The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 56

The Mahasni — Sin Samani — The Bazaar — Moorish Saints — See the Ayana! — The Prickly Fig — Jewish Graves — The Place of Carcases — The Stable Boy — Horses of the Moslem — Dar Dwag.

I was standing in the market-place, a spectator of much the same scene as I have already described, when a Moor came up to me and attempted to utter a few words in Spanish. He was a tall elderly man, with sharp but rather whimsical features, and might have been called good-looking, had he not been one-eyed, a very common deformity in this country. His body was swathed in an immense haik. Finding that I could understand Moorish, he instantly began talking with immense volubility, and I soon learned that he was a Mahasni. He expatiated diffusely on the beauties of Tangier, of which he said he was a native, and at last exclaimed, “Come, my sultan, come, my lord, and I will show you many things which will gladden your eyes, and fill your heart with sunshine; it were a shame in me, who have the advantage of being a son of Tangier, to permit a stranger who comes from an island in the great sea, as you tell me you do, for the purpose of seeing this blessed land, to stand here in the soc with no one to guide him. By Allah, it shall not be so. Make room for my sultan, make room for my lord,” he continued, pushing his way through a crowd of men and children who had gathered round us; “it is his highness’ pleasure to go with me. This way, my lord, this way”; and he led the way up the hill, walking at a tremendous rate and talking still faster. “This street,” said he, “is the Siarrin, and its like is not to be found in Tangier; observe how broad it is, even half the breadth of the soc itself; here are the shops of the most considerable merchants, where are sold precious articles of all kinds. Observe those two men, they are Algerines and good Moslems; they fled from Zair (Algiers) when the Nazarenes conquered it, not by force of fighting, not by valour, as you may well suppose, but by gold; the Nazarenes only conquer by gold. The Moor is good, the Moor is strong, who so good and strong? but he fights not with gold, and therefore he lost Zair.

“Observe you those men seated on the benches by those portals: they are Mahasniah, they are my brethren. See their haiks how white, see their turbans how white. O that you could see their swords in the day of war, for bright, bright are their swords. Now they bear no swords. Wherefore should they? Is there not peace in the land? See you him in the shop opposite? That is the Pasha of Tangier, that is the Hamed Sin Samani, the under Pasha of Tangier; the elder Pasha, my lord, is away on a journey; may Allah send him a safe return. Yes, that is Hamed; he sits in his hanutz as were he nought more than a merchant, yet life and death are in his hands. There he dispenses justice, even as he dispenses the essence of the rose and cochineal, and powder of cannon and sulphur; and these two last he sells on the account of Abderrahman, my lord and sultan, for none can sell powder and the sulphur dust in his land but the sultan. Should you wish to purchase atar del nuar, should you wish to purchase the essence of the rose, you must go to the hanutz of Sin Samani, for there only you will get it pure; you must receive it from no common Moor, but only from Hamed. May Allah bless Hamed. The Mahasniah, my brethren, wait to do his orders, for wherever sits the Pasha, there is a hall of judgment. See, now we are opposite the bazaar; beneath yon gate is the court of the bazaar; what will you not find in that bazaar? Silks from Fez you will find there; and if you wish for sibat, if you wish for slippers for your feet, you must seek them there, and there also are sold curious things from the towns of the Nazarenes. Those large houses on our left are habitations of Nazarene consuls; you have seen many such in your own land, therefore why should you stay to look at them? Do you not admire this street of the Siarrin? Whatever enters or goes out of Tangier by the land passes through this street. Oh, the riches that pass through this street! Behold those camels, what a long train; twenty, thirty, a whole cafila descending the street. Wullah! I know those camels, I know the driver. Good day, O Sidi Hassim, in how many days from Fez? And now we are arrived at the wall, and we must pass under this gate. This gate is called Bab del Faz; we are now in the Soc de Barra.”

The Soc de Barra is an open place beyond the upper wall of Tangier, on the side of the hill. The ground is irregular and steep; there are, however, some tolerably level spots. In this place, every Thursday and Sunday morning, a species of mart is held, on which account it is called Soc de Barra, or the outward market-place. Here and there, near the town ditch, are subterranean pits with small orifices, about the circumference of a chimney, which are generally covered with a large stone, or stuffed with straw. These pits are granaries, in which wheat, barley, and other species of grain intended for sale are stored. On one side are two or three rude huts, or rather sheds, beneath which keep watch the guardians of the corn. It is very dangerous to pass over this hill at night, after the town gates are closed, as at that time numerous large and ferocious dogs are let loose, who would to a certainty pull down, and perhaps destroy, any stranger who should draw nigh. Half way up the hill are seen four white walls, inclosing a spot about ten feet square, where rest the bones of Sidi Mokhfidh, a saint of celebrity, who died some fifteen years ago. Here terminates the soc; the remainder of the hill is called El Kawar, or the place of graves, being the common burying ground of Tangier; the resting places of the dead are severally distinguished by a few stones arranged so as to form an oblong circle. Near Mokhfidh sleeps Sidi Gali; but the principal saint of Tangier lies interred on the top of the hill, in the centre of a small plain. A beautiful chapel or mosque, with vaulted roof, is erected there in his honour, which is in general adorned with banners of various dyes. The name of this saint is Mohammed el Hadge, and his memory is held in the utmost veneration in Tangier and its vicinity. His death occurred at the commencement of the present century.

These details I either gathered at the time or on subsequent occasions. On the north side of the soc, close by the town, is a wall with a gate. “Come,” said the old Mahasni, giving a flourish with his hand; “Come, and I will show you the garden of a Nazarene consul.” I followed him through the gate, and found myself in a spacious garden laid out in the European taste, and planted with lemon and pear trees, and various kinds of aromatic shrubs. It was, however, evident that the owner chiefly prided himself on his flowers, of which there were numerous beds. There was a handsome summerhouse, and art seemed to have exhausted itself in making the place complete.

One thing was wanting, and its absence was strangely remarkable in a garden at this time of the year; scarcely a leaf was to be seen. The direst of all the plagues which devastated Egypt was now busy in this part of Africa — the locust was at work, and in no place more fiercely than in the particular spot where I was now standing. All around looked blasted. The trees were brown and bald as in winter. Nothing green save the fruits, especially the grapes, huge clusters of which were depending from the “parras”; for the locust touches not the fruit whilst a single leaf remains to be devoured. As we passed along the walks these horrible insects flew against us in every direction, and perished by hundreds beneath our feet. “See the ayanas,” said the old Mahasni, “and hear them eating. Powerful is the ayana, more powerful than the sultan or the consul. Should the sultan send all his Mahasniah against the ayana, should he send me with them, the ayana would say, ‘Ha! ha!’ Powerful is the ayana! He fears not the consul. A few weeks ago the consul said, ‘I am stronger than the ayana, and I will extirpate him from the land.’ So he shouted through the city, ‘O Tangerines! speed forth to fight the ayana, — destroy him in the egg; for know that whosoever shall bring me one pound weight of the eggs of the ayana, unto him will I give five reals of Spain; there shall be no ayanas this year.’ So all Tangier rushed forth to fight the ayana, and to collect the eggs which the ayana had laid to hatch beneath the sand on the sides of the hills, and in the roads, and in the plains. And my own child, who is seven years old, went forth to fight the ayana, and he alone collected eggs to the weight of five pounds, eggs which the ayana had placed beneath the sand, and he carried them to the consul, and the consul paid the price. And hundreds carried eggs to the consul, more or less, and the consul paid them the price, and in less than three days the treasure chest of the consul was exhausted. And then he cried, ‘Desist, O Tangerines! perhaps we have destroyed the ayana, perhaps we have destroyed them all.’ Ha! ha! Look around you, and beneath you, and above you, and tell me whether the consul has destroyed the ayana. Oh, powerful is the ayana! More powerful than the consul, more powerful than the sultan and all his armies.”

It will be as well to observe here, that within a week from this time all the locusts had disappeared, no one knew how, only a few stragglers remained. But for this providential deliverance, the fields and gardens in the vicinity of Tangier would have been totally devastated. These insects were of an immense size, and of a loathly aspect.

We now passed over the see to the opposite side, where stand the huts of the guardians. Here a species of lane presents itself, which descends to the sea-shore; it is deep and precipitous, and resembles a gully or ravine. The banks on either side are covered with the tree which bears the prickly fig, called in Moorish, Kermous del Inde. There is something wild and grotesque in the appearance of this tree or plant, for I know not which to call it. Its stem, though frequently of the thickness of a man’s body, has no head, but divides itself, at a short distance from the ground, into many crooked branches, which shoot in all directions, and bear green and uncouth leaves, about half an inch in thickness, and which, if they resemble anything, present the appearance of the fore fins of a seal, and consist of multitudinous fibres. The fruit, which somewhat resembles a pear, has a rough tegument covered with minute prickles, which instantly enter the hand which touches them, however slightly, and are very difficult to extract. I never remember to have seen vegetation in ranker luxuriance than that which these fig-trees exhibited, nor upon the whole a more singular spot. “Follow me,” said the Mahasni, “and I will show you something which you will like to see.” So he turned to the left, leading the way by a narrow path up the steep bank, till we reached the summit of a hillock, separated by a deep ditch from the wall of Tangier. The ground was thickly covered with the trees already described, which spread their strange arms along the surface, and whose thick leaves crushed beneath our feet as we walked along. Amongst them I observed a large number of stone slabs lying horizontally; they were rudely scrawled over with odd characters, which I stooped down to inspect. “Are you Talib enough to read those signs?” exclaimed the old Moor. “They are letters of the accursed Jews; this is their mearrah, as they call it, and here they inter their dead. Fools, they trust in Muza, when they might believe in Mohammed, and therefore their dead shall burn everlastingly in Jehinnim. See, my sultan, how fat is the soil of this mearrah of the Jews; see what kermous grow here. When I was a boy I often came to the mearrah of the Jews to eat kermous in the season of their ripeness. The Moslem boys of Tangier love the kermous of the mearrah of the Jews; but the Jews will not gather them. They say that the waters of the springs which nourish the roots of these trees, pass among the bodies of their dead, and for that reason it is an abomination to taste of these fruits. Be this true, or be it not, one thing is certain, in whatever manner nourished, good are the kermous which grow in the mearrah of the Jews.”

We returned to the lane by the same path by which we had come: as we were descending it he said, “Know, my sultan, that the name of the place where we now are, and which you say you like much, is Dar Sinah (the house of the trades). You will ask me why it bears that name, as you see neither house nor man, neither Moslem, Nazarene, nor Jew, only our two selves; I will tell you, my sultan, for who can tell you better than myself? Learn, I pray you, that Tangier was not always what it is now, nor did it occupy always the place which it does now. It stood yonder (pointing to the east) on those hills above the shore, and ruins of houses are still to be seen there, and the spot is called Old Tangier. So in the old time, as I have heard say, this Dar Sinah was a street, whether without or within the wall matters not, and there resided men of all trades; smiths of gold and silver, and iron, and tin, and artificers of all kinds: you had only to go to the Dar Sinah if you wished for anything wrought, and there instantly you would find a master of the particular craft. My sultan tells me he likes the look of Dar Sinah at the present day; truly I know not why, especially as the kermous are not yet in their ripeness nor fit to eat. If he likes Dar Sinah now, how would my sultan have liked it in the olden time, when it was filled with gold and silver, and iron and tin, and was noisy with the hammers, and the masters and the cunning men? We are now arrived at the Chali del Bahar (sea-shore). Take care, my sultan, we tread upon bones.”

We had emerged from the Dar Sinah, and the sea-shore was before us; on a sudden we found ourselves amongst a multitude of bones of all kinds of animals, and seemingly of all dates; some being blanched with time and exposure to sun and wind, whilst to others the flesh still partly clung; whole carcases were here, horses, asses, and even the uncouth remains of a camel. Gaunt dogs were busy here, growling, tearing, and gnawing; amongst whom, unintimidated, stalked the carrion vulture, fiercely battening and even disputing with the brutes the garbage; whilst the crow hovered overhead and croaked wistfully, or occasionally perched upon some upturned rib bone. “See,” said the Mahasni, “the kawar of the animals. My sultan has seen the kawar of the Moslems and the mearrah of the Jews; and he sees here the kawar of the animals. All the animals which die in Tangier by the hand of God, horse, dog, or camel, are brought to this spot, and here they putrefy or are devoured by the birds of the heaven or the wild creatures that prowl on the chali. Come, my sultan, it is not good to remain long in this place.”

We were preparing to leave the spot, when we heard a galloping down the Dar Sinah, and presently a horse and rider darted at full speed from the mouth of the lane and appeared upon the strand; the horseman, when he saw us, pulled up his steed with much difficulty, and joined us. The horse was small but beautiful, a sorrel with long mane and tail; had he been hoodwinked he might perhaps have been mistaken for a Cordovese jaca; he was broad-chested, and rotund in his hind quarters, and possessed much of the plumpness and sleekness which distinguish that breed, but looking in his eyes you would have been undeceived in a moment; a wild savage fire darted from the restless orbs, and so far from exhibiting the docility of the other noble and loyal animal, he occasionally plunged desperately, and could scarcely be restrained by a strong curb and powerful arm from resuming his former headlong course. The rider was a youth, apparently about eighteen, dressed as a European, with a Montero cap on his head: he was athletically built, but with lengthy limbs, his feet, for he rode without stirrups or saddle, reaching almost to the ground; his complexion was almost as dark as that of a Mulatto; his features very handsome, the eyes particularly so, but filled with an expression which was bold and bad; and there was a disgusting look of sensuality about the mouth. He addressed a few words to the Mahasni, with whom he seemed to be well acquainted, inquiring who I was. The old man answered, “O Jew, my sultan understands our speech, thou hadst better address thyself to him.” The lad then spoke to me in Arabic, but almost instantly dropping that language proceeded to discourse in tolerable French. “I suppose you are French,” said he with much familiarity, “shall you stay long in Tangier?” Having received an answer, he proceeded, “as you are an Englishman, you are doubtless fond of horses, know, therefore, whenever you are disposed for a ride, I will accompany you, and procure you horses. My name is Ephraim Fragey: I am stable-boy to the Neapolitan consul, who prizes himself upon possessing the best horses in Tangier; you shall mount any you please. Would you like to try this little aoud (stallion)?” I thanked him, but declined his offer for the present, asking him at the same time how he had acquired the French language, and why he, a Jew, did not appear in the dress of his brethren? “I am in the service of a consul,” said he, “and my master obtained permission that I might dress myself in this manner; and as to speaking French, I have been to Marseilles and Naples, to which last place I conveyed horses, presents from the Sultan. Besides French, I can speak Italian.” He then dismounted, and holding the horse firmly by the bridle with one hand, proceeded to undress himself, which having accomplished, he mounted the animal and rode into the water. The skin of his body was much akin in colour to that of a frog or toad, but the frame was that of a young Titan. The horse took to the water with great unwillingness, and at a small distance from the shore commenced struggling with his rider, whom he twice dashed from his back; the lad, however, clung to the bridle, and detained the animal. All his efforts, however, being unavailing to ride him deeper in, he fell to washing him strenuously with his hands, then leading him out, he dressed himself and returned by the way he came.

“Good are the horses of the Moslems,” said my old friend, “where will you find such? They will descend rocky mountains at full speed and neither trip nor fall, but you must be cautious with the horses of the Moslems, and treat them with kindness, for the horses of the Moslems are proud, and they like not being slaves. When they are young and first mounted, jerk not their mouths with your bit, for be sure if you do they will kill you; sooner or later, you will perish beneath their feet. Good are our horses; and good our riders, yea, very good are the Moslems at mounting the horse; who are like them? I once saw a Frank rider compete with a Moslem on this beach, and at first the Frank rider had it all his own way, and he passed the Moslem, but the course was long, very long, and the horse of the Frank rider, which was a Frank also, panted; but the horse of the Moslem panted not, for he was a Moslem also, and the Moslem rider at last gave a cry and the horse sprang forward and he overtook the Frank horse, and then the Moslem rider stood up in his saddle. How did he stand? Truly he stood on his head, and these eyes saw him; he stood on his head in the saddle as he passed the Frank rider; and he cried ha! ha! as he passed the Frank rider; and the Moslem horse cried ha! ha! as he passed the Frank breed, and the Frank lost by a far distance. Good are the Franks; good their horses; but better are the Moslems, and better the horses of the Moslems.”

We now directed our steps towards the town, but not by the path we came: turning to the left under the hill of the mearrah, and along the strand, we soon came to a rudely paved way with a steep ascent, which wound beneath the wall of the town to a gate, before which, on one side, were various little pits like graves, filled with water or lime. “This is Dar Dwag,” said the Mahasni; “this is the house of the bark, and to this house are brought the hides; all those which are prepared for use in Tangier are brought to this house, and here they are cured with lime, and bran, and bark, and herbs. And in this Dar Dwag there are one hundred and forty pits; I have counted them myself; and there were more which have now ceased to be, for the place is very ancient. And these pits are hired not by one, nor by two, but by many people, and whosoever list can rent one of these pits and cure the hides which he may need; but the owner of all is one man, and his name is Cado Ableque. And now my sultan has seen the house of the bark, and I will show him nothing more this day; for today is Youm al Jumal (Friday), and the gates will be presently shut whilst the Moslems perform their devotions. So I will accompany my sultan to the guest house, and there I will leave him for the present.”

We accordingly passed through a gate, and ascending a street found ourselves before the mosque where I had stood in the morning; in another minute or two we were at the door of Joanna Correa. I now offered my kind guide a piece of silver as a remuneration for his trouble, whereupon he drew himself up and said:—

“The silver of my sultan I will not take, for I consider that I have done nothing to deserve it. We have not yet visited all the wonderful things of this blessed town. On a future day I will conduct my sultan to the castle of the governor, and to other places which my sultan will be glad to see; and when we have seen all we can, and my sultan is content with me, if at any time he see me in the soc of a morning, with my basket in my hand, and he see nothing in that basket, then is my sultan at liberty as a friend to put grapes in my basket, or bread in my basket, or fish or meat in my basket. That will I not refuse of my sultan, when I shall have done more for him than I have now. But the silver of my sultan will I not take now nor at any time.” He then waved his hand gently and departed.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32