Louisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. Wilkins.

By desert ways to Baghdad online

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which, we learnt later on, was a place of pilgrimage
for Mahomedans of the Shieah sect. We drew up
opposite it to land the Mudir, and Hassan announced
his intention of landing also to replenish the store of

"Then I'll get off too," said X, "I want to see
inside that mosque."

X had a mania for looking at mosques ; we had seen
inside hundreds and she never seemed to get tired of
them. I connected the process chiefly with having to
unlace your boots, a proceeding I detest, and dawdle
over cold floors in your stocking feet. Then you had
to remember to cross your hands in front ; if you put
them behind your back or in your pockets you were a
marked infidel.

The raft was run alon^ the shore and we walked
up to the town. It was enclosed by a high mud
wall which was defended by towers and bastions. We
entered through a large gateway and found ourselves
amongst a collection of falling mud houses lining the
usual dirty, narrow streets. Hassan went in search of
charcoal, and we, accompanied by Ali Chous, strolled
on to the mosque. We were followed by the usual
crowd of curious-minded inhabitants, but being by
this time quite used to these attentions, we did not
notice them particularly. X was in front, and ad-
vanced towards the low line of chains which barred
the entrance to the building ; she was in the act of
stepping over the chains when an excited-looking
fanatic rushed 'at her and hurled her across the street
with what appeared to be effusive execrations. In one
moment we were hemmed in by an angry, buzzing


mob ; there was no mistaking the glaring menaces of
their expressions and the significant handling of the
long knives worn by all natives in their belts. We
realised in a Hash that we had unwittingly aroused the
dangerous side of Eastern fanaticism. Resistance was
out of the question ; a sign of fear would have been fatal.
All day-dreams were at an end : I recalled the vague
forebodings the storm had first aroused in me. Was it
only the day before that X had said she felt like float-
ing to Eternity and I had maintained that we should
be hurled into Oblivion ? Were we only joking then ?
Now we were face to face with grim reality. Hassan's
words rang in my ears, " Kim bilior ? Allah bilior! "
(Who knows ? God knows !). We stopped and looked
over the crowd. Ali Chous, our only protector, stood
beside us white and trembling, appealing to some of
the leading men, who hesitated and glared at us in
wavering suspicion. Hassan was nowhere in sight.

11 Let's stroll on as far as the end of the street,"
said X.

"Yes," I answered, "that seems a good idea."

" Don't let's hurry," she said.

" No," I replied, " we have plenty of time."

The crowd made way for us as we turned from
the mosque, and we walked on beyond it up through
the bazaars. The men had bcsfun to fioht and wrangle
amongst themselves, the narrow street was tightly
packed, and the crowd surged up behind us as we
walked on. We were in the covered part of the
bazaars ; the usual bright-coloured keffiyehs hung
outside : gaudy cotton coats of Eastern make lay on
the top of bales of Manchester prints and flannelettes ;


there was the leather stall, with gorgeous beaded
bridles and handsomely embroidered native saddles ;
and next it was the boot bazaar, with none of our
blackness about it, but a mass of red and yellow
sandals. We had seen it all, just the same in a
score of similar villages, but I took it all in this
time as I had never taken it in before.

" What a funny baby's garment that is," said X.

The crowd behind were beginning to push.

" Yes," I said, " I wonder how it gets outside the

An angry buzz arose just behind us ; were they
going to stick us in the back ? We both disdained to
turn our heads to see.

4< I hope Hassan will think of getting some spinach,"
I said, " there was some in the vegetable bazaar."

" He knows you like it," X answered, "he is sure
to get it."

We had come to the end of the row of stalls ; we
slowly turned and faced the mob.

" This is the obvious moment for annihilation," I
thought to myself, " I wonder why I'm not afraid."

I was waiting in momentary expectation of death,
but at the same time I could not realise that we were
going to be killed. I did not seem to be able to take
in what being killed was — I felt very indifferent, and
noticed that I had lost a button off my coat. But the
crowd made way for us and we sauntered back.
Further down we met Hassan.

" What is all this crowd about ? " he said.

X told him ; he made no answer and we walked on


2 33

We got outside the gates of the town but were still
a few minutes' walk from the river.

11 I'm tired," said X ; " let's rest here a minute," and
she lay down on the ground.

I looked round. There was still a noisy crowd at
the gates of the town, and we were being followed out
by some of the rowdier members. I had a vague idea
that it would have been more comfortable to lie down
on the raft, but there was no accounting for tastes,
and it was all in the day's work. I sat down beside X.
There was a white stone a few yards away, larger than
the others which lay about ; I picked up a handful of
the smaller stones.

" Best out of ten," I said to myself; " if I hit we get
off, if I don't hit we are done for. There is no current
about this, it's all chance," and I started lazily throwing
at the large stone. Hassan stood by smoking. I
missed the first, and the second, and the third. Ali
Chous looked uneasily at the crowd beginning to
straggle out towards us. The fourth hit, and the fifth ;
the sixth missed. Two more misses and we should
be done for. Ali Chous beorcred us to come on. The
seventh and the eighth hit, the ninth missed. The
next throw would settle the question.

Two men had come up and stood looking at us.

" Let's come on now," said X, sitting up.

" One minute," I said, and I carefully picked out a
nice round pebble. It hit.

II What a baby you are ! " said X.

We boarded the raft and pushed off. It was a
lovely calm evening. The current was straight enough
for us to glide quietly along with no assistance from


the oars ; the last traces of the setting sun slowly dis-
appeared, and gradually the stars reflected twinkling
points of silver in the black water, dancing brightly in
the moving current. A silence as of death reigned
over everything ; the blackness of death peered out of
the deep waters ; the slow but surely moving current
was drifting us on relentlessly towards an uncertainty
suggesting death. And with it there was a tremendous
sense of stillness and peace.

I was sitting very near the edge looking into the
dark waters.

" I don't want to die yet," I said.

" You are such a time taking things in," said X,
" that you would not be aware that you were dead until
so long after the event that it would hardly matter to
you. You weren't afraid, were you ? "

" No," I answered. We were silent for a while,
then Hassan spoke.

" If you had crossed the chain," he said, " there
would have been no more Pashas for me to travel
with. Inside is the tomb of the last Imam of the race
of Ali, and no Christian may look upon it and live."
I looked again into the deep waters and began to take
it all in, what I had seen in the men's faces and how
they would have done it. Hassan put a rug over me ;
I had shivered. I wasn't cold. It was all over, we
were safe ; but I was knowing what it was to be afraid.



WE were now only sixty-five miles from Baghdad,
and with luck we should reach it next day.
We travelled on all night, and on waking up next
morning found ourselves floating past cultivated
banks and creaking waterwheels, and sighted in the
distance dark patches of palm-groves.

But, in spite of Ali's prayers to the " God of the
favouring breeze," our enemy the wind rose up
once more and compelled us to put to shore. From
this point it was only a few hours by land to Baghdad.
We could faintly see the town itself on the distant
horizon line to the east, separated from us by a
great expanse of sandy desert. We were told,
however, that the river wound in and out so much
that it was still a day's journey off by water.

We kicked our heels disconsolately on shore — a
sandy shore this time ; little sandy hillocks alternated
with patches of struggling tufts of grass. We sat
there all day. The sand blew into our faces, and
the river rolled on past us — and just behind me
a rat put its head occasionally out of a hole to see
if we were still there. Arten also at intervals put



his head out of the hut and held up his hand in
the hurricane to feel if the wind was blowing.
"There is still much wind," he would say, and as
no one paid any attention to his original remark
he retired again into the hut, and the rat looked
out of his hole. I always mixed up Arten with
rats after that day. By and by a goufa appeared
on the scene. A goufa is a native boat made of
pomegranate branches laced together with ropes
and covered inside and out with bitumen. It is
like a circular coracle, eight to ten feet across and
about four feet deep, and is propelled with a single
paddle. The crew disembarked just above us.
First came half a dozen Arabs, then a veiled woman,
then a donkey, then a buffalo, then another woman,
then three more men. One donkey still remained
inside with two men. He refused to be jumped
over the side like his predecessors. All the people
on shore yelled at him and the men in the boat
hit him. Hits and cries were of no avail ; he sneered
at the yellers and kicked at the hitters. The donkey
on land gazed mournfully at his companion and
brayed. Finally the offender put his two fore feet
on the edge of the boat and the men behind seized
his hind legs and heaved him overboard. He rolled
over in the water, shook himself unconcernedly, and
started to browse the withered grass. Then every-
body disappeared behind sandy hillocks, the goufa
floated past us, and we were once more left alone
with the wind and the rat.

Towards sunset we made a start again, and floated
on most of the night. Small mud villages and


6 J

plantations of palms and orange-trees were scattered
thickly on each side of the river. We seemed to
be quite close to Baghdad ; gilded domes and minarets
stood up on the sky-line above confused masses
of flat-topped houses and groups of palm-trees. But
all the morning we wound slowly round and round
endless loops of the river and hardly seemed to get
any nearer to our destination. The banks now
teemed with life ; goufas shot across past us from
one bank to another with mixed consignments of
men and animals ; mules plodded up and down
drawing skins of water over windlasses ; groups of
Arabs lay about on the sunny banks and shouted
inquiries at the kalekjis as we passed. The houses,
which had been mud hovels higher up the river, now
looked more substantial, and were each surrounded
by high walls enclosing shady orange gardens.
Finally we hove in sight of the bridge of boats which
guards the entrance to the town, and ran into the
shore just above it. The bridge, we learnt, had to
be broken down before the raft could pass through,
and as this seemed likely to take some hours we
landed and drove up to the Consulate. H.M. Vice-
Consul was away, and so we proceeded to the
Babylon Hotel.

Baghdad can be reached in a normal way up the
Persian Gulf to Busra and from thence by the
weekly mail steamer ; it contains, therefore, certain
concessions to the ideas of occasional European agents
and commercial travellers. The Babylon Hotel is
one of these concessions. There was a dining-room
hunor all round with the framed self-assertions


of various wine and spirit merchants whose names,
strangely familiar, mocked us from the wall as a
first greeting from the borders of civilisation. Hassan
stood in the middle of the room and gazed at them
open-mouthed. These were to him English works
of art, decorations of great English houses, in keeping
with the gaudily covered chairs and meaningless glass
ornaments. Each one had unmistakable pictorial
aspects of the bottle. He pointed at first one and
then another.

" Ingilhiz," he said in a tone of congratulation.
He was always pleased when we met with anything
which would seem to remind us of our native land.
We were irresponsive ; he studied them further.

" Raki ? " (Whisky) he added, the note of inquiry
tinged with apologetic scorn.

The hotel was built, like all the better modern
houses, along the banks of the river, with overhanging
balconies. I escaped from the further evidences of
Western vulgarity, and, leaning over the rail of
the balcony, let the passing river wash them away
from the disturbed crevices of my brain. Just
beneath, on one side, the narrow street which led
to the hotel was continued past it down to the shore ;
and , here came an incessant stream of natives ;
women with waterskins to fill and men with mules
carrying baskets of town refuse to empty ; the same
spot served admirably for both purposes. The
Eastern has an overwhelming love for "taze su "
(fresh water) ; he drinks it, he sings to it, he worships
it, he makes an emblem of it, and yet — with his
extraordinarily consistent inconsistency — he makes


the town midden and the town watering-place one
and the same spot.

A nearly naked child sprawled about amongst the
dirt and rubbish, unearthing hidden treasures in the
form of bright tin lids. The mules strayed about
at the water's muddy edge, putting in a drink on
their own account whilst their masters, having emptied
the loads, filled waterskins for the return journey.

A big, lumbering sailing boat was being unloaded
just below me ; the men swung themselves to and
fro together as they pitched heavy bales overboard,

"Allah, Allah, Allah," they sang out as they
swung. Round their heads circled and swooped
white orulls talking of the sea.

And now, through the distant broken bridge,
clumsily floating down the current, came our raft,
square and stubborn amongst the twirling, swiftly
paddled goufas. Like a great, uncertain, bewildered
animal, turning now this way and now that, guided
by the unwieldy poplar poles, it lurched up the
watering-place and stuck on the midden.

From every corner of the narrow, winding street
sprang out half-clothed, jabbering Arab forms ;
gesticulating, fighting, jostling, they proffered their
services in the task of unloading.

In a few moments all our belongings were removed ;
the cooking-pots, the rugs, the beds, all the personal
requirements which had made it into our home
for so many weeks. Stripped and deserted, looking
almost ashamed of itself, it lay there in all its naked
clumsiness. By to-morrow even this vestige of our
journey will have disappeared for ever from the realms


of historic evidence. The felt strips, the walls which
have sheltered us through so many stormy nights,
will be sold to the highest bidder ; they will serve
henceforth as carpets in some native hovel, on which
the Mahomedan will kneel to say his prayers or squat
to smoke his pipe. The poles and oars will go as
firewood ; and the skins, deflated, will return to the
country we have left. Nothing will remain but the
memory of it to a few human minds. We are glad
that it is to be so ; as it has been exclusively ours in
the past, so will it remain ours only in the future.
We made it what it was, and without us it will
cease to be.

The waters gave it a farewell lap as they passed on.
We had stopped ; but they went hurrying on, taking
with them all those mixed memories of peace and
danger, of contemplation and exertion, of idleness
and hurry which they, and they only, had shared with
us. They had borne us from the wilds and fastnesses
of the unconquered East to the gateway of the
Western invasion ; through the dreariness and deso-
lation of desert lands, through the magnificent isola-
tion of gorgeous mountain scenery, past the ruined
evidences of ancient Western civilisations still mocked
by the persistence of squalid tribal huts ; and now,
having deposited us to draw our own conclusions
in this decayed city of the Khalifs, they hurried on,
lapping scornfully in their course at the rocking
pleasure-boat of Messrs. Sassoon's representatives
and the white steam launch of H.M. British Vice-

Impartially, as they had borne us up, so down here


they bore up alike the brass trinkets shipped in their
thousands from Manchester, the emissary of the
British and Foreign Bible Society, the golf clubs
and society papers for the English Club ; and with
an indescribable roar, as of grim laughter, rushed
headlong into the salt blue waters of the Persian
Gulf, where, surrendering irretrievably their own
bounded individuality, they merged themselves in
the larger life of the untrammelled Eastern seas.





TH E eastern gate of heaven was unbarred ;
Shamas, the Sun-god of Babylonia, flamed forth
and stepped upon the Mount of Sunrise at the edge
of the world. As he had poured the light of heaven
upon the luxuriant gardens and fertile cornlands of
the Babylonians, so was he pouring it upon the same
spot, now an arid and deserted wilderness. We were
crossing it on our way to visit Babylon. It was pitch
dark when we had left Baghdad in the procession of
covered arabas which conveyed pilgrims to Kerbela
and merchants to Hillah. We had been roused at
2 a.m., and had threaded our way silently through the
sleeping streets by the light of a dim lantern. Huddled
human forms lay about in angles and on doorsteps ;
and at every moment we stumbled over the out-
stretched limbs of a yellow dog. We crossed the
Tigris in one of the round native boats, and landed
within a few minutes' walk of the khan from where the
arabas started. We had an araba to ourselves ; an
oblong wooden box on four wheels, with a light
canvas top and canvas sides that could be rolled up
or let down at pleasure ; a narrow wooden plank, with



a singularly sharp edge and an uncomfortably hard
face, ran down each side, and was called a seat. We
were going to sit on it for twelve hours. We were
drawn by four mules harnessed abreast. Our driver
had knotted the reins and hooked them on to his seat ;
his hands were rolled inside his cloak, and he sat
huddled up on the box in the freezing air of sunrise.
The mules galloped ahead at their own discretion ;
the araba lurched over ruts ; sudden jerks shot us
against one another, or threw us in the air, from
whence we descended with some emphasis in the
vacuum between the two sharp edges.

Now the horizon on the left blazed orange and red,
and the desert sands were pink. Stunted tufts of grey-
green grass tried to assert themselves in the barren
soil ; mounds, marking the site of ancient villages,
occurred at random ; walls of sand, indicating the
course of old irrigating canals, broke the level plain ;
they could almost be taken for the work of Nature,
for thejiand of Time had obliterated the marks of man.
Every twenty minutes the arabas came to a sudden
stop to give the mules breathing time ; there is a
general dismounting of the passengers ; the plain is
suddenly dotted with bending, praying forms, groups
of excited talking Arabs, isolated, contemplative,
smoking individuals, fussy superior Turkish officers
flicking the specks of travel off their smart uniforms ;
veiled women peep from behind the curtain of a closely
packed conveyance ; a small Arab child plants himself
with outstretched legs in front of us, and sucks his
thumb in complete absorption as he gazes upon us like
a little wild animal. Then the whole scene dissolves


itself into a sudden rush for the carriages, as of so
many rabbits bolting into a warren at the sound of an
alarm, and off goes the whole train at a gallop ; belated
loiterers hang perilously on the step of any conveyance
they can catch, and try to snatch the lash of the whip
with which the driver good-humouredly flicks them.
Finally, we approach a collection of mud huts ; we
dash through them, scattering hens and children, and
draw up in a long line opposite a large khan in the
centre of the village. This is one of the regular halt-
ing places for caravans, and we have a short wait
while the mules are being changed. A stall close by
is already closely besieged by our fellow-travellers
clamouring for tea, which is sold in small glasses after
the Persian custom. We buy a little blue dish of
thick cream from an Arab girl in a blue smock, and
make a sumptuous breakfast off it and dates.

With a fresh set of mules we start off again ; the
party is more lively. We dash up the sides of an
embankment, catch a glimpse of a silted-up canal as
we waver for a moment on the top ; then a fearful
double lurch throws us about as the two front wheels
go downwards whilst the two back ones are still
going upwards. A short, sharp descent follows, then
comes a level stretch ; the driver boys shout and race
one another, we overtake and are overtaken, we jeer
and are jeered at.

And the Sun-god pursues his journey in silence and
unconcern across the dome of heaven.

We pass bands of Persian pilgrims on their way to
the sacred Tomb of Hosein, son of Ali and grandson
of the Prophet. Many of them trudge along on foot,


grasping only the stout staff which one's mind
associates with pilgrims ; these give a true feeling of
sackcloth and ashes. Some ride mules and carry a
few worldly goods in saddle-bags. There is a Pasha
mounted on a fine Arab horse and followed by
servants ; large pack trunks on mules in his train make
one doubt the existence of his hair shirts. The women
sit in covered wicker cradles suspended on each side
of mules ; donkeys bear rude coffins strapped cross-
ways over their backs, for the ambition of the true
believer is not only to make the pilgrimage during
life, but that after death his bones may rest in peace
in the holy ground of Hosein's martyrdom.

At Mushayhib we halt again to get a fresh relay of
mules. Here the roads branch and we part company
with the rest of the party, who are going to Kerbela.
We jerk along over the ridged and rutty ground.
I find myself wondering whether cushions in the
chariots were amongst the luxuries of wicked Babylon,
and if so, whether it was part of the punishment of
the fourth generation that we should be deprived of
them. We come to a marshy tract with water
standing in pools ; the driver thrashes the mules
vigorously and shouts, the animals plunge forward,
and the boy bends his body to and fro with them as
they plunge. We go headlong into the marsh and
stick ; the boy uses his whip unsparingly ; the light,
energetic members of our party dismount, the fat and
heavy ones remain seated ; we all shout in anger or
encouragement, and by means of these strenuous
endeavours are landed on the other side.

On the horizon in front we see a black line ; it is


formed, we are told, by the rows of palm-trees which
border the Euphrates. We are now soberly trotting
towards a great mound which, rising abruptly out of
the level plain, appears in the distance like a sudden
thought of Nature's, tired of the monotony of her own
handiwork. But as we approach, its symmetrical
sides and flat table-top proclaim it to be the work of
man. Our native escort tell us, in subdued tones of
awe, how Marut and Harut, the fallen angels, are
suspended by their heels in the centre awaiting the
Day of Judgment. We leave it at some distance to
the right. In front of us stretches a tract of land more
desolate and naked even than that through which we
have been driving ; small heaps are scattered amongst
a few larger mounds, and all are enveloped in a net-
work of high-banked canals, now mostly silted up.
There are marshy pools here and there, and rough
tussocks of coarse grass catch the blown sand.

"And Babylon shall become heaps," said Jeremiah.
It was the heaps of Babylon we were looking upon.
Babylon, the " glory of nations," was laid out in front
of us.

The Sun-god had reached the pinnacle of his
height, and covered the spot with the brightness of

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Online LibraryLouisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. WilkinsBy desert ways to Baghdad → online text (page 14 of 18)