The time of year has come round again for the Old Peoples’ annual outing to Fatima.
I used to know a girl called Fatima once. She was a secretary working with us on the site at Annaba in Algeria. She wore western clothes at work and helped me with the drawing-office archives. She was a well-built girl with a hawkish profile and the characteristically beautiful Arabic eyes which sometimes flashed with a sullen anger, as though she’d just been reading a book about recent events in her country. However we got on pretty well together. Once she remarked casually that she had seen me at the weekend in some shop in town: really Fatima? I didn’t see you: yes Monsieur Tom, in fact I was standing right next to you in the queue; you see I was wearing my burkha. She explained to me that, far from being a religious constraint, the burkha and yashmak (the white cotton veil covering the face up to the eyes) could a liberating feature in the lives of some Islamic women. The burkhas were kept on pegs in the entrance hall of their homes, and whenever they were slopping around the house still in pyjamas, hair a mess, face without its slap, and needed to pop out to the shops to get some milk, they just donned their burkha and flip-flops and went out into the street. Moreover, she added, the robe was cool, comfortable and discreet.
Fatima is a quintessential Islamic girl’s name, its popularity being derived from Fatima, one of the daughters of the Prophet Muhammad. A couple of centuries later the Fatimid Caliphate held sway over the Maghreb, with a power-base originally in Mahdia in Tunisia but later transferred to Cairo when Egypt was conquered. At its height in the 11th century the Fatimid hegemony spread from the Atlantic to the Nile and beyond into Syria – a sizeable wedge of the Maghreb and the Near East. The Caliphs claimed descent from the Prophet through his daughter Fatima as-Zarah and her first husband Ali ibn-Abi-Talib, the first Shi’a Imam. The last of the Fatimids, Adid, died in 1171 and power was transferred to his Vizier the great general Saladin, a Seljuk Turk, who was granted the title of Sultan as long as he recognised the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad.
So the Muslims spread through Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and from there crossed (Homer’s) Dire Straits into the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, which they conquered and invested with their influence and culture. The Moorish influence can still be seen in the architecture of the south of Spain and Portugal, the languages – the Portuguese expression, for example, oxala que sim (I certainly hope so) is derived from the Arabic Insha’Allah and above all in the place-names – Alcobaça, Algarve, Alhambra etc. (the prefix Al or El simply means The), which brings us to a little village in central Portugal which the Moors had named Fatima, where at the beginning of the 20th century (in 1917 to be precise) Our Lady, the Mother of Jesus Christ, appeared before three shepherd children on the same day (13th) for several months in succession and, rather surprisingly, made three (political and topical) predictions, the implications of which were evidently grasped by these innocent and unlettered children who had almost certainly never travelled beyond their little valley in their lives. After thorough examination of the children’s story by several senior priests and bishops (there were no child psychologists in those days to suggest religious hysteria) the miracle was pronounced authentic and the children guarded (for the rest of their lives). It was officially declared «worthy of belief» by the Church in Rome. Thus the Marian cult of Fatima was born. From that moment on business was brisk and for the next seventy or eighty years Fatima became a favourite girl’s name in Portugal.
Pilgrims to holy shrines have always been ripped off – that’s a given. I mean, who will not pay through the nose for the sake of their immortal souls? During the Middle-Ages there was a brisk trade in simony – the sale of plenary indulgences for sins ranging from coveting thy neighbour’s ass to rape and murder. Penitent kings and dukes, always prone to a spot of rape and pillage, lavished large sums in building chapels and chantrys and endowed monasteries with gold to pray for their souls in perpetuity. From the simple pardoners selling their wares by the roadside up to the princes of the Church, the web of corruption spread out from Rome and Avignon to every corner of the Christian world. Papal fortunes were enormous and organised religion was one gigantic scam. The victims were the poor people (as usual) who credulously forked out their hard-earned coins to ensure for themselves a place in Heaven.
I imagine myself joining the expedition to Fatima. I can visualize the hot drive down the motorway in the hired coach, the confusion in the hot car-park with everyone unloading themselves and searching for their sticks, (with me being levered into my wheel-chair), the cumbersome move towards the tourist shop selling religious bric-a-brac – a supermarket with long aisles full of shelves groaning with blessed rosaries, statuettes of Our Lady of Fatima, framed prints of Christ on the cross and so on. I wheel myself down to the section which sells wax body-parts – organs, limbs and even babies to offer up to the hot flames of mercy. What I’m looking for is a whole leg … um, a bit pricey but what the heck it’s worth it! With three legs now, one good, one poorly and one made of disturbingly realistic wax, I wheel myself eagerly in the direction of the fiery banks of flaming candles and grilling members and organs and watch with fascination as my wax leg slowly melts and am struck by the beauty of this particular scheme; whichever way you look at it, it’s a nice little earner. The wax models, bombarded by intense prayer and supplication, melt slowly, drip by drip and the melted wax is collected in a huge metal tray and then is recycled. So my leg might be morphed into say, a heart with enough wax left over for a hand or a spleen or something. And everyone is happy. The pilgrims are happy, the shop-keepers are happy, the wax-modellers are happy and the Church is happy. Now I can just sit back and wait for my leg to get better.
But it doesn’t quite work like that unfortunately, does it? My leg won’t get better because I have not invested sufficient belief in the system. Still it’s comforting to know that in a para-world (the wax-world) everything slowly melts and then is refashioned, melts again and is reformed ad infinitum.