Saleh Snoussi
Saleh Snoussi
The Return of Sulayman La’raj



Although no day in the history of Halq el-Rih is more renowned than the day Sulayman La‘raj returned from the land of the Turks to his family’s and kinsmen’s stomping ground in Halq el-Rih, scholars involved in writing the history of the region have all failed to determine the month and year of this momentous day that transformed the area, dislodging it from Halq el-Rih’s grey and dreary trails and shaking the dust of forgetfulness from the interminable wrangling.

Sulayman La‘raj wasn’t a stranger conveyed to Halq el-Rih by twisting roads or coincidences. He was, rather, a scion of the clan of La‘raj, and his great-grandfather was Abu Gila La‘raj, who had been the chief of his people and their venerable warrior. Thus the return of Sulayman La‘raj to Halq el-Rih wasn’t a surprise or a mysterious miracle. Predictions had actually been passed down by the people of el-Rih from father to son saying that a member of the La‘raj clan would definitely return to Halq el-Rih to empower the people, even if only at the end of time.

It was hard for anyone to establish the precise date, because Halq el-Rih’s history before this event had been both long and cyclical. The greatest events in local history there seemed to have arrived unheralded so that by the time people caught on, the causes had faded into the past and people only remembered the conclusions and outcomes.

Little did the inhabitants of Halq el-Rih realise back then that this day’s date, which their faulty memories did not retain, would become a puzzle that subsequent generations of their descendants would struggle to solve.

All the efforts by later generations of Halq el-Rih’s researchers to determine the day of that event led them to nothing more than a pair of oral narratives of dubious provenance attributed respectively to a man and a woman who were alive at the time.

The discrepancies between the two narratives split later generations into two rival camps; one sided with the woman and attacked the man’s veracity and the other sided with the man and cast doubt on the female narrator’s trustworthiness and character.

Eventually, as one generation followed the previous one, the dispute became serious enough for accounts to multiply until they were estimated to number more than a thousand. Each of these new stories concerned the personality and life of either the male or female informant. At that point, the problem of dating the big event became almost secondary to all these other stories about the oral narratives of Halq el-Rih.

These two narratives differed as to the day and month of the event but agreed on the year. The account attributed to Sheikh Jilghaf Abu Sufa, who was said to have been an eyewitness, reports: “Sulayman La‘raj returned to Halq el-Rih from the land of the Turks shortly before noon during one of the five last days of the month of Safar1 in the Year of the Great Spring.”

The second narrative was attributed to Hajja Sa‘da, who was said to have been the first woman to see Sulayman La‘raj come down the road and then to have emitted a trill heard by many in Halq el-Rih’s encampments. It says: “Sulayman La‘raj returned to Halq el-Rih from the land of the Turks late one Saturday morning in the Year of the Great Spring.”

If this had been the only discrepancy between the two narratives, the community’s later generations, especially the most recent, could have reconciled this difference by virtue of their learning and culture, even if they failed to fill in all the lacunae and gaps and achieved this only by sifting through and interpreting every word in a corpus that would weigh down sixty camels, but both narrators had cited proofs and corroborating evidence to support the soundness of their narrative, and so the issue became even more complicated.

A century after this historic event a new generation of Halq el-Rih’s people searched for any evidence or eyewitness to assist them in recording and consolidating the history of their ancestors after it had been nearly obliterated and replaced by the history of the City by the Sea. At that time researchers located only those two living eyewitnesses from the generation living when Sulayman La‘raj returned to Halq el-Rih from the land of the Turks, that is, Sheikh Jilghaf Abu Sufa and Hajja Sa‘da, and it was not an unmixed blessing that these two individuals survived. Sheikh Jilghaf Abu Sufa according to some accounts was then 125 years old, although other sources said he was almost 130. Hajja Sa‘da, for her part, had weathered one hundred and twenty springs, and there was no controversy about that because she dated her birth by a famous historic event that allowed researchers subsequently to establish her lifespan. She had informed them from her deathbed that her mother had told her that she was born twentyfive years before the Year of the Great Spring.

To substantiate his account, which trusted witnesses took from him a year before he died, Sheikh Jilghaf Abu Sufa stated: “I’m certain that Sulayman La‘raj returned to Halq el-Rih from the land of the Turks during the last five days of the month of Safar, because I’ve always fasted for the first ten days of the second half of that month and remember that I had fulfilled my fast, breaking it on the morning of the day that Sulayman La‘raj arrived, and that was in the Year of the Great Spring. In Halq el-Rih we have never seen a more luxuriant spring since then; grasses and flowers grew so high they were more than half a metre taller than my head. Cattle, sheep, and other animals were lost and took cover in the tall grass of the plains. We weren’t able to find them until after summer came and the spring grass died back. Then we discovered that our livestock had multiplied and increased in number. Calves had grown into bulls, and lambs had become rams. That spring lasted an entire year.”

The corroborating evidence that Hajja Sa‘da advanced to support the accuracy of her dating of the event contradicted that of Sheikh Jilghaf and cast doubt on it. Hajja Sa‘da said: “I was the first woman to see Sulayman La‘raj when he returned from the land of the Turks and I let out a trill that resounded throughout Halq el-Rih. No woman of my generation had a trill as sweet and graceful as mine. That is why they used to call me ‘Hajja Sa‘da the Coloratura Triller’. I’m quite certain that Sulayman La‘raj returned on a Saturday, because I – unlike other women in Halq el-Rih – used to perfume and adorn myself for my husband, brush my teeth and rub myself with fragrant herbs on the night preceding Saturday morning. The other women did that on Thursday evening. I remember that I was adorned like that and had spent the entire night in congress with my husband till the dawn of the day when Sulayman La‘raj arrived shortly before noon. That was not in the month of Safar, because we in Halq el-Rih used to dislike departing and travelling during this month, which we thought an ill-omened time for trips. So once the month of Safar arrived, when we were settled somewhere, we didn’t budge from our homes until the month ended. I remember that a few days before Sulayman La‘raj returned we had moved our tents from the east bank of Halq el-Rih to the west bank, following the end of the civil war among inhabitants of the area. That was in the Year of the Great Spring, when milk flowed like water down the streambed of el-Halq, because the animals’ udders poured milk into the pastures night and day.”

It did not occur to either Hajja Sa‘da or Sheikh Jilghaf Abu Sufa that the discrepancies between their two reports would open the door to a long argument between gifted researchers from their grandchildren’s generation. Over and beyond that, had they realized that even the most intimate details of their private lives would be publicly dissected for decades, they surely would have agreed on a single story or preferred to keep what they knew silent, but the fates and the force of circumstance conspired to begin the history of the people of Halq el-Rih in this fashion and then it proceeded in this manner.

The dispute broke out and the door of personal investigation was flung wide open when partisans of Hajja Sa‘da defended her narrative by pointing out all the flaws and defects they saw in Sheikh Jilghaf Abu Sufa’s narrative. They also started to research and delve deeply into all the most intimate personal matters in his life to cast doubt on his character, piety, and social status.

They said that Jilghaf Abu Sufa called himself a sheikh, but that this only was the first of his false claims, because Abu Sufa’s family had not been sheikhs. In fact they were referred to as the Abu Sufa family because they were herdsmen who wore wool (suf). As for their having been leaders or sheikhs, no one from that family had ever been called by this title or recognized as having this rank in the oral histories or poems that celebrated gallantry, chivalry, and leadership in Halq el-Rih. As for his argument that he was engaged in a supererogatory fast during the first ten days of the second half of the month of Safar, this was also in flagrant contradiction with what everyone in Halq el-Rih knew to be true about the Abu Sufa family’s attitude toward fasting.

People joked that when Ramadan came, the Abu Sufa family would go to the wadi’s streambed and claim they were asking Halq el-Rih whether they should fast for the month of Ramadan this year or if they were excused. So they would shout in unison: “Halq el-Rih, should the Abu Sufa family fast this year or relax?” Their cry would bounce through the confines of the wadi before the echo of their last word returned to them: “Relax.” Then they would say that God had excused them from fasting during Ramadan this year.

“Since a family like this did not fast even during Ramadan, how can we accept the claim of some of its members to participate in a supererogatory fast during Safar?”

The Sa‘dists – Hajja Sa‘da’s supporters – who persistently pried into the secrets of Sheikh Abu Sufa’s life, also uncovered a report that he had been a licentious young shepherd who led his grazing flock to where girls went to collect firewood and flirted with them and one time seduced an underage girl, who became pregnant by him. When her kinsmen learned about this, they came looking for him, intending to kill him. He took refuge with her in the mausoleum of Marabout al-Koni Bu Dumat and remained there until the jurist Sabir el-Zaytuni had made an agreement with the girl’s family allowing him to marry her on condition that he leave Halq el-Rih never to return.

So he married her and left Halq el-Rih for some oasis, where he remained until he was advanced in years. He didn’t return to Halq el-Rih until his wife’s father and brothers had all died. After he came back, he only lived ten years – or less. That’s why they considered Sheikh Jilghaf Abu Sufa’s claim that he was present on the day that Sulayman La‘raj returned from the land of the Turks to be fraudulent. They thought his report should be discounted and not accepted for this reason, because it did not make sense when writing a history of the inhabitants of Halq el-Rih to rely on the oral testimony of a dissolute, ignorant herdsman who could not even pee straight. Those who supported Hajj Jilghaf Abu Sufa – the Sufists – defended his account and spared no effort to deride Hajja Sa‘da’s version of events. In fact, just like their adversaries, they went so far as to disparage her personal life, directing the first of their barbs against her claim to have performed the pilgrimage. They said that Sa‘da wasn’t a Hajja and had never seen Mecca even once in her life. They claimed in fact that Hajjala2 – like her mother before her – was a dancer people hired to perform at weddings.

Her mother, they said, had been impregnated by a pilgrim from Marrakech passing through Halq el-Rih en route to Mecca. Tempted by this dancer, he had proved weak in faith, committing fornication before leaving Halq el-Rih under cover of darkness. When Sa‘da was born they had called her “Hajja” in honour of this Haj al-Maruki, the pilgrim from Marrakech. Once Sa‘da followed in her mother’s footsteps, she became “Hajjala,” a dancer who performed and trilled at weddings. Then people called her Hajja Sa‘da, the Coloratura Triller. No one even knew her father’s name.

Sheikh Jilghaf Abu Sufa’s partisans – the Sufists – attempted to debunk Hajja Sa‘da’s proofs, which she used to corroborate her account. They said that Sa‘da the Triller’s claim that she knew Sulayman La‘raj had returned on Saturday, because that was the morning after her regular night to make herself ready for her husband, was phony and self-contradictory when confronted by the reality of customary tradition in Halq el-Rih, where nuptials were held on Friday night. Given that Sa‘da was Hajjala – a professional dancer who trilled at weddings – she would have needed to reserve her Friday nights to perform at weddings, which lasted till the next morning. Therefore she could not have fixed herself up for her husband each Friday night; it must have been some other night. So they concluded that Hajja Sa‘da’s account was fraudulent and devoid of any historic value. The most important event in all the history of the people of Halq el-Rih should not rely on the oral history provided by a woman who was deficient in both intellect and religion – a bastard, a wedding performer and coloratura triller.

Although no one would have been able to determine the day that Sulayman La‘raj returned to Halq el-Rih even if there had been agreement on a single narrative, since it was impossible to establish the Year of the Great Spring in recorded history, all the same the dispute between later generations of residents of el-Rih continued to burn for ages, perhaps because they love debate, controversy, and disputation. The reason for this is that they are headstrong and opinionated. It is even reported that if they wished to verify the lineage of someone claiming to be one of them, they would strip off his headgear and examine the back of his head. If it stuck out, they would pat him on the shoulder and say: “You’re a true kinsman. This protruding back of the head is the marker that distinguishes us from other folk and is emblematic of our bullheadedness and obstinacy.

The infatuation of the inhabitants of el-Rih with argumentation and their fondness for obstinacy were not the only cause of their disagreement on this subject. Another cause lay concealed in the fact that all the events in their history were controversial. There scarcely existed a single certain event that didn’t abrogate or conflict with another. The history of the residents of el-Rih seemed to resemble the eponymous wind of their valley, where wind currents collided from all four directions, leaving nothing stationary, although nothing was swept away either.

Disagreement over the date of Sulayman La‘raj’s return from the land of the Turks was merely the preamble to a longer and more bitter disagreement over the true nature of the personality of Sulayman La‘raj and his influence on the people of el-Rih. Even though the biography of Sulayman La‘raj and the history of the people of el-Rih were both based on thousands of self-contradictory reports, some possibly accurate and some fraudulent, it was impossible for the later generation of residents to write their ancestors’ history without relying on all these narratives, despite their many contradictions. And so they were collectively referred to as “The Annals of el-Rih”.

These Annals report that the Turks communicated with AbuGila La‘raj, Sulayman La‘raj’s great-grandfather, demanding that he pay a regular tribute to the Sultan. Since he was the lord of the people of el-Rih, he scorned this demand, and declared: “That fellow is Sultan of the Turks, but I am Sultan of the people of el-Rih. By God, the women of el-Rih will never say that Abu Gila La‘raj meekly paid tribute to the Sultan of the Turks.” Then he destroyed the horses of the Turkish soldiers and sent them back to the governor on donkeys.

While the people of el-Rih were rejoicing at their commander’s response, he contracted a marriage with Maysuna, a daughter of the jurist Abdullah al-Zaytuni. She became his fourth and last wife. No sooner had the wedding been celebrated than the first Turkish expedition arrived to punish Abu Gila and his people. The battle took place in the ravine of Halq el-Rih, and whenever Abu Gila killed a Turk, he removed the horse’s bridle and attached it to his wife’s howdah, from where she watched the battle.

He was said to have slain a hundred of the Sultan’s troops that day. Some say he actually killed a hundred and fifty. The Turks were devastated, and only a small band of their cavalrymen survived. Abu Gila allowed them to return to the Turkish governor to tell him what they had seen, and about all the supplies and horses that the people of el-Rih had seized; there had been so much that their encampments were overflowing with the spoils. In less than a month the governor sent a second attack force, but it met the same fate as its predecessor. And from a third punitive raid, only ten soldiers survived. Abu Gila decked them out in women’s clothes and jewellery, strapped them to camels, and sent them to the governor in the City by the Sea. When the Turkish Sultan learned about this, he authorised the summary execution of Abu Gila and his offspring and demanded that the governor himself lead the expedition to wipe out this disgrace, leaving no adult male alive in Halq el-Rih.

The Turkish governor set off on a punitive expedition unlike any that the Bedouins had ever seen or heard of. It took seven days by horse to travel from the City by the Sea to Halq el-Rih. The Turks assumed that the people of el-Rih would not come out to fight but would entrench themselves in Halq el-Rih and wait there for the Turkish army. During their siesta on the second day, when the expeditionary force had halted and its men had stretched out in a shady grove, the horses from el-Rih caught them off guard. Before the Turks knew what was happening, Abu Gila had cut them off from behind and hundreds of their horses, which had been tethered to tree trunks, bolted, taking with them most of the Turks’ supplies and weapons. The men of el-Rih had never engaged in an easier battle than this one, and Abu Gila demanded that they spare anyone who was unarmed or dismounted or who cried out for his protection.

By nightfall everyone who should be killed had been, everyone who could flee had fled, and all the Turks who could be captured were. The next morning the captive governor was brought in. When he caught sight of Abu Gila, he pleaded for him to show mercy. So Abu Gila pardoned him and the other Turkish prisoners, all of whom he sent back barefoot to the City by the Sea. The one exception was the governor, to whom Abu Gila granted a silver-plated rifle and a horse.

No sooner had the governor reached the city than he found a Spanish fleet besieging it. He requested assistance from Abu Gila, who stated: “By God, we will not allow Muslim women to be captured and taken off to Europe.”

Not a single man from el-Rih disagreed with him, so they came to the rescue with ten thousand horses and three thousand camels. The men of el-Rih were not used to fighting in cities, and their animals were unaccustomed to the roar of ships’ cannons. They fought for three days and nights or, some said, for four days. The men of al-Rih were almost completely exhausted but managed to expel from the city every Spaniard who remained alive, forcing them to retreat to their ships, and Abu Gila La‘raj waited – his horses’ hooves in the water – until the ships had vanished into the fogs of the sea.

More than two hundred of the best men of el-Rih were killed, and Abu Gila lost his two sons, three brothers and five cousins.

Only a third of their force survived, and some said fewer than that. While they were nursing their wounded and burying their dead, a Turkish flotilla arrived carrying a huge army, which blockaded the city once they learned Abu Gila was there. They eventually captured him and the men from el-Rih with him.

The governor, however, out of appreciation for the gracious way in which Abu Gila La‘raj had liberated the City by the Sea from the Spaniards, wrote to the Sultan to ask him to pardon Abu Gila La‘raj. A month later a messenger arrived with the Sultan’s decree that transmuted capital punishment for Abu Gila and his progeny to everlasting exile from Halq el-Rih to the land of the Turks and also stipulated that no child in Halq el-Rih was ever to be named Abu Gila or La‘raj. Residents of el-Rih would also be required to pay abject tribute to the Sultan twice a year.

Abu Gila asked to see Halq el-Rih before he departed, and the governor granted his request. So Abu Gila remained there for a week, visiting his people’s encampments to instruct them and offer them advice. When it was time for him to leave, he assembled the sages of el-Rih and told them: “This valley,” referring to Halq el-Rih, “bears your name and you take your name from it.

You and it are as intimately related to each other as bone is to marrow. So if a stranger settles among you, feed him from the land’s blessings, provide him with drink from its water, and don’t hold back a foot of it from him.

“Do not give the women any of the land they inherit, because if you do, the strangers who marry your daughters will gain possession of what is your land.” From his seated position he rose and declared: “A man descended from me will return to Halq el-Rih, sooner or later. He will elevate your ambition and raise high your influence.

“I have, however, left a secret hidden in this valley. Only a descendant of mine will be able to discover it. If someone comes to you and claims to be descended from me, demand that he reveal this secret to you. But this will not happen before one of two things occurs . . . ”

Accounts differed about these two matters. Some said that Abu Gila La‘raj did not mention them but rather said: “This won’t happen before the demise of the Turkish state . . .”; while a second version claimed that Abu Gila said: “That will not occur before the banners of the Jews victoriously reach the mausoleum of revered marabout Sidi al-Koni Bu Dumat in Halq el-Rih.”

A third report, however, said he stipulated that both events would happen at the same time. A fourth account denied that Abu Gila La‘raj had made the return to Halq el-Rih of one of his offspring conditional on anything or on any special event.

Surrounded by Turkish troops, Abu Gila La‘raj departed with his daughter and four wives, the youngest of whom was Maysuna, daughter of the jurist Abdullah al-Zaytuni. The toothless Ethiopian woman who was the senior maid in Abu Gila’s home said that her mistress Maysuna was then three months pregnant.

Successive generations of inhabitants of el-Rih waited for the return to Halq el-Rih of a man from the family of La‘raj, expecting him to lead them to glory and might. Perhaps the fates and the will of history were responsible for granting this historic role to Sulayman La‘raj rather than to some other earlier member of his clan.

During the centuries prior to his return to Halq el-Rih, a number of people did claim to be the awaited member of the family, but the Annals of el-Rih give no details about any of these claimants except one they call the Man in the Red Burnous. Perhaps the locus of the interest in him lies in the fact that events and occurrences precipitated by his arrival are considered to have been some of the outstanding landmarks in the history of the people of the valley of the wind.



1 Safar is the second month of the Islamic year

2 Hajja is the title given to a woman who has made the Muslim ritual pilgrimage to Mecca, whereas Hajjala suggests a dancer who skips around wearing anklets.


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