Joan Fallon interviews Ahmad from The Eye of the Falcon
Ahmad is the son of the soldier, al-Jundi. He has worked in the Royal Falcon House in Madinat al-Zahra since he was a boy, caring for the caliph al-Hisham II’s falcons. It is a time of great instability as the new caliph is under age and the country is being ruled by a Regent who is both ruthless and ambitious.
JF: Tell me about yourself and your family, Ahmad. Where were you born?
A: I was born here, in Córdoba, in the caliphate of al-Andalus. My father is a soldier in the Palace Guard. It is his job to guard the caliph and make sure no harm comes to him. There are five children in my family. I have one sister, who’s married, and three brothers: the eldest is a doctor, the next one is a soldier too, like my father, then there’s little Asim, who still goes to school. My grandmother also lives with us.
JF: What influence did your family have on you, your choices, your life?
A: My mother is very devout, she makes sure I say my prayers five times a day at the correct time and that I follow the Koran. My father is a good Muslim but he is not as devout as my mother. My father taught me to defend myself—although I’m still not very good with a sword—and he taught me to be loyal and trustworthy. He says that a man’s strength lies in his heart not his arm.
JF: So why did you chose to become a falconer?
A: My grandfather is the Grand Falconer here in Madinat-al-Zahra. It was his idea that I come here and work at the Falcon House. At first I wasn’t very sure about it, but I had to do something. I wasn’t as clever as Qasim, who is a doctor at the hospital and my father said I’d never make a soldier—my mother said that, anyway, one soldier in the family was enough—so I thought I’d give it a go.
JF: Do you regret it?
A: Not at all. I love working with the caliph’s birds. There was a lot to learn at first but I enjoyed it. I love taking them out to hunt in the mountains and it is so exciting when we get new birds—some we breed ourselves, you know, and others we buy. Sometimes ambassadors from other countries would bring falcons for the caliph, as a sign of their respect, but not so much now.
JF: You have spent a lot of time with the caliph. Why was that?
A: It was my father’s idea at first. He thought the caliph was lonely. Al-Hisham is a couple of years younger than me and he’s all alone here in the palace. Nobody comes to see him, except his mother. He doesn’t go to school. Nobody is training him to be the ruler or teaching him how a caliph behaves. It’s very strange. Anyway, my father decided the caliph needed some company so he asked the Grand Falconer if I could come each day to the palace and teach him about his falcons.
JF: And was it a success?
A: Yes, I suppose so. He is very demanding and spoilt because he is very rich and has so many servants, but I think he likes me. I know he really loves the falcons.
JF: Do you take him hunting in the mountains?
A: Well that’s what so strange. Even though he’s the caliph and is supposed to be the most powerful man in the country, he’s not allowed to leave the palace. Ever. Well you can’t really understand the falcon unless you take it out hunting. So, whenever I could we sneaked away to a place I know in the mountains, where it was quiet and we could be on our own. But then my father found out and he insisted that other falconers and some of the palace guard accompany us. He said it wasn’t safe on our own. It wasn’t as much fun; the caliph was like a normal boy when we were away from the palace. And it didn’t do any good anyway. Someone still tried to kill him and that put an end to our hunting trips for good.
JF: What happened?
A: Just that. Someone tried to kill him but they missed and hit me instead. I had an arrow in my shoulder. But that wasn’t the worst of it. They blamed me. They said it was my fault.
JF: Why would they do that?
A: I’ve no idea. I think the Regent was behind it. I think it was a plot to get rid of the caliph so that he could become caliph instead. But nobody could prove anything. If it hadn’t been for my father they would have accused me of planning it all and I’d have been executed.
JF: What is your greatest fear?
A: That I end up in prison again. That was a terrifying experience. Not knowing what was going to happen to you. Hearing the screams of the other prisoners. The stench and dirt. I couldn’t sleep because I thought they’d come and torture me to find out who else was involved. I have never been so scared in my life. It was far worse than getting shot.
JF: Do you still see the caliph?
A: No. When he got older we fell out. Al-Hisham is a bit like his father in the respect that he prefers boys to girls. Which is fine. Nobody makes much of such things. But I’m not like that and when he made a pass at me, I felt sick. I’d seen the boys with their painted faces in his harem and I didn’t want to be part of it. I knew it was time to leave. Luckily my father had been making arrangements for me to marry a girl in Córdoba, so I used that as my excuse to stop going to see the caliph.
JF: Are you angry with him?
A: I was, but not know. Now I feel sorry for him. His father died when he was young and since then he’s had no-one to help him. It’s not really his fault that he has turned out the way he has.
JF: Which living person do you most admire?
A: My father. Everyone respects him. He’s a strong man but a fair one and he’s very loyal to his family and the caliphate.
JF: What do you consider your special talent?
A: I’m not very clever at most things but I have a special affinity with the falcons. I can sense when something is bothering them and I can form close bonds with those I see on a regular basis.
JF: What really moves you, or touches you to the soul?
A: Seeing a falcon in flight: that strength and speed, that freedom to fly free, high above everything.
JF: What are your weaknesses?
A: I’m not very ambitious and I’m not very brave.
JF: If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
A: Without doubt, a bird, some sort of raptor. Falcons mate for life and live a long time. They are also near the top of the food chain. I think it would have to be a peregrine falcon.
JF: What drew you to the person you fell in love with?
A: My father picked Amina, my wife, for me, but I could have refused if I hadn’t liked her. But the first time I saw her I knew I could love her. She was beautiful, with long dark hair and a slim waist, but wide hips, so I was sure she’d give me plenty of children. But it was more than that. There was something in her eyes that told me she was a woman with her own ideas and opinions. I liked that. And I was right. We are very happy together. I doubt I will ever take a second wife. She is enough for me.
JF: What do you want from life?
A: As I’ve said, I’m not very ambitious. I work in the Falcon House in Córdoba now. They closed the one in Madinat al-Zahra where I used to work. I’d be happy to continue working there until I die. We have one child and I hope we have many more. What do I want from life? I suppose I want to live a quiet, contented life, surrounded by my family and my hawks.
THE EYE OF THE FALCON
This is the story of Subh, a slave girl who rises to become the most powerful woman in al-Andalus by marrying the caliph, al-Hakim, and giving him two sons. When the caliph dies and leaves his eleven-year-old son as his heir, his widow seeks to protect him and his throne by setting up a regency to rule until he comes of age. However her love for one of the regents blinds her to his ruthless ambition. Gradually her lover isolates her son from his court and his country, imprisoning him in his palace and moving the seat of power to Córdoba. Subh has to choose between protecting her son and staying with her lover.
The Scottish novelist Joan Fallon, currently lives and works in the south of Spain. She writes both contemporary and historical fiction, but has also written a work of non-fiction which has proved the inspiration for at least two of her subsequent novels. Two aspects of Joan’s life particularly influence her writing. The first is being a woman who grew up during the sixties and seventies, at a time when it was harder for a woman to gain recognition in a man’s world. Consequently almost all her books have a strong female protagonist. The second influence is the fact that she has lived in Spain for the last twenty years. Spanish history and culture fascinate her and have provided some of the most exotic settings in her historical novels.