Chapter 12  Algiers

Approaching from the sea, a visitor’s first impression of Algiers was of a giant triangular sail, gleaming in the sunlight, stretched out on a lush green hillside. The brightly whitewashed buildings of Algiers rose in cascading terraces from the harbor to a peak at the crest of the natural amphitheater in which the city nestled, surrounded by well-tended gardens and vineyards.

As a visitor’s ship drew closer, the view changed from one of startling beauty to intimidating power. Algiers was protected by massive walls 40 feet tall, with fortresses at the north and south at the water’s edge and another guarding the protective mole that enclosed the harbor. The largest, at the top of the city, the Emperor’s fortress, named after Charles V of Spain, overlooked the Kasbah and commanded Algiers, the surrounding countryside, and the sea. Algiers’s forts and walls bristled with close to a thousand cannon, many bearing the marks of the kings of Spain and France, captured from their failed attempts to take the city .

Henry arrived in Algiers from the west sunset just before Algiers’s gates were closed for the night, dressed as a prosperous, powerful Arab sheik. He had chosen that time because Algiers’s taverns, run by Christian captives in the Bagnios that served as slave quarters, closed at sunset. From ten in the morning until nightfall, they were full of a noisy, drunken riot of customers: Berbers, Arabs, Christian slaves, often a few Jews, and always a crowd of Turkish janissaries, more than willing to set aside their religious scruples against consuming alcohol. The janissaries were usually the most drunken, the most belligerent, and thus the most dangerous customers of the Bagnios’ supply of wine, French brandy, and home-brewed liquor distilled by the Jews from fermented figs. Once the janissaries had stumbled home, the streets became safe again.

Henry made his way to his usual destination, a livery stable run by his friend Yani, a Tuareg who had come to Algiers to trade horses, found a woman he loved, and married. Instead of the Tuareg’s tagelmust turban and alasho, the indigo blue face veil worn by Tuareg men, not women, Yani wore the commonplace loose pants and shirt of Berber city dwellers. But his loyalty to his people and to Henry was still unshakable.

After seeing to Tinitran, Henry left on foot for the home of Micaiah Baccri on the outskirts of the Sephardic Jewish ghetto near the Marine gate of Algiers. He wound his way through the rabbits’ warren of narrow dark streets, doubling back on his path frequently and looking for familiar faces reappearing to ensure he wasn’t being followed, then approached the ancient, massive, iron-bound door of Baccri’s house.

One would not have expected that so completely unexceptional and commonplace an entrance, set into a tall windowless wall, its crumbling brick façade stripped of whitewash, housed the richest man in Algiers. Henry looked around one last time to ensure the street was empty of passers-by, then knocked three times on the door with the hilt of his dagger, waited five seconds, knocked again once, waited three seconds more and knocked twice more. A small window opened up in the Judas gate set into the larger main door.

Yirath Yehovah reshith da’hath” Henry said softly in Hebrew.

“Tell me, oh fearful man seeking wisdom,” an equally soft voice replied in Yahudice, the Spanish-Hebrew dialect of Sephardic Jews, “On what day does the dove sing?

“On the fifth day,” Henry answered, in the same tongue.

The gate opened and Henry slipped through. He passed along a narrow corridor with a curved ceiling up a short flight of stairs through another doorway into Baccri’s courtyard. The courtyard was roughly thirty-two feet square, containing cloisters divided every eight feet by spiral marble columns with lemon trees planted in the openings between the columns. Above, upper balconies looked out over the courtyard. Clusters of red, purple, and lavender bee-orchids, iris, roses, and lilacs spilled over from planters mounted on the second floor balconies. Henry paused for a moment to breathe in the perfume and enjoy the sound of the water spilling into a fountain in the center of the courtyard.

Micaiah emerged out of the farthest cloister, a delighted smile lighting up his face. He embraced Henry warmly when they met in the center of the courtyard. “Greetings my old friend,” he said. “How blessed are these old eyes to see you again. I trust your journey here was easy?”

“More interesting than easy,” Henry answered, “But we can talk of that later.”

Micaiah Baaccri was a tall, slender man, dressed now not in the obligatory costume of black robes and triangular hat required for Jews on the streets of Algiers, but in an elegant emerald green silk robe over a loose, embroidered cotton shirt and billowing grey pantaloons. He wore expensive yellow Moroccan slippers.

Once they were comfortably seated in Micaiah’s study, tea and refreshments were set out for Henry while Micaiah continued with the wine he had been enjoying when Henry arrived. Micaiah began the conversation.

“I have good news for you. I had thought to send it by messenger; now I have the pleasure of telling you in person. The 1,000 bags of wheat you bought in Constantine for four francs per 100 lb. sack, I was able to sell to the French army in Marseilles for 50 francs per sack. After expenses, my fees, and the necessary bribes and payments to the Turks, your profit comes to 31,000 franks.”

“Splendid,” said Henry. “And how fortunate the ship carrying the wheat wasn’t intercepted by the British blockade.”

Micaiah grinned, his normally patrician countenance now transformed in the that of a mischievous elf. “Perhaps ‘fortunate’ isn’t the right word. Some of the most useful bribes were paid out of my bank in Liverpool. But you spoke of an interesting journey?”

“It concerns the Sheik of Azgar,” Henry began.

“And the gold he is shipping from Algiers to Durazzo to pay the Shiites who will cripple the Russian and Prussian armies by assassinating their leaders and blowing up their supply trains?

“You wise, old fox,” Henry laughed. “Is there anything that happens in this part of the world that you don’t know about?”

“Very little. You have noticed, I’m sure, that we Jews are not widely adored by the Arabs or Europeans. The Turks are a little better, but only marginally so. Our wealth buys us the information we need to stay alive, and gives us the power to act on that information.”

“But power and wealth also earn you envy and hatred.”

Micaiah wasn’t smiling now. “It’s all one. They despise a poor Jew as much as a rich one, so better to be rich. A friend you get for nothing; an enemy has to be bought.”

“The truth is,” he continued, “if the house of Baccri were to fail, countries in Europe would go bankrupt. Were a Dey of Algiers foolish enough to take me prisoner in order to steal my fortune, most of which, I might add, is safely held in banking houses across Europe and in America run by my family – as is yours – his government would collapse and the chaos of revolution would destroy the land. When the Spanish drove my people out of Spain in 1492, they turned themselves into a nation of helpless imbeciles and the joke of Europe they have now become. Here, it is the Jews who are masters of the critical trades and crafts. We create what the Turks desire, but cannot make for themselves. We are the merchants whose contacts in a dozen countries support Algerian trade. In times of famine, it is the wheat we buy that feeds the people; in times of plenty we are the bankers who furnish the money that fills Turkish purses and pays the janissaries’ salaries. When the corsairs put to sea, they sail in boats our money has paid for. So their envy and hatred are what we expect each morning when we arise. Ensuring our success – our very survival – is how we spend each day. … But I carry on like the old man I am. Perhaps you might tell me what you plan?

So great was Henry’s trust in Micaiah that he spoke without pausing. “I know Omar Pasha from when we served together at Acre in ‘99. He has no love for Napoleon, and being a devout Sunni, less love for the Shiites. I am confident he will want to bar Ibn Hazm’s passage through Algeria to the seacoast. Ibn Hazm will doubtless then seek some other means to get the gold to Durazzo. I think it better to make sure of the gold, than merely block its passage. I infiltrated Ibn Hazm’s camp before I came here and overheard all their plans. I know their route. My Tuaregs will be waiting for them, and we will take the gold, which I will divide evenly with Omar. His share will keep him in power and my share, in your good hands, will grow handsomely.”

“You know your business,” Micaiah said. “Yet you would be wise to be careful with Omar Pasha. He may be your friend, but he has powerful enemies, not the least of which is his Vizier Hashin. He is a viper. Truly, he should marry the Angel of Death. Were Hashin to tell me he would trade half his life for the most precious gem in the world I would freely give him two. There is talk, however reliable I am not sure, that he is a secret Bonapartist. But this I do know. If he ensures the safe passage of Ibn Hazm’s gold, he will become a very rich man. Then there’s this. My contacts in Gibraltar tell me the British are sending two British agents to Algiers to speak with Omar Pasha about this matter. I may know one of them, a man named Jacob, who trades back and forth from Algiers to Gibraltar in gems and precious stones. Did you know of this?”

“British Intelligence?” Henry snorted. “One should not speak those two words in the same breath. It is all quarrelling factions of self-interest with them. If the agents of the Army, Navy, and the other branches of government had spent as much time combatting Napoleon as they do vying with each other, this war would have ended years ago.”

“Well, you are right,” replied Micaiah. “I know something of intelligence gathering myself. Men who play at being spies glimpse only a part of the truth, and then guard it jealously, like the foolish miser with copper pennies who believes he is hoarding gold.”

“I know nothing of what the British intend, and care less,” Henry continued. “Better that I make sure my business with Omar is successful. Omar will tell them what they want to hear. They will dither with that tidbit long enough for us to do what needs to be done.” Henry paused to regard Micaiah for a moment and spoke with loving conviction. “You are helpful, old friend, as always. But you must stay out of this. Ibn Hazm, and for that matter, Hashin, are my business. Your family is your business.”

“Even so. Yet I am reminded of the old rabbi named Zusya who was in his final days on earth. One of his students gathered by his bedside asked him, ‘Rabbi Zusya, what do you fear most about dying?’ ‘I fear what they will ask me when I go to heaven,’ he replied. ‘And what will they ask you?’ the student inquired. ‘They won’t ask me: Zusya, why weren’t you like Moses? Or Zusya, why weren’t you like Abraham? Or Zusya, why weren’t you like Noah? They will ask me, Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’ So,” he added, the elfin smile returning to his face, “ I will keep being Micaiah.”

“In that case,” said Henry, cautiously aware that he might be asking too much, “there is perhaps one more thing….”

“There is always one more thing,” laughed Micaiah. “Give a man a barnyard full of pigs and next he’ll want a sheep. But go ahead and ask. The worst that can happen is I’ll say no.”

“Well, the French, quite predictably, are involved,” Henry began. “ They’ve sent an agent here to arrange matters, a man called Chameau.”

“I know the man,” said Micaiah. This time Henry just raised his eyebrows and smiled. “He has business interests in Marseilles, smuggling and dealing in contraband for the most part. I recall helping him find buyers for some stolen jewels at one point. I’d be careful with him, too.”

“We go back a long time, Chameau and I,” Henry replied. “Now that he’s here in Algiers, it could be useful to know where’s he’s staying and where he goes.”

“I have a lot of ears and eyes in Algiers. Let me see what I can discover.”

“I may be putting you at risk,” Henry countered.

“Don’t be troubled, really. Among the people who serve me, the left hand never shakes the right hand. And besides, if one could do favors without aggravation, the world would be full of saints. But tell me. Once you find this Chameau, what will you do with him?

“Kill him,” Henry said.

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