Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, by Richard Burton

Chapter III.

The Nile Steamboat — The “Little Asthmatic.”

IN the days of the Pitts we have invariably a “Relation” of Egyptian travellers who embark for a place called “Roseet” on the “River Nilus.” Wanderers of the Brucean age were wont to record their impressions of voyage upon land subjects observed between Alexandria and Cairo. A little later we find every one inditing rhapsodies about, and descriptions of, his or her Dahabiyah (barge) on the canal. After this came the steamer. And after the steamer will come the railroad, which may disappoint the author tourist, but will be delightful to that sensible class of men who wish to get over the greatest extent of ground with the least inconvenience to themselves and others. Then shall the Mahmudiyah — ugliest and most wearisome of canals — be given up to cotton boats and grain barges, and then will note-books and the headings of chapters clean ignore its existence.

I saw the canal at its worst, when the water was low; and I have not one syllable to say in its favour. Instead of thirty hours, we took three mortal days and nights to reach Cairo, and we grounded with painful regularity four or five times between sunrise and sunset. In the scenery on the banks sketchers and describers have left you nought to see. From Pompey’s Pillar to the Maison Carree, Kariom and its potteries, Al-Birkah1 of the night birds, Bastarah with the alleys of trees, even unto Atfah, all things are perfectly familiar to us, and have been so years before the traveller actually sees them. The Nil al-Mubarak itself — the Blessed Nile, — as notably fails too at this season to arouse enthusiasm. You see nothing but muddy waters, dusty banks, a sand mist, a milky sky, and a glaring sun: you feel nought but a breeze like the blast from a potter’s furnace. You can only just distinguish through a veil of reeking vapours the village Shibr Katt from the village Kafr al-Zayyat, and you steam too far from Wardan town to enjoy the Timonic satisfaction of enraging its male population with “Haykal! ya ibn Haykal! O Haykal! — O son of Haykal2!” You are nearly wrecked, as a matter of course, at the Barrage; and you are certainly dumbfoundered by the sight of its ugly little Gothic crenelles.3 The Pyramids of Khufa and Khafra (Cheops and Cephren) “rearing their majestic heads above the margin of the Desert,” only suggest of remark that they have been remarkably well-sketched; and thus you proceed till with a real feeling of satisfaction you moor alongside of the tumble-down old suburb “Bulak.”

To me there was double dulness in the scenery: it seemed to be Sind over again — the same morning mist and noon-tide glare; the same hot wind and heat clouds, and fiery sunset, and evening glow; the same pillars of dust and “devils” of sand sweeping like giants over the plain; the same turbid waters of a broad, shallow stream studded with sand-banks and silt-isles, with crashing earth slips and ruins nodding over a kind of cliff, whose base the stream gnaws with noisy tooth. On the banks, saline ground sparkled and glittered like hoar-frost in the sun; and here and there mud villages, solitary huts, pigeon-towers, or watch turrets, whence litt1e brown boys shouted and slung stones at the birds, peeped out from among bright green patches of palm-tree, tamarisk, and mimosa, of maize, tobacco, and sugar-cane. Beyond the narrow tongue of land on the river banks lay the glaring, yellow Desert, with its low hills and sand slopes, bounded by innumerable pyramids of Nature’s architecture. The boats, with their sharp bows, preposterous sterns, and lateen sails, might have belonged to the Indus. So might the chocolate-skinned, blue-robed peasantry; the women carrying progeny on their hips, with the eternal waterpot on their heads; and the men sleeping in the shade or following the plough, to which probably Osiris first put hand. The lower animals, like the higher, were the same; gaunt, mange-stained camels, muddy buffaloes, scurvied donkeys, sneaking jackals, and fox-like dogs. Even the feathered creatures were perfectly familiar to my eye — paddy birds, pelicans, giant cranes, kites and wild water-fowl.

I had taken a third-class or deck-passage, whereby the evils of the journey were exasperated. A roasting sun pierced the canvas awning like hot water through a gauze veil, and by night the cold dews fell raw and thick as a Scotch mist. The cooking was abominable, and the dignity of Darwaysh-hood did not allow me to sit at meat with Infidels or to eat the food which they had polluted. So the Pilgrim squatted apart, smoking perpetually, with occasional interruptions to say his prayers and to tell his beads upon the mighty rosary; and he drank the muddy water of the canal out of a leathern bucket, and he munched his bread and garlic4 with a desperate sanctimoniousness.

The “Little Asthmatic” was densely crowded, and discipline not daring to mark out particular places, the scene on board of her was motley enough. There were two Indian officers, who naturally spoke to none but each other, drank bad tea, and smoked their cigars exclusively like Britons. A troop of the Kurd Kawwas,5 escorting treasure, was surrounded by a group of noisy Greeks; these men’s gross practical jokes sounding anything but pleasant to the solemn Moslems, whose saddle-bags and furniture were at every moment in danger of being defiled by abominable drinks and the ejected juices of tobacco. There was one pretty woman on board, a Spanish girl, who looked strangely misplaced — a rose in a field of thistles. Some silent Italians, with noisy interpreters, sat staidly upon the benches. It was soon found out, through the communicative dragoman, that their business was to buy horses for H. M. of Sardinia: they were exposed to a volley of questions delivered by a party of French tradesmen returning to Cairo, but they shielded themselves and fought shy with Machiavellian dexterity. Besides these was a German, a “beer-bottle in the morning and a bottle of beer in the evening,” to borrow a simile from his own nation; a Syrian merchant, the richest and ugliest of Alexandria; and a few French house-painters going to decorate the Pasha’s palace at Shubra. These last were the happiest of our voyagers, — veritable children of Paris, Montagnards, Voltaireans, and thoroughbred Sans-Soucis. All day they sat upon deck chattering as only their lively nation can chatter, indulging in ultra-gallic maxims, such as “on ne vieillit jamais a table;” now playing ecarte for love or nothing, then composing “des ponches un peu chiques;” now reciting adventures of the category “Mirabolant,” then singing, then dancing, then sleeping, and rising to play, to drink, talk, dance, and sing again. One chaunted:

“Je n’ai pas connu mon pere

Ce respectable vieillard.

Je suis ne trois ans trop tard,” &.;

Whilst another trolled out:

“Qu’est ce que je vois?

Un canard en robe de chambre!”

They being new comers, free from the western morgue so soon caught by Oriental Europeans, were particularly civil to me, even wishing to mix me a strong draught; but I was not so fortunate with all on board. A large shopkeeper threatened to “briser” my “figure” for putting my pipe near his pantaloons; but seeing me finger my dagger curiously, though I did not shift my pipe, he forgot to remember his threat. I had taken charge of a parcel for one M. P— a student of Coptic, and remitted it to him on board; of this little service the only acknowledgment was a stare and a petulant inquiry why I had not given it to him before. And one of the Englishmen, half publicly, half privily, as though communing with himself, condemned my organs of vision because I happened to touch his elbow. He was a man in my own service; I pardoned him in consideration of the compliment paid to my disguise.

Two fellow-passengers were destined to play an important part in my comedy of Cairo. Just after we had started, a little event afforded us some amusement. On the bank appeared a short, crummy, pursy kind of man, whose efforts to board the steamer were notably ridiculous. With attention divided between the vessel and a carpet-bag carried by his donkey boy, he ran along the sides of the canal, now stumbling into hollows, then climbing heights, then standing shouting upon the projections with the fierce sun upon his back, till everyone thought his breath was completely gone. But no! game to the backbone, he would have perished miserably rather than lose his fare: “patience and perseverance,” say the wise, “got a wife for his Reverence.” At last he was taken on board, and presently he lay down to sleep. His sooty complexion, lank black hair, features in which appeared beaucoup de finesse, that is to say, abundant rascality, an eternal smile and treacherous eyes, his gold6 ring, dress of showy colours, fleshy stomach, fat legs, round back, and a peculiar manner of frowning and fawning simultaneously, marked him an Indian. When he awoke he introduced himself to me as Miyan Khudabakhsh Namdar, a native of Lahore: he had carried on the trade of a shawl merchant in London and Paris, where he had lived two years, and, after a pilgrimage intended to purge away the sins of civilised lands, he had settled at Cairo.

My second friend, Haji Wali, I will introduce to the reader in a future chapter; and my two expeditions to Midian have brought him once more into notice.7

Long conversations in Persian and Hindustani abridged the tediousness of the voyage, and when we arrived at Bulak, the polite Khudabakhsh insisted upon my making his house my home. I was unwilling to accept the man’s civility, disliking his looks; but he advanced cogent reasons for changing my mind. His servant cleared my luggage through the custom-house, and a few minutes after our arrival I found myself in his abode near the Azbakiyah Gardens, sitting in a cool Mashrabiyah8 that gracefully projected over a garden, and sipping the favourite glass of pomegranate syrup.

As the Wakalahs or Caravanserais were at that time full of pilgrims, I remained with Khudabakhsh ten days or a fortnight. But at the end of that time my patience was thoroughly exhausted. My host had become a civilised man, who sat on chairs, who ate with a fork, who talked European politics, and who had learned to admire, if not to understand, liberty — liberal ideas! and was I not flying from such things? Besides which, we English have a peculiar national quality, which the Indians, with their characteristic acuteness, soon perceived, and described by an opprobrious name. Observing our solitary habits, that we could not, and would not, sit and talk and sip sherbet and smoke with them, they called us “Jangli” — wild men, fresh caught in the jungle and sent to rule over the land of Hind.9 Certainly nothing suits us less than perpetual society, an utter want of solitude, when one cannot retire into oneself an instant without being asked some puerile question by a companion, or look into a book without a servant peering over one’s shoulder; when from the hour you rise to the time you rest, you must ever be talking or listening, you must converse yourself to sleep in a public dormitory, and give ear to your companions’ snores and mutterings at midnight.10

The very essence of Oriental hospitality, however, is this family style of reception, which costs your host neither coin nor trouble. I speak of the rare tracts in which the old barbarous hospitality still lingers. You make one more at his eating tray, and an additional mattress appears in the sleeping-room. When you depart, you leave if you like a little present, merely for a memorial, with your entertainer; he would be offended if you offered it him openly as a remuneration, and you give some trifling sums to the servants. Thus you will be welcome wherever you go. If perchance you are detained perforce in such a situation, — which may easily happen to you, medical man, — you have only to make yourself as disagreeable as possible, by calling for all manner of impossible things. Shame is a passion with Eastern nations. Your host would blush to point out to you the indecorum of your conduct; and the laws of hospitality oblige him to supply the every want of a guest, even though he be a detenu.

But of all Orientals, the most antipathetical companion to an Englishman is, I believe, an East-Indian. Like the fox in the fable, fulsomely flattering at first, he gradually becomes easily friendly, disagreeably familiar, offensively rude, which ends by rousing the “spirit of the British lion.” Nothing delights the Hindi so much as an opportunity of safely venting the spleen with which he regards his victors.11 He will sit in the presence of a magistrate, or an officer, the very picture of cringing submissiveness. But after leaving the room, he is as different from his former self as a counsel in court from a counsel at a concert, a sea captain at a club dinner from a sea captain on his quarter-deck. Then he will discover that the English are not brave, nor clever, nor generous, nor civilised, nor anything but surpassing rogues; that every official takes bribes, that their manners are utterly offensive, and that they are rank infidels. Then he will descant complacently upon the probability of a general Bartholomew’s Day in the East, and look forward to the hour when enlightened Young India will arise and drive the “foul invader” from the land.12 Then he will submit his political opinions nakedly, that India should be wrested from the Company and given to the Queen, or taken from the Queen and given to the French. If the Indian has been a European traveller, so much the worse for you. He has blushed to own, — explaining, however, conquest by bribery, — that 50,000 Englishmen hold 150,000,000 of his compatriots in thrall, and for aught you know, republicanism may have become his idol. He has lost all fear of the white face, and having been accustomed to unburden his mind in

“The land where, girt by friend or foe,

A man may say the thing he will,” —

he pursues the same course in other lands where it is exceedingly misplaced. His doctrines of liberty and equality he applies to you personally and practically, by not rising when you enter or leave the room, — at first you could scarcely induce him to sit down, — by not offering you his pipe, by turning away when you address him; in fact, by a variety of similar small affronts which none knows better to manage skilfully and with almost impalpable gradations. If — and how he prays for it! — an opportunity of refusing you anything presents itself, he does it with an

“In rice strength,

In an Indian manliness,13

say the Arabs. And the Persians apply the following pithy tale to their neighbours. “Brother,” said the leopard to the jackal, “I crave a few of thy cast-off hairs; I want them for medicine;14 where can I find them?” “Wa’llahi!” replied the jackal, “I don’t exactly know — I seldom change my coat — I wander about the hills. Allah is bounteous,15 brother! hairs are not so easily shed.”

Woe to the unhappy Englishman, Pasha, or private soldier, who must serve an Eastern lord! Worst of all, if the master be an Indian, who, hating all Europeans,16 adds an especial spite to Oriental coarseness, treachery, and tyranny. Even the experiment of associating with them is almost too hard to bear. But a useful deduction may be drawn from such observations; and as few have had greater experience than myself, I venture to express my opinion with confidence, however unpopular or unfashionable it may be.

I am convinced that the natives of India cannot respect a European who mixes with them familiarly, or especially who imitates their customs, manners, and dress. The tight pantaloons, the authoritative voice, the pococurante manner, and the broken Hindustani impose upon them — have a weight which learning and honesty, which wit and courage, have not. This is to them the master’s attitude: they bend to it like those Scythian slaves that faced the sword but fled from the horsewhip. Such would never be the case amongst a brave people, the Afghan for instance; and for the same reason it is not so, we read, with “White Plume,” the North American Indian. “The free trapper combines in the eye of an Indian (American) girl, all that is dashing and heroic in a warrior of her own race, whose gait and garb and bravery he emulates, with all that is gallant and glorious in the white man.” There is but one cause for this phenomenon; the “imbelles Indi” are still, with few exceptions,17 a cowardly and slavish people, who would raise themselves by depreciating those superior to them in the scale of creation. The Afghans and American aborigines, being chivalrous races, rather exaggerate the valour of their foes, because by so doing they exalt their own.18

1 Villages notorious for the peculiar Egyptian revelry, an undoubted relic of the good old times, when “the most religious of men” revelled at Canopus with an ardent piety in honour of Isis and Osiris.

2 “Haykal” was a pleasant fellow, who, having basely abused the confidence of the fair ones of Wardan, described their charms in sarcastic verse, and stuck his scroll upon the door of the village mosque, taking at the same time the wise precaution to change his lodgings without delay. The very mention of his name affronts the brave Wardanenses to the last extent, making them savage as Oxford bargees.

3 The Barrage is a handsome bridge, — putting the style of architecture out of consideration, — the work of French engineers, originally projected by Napoleon the First. It was intended to act as a dam, raising the waters of the Nile and conducting them to Suez, the salt lakes, and a variety of other places, through a number of canals, which, however, have not yet been opened. Meanwhile, it acts upon the river’s trunk as did the sea of old upon its embouchures, blocking it up and converting the land around it to the condition of a swamp. Moreover, it would have cleaned out the bed by means of sluice gates, forming an artificial increase of current to draw off the deposit; but the gates are wanting, so the piers, serving only to raise the soil by increasing the deposit of silt, collect and detain suspended matter, which otherwise would not settle. Briefly, by a trifling expenditure the Barrage might be made a blessing to Egypt; in its present state it is a calamity, an “enormous, cruel wonder,” more crushing to the people than were the pyramids and sphinxes of old.

4 Those skilled in simples, Eastern as well as Western, praise garlic highly, declaring that it “strengthens the body, prepares the constitution for fatigue, brightens the sight, and, by increasing the digestive power, obviates the ill-effects arising from sudden change of air and water.” The traveller inserts it into his dietary in some pleasant form, as “Provence-butter,” because he observes that, wherever fever and ague abound, the people, ignorant of cause but observant of effect, make it a common article of food. The old Egyptians highly esteemed this vegetable, which, with onions and leeks, enters into the list of articles so much regretted by the Hebrews (Numbers, xi. 5; Koran, chap. 2). The modern people of the Nile, like the Spaniards, delight in onions, which, as they contain between 25 and 30 per cent. of gluten, are highly nutritive. In Arabia, however, the stranger must use this vegetable sparingly. The city people despise it as the food of a Fellah — a boor. The Wahhabis have a prejudice against onions, leeks, and garlic, because the Prophet disliked their strong smell, and all strict Moslems refuse to eat them immediately before visiting the mosque, or meeting for public prayer.

5 A policeman; see Chap. I.

6 The stricter sort of Moslems, such as the Arabs, will not wear gold ornaments, which are forbidden by their law.

7 See “The Gold Mines of Midian,” and “The Land of Midian (Revisited),” by Sir R. F. Burton.

8 The projecting latticed window, made of wood richly carved, for which Cairo was once so famous. But they are growing out of fashion with young Egypt, disappearing before heating glass and unsightly green blinds.

9 Caste in India arises from the peculiarly sociable nature of the native mind, for which reason “it is found existing among sects whose creeds are as different and as opposite as those of the Hindu and the Christian.” (B. A. Irving’s Prize Essay on the Theory and Practice of Caste.) Hence, nothing can be more terrible to a man than expulsion from caste; the excommunication of our feudal times was not a more dreadful form of living death.

10 With us every man’s house is his castle. But caste divides a people into huge families, each member of which has a right to know everything about his “caste-brother,” because a whole body might be polluted and degraded by the act of an individual. Hence, there is no such thing as domestic privacy, and no system of espionnage devised by rulers could be so complete as that self-imposed by the Hindus.

11 The Calcutta Review (No. 41), noticing “L’Inde sous la Domination Anglaise,” by the Baron Barchou de Penhoën, delivers the following sentiment: “Whoever states, as the Baron B. de P. states and repeats, again and again, that the natives generally entertain a bad opinion of the Europeans generally, states what is decidedly untrue.” The reader will observe that I differ as decidedly from the Reviewer’s opinion. Popular feeling towards the English in India was “at first one of fear, afterwards of horror: Hindus and Hindis (Moslems) considered the strangers a set of cow-eaters and fire-drinkers, tetrae beluae ac molossis suis ferociores, who would fight like Iblis, cheat their own fathers, and exchange with the same readiness a broadside of shots and thrusts of boarding-pikes, or a bale of goods and a bag of rupees.” (Rev. Mr. Anderson — The English in Western India.) We have risen in a degree above such a low standard of estimation; still, incredible as it may appear to the Frank himself, it is no less true, that the Frank everywhere in the East is considered a contemptible being, and dangerous withal. As regards Indian opinion concerning our government, my belief is, that in and immediately about the three presidencies, where the people owe everything to and hold everything by our rule, it is most popular. At the same time I am convinced that in other places the people would most willingly hail any change. And how can we hope it to be otherwise, — we, a nation of strangers, aliens to the country’s customs and creed, who, even while resident in India, act the part which absentees do in other lands? Where, in the history of the world, do we read that such foreign dominion ever made itself loved?

12 This was written three years before the Indian Mutiny. I also sent into the Court of Directors a much stronger report — for which I duly suffered.

13 In the Arabic “Muruwwat,” generosity, the noble part of human nature, the qualities which make a man.

14 “For medicine,” means for an especial purpose, an urgent occasion.

15 “Allah Karim!” said to a beggar when you do not intend to be bountiful.

16 Read an account of Tipu Sahib’s treatment of his French employes. If Rangit Singh behaved better to his European officers, it was only on account of his paramount fear and hatred of the British. The Panjabi story of the old lion’s death is amusing enough, contrasted with that Anglomania of which so much has been said and written. When the Sikh king, they declare, heard of our success in Afghanistan — he had allowed us a passage through his dominions, as ingress into a deadly trap — his spirits (metaphorically and literally) failed him; he had not the heart to drink, he sickened and he died.

17 The Rajputs, for instance, “whose land has ever been the focus of Indian chivalry, and the home of Indian heroes.”

18 As my support against the possible, or rather the probable, imputation of “extreme opinions,” I hold up the honoured name of the late Sir Henry Elliot (Preface to the Biographical Index to the Historians of Mohammedan India). “These idle vapourers (bombastic Babus, and other such political ranters), should learn that the sacred spark of patriotism is exotic here, and can never fall on a mine that can explode; for history will show them that certain peculiarities of physical, as well as moral organisation, neither to be strengthened by diet nor improved by education, have hitherto prevented their ever attempting a national independence; which will continue to exist to them but as a name, and as an offscouring of college declamations.”

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