Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XXIV

Gaza to Nablus

Passing now once again through Palestine and Syria I retained the tent which I had used in the Desert, and found that it added very much to my comfort in travelling. Instead of turning out a family from some wretched dwelling, and depriving them of a repose which I was sure not to find for myself, I now, when evening came, pitched my tent upon some smiling spot within a few hundred yards of the village to which I looked for my supplies, that is, for milk and bread if I had it not with me, and sometimes also for eggs. The worst of it is, that the needful viands are not to be obtained by coin, but only by intimidation. I at first tried the usual agent, money. Dthemetri, with one or two of my Arabs, went into the village near which I was encamped and tried to buy the required provisions, offering liberal payment, but he came back empty-handed. I sent him again, but this time he held different language. He required to see the elders of the place, and threatening dreadful vengeance, directed them upon their responsibility to take care that my tent should be immediately and abundantly supplied. He was obeyed at once, and the provisions refused to me as a purchaser soon arrived, trebled or quadrupled, when demanded by way of a forced contribution. I quickly found (I think it required two experiments to convince me) that this peremptory method was the only one which could be adopted with success. It never failed. Of course, however, when the provisions have been actually obtained you can, if you choose, give money exceeding the value of the provisions to SOMEBODY. An English, a thoroughbred English, traveller will always do this (though it is contrary to the custom of the country) for the quiet (false quiet though it be) of his own conscience, but so to order the matter that the poor fellows who have been forced to contribute should be the persons to receive the value of their supplies, is not possible. For a traveller to attempt anything so grossly just as that would be too outrageous. The truth is, that the usage of the East, in old times, required the people of the village, at their own cost, to supply the wants of travellers, and the ancient custom is now adhered to, not in favour of travellers generally, but in favour of those who are deemed sufficiently powerful to enforce its observance. If the villagers therefore find a man waiving this right to oppress them, and offering coin for that which he is entitled to take without payment, they suppose at once that he is actuated by fear (fear of THEM, poor fellows!), and it is so delightful to them to act upon this flattering assumption, that they will forego the advantage of a good price for their provisions rather than the rare luxury of refusing for once in their lives to part with their own possessions.

The practice of intimidation thus rendered necessary is utterly hateful to an Englishman. He finds himself forced to conquer his daily bread by the pompous threats of the dragoman, his very subsistence, as well as his dignity and personal safety, being made to depend upon his servant’s assuming a tone of authority which does not at all belong to him. Besides, he can scarcely fail to see that as he passes through the country he becomes the innocent cause of much extra injustice, many supernumerary wrongs. This he feels to be especially the case when he travels with relays. To be the owner of a horse or a mule within reach of an Asiatic potentate, is to lead the life of the hare and the rabbit, hunted down and ferreted out. Too often it happens that the works of the field are stopped in the daytime, that the inmates of the cottage are roused from their midnight sleep, by the sudden coming of a Government officer, and the poor husbandman, driven by threats and rewarded by curses, if he would not lose sight for ever of his captured beasts, must quit all and follow them. This is done that the Englishman may travel. He would make his way more harmless if he could, but horses or mules he MUST have, and these are his ways and means.

The town of Nablus is beautiful; it lies in a valley hemmed in with olive groves, and its buildings are interspersed with frequent palm-trees. It is said to occupy the site of the ancient Sychem. I know not whether it was there indeed that the father of the Jews was accustomed to feed his flocks, but the valley is green and smiling, and is held at this day by a race more brave and beautiful than Jacob’s unhappy descendants.

Nablus is the very furnace of Mahometan bigotry; and I believe that only a few months before the time of my going there it would have been quite unsafe for a man, unless strongly guarded, to show himself to the people of the town in a Frank costume; but since their last insurrection the Mahometans of the place had been so far subdued by the severity of Ibrahim Pasha, that they dared not now offer the slightest insult to an European. It was quite plain, however, that the effort with which the men of the old school refrained from expressing their opinion of a hat and a coat was horribly painful to them. As I walked through the streets and bazaars a dead silence prevailed; every man suspended his employment, and gazed on me with a fixed, glassy look, which seemed to say, “God is good, but how marvellous and inscrutable are His ways that thus He permits this white-faced dog of a Christian to hunt through the paths of the faithful.”

The insurrection of these people had been more formidable than any other that Ibrahim Pasha had to contend with. He was only able to crush them at last by the assistance of a fellow renowned for his resources in the way of stratagem and cunning, as well as for his knowledge of the country. This personage was no other than Aboo Goosh (“the father of lies” 39), who was taken out of prison for the purpose. The “father of lies” enabled Ibrahim to hem in the insurrection and extinguish it. He was rewarded with the Governorship of Jerusalem, which he held when I was there. I recollect, by-the-bye, that he tried one of his stratagems upon me. I did not go to see him, as I ought in courtesy to have done, during my stay at Jerusalem; but I happened to be the owner of a rather handsome amber tchibouque piece, which the Governor heard of, and by some means contrived to see. He sent to me, and dressed up a statement that he would give me a price immensely exceeding the sum which I had given for it. He did not add my tchibouque to the rest of his trophies.

There was a small number of Greek Christians resident in Nablus, and over these the Mussulmans held a high hand, not even permitting them to speak to each other in the open streets; but if the Moslems thus set themselves above the poor Christians of the place, I, or rather my servants, soon took the ascendant over THEM. I recollect that just as we were starting from the place, and at a time when a number of people had gathered together in the main street to see our preparations, Mysseri, being provoked at some piece of perverseness on the part of a true believer, coolly thrashed him with his horsewhip before the assembled crowd of fanatics. I was much annoyed at the time, for I thought that the people would probably rise against us. They turned rather pale, but stood still.

The day of my arrival at Nablus was a fete — the new-year’s day of the Mussulmans. 40 Most of the people were amusing themselves in the beautiful lawns and shady groves without the city. The men (except myself) were all remotely apart from the other sex. The women in groups were diverting themselves and their children with swings. They were so handsome, that they could not keep up their yashmaks. I believe that they had never before looked upon a man in the European dress, and when they now saw in me that strange phenomenon, and saw, too, how they could please the creature by showing him a glimpse of beauty, they seemed to think it was better fun to do this than to go on playing with swings. It was always, however, with a sort of zoological expression of countenance that they looked on the horrible monster from Europe, and whenever one of them gave me to see for one sweet instant the blushing of her unveiled face, it was with the same kind of air as that with which a young, timid girl will edge her way up to an elephant and tremblingly give him a nut from the tips of her rosy fingers.

39 This is an appellation not implying blame, but merit; the “lies” which it purports to affiliate are feints and cunning stratagems, rather than the baser kind of falsehoods. The expression, in short, has nearly the same meaning as the English word “Yorkshireman.”

40 The 29th of April.

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