Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, by Richard Burton

Chapter II.

I Leave Alexandria.

THE thorough-bred wanderer’s idiosyncracy I presume to be a composition of what phrenologists call “inhabitiveness” and “locality” equally and largely developed. After a long and toilsome march, weary of the way, he drops into the nearest place of rest to become the most domestic of men. For a while he smokes the “pipe of permanence”1 with an infinite zest; he delights in various siestas during the day, relishing withal deep sleep during the dark hours; he enjoys dining at a fixed dinner hour, and he wonders at the demoralisation of the mind which cannot find means of excitement in chit-chat or small talk, in a novel or a newspaper. But soon the passive fit has passed away; again a paroxysm of ennui coming on by slow degrees, Viator loses appetite, he walks about his room all night, he yawns at conversations, and a book acts upon him as a narcotic. The man wants to wander, and he must do so, or he shall die.

After about a month most pleasantly spent at Alexandria, I perceived the approach of the enemy, and as nothing hampered my incomings and outgoings, I surrendered. The world was “all before me,” and there was pleasant excitement in plunging single-handed into its chilling depths. My Alexandrian Shaykh, whose heart fell victim to a new “jubbah,” which I had given in exchange for his tattered za’abut2 offered me, in consideration of a certain monthly stipend, the affections of a brother and religious refreshment, proposing to send his wife back to her papa, and to accompany me, in the capacity of private chaplain to the other side of Kaf. 3 I politely accepted the “Bruderschaft,” but many reasons induced me to decline his society and services. In the first place, he spoke the detestable Egyptian jargon. Secondly, it was but prudent to lose the “spoor” between Alexandria and Suez. And, thirdly, my “brother” had shifting eyes (symptoms of fickleness), close together (indices of cunning); a flat-crowned head, and large ill-fitting lips; signs which led me to think lightly of his honesty, firmness, and courage. Phrenology and physiognomy, be it observed, disappoint you often amongst civilised people, the proper action of whose brain upon the features is impeded by the external pressure of education, accident, example, habit, and necessity. But they are tolerably safe guides when groping your way through the mind of man in his so-called natural state, a being of impulse, in that chrysalis condition of mental development which is rather instinct than reason.

Before my departure, however, there was much to be done.

The land of the Pharaohs is becoming civilised, and unpleasantly so: nothing can be more uncomfortable than its present middle state, between barbarism and the reverse. The prohibition against carrying arms is rigid as in Italy; all “violence” is violently denounced; and beheading being deemed cruel, the most atrocious crimes, as well as those small political offences, which in the days of the Mamluks would have led to a beyship or a bow-string, receive fourfold punishment by deportation to Fayzoghlu, the local Cayenne. If you order your peasant to be flogged, his friends gather in threatening hundreds at your gates; when you curse your boatman, he complains to your consul; the dragomans afflict you with strange wild notions about honesty; a Government order prevents you from using vituperative language to the “natives” in general; and the very donkey boys are becoming cognisant of the right of man to remain unbastinadoed. Still the old leaven remains behind: here, as elsewhere in the “Morning-land,” you cannot hold your own without employing the voie de fait. The passport system, now dying out of Europe, has sprung up, or rather has revived, in Egypt, with peculiar vigour.4 Its good effects claim for it our respect; still we cannot but lament its inconvenience. By we, I mean real Easterns. As strangers — even those whose beards have whitened in the land — know absolutely nothing of what unfortunate natives must endure, I am tempted to subjoin a short sketch of my adventures in search of a Tazkirah, or passport, at Alexandria.

Through ignorance which might have cost me dear but for friend Larking’s weight with the local authorities, I had neglected to provide myself with a passport in England, and it was not without difficulty, involving much unclean dressing and an unlimited expenditure of broken English, that I obtained from H.B.M’s Consul at Alexandria a certificate, declaring me to be an Indo-British subject named Abdullah, by profession a doctor, aged thirty, and not distinguished — at least so the frequent blanks seemed to denote — by any remarkable conformation of eyes, nose, or cheek. For this I disbursed a dollar. And here let me record the indignation with which I did it. That mighty Britain — the mistress of the seas — the ruler of one-sixth of mankind — should charge five shillings to pay for the shadow of her protecting wing! That I cannot speak my modernised “civis sum Romanus” without putting my hand into my pocket, in order that these officers of the Great Queen may not take too ruinously from a revenue of seventy millions! O the meanness of our magnificence! the littleness of our greatness!

My new passport would not carry me without the Zabit or Police Magistrate’s counter-signature, said H.B.M.‘s Consul. Next day I went to the Zabit, who referred me to the Muhafiz (Governor) of Alexandria, at whose gate I had the honour of squatting at least three hours, till a more compassionate clerk vouchsafed the information that the proper place to apply to was the Diwan Kharijiyah (the Foreign Office). Thus a second day was utterly lost. On the morning of the third I started, as directed, for the Palace, which crowns the Headland of Clay. It is a huge and couthless shell of building in parallelogrammic form, containing all kinds of public offices in glorious confusion, looking with their glaring white-washed faces upon a central court, where a few leafless wind-wrung trees seem struggling for the breath of life in an eternal atmosphere of clay-dust and sun-blaze.5

The first person I addressed was a Kawwas6 or police officer, who, coiled comfortably up in a bit of shade fitting his person like a robe, was in full enjoyment of the Asiatic “Kayf.” Having presented the consular certificate and briefly stated the nature of my business, I ventured to inquire what was the right course to pursue for a visa.

They have little respect for Darwayshes, it appears, at Alexandria.

M’adri — “Don’t know,” growled the man of authority, without moving any thing but the quantity of tongue absolutely necessary for articulation.

Now there are three ways of treating Asiatic officials, — by bribe, by bullying, or by bothering them with a dogged perseverance into attending to you and your concerns. The latter is the peculiar province of the poor; moreover, this time I resolved, for other reasons, to be patient. I repeated my question in almost the same words. Ruh! “Be off,” was what I obtained for all reply. But this time the questioned went so far as to open his eyes. Still I stood twirling the paper in my hands, and looking very humble and very persevering, till a loud Ruh ya Kalb! “Go, O dog!” converted into a responsive curse the little speech I was preparing about the brotherhood of Al-Islam and the mutual duties obligatory on true believers. I then turned away slowly and fiercely, for the next thing might have been a cut with the Kurbaj,7 and, by the hammer of Thor! British flesh and blood could never have stood that.

After which satisfactory scene, — for satisfactory it was in one sense, proving the complete fitness of the Darwaysh’s costume, — I tried a dozen other promiscuous sources of information, — policemen, grooms, scribes, donkey-boys, and idlers in general. At length, wearied of patience, I offered a soldier some pinches of tobacco, and promised him an Oriental sixpence if he would manage the business for me. The man was interested by the tobacco and the pence; he took my hand, and inquiring the while he went along, led me from place to place, till, mounting a grand staircase, I stood in the presence of Abbas Effendi, Naib or deputy to the Governor.

It was a little, whey-faced, black-bearded Turk, coiled up in the usual conglomerate posture upon a calico-covered diwan, at the end of a long, bare, large — windowed room. Without deigning even to nod the head, which hung over his shoulder with transcendent listlessness and affectation of pride, in answer to my salams and benedictions, he eyed me with wicked eyes, and faintly ejaculated “Min ent8?” Then hearing that I was a Darwaysh and doctor — he must be an Osmanli Voltairean, that little Turk — the official snorted a contemptuous snort. He condescendingly added, however, that the proper source to seek was “Taht,” which, meaning simply “below,” conveyed to an utter stranger rather imperfect information from a topographical point of view.

At length, however, my soldier guide found out that a room in the custom-house bore the honourable appellation of “Foreign Office.” Accordingly I went there, and, after sitting at least a couple of hours at the bolted door in the noon-day sun, was told, with a fury which made me think I had sinned, that the officer in whose charge the department was, had been presented with an olive branch in the morning, and consequently that business was not to be done that day. The angry-faced official communicated the intelligence to a large group of Anadolian, Caramanian, Bosniac, and Roumelian Turks, — sturdy, undersized, broad-shouldered, bare-legged, splay-footed, horny-fisted, dark-browed, honest-looking mountaineers, who were lounging about with long pistols and yataghans stuck in their broad sashes, head-gear composed of immense tarbushes with proportionate turbands coiled round them, and bearing two or three suits of substantial clothes, even at this season of the year, upon their shoulders.

Like myself they had waited some hours, but they were not so patient under disappointment: they bluntly told the angry official that he and his master were a pair of idlers, and the curses that rumbled and gurgled in their hairy throats as they strode towards the door sounded like the growling of wild beasts.

Thus was another day truly orientally lost. On the morrow, however, I obtained permission, in the character of Dr. Abdullah, to visit any part of Egypt I pleased, and to retain possession of my dagger and pistols.

And now I must explain what induced me to take so much trouble about a passport. The home reader naturally inquires, Why not travel under your English name?

For this reason. In the generality of barbarous countries you must either proceed, like Bruce, preserving the “dignity of manhood,” and carrying matters with a high hand, or you must worm your way by timidity and subservience; in fact, by becoming an animal too contemptible for man to let or injure. But to pass through the Moslem’s Holy Land, you must either be a born believer, or have become one; in the former case you may demean yourself as you please, in the latter a path is ready prepared for you. My spirit could not bend to own myself a Burma,9 a renegade — to be pointed at and shunned and catechised, an object of suspicion to the many and of contempt to all. Moreover, it would have obstructed the aim of my wanderings. The convert is always watched with Argus eyes, and men do not willingly give information to a “new Moslem,” especially a Frank: they suspect his conversion to be feigned or forced, look upon him as a spy, and let him see as little of life as possible. Firmly as was my heart set upon travelling in Arabia, by Heaven! I would have given up the dear project rather than purchase a doubtful and partial success at such a price. Consequently, I had no choice but to appear as a born believer, and part of my birthright in that respectable character was toil and trouble in obtaining a Tazkirah.10

Then I had to provide myself with certain necessaries for the way. These were not numerous. The silver-mounted dressing-bag is here supplied by a rag containing a Miswak11 or tooth-stick, a bit of soap and a comb, wooden, for bone and tortoiseshell are not, religiously speaking, correct. Equally simple was my wardrobe; a change or two of clothing. It is a great mistake to carry too few clothes, and those who travel as Orientals should always have at least one very grand suit for use on critical occasions. Throughout the East a badly dressed man is a pauper, and, as in England, a pauper — unless he belongs to an order having a right to be poor — is a scoundrel. The only article of canteen description was a Zemzemiyah, a goat-skin water-bag, which, especially when new, communicates to its contents a ferruginous aspect and a wholesome, though hardly an attractive, flavour of tanno-gelatine. This was a necessary; to drink out of a tumbler, possibly fresh from pig-eating lips, would have entailed a certain loss of reputation. For bedding and furniture I had a coarse Persian rug — which, besides being couch, acted as chair, table, and oratory — a cotton-stuffed chintz-covered pillow, a blanket in case of cold, and a sheet, which did duty for tent and mosquito curtains in nights of heat.12 As shade is a convenience not always procurable, another necessary was a huge cotton umbrella of Eastern make, brightly yellow, suggesting the idea of an overgrown marigold. I had also a substantial housewife, the gift of a kind relative, Miss Elizabeth Stisted; it was a roll of canvas, carefully soiled, and garnished with needles and thread, cobblers’ wax, buttons, and other such articles. These things were most useful in lands where tailors abound not; besides which, the sight of a man darning his coat or patching his slippers teems with pleasing ideas of humility. A dagger,13 a brass inkstand and pen-holder stuck in the belt, and a mighty rosary, which on occasion might have been converted into a weapon of offence, completed my equipment. I must not omit to mention the proper method of carrying money, which in these lands should never be entrusted to box or bag. A common cotton purse secured in a breast pocket (for Egypt now abounds in that civilised animal, the pick-pocket!14 ), contained silver pieces and small change.15 My gold, of which I carried twenty-five sovereigns, and papers, were committed to a substantial leathern belt of Maghrabi manufacture, made to be strapped round the waist under the dress. This is the Asiatic method of concealing valuables, and one more civilised than ours in the last century, when Roderic Random and his companion “sewed their money between the lining and the waist-band of their breeches, except some loose silver for immediate expense on the road.” The great inconvenience of the belt is its weight, especially where dollars must be carried, as in Arabia, causing chafes and discomfort at night. Moreover, it can scarcely be called safe. In dangerous countries wary travellers will adopt surer precautions. 16

A pair of common native Khurjin, or saddle-bags, contained my wardrobe; the bed was readily rolled up into a bundle; and for a medicine chest17 I bought a pea-green box with red and yellow flowers, capable of standing falls from a camel twice a day.

The next step was to find out when the local steamer would start for Cairo, and accordingly I betook myself to the Transit Office. No vessel was advertised; I was directed to call every evening till satisfied. At last the fortunate event took place: a “weekly departure,” which, by the bye, occurred once every fortnight or so, was in orders for the next day. I hurried to the office, but did not reach it till past noon — the hour of idleness. A little, dark gentleman — Mr. Green — so formed and dressed as exactly to resemble a liver-and-tan bull-terrier, who with his heels on the table was dosing, cigar in mouth, over the last “Galignani,” positively refused, after a time, — for at first he would not speak at all, — to let me take my passage till three in the afternoon. I inquired when the boat started, upon which he referred me, as I had spoken bad Italian, to the advertisement. I pleaded inability to read or write, whereupon he testily cried Alle nove! alle nove! — at nine! at nine! Still appearing uncertain, I drove him out of his chair, when he rose with a curse and read 8 A.M. An unhappy Eastern, depending upon what he said, would have been precisely one hour too late.

Thus were we lapsing into the real good old East-Indian style of doing business. Thus Anglo-Indicus orders his first clerk to execute some commission; the senior, having “work” upon his hands, sends a junior; the junior finds the sun hot, and passes on the word to a “peon;” the “peon” charges a porter with the errand; and the porter quietly sits or doses in his place, trusting that Fate will bring him out of the scrape, but firmly resolved, though the shattered globe fall, not to stir an inch.

The reader, I must again express a hope, will pardon the length of these descriptions, — my object is to show him how business is carried on in these hot countries. Business generally. For had I been, not Abdullah the Darwaysh, but a rich native merchant, it would have been the same. How many complaints of similar treatment have I heard in different parts of the Eastern world! and how little can one realise them without having actually experienced the evil! For the future I shall never see a “nigger” squatting away half a dozen mortal hours in a broiling sun patiently waiting for something or for some one, without a lively remembrance of my own cooling of the calces at the custom-house of Alexandria.

At length, about the end of May (1853) all was ready. Not without a feeling of regret I left my little room among the white myrtle blossoms and the rosy oleander flowers with the almond smell. I kissed with humble ostentation my good host’s hand in presence of his servants — he had become somewhat unpleasantly anxious, of late, to induce in me the true Oriental feeling, by a slight administration of the bastinado — I bade adieu to my patients, who now amounted to about fifty, shaking hands with all meekly and with religious equality of attention; and, mounted in a “trap” which looked like a cross between a wheel-barrow and a dog-cart, drawn by a kicking, jibbing, and biting mule, I set out for the steamer, the “Little Asthmatic.”

1 The long pipe which at home takes the place of the shorter chibuk used on the road.

2 The jubbah is a long outer garment, generally of cloth, worn by learned and respectable men. The za’abut is a large bag-sleeved black or brown coloured robe made of home-spun woollen, the garb of the peasant, the hedge-priest, and the darwaysh.

3 The mountain which encircles the globe, according to the sacred geography of the Moslems. To “go to Kaf” is equivalent to our “go to Jericho,” or — somewhere else.

4 Sir G. Wilkinson, referring his readers to Strabo, remarks that the “troublesome system of passports seems to have been adopted by the Egyptians at a very early period.” Its present rigours, which have lasted since the European troubles in 1848 and 1849, have a two-fold object; in the first place, to act as a clog upon the dangerous emigrants which Germany, Italy, and Greece have sent out into the world; and secondly, to confine the subjects of the present Pasha of Egypt to their fatherland and the habit of paying taxes. The enlightened ruler (this was written during the rule of Abbas Pasha) knows his own interests, and never willingly parts with a subject liable to cess, at times objecting even to their obeying pilgrimage law. We, on the other hand, in India, allow a freedom of emigration, in my humble opinion, highly injurious to us. For not only does this exodus thin the population, and tend to impoverish the land, it also serves to bring our rule into disrepute in foreign lands. At another time I shall discuss this subject more fully.

5 The glare of Alexandria has become a matter of fable in the East. The stucco employed in overlaying its walls, erected by Zul-karnayn, was so exquisitely tempered and so beautifully polished, that the inhabitants, in order to protect themselves from blindness, were constrained to wear masks.

6 The word literally means “a bowman, an archer,” reminding us of “les archers de la Sainte Hermandade,” in the most delicious of modern fictions. Some mis-spell the word “Kawas,” “Cavass,” and so forth!

7 A whip, a cravache of dried and twisted hippopotamus hide, the ferule, horsewhip, and “cat o’ nine tails” of Egypt.

8 For “man anta?” who art thou?

9 An opprobrious name given by the Turks to their Christian converts. The word is derived from burmak, “to twist, to turn.”

10 During my journey, and since my return, some Indian papers conducted by jocose editors made merry upon an Englishman “turning Turk.” Once for all, I beg leave to point above for the facts of the case; it must serve as a general answer to any pleasant little fictions which may hereafter appear.

11 A stick of soft wood chewed at one end. It is generally used throughout the East, where brushes should be avoided, as the natives always suspect hogs’ bristles.

12 Almost all Easterns sleep under a sheet, which becomes a kind of respirator, defending them from the dews and mosquitoes by night and the flies by day. The “rough and ready” traveller will learn to follow the example, remembering that “Nature is founder of Customs in savage countries;” whereas, amongst the soi-disant civilised, Nature has no deadlier enemy than Custom.

13 It is strictly forbidden to carry arms in Egypt. This, however, does not prevent their being as necessary — especially in places like Alexandria, where Greek and Italian ruffians abound — as they ever were in Rome or Leghorn during the glorious times of Italian “liberty.”

14 In the Azhar Mosque, immediately after Friday service, a fellow once put his hand into my pocket, which fact alone is ample evidence of “progress.”

15 As a general rule, always produce, when travelling, the minutest bit of coin. At present, however, small change is dear in Egypt; the Sarrafs, or money-changers, create the dearth in order to claim a high agio. The traveller must prepare himself for a most unpleasant task in learning the different varieties of currency, which appear all but endless, the result of deficiency in the national circulating medium. There are, however, few copper coins, the pieces of ten or five faddah (or parahs), whereas silver and gold abound. As regards the latter metal, strangers should mistrust all small pieces, Turkish as well as Egyptian. “The greater part are either cut or cracked, or perhaps both, and worn down to mere spangles: after taking them, it will not be possible to pass them without considerable loss.” Above all things, the traveller must be careful never to change gold except in large towns, where such a display of wealth would not arouse suspicion or cupidity; and on no occasion when travelling even to pronounce the ill-omened word “Kis” (purse). Many have lost their lives by neglecting these simple precautions.

16 Some prefer a long chain of pure gold divided into links and covered with leather, so as to resemble the twisted girdle which the Arab fastens round his waist. It is a precaution well known to the wandering knights of old. Others, again, in very critical situations, open with a lancet the shoulder, or any other fleshy part of the body, and insert a precious stone, which does not show in its novel purse.

17 Any “Companion to the Medicine Chest” will give, to those that require such information, the names of drugs and instruments necessary for a journey; but it must be borne in mind that hot countries require double quantities of tonics, and half the allowance of cathartics necessary in cold climates. Sonnini, however, is right when he says of the Egyptian fellahs, that their stomachs, accustomed to digest bread badly baked, acrid and raw vegetables, and other green and unwholesome nourishment, require doses fit only for horses. Advisable precautions are, in the first place, to avoid, if travelling as a native, any signs of European manufacture in knives, scissors, weights, scales and other such articles. Secondly, glass bottles are useless: the drugs should be stowed away in tin or wooden boxes, such as the natives of the country use, and when a phial is required, it must be fitted into an etui of some kind. By this means, ground glass stoppers and plentiful cotton stuffing, the most volatile essences may be carried about without great waste. After six months of the driest heat, in Egypt and Arabia, not more than about one-fourth of my Prussic acid and chloroform had evaporated. And, thirdly, if you travel in the East, a few bottles of tincture of cantharides — highly useful as a rubefacient, excitant, et cetera — must never be omitted. I made the mistake of buying my drugs in England, and had the useless trouble of looking after them during the journey. Both at Alexandria and Cairo they are to be found in abundance, cheaper than in London, and good enough for all practical purposes.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31