About 600 years ago, the Muslims lost control of their crown jewel, Spain, or Al-Andalus as it is known in Arabic. During Muslim rule it was the most civilized, progressive and enlightened country on earth. It boasted 700 mosques, 60,000 different palaces, and around 70 libraries. The city of Cordoba had 900 public baths and Spain could easily brag that it had Europe’s first street lights.
It was a Monday of the year 1492 C.E., in January, when Queen Isabelle and King Ferdinand started their campaign to expel Muslims from Spain. It started with a decree that forced all Muslims to either flee from Spain or convert to Christianity. The King and Queen issued the Alhambra Decree which stated that all the non Christians, mainly Muslims and Jews, would have to leave their territory, now all of Spain, by the 31st of July that year. Now what followed is the worst instance of forced conversion ever seen in this world. What happened in Granada and Gibraltar, in fact in all of Spain, will bring tears of blood to your eyes.
The worst sufferers were the children; they did not know what was happening. Why were they being forced to do strange things and where had their parents gone? Some children were made to work like slaves; they were given very little food and were abused by their owners. In this grim situation we shall relate the story of a courageous boy, only 8 years old, and how he fled Spain when his parents were falsely accused and then later put to death.
It was a sunny morning, just like any other and Bilal was dreaming of ships on the high seas; he had always wanted to be a sailor, but his father wanted him to study and become a doctor. That was too dull… just as Bilal was about to slay a dragon standing on a whale’s back, he heard his mother’s voice calling, “Bilal sweetheart, wake up, time for school, you mustn’t be late.”
“Oh! I want to sleep; I was having such a great dream”. He turned his face to the other side and tried to pick up his dream where he had left off. But he couldn’t sleep. He heard strange, unfamiliar noises of yelling and screaming coming from the kitchen. His father had told him once about such an event.
“Bilal, my son, we are living in very dangerous times. You know how you want to become a sailor, well if you ever feel like the world has fallen apart; run to Abu Ayman and he will help you. But beware you must let no one see you or know about your presence”.
All this strange talk scared Bilal; he was only 8 years old and couldn’t imagine what his father was predicting. His father told him that one day strange people, dressed in armour, might come to their home. They would break things; they would burn the library that was so painstakingly built by Bilal’s great grandfather. They would start yelling and screaming about One God and prayers. They would beat them up and try and force them to accept things they had not done. They would drag his parents off – in this case Bilal MUST hide and not get caught, no matter what he saw and how much he wanted to yell, cry, or help his parents. He must keep himself hidden. As soon as the house was quiet again, Bilal was to run undetected to his father’s best friend’s house and ask Abu Ayman to give Bilal the letter.
“What’s in the letter, who wrote it, who is it for Baba?” Bilal would ask, very scared but also very curious. The events described by his father were so unrealistic that Bilal felt his father was only trying to scare him so he would study harder and get better grades.
Again Bilal listened; the noise was much louder and there was screaming, like someone in pain and yelling of angry voices. He rubbed his eyes and put on his shoes, he grabbed the book by his bed side, his favourite, the one his mother was reading to him last night. He then slipped stealthily out of his window, around the corner hidden by the plants and trees and peeped into the kitchen window from the outside. As soon as he looked in his instinct was to yell, almost simultaneously he heard his father’s voice inside him: “Stay hidden, do not make noise, you MUST not be detected”.
He was dumbstruck, there were what seemed like twenty men beating his father; two were holding his father’s hands and legs and three others were hitting him with sticks. His father was unconscious, that is what Bilal thought. He couldn’t see his mother, he tried looking for her, but just as she came into view, he saw his opportunity to escape. Bilal fought against himself, he wanted to run inside and hug his parents, but he now understood his father, he ran as fast as he could towards Abu Ayman’s house.
Bilal stopped just for a split second half way from his house to catch his breath; he couldn’t resist turning and taking one last look at his home. The home where he grew up, where his father grew up, where he had left behind all that he loved in this world. Tears started rolling down his sweat lined cheeks, his home was in flames that leapt towards the sky, and he could still hear screams. The ominous black cloud mushroomed over his favourite tree, the one outside his window. Red and orange angry flames leapt and devoured the tree; he was frozen at the spot he stood. He could even hear the hissing and crackling of the fire as it engulfed the priceless books in their library, the woodwork was carved by masters of their time and itself was admirable. Bilal had to look away if he were to survive, if he kept looking at what was his home, his legs would involuntarily carry him back. He knelt down and put his face to the ground. Oh! The sweet smell of the earth, he would never forget this day and this smell as long as he lived.
He cried and prayed. He prayed to the One God the way his parents taught him. They had hidden their faith. He had to pretend in school but at home, in their basement with no windows and only one door, his parents and their close friends would gather to pray whenever they could, especially on Fridays. How could the Inquisition have found out? Who was the person who destroyed his home and parents?
Bilal’s mind went into overdrive, he thought hard. Uncle Abdullah was too old to want anything; Abu Ayman was Baba’s best friend; Uncle Omar and his three brothers adored Baba, who could it be? Carefully Bilal went down the list of all the people who came to their home, particularly those who would pray with them. Bilal’s face showed the surprise when he figured out who could have reported them. It had to be Abu Ayman; he had come late that night to ask Baba for money. Baba refused to make the loan as Abu Ayman wanted to pay off a gambling debt. Baba said it was bad to gamble and so he couldn’t lend the money. By reporting Baba, Abu Ayman would have gotten a reward, enough to pay of the debt and still have some money left over. Bilal was enraged, he couldn’t do anything, and then he started crying. He felt utterly hopeless because he couldn’t go to Abu Ayman for help. He was all alone.
Bilal lay down behind a bush; he was hidden from the road and slept. He was tired, hungry and very alone. “Crunch, stomp, crunch, stomp”, what was this noise? Bilal woke up with a start. He was about to scream when he saw Abu Ayman’s son Ali. Ali was 20 years old, and had a soothing face. He was tall, very well built and always fought with his father. Bilal didn’t like him, he would pray and then retreat into the library, and he was not very friendly. Bilal was about to run, but Ali signalled him to stay crouched and quiet. Should Bilal trust Ali? Bilal was in a fix, he had to make a quick decision. Baba always spoke highly of Ali, and Ali talked to Baba a lot; they both would sit late into the night in the library drinking qahva (coffee) and reading, discussing philosophy, theology and science. Bilal used to be jealous of Ali, Baba never let him stay up late and read; he had to go to bed. Bilal let Baba make his choice; he stayed down as low as possible and was dead silent.
Almost a millisecond later Bilal saw Abu Ayman with the men he had seen beating his father. Bilal’s suspicion was confirmed; his throat burned and he wanted to scream out loud, “Hypocrite!”
But he did no such thing, only buried himself deeper into the soft earth. Hours passed by; Bilal’s bones felt like lead and his muscles burned with tiredness, it seemed like he could never move again. Suddenly, a well-tanned hand lifted him off the ground. Bilal knew this was the end; he had been discovered and would be burned to death like his parents. He had failed to escape – he had failed Baba. Slowly with a determined look on his face he turned to see the owner of the hand that held him. It was Ali! Bilal hugged him and cried; he had never cried in public before. Now he let out all the pain and sorrow, the shock and isolation. Bilal cried for almost an hour.
Ali hugged him the whole time and tried to calm him. After Bilal was calm, Ali told him they both had to escape or else would be put to death or, worse yet, made slaves for some rich Spaniard. Bilal asked Ali to explain what was happening. Ali confirmed Bilal’s theory; he told Bilal that there was no way for them to live in Gibraltar anymore, they had to flee. Getting off the main road and taking the back streets, the duo reached the waterfront. It was almost dawn and Bilal hadn’t eaten for almost two days. Ali was carrying him; he almost fainted when Ali gave him a piece of dry bread and some cheese. Bilal thought that this was the tastiest meal he had ever eaten. Two seconds later, after gulping his food, Bilal turned to Ali and thanked him. Ali only raised his finger towards the sky.
“Little brother, you and I are now bonded by blood,” said Ali.
“Ali, I want to be a doctor, and I want to never forget what happened here, I want this to be my driving force, to help others by rising above myself”.
“Now let’s find a ship where we can stow away.”
They started moving towards the ships anchored at port. Most were in extremely dilapidated condition and Ali reasoned that such ships would sink as soon as they were in open waters. As they were edging stealthily forward, they bumped into a man. He was huge; he stood towering above Ali, who was 6ft himself, and this fellow was very muscular also; they felt like they had hit a wall. Bilal lost all hope, he started to pray, he prayed for his parents. Bilal had never thought the power of prayer could be so calming; he had never prayed with his heart and soul before. He would never forget this sense of hopelessness and isolation and how only God seemed to understand and help.
Then the man spoke in whispered tones, “Come with me you two, the entire Inquisition force is looking for you! Quick! Get into this barrel”. Ali was hesitant, so the man easily lifted both the boys and shoved them into the barrel, and then he lifted the barrel over his head and started walking. There was a small hole from where Bilal could see the rising sun, and the docks. Beautiful! He would never see this spectacle of his homeland again.
“Ali, he is loading us onto a ship, this is a clean ship, its looks new. Shhh, he has stopped and is talking to someone.”
“What do you have in that barrel?”
“Oh! Just two boys trying to run away from you, where is my reward?” growled the man. Ali and Bilal held their breaths, they had been deceived and this was indeed the end. They decided they would bravely face whatever was in store for them, they were smiling. This was the power of faith. No wonder the Inquisition could never rid Spain of its original inhabitants.
“Okay! No need to joke, move along and do not hinder our investigation”.
Bilal and Ali couldn’t believe their ears, the man had protected them by telling the truth, which was so far fetched that no one would believe it.
What happen to Bilal and Ali is a story of only a fortunate few. Most of the Muslims and Jews were caught trying to escape, and the children sold into life-long slavery. Most would forget their history and become a lost tribe, but there were those like Bilal and Ali who lived to prosper and tell their stories. Never lose hope in the power of prayer and never give up on the kindness of strangers. God has a plan for us, we just need to discover and follow it.