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The Black Crescent

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About The Book

A captivating historical novel set in post-war Casablanca about a young man marked by djinns who must decide where his loyalties lie as the fight for Moroccan independence erupts.

Hamou Badi is born in a village in the Anti-Atlas Mountains with the markings of the zouhry on his hands. In Morocco, the zouhry is a figure of legend, a child of both humans and djinns, capable of finding treasure, lost objects, and even water in the worst of droughts. But when young Hamou finds the body of a murdered woman, his life is forever changed.

Haunted by this unsolved murder and driven by the desire to do good in the world, Hamou leaves his village for Casablanca to become an officer of the law under the French Protectorate.

But Casablanca is not the shining beacon of modernity he was expecting. The forcible exile of Morocco’s sultan by the French sparks a nationalist uprising led by violent dissident groups, none so fearsome as the Black Crescent. Torn between his heritage and his employers, Hamou will be caught in the crossfire.

The lines between right and wrong, past and future, the old world and the new, are not as clear as the magical lines on his palms. And as the danger grows, Hamou is forced to choose between all he knows and all he loves.

Excerpt

Chapter 1: Tiziane: Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco: June 1939 1 TIZIANE ANTI-ATLAS MOUNTAINS OF MOROCCO June 1939
Even though many things had changed, some things never changed. Hamou Badi walked along the alley, past the sacks of couscous and flour, dried mussels, almonds, chickpeas and lentils that the tradesmen weighed out in their big brass balances, past the hammam with its chimney streaming woodsmoke into the clear blue sky, past the knot of gossiping black-robed women, and all the way, the scents and smells of the village chased him and wrapped him in their familiarity. His younger cousin Moha trailed him, the milk churn bumping against his leg.

They were on their way to fetch the milk from Taba Tôt at the farm. This was Hamou’s task most mornings, one he never relished, for Taba Tôt scared the living daylights out of him. Today was worse than usual because of Moha’s constant string of irritating questions.

‘Why does everyone ride donkeys here? Don’t you have any cars?’

‘Why are there so many dogs running around? Doesn’t anyone own them?’

‘Can’t we just go to a shop for our milk like normal people?’

Hamou had given up answering with anything more than a grunt because no matter how many questions he answered there were always more. He turned on Moha now. ‘Look, just shut up, all right? If you chatter on at Taba Tôt she’ll put the evil eye on you and probably on me as well.’

Moha laughed. ‘The evil eye! You’ll be telling me she commands djinns next.’

Hamou reddened. Of course Taba Tôt communed with djinns, everyone knew that.

The great house rose up before them like a cliff, arrow-slit windows in its walls of rosy pisé, an iron-studded door wide enough to give entrance to two horsemen riding abreast, crenellations around its roof: a miniature kasbah. The queue for the milk from the farm attached to the great house already reached back around the corner.

Hamou let out an exasperated sigh. If he hadn’t been saddled with his slow-legged cousin, a city boy raised in far-off Casablanca, he’d already have been on his way home, milk and all. Now he would have to endure not only the long queue and Taba Tôt’s rising temper, but also his mother’s impatience at having to wait for the milk. He did try, from the lofty heights of his eleven years, to feel charitably towards the younger boy – after all, it couldn’t be easy being eight years old with his mother so sick that he’d been sent off on a seven-hundred-kilometre bus ride all alone from Casablanca to Marrakech, from Marrakech to Agadir to Tiznit, then up through the mountains here to Tiziane, a world away from everything and everyone he knew – but there was something about Moha that drove deep any charitable instincts he might have had. It wasn’t just the incessant questions or his slowness that roused his fury but the younger boy’s refusal to defer to him in anything. He’d even had the gall to mock Hamou’s djellaba this morning. ‘You’re going out in that raggedy thing?’

Hamou had looked down at his striped camel-wool robe, bewildered. It was what most people wore here. Certainly, it wasn’t new – it had been passed down from his older brothers as they grew out of it, and maybe to them by his father, and to his father by his grandfather – but that just meant it was of good quality, to last so long. But now Moha had mentioned it he had started to notice details: moth holes; frayed cuffs; dirt along the hem; and always the distinct aroma of the original animal of which he had believed only he was aware. Moha wore a plain navy djellaba over his Casa street clothes, including a pair of smart lace-up shoes rather than the yellow leather babouches typically worn here. Hamou took satisfaction from the despoliation of these shoes – a day and a half of Tiziane dust had already taken a toll.

They joined the back of the queue behind Anir Oulhaj and Iza Moussaoui. The girl turned to regard them with interest. ‘Who’s this, Hamou?’

Hamou raised a shoulder dismissively. ‘My little cousin Moha.’

Iza grinned at Moha. ‘Isn’t he cute?’

‘Not really,’ said Hamou.

‘Where are you from?’ Iza asked Moha. ‘The valley? One of the mountain villages?’

Moha bridled. ‘I’m not a yokel. I’m from Casa.’

Now it was Anir’s turn to be curious. ‘Have you seen USM play?’

‘What’s USM?’

‘Union Sportive Casa – the football club,’ Hamou said in disbelief. ‘Everyone knows that.’

‘I don’t like football.’

‘You can’t be serious!’ The boys regarded Moha as if he was of another species. Football was everything!

But Iza’s grin widened. ‘What do you like, Moha?’

‘School,’ Moha declared after brief consideration. ‘I like school.’

The queue shuffled forward as the boys digested this. School meant interminable hours of Qur’anic verses copied out on their wooden tablets, learning passages by rote, getting whacked by Sidi Belqassim’s stick for writing with your left hand. ‘School? Who likes school? No one likes school.’

‘I do. I’m going to run a company, like Papa.’ He used the French word rather than the local word ‘baab’. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘Me?’ Anir had never given it a thought. Then he grinned. ‘I’m going to be a public assassin, like Slimane Chafari.’

Moha stared at him. ‘There’s no such thing.’

‘Is so. Isn’t there, Hamou?’

Hamou nodded. Chafari was a figure of local legend, a rebel and freedom fighter. ‘He gets paid for killing people,’ he told his cousin cheerfully. He paused. ‘Perhaps I’ll save up and get him to kill you.’

Iza and Anir laughed loudly, but Moha frowned.

‘Anyway,’ Anir said, ‘who wants to run a company? Sitting on your arse in an office isn’t a job for a free man.’ The very word for their people – the Amazigh – meant ‘free men’. It was what defined them as a race, distinct from the Arabs, and of course from the French occupiers. It was the first principle they learned.

Now it was Moha’s turn to laugh. ‘Free? You Berbers are funny. Look around.’

A pair of uniformed men were coming down the street, kepis on their heads, rifles slung over the back of their khaki jackets, ammunition belts bulging. Hamou glanced towards the soldiers, then away. ‘So?’

‘So, you’d better get used to not being “free men”. That’s all in the past.’

Anir squared his shoulders. ‘We will never give in to the French. The nationalists will see them off.’ Anir’s uncles had left the region to join up with Bennacer ou Saïd’s forces in the High Atlas, launching raids on the French in Marrakech.

As for Moha, Hamou thought he had a nerve thinking he was any better than the Amazigh: his mother was Hamou’s father’s sister!

When the soldiers approached, Hamou and Anir studied the ground. It didn’t do to attract attention. Even though the policy was to govern with a light hand, some individuals liked to throw their weight around.

Bonjour, messieurs!’ Moha piped up.

‘Shut up, you idiot!’ Hamou hissed, but it was too late: the soldiers were coming over.

‘What’s your name?’

You never gave them your name. Hamou quickly trod on his cousin’s smart shoe.

‘Ow! Moha bin Salim, monsieur.’

The soldier ruffled his hair. ‘What impeccable manners. Setting an example to the rest of these ruffians, eh?’ He reached into his pocket and drew out a sweet, which he gave to Moha. ‘You see?’ he said to Hamou and Anir. ‘If you’re nice to us, we’ll be nice to you.’ The pair moved on.

Hamou and Anir exchanged dark glances. Moha put down the milk churn, unwrapped his bonbon and sucked loudly on it for the whole time it took them to reach the gate.

The smell of the farm assailed Hamou long before he came to it: cow dung and chicken shit, but also fresh bread and the hot stones in the clay oven in which it was baked, the pungent lanolin scent of the sheep, and the spicy soup kept simmering all day in the firepot to feed the workers. And closer still, the scent of Taba Tôt herself, a wave of musk and incense and orange blossom. Wholesome enough, but underlain by the smell of blood: it was said that Taba Tôt carried out the practice of butchering the farm’s livestock.

The complex aromas made Hamou’s innards turn over, remembering the pinches on his arms, the clips around the head, the painful pokes in the ribs Taba Tôt had given him over the years. She took a particular interest in him, one he didn’t understand. Even as he had grown taller and stronger, she seemed to get no less massy or terrifying, which must be further evidence of the magic she wielded.

There she was now, in front of the big iron-bound door of the house’s strongroom – ladling milk out of the copper vat into the pail of Fatima bent Habiba, whose thin little arm shook as she tried to hold the bucket steady under its growing weight. When the housekeeper straightened from her task you could take in the full size of her – as big as a bull, encased in an embroidered black robe pinned with a jewelled fibula. Strands of amber beads, each as large as a baby’s fist, garlanded her neck and five massive iron keys lay upon her chest as a symbol of her power and authority.

Taba Tôt was the stuff of shared nightmares for all the village children, who told tale after tale of her butcheries and also of her occasional disorientating kindnesses. But Moha just gazed at her in wonder, without a trace of fear, which won him a degree of grudging respect from Hamou.

Yalla!’ she boomed. ‘Come on!’

It was as if the stones of the house itself had spoken. She took a step towards the next child and chickens flurried out of her way, trying to avoid being turned into escalopes by those huge feet in their garish red booties.

Hamou watched the child answer the summons smartly, running up the path to pay his respects and have his milk churn filled. Then it was Anir’s turn. Anir, in his haste to obey Taba Tôt’s summons, failed to see a fat brown hen, got his feet caught up with it and hit the ground with an ill-considered curse. The hen tottered off in a zigzag run, shedding feathers. At once Taba Tôt was upon him, belabouring his shoulders and back with the ladle, her silver bracelets rattling on her wrists with every strike. She had never liked Anir, who had a tendency to answer back, and to make such an error was a gift to her temper. Anir, who revered the brave Amazigh warriors in the tales, tried to take his punishment like a man, but by the time he came back, Hamou could see the tearstains on his cheeks. He said nothing, but Moha stared.

Now it was Iza’s turn. She kept her head down, kissed Taba Tôt’s hand, waited patiently till her pail was full, then walked carefully with it back to the gate.

Hamou’s heart started to race. ‘Give me the churn,’ he said brusquely to Moha. ‘You can wait here.’

But Moha’s knuckles whitened on the wooden handle. ‘I want to meet Taba Tôt.’

There was no time for argument; the housekeeper was beckoning impatiently.

‘Good luck,’ Iza whispered in passing. ‘She’s in a rotten mood.’

‘Who is this young person?’ Taba Tôt demanded without a word of greeting or any of the niceties that were customary in Tiziane, where, by the time you left anyone you’d randomly encountered in the street, you’d be fully apprised of the well-being of every member of their family, down to their sheep and chickens.

Hamou opened his mouth to reply, but he was too slow. Moha was already gabbling about being called Mohamed really and visiting from Casablanca to stay with his cousins because his mother was ill and was complimenting her on the heaps of jewellery she wore. Taba Tôt preened, then patted Moha’s head. ‘You could learn a lot about manners from this one,’ she said, addressing Hamou.

Hamou glared at Moha as the housekeeper turned to fill up the churn, but Moha just smiled.

‘And how is your esteemed mother, Lalla Saïda?’ Taba Tôt enquired.

‘She’s well, alhamdullilah,’ Hamou replied formally, but once more Moha cut in.

‘She isn’t well, really. She was complaining about her hands aching and kept rubbing her joints.’

Taba Tôt’s bloodshot eyes bulged as if the upwelling of thoughts behind them was exerting physical pressure. ‘Are her knuckles swollen?’

‘Yes, and a bit red,’ said Moha.

Hamou felt irrational fury. She was his mother, not a subject for public discussion. ‘Yam’mi’s waiting for the milk. Let’s go,’ he said roughly to Moha.

Taba Tôt’s big hand grabbed his shoulder as he turned to leave. He could feel the meaty weight of it, the power in her fingers, and smell the heart-stopping whiff of her animal-scent. He stopped dead. ‘Wait here,’ she rumbled. ‘Do not move a muscle.’ She swayed with slow grace back to the storeroom and disappeared inside.

‘Now we’re going to be even later,’ Hamou groaned. ‘Why couldn’t you keep your mouth shut?’

But his cousin assumed the serene expression of the righteous and said nothing.

At last, Taba Tôt shuffled back outside, stopping to exchange words with a tall, thin man dressed top to toe in sun-faded black cotton, with a long, forked mattock balanced on his shoulder. It was Taba Tôt’s husband, Da Bassim the gardener, with whom Hamou and his gang had tangled on various occasions after ravaging the grapevines. Hamou looked away, not wanting to attract his attention, especially while he was carrying that wicked-looking implement. Impatient faces regarded him accusingly from the queue: this delay was making all of them late.

Taba Tôt’s shadow fell over him. She carried a small clay pot, but when Hamou reached out to take it, she held on to his hand and did not let go. ‘You will carry the milk,’ she decreed severely. ‘This child is not your servant.’

As she turned her head to address Moha, sunlight flashed on the slave rings she wore in her long ears. She pressed the little jar into the boy’s hands. ‘This is for Lalla Saïda,’ she told him. ‘Tell her Taba Tôt says to rub it into her hands morning and night. A little lavender oil will make it smell better.’

‘Yes, madame.’ Moha offered her the French honorific and her grin widened so that you could almost see the pretty girl she might once have been.

Now Taba Tôt turned her attention back to Hamou, turning over the hand she held on to. She scrutinised his palm and traced the perfect horizontal line that ran across the centre from one side to the other. ‘Our little zouhry,’ she said quietly.

It was a word Hamou had heard whispered before, from his mother, from his aunts. He didn’t really know what it meant, only that up to last year, when he had turned ten, his mother had kept him beside her far more than he would have liked, saying he must be careful, not talk to strangers, not wander far, and always wear mittens, even in the summer. On his tenth birthday, she had given thanks to God for preserving him. ‘Now you are truly mine,’ she had said. ‘Now you are safe.’

‘You have the luck. You have baraka,’ Taba Tôt said. ‘It makes you strong, it makes you a good person. Honour your mother and your father, for she is a fine woman, and he is a brave man, and they and the djinns made you as you are.’

Hamou frowned. His father was a trader, gone almost all the time. It was hard to consider him brave, though desert travel was hard and no doubt dangerous.

Taba Tôt leaned closer. ‘They do say a zouhry is always able to find treasure in the world.’ She grinned, showing the wide gap between her front teeth. ‘Now, run along with your little cousin. Be kind to him and try to listen to the good angel on your shoulder and not the devil.’ At last, she released him.

Hamou resisted the voice of the good angel. He jammed the lid onto the churn with more violence than was required, then turned to go.

‘We’ll have to take a shortcut,’ he told the boy, walking out onto the street with exaggerated speed. ‘So just keep up, right?’

Instead of returning along the alley that led back the easier, longer way they had come, through the centre of the village, past the hammam, the stalls and the market square and the bridge, he headed towards the river and the palm grove. The river was filled with water only in the rainy season. At this time of year, it was as dry as dust, though further up towards the plateau there were still pools where the women could do the laundry. In spring, the air would be loud with the croaking of frogs and feral dogs would stand on rocks in the middle of the flow to snatch them out of the running water.

Hamou wriggled through the gap in the orchard wall, knowing that Da Bassim was safely engaged at the farm, and made his way quickly between the orange trees, their orbs of fruit hanging like bright jewels amongst the dark, glossy leaves. Usually, he would stop to scrump a few, but there was no time for that now. He turned and beckoned Moha to catch up: the boy was staring around, large-eyed, as if he had no idea where fruit came from.

Hamou threaded between the grapevines he and his friends often raided, till he reached the far side of the orchard where the fig trees grew. Here, you could wedge yourself between the fig tree and the wall to make an easy ascent. Hefting the churn onto his shoulder and then to a ledge near the top of the wall, Hamou climbed up nimbly. Astride the sun-warmed stones, he retrieved the churn, then reached a hand down to his young cousin, who was staring up uncertainly.

‘Haven’t you ever climbed a wall before?’

Moha shook his head.

‘What on earth do you do all day in the city?’

Moha took his hand and scrabbled inelegantly with his slippery modern shoes till he reached the top of the wall. ‘What I’m told, mostly.’ He looked gloomily down at the scratches and dust now marring his footwear.

Life in Casa sounded unbearably dull to Hamou. He climbed down the other side and rocked the churn off its perch and into his arms. ‘Oof!’ He left Moha to make his own way down: if he couldn’t jump off a wall, what hope was there for him?

Striking out towards the oued, he made a beeline for home, only a few hundred yards away from here, across the dry riverbed, through the palm grove, and over the road that led in from the valley. He knew Moha would have difficulty negotiating the rocky sides, but the sun was beating down and he was hot and irritable, the handle was digging into his hand, his arms ached, and he could just imagine the tongue-lashing he was going to get when he finally made it back to the house.

Behind him, he heard the thud of the boy jumping down from the wall and the scuff of his feet in the dust on the other side. Hamou headed for the point in the oued which offered an easier descent, wrestled the milk churn through the notch with him and padded through the deep drift of sand and fallen palm branches lining the riverbed.

The other side was trickier, but by now he just didn’t care whether Moha managed to follow him or not. No one ever really got lost in Tiziane – everyone knew everyone else, and a stray child would soon be located and returned to safety.

Even, he thought with a sudden shot of discomfort, by a French soldier. He imagined his mother’s fury if a uniformed man knocked at the door of the family house. No, that wouldn’t do at all. He turned back to look for his cousin, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. He called out his name. No reply. Overhead, a crow gave out a cry and took off with a rattle of feathers.

Hamou set the milk churn against the bole of a tree and ran along the bank until at last he spotted a flash of colour down in the riverbed. He ran towards it, but even before he got there he could see – and smell – that whatever it was, it was not his cousin Moha.

There he was, standing at the lip of the oued, staring down uncertainly. Hamou sighed. Did the boy not know how to jump? ‘Come on, I’ll catch you.’

His cousin havered, then launched himself with more power than Hamou had been expecting, bowling him over. Moha got up and carefully dusted down his clothes, then turned around.

‘What are you doing?’

Hamou had crawled to the bank and was investigating something caught up in the roots of the palm trees there. The flash of colour turned out to be a bundle of cloth that appeared to have been stuffed in under the bank. He wondered what could be inside it. Had someone wrapped valuable items inside the cloth and buried it there? Perhaps Taba Tôt was right: perhaps he did have a gift for finding treasure! He pulled a piece of the cloth away and a scorpion scuttled into the sunlight, its feet whisking across the sand, pincers raised in angry defence.

He barely noticed it, for he had realised something bigger and more important, and the understanding of this swelled in his throat and chest.

The bundle was not treasure.

In a catastrophic tumble of cloth and dry earth, the rags and their contents fell from their resting place onto the floor of the dry riverbed, sending up a cloud of dust. When it settled, Hamou glimpsed a ghastly face, and he turned away to retch.

It was the first time he had ever seen a corpse.

But it would not be the last.

About The Author

Photograph by Abdel Bakrim

Jane Johnson is a novelist, historian, and publisher. She is the UK publisher of many bestselling authors, including George R.R. Martin. She has written for both adults and children, including the bestselling novels The Tenth Gift and The Salt Road. Jane is married to a Berber chef she met while climbing in Morocco. She divides her time between London, Cornwall, and the Anti-Atlas Mountains. Connect with her on Twitter @JaneJohnsonBakr, on Facebook @Jane-Johnson-Writer, on Instagram @JaneJohnsonBakrim, or visit her website at JaneJohnsonBooks.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 5, 2024)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668017500

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Raves and Reviews

“Addictive reading: once I enter Jane’s world, I am compelled to stay and pause as little as possible until I have reached the last word. A perfect blend of history and culture in an engaging thriller full of finely crafted characters.”
VIGGO MORTENSEN, Academy Award–nominated actor and author

“A unique, captivating tale that held me spellbound throughout.”
GENEVIEVE GRAHAM, #1 bestselling author of Bluebird and The Forgotten Home Child

“I was enraptured from the first to the last page. Hamou is such a fascinating character—a decent man, trapped in extraordinary times. This is a riveting novel.”
ROBERTA RICH, bestselling author of The Jazz Club Spy

“Johnson imbues 1950s Morocco with some light magic in this robust tale about a man favoured by djinns. . . . [Readers] will be drawn in by the tense and complex political machinations. This is one to savour.”
Publishers Weekly

“A hugely enjoyable and unusual historical novel.”
RACHEL HORE, bestselling author of A Beautiful Spy

“[A] marvellous novel, evocative, powerful, and transportive, and Hamou is a wonderful protagonist, full of empathy and curiosity about people. I loved it and felt I had been steeped in Morocco.”
ELIZABETH CHADWICK, bestselling author of The King's Jewell and A Marriage of Lions

“[A] compelling narrative.”
The Times

The Black Crescent transports you to another place and time and completely absorbs you in an arresting story of love and divided loyalties. Jane Johnson is a remarkable author . . . I loved it.”
ROWAN COLEMAN, Sunday Times bestselling author of From Now Until Forever

“I loved The Black Crescent. It put me so vividly into the landscape and character of the people, it was as though I had been there.”
BARBARA ERSKINE, bestselling author of The Dream Weavers and The Ghost Tree

“A vivid novel with fascinating characters that will linger in one’s thoughts long after the final page. Highly recommended.”
The Historical Novels Review

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