Isabella L. (Isabella Lucy) Bird.

Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan : including a summer in the Upper Karun region and a visit to the Nestorian rayahs (Volume 1) online

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of my mask dripping, seeing neither villages nor caravans,
for caravans of goods do not travel in such rain as this.
Then over a slope we went down into a lake of mud,
where the aide-de-camp of the Governor of Khannikin, in
a fez and military frock-coat and trousers, with a number

of Bashi Bazouks or irregulars, met M with courtesies

and an invitation.

From the top of the next slope there was a view of
Khannikin, a considerable-looking town among groves of
palms and other trees. Then came a worse sea of mud,
and a rudely cobbled causeway, so horrible that it diverted
us back into the mud, which was so bottomless that it
drove us back to the causeway, and the causeway back to
the mud, the rain all the time coming down in sheets.
This causeway, without improvement, is carried through
Khannikin, a town with narrow blind alleys, upon which
foul courtyards open, often so foul as to render the recent
ravages of cholera (if science speaks truly) a matter of
necessity. The mud and water in these alleys was up to


the knees of the mules. Not a creature was in the
streets. No amount of curiosity, even regarding the rare
sight of a Frank woman, could make people face the
storm in flimsy cotton clothes.

Where the road turns to the bridge a line of irregular
infantry was drawn up, poorly dressed, soaked creatures,
standing in chilly mud up to their ankles, in soaked boots
reaching to their knees. These joined and headed the
cavalcade, and I fell humbly in the rear. Poor fellows !
To keep step was impossible when it was hard work to
drag their feet out of the mire, and they carried their
rifles anyhow. It was a grotesque procession. A trim officer,
forlorn infantry, wild-looking Bashi Bazouks, Europeans
in stout mackintoshes splashed with mud from head to
foot, mules rolling under their bespattered loads, and a
posse of servants and orderlies crouching on the top of
baggage, muffled up to the eyes, the asses which carry
the katirgis and their equipments far behind, staggering
and nearly done up, for the march of seventeen miles had
taken eight and a half hours.

An abrupt turn in the causeway leads to the Holwan,
a tributary of the Diyalah, a broad, rapid stream, over
which the enterprise of a Persian has thrown a really
fine brick bridge of thirteen heavily -buttressed arches,
which connects the two parts of the town and gives some
dignity and picturesqueness to what would otherwise be
mean. On the left bank of the Holwan are the barracks,
the governor's house, some large caravanserais, the Custom-
house, and a quarantine station, quarantine having just
been imposed on all arrivals from Persia, giving travel
and commerce a decided check.

After half a mile of slush on the river bank we
entered by a handsome gateway a nearly flooded court-
yard, and the Governor's house hospitably engorged the
whole party.


The fully-laden mules stuck in the mud a few miles
off, and did not come in for two hours, and in spite
of covers everything not done up in waterproof was
very wet. The servants looked most miserable, and
complained of chills and rheumatism, and one of the
orderlies is really ill. We cannot move till the storm
is over.

The rain falls heavily still, the river is rising, the
alleys are two feet deep in slush, travel is absolutely
suspended, and it is not possible without necessity to go
out. It was well indeed that we decided to leave the
shelterless shelter of Kizil Eobat. Nothing can exceed
the wretchedness of Khannikin or any Turkish town in
such rain as this. Would that one could think that it
would be washed, but as there are no channels to carry
off the water it simply lodges and stagnates in every de-
pression, and all the accumulations of summer refuse
slide into these abominable pools, and the foul dust, a
foot deep, becomes mud far deeper ; buried things are
half uncovered ; torrents, not to be avoided, pour from
every roof, the courtyards are knee -deep in mud, the
cows stand disconsolately in mud ; not a woman is to be
seen, the few men driven forth by the merciless ex-
igences of business show nothing but one eye, and with
" loins girded " and big staffs move wearily, stumbling
and plunging in the mire.

After some hours the flat mud roofs begin to leak,
water finds out every weak place in the walls, the bazars,
only half open for a short time in the day, are deserted
by buyers, and the patient sellers crouch over mangels,
muffled up in sheepskins, the caravanserais are crammed
and quarrelsome ; the price of fodder and fuel rises, and
every one is drowned in rain and wretchedness. Even
here, owing to the scarcity of fuel, nothing can be dried ;
the servants in their damp clothes come in steaming ;


Hadji in his misshapen "jack-boots," which he asserts
he cannot take off, spreads fresh mud over the carpets
whenever he enters ; I shift from place to place to
avoid the drip from the roof and still the rain comes
down with unabated vigour !



LETTEE III (Continued)

THE house consists of two courtyards, with buildings
round them. The larger and handsomer is the haram
or women's house, which is strictly enclosed, has no ex-
terior windows, and its one door into the men's house is
guarded "by a very ancient eunuch. The courtyard of
this house is surrounded partly by arched serdabs, with
green lattice fronts, and partly by a kitchen, bakery,
wood -house, hammam or hot bath, and the servants'
quarters. The haram has a similar arrangement on the
lower floor. A broad balcony, reached by a steep and
narrow stair, runs round three sides of the upper part
of this house. There are very few rooms, and some of
them are used for storing fruit. The wet baggage is
mostly up here, and under the deep roof the servants
and orderlies camp, looking miserable. The haram has a
balcony all round it, on which a number of reception and
living rooms open, and though not grand or elaborately
decorated, is convenient and comfortable.

The Turkish host evidently did not know what to do
with such an embarrassing guest as a European woman,
and solved the difficulty by giving me the guest-chamber
in the men's house, a most fortunate decision, as I have
had quiet and privacy for three days. Besides, this room
has a projecting window, with panes of glass held in by
nails, and there is not only a view of the alley with its
slush, but into the house of some poor folk, and over that


to the Holwan, sometimes in spate, sometimes falling, and
through all the hours of daylight frequented by grooms
for the purpose of washing their horses. Some shingle
banks, now overflowed, sustain a few scraggy willows, and
on the farther side is some low-lying land. There may be
much besides, but the heavy rain- clouds blot out all else.

My room is whitewashed, and is furnished with Persian
rugs, Austrian bent -wood chairs, and a divan in the
window, on which I sleep. Lamps, samovars, and glasses
are kept in recesses, and a black slave is often in and out
for them. Otherwise no one enters but Hadji. I get
my food somewhat precariously. It is carved and sent
from table at the beginning of meals, chiefly pillau, curry,
kabobs, and roast chicken, but apparently it is not
etiquette for me to get it till after the men have dined,
and it is none the better for being cold.

The male part of the household consists of the
Governor and his brother-in-law, a Moslem judge, and
the quarantine doctor, a Cretan, takes his meals in the
house. The Governor and doctor speak French. My
fellow-traveller lives with them.

The night we arrived, the Governor in some agitation
asked me to go and see his wife, who is very ill
The cholera has only just disappeared, and the lady had
had a baby, which died of it in three days, and " being a
boy her heart was broken," and " something had come
under her arm." So I went with him into the karam,
which seemed crowded with women of various races and
colours, peeping from behind curtains and through chinks
of doors, tittering and whispering. The wife's room is
richly carpeted and thoroughly comfortable, with a huge
charcoal brazier in the centre, and cushions all over the
floor, except at one end, where there is a raised alcove
with a bed in it.

On this the lady sat a rather handsome Kurdish


woman, about thirty-five, dressed in a silk quilted jacket,
and with a black gauze handkerchief round her head,
and a wadded quilt over her crossed legs. She was sup-
ported by a pile of pillows. Since then I have been
sent for to see her several times every day, and found her
always in the same position. There is surely something
weird about it. She says she sits there all night, and
has not lain down for two months. A black slave
was fanning her, and two women, shrouded in veils of
tinselled gauze, sat on the bed combing her luxuriant
hair. She is not really beautiful at all, but her husband
assures me constantly that she is " une femme savante."
She has property and the consideration which attaches
to it. She was burning with fever and very weak.

I had scarcely returned to my room when my host
sent again, begging that I would go back and see the
doctor. I found that it was expected that I should per-
suade the lady to consent to have the abscess, or whatever
it is, reopened. The room was full of women and eunuchs,
and the chief eunuch, an elderly Arab, sat on the bed
and supported her while the doctor dressed the wound,
and even helped him with it. Her screams were fearful,
and five people held her with difficulty. Her husband
left the room, unable to bear her cries.

Quite late I was sent for again, and that time by the
lady, to know if I thought she would die. It appears
that her brother, the judge, remains here to see that she
is not the victim of foul play, but I don't like to ask to
whom the suspicion points, or whether our host, although
the civil governor, keeps him here that he may not be
suspected in case his rich wife dies.

Except for the repeated summonses to the sick-room,
a walk on the slime of the roof when the rain ceases for
a time, and on the balcony of the haram when it does
not, and a study of the habits of my neighbours over the


way, it is very dull. I have patched and mended every-
thing that gave any excuse for either operation, have
written letters which it is not safe to post, and have
studied my one book on Persia till I know it throughout,
and still the rain falls nearly without cessation and the
quagmires outside deepen.

So bad is it that, dearly as Orientals love bazars and
hammams, Hadji refuses leave to go to either. I re-
marked to him that he must be glad of such a rest, and
he replied in his usual sententious fashion : " They who
have to work must work. God knows all." I fear he
is very lazy, and he has no idea of making one comfort-
able or of keeping anything clean. He stamps the mud
of the courtyard into the carpets, and wipes my plates
without washing them, with his shirt. He considers that
our host has attained the height of human felicity.
" What is there left to wish for ? " he says. " He has
numbers of slaves, and he's always buying more, and he's
got numbers of women and eunuchs, and everything, and
when he wants money he just sends round the villages.
God is great ! Ya Allah ! "

Khannikin, being the nearest town to the Persian
frontier, should be a place of some importance. It is
well situated at an altitude of 1700 feet among groves of
palms, on both banks of the Holwan, and having plenty
of water, the rich alluvium between it and Yakobiyeh
is able to support its own population, though it has to
import for caravans. Most of the Persian trade with
Baghdad and thousands of Shiah pilgrims annually pass
through it. It is a customs station, and has a regiment
of soldiers. Nevertheless, it is very ruinous, and its
population has diminished of late years from 5000 to
about 1800 (exclusive of the troops), and of this number
a fifth have been carried off by cholera within the last
few weeks. It has no schools, and no special industries.


The stamp of decay rests upon it. Exactions, crushing
hope out of the people, the general insecurity of pro-
perty, and the misrule which has blighted these fine
Asiatic provinces everywhere, sufficiently explain its

The imposition of quarantine on arrivals from Persia
has all but stopped the supply of charcoal, and knowing
the scarcity in the house, I am going without a fire, as
most of the inhabitants are doing. A large caravanserai
outside the walls is used as a quarantine station, and
three others are taken as lazarettos. Out of these
arrangements the officials make a great deal of money in
fees, but anything more horrible than the sanitary state
of these places cannot be conceived. The water appears
to be the essence of typhoid fever and cholera, and the un-
fortunate detenus are crowded into holes unfit for beasts,
breathing pestiferous exhalations, and surrounded by such
ancient and modern accumulations of horrors that typhus
fever, cholera, and even the plague might well be expected
to break out.

Yesterday, for a brief interval, hills covered with snow
appeared through rolling black clouds, and a change
seemed probable, but rain fell in torrents all night ; there
is a spate in the river, and though we were ready to start
at eight this morning, the katirgis declined to move, say-
ing that the road could not be travelled because of the
depth of the fords and the mud.

The roof, though a good one, is now so leaky that I
am obliged to sleep under my waterproof cloak, and the
un-puttied window-frames let in the rain. Early this
morning a gale from the south-west came on, and the
howling and roaring have been frightful, the rain falling
in sheets most of the time. Sensations are not wanting.
One of the orderlies is seriously ill, and has to be left
behind under medical care till he can be sent to India,


the second man who has broken down. A runner came in
with the news that all caravans are stopped in the Zagros
mountains by snow, which has been falling for five days,
and that the road is not expected to be open for a fort-
night. Later, the Persian agent called to say that on the
next march the road, which is carried on a precipice above
the river, has slid down bodily, and that there are fifteen
feet of water where there should be only two. Of course
this prolonged storm is " exceptional." The temperature
is falling, and it is so cold without a fire that though
my bed is only a blanket -covered dais of brick and
lime, dripped upon continually, in a window with forty
draughts, I am glad to muffle myself up in its blankets
and write among wraps.

The Governor, recognising the craze of Europeans for

exercise, sent word that M might walk in the

balcony of the haram if I went to chaperon him, and this
great concession was gladly accepted, for it was the only
possible way of getting warm. The apparition of a
strange man, and a European, within the precincts of the
haram was a great event, and every window, curtain, and
doorway was taken advantage of by bright dark eyes
sparkling among folds of cotton and gauze. The enjoy-
ment was surreptitious, but possibly all the more keen,
and sounds of whispering and giggling surged out of
every crevice. There are over thirty women, some of
them negresses. Some are Kurds and very handsome,
but the faces of the two handsomest, though quite young,
have something fiendish in their expression. I have seldom
seen a haram without its tragedies of jealousy and hate,
and every fresh experience makes me believe that the
system is as humiliating to men as it is to women.

The haram reception-rooms here are large and bright,
with roofs and cornices worked daintily in very white
plaster, and there are superb carpets on the floors, and


divans covered with Damascus embroidery in gold silk on
cream muslin.

Each day the demands for my presence in the sick-
room are more frequent, and though I say that I can
scarcely aspire to be a nurse, they persist in thinking
that I am a Hakim, and possibly a useful spy on the
doctor. I have become aware that unscrupulous jeal-
ousy of the principal wife exists, and, as is usual in
the East, everybody distrusts everybody else, and pre-
fers to trust strangers. The husband frequently asks
me to remove what seems a cancerous tumour, and the
doctor says that an operation is necessary to save the
lady's life, but when I urge him to perform it, and offer
a nurse's help, he replies that if she were to die he
would be at once accused of murder, and would run a
serious risk.

The Governor to-day was so anxious that I should
persuade the lady to undergo an operation that he even
brought Hadji into the room to interpret what I said in
Arabic. His ceaseless question is, " Will she die ? " and
she asks me the same many times every day. She
insists that I shall be present each day when the wound
is dressed, and give help, lest the doctor without her
leave should plunge a knife into the swelling. These
are most distressing occasions, for an hour of struggle and
suffering usually ends in delirium.

This afternoon, however, she was much freer from
pain, and sent for me to amuse her. She wore some fine
jewels, and some folds of tinselled gauze round her head,
and looked really handsome and intelligent. Her hus-
band wished that we could converse without his imperfect
interpreting, and repeated many times, " She is a learned
woman, and can write and read several languages." The
room was as usual full of women, who had removed their
veils at their lord's command. I showed the lady some


Tibetan sketches, but when I came to one of a man the
women replaced their veils !

When I showed some embroidery, the Governor said he
had heard that the Queen of England employed herself
with her needle in leisure hours, but that it is not comme
il faut here for ladies to work. It seems that the making
of sweetmeats is the only occupation which can be
pursued without loss of dignity. Is it wonderful that
intolerable ennui should be productive of the miserable
jealousies, rivalries, intrigues, and hatreds which accompany
the system of polygamy ?

The host, although civil governor of a large district,
also suffers from ennui. The necessary official duties are
very light, and the accounts and reports are prepared by
others. If money is wanted he makes " an exaction " on
a village, and subordinates screw it out of the people.
Justice, or the marketable commodity which passes for
such, is administered by a kadi. He clatters about the
balconies with slippered feet, is domestic, that is, he
spends most of the day in the haram, smokes, eats two
meals of six or seven courses each, and towards evening
takes a good deal of wine, according to a habit which is
becoming increasingly common among the higher classes
of Moslems. He is hospitable, and is certainly anything
but tyrannical in his household.

The customs and ways of the first Turkish house I
have visited in would be as interesting to you as they
were to myself, but it would be a poor return for
hospitality to dwell upon anything, unless, like the
difficulties regarding the illness of the principal wife,
it were a matter of common notoriety.

It is a punishable act in Persia, and possibly here also,
to look into a neighbour's house, but I cannot help it
unless I were to avoid the window altogether. "Wealth
and poverty are within a few feet of each other, and


as Moslems are charitable to a degree and in a manner
which puts us to shame, the juxtaposition is advantageous.

My neighbour's premises consist of a very small and
mean yard, now a foot deep in black mire, a cow-shed,
and a room without door or windows, with a black un-
even floor, and black slimy rafters neither worse nor
better than many hovels in the Western Isles of Scotland.
A man in middle life, a woman of dubious age, two girls
from eight to ten years old, and a boy a little older are
the occupants. The furniture consists of some wadded
quilts, a copper pot, an iron girdle, a clay ewer or two, a
long knife, a wooden spoon, a clay receptacle for grain,
two or three earthenware basins, glazed green, and a
wicker tray. The cow -shed contains besides the cow,
which is fed on dried thistles a spade, an open basket,
and a baggage pad. A few fowls live in the house, and
are disconcerted to find that they cannot get out of it
without swimming.

The weather is cold and raw, fuel is enormously
dear, work is at a standstill, and cold and ennui keep
my neighbours in bed till the day is well advanced.
" Bed " consists of a wadded quilt laid on the floor, with
another for a 'covering. The man and boy sleep at
one end of the room, the woman and girls at the other,
with covered heads. None make any change in their
dress at night, except that the man takes off the pagri
of his turban, retaining only a skull cap.

The woman gets up first, lights a fire of tamarisk
twigs and thistles in a hole in the middle of the floor,
makes porridge of some coarse brownish flour and water,
and sets it on to warm to boil it, with the means at her
disposal, is impossible. She wades across the yard, gives
the cow a bunch of thistles, milks it into a basin, adds a
little leaven to the milk, which she shakes in a goat skin
till it is thick, carries the skin and basket to the house,


feeds the fowls from the basket, and then rouses her lord.
He rises, stretches himself, yawns, and places himself
cross-legged by the fire, after putting on his pagri. The
room is dense with pungent wood smoke, which escapes
through the doorway, and only a few embers remain.
The wife hands him an earthen bowl, pours some porridge
into it, adds some " thick milk " from the goat skin, and
stands before him with her arms crossed while he eats,
then receives the bowl from his hands and kisses it, as is
usual with the slaves in a household.

Then she lights his pipe, and while he enjoys it
she serves her boy with breakfast in the same fashion,
omitting the concluding ceremony, after which she and
the girls retire to a respectful distance with the big pot,
and finish its contents simultaneously. The pipe over,
she pours water on her lord's hands, letting it run on the
already damp floor, and wipes them with her chadar.
No other ablution is customary in the house.

Poor as this man is, he is a Hadji, and having brought
from Mecca a " prayer stone," with the Prophet's hand
upon it, he takes it from his girdle, puts it on the floor,
bows his forehead on it, turning Mecca-ward, and says his
prayers, repeating his devotions towards evening. The
first day or two he went out, but the roads now being
almost impassable, he confines himself to the repairing of
a small dyke, which keeps the water from running into
the room, which is lower than the yard 5 and performs its
duty very imperfectly, the soak from the yard and the
drip from the roof increasing the sliminess hourly. These
repairs, an occasional pipe, and much sleep are the record
of this man's day till an hour before sunset, when the
meal of the morning is repeated with the addition of
some cheese.

The children keep chiefly in bed. Meanwhile the
woman, the busy bee of the family, contrives to patter


about nearly all day in wet clothing, carrying out
rubbish in single handfuls, breaking twigs, cleaning the
pot, and feeding the cow. The roof, which in fine weather
is the scene of most domestic occupations, is reached
by a steep ladder, and she climbs this seven times in
succession, each time carrying up a fowl, to pick for
imaginary worms in the slimy mud. Dyed yarn is also
carried up to steep in the rain, and in an interval of
dryness some wool was taken up and carded. An hour
before sunset she lights the fire, puts on the porridge,
and again performs seven journeys with seven fowls,
feeds them in the house, attends respectfully to her lord,
feeds her family, including the cow, paddles through
mire to draw water from the river, and unrolls and
spreads the wadded quilts. By the time it is dark they
are once more in bed, where I trust this harmless,
industrious woman enjoys a well-earned sleep.

The clouds are breaking, and in spite of adverse

Online LibraryIsabella L. (Isabella Lucy) BirdJourneys in Persia and Kurdistan : including a summer in the Upper Karun region and a visit to the Nestorian rayahs (Volume 1) → online text (page 6 of 29)