Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, by Richard Burton

Chapter XXIII.

The Damascus Caravan.

THE Damascus Caravan was to set out on the 27th Zu’l Ka’adah (1st September). I had intended to stay at Al-Madinah till the last moment, and to accompany the Kafilat al-Tayyarah, or the “Flying Caravan,” which usually leaves on the 2nd Zu’l Hijjah, two days after that of Damascus.

Suddenly arose the rumour that there would be no Tayyarah,1 and that all pilgrims must proceed with the Damascus Caravan or await the Rakb. This is a Dromedary Caravan, in which each person carries only his saddle-bags. It usually descends by the road called Al-Khabt, and makes Meccah on the fifth day. The Sharif Zayd, Sa’ad the Robber’s only friend, had paid him an unsuccessful visit. Schinderhans demanded back his Shaykh-ship, in return for a safe-conduct through his country: “Otherwise,” said he, “I will cut the throat of every hen that ventures into the passes.”

The Sharif Zayd returned to Al-Madinah on the 25th Zu’l Ka’adah (30th August). Early on the morning of the next day, Shaykh Hamid returned hurriedly from the bazar, exclaiming, “You must make ready at once, Effendi! — there will be no Tayyarah — all Hajis start to-morrow — Allah will make it easy to you! — have you your water-skins in order? — you are to travel down the Darb al-Sharki, where you will not see water for three days!”

Poor Hamid looked horrorstruck as he concluded this fearful announcement, which filled me with joy. Burckhardt had visited and had described the Darb al-Sultani, the road along the coast. But no European had as yet travelled down by Harun al-Rashid’s and the Lady Zubaydah’s celebrated route through the Nijd Desert.

Not a moment, however, was to be lost: we expected to start early the next morning. The boy Mohammed went forth, and bought for eighty piastres a Shugduf, which lasted us throughout the pilgrimage, and for fifteen piastres a Shibriyah or cot to be occupied by Shaykh Nur, who did not relish sleeping on boxes. The youth was employed all day, with sleeves tucked up, and working like a porter, in covering the litter with matting and rugs, in mending broken parts, and in providing it with large pockets for provisions inside and outside, with pouches to contain the gugglets of cooled water.

Meanwhile Shaykh Nur and I, having inspected the water-skins, found that the rats had made considerable rents in two of them. There being no workman procurable at this time for gold, I sat down to patch the damaged articles; whilst Nur was sent to lay in supplies for fourteen days. The journey is calculated at eleven days; but provisions are apt to spoil, and the Badawi camel-men expect to be fed. Besides which, pilferers abound. By my companion’s advice I took wheat-flour, rice, turmeric, onions, dates, unleavened bread of two kinds, cheese, limes, tobacco, sugar, tea and coffee.

Hamid himself started upon the most important part of our business. Faithful camel-men are required upon a road where robberies are frequent and stabbings occasional, and where there is no law to prevent desertion or to limit new and exorbitant demands. After a time he returned, accompanied by a boy and a Badawi, a short, thin, well-built old man with regular features, a white beard, and a cool clear eye; his limbs, as usual, were scarred with wounds. Mas’ud of the Rahlah, a sub-family of the Hamidah family of the Benu-Harb, came in with a dignified demeanour, applied his dexter palm to ours,2 sat down, declined a pipe, accepted coffee, and after drinking it, looked at us to show that he was ready for nego[t]iation. We opened the proceedings with “We want men, and not camels,” and the conversation proceeded in the purest Hijazi.3 After much discussion, we agreed, if compelled to travel by the Darb al-Sharki, to pay twenty dollars for two camels,4 and to advance Arbun, or earnest-money, to half that amount.5 The Shaykh bound himself to provide us with good animals, which, moreover, were to be changed in case of accidents: he was also to supply his beasts with water, and to accompany us to Arafat and back. But, absolutely refusing to carry my large chest, he declared that the tent under the Shugduf was burden enough for one camel; and that the green box of drugs, the saddle-bags, and the provision-sacks, surmounted by Nur’s cot, were amply sufficient for the other. On our part, we bound ourselves to feed the Shaykh and his son, supplying them either with raw or with cooked provender, and, upon our return to Meccah from Mount Arafat, to pay the remaining hire with a discretionary present.

Hamid then addressed to me flowery praises of the old Badawi. After which, turning to the latter, he exclaimed, “Thou wilt treat these friends well, O Mas’ud the Harbi!” The ancient replied with a dignity that had no pomposity in it — “Even as Abu Shawarib — the Father of Mustachios6 — behaveth to us, so will we behave to him!” He then arose, bade us be prepared when the departure-gun sounded, saluted us, and stalked out of the room, followed by his son, who, under pretext of dozing, had mentally made an inventory of every article in the room, ourselves especially included.

When the Badawin disappeared, Shaykh Hamid shook his head, advising me to give them plenty to eat, and never to allow twenty-four hours to elapse without dipping hand in the same dish with them, in order that the party might always be “Malihin,”— on terms of salt.7 He concluded with a copious lecture upon the villainy of Badawin, and on their habit of drinking travellers’ water. I was to place the skins on a camel in front, and not behind; to hang them with their mouths carefully tied, and turned upwards, contrary to the general practice; always to keep a good store of liquid, and at night to place it under the safeguard of the tent.

In the afternoon, Omar Effendi and others dropped in to take leave. They found me in the midst of preparations, sewing sacks, fitting up a pipe, patching water-bags, and packing medicines. My fellow-traveller had brought me some pencils8 and a penknife, as “forget-me-nots,” for we were by no means sure of meeting again. He hinted, however, at another escape from the paternal abode, and proposed, if possible, to join the Dromedary-Caravan. Shaykh Hamid said the same, but I saw, by the expression of his face, that his mother and wife would not give him leave from home so soon after his return.

Towards evening-time the Barr al-Manakhah became a scene of exceeding confusion. The town of tents lay upon the ground. Camels were being laden, and were roaring under the weight of litters and cots, boxes and baggage. Horses and mules galloped about. Men were rushing wildly in all directions on worldly errands, or hurrying to pay a farewell visit to the Prophet’s Tomb. Women and children sat screaming on the ground, or ran to and fro distracted, or called their vehicles to escape the danger of being crushed. Every now and then a random shot excited all into the belief that the departure-gun had sounded. At times we heard a volley from the robbers’ hills, which elicited a general groan, for the pilgrims were still, to use their own phrase, “between fear and hope,” and, consequently, still far from “one of the two comforts.9” Then would sound the loud “Jhin-Jhin” of the camels’ bells, as the stately animals paced away with some grandee’s gilt and emblazoned litter, the sharp plaint of the dromedary, and the loud neighing of excited steeds.

About an hour after sunset all our preparations were concluded, save only the Shugduf, at which the boy Mohammed still worked with untiring zeal; he wisely remembered that he had to spend in it the best portion of a week and a half. The evening was hot, we therefore dined outside the house. I was told to repair to the Harim for the Ziyarat al-Wida’a, or the “Farewell Visitation”; but my decided objection to this step was that we were all to part — how soon! — and when to meet again we knew not. My companions smiled consent, assuring me that the ceremony could be performed as well at a distance as in the temple.

Then Shaykh Hamid made me pray a two-bow prayer, and afterwards, facing towards the Harim, to recite this supplication with raised hands:

“O Apostle of Allah, we beg Thee to entreat Almighty Allah, that He cut off no Portion of the Good resulting to us, from this Visit to Thee and to Thy Harim! May He cause us to return safe and prosperous to our Birth-places; aid then us in the Progeny he hath given us, and continue to us his Benefits, and make us thankful for our daily Bread! O Allah, let not this be the last of our Visitations to Thy Apostle’s Tomb! Yet if Thou summon us before such Blessing, verily in my Death I bear Witness, as in my Life,” (here the forefinger of the right hand is extended, that the members of the body may take part with the tongue and the heart) “that there is no god but Allah, One and without Partner, and verily that our Lord Mohammed is His Servant and His Apostle! O Allah, grant us in this World Weal, and in the future Weal, and save us from the torments of Hell-fire! Praise to Thee, O Lord, Lord of Glory, greater than Man can describe! and Peace be upon the Apostle, and Laud to Allah, the Lord of the (three) Worlds.” This concludes, as usual, with the Testification and the Fatihah. Pious men on such an occasion go to the Rauzah, where they strive, if possible, to shed a tear — a single drop being a sign of acceptance — give alms to the utmost of their ability, vow piety, repentance, and obedience, and retire overwhelmed with grief, at separating themselves from their Prophet and Intercessor. It is customary, too, before leaving Al-Madinah, to pass at least one night in vigils at the Harim, and for learned men to read through the Koran once before the tomb.

Then began the uncomfortable process of paying off little bills. The Eastern creditor always, for divers reasons, waits the last moment before he claims his debt. Shaykh Hamid had frequently hinted at his difficulties; the only means of escape from which, he said, was to rely upon Allah. He had treated me so hospitably, that I could not take back any part of the £5 lent to him at Suez. His three brothers received a dollar or two each, and one or two of his cousins hinted to some effect that such a proceeding would meet with their approbation.

The luggage was then carried down, and disposed in packs upon the ground before the house, so as to be ready for loading at a moment’s notice. Many flying parties of travellers had almost started on the high road, and late in the evening came a new report that the body of the Caravan would march about midnight. We sat up till about two A.M., when, having heard no gun, and having seen no camels, we lay down to sleep through the sultry remnant of the hours of darkness.

Thus, gentle reader, was spent my last night at Al-Madinah.

I had reason to congratulate myself upon having passed through the first danger. Meccah is so near the coast, that, in case of detection, the traveller might escape in a few hours to Jeddah, where he would find an English Vice-Consul, protection from the Turkish authorities, and possibly a British cruiser in the harbour. But at Al-Madinah discovery would entail more serious consequences. The next risk to be run was the journey between the two cities, where it would be easy for the local officials quietly to dispose of a suspected person by giving a dollar to a Badawi.

1 The “Tayyarah,” or “Flying Caravan,” is lightly laden, and travels by forced marches.

2 This “Musafahah,” as it is called, is the Arab fashion of shaking hands. They apply the palms of the right hands flat to each other, without squeezing the fingers, and then raise the hand to the forehead.

3 On this occasion I heard three new words: “Kharitah,” used to signify a single trip to Meccah (without return to Al-Madinah), “Ta’arifah,” going out from Meccah to Mount Arafat, and “Tanzilah,” return from Mount Arafat to Meccah.

4 And part of an extra animal which was to carry water for the party. Had we travelled by the Darb al-Sultani, we should have paid 6½ dollars, instead of 10, for each beast.

5 The system of advances, as well as earnest money, is common all over Arabia. In some places, Aden for instance, I have heard of two-thirds the price of a cargo of coffee being required from the purchaser before the seller would undertake to furnish a single bale.

6 Most men of the Shafe’i school clip their mustachios exceedingly short; some clean shave the upper lip, the imperial, and the parts of the beard about the corners of the mouth, and the forepart of the cheeks. I neglected so to do, which soon won for me the epithet recorded above. Arabs are vastly given to “nick-naming God’s creatures”; their habit is the effect of acute observation, and the want of variety in proper names. Sonnini appears not to like having been called the “Father of a nose.” But there is nothing disrespectful in these personal allusions. In Arabia you must be “father” of something, and it is better to be father of a feature, than father of a cooking pot, or father of a strong smell (“Abu-Zirt.”)

7 Salt among the Hindus is considered the essence and preserver of the seas; it was therefore used in their offerings to the gods. The old idea in Europe was, that salt is a body composed of various elements, into which it cannot be resolved by human means: hence, it became the type of an indissoluble tie between individuals. Homer calls salt sacred and divine, and whoever ate it with a stranger was supposed to become his friend. By the Greek authors, as by the Arabs, hospitality and salt are words expressing a kindred idea. When describing the Badawin of Al-Hijaz, I shall have occasion to notice their peculiar notions of the Salt-law.

8 The import of such articles shows the march of progress in Al-Hijaz. During the last generation, schoolmasters used for pencils bits of bar lead beaten to a point.

9 The “two comforts” are success and despair; the latter, according to the Arabs, being a more enviable state of feeling than doubt or hope deferred.

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