Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XV

Passage of the Jordan

And now Dthemetri began to enter into a negotiation with my hosts for a passage over the river. I never interfered with my worthy dragoman upon these occasions, because from my entire ignorance of the Arabic I should have been quite unable to exercise any real control over his words, and it would have been silly to break the stream of his eloquence to no purpose. I have reason to fear, however, that he lied transcendently, and especially in representing me as the bosom friend of Ibrahim Pasha. The mention of that name produced immense agitation and excitement, and the Sheik explained to Dthemetri the grounds of the infinite respect which he and his tribe entertained for the Pasha. A few weeks before Ibrahim had craftily sent a body of troops across the Jordan. The force went warily round to the foot of the mountains on the east, so as to cut off the retreat of this tribe, and then surrounded them as they lay encamped in the vale; their camels, and indeed all their possessions worth taking, were carried off by the soldiery, and moreover the then Sheik, together with every tenth man of the tribe, was brought out and shot. You would think that this conduct on the part of the Pasha might not procure for his “friend” a very gracious reception amongst the people whom he had thus despoiled and decimated; but the Asiatic seems to be animated with a feeling of profound respect, almost bordering upon affection, for all who have done him any bold and violent wrong, and there is always, too, so much of vague and undefined apprehension mixed up with his really well-founded alarms, that I can see no limit to the yielding and bending of his mind when it is wrought upon by the idea of power.

After some discussion the Arabs agreed, as I thought, to conduct me to a ford, and we moved on towards the river, followed by seventeen of the most able-bodied of the tribe, under the guidance of several grey-bearded elders, and Sheik Ali Djoubran at the head of the whole detachment. Upon leaving the encampment a sort of ceremony was performed, for the purpose, it seemed, of ensuring, if possible, a happy result for the undertaking. There was an uplifting of arms, and a repeating of words that sounded like formulae, but there were no prostrations, and I did not understand that the ceremony was of a religious character. The tented Arabs are looked upon as very bad Mahometans.

We arrived upon the banks of the river — not at a ford, but at a deep and rapid part of the stream, and I now understood that it was the plan of these men, if they helped me at all, to transport me across the river by some species of raft. But a reaction had taken place in the opinions of many, and a violent dispute arose upon a motion which seemed to have been made by some honourable member with a view to robbery. The fellows all gathered together in circle, at a little distance from my party, and there disputed with great vehemence and fury for nearly two hours. I can’t give a correct report of the debate, for it was held in a barbarous dialect of the Arabic unknown to my dragoman. I recollect I sincerely felt at the time that the arguments in favour of robbing me must have been almost unanswerable, and I gave great credit to the speakers on my side for the ingenuity and sophistry which they must have shown in maintaining the fight so well.

During the discussion I remained lying in front of my baggage, which had all been taken from the pack-saddles and placed upon the ground. I was so languid from want of food, that I had scarcely animation enough to feel as deeply interested as you would suppose in the result of the discussion. I thought, however, that the pleasantest toys to play with during this interval were my pistols, and now and then, when I listlessly visited my loaded barrels with the swivel ramrods, or drew a sweet, musical click from my English firelocks, it seemed to me that I exercised a slight and gentle influence on the debate. Thanks to Ibrahim Pasha’s terrible visitation the men of the tribe were wholly unarmed, and my advantage in this respect might have counterbalanced in some measure the superiority of numbers.

Mysseri (not interpreting in Arabic) had no duty to perform, and he seemed to be faint and listless as myself. Shereef looked perfectly resigned to any fate. But Dthemetri (faithful terrier!) was bristling with zeal and watchfulness. He could not understand the debate, which indeed was carried on at a distance too great to be easily heard, even if the language had been familiar; but he was always on the alert, and now and then conferring with men who had straggled out of the assembly. At last he found an opportunity of making a proposal, which at once produced immense sensation; he offered, on my behalf, that if the tribe should bear themselves loyally towards me, and take my party and my baggage in safety to the other bank of the river, I should give them a teskeri, or written certificate of their good conduct, which might avail them hereafter in the hour of their direst need. This proposal was received and instantly accepted by all the men of the tribe there present with the utmost enthusiasm. I was to give the men, too, a baksheish, that is, a present of money, which is usually made upon the conclusion of any sort of treaty; but although the people of the tribe were so miserably poor, they seemed to look upon the pecuniary part of the arrangement as a matter quite trivial in comparison with the teskeri. Indeed the sum which Dthemetri promised them was extremely small, and not the slightest attempt was made to extort any further reward.

The council now broke up, and most of the men rushed madly towards me, and overwhelmed me with vehement gratulations; they caressed my boots with much affection, and my hands were severely kissed.

The Arabs now went to work in right earnest to effect the passage of the river. They had brought with them a great number of the skins which they use for carrying water in the desert; these they filled with air, and fastened several of them to small boughs which they cut from the banks of the river. In this way they constructed a raft not more than about four or five feet square, but rendered buoyant by the inflated skins which supported it. On this a portion of my baggage was placed, and was firmly tied to it by the cords used on my pack-saddles. The little raft with its weighty cargo was then gently lifted into the water, and I had the satisfaction to see that it floated well.

Twelve of the Arabs now stripped, and tied inflated skins to their loins; six of the men went down into the river, got in front of the little raft, and pulled it off a few feet from the bank. The other six then dashed into the stream with loud shouts and swam along after the raft, pushing it from behind. Off went the craft in capital style at first, for the stream was easy on the eastern side; but I saw that the tug was to come, for the main torrent swept round in a bend near the western bank of the river.

The old men, with their long grey grisly beards, stood shouting and cheering, praying and commanding. At length the raft entered upon the difficult part of its course; the whirling stream seized and twisted it about, and then bore it rapidly downwards; the swimmers, flagged and seemed to be beaten in the struggle. But now the old men on the bank, with their rigid arms uplifted straight, sent forth a cry and a shout that tore the wide air into tatters, and then to make their urging yet more strong they shrieked out the dreadful syllables, “‘brahim Pasha!” The swimmers, one moment before so blown and so weary, found lungs to answer the cry, and shouting back the name of their great destroyer, they dashed on through the torrent, and bore the raft in safety to the western bank.

Afterwards the swimmers returned with the raft, and attached to it the rest of my baggage. I took my seat upon the top of the cargo, and the raft thus laden passed the river in the same way, and with the same struggle as before. The skins, however, not being perfectly air-tight, had lost a great part of their buoyancy, so that I, as well as the luggage that passed on this last voyage, got wet in the waters of Jordan. The raft could not be trusted for another trip, and the rest of my party passed the river in a different and (for them) much safer way. Inflated skins were fastened to their loins, and thus supported, they were tugged across by Arabs swimming on either side of them. The horses and mules were thrown into the water and forced to swim over. The poor beasts had a hard struggle for their lives in that swift stream; and I thought that one of the horses would have been drowned, for he was too weak to gain a footing on the western bank, and the stream bore him down. At last, however, he swam back to the side from which he had come. Before dark all had passed the river except this one horse and old Shereef. He, poor fellow, was shivering on the eastern bank, for his dread of the passage was so great, that he delayed it as long as he could, and at last it became so dark that he was obliged to wait till the morning.

I lay that night on the banks of the river, and at a little distance from me the Arabs kindled a fire, round which they sat in a circle. They were made most savagely happy by the tobacco with which I supplied them, and they soon determined that the whole night should be one smoking festival. The poor fellows had only a cracked bowl, without any tube at all, but this morsel of a pipe they handed round from one to the other, allowing to each a fixed number of whiffs. In that way they passed the whole night.

The next morning old Shereef was brought across. It was a strange sight to see this solemn old Mussulman, with his shaven head and his sacred beard, sprawling and puffing upon the surface of the water. When at last he reached the bank the people told him that by his baptism in Jordan he had surely become a mere Christian. Poor Shereef! — the holy man! the descendant of the Prophet! — he was sadly hurt by the taunt, and the more so as he seemed to feel that there was some foundation for it, and that he really might have absorbed some Christian errors.

When all was ready for departure I wrote the teskeri in French and delivered it to Sheik Ali Djoubran, together with the promised baksheish; he was exceedingly grateful, and I parted in a very friendly way from this ragged tribe.

In two or three hours I gained Rihah, a village said to occupy the site of ancient Jericho. There was one building there which I observed with some emotion, for although it may not have been actually standing in the days of Jericho, it contained at this day a most interesting collection of — modern loaves.

Some hours after sunset I reached the convent of Santa Saba, and there remained for the night.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44