Joan Fallon Interviews the Concubine Jawhara from The Shining City

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Jawhara was captured by Viking raiders when she was a child and brought to the new city of Madinat al-Zahra in southern Spain. She was sold into the Caliph’s harem and, because of her beauty and intelligence became one of his favourite concubines.


JF:    Tell me about yourself, Jawhara. Where and when were you born?

 J:      I don’t know exactly when I was born. But I remember I was born a long way from here, in a much greener land. It was often cold there and we wore thick woollen clothes. In the winter my mother used to put furs on our bed to keep us warm. My mother said we were Saxons and I should always remember that. My name was Isolde.

JF:    Would you like me to call you Isolde?

J:      No, Isolde died a long time ago. I’m Jawhara now.

JF:    Did your mother have a great influence on your life?

J:      I suppose she did. She was a brave woman. When the Vikings burst into our house she didn’t hesitate; she rushed to protect us. And they killed her. I’ve always remembered how she tried to defend us. That helped me to be brave too, especially when they took me and my brothers away. They were younger than me and I felt that I had to protect them. It was hard because the journey was very long and they split us up. That was the worst part because we went first of all by boat; the men in one boat and the women in another. I couldn’t see if my brothers were all right.

JF:    What was your greatest fear?

J:      Nobody knew where we were going or what was going to happen to us. Then one of the women said she thought the Vikings would sell us to slavers. We’d all heard about the slavers and how cruel they were. So then we were even more scared. I didn’t know if we were going to live or die.

JF:    But you didn’t die.

J:      No. I became a slave.

JF:    Did things turn out the way you expected?

J:      I didn’t know what to expect at the time. I found myself here in the harem. It was all so strange and I have to admit I was very frightened, especially at first because I couldn’t understand anything anyone said to me. And everyone looked so different. Here they are all dark skinned and have black hair. My family were all like me, blonde and blue-eyed.

JF:    Did you think it strange that you were a slave, owned by another person?

J:      No, not really. We didn’t have slaves because we were poor, but we knew people who did own slaves. So, in a way, I knew what to expect and I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant.

JF:    What happened to your brothers?

J:      They were sold, like me. That was the most dreadful thing that ever happened to me, when they took my little brothers and sold them into slavery. They didn’t even sell them to the same man. I cried so much that the slave trader threatened to beat me. He wanted me to look my best, I suppose. He said he hoped to get a good price for me.

JF:    Now you live a life of luxury. What is your favourite occupation?

J:      I had to learn many things when I entered the harem. I learnt to speak, read and write in Arabic, to sing, to dance and to recite poetry. I also learnt about the art of love and how to make the Caliph happy. My favourite occupation now is spending time with my children.

JF:    Do you often go to see the Caliph?

J:      No. Not now. I thought he loved me once, but he soon tired of me.

JF:    Did that make you angry?

J:      No, of course not. That is how it is in here. He is no longer interested in making love to me, but he is grateful that I have given him two children. The youngest one is a boy. So now I have become one of the Caliph’s favourites. I have my own rooms and servants and many beautiful jewels. I am very fortunate.

JF:    Have you ever been in love?

J:      Once, I thought I was in love. It was just after I joined the harem. I was very sad. I missed my brothers and I missed my parents. I was desperate to escape to find them. Then I met this young man one day, when I was in the market with another of the concubines. I shouldn’t have spoken to him – it was strictly forbidden – but I was so unhappy and he was so handsome, I couldn’t help it.

JF:    Did you see him again?

J:      He said he’d help me to find my brothers if I escaped with him. He said he loved me.

JF:    But you’re still here.

J:      Yes.

JF:    And you’ve never been in love again? What about the Caliph? They say he’s a handsome man.

J:      If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years, it’s that there’s no point wishing for something that will never happen. The Caliph is handsome, I suppose, but he is old. He has four official wives, dozens of favourites and hundreds of concubines. I am one of the lucky ones. Some of the women here have never even seen him. I am happy with this life I have. I have no need of love.

JF:    Do you think falling in love is a gift or a curse?

J:      A curse, without a doubt. The young man who tried to help me escape brought nothing but death and sorrow to his family and friends. I was lucky he didn’t bring it to me as well.

JF:    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

J:      I would change my looks. I am getting old now and if it wasn’t for my children, I would be thrown out of here and married off to someone. Luckily being the mother of the Caliph’s children has changed my status forever.

JF:    What do you consider your strengths?

J:      My strengths are my adaptability and being able to make the most of any situation. I wasn’t happy when I arrived here but I soon learnt that I was never going to leave. I thought of my dead mother and my little brothers and I realised that my life was bearable. It was not what I would have wanted, nor what my mother would have wanted for me, but I was well fed, had friends I could talk to and now I am a rich woman.

JF:    What are your weaknesses?

J:      My biggest weakness is my inability to love anyone – except for my children of course. I think the trauma of my capture and the death of my friends and my mother closed down my emotions. I don’t want to get hurt so I try not to get too close to people.

JF:    What about the other women in the harem?

J:      Yes, I have a few friends. But life in here is very competitive. Everyone wants to catch the Caliph’s attention. Everyone wants to be his favourite. I managed that because the Caliph has a liking for blonde women, but that has made me unpopular. Many of the women are jealous of me.

JF:    How do you feel about your life right now? What, if anything, would you change?

J:      If I could leave here, and take my children with me, then I would like to do that. I would like to be free again.

JF:    What are you most afraid of?

J:      Being poor.


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This is the story of a city, a city that is now in ruins and lies five kilometres outside of Cordoba in Spain: MADINAT AL ZAHRA.  The story is set in the 10th century, a time when southern Spain was under the rule of the Moors.  The ruler, Caliph Al Rahman III was rich, powerful and cultured.  His caliphate was, at long last, at peace and the capital, Cordoba, was considered to be not only the most beautiful city in the civilised world but also the seat of learning and culture.  Against this background we meet the artisan Qasim – he and his family have moved to Madinat al Zahra to make their fortune as potters.

Qasim is a good husband and father.  He works hard, says his prayers and keeps out of trouble.  But Qasim has a secret; his past is not what it seems.  When a stranger arrives asking questions about him, and his youngest son falls in love with the caliph’s concubine, Zawhara, he realises that all he has worked for could be destroyed.  He has to take action.

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.