Louisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. Wilkins.

By desert ways to Baghdad online

. (page 12 of 18)
Online LibraryLouisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. WilkinsBy desert ways to Baghdad → online text (page 12 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

slabs, of cylinders, of all the wondrous contents of the
palaces of the ancient Assyrian kings, now ensconced
in the museums of Western cities, the only indication
we had on the spot were the subterranean tunnels, now
choked with fallen debris, from which these evidences
had been removed ; and the broken bits of masonry
and pottery which were strewn promiscuously about
the surface. From the summit we obtained a com-
prehensive view of the country : of Mosul at our feet
standing on its limestone cliffs at the further side of
the Tigris, and of the distant country through which
the river wandered southwards; a great plain dotted
with villages round which patches of cultivated land
were already green with the rising corn. Long strings
of mules laden with cabbage and other vegetables
came in from the outlying villages and swelled the
motley coloured crowd at the stalls established on this
side of the river, or passed on over the rickety
wooden bridge to the bazaars inside the town.

The exertion of living on land for these few days
had seemed so very great that we were not sorry
when we found ourselves afloat once more on the
new raft and with a new set of men. Achmet and


All had bidden us a tearful farewell, and we now had
one Zaptieh only as escort, an Arab also named Ali.
He was a Chous, 1 and I will give him his full title
to distinguish him from our late friend. A picturesque
kalekji is almost an essential in such close quarters
as a raft, and up till now we had rejoiced in the
brightly-striped Kurdish coats and turbans of our
first kalekjis, and the clean, Mowing, white abba of
our Jezireh friend. The two men who were to take
us from Mosul to Baghdad presented a very different
appearance. Unlike most Arabs, they were both
huge, stout men, and were dressed in rough brown
camel - hair cloaks over unwashed white under-
garments. One of them we nicknamed at once
the Evil One ; he had the most excruciatingly
wicked face imaginable — and the terror of it was
considerably heightened when he tried to super-
induce a conciliating smile on his hideous expression
of wickedness.

The country below Mosul was decidedly tame ;
the dry brown plain was fringed by the already green
banks of the river. The river itself was now much
wider, and here and there its course would be divided
by islands with low, swampy banks, round which the
waters would lose themselves in marshy tracts, where
herons waded in and out and innumerable black
ducks dived and spluttered amongst the rushes. The
jungle round was the haunt of the wild boar, jackal,
and hyena. It was hard to believe that a few weeks
later the first spring sun would call forth wild masses
of gorgeous flowers and long, rank grasses, and that

1 Sergeant.


the whole country would be teeming with succulent

It was, indeed, a monotonous bit of country. The
sun had not yet melted the snows of the distant
Armenian hills, which later on would cause a rapid
flood to the river, and we progressed very slowly
in the low, sluggish waters. Our two kalekjis
displayed no desire to hurry matters by their own
exertions, and leant on their oars all day, disturbing
the general harmony by constant quarrelling in harsh,
grating voices. Now and then Ali Chous, who was
fat and meek, would address himself to them in a
soothing, almost pleading tone of voice. The purport
of their remarks was lost to us, as their conversation
was carried on in Arabic, and we found it hard to
extract any information out of Ali, who could com-
municate with us in Turkish.

" Tell them they must stop talking and row," I
said ; "we are hardly moving at all."

And Ali Chous would answer :

" They will row, Effendi, indeed they will row."
And the kalekjis rested on their oars as before, and
the Evil One would smile at me, distorting his evil
countenance with a diabolical grin.

Finally, Ali informed us, in his anxious, conciliating
tone, that they had brought no food with them and
that they were hungry. If the Pashas would give
them bread they could row ; now they were faint.
This was a favourite Eastern dodge with which we
were well acquainted by this time. The kalekjis
were always engaged with the understanding that
they fed themselves, and knowing the fatal results


(.See page 152.)

To fact pagi [98.


of giving in on such points we hardened our coun-

" Tell them we cannot help that ; they knew
they had to bring their own food, and if they starve
it is not our fault." And the Evil One, on hearing
this through Ali's no doubt modified interpretation,
gave us another grin, even more diabolical than before.

When we retired into the hut for our next meal
I took the precaution of cutting a hole in the felt
wall, and peeping through it saw them comfortably
ensconced at the furthest end of the raft, eating bread
and scraps of meat out of a dirty linen bag, which
they hastily sat on when we reappeared.

Arten was terribly afraid of them, and I knew what
that meant.

"Arten," I said to him early in the day, "if you
dare to give these men any food without my leave we
will land you at the next village."

Arten hastily disclaimed any intention of giving
them food, but he evidently cherished the thought as
quite a good idea ; after all, he was more alarmed
of them even than he was of me.

Early on the second day we arrived at a small
village, where it seemed as if we were expected. There
was a crowd on the banks, and one of the men was
waiting with a large sack. Ali explained to us that it
contained the kalekjis' bread, and that we must land
to take it on board.

The Evil One waded on shore with the rope,
which he made fast to a rock. A little further down
the banks were several natives making a raft, and
I strolled down to have a look at them. One man


sat on the ground with a pile of skins beside him.
The skins had been cut off above the hind legs, and
the man was engaged in tying up this end, and the
openings of the forelegs, with string. One end of
the string was tied round his big toe, and he worked
the other end up and down round the gathered end
of the skin until the tied ends were quite air-tight.
Then he threw the skin to another man, who blew
into the open fore end until it was inflated, when he
tied it up. A third man stood in the water, tying
the inflated skins on to the poplar poles with the
ends of the same strings that had served to tie up
the openings.

After watching them a little time I returned to our
raft. By this time the whole village had turned
out, and a great uproar was going on.

" What's up ? " I said to X, who had not left
the raft.

" I've been trying to find out," said X. "The Evil
One has displeased them somehow and they will not
let him go."

We instructed Ali Chous to insist on our going on.
The second kalekji, Jedan by name, seemed only
too delighted ; he kept winking at us and pointing
derisively at the Evil One. He untied the rope
and shoved off. A man on the shore promptly seized
the rope and held us back.

" Get a stick," said X, " and give him a smack on
his head."

X was of a peaceable disposition, and I daresay she
was laughing at me. She enjoyed seeing me get angry.
But it was in our contract that I should do all the

'Am not I a Goon Kalekji."
[See page i S3).

age 2co.

I'll p HUNG Skin- p id \ Rait.


manual labour connected with keeping order, so I
obediently seized a long pole and let it descend gently
on the offender's shoulder. He turned round and
stared, dropping the rope with an astonished grin.
The crowd burst into joyous shouts and pointed at
the Evil One, who still stood expostulating angrily
in their midst.

"Hit him!" they yelled, "he is the one to hit!"
and quite believing them I transferred my attentions,
along with the end of the pole, to his shoulder.

"Come!" I shouted. It sounds tame, but it was
the only Arabic word I knew. The raft slowly drifted
down-stream and the Evil One, dashing in up to his
waist, clambered on board.

Ali explained to us that he refused to pay enough
for his bread, and that the crowd would not let him
2fo until he had done so.

The Evil One grinned, and, diving into the bag,
offered me a dirty piece of native bread in his still
dirtier fingers. He would share his food with us,
though we refused to do so with him ; a typical
Eastern method of putting one in the wrong.

The waters were still sluggish, and the men seemed
determined to do no work.

" I am beginning to think they are in league with
some one on shore," said X. " It cannot be to their
advantage to be so long on the way, as they are paid
a lump sum to get us to Baghdad, and we are not
feeding them. I quite expect we shall be held up
and robbed before evening."

Finding that orders and threats were of no use and
learning from Ali that Jedan, the second kalekji,


was afraid of the Evil One, who would not allow him
to row, I sat down facing them and produced my

"Tell the bad kalekji," I said to Ali Chous, "that
if he does not row I will shoot him."

The Evil One, greatly to my astonishment,
appeared to believe in the possibility of bloodshed and
set to work at the oars. All the rest of the day I
sat with my revolver at his head. It was a most
fatiguing, if effectual, process.

"Supposing he does stop rowing," said X, "will
you shoot him ? "

" I cannot think what I shall do," I said ; " the only
way will be to fire over his head and pretend I've
missed him."

" Mind you do miss him," said X languidly.

"Sure to," I answered, hopefully.

Some hours before sunset we were held up in a
manner which admitted of no blame being attached
to the Evil One. A strong head-wind arose, before
which the raft refused to make headway, and we were
forced to take refuge on a dreary mud bank which
sloped down to the water's edge under a low line of
shaley rocks.

The men sat about cross and disconsolate. It was
very unsafe, they said, to spend the night so far from
a village. We should certainly be attacked ; the Evil
One had arranged this — wind and all. We might be
there for days, and what should we do for food ?
Tired of looking at all their sulky faces, I clambered
up the cliff above to see what I could see. The top
of the hill was as level as if it had been flattened out


by a giant with a hot iron. A low line of hills with
equally flattened tops at a little distance hid the
further view. I walked to the top of them, led on by
the sort of fascination which makes one wish to
see what is hidden between one and the horizon.
Having reached the top there was nothing to be
seen but repeated lines of naked, flat-topped hills.
The dreary loneliness of the place, its utter nakedness,
in which one seemed shut off from all the real things
of life, colour, sound, space, and growth, descended
like a physical weight on one's senses. It was all like
one great senseless punishment, which from its sheer
callousness held one, with mingled fascination and
terror, rooted to the spot. With an effort I turned to
retrace my steps, when my eye caught sight of a dark
object on the same line of hills on which I stood,
which made my blood turn cold. A wild-looking, half-
naked Arab, who seemed to have dropped suddenly
from the sky, was standing motionless gazing at me
from a little distance. For one moment I stood trans-
fixed with nameless dread ; the whole feeling of terror
which had been established by the mere aspect of the
country seemed now to be concentrated and personi-
fied in this sudden apparition. What hordes of like
beings might not be concealed behind these mysterious
hillocks? He moved one step towards me and I
turned and fled, down the slope and across the level
plain to the edge of the cliff under which the raft was
moored. The apparition pursued me silently. On
reaching the edge of the cliff I peered over and could
see the crew of the raft still occupying the disconsolate
positions in which I had left them. My senses now


slowly returned, and I sat down to await the arrival of
the apparition out of consideration to my own self-
respect. He was still some distance from me and, on
seeing me sit down, he also sat down and we gazed
at one another. The comic element in the scene
asserted itself. A savage and I holding each other
at bay like two dogs preparing for a fight on the top
of the cliff, and down below X sitting unconcernedly on
the raft reading the "Meditations of Marcus Aurelius."
I laughed out loud ; the savage sprang to his feet with
a yell, brandished his arms in the air, and darting up a
neighbouring slope disappeared behind it as suddenly
as he had appeared.

I slid down the cliff and joined X.

"Where have you been?" she said. "I was just
going to send Ali to look for you ; he says it is not
safe to go out of sight of the raft."

" I was only on the top," I answered, too ashamed
to enter into further details.

We discussed our general situation in bed that

"X," I said, "if you met a savage all alone in a
wild piece of country what would you do?"

"Why, go up and speak to him, of course," said X ;
" it would be awfully interesting. What would you

" I don't know," I answered ; " I want to go to
sleep now."

The wind dropped in the night, and at the first
break of day we were off once more.



FIFTY-THREE pairs of dark eyes were fixed
upon us in unwavering scrutiny ; it was dark
and there was silence. The eyes, as they gleamed
out of the darkness, might have belonged to a herd of
wild beasts watching their prey ; but we were privi-
leged guests of the Arab Shaykh in whose tent we were
sitting, and the gaze was but that of friendly curiosity.
We had been placed on the seat of honour — a rush
mat at one side of the tent ; opposite to us squatted
our host, a venerable old man with a white beard
which flowed over his bare, wrinkled chest ; with one
arm he supported a small boy, who played with the
beads round the old chiefs neck.

Between us, in the centre of the hut, glowed a
dying fire, and beside it, silently watching the pot on
the ashes, sat the coffee-maker. Now and then he
scraped the ashes together round the pot. A thin
veil of smoke rose up slowly and dispersed itself under
the low roof of the tent. The silence was almost
religious ; the darkness suggested witchcraft rather
than night ; a hobgoblin might have sprung out of
the coffee-maker's pot and not been out of keeping
with the natural sequence of events.



All at once, at the back of the tent, a hand was
raised and a bundle of fine brushwood came down on
to the fire ; in sudden blaze it momentarily lit up the
fifty-three dark faces, flared an instant, flickered, then
as rapidly died away, and we only felt the gaze we
had seen before. We silently watched the coffee-
maker and our host, who, being nearest to the fire,
were dimly visible in its remaining light ; the attention
of the one was concentrated on his pot ; that of the
other, in common with his companions, was on us.
There was no call for speech, for we spoke in tongues
unintelligible to one another, and the only sound
which fitfully broke the ghostly silence was that lan-
guage understood by all nations alike, the wail of an
infant in its mother's arms.

"Salaam Aleikum," we had been received with as
the Shaykh stood up to welcome us on our arrival,
unexpected and uninvited, in the midst of his tribe.
We had been guided to his tent by the long spear
which stood upright at the door, and when he had
offered us that token of Arab goodwill — the cup of
coffee — we knew that we were amongst friends. He
waved us to our seats, and then, seating himself,
pulled the child towards him ; he patted his own chest,
and then pointed to the lad with pride.

" His youngest child," interpreted Ali, who accom-
panied us, and who understood a few words of Arabic.

We nodded back our looks of appreciation, and,
these preliminary acts of courtesy having established
the requisite good feeling, all need for further converse
seemed at an end, and a comfortable silence fell upon
us all.


The whole village had followed us into their chiefs
tent as a matter of course, and those for whom there
was no room inside herded together at the door.
The Eastern standard of ideas, which allows respect-
ful equality with one's superiors, was responsible for
the total absence of ill-mannered jostling which would
have characterised a civilised crowd under similar
circumstances on the reception of strange foreigners.

The coffee-maker reached out his hand without
turning, and one amongst the crowd at his back
handed him a massive iron spoon on to which was
chained a copper ladle. The Shaykh's little son, obey-
ing a nod from his father, pulled a bag out of a dark
recess behind him ; another bundle of brushwood was
thrown upon the fire and by the light of its sudden,
almost startling blaze, the lad untied the bag and
carefully counted out the allotted number of coffee-
berries. The coffee- maker dropped them into the
spoon, for which he had raked out a hole in the ashes.
The slight stir caused by these proceedings subsided,
the blaze died away, and the attention of all was again
riveted on us, save that only of the coffee-maker,
who, sitting close up to the embers, now scraped the
white ashes round the pot, now turned the roasting
berries over with the ladle chained to the spoon.
The Shaykh's hand stole on to the little boy's head,
and the boy, looking up, stroked the old man's beard.
On we sat in the dark silence, learning from these
true masters of Time how neither to waste it nor to
let it drag, but going step by step with it, to lay our-
selves open to receive all that it had to give.

The silence was so prolonged and so intense that,


silently as time flies, we could almost hear its
moments ticking away. It has been said that we
take no note of time except when we count its loss.
It might be said of all Easterns that they are
unconscious of the time they lose, because they take
no note of it ; they live unconsciously up to the fact
that, the past being beyond recall and the future
unfathomable, the present only is in our power. And
the Eastern is master of Time because he spends
it absorbing the present.

Meanwhile the berries had blackened, and the man
emptied them into a copper mortar. As he pounded
them he caused the pestle to ring in tune against the
sides of the bowl. The child laughed gleefully and
pointed at him ; the stern old man smiled and shot
a proud glance over at us.

" Fiddle away, old Time," rang out the tones of
the metal pestle. It seemed to give voice to our
joyful derision of Time ; here was Time trying to
weary us with himself and we only laughed at him.

" Fiddle away, old Time —
Fiddle away, old Fellow !
Airs for infancy, youth and prime,
Tunes both shrill and mellow.
Fiddle away,
Or grave or gay,
For faces pink or yellow-
Scrape your song a lifetime long,
Fiddle away, old Fellow ! "

Not a soul moved. Outside in the dusk a stunted
black cow thoughtfully chewed the maize stalks of
which the enclosure round the tent was built, and


a kid rubbed his head up and down against a child's
bare leg. Beyond this the darkness had nothing to
conceal. We were in the middle of a bare, largely
uninhabited, desert land known only to a few wander-
ing Arab tribes. Outside, the mysterious open vault
of the dark sky with its many hundred points of light ;
inside, the mysterious recess of the dark tent with
the fifty-three pairs of gleaming eyes, every one fixed
upon ourselves. Now and then, as a flash of
lightning in the sky at night will expose the imme-
diate surroundings to view, so a sudden spark from
the fire revealed the setting of the eyes — the solemn,
dusky, Arab faces.

A splutter on the fire as the pot boiled over put an
end alike to the tune and to the meditations called up
by it. The man transferred the ground berries to
a copper jug and, pouring the boiling water on to
them, placed this second pot on the hot ashes. We
had been sitting there for an hour watching these
preparations, and it seemed as if we might now
reasonably entertain hopes of tasting the results.
Our expectations in this direction were also enhanced
by the appearance of three tiny cups which had been
unearthed from a dark corner, and handed to one
of the men nearest the fire. He proceeded to rinse
them out one by one with hot water, displaying
a care and absorption in the process which contrasted
strangely with the simplicity of his task.

The coffee on the fire came to the boil, the coffee-
maker poured it back into the original pot, which
he again set on the ashes. He then handed the
empty jug to the cup-washer, who rinsed each cup



out carefully with a few drops of the coffee left for
this purpose. Very quietly, very precisely, he placed
each cup on the ground within reach of the coffee-
maker, and retreated into the background.

The coffee on the fire boiled up ; we straightened
ourselves in expectation as the coffee-maker reached
out his hand. But he emptied the boiling liquid back
again into the original pot and replaced it on the ashes.

The fire now burned very dimly. Even the man's
form bending over the glowing ashes was discernible
only as a black shadow. The stillness for a few
moments was so great, and the concentration of all so
centred on the bubbling coffee-pot, that one felt as if
all the meaning of life, the past, the present, and the
future, was being distilled in the black liquid, and
that an incantation was only necessary for the future
to take shape and, rising out of the pot, become
visible to us all in this mysterious darkness.

Again the coffee boiled up. Again the man emptied
the boiling liquid back into the other pot and replaced
it on the fire.

The stillness and the concentration became more
intense. Outside, a lamb's sudden cry and the
mother's answering bleat rang out sharply in the
black night, a distant reminder of a far-off world ;
it died away, and the broken silence was all the more

The coffee boiled up.

By this time one had ceased to associate the drink-
ing of coffee with the end of these mysterious rites.
The coffee of Cook's hotels, the coffee of crowded
railway stations, whole coffee, ground coffee, French


coffee, coffee at is. 8d. a pound; the clatter of black
saucepans, the hot and anxious cook, the bustling
waiter, the impatient people of the world with only
a minute to wait — calling for instantaneous coffee ;
what had coffee and all these associations to do with
this ? And so it was with a certain shock that we
looked at this magician pouring the result of his black
art into the cups, a few carefully measured drops only.
Two are handed to us and one to the Shaykh. We
sipped the oily black drink slowly and thoughtfully.
A liquid which had been prepared with so much
deliberation could not be quaffed down with the
reckless indifference ordinarily displayed in the
process. It was thick and bitter. We drained the
last drop and returned the cups. Another spoonful
was poured in and they were passed back to us.
Etiquette required that we should not refuse till the
third time of offering ; then the remainder of the
coffee was handed round to the rest of the company
in order of rank.

There was a stir amongst the crowd round the
door, and a woman forced her way through with
a baby in her arms. She squatted in front of us,
and held the child down for our closer inspection
by the fire-light.

"Khasta" (111), said Ali Chous ; "she wants

The mother pointed to the sores on the child's face
and body, the pleading eloquence in her dark eyes
rendering unnecessary any explanations on the part
of our interpreter.

It was a pathetic instance of the suffering induced


by man, even when living so akin to Nature, when
he tries to superimpose his own crude ideas of beauty
and expediency on to the human frame. The baby,
though only a few months old, had been pierced in
the nose and ears for the reception of the ornaments
which were to enhance its charms in after-life, and of
the blue bead which would ensure its safety from the

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryLouisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. WilkinsBy desert ways to Baghdad → online text (page 12 of 18)