 transport vessels led by General Alexander O’Reilly is destroyed, with casualties of 5,000 men, while attempting to invade Algiers.
1783, August: Spanish naval bombardment of Algiers by a fleet of 70 warships fails.
1784, July: Algiers is bombarded by the combined naval forces of Spain, Naples, Malta and Portugal
1787-1792: Russia and Turkey go to war in the Crimea and Caucasus.
1789, July: The Storming of the Bastille and Revolution in France
1792-1797: Wars of the First Coalition as French Republicans battle Royalist Europe
1794: The “Glorious First of June” naval battle is claimed a victory by the British after clashing in the Atlantic with the French under Admiral Vilaret.
1775-1783: War of the American Revolution
1798-1801: Napoleon’s Army of the Orient invades the Mediterranean, losing most of its fleet to the British under Lord Nelson at AbuKir after capturing the garrison at Malta in June of 1798
1798-1801: Wars of the Second Coalition in which Russia, Britain, Austria, the Netherlands, Portugal, Naples, and Vatican faced off against France.
1799: In India, the British defeat Tippu Sultan in the Fourth and final Mysore War
1801: British defeat Denmark-Norway in the Battle of Copenhagen
1801-1805: First Barbary Wars in which the US and Sweden attack the North African state
1807: Anglo-Russian War
1815: Second Barbary War
1816: The British-Dutch Fleet under Lord Exmouth Bombards Algiers
1830, June: Invasion of Algiers by the French
Beginning with the question: “What did I, Ettore, know of Algiers when I was swept to sea in the year 1788?” *Adrift and at Risk* recounts the story of how a young Italian is taken to a slave market by corsairs after a lengthy ordeal at sea. Beyond the adventure, this is a coming-of-age story in which self-discovery is achieved through suffering, loss, and camaraderie. Forced to confront his origins, his beliefs, and his own shortcomings while fighting to survive, he makes a calculated sacrifice in order to aid the companions he finds on the way.
Not long after the cannon fired, the purple on the horizon resolved itself into a coastline and a range of mountains that grew higher and longer as we approached. An hour later I was able to discern a long curving bay to the east of which a level plain stretched away toward the horizon while to the west there lay a series of verdant hills and, on one of these, a grouping of whitewashed buildings, arranged as if in a triangle that was based on the seaside with what appeared to be a magnificent domed palace at its apex. This triangular vista, with its terraced and gleaming rows of buildings, grew larger as we approached and revealed itself to be a city of impressive proportions. The sails of ships appeared on the coastal horizon, and the cannon again went into action. Volley after volley roared to proclaim our arrival and, from the distant shore, puffs of smoke and then the rumbling of cannon announced to us that there were people in the port who welcomed us. As we drew closer to the port and the bleached walls of the city, we could see scores if not hundreds of small craft making their way toward us. Again the cannon roared, and again, and again. From the shore and from the craft in the harbor the firing became more frequent until little other than cannon fire could be heard, although the discharge of muskets seemed to come from every direction as well.
The city on the sea we approached at that hour teemed with clamor and commotion. The magnificent white building that appeared high above the port was indeed a palace, and beneath it there cascaded row after descending row of sparkling whitewashed buildings, like a series of terraces on a pyramid, all the way down to the massive walls that separated the port from the city inside and above. Towers and bastions, several with gun ports and smoking brass cannon, appeared at intervals along the high stone walls that enveloped the city all around, and already I could see great mosques with their painted domes and towering four-cornered minarets. Looking up at the rows of gleaming buildings, one above the other and ending with the great white palace at the summit, I noticed people watching the events in the harbor from balconies, rooftops and terraces at every level, as if the city were an amphitheater, with the harbor as its stage.
A J Lewis
AN ADMIRER OF BOOKS is a woman who has spent her life in bondage as a domestic to a Sicilian family and then to a wealthy Algerian woman. She is unsure of her origins because she was taken prisoner at sea as a child by Corsican pirates and sold into slavery. She begins a clandestine correspondence with Muhammad Amalfi, a student at a law college in Algiers, when she petitions a fellow servant for material to read. Muhammad is happy to oblige and provides her with books. When the woman kills the man who attacks her in a hammam, the manservant disposes of the body and, in doing so, is accused of murder himself. Muhammad comes to the aid of the manservant in court and the man is found innocent and then set free for his defense of the honor of the home in which he labored. While the manservant is still on trial, however, the Admirer of Books seeks to protect him by confessing to the murder herself. Once again Muhammad Amalfi goes to court, and once again he successfully defends his client. More than that, Muhammad unites the woman with the Turkish Albanian family that may well have been her own.
AN ADMIRER OF BOOKS placed First in the Unpublished Historical Fiction category of the 2018 Royal Palms Literary Awards hosted by the Florida Writers Association.
AN ADMIRER OF BOOKS begins:
I thought myself free of pirates and their slave markets when I began to study law in August of 1789 at the law college in the Grand Mosque of Algiers. I was no longer Ettore, the lost Italian orphan boy. I was Muhammad, and one of them, one of the corsairs, at least in spirit. Several of my friends, too, survivors of the same ordeal at sea that brought me to Algiers, were also free. Ransomed by Caid Jafar’s Freedom Charity, /Haboos al-I’taq/, we were to remain in Algiers to work and earn money to repay the charity. All except me, I was to remain and acquire an education. It was all a part of the agreement worked out with Caid Jafar by Paul Anderson, my friend from earlier days in Amalfi and the only Englishman among us.
I was no longer a slave, and I was no longer caught in the net of the slave market and those who supplied and profited from its sordid business. When I began my studies at the law college, I did so in the credulous conviction that slaves and slavery would no longer be of concern to me. At seventeen years of age, I was a renegade, a convert, a brother in faith. I was on their side. But I found myself in a world I hardly knew or understood.
A companion’s recurring and troubling dream about a ‘Mountain Bather’ who walks on water prompts an Italian companion to Muhammad Amalfi to undertake a lifelong quest for an explanation. As a nominal Christian and a sailor he visits chapels, cathedrals, and monasteries in ports across the Mediterranean in order to find a painting or a fresco that might represent and confirm his vision. But it is not until he arrives in Algiers that he discovers the identity of his Mountain Bather in the person of a Sufi master. A Tomb in Algiers describes the resolution by Muhammad Amalfi of the quandary created by the death of the Master for both his friend and the Dey of Algiers. The book closes with the precipitous elevation of Muhammad by the mercurial Dey of Algiers from an unknown law student to the office of Chief Commissioner of the Hinterlands of Algiers.
An account of how a British Lord seeking to journey to Constantine in the pursuit of knowledge was led astray and brutally murdered, setting in motion the murders of both those complicit and innocent, all linked to a ceremony of exorcism that unleashed a rampage of evil and ill fortune, while a ruthless British renegade sought to enrich himself by smuggling antique coins at
a time when war in Europe threatened trade in the Mediterranean
and the voices counseling jihad grew louder in the Diwan of
the Dey of Algiers whose
intent it was to expedite the construction of a larger Palace,
a greater Grand Mosque, and a Splendid Mausoleum by
moving a hoary graveyard in the Hinterlands just
beyond the precincts of the city of al-Jazair,
the Sheltered, the White,
the Bastion of Islam; or,
This book was selected as Runner Up in the 2017 Beverly Prize for International Literature in London.
A GRAVEYARD IN ALGIERS (120k words) relates how Muhammad Amalfi finds evidence of alchemy, debauchery, religious excess, and murder at a villa leased to a British baron, Lord Selden. It is only by means of information provided by maid servants at the homes of foreign residents in the Hinterlands, that the Commissioner is finally able to make the connections necessary to understanding that the murders at nearby ruins and at the Selden’s villa are a part of an elaborate criminal operation to extract and smuggle gold coins with the help of European diplomats and sea captains. One of those maidservants provides information that shocks Muhammad into the realization that he has failed miserably in his quest to find a killer and, what’s worse, that he has placed his own life in danger.
In Book Five, AN AFFAIR OF HONOR IN ALGIERS (74k words), Chief Commissioner Muhammad, fearing for his life and suffering from insomnia and daylight visions, finds he must question the meanings of honor and loyalty to the Day of Algiers when he risks everything by taking sides in a conflict over an honor killing between two prominent families in the Hinterlands of Algiers, one Turkish and one Algerian.
AN AFFAIR OF HONOR IN ALGIERS begins:
When Ahmad Bourabwa bursts through the open oaken door and tosses a sandal on my carpet, I look at it, and then at him, without comprehending. In the rustic quarters in the hills outside the towering, whitewashed walls of Algiers, I am attempting to convince myself that another monotonous day of tax collecting might at least serve to bring me the release of blessed sleep. Standing outside and awaiting the moment when I will join them to issue the day’s orders, my Hinterlands Guards must be as startled by the man’s sudden entrance as I am. Riding at speed on a fine Arabian, Bourabwa dismounted even as the winded and snorting beauty was bringing herself to a noisy halt behind him. Then he stormed inside and dropped the sandal in front of me.
It’s not the entrance that confounds me. Nor is it the man. It is, instead, the tiny sandal that appears to hover in the air before taking the shape of a teardrop and falling to the carpet on which I sit.
Chief Commissioner Muhammad narrates the story of his detention by janissaries, and then his abduction and eventual escape from the tribal counterfeiters who attack and kill the janissaries before carrying Muhammad and two women, a lady from an influential Turkish family and her Algerian maidservant, to a slave market. In the male-dominated Muslim society of Algeria during the Turkish Regency, Muhammad works with the women to escape slavery and the mountain stronghold of their captors, and then to foil the plot of the Agha, the Janissary Commander, to overthrow the Dey of Algiers.
AN ABDUCTION IN ALGIERS begins:
The pelting I take from the afternoon rain renders me nearly as uncomfortable as finding myself among the long-faced troop of janissaries who escort me. Ahead of us, the white Summer Palace of the Dey of Algiers glistens and sparkles through sheets of falling raindrops. Though its shining white walls must be no more than a stone’s throw distant, the Summer Palace is invisible from the thicket at the bottom of the ravine into which we are headed. Owing to the hilly landscape, the old warehouse of crumbling gray fieldstone at the bottom of a wooded slope comes into view only moments before we dismount at its gaping entrance.
“A man does not enter the society of women in Algiers, he is admitted to it.” Thus begins The Domain of the Moon. A marriage proposal by a notorious corsair is turned down graciously by an influential Turkish family. But, not to be denied, the corsair abducts their daughter and coerces her grandfather into agreeing to the marriage so as to save the family from the shame of having one of their women compromised, thus preserving the all-important family honor. Taken from the city to a house in the Hinterlands, the daughter refuses to succumb to her presumptive husband's demands and is beaten. Set against the backdrop of the questionable diplomacy of the French revolution, the story is told in the beginning chapters by the Chief Commissioner of the Hinterlands of Algiers and, in the final chapters, by his wife. By this means, two marriages of honor are brought into sharp contrast. The marriage of honor arranged by the bride’s family brings Chief Commissioner Muhammad and Lalla Hurriya together, albeit with reservations on the part of the bride. The other marriage of honor seeks to legitimize an abduction and the violence that ensues. In resisting the same, even holding out in a hammam against an expected attack by the corsair and his crew, the Chief Commissioner and his wife overcome all odds and free the abused woman.
MURDER IN THE PALACE OF THE DEY
MURDER IN THE PALACE OF THE DEY (96k words) tells the story of an investigation into the murder of a prominent Algerian agent acting as a middleman for the ransom of European captives. Having determined who is guilty of the murder, Muhammad goes into the city to arrange for his arrest. On the way, he is invited to join the Dey in the palace mosque where, during the Friday prayer, attackers seize and seal the palace. The Dey and those with him in the mosque, quickly close the doors and await help. At the same time, janissaries attempt to seize the hammam built for women by Lalla Hurriya, and she and several women find themselves under siege. Using alternative points of view, from husband to wife and back again, the investigation into the murder is revealed through flashbacks, while the situations in both the mosque and the hammam continue to deteriorate until the final resolution. In the end, however, Muhammad and his wife realize that the danger they overcome is nothing compared to the dangers they have unleashed.
MURDER IN THE PALACE OF THE DEY begins:
Even as he speaks, I wonder why my husband’s deputy is here. He says he’s telling me as much as he knows. Shouldn’t he be back in the city, doing something about this situation?
I stand behind the gauze curtain to one side of the garden door of our little country house and find myself observing Deputy Haddad’s stiff military stance. His leather sandals are no less scuffed and worn than the nut-brown skin of his feet and hands. Beads of sweat drip from beneath the folds of his tightly-bound turban, and he squints his eyes. Is he frowning, or is it the midday sun? Or is it me? I notice I have clenched my fist in the gauzy material of the curtain between us. Behind me, in the garden, I hear the buzzing of a bee.
Why is this happening? The day started out with such hope. The tension of the past few weeks, the uncertainty, the rush to uncover the truth, to unravel the lies, all of that was to come to an end today. Before Muhammad left for the city this morning, he handed me a spray of wildflowers he’d gathered on his walk back from the mosque following the dawn prayer. The smile he left me with was celebratory, knowing, promising. The little flowers await us in a vase now, in the sleeping chamber where I hoped we’d retire to escape the heat on his return this afternoon. For the first time in weeks, the burden of worry would be lifted. Together, we would relax.
But, now, Deputy Haddad is waiting for my response. The way he shifts his feet tells me he wonders if I have one.
In Book Eight, *CHILDREN OF THE NINE* (79k words) the socially-engaged wife of the Chief Commissioner works alongside her husband to rescue an abused bride and ensure her a respectable future and learns that the husband is also a victim. Although he is a ‘child of the nine,’ an expression in Algerian Arabic dialect meaning that he, like every other human being, spent nine months in the womb of his mother, the husband lives in a home and a society whose notions of gender identity are traditional and inflexible. CHILDREN OF THE NINE uses a historical setting to explore themes of truth, justice and the dangers of extremes, while presenting questions about law in Muslim society, and particularly in regard to issues of gender equality and identity. CHILDREN OF THE NINE was a finalist for the Crucible Award in the UK's Grindstone Literary 2020 competition.
CHILDREN OF THE NINE opens:
Not until the next morning does it seem the woman is ready to talk. The ragged wind and rain that lashed her near senseless the night before have given way to an early morning chill, and I jerk half-awake when she stirs from the bedding next to my own within the quiet antechamber of the Turkish bath we call the Hammam un-Niswan. The faint wheezing sounds from her chest and its irregular rise and fall prevented me from sleep for much of the night. Yet, as concerned as I am for her well-being, I am equally curious to know who she is, and how she came to be wandering, at night and alone, along the swollen banks of the River Harrash. It was a miracle, perhaps the first miracle to occur at our refuge for women—other than the existence of this unique place—that Najma happened to be tending to our firewood last night. When lightning illumined the riverbank, she caught a glance of a crouched figure and, doughty and undaunted woman that she is, Najma went outside to investigate. Rubbing my eyes on this cool morning, what next comes to mind is whether my husband has been able to identify the charred body he left me for yesterday when duty called. I take a moment, as I gaze on the strange woman, to marvel at how both my husband and I are called upon—and on the same night—to confront people whose identity is unknown to us.
Children of the Nine was selected for inclusion in the Grindstone Literary Chapbook as a finalist for the 2020 Crucible Award.