Joan Fallon interviews the the soldier Rafiq from The Ring of Flames
The Ring of Flames is the third and last book in the al-Andalus series. Set in 11th century Spain it is the story of a city under seige and the end of a dynasty. As in the previous two books we follow the fortunes of one family. Today I’m going to interview Rafiq, the second son of al-Jundi and brother of Ahmad whom we spoke to in my last interview. Rafiq is a soldier.
JF: Tell me about yourself, Rafiq. Why did you become a soldier?
R: I always wanted to be a soldier. My father had been a soldier all his life and he’d always served the caliph, so it was only natural that one of his sons would follow in his footsteps. My older brother, Qasim wanted to be a doctor, so there was no objection from my mother when I said I wanted to join the caliph’s army. I love horses and so I decided to join the cavalry, like my father.
JF: Did your father have a great influence on you? Did he help you with your career?
R: Yes, I suppose he did, in a way. He wasn’t the sort of man to ask favours of anyone, but he was very well respected, both for his loyalty and his bravery. I found that people looked upon me in a favourable light when they knew I was al-Jundi’s son. That was his nickname – it just means ‘the soldier’. His real name was Makoud ibn Qasim. I never made a point of telling people I was his son, but of course it soon became common knowledge. After a year, I became a nazir in charge of a squad of sixteen men, then I moved quite quickly up the ranks until I was made quaid—a captain—when I was only thirty.
JF: You must have made a good impression on your commander.
R: Maybe. It probably had more to do with the fact that we were constantly away on campaigns and many men died, including the officers. The Supreme Commander was a man called al-Mansur who was determined to keep the Christians at bay. So every time he got wind of a disturbance on the borders he mounted a campaign and took his army to squash it.
JF: It sounds as though you were kept very busy?
R: Yes. I joined the army when I was sixteen and by the time al-Mansur had died in 1002 AD I’d been on more than fifty campaigns.
JF: But I thought that the country was at peace at that time?
R: Yes it was. These were campaigns on the borders and they were as much a way of making money as anything else. Once we’d defeated the Christian armies, we used to sack their churches and take all their gold. Then there were the soldiers. We didn’t like taking prisoners, but our laws said that we weren’t allowed to kill them so we had to take them with us. They would be given the choice of changing allegiance and fighting for the caliph or being sold as slaves.
JF: Did many change their allegiance?
R: Oh yes, most of them did. The majority of the soldiers weren’t fighting for any great cause, certainly not Christianity—what interested them was money. They were mostly mercenaries who fought for the man who paid them the most. Not the most reliable of soldiers but they fought well. That was how al-Mansur built up a huge personal army.
JF: What about you? Have you ever had to change allegiance or have you always fought for the caliph?
R: Well, that’s a difficult one to answer because it’s yes to the first part and yes to the second. All those years we had a caliph but he didn’t rule. He was isolated from the world and left the running of the country to his Supreme Commander. After al-Mansur died, his son took over and we all fought for him. Then he died and the younger son was in charge. I was a quaid in the caliph’s army and had to follow orders. First I had to fight for one leader, then for another. The most difficult part was when the caliph was put in prison and Muhammad claimed the throne. We were ordered to fight for him.
JF: What did you think of that?
R: I wasn’t happy about it, but what could I do? I had my men to think about. But then it was worse when another pretender appeared on the scene and the Civil War broke out. Then we found ourselves fighting against soldiers that had once been fighting alongside us.
JF: So how did you cope?
R: I’ve never been one for politics. At heart I’m a simple soldier and I follow orders, so that’s what I did. My brother Ahmad thought I was betraying the caliph’s trust, but he doesn’t understand the world of soldiering. It’s just a job. You go where you’re told and you do what you’re told.
JF: What was your biggest fear? Being killed?
R: No. Every soldier knows they will be killed sometime. Death is your constant companion on the battlefield. No, when the civil war started, my greatest fear was for my family, that they would be killed. My older brother was working non-stop at the hospital and I couldn’t leave my men. That meant that Ahmad and his family had no-one to protect them.
JF: Did you feel that it was up to you to protect them?
R: Yes. Ahmad is a dreamer. He thinks everything will turn out alright in the end but he doesn’t understand how ruthless some of these men can be.
JF: What about you? Do you have a wife and family?
R: No. Of course I’ve had my share of women when I was younger, but only once I thought I was in love.
R: It didn’t come to anything. Marriage and the army don’t really go well together. I’m away for months at a time, sometimes more than a year. I’ve never really had the time to look for a wife.
JF: But your father found time to marry and have a family?
R: Yes. But he left active service. He spent the last twenty years of his life as a quaid in the Palace Guard, guarding the caliph. Now that would be a nice job to have. I wouldn’t mind a spell of that before I retire.
JF: Didn’t he find a wife for you?
R: He mentioned it once, but he understood that it’s no life for a family man. Anyway I have my nieces and nephews. I like to visit them when I can. And I have my horse, Antarah. We have a very close bond. She has saved my skin on more than one occasion.
JF: If you had to chose between the army and your family, which would you choose?
R: I want to say straight away that I’d choose my family but it’s not so straightforward. My men are also my family. I have a great responsibility to them. They trust me and look up to me. If I give an order they obey without question. I could be sending them to their death or I could be sending them to glory. It would be very hard for me abandon them. Some of my men have been with me for many years. We’ve been through some tough campaigns together. So, in answer to your question, I suppose it would depend on the circumstances.
JF: You mentioned something about retirement just now. Do you have any plans to retire?
R: Soldiers rarely retire. They don’t live long enough. No I don’t have any plans but I do have some dreams. If I live another ten years I’d like to leave the army and buy a small piece of land and breed horses. But it’s just a dream. You can’t put your hopes into long-term plans when you’re a soldier and especially not now, with a civil war raging all around us.
JF: What do you consider your strengths?
R: My strengths are my ability to take orders and to give them. I like to think I have a good relationship with my men and that they can approach me with any problems that they have. After a lifetime of active service as a soldier I have a great deal of experience. I have a clear mind and a calm head when in battle. I don’t panic easily.
JF: What are your weaknesses?
R: My biggest weakness is my love for my family. It means I worry about them when there is little I can do to change the situation. Also I don’t have enough trust in my younger brother’s abilities. He’s a grown man now and I should treat him as such. I know that I irritate him when I call him “little brother”.
JF: What about the other quaids? Are they your friends?
R: Yes, I have a few special friends among the other officers. But life in the army is all about banding together—certainly amongst the regulars anyway. So there is a great deal of comradeship, rather than friendship.
JF: What is the quality you most like in a man?
R: When you say a man, of course I think of my own men, soldiers. I suppose I look for courage and loyalty first of all, but also I want them to be realistic. There’s no point diving into a situation without assessing the consequences of their actions. Sometimes they still have to take action, but at least with their eyes open.
JF: How do you feel about your life right now? What, if anything, would you change?
R: I’d like this bloody civil war to end and to have some time with my family. I haven’t had any free time for at least three years.
JF: What are you most afraid of?
R: That we will get the order to surrender. Then I think there will be a massacre, not just of soldiers but the civilian population as well.
THE RING OF FLAMES
This is the story of three brothers: Rafiq, a soldier, Qasim, a doctor and Ahmad, a falconer. They live in Córdoba at the beginning of the 11th century, a time of uncertainty, flood, disease and civil war. The rightful ruler of the country, al-Hisham II, the Omayyad caliph, is locked in his palace and isolated from his government and his people. When the Regent, al-Mansur dies, there is no longer a strong man to rule the country and one by one the pretenders for the throne make their challenge.
The three brothers find their loyalties in conflict when al-Hisham is thrown into jail and a new caliph is on the throne. Led by Ahmad they do all they can to help al-Hisham.
Finally al-Hisham is reinstated to the throne but the city is surrounded and Córdoba is under siege. As they struggle to survive in the besieged city, with no food, little water and no means of escape, the brothers come up with a plan. One way or another they must escape from the city but Ahmad refuses to go unless they take the caliph with them.
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.