The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter XII

Early Days at Damascus

(1870)

Though old as history itself, thou art fresh as breath or spring, blooming as thine own rosebud, as fragrant as thine own orange flower, O Damascus, Pearl of the East!

As soon as we had settled in our house I had to accustom myself to the honours of my position, which at first were rather irksome to me; but as they were part of the business I had to put up with them. I found my position as the wife of the British Consul in Damascus very different from what it had been in Brazil. A consul in the East as envoyé of a Great Power is a big man, and he ranks almost as high as a Minister would in Europe. Nearer home a consul is often hardly considered to be a gentleman, while in many countries he is not allowed to go to Court. In the East, however, the Consular service was, at the time I write, an honoured profession, and the envoyés of the Great Powers were expected to keep up a little state, especially the English and the French. They had a certain number of Consular dragomans, or gentleman secretaries, in distinction to the travelling dragoman, who bears the same relation as a courier in Europe. They also had a certain number of kawwasses, who look like cavalry soldiers. The Consulate at Damascus was then quite like a diplomatic post, and I felt like a Minister’s wife, and was treated accordingly. For instance, every time I went outside my door I was attended by four kawwasses, with swords and uniforms much ornamented, also a dragoman interpreter. The duty of these four attendants was to clear the way before and behind me, and I assure you it was far more pain than pleasure to me to see mules, horses, donkeys, camels, little children, and poor old men thrust out of the way, as if I were sacred and they were all dirt. How they must have cursed me! I told my kawwasses that I did not wish them to show themselves officious by doing more than was absolutely necessary for the dignity of the British Consulate and the custom of the country. But their escort certainly was necessary to a great extent. When the common people saw a kawwass, they knew one was of importance, and made way for one; otherwise a woman could not walk the streets of Damascus without being molested: even the famished herds of dogs seemed to know the difference between kawwass and no kawwass. The danger from dogs was that they collected and ran in packs, and you were almost caught in the eddy of wild and half-starved dogs if you were not guarded.

I hate pomp and ceremony of all kinds, except where it is absolutely necessary; but in this case I could not dispense with it. The French Minister’s wife was hissed in the streets of Constantinople because she chose to dispense with her escort. A Protestant clergyman’s wife was nearly struck by a Turkish soldier for brushing against him with her petticoats, thus rendering him, according to his religion, unclean. Besides, women in the East want a guard. A missionary young lady who came up in the coupé of the diligence from Beyrout to Damascus had an unpleasant experience. A Persian, who called himself a gentleman, was inside, and kissed her all the way up. She, poor little idiot! saw no way out of the transaction, but came and threw herself on Richard’s protection several days after, and there was an ugly row. She had the Persian arrested, and tried him. If anybody had tried that sort of game on with me, I should have made an example of him myself, and taken the law in my own hands, whoever he was. An escort was therefore necessary. I can understand how some consuls’ wives, sometimes vulgar, ill-conditioned women, might get elated at this newly acquired importance, and presume upon it until they became unbearable. I found the lack of privacy very trying at first, but I was anxious to bear it because I saw that English influence at Damascus required lifting a great many pegs higher than our predecessor left it. The only member of our English noblesse the people had hitherto known in Damascus was Lady Ellenborough, of whom more anon.

As soon as we were settled down I had to begin my receptions. I fixed my reception day on Wednesday; and it was no trifle, for the visitors came all day long. One native lady told me indignantly that she had been to see me three times on my reception day, and had been refused. I said, “When did you come? and how could it happen that I had never heard of it?” She answered almost angrily, “I came at daylight, and again at sunrise, and again at eight o’clock.” I said it was rather early; and though I was an early riser, it was just possible that I had not made a suitable toilet to receive her. On my reception day the dragomans interpreted for me. The kawwasses, in full dress of scarlet and gold, kept guard by turns, and the servants were engaged incessantly in bringing up relays of narghílehs, chibouques, cigarettes, sweetmeats, sherbet, Turkish coffee and tea. My visitors sat on the divans, cross-legged or not, according to their nation, and smoked and chatted. If there were Moslem women, I had two separate reception-rooms, and went from one to the other, as the women will not unveil before strange men. It was a most tiring day; for not only did people come all through the day, but I was obliged to concentrate all my thought not to make a mistake in etiquette. There were many grades and ranks to be considered, and the etiquette in receiving each guest was different according to the rank. The dragoman in attendance upon me would whisper until I knew it, “One step,” or “Two steps,” or “Half across the room,” or “The door.” I thus knew exactly the visitor’s rank, and by what term to address him, from the lowest to the highest. Of course, in receiving natives, the method of receiving men and women was different. I advanced to meet the women; we mutually raised our finger-tips to our hearts, lips, and foreheads. They then seized my hand, which I snatched away to prevent their kissing it (it sounds rude, but it isn’t; it is the essence of politeness), and I kissed them on both cheeks. I personally removed their veils and their izárs. When they took their leave, I reveiled them, and accompanied them to the door. With the men I did not shake hands: we saluted at a distance. If my visitor was a well-bred man, he would not expect me to rise, but would come and kiss my hand, and had to be pressed two or three times before he would consent to sit down. The only man I was in the habit of rising for was the Wali, or Governor-General of Syria, because he represented the Sultan, and he in his turn paid me a similar respect. When he left, I accompanied him to the door of the room, but never to the street door. Moreover, it was de rigueur every time a visitor came that coffee, tea, or sherbet should be offered him, and that I should take it with him and drink first. It was a custom with the natives, and I could not omit it; but when I first held my receptions I found it a great tax upon me, and mixing so many drinks gave me indigestion. Afterwards I grew more wary, and merely moistened my lips. Another thing I used to do at my earlier receptions was to make tea and coffee and carry them round myself, while the dragomans would lazily sit and look on. I didn’t understand this at all, so I told them to get up and help me, and they willingly handed tea and coffee to any European, man or woman, but not to their native ladies, who blushed, begged the dragomans' pardon, and stood up, looking appealingly at me, and praying not to be served. So I found it the easiest thing to wait on the native women myself, though I felt very indignant that any man should feel himself degraded by having to wait on a woman.

I must now mention three of my principal visitors, each of whom afterwards played a large part, though a very different part, in our life at Damascus.

First of all was the Wali, or Governor-General of Syria. I received him in state one day. He came in full uniform with a great many attendants. I seated him in proper form on a divan with pipes and coffee. He was very amiable and polite. He reminded me of an old tom-cat: he was dressed in furs; he was indolent and fat, and walked on his toes and purred. At first sight I thought him a kind-hearted old creature, not very intelligent and easily led. The last quality was true enough; for what disgusted me was that Syria was really governed by dragomans, and the Wali or any other great man was a puppet. For instance, if the Consul wanted to see the Wali, he had to send one of his dragomans to the Wali’s dragomans, and they arranged between them just what they liked. The two chief men met each other, attended by two dragomans, who reported every word of the conversation round Damascus. These men easily made people enemies; and the lies, mischief, and scandal they originated were beyond imagination. I have said that my first impression of the Wali was as of a well-fed cat; but I soon discovered that the cat had claws, for he quickly became jealous of Richard’s influence, and during our two years’ sojourn at Damascus he was one of our worst enemies.

Another, and the most interesting of all the personages who attended my receptions, was Lady Ellenborough, known at Damascus as the Honourable Jane Digby El Mezráb.26 She was the most romantic and picturesque personality: one might say she was Lady Hester Stanhope’s successor. She was of the family of Lord Digby, and had married Lord Ellenborough, Governor-General of India, a man much older than herself, when she was quite a girl. The marriage was against her wish. She was very unhappy with him, and she ran away with Prince Schwartzenburg when she was only nineteen, and Lord Ellenborough divorced her. She lived with Prince Schwartzenburg for some years, and had two or three children by him, and then he basely deserted her. I am afraid after that she led a life for a year or two over which it is kinder to draw a veil. She then tired of Europe, and conceived the idea of visiting the East, and of imitating Lady Hester Stanhope and other European ladies, who became more Eastern than the Easterns. She arrived at Beyrout, and went to Damascus, where she arranged to go to Baghdad, across the desert. For this journey a Bedawin escort was necessary; and as the Mezráb tribe occupied the ground, the duty of commanding the escort devolved upon Shaykh Mijwal, a younger brother of the chief of this tribe. On the journey the young Shaykh fell in love with this beautiful woman, and she fell in love with him. The romantic picture of becoming a queen of the desert suited her wild and roving fancy. She married him, in spite of all opposition, according to the Mohammedan law. At the time I came to Damascus she was living half the year in a house just within the city gates; the other half of the year she passed in the desert in the tents of the Bedawin tribe, living absolutely as a Bedawin woman. When I first saw her she was a most beautiful woman, though sixty-one years of age. She wore one blue garment, and her beautiful hair was in two long plaits down to the ground. When she was in the desert, she used to milk the camels, serve her husband, prepare his food, wash his hands, face, and feet, and stood and waited on him while he ate, like any Arab woman, and gloried in so doing. But at Damascus she led a semi-European life. She blackened her eyes with kohl, and lived in a curiously untidy manner. But otherwise she was not in the least extraordinary at Damascus. But what was incomprehensible to me was how she could have given up all she had in England to live with that dirty little black — or nearly so — husband. I went to see her one day, and when he opened the door to me I thought at first he was a native servant. I could understand her leaving a coarse, cruel husband, much older than herself, whom she never loved (every woman has not the strength of mind and the pride to stand by what she has done); I could understand her running away with Schwartzenburg; but the contact with that black skin I could not understand. Her Shaykh was very dark — darker than a Persian, and much darker than an Arab generally is. All the same, he was a very intelligent and charming man in any light but as a husband. That made me shudder. It was curious how she had retained the charming manner, the soft voice, and all the graces of her youth. You would have known her at once to be an English lady, well born and bred, and she was delighted to greet in me one of her own order. We became great friends, and she dictated to me the whole of her biography, and most romantic and interesting it is. I took a great interest in the poor thing. She was devoted to her Shaykh, whereat I marvelled greatly. Gossip said that he had other wives, but she assured me that he had not, and that both her brother Lord Digby and the British Consul required a legal and official statement to that effect before they were married. She appeared to be quite foolishly in love with him (and I fully comprehend any amount of sacrifice for the man one loves — the greater the better), though the object of her devotion astonished me. Her eyes often used to fill with tears when talking of England, her people, and old times; and when we became more intimate, she spoke to me of every detail of her erring but romantic career. It was easy to see that Schwartzenburg had been the love of her life, for her eyes would light up with a glory when she mentioned him, and she whispered his name with bated breath. It was his desertion which wrecked her life. Poor thing! she was far more sinned against than sinning.

Our other friend a Damascus was the famous Abd el Kadir. Every one knows his history: every one has heard of his hopeless struggles for the independence of Algeria; his capture and imprisonment in France from 1847 to 1852, when he was set free by Louis Napoleon on the intercession of Lord Londonderry. More than that, Louis Napoleon was magnanimous enough to pension him, and sent him to Damascus, where he was living when we came, surrounded by five hundred faithful Algerians. He loved the English, but he was very loyal to Louis Napoleon. He was dark, and a splendid-looking man with a stately bearing, and perfectly self-possessed. He always dressed in snow white, turban and burnous, with not a single ornament except his jewelled arms, which were superb. He was every inch a soldier and a sultan, and his mind was as beautiful as his face. Both he and Richard were Master-Sufi, and they greatly enjoyed a talk together, both speaking purest Arabic.

When I look back on those dear days and friends in Damascus, my eyes fill and my heart throbs at the memories which crowd upon me. When I think of all those memories, none is dearer to me than the recollection of the evenings which we four — Lady Ellenborough, Abd el Kadir, Richard, and myself — used to spend together on the top of our house. Often after my reception was over and the sun was setting, we used to ask these two to stay behind the others and have a little supper with us, and we would go up to the roof, where it was prepared, and where mattresses and the cushions of the divans were spread about, and have our evening meal; and after that we would smoke our narghílehs, and talk and talk and talk far into the night, about things above, things on the earth, and things under the earth. I shall never forget the scene on the housetop, backed as it was by the sublime mountain, a strip of sand between it and us, and on the other three sides was the view over Damascus and beyond the desert. It was all wild, romantic, and solemn; and sometimes we would pause in our conversation to listen to the sounds around us: the last call to prayer on the minaret-top, the soughing of the wind through the mountain-gorges, and the noise of the water-wheel in the neighbouring orchard.

I have said we smoked, and that included Lady Ellenborough and myself. I must confess to the soft impeachment, despite insular prejudices; and I would advise any woman who sojourns in the East to learn to smoke, if she can. I am no admirer of a big cigar in a woman’s mouth, or a short clay; but I know of nothing more graceful or enjoyable than a cigarette, and even more so in the narghíleh, or even the chibouque, which, however, is quite a man’s pipe.

I must add that when we were in the East Richard and I made a point of leading two lives. We were always thoroughly English in our Consulate, and endeavoured to set an example of the way in which England should be represented abroad, and in our official life we strictly conformed to English customs and conventions; but when we were off duty, so to speak, we used to live a great deal as natives, and so obtained experience of the inner Eastern life. Richard’s friendship with the Mohammedans, and his perfect mastery of the Arabic and Persian languages and literature, naturally put him into intimate relations with the oriental authorities and the Arab tribes, and he was always very popular among them, with one exception, and that was the Turkish Wali, or Governor, aforesaid. Richard was my guide in all things; and since he adapted himself to the native life, I endeavoured to adapt myself to it also, not only because it was my duty, but because I loved it. For instance, though we always wore European dress in Damascus and Beyrout, we wore native dress in the desert. I always wore the men’s dress on our expeditions in the desert and up the country. By that I mean the dress of the Arab men. This is not so dreadful as Mrs. Grundy may suppose, as it was all drapery, and does not show the figure. There was nothing but the face to show the curious whether you were a man or a woman, and I used to tuck my kuffiyyah up to only show my eyes. When we wore Eastern clothes, we always ate as the Easterns ate. If I went to a bazaar, I frequently used to dress like a Moslem woman with my face covered, and sit in the shops and let my Arab maid do the talking. They never suspected me, and so I heard all their gossip and entered into something of their lives. The women frequently took me into the mosque in this garb, but to the harím I always went in my European clothes. Richard and I lived the Eastern life thoroughly, and we loved it.

We went to every kind of ceremony, whether it was a circumcision, or a wedding, or a funeral, or a dervish dance, or anything that was going on; and we mixed with all classes, and religions, and races, and tongues. I remember my first invitation was to a grand fête to celebrate the circumcision of a youth about ten years of age. He was very pretty, and was dressed in gorgeous garments covered with jewellery. Singing, dancing, and feasting went on for about three days. The ceremony took place quite publicly. There was a loud clang of music and firing of guns to drown the boy’s cries, and with one stroke of a circular knife the operation was finished in a second. The part cut off was then handed round on a silver salver, as if to force all present to attest that the rite had been performed. I felt quite sick, and English modesty overpowered curiosity, and I could not look. Later on, when I grew more used to Eastern ways, I was forced to accept the compliment paid to the highest rank, and a great compliment to me as a Christian, to hold the boy in my arms whilst the ceremony was being performed. It was rather curious at first to be asked to a circumcision, as one might be asked to a christening in England or a “small and early.”

For the first three months of my life at Damascus I only indulged in short excursions, but Richard went away on longer expeditions, often for days, sometimes on business and sometimes to visit the Druze chiefs. I have said that our house was about a quarter of an hour from Damascus, and whilst Richard was away on one of these expeditions I broke through a stupid rule. It was agreed that I could never dine out or go to a soirée in Damascus, because after sunset the roads between Damascus and our house on the hillside were infested with Kurds. I was tired of being “gated” in this way, so I sent to the Chief of Police, and told him I intended to dine out when I chose and where I chose, and to return at all hours — any hours I pleased. He looked astonished, so I gave him a present. He looked cheerful, and I then told him to make it his business that I was never to be attacked or molested. I showed him my revolver, and said, “I will shoot the first man who comes within five yards of me or my horse.” I went down twice to Damascus while Richard was away the first time, and I found all the gates of the city open and men posted with lanterns everywhere. I took an escort of four of my servants, and I told them plainly that the first man who ran away I would shoot from behind. I came back one night at eleven o’clock, and another at two o’clock in the morning, and nothing happened.

When I knew that Richard was coming back from the desert, I rode out to meet him about eight miles. I did not meet him until sunset. He said he knew a short cut to Damascus across the mountains, but we lost our way. Night came on, and we were wandering about amongst the rocks and precipices on the mountains. We could not see our hands before our faces. Our horses would not move, and we had to dismount, and grope our way, and lead them. Richard’s horse was dead-beat, and mine was too fiery; and we had to wait till the moon rose, reaching home at last half dead with fatigue and hunger.

Our daily life at Damascus, when we were not engaged in any expedition or excursion, was much as follows: We rose at daybreak. Richard went down every day to his Consulate in the city at twelve o’clock, and remained there till four or five. We had two meals a day — breakfast at 11 a.m., and supper at dusk. At the breakfast any of our friends and acquaintances who liked used to drop in and join us; and immediately after our evening meal we received friends, if any came. If not, Richard used to read himself to sleep, and I did the same. Of Richard’s great and many activities at Damascus, of his difficult and dangerous work, of his knowledge of Eastern character and Eastern languages, of his political and diplomatic talents, all of which made him just the man for the place, I have written elsewhere. Here I have to perform the infinitely harder task of speaking of myself. But in writing of my daily life at Damascus I must not forget that my first and best work was to interest myself in all my husband’s pursuits, and to be, as far as he would allow me to be, his companion, his private secretary, and his aide-de-camp. Thus I saw and learnt much, not only of native life, but also of high political matters. I would only say that my days were all too short: I wish they had been six hours longer. When not helping Richard, my work consisted of looking after my house, servants, stables and horses, of doing a little gardening, of reading, writing, and studying, of trying to pick up Arabic, of receiving visits and returning them, of seeing and learning Damascus thoroughly, and looking after the poor and sick who came in my way. I often also had a gallop over the mountains and plains; or I went shooting, either on foot or on horseback. The game was very wild round Damascus, but I got a shot at red-legged partridges, wild duck, quail, snipe, and woodcock, and I seldom came home with an empty bag. The only time I ever felt lonely was during the long winter nights when Richard was away. In the summer I did not feel lonely, because I could always go and smoke a narghíleh with the women at the water-side in a neighbour’s garden. But in the winter it was not possible to do this. So I used to occupy myself with music or literature, or with writing these rough notes, which I or some one else will put together some day. But more often than not I sat and listened to the stillness, broken ever and anon by weird sounds outside.

So passed our life at Damascus.

26 Miss Stisted speaks of her as "Jane Digby, who capped her wild career by marrying a camel-driver,” and animadverts on Lady Burton for befriending her. The Shaykh was never a camel-driver in his life, and few, I think, will blame Lady Burton for her kindness to this poor lady, her countrywoman, in a strange land.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burton/isabel/romance/chapter22.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:33