Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XXIII

Suez to Gaza

The route over the Desert from Suez to Gaza is not frequented by merchants, and is seldom passed by a traveller. This part of the country is less uniformly barren than the tracts of shifting sand that lie on the El Arish route. The shrubs on which the camel feeds are more frequent, and in many spots the sand is mingled with so much of productive soil, as to admit the growth of corn. The Bedouins are driven out of this district during the summer by the total want of water, but before the time for their forced departure arrives they succeed in raising little crops of barley from these comparatively fertile patches of ground. They bury the fruit of their labours, leaving marks by which, upon their return, they may be able to recognise the spot. The warm, dry sand stands them for a safe granary. The country at the time I passed it (in the month of April) was pretty thickly sprinkled with Bedouins expecting their harvest. Several times my tent was pitched alongside of their encampments. I have told you already what the impressions were which these people produced upon my mind.

I saw several creatures of the antelope kind in this part of the Desert, and one day my Arabs surprised in her sleep a young gazelle (for so I called her), and took the darling prisoner. I carried her before me on my camel for the rest of the day, and kept her in my tent all night. I did all I could to coax her, but the trembling beauty refused to touch food, and would not be comforted. Whenever she had a seeming opportunity of escaping she struggled with a violence so painfully disproportioned to her fine, delicate limbs, that I could not continue the cruel attempt to make her my own. In the morning, therefore, I set her free, anticipating some pleasure from seeing the joyous bound with which, as I thought, she would return to her native freedom. She had been so stupefied, however, by the exciting events of the preceding day and night, and was so puzzled as to the road she should take, that she went off very deliberately, and with an uncertain step. She went away quite sound in limb, but her intellect may have been upset. Never in all likelihood had she seen the form of a human being until the dreadful moment when she woke from her sleep and found herself in the grip of an Arab. Then her pitching and tossing journey on the back of a camel, and lastly, a soiree with me by candlelight! I should have been glad to know, if I could, that her heart was not utterly broken.

My Arabs were somewhat excited one day by discovering the fresh print of a foot — the foot, as they said, of a lion. I had no conception that the lord of the forest (better known as a crest) ever stalked away from his jungles to make inglorious war in these smooth plains against antelopes and gazelles. I supposed that there must have been some error of interpretation, and that the Arabs meant to speak of a tiger. It appeared, however, that this was not the case. Either the Arabs were mistaken, or the noble brute, uncooped and unchained, had but lately crossed my path.

The camels with which I traversed this part of the Desert were very different in their ways and habits from those that you get on a frequented route. They were never led. There was not the slightest sign of a track in this part of the Desert, but the camels never failed to choose the right line. By the direction taken at starting they knew, I suppose, the point (some encampment) for which they were to make. There is always a leading camel (generally, I believe, the eldest), who marches foremost, and determines the path for the whole party. If it happens that no one of the camels has been accustomed to lead the others, there is very great difficulty in making a start. If you force your beast forward for a moment, he will contrive to wheel and draw back, at the same time looking at one of the other camels with an expression and gesture exactly equivalent to apres vous. The responsibility of finding the way is evidently assumed very unwillingly. After some time, however, it becomes understood that one of the beasts has reluctantly consented to take the lead, and he accordingly advances for that purpose. For a minute or two he goes on with much indecision, taking first one line and then another, but soon by the aid of some mysterious sense he discovers the true direction, and follows it steadily from morning to night. When once the leadership is established, you cannot by any persuasion, and can scarcely by any force, induce a junior camel to walk one single step in advance of the chosen guide.

On the fifth day I came to an oasis, called the Wady el Arish, a ravine, or rather a gully, through which during a part of the year there runs a stream of water. On the sides of the gully there were a number of those graceful trees which the Arabs call tarfa. The channel of the stream was quite dry in the part at which we arrived, but at about half a mile off some water was found, which, though very muddy, was tolerably sweet. This was a happy discovery, for all the water that we had brought from the neighbourhood of Suez was rapidly putrefying.

The want of foresight is an anomalous part of the Bedouin’s character, for it does not result either from recklessness or stupidity. I know of no human being whose body is so thoroughly the slave of mind as that of the Arab. His mental anxieties seem to be for ever torturing every nerve and fibre of his body, and yet with all this exquisite sensitiveness to the suggestions of the mind, he is grossly improvident. I recollect, for instance, that when setting out upon this passage of the Desert my Arabs, in order to lighten the burthen of their camels, were most anxious that we should take with us only two days’ supply of water. They said that by the time that supply was exhausted we should arrive at a spring which would furnish us for the rest of the journey. My servants very wisely, and with much pertinacity, resisted the adoption of this plan, and took care to have both the large skins well filled. We proceeded and found no water at all, either at the expected spring or for many days afterwards, so that nothing but the precaution of my own people saved us from the very severe suffering which we should have endured if we had entered upon the Desert with only a two days’ supply. The Arabs themselves being on foot would have suffered much more than I from the consequences of their improvidence.

This unaccountable want of foresight prevents the Bedouin from appreciating at a distance of eight or ten days the amount of the misery which he entails upon himself at the end of that period. His dread of a city is one of the most painful mental affections that I have ever observed, and yet when the whole breadth of the Desert lies between him and the town to which you are going, he will freely enter into an agreement to LAND you in the city for which you are bound. When, however, after many a day of toil the distant minarets at length appear, the poor Bedouin relaxes the vigour of his pace, his steps become faltering and undecided, every moment his uneasiness increases, and at length he fairly sobs aloud, and embracing your knees, implores with the most piteous cries and gestures that you will dispense with him and his camels, and find some other means of entering the city. This, of course, one can’t agree to, and the consequence is that one is obliged to witness and resist the most moving expressions of grief and fond entreaty. I had to go through a most painful scene of this kind when I entered Cairo, and now the horror which these wilder Arabs felt at the notion of entering Gaza led to consequences still more distressing. The dread of cities results partly from a kind of wild instinct which has always characterised the descendants of Ishmael, but partly too from a well-founded apprehension of ill-treatment. So often it happens that the poor Bedouin, when once jammed in between walls, is seized by the Government authorities for the sake of his camels, that his innate horror of cities becomes really justified by results.

The Bedouins with whom I performed this journey were wild fellows of the Desert, quite unaccustomed to let out themselves or their beasts for hire, and when they found that by the natural ascendency of Europeans they were gradually brought down to a state of subserviency to me, or rather to my attendants, they bitterly repented, I believe, of having placed themselves under our control. They were rather difficult fellows to manage, and gave Dthemetri a good deal of trouble, but I liked them all the better for that.

Selim, the chief of the party, and the man to whom all our camels belonged, was a fine, savage, stately fellow. There were, I think, five other Arabs of the party, but when we approached the end of the journey they one by one began to make off towards the neighbouring encampments, and by the time that the minarets of Gaza were in sight, Selim, the owner of the camels, was the only one who remained. He, poor fellow, as we neared the town began to discover the same terrors that my Arabs had shown when I entered Cairo. I could not possibly accede to his entreaties and consent to let my baggage be laid down on the bare sands, without any means of having it brought on into the city. So at length, when poor Selim had exhausted all his rhetoric of voice and action and tears, he fixed his despairing eyes for a minute upon the cherished beasts that were his only wealth, and then suddenly and madly dashed away into the farther Desert. I continued my course and reached the city at last, but it was not without immense difficulty that we could constrain the poor camels to pass under the hated shadow of its walls. They were the genuine beasts of the Desert, and it was sad and painful to witness the agony they suffered when thus they were forced to encounter the fixed habitations of men. They shrank from the beginning of every high narrow street as though from the entrance of some horrible cave or bottomless pit; they sighed and wept like women. When at last we got them within the courtyard of the khan they seemed to be quite broken-hearted, and looked round piteously for their loving master; but no Selim came. I had imagined that he would enter the town secretly by night in order to carry off those five fine camels, his only wealth in this world, and seemingly the main objects of his affection. But no; his dread of civilisation was too strong. During the whole of the three days that I remained at Gaza he failed to show himself, and thus sacrificed in all probability not only his camels, but the money which I had stipulated to pay him for the passage of the Desert. In order, however, to do all I could towards saving him from this last misfortune I resorted to a contrivance frequently adopted by the Asiatics: I assembled a group of grave and worthy Mussulmans in the courtyard of the khan, and in their presence paid over the gold to a Sheik who was accustomed to communicate with the Arabs of the Desert. All present solemnly promised that if ever Selim should come to claim his rights, they would bear true witness in his favour.

I saw a great deal of my old friend the Governor of Gaza. He had received orders to send back all persons coming from Egypt, and force them to perform quarantine at El Arish. He knew so little of quarantine regulations, however, that his dress was actually in contact with mine whilst he insisted upon the stringency of the orders which he had received. He was induced to make an exception in my favour, and I rewarded him with a musical snuffbox which I had bought at Smyrna for the purpose of presenting it to any man in authority who might happen to do me an important service. The Governor was delighted with his toy, and took it off to his harem with great exultation. He soon, however, returned with an altered countenance; his wives, he said, had got hold of the box and put it out of order. So short-lived is human happiness in this frail world!

The Governor fancied that he should incur less risk if remained at Gaza for two or three days more, and he wanted me to become his guest. I persuaded him, however, that it would be better for him to let me depart at once. He wanted to add to my baggage a roast lamb and a quantity of other cumbrous viands, but I escaped with half a horse-load of leaven bread, which was very good of its kind, and proved a most useful present. The air with which the Governor’s slaves affected to be almost breaking down under the weight of the gifts which they bore on their shoulders, reminded me of the figures one sees in some of the old pictures.

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