When Tariq is captured from his safe life in a Tangier orphanage and sold into slavery as a camel jockey, his adventures begin.
Along with his new friends Aseem, Margaret and Fez, Tariq gets sold to the tyrant Caid Ali Tamzali—entering a dangerous world of deceit and violence.
Forced to compete in deadly camel races, and suffer the abuse of his slave master, Tariq must rely on his wits and his newfound friendships to survive.
From the corrupt slave trade of Tangier, to the wild frontier of the Moroccan desert; into the heart of ancient China, and onto the pirated seas of the Mediterranean; Rebels of the Kasbah is an exhilarating tale of adventure, daring, danger, and friendship.
The boy slowly opened his eyes. He wiggled his toes and fingers, and lifted his head. Overcome with dizziness, he set his head back down in what felt like straw.
"Be careful, my friend. You have had quite a blow," said an unfamiliar voice. Suddenly, a black face appeared over him. The face was that of a boy about his age—perhaps twelve—with bright, inquisitive eyes, white teeth, and a look of concern.
"Where am I?" the boy asked.
"You are in a place that God cannot see. Because God would never let a place such as this exist," replied the black boy. At that, the boy took all his energy and sat against a concrete wall. He noticed the stench, a foul mixture of rotten meat, urine, and feces. The room was completely dark except for small windows on each wall where sunlight peaked in. Thick iron bars sealed the windows. The room was medium to large in size, perhaps thirty feet by thirty feet. Two wooden buckets had been placed in the middle. The floor was covered with straw. There were other children around the room, some younger than five years of age, but none older than thirteen or fourteen. There was a mix of girls and boys, which was a rarity in a Muslim culture. None of the children cried. They sat huddled upon with one another against the walls. The older ones comforted the young ones.
"Who are you?" asked the boy.
"My name is Aseem. I have been in this place for three days. You arrived about six hours ago." He knelt beside the boy. "That is a nasty welt on your head." The boy felt his forehead and discovered a bump the size of an egg, about four inches above his right eye, along his hairline. He felt what must surely have been dried blood that had dripped down his face.
"I do not remember much. A man grabbed me from my bed. I tried to fight him. That is all."
"What is your name?" asked Aseem.
"My name is Tariq. I come from an orphanage in Tangier."
"An orphan? Many here are orphans. I am from a tribe a long way away."
"Were you kidnapped like me?"
"No. My father sold me to the local slave trader to settle a debt. It had been two dry seasons. My father is a farmer and there have not been enough crops. Being the youngest of seven, I was chosen."
"How could your father do such a thing?" asked Tariq.
"When the day came for me to leave, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and explained to me that, to save my mother and my brothers and sisters, he had to make a sacrifice. It was the only time I have seen my father cry," said Aseem, who then shrugged. "So, I am resigned to my fate of being a slave."
"Is that what this is?"
"Yes. It is a slave pit. We are waiting to be sold."
"Sold to whom?" Tariq asked.
"I do not know." Suddenly the door opened and a huge man—maybe six-foot-three and two hundred and fifty pounds—entered. He had large, muscular arms and he carried a whip. His head was bald and a bushy black beard covered his square face. His eyes were dark and sinister-looking. Anger emanated from his very soul.
"Okay. When I point to you, you will go out this door, walk to the end of the hall, and wait for me. Do you understand?" he roared. Suddenly, a girl of about thirteen years of age cried out. "Mister, please! This is a mistake! I’m not supposed to be here. I was at a hotel in Tangier." Her most distinguishing characteristics were her perfect English and her white skin. Every other child was of either African or Arab descent. The man towered over her. "There is no mistake. Caucasian girls fetch the highest price. Ha!" The girl burst into tears and, in a panic-filled moment, tried to run out the door. The man caught her with one hand and, in a single gesture, threw her five feet against the stone wall. She let out a shriek and curled into a ball. Her muffled cries echoed off the walls. The man walked around the room and began pointing. One, two, three, four—one after the other, the children ran up, through the door, and down the hallway. He came to Tariq and Aseem, and pointed to them both. They rose and ran out of the room as instructed. Two other boys joined them. In line, they looked at each other. They were all between the ages of ten and thirteen and obviously very scared. A few held hands. Although most were orphan boys and toughened by life on the streets, their fear was palpable. They waited like frightened innocents about to be executed.
"Okay. Walk out this door and do exactly as you are told," the man yelled at them. The door opened and the boys, all quite thin and dressed mostly in rags, walked through in a single file line. They entered a large, dirty, circular space, which was enclosed by stands of Arab men. There were dozens and dozens of them, in traditional robes, smoking hookahs, chatting incessantly, eating figs and flatbread, and drinking mint tea. The boys were instructed to stand in the center of the ring. A man in a black robe entered the ring behind the children. All chatting lowered to a murmur as he commanded the crowd’s attention.
"Gentlemen, I have for you a stock of exquisite slaves. These boys will ride and die for you. They are tough boys, of the right age and weight."
"Have them show us their spirit!" called out someone from the crowd.
"Yes! Put them to the test!" another cried.
"Okay, okay." The man looked at the children. He had old, wrinkled brown skin and a long, skinny gray moustache. Bags sagged beneath his eyes.
"Slaves, when I say ‘go’ I want each of you to run to that rope right there and climb to the top. The first one to the top wins. The last one will get whipped. Do you understand?" The children looked at him and then looked at a rope suspended from the ceiling. The rope directly to their right and was about thirty feet in height.
"Okay, then." And, with little time for the boys to ready themselves, the man’s big voice commanded, "GO!" Stunned, none of the children moved. Most just stared blankly at the man. A couple of them cried. A few were completely paralyzed with fear by the experience. The large, muscled man, who had led them into the ring, was furious. "You heard him. Now, go!" And, with this, he then cracked his whip, the tip of which hit a boy on his back. The small child let out a cry. The children were terrified. A second flick of the whip snapped over their heads. And, slowly, the boys made their way to the rope and a few began to climb, cautiously.
"No. Faster!" the black robed man shouted. "The first one to reach the top wins! This is a competition, you little idiots." The boys quickly understood and soon began to claw at each other to get to the rope. The leader was yanked down to the sand. Another was taken down by his neck. The base of the rope turned into a melee of small limbs and bodies. The crowd yelled in appreciation of the struggle. Tariq, still dizzy, wasn’t making much progress. Boys kept tugging at him and pushing him down. He sensed defeat. But, when he looked over to his right, he saw his new friend.
"Tariq," shouted Aseem, "if we work together, we can do this. Are you with me?" Tariq felt a sudden surge of encouragement. "Yes!"
"Okay, follow me." Aseem grabbed a boy next in line, trying to climb up, and yanked him down by his forearm. With his other arm, he grabbed Tariq’s hand and guided him to the rope. Not letting go of Aseem’s hand, Tariq placed his right foot on another smaller boy’s head and thrust himself upon the rope. Once secured a place, Tariq pulled Aseem up. A couple of boys grabbed at Aseem’s legs, but the firm grasp of Tariq’s hand kept him from falling. He kicked at the boys until they let go. The two boys, now about eight feet off the ground, began scaling the rope. It was a thick, knotted rope that burned their skin. Tariq let out a yelp when his lost his footing and skidded down; a long rope burn was etched in his calf.
"Keep going, Tariq," encouraged Aseem. "We’re almost there!" The boys climbed and, about five feet from the top, Tariq felt a hand grab his foot. He looked down and there was a rough-looking boy with long brown hair, a dirty face, and murder in his eyes.
"Let go!" ordered Tariq.
"No!" the boy yelled back.
"Let go, or I’ll kick you," warned Tariq.
"Go ahead!" Tariq looked at the boy. He didn’t want to kick him, but he understood that he must. Life at the orphanage had taught him well. When older boys had tried to steal his food, he had to stand up to them even though they were usually bigger and stronger. To not do so would make him a victim, and a target for constant bullying. He had been in many fights, a few even with a knife. Over time, he gained respect in the orphanage and even the older boys left him alone. That was the first law on the streets. Never, ever back down from anyone. He took one last look at the boy and quickly performed a scissor kick. It was a move that he had perfected playing football. Shifting all of his weight to his opposite leg and letting it fly, his shin caught the boy squarely in the face, knocking him back and off the rope. The boy fell twenty feet to the sand, landing on his back with an audible "oomph." The wind knocked out of him, the boy gasped for air and panic filled his face.
"Did you see that?" asked one of the Arab buyers.
"That boy has spirit," said another, loudly, in agreement. Aseem and Tariq continued to the top of the rope. As a gracious sign of team sportsmanship, Tariq allowed Aseem to touch the ceiling first. Aseem had helped him and Tariq never forgot a friend. They looked down at the other boys still climbing beneath them. A couple had given up or fallen, and were now lying in the sand next to the boy Tariq had kicked off. Aseem and Tariq waited for the boys to reach them and then they slowly returned to the bottom in a systematic order. The mayhem of the scramble up was now replaced with the civility of the descent. The boys returned to a single file line. Some were dirty, and most were scraped up with scratches of blood etched into their skin. Tariq was breathing heavily.
"Okay, the bidding will commence," said the black robed man, obviously the auctioneer. With this, he pointed to Aseem.
"How about this one? He was the winner, after all, a fine specimen, with natural agility."
"One thousand," a man yelled.
"Eleven hundred," followed another.
"I will pay one thousand-five hundred."
"Two thousand," a voice yelled out above the shouted bids of others.
"We have two thousand! Going once, going twice… Sold to the family of Caid Ali Tamzali!" The trade continued, until, oddly all the boys were sold except for Tariq. Some went for five hundred, and others for quite a bit more. Those who had quit at the rope sold for less, while the stronger and aggressive ones sold for much more. Tariq stood by himself, obviously self-conscious and worried.
"Okay, we are now down to the last slave—who, if you recall, actually placed second. Who will start the bidding?"
"Fifteen hundred," shouted a voice.
"Two thousand two hundred," the initial bidding voice said.
"Two thousand and two hundred going once, going twice… Sold! Again, to the family of Caid Ali Tamzali," announced the man in the black robe. As fate would have it, Aseem and Tariq had been sold to the same family. And, because of their skill, they also sold for the highest prices of the night. The two boys were shuffled off into a separate room. There, they were told to sit down by the large, bearded guard. All of the other boys who had been sold were in the room, yet seated at different benches. The guard came to each boy with a box and placed shackles of steel chain around their ankles. As he did so, the black robed auctioneer came into the room with a group of Arabs behind him. As he went to each boy, some Arabs gave him some cash, and they then left with their new slaves. Finally, they came to Aseem and Tariq.
"Okay, four thousand two hundred for the pair. A good deal. I think you’ve got the best jockeys in the crop," said the auctioneer.
"I hope so, for the sum we paid," a fat and round man replied. He sweated profusely through his white scarf. Another man was beside him. A tall, Caucasian man dressed in a western-style business suit. The fat man handed an envelope to the auctioneer and another to the white man.
"This settles our business here," said the fat man. The white man bowed his head slightly, then, quickly left the room. The auctioneer went about with the other Arabs and their slaves.
"Okay, you two. My name is Zahir. I am now your master and owner. Do as I say. Any disobedience, any chance at escaping will be met with my whip. Do you understand?" asked the sweaty, fat man.
"Yes," both Aseem and Tariq replied.
"Good. Follow me," ordered Zahir. The two boys slowly made their way behind Zahir, struggling with the weight of their new shackles and the awkwardness of walking with chains around their ankles. He took them outside to a wagon drawn by camels. He ordered them to sit in back and tied them both to a rail.
"Okay, no funny business, you two. It is three days of desert in any direction. You would die and get eaten by the buzzards. Besides, where I’m taking you, is like a fun playground. Okay?" Zahir laughed and walked away. The boys looked at each other. The wagon was uncovered and the hot Saharan sun beat down on them. It was perhaps a hundred and ten degrees outside. Tariq surveyed the surroundings. They were at some kind of caravan. The building they were in stood alone yet dozens of tents poked up around the building. Tariq looked closer at the tents, and the people milling about and buying.
"This is some kind of black market. Look, that man over there is selling guns. Another over there is selling snakes." v"Do you see a way to escape?" asked Aseem.
"Perhaps; but getting out of these chains will take some doing. The lock looks easy enough to pick, if I had something to pick it with."
"You can pick locks?"
"On the streets of Tangier, one learns many useful tricks to survive." Aseem watched Tariq as he attempted to wiggle out of his arm shackles. However, they were too tight. He surveyed the surrounding landscape and looked up at the mountains that lay directly before them.
"I do not know this area. I tried to track the distance in my head when the wagon left my village. I believe we headed south and then west." Tariq nodded in agreement, then gave up trying to free his wrists.
"When I turned thirteen, my father had me live by myself in the mountains for seven days," said Aseem. "All he gave me was a knife for survival. He gave me one piece of advice, which was to always think before doing. In the wilderness, small mistakes can mean the difference between life and death. Not watching your footsteps and stepping on a loose rock can twist an ankle. Being frivolous with food and water can mean dehydration or hunger. The lesson was to always think before moving and to be aware of your surroundings."
"And, what do you think of our surroundings now?" Tariq asked.
"I think we are in a great deal of danger. I think we were purchased with the intention that we would die and die quickly. I also think that you and I might have one opportunity for escape and we do not want to squander it. We also do not want to draw attention to ourselves by attempting to escape."
"Why do you think we are in danger?" Tariq asked.
"That man in the black robe. He said that we will ‘ride and die’ for their pleasure. I am not sure what that means, but it cannot be good." Tariq looked at Aseem and then at the sun overhead.
"I agree with you. The chances of escape are slim. We cannot hide and we cannot run. But I do not plan on dying for the amusement of these people."
"Neither do I," agreed Aseem.
"Okay, then. At the first opportunity, we will escape. And, I will look out for your back if you look out for mine." Tariq stuck out his hand as an offer of friendship.
"Tariq, I think that relying on each other is the only chance we have for survival. We have a saying in my tribe, ‘The pack is always stronger than the lone wolf.’" They shook hands and even managed a little smile. The two boys sat in the wagon for two full hours under the hot sun. They barely spoke and both managed to get in a fitful nap as flies buzzed around them. Tariq’s lips felt chapped and dry. He was thirsty and very hungry. He could smell something delicious. As he looked about, his eyes came upon a tent; there, framed in the doorway, he could see some men eating lamb kabob and couscous. The aroma of the grilled meat filled the air, making his stomach pains even worse. Finally, their new master, Zahir, came out of the building with two more slaves in tow. These were the white girl, who had earlier caused such commotion, and a small, impish boy of about eleven or twelve. The boy wore round, tortoise-shell glasses. Zahir brought them to the back of the wagon, and shackled them in next to Aseem and Tariq. The two new slaves both sat quickly and said nothing. Zahir shouted to an older man, whom they hadn’t yet noticed. "Shatam, cover this wagon, and get these slaves some food and water. I have to settle a few things. We leave in half an hour." Old Shatam, obviously a slave himself, bowed slightly and went about covering the wagon with a light red fabric that, although thin, offered a great deal of shade. Next, he brought over a jug of water and a plate of hummus, pita bread, and dolmas. He said nothing to the children. The four young captives began to eat and drink. All were famished and suffering from dehydration. The food was really only enough for two and was quickly devoured. They drank half of the water and, together, agreed it best to conserve and ration the rest for the journey ahead.
"What is your name?" Tariq asked the little boy.
"Where do you come from, Fez?"
"A small village. Our tribe was moving to a new location when we were ambushed by bandits. They killed my entire family. I was spared and sold to this place," he said softly, looking at the floor in the front of him.
"I am sorry, Fez. My name is Tariq and this is Aseem. We will look after you, okay?" Fez didn’t seem inspired by these words of kindness. He nodded solemnly and continued to stare at the ground.
"That man they call Zahir, he is the man who massacred my family and my people," Fez said sadly. None of the other children knew what to say to this. They all looked at Fez with a mixture of fear, shock, and sorrow on their faces.
"He killed your family?" Tariq asked.
"Yes. In the mountains, he ambushed our entire village and slaughtered everyone but the children to be sold as slaves," Fez said, as a few tears ran down his cheeks. He was such a small boy, and so studious in his glasses, that watching him cry was painful for the other children. The girl, whom none of them knew, slid over and hugged Fez; he buried himself deep in her embrace. It was the first human contact he’d had since he’d watched Zahir butcher his mother and father. She patted his head and whispered to him that he would be okay. Aseem turned to the girl. "What about you? What is your name?"
"I don’t think she speaks Arabic," Tariq mentioned. The girl had dried tears smudged into the dirt now caked onto her face. Her dress, while once probably quite nice, was ruined with dirt and it looked as if she had been wearing it for days. Her hair was blond and went down halfway to her shoulders.
"I speak Arabic. I lived in Cairo as a child," she whispered. The three boys stared at her, none of them had ever seen a white girl before and they weren’t quite sure what to do.
"Where are you from?" Aseem asked. The girl ignored his question.
"They said that white girls bring the highest price and the most pleasure in the harem. Do you know what that means?" She hugged Fez one last time and, when he smiled up at her, she let him out of her embrace. Aseem just looked at her, blankly.
"They said if I didn’t do as I was told they would hold a hot iron to my face and brand it for life. Then, I would be ugly. An outcast." Before she could say any more, Zahir appeared.
"Okay. We have one week’s journey ahead of us. We stop every two hours for to go to the toilet. You will eat once a day. If you try to escape, then your hands will be tied and you will be forced to walk behind the wagon. Do you understand?" asked Zahir. Everyone nodded slightly.
"Where are we going?" asked Tariq.
"You have been sold to Caid Ali Tamzali. You are his property now and for the rest of your miserable lives. For some of you, it should not be for more than a few weeks; for others, perhaps fifty years or more. Let go of any memory of your past life. It no longer exists. You are slaves now," he said and walked away. The wagon began to move. It was the last in a caravan of seven wagons and various camels. Slowly, it moved away from the trading post and into the Sahara desert. The children watched the building from which they had been sold slowly retreat in the distance until it was a just a speck on the horizon. They did not talk for a long time Finally, Aseem spoke up.
"You did not tell us your name," he noted, addressing the girl.
"My name is Margaret Owen. My family was vacationing from England. I grew up in London," she said softly.
"It is good to meet you Margaret. Do not worry about what he said. There is always a way out," assured Aseem.
"I do not know at the moment. But, I do know that I am not destined to be a slave and neither are you. You are much too pretty and proper. Tariq and I are already planning an escape."
"What escape?" she asked.
"We are working on it. Until then, please do not worry. Like I told little Fez over there—we will take care of you." Margaret smiled at this kind gesture—a young boy promising to take care of her. Imagine! She didn’t want to seem rude but she had little faith that two boys, probably younger than herself, could help her escape. She didn’t know what to think. Only two days ago, she had been in the comfort of her family in one of Morocco’s finest hotels. Now, she was tied up in a wagon as a slave. She felt like crying, but she didn’t seem to have any tears. The sun began to fade in the distance, giving way to the stars and the heavens above. The temperature dropped considerably in the desert at night.