Louisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. Wilkins.

By desert ways to Baghdad online

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one recognised enemy — the Evil Eye. The wounds
were healing badly, and the irritation set up had
caused fever.

"Tell her we can give her medicine," we said to
Ali, " but it is not medicine to drink, it is to wash the
wounds with. If the baby drinks it, it will die."

The message was interpreted. " Aha, aha, Mashal-
lah," was murmured all through the crowd. The
baby became an object of intense interest. Ali threw
back his head and pretended to swallow, then he
pointed significantly to heaven and to the unconscious
victim at his feet.

11 Ha ! ha ! " murmured the crowd.

Hassan meanwhile had begun to fidget uneasily.

" There are fleas here," he said, " you must not stop
any longer."

We rose, and silently salaaming our host, passed
out of the tent. It was lighter outside ; the moon had
risen, casting mysterious black shadows round the
huts, where weird black and white forms flitted
stealthily in and out.

Owing to the shallowness of the water on the low
shelving mud banks we had been unable to bring the
raft right up to the shore, and it had been moored
at a little distance out in the water. The kalekjis


had carried us across on their backs and had returned
to cook their evening meal on board. We now
shouted across the water to them to come and carry
us back. As we stood waiting, a woman came up to
us dragging a child by the arm, who hid his head in
his mother's dress and refused to allow himself to be

" He is ill too," said Ali, " like the other child."

"We will o-ive them some medicine when we g-et on
the raft," we said ; " tell them each to send a cup."

" And this one says he is ill," the man went on, as
a tall, sheepish-looking youth touched me on the arm ;
" they will all say they are ill now that they know you
have medicine."

" We can only give to those who are really ill," we
answered ; " what is the matter with this one ? "

" He has fever, he cannot eat, and his head hurts."

I had some quinine pills in my pocket, and I gave
three to the boy.

" Tell him to take two now, and not to keep them in
his mouth," I explained, " but drink some water and
swallow them down ; then, when the sun has risen one
hour to-morrow, let him take the other one."

A dozen interested spectators at once went through
the whole process in pantomime ; a pill was swallowed,
and its downward course indicated by stroking the
chest. " Ha ! " was ejaculated all round. Then the
second pill was swallowed with equally suggestive
signs. The rising point of the sun was indicated, and
one finger held up, and the third pill swallowed.

" Mashallah ! " went up through the crowd, staring
with bated breath.


We boarded the raft, and had scarcely established
ourselves in our sleeping-hut when Hassan staggered
to the door with a huge clay pitcher, capable of hold-
ing several gallons ; he deposited it at our feet

" For the medicine," he said gravely.

"We said that the woman was to send a cup," we
said ; " the few drops of lotion will be lost in that."

" For the medicine," he answered, imperturbably.

"We had better send it in one of our cups," I said,
and I measured out some lotion. Hassan took it ; a
few minutes later he returned laden with cups, jars,
pitchers, and bowls of every size and description.

" For the medicine," he said, as he deposited them
beside us.

We looked at one another aghast.

" Say that we have no more," we said.

" I have told them," he said, "but they will not go

We went outside, where a tremendous hubbub had
arisen. Our men were standing round the edge of
the raft resolutely pushing would-be intruders back
into the river. Up to their waists in water, hanging
on to the raft at every point, shouting out their ail-
ments, pointing to their throats, their eyes, their heads,
were the whole male population of the place. In vain
our men strove to keep them off ; the raft was besieged
at every point. In desperation we unmoored and
floated out into the middle of the river ; the most
determined swam out after us, and holding on to the
raft with one hand stroked their chests and pointed to
the absent sun with the other. Finally, as we drifted
down-stream, they gave up, and the last sight we


had was that of a row of disconsolate invalids, sud-
denly endowed with great evidences of health and
strength, careering wildly on the mud flats in the star-
light round a discarded heap of empty bowls and



THE men were still very quarrelsome ; the whole
day their grating voices never stopped. They
seemed, however, quite anxious to row now, and pro-
posed at sunset that we should not moor to the shore
as usual but, as the night was not very dark, keep
on and make up for lost time. We had been in bed a
little while and were dropping off to sleep, in spite of
the ceaseless quarrelsome voices, when a worse out-
break than usual thoroughly awakened me.

" They are having a fight on board," said X, sleepily ;
" I suppose we must leave them at it. '

I peered through the chinks of the door. Jedan
had taken off all his clothes and was trying to jump off
the raft into the middle of the river. Hassan and Ali
were holding on to him for dear life, and the Evil
One sat at the oars screaming with rage. Arten was
offering him the remains of our dinner. Jedan
seemed finally to yield to the other men's entreaties
and sat down on the raft, the tears rolling down his
cheeks. Ali sat beside him, holding his hand and
murmuring soothing words. The Evil One occupied
himself with devouring the dinner. General peace


seemed, in fact, restored, and our slumbers were not
again disturbed.

Next morning we threatened them both with dis-
missal at Tekreet, where we hoped to arrive that day,
and which we knew was the seat of a Mudir, to whom
we could make a show of appealing if the worst came
to the worst. The cause of the disturbance was put
down to Jedan, whose native village was close by, and
who had threatened to leave the raft altogether if the
Evil One bullied him any longer. Jedan begged to
be allowed to visit his home, and it so happened that
the wind rose again to such a pitch just opposite the
place itself that we were compelled to put to shore. It
was another Arab encampment, a collection of black
tents with maize enclosures. Jedan at once disap-
peared amongst them and, later on, as we strolled
round the village, we came across him seated just in-
side a tent with two small children on his knees. He
invited us to come in and sit down. The tent was
full of his kindred. In the far corner a child shared
with a bleating kid the quilted covering which con-
stituted the bed of the establishment. A woman beside
him was spinning wool and another one at the door
was grinding dari for bread. A grown-up son sat
opposite, industriously working the wool from his
mother's wheel on to a leather sole for sandals.

Jedan appeared in quite a new light in the centre
of his family circle ; he suddenly seemed endowed
with a dignity becoming his present position as
monarch of all he surveyed. The children on his
knee clung to him and stroked his beard, and he
softly patted their heads. All the gruff surliness


and cringing hatred of the expression with which
he regarded the Evil One on the raft had disappeared,
and he smiled with benign content on his domestic
surroundings. He sent the boy out into the village
with orders to get some delicacy in our honour. In
a few minutes the lad returned with a raw turnip,
which was cut into chunks and offered to us with much
ceremony. Then a bowl of youart was produced, and
we felt compelled to drink out of the common stock.
At midday the wind had subsided and we insisted
on starting off at once, with the hope of reaching
Tekreet before evening. It was five days since we
had left Mosul, and we had scarcely covered one
hundred miles. As we had counted on reaching
Baghdad in that time, our supply of provisions had
got very low. The river was now deep and broad,
and the strong current carried us along at a good
pace. Jedan's visit to his family had put him in
a very good humour, and even the Evil One, who
had participated in the feast of raw turnip, worked
quietly at the oars. Every moment took us
further from the snow mountains and the bleak
country of the north and nearer the sunny south.
Already the sun's hot rays poured down sooth-
ingly, and everybody was in that state of quiet
contentment, known as "kief" in the East. Hassan,
seated cross-legged with his back against the
hut, dozed at intervals. Ali was rolling up long,
fat cigarettes by the door, and Arten, stretched full
length inside, was making up for his disturbed
slumbers of the past night. X lay on a rug at the
edge of the raft and I sat beside her, reading aloud


the Prophetic utterances on Nineveh. The Bible
is one of the few books that one can read in this
sort of wandering life. This is, perhaps, because we
are in the land where people live in rock houses, and
hew their tombs in rocks, and wear girdles, and say
" Aha," eat honey a lot, and go out to desolate lands,
and say their prayers on the housetop. We were
living with the shepherds who divided the sheep and
Stoats at nightfall and watered their flocks at sun-
down ; with the women who came down with their
pitchers to the wells, and with the elders sitting- at
the gates. One felt that any other book made too
great a demand on one's mental powers. Even now
the sound of one's own voice was disturbing, and for
some time we sat listening to the silence and imbibing
the sun. A sudden chill crept into the atmosphere
and a blackness covered the face of the waters. I
looked up at the sky. A line of angry, black clouds
had overtaken the sun, gathering up the scattered
white fleeces in its path, and was advancing rapidly
over our heads. An ominous sound of rising winds
seemed to herald its approach. In less than three
minutes we were swept up in the arms of a howling
gale ; sudden gusts caught the walls of the hut and
swirled us round, the playthings of a merciless, raging
force, at one moment tearing us into the middle
of the stream, and the next dashing us with redoubled
vigour against its rocky sides. The rain came down
in blinding torrents, and the waves, breaking over
the surface of the raft, made it seem as if we were
being submerged altogether under the water. Then
we rose on the crest of a wave once more, which


dashed us against a wall of rock rising precipitously
at the side, with a force which seemed as if it must
shatter asunder all the bending, creaking poles of the
raft. Ali and Hassan stood on the edge, trying to
break the force of the blows with the butt end of their
rifles, while the kalekjis struggled fruitlessly at the
oars. The lowering black sky, the raging black
waters, the unyielding black walls of rock gave a
grim setting of darkness to this struggle, which proved
to be no less than a fight with death itself. Our
companions, the birds, clung huddled up with fright
to sheltering walls of rock, or crept into niches, where
they cowered together, hiding their heads under their
wings. Even the noise of the wind and waters could
not drown the wild, terrified shriek of startled crows
when we were dashed against their hiding places,
and they flew close past our heads to seek a fresh

This, then, was to be the end of our interlude of
peace. It seemed as if the jealous gods, conscious
of our forgetfulness of their authority, were proclaim-
ing our powerlessness against their decrees, They
tossed us ruthlessly about until we were reduced to a
state of subordination, and then, as if repenting of their
anger, they caused the wind to lull and shot out a gleam
of sunshine through the dark clouds. We passed out
beyond the walls of rock, on which the wet drops
now gleamed like bits of silver, and drifted in a broad,
slow stream with low, shelving banks. On the last
ledge, with downcast heads, sat three great vultures,
disappointed of their prey.

Hassan thoughtfully rolled some cigarettes ; he lit


one and handed it to me ; then he lit another and
handed it to X. She shook her head. " Smoke,"
he said sternly. X took the cigarette and, all need
for action being over, we resumed our attitudes of
contemplation. But the atmosphere of lazy indif-
ference seemed to be dispelled. Where were we
drifting to ? Were we at any moment likely to be
snatched from this state of peaceful acquiescence
in our surroundings, and be hurled to destruction
with no word of warning or choice in the matter ?

"Ah, well, kim bilior?" (Who knows?) I said out

"Who know what ? " said Hassan.

" What is going to happen to us ? " I said.

"Kim bilior?" repeated Hassan. "Allah bilior"
(God knows), and then, after a minute's silence, he
repeated :

" Kim bilior? Allah bilior ! "

I looked up at him.

" It is so," he said, nodding his head solemnly ;
" Kim bilior ? Allah bilior ! "

The influence of the Eastern mind asserted itself;
the future had no interest for them. Allah had arranged
their destiny ; it had nothing to do with them, and
no thought or effort on their part would make any
difference. Nor had the past any interest for them.
They lived in the present, enjoying the pleasant
places and accepting the unpleasant ones with no fear
or resentment.

The storm was over and they sat about drying
their clothes and making preparations for the
evening meal. Jedan slowly unwound his keffiyeh


and wiped his head all over, then he spread the
coloured rag out to dry. Ali and Hassan rubbed
their rifles carefully and hung them up inside the hut.
Then Ali spread out his cloak on the far corner of
the raft and went through the midday prayer ; this
over, he borrowed a needle and thread from me and
began darning a tear in his ragged uniform.

The sun shone brightly and our clothes were soon
dry. Birds appeared on the bank shaking their
feathers and stretching out one limb after another.
The lull that follows a great storm reigned over
everything ; all nature seemed resting after her
exertions. Ali Chous finished his darn and began
to sing ; the kalekjis joined in the chorus, clapping
their hands. An element of cheerful carelessness
established itself on board. I went inside and began
to invent a pudding for dinner. Arten was not
enlightened in his profession as cook, and I was
trying to supplement his deficiencies by the light of
nature, for Arten did not seem to have that sort of
light. I tied the mixture up in a handkerchief and
set it to boil in a pot on the brazier. One by one the
men came in and sat round the fire, gazing silently
at the pot as they smoked away. After a time I took
the lid off and examined its contents.

" Is it really going to be a pudding ? " said X, with
an agonised expression.

I tried to recall what puddings looked like in
England, and then remembered that I had never seen
one at this stage.

" I cannot say till it is finished," I said.

The pudding still clung ominously to the handker-


chief; I had greased it well and have since heard that
you only grease pans. I gave it a few minutes longer,
then, as we were all hungry, I fished it out of the pot
and untied the handkerchief.

" Bak ! " (Look) said Arten.

" Bak ! " said Hassan.

" Bak ! " said Ali.

" Bak ! " said the kalekjis.

It was a moment of extreme tension.

I slipped it on to a plate.

" Now look," said Arten.

" See now what a cook she is ! " said Hassan, " a
wonderful cook."

44 Mashallah," said Ali.

" Mashallah," said the kalekjis.

" It is a pudding," said X, 4< a real pudding."

We all grazed at it for several moments in ecstatic
excitement. I handed X a spoon and we each took a
mouthful ; then we looked at one another.

44 It is a pudding," said X again.

It almost seemed as if she were trying to persuade
herself of the fact against the dictates of reason.
When we had finished, the men shared our spoons
in turn ; each one cautiously raised a spoonful and
smelt it, then they swallowed it, very much as one
remembers swallowing jam in the nursery when one
knew there was a powder inside.

44 Ehe" (Good), they said very deliberately, nodding
their heads, and then, as they handed the spoon to
their neighbour, 44 Inghiliz " they added. One felt
that the first word was Turkish politeness; the second
was a veiled warning to their brethren.


But on the whole it seemed a success ; we had a
sense of repletion ; how often had we not swallowed
bowls of rice and been only conscious of a great
internal void.

The men carried our rugs outside and we stretched
ourselves lazily out on the open end of the raft. I
began to reflect upon Time and Destiny. No shadow
of a cloud appeared to disturb the horizon, no obstruc-
tion in the river affected our steady onward course
down the slow, wide stream ; we took the current
where it served, and so were not delayed in the
shallows where the waters dallied about the banks ;
they in due course would arrive at their destination
and pour themselves, unquestioning and unquestioned,
into the oblivious sea. But what would Time, that
unremitting, relentless current, do with us ? Was it
£oins: to hurl us too into oblivion ? Whatever it had
to give was ours, and yet, because we could not stop
it, we were not master of it. We could moor to the
shore and let the river go on without us ; the current
did not wait for us, but we could pick it up again when
we were ready for it and go on without loss ; but in
the current of Time, when we stay on one side and
let the moments go past us, we ha,ve lost for ever
what those moments had to give, and our arrival at
our destination has not been delayed ; it is so much
the nearer.

"X," I said, "where do you think we are
floating to ? "

" Baghdad," said X.

" I wasn't thinking geographically," I answered, " I
was thinking whether it was Eternity or Oblivion.


Being hurried along by this current gives me an un-
comfortable feeling of not being allowed any choice as
regards time, which I resent. Do you mind it at all?"

" No," said X, " I feel that I have lost all con-
ception of time, and that we are floating on, as it
were, to Eternity."

" Do you ? " I said dubiously ; " I feel it's Oblivion
we are getting to."

11 But we are only three days off Baghdad," in-
sisted X.

" Well," I answered, " I devoutly pray that we may
oet there first."

We arrived at Tekreet just before sunset, and at
once sent Ali up to the Mudir with the request that
he would help us in the dismissal of the Evil One.

"Tell the Mudir," we said, "that we cannot sleep
for the noise he makes at night, and our heads ache
from the noise he makes in the day time, and that
he has guided the raft so badly that we have spent
five days getting here from Mosul."

Ali obediently disappeared. He first communicated
the substance of our remarks to the kalekjis, who,
after putting their heads together, landed and strolled
down a rambling street of Arab huts. We also went
on shore with Hassan, and wandered about along the
rocky paths amongst labyrinths of tombs which ran
down to the water's edge. Tekreet boasts of one
palm-tree, the first we had seen on the river, and an
old castle, the ruins of which stand on a rock above.
The town is a tumble-down sort of place, inhabited
chiefly by Arabs, who ply rafts with merchandise
between Mosul and Baghdad. Ali returned with the

r 5


news that the Mudir had given orders for new
kalekjis to be ready in the morning. He apologised
in the name of the Sultan for the discomfort we had
experienced in his Highness's domains. We asked
what had become of the others, and were informed
that they were frightened of being punished and had
run away.

"That's curious," I said, "I should have thought
that no Eastern would put fright before baksheesh, or
mind what a Mudir said in this district."

Later on an emissary arrived from the Mudir with
a piece of sheep and a message that he would travel
with us the next day as far as Samarah. Accordingly
we sent back word that we were starting at sunrise.

We went to bed that night with a greater sense of
security than we had felt since leaving Mosul. We
came, moreover, to the conclusion that there was,
perhaps, a slight advantage in being under Govern-
ment patronage, when we really had to apply for
that protection which his Highness the Sultan so
anxiously proffers to all travellers in his well-regulated



IT was long after sunrise when we awoke next
morning ; the raft was still tied up and the men
showed no sigms of moving.

" Hi ! " shouted X to Hassan through the felt wall,
"why haven't we started?"

" The Mudir has not arrived yet, Effendi."

We waited another ten minutes.

" Hi ! Hassan, has the Mudir come ? "

" No, Effendi, he will come soon."

We turned over and had another doze.

" Hi! Hassan, if the Mudir has not come we shall
go without him. Send Ali to say we must start now."

"Yes, Effendi, he will go."

Turkish acquiescence, especially when very polite,
is suspicious. I got out of bed and peeped through
the door. Ali was sitting on the bank chatting with a
local Zaptieh.

" Hi ! Hassan, send Ali at once."

"Yes, yes, Effendi, this minute he goes."

From my point of observation I reported that

neither Hassan nor Ali were making any move in the



matter, so we decided to dress and become strenuous
about it.

I relieved my feelings at intervals by trying to ex-
press in my best Turkish to Hassan, through the wall,
what I thought of the Mudir who dared to keep great
English Pashas waiting beyond the accustomed two
hours which one concedes to Eastern ideas of punctu-

Before we had finished dressing a sudden rocking
of the raft and general bustle outside announced our
departure. Through the window I took a last look at
Tekreet and thanked my lucky stars that departure
from it meant also deliverance from the Evil One.

" Do you think the Mudir will be angry with us for
leaving him behind ? " I said.

" Let us hope not," said X, as we emerged from
the hut for breakfast; "we owe him something for
ridding us of the Evil One."

The words were hardly out of my mouth before we
became aware of the Evil One himself, sitting be-
tween the oars in his usual place. He greeted us with
a bland smile. Beside him, instead of Jedan, sat a
grinning boy.

We turned on Ali for an explanation.

" Ach, Effendi, he is good now ; he will not
speak ; he will not say a word ; he is changed ; he is
now a good kalekji. The ladies can now sleep at

The Evil One nodded affably at us and put his
finder on his sealed lips. The grinning boy under-
stood Turkish. " I am a good kalekji, Effendi ; I do
not talk, I never say a word."


We had become sufficiently Oriental to reconcile
ourselves to the dictates of Destiny ; there was no
getting rid of him now, so we had to be content with
threats of no baksheesh if a word was uttered on the
way to Baghdad.

We caught sight of a stranger in the men's hut.

"Who is that?" I said.

"The Mudir, Effendi."

" How lono- has he been there ? "


" Since sunrise, Effendi."

" Why did you say he had not come ? "

"Ach, Effendi, the kalekjis' bread was not ready;
they could not go without bread."

So all this time the local magnate had been sitting
listening to our abuse of his person. There is only
one way to live in the East, and that is to accept it.
Its ways are stronger than your ways, especially
when you come out freshly armed with the ardour of
the West. Your best reasoning is worsted by gracious
irrelevancy ; your protesting attacks are turned by
acquiescing politeness ; and the East moves on its
smiling, unalterable way.

The country below Tekreet began to have a more
civilised look ; there were plantations of cucumbers
and melons on the banks and roughly constructed
windlasses for raising the water in skins into irrigating
channels. We passed several ruined villages, and
caught sight in the distance of the remains of an old

At noon, after floating about three or four miles, we
arrived within sight of Samarah, a town which was made
conspicuous by the huge blue dome of its mosque and

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Online LibraryLouisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. WilkinsBy desert ways to Baghdad → online text (page 13 of 18)