Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XXV

Mariam

There is no spirit of propagandism in the Mussulmans of the Ottoman dominions. True it is that a prisoner of war, or a Christian condemned to death, may on some occasions save his life by adopting the religion of Mahomet, but instances of this kind are now exceedingly rare, and are quite at variance with the general system. Many Europeans, I think, would be surprised to learn that which is nevertheless quite true, namely, that an attempt to disturb the religious repose of the empire by the conversion of a Christian to the Mahometan faith is positively illegal. The event which now I am going to mention shows plainly enough that the unlawfulness of such interference is distinctly recognised even in the most bigoted stronghold of Islam.

During my stay at Nablus I took up my quarters at the house of the Greek “papa” as he is called, that is, the Greek priest. The priest himself had gone to Jerusalem upon the business I am going to tell you of, but his wife remained at Nablus, and did the honours of her home.

Soon after my arrival a deputation from the Greek Christians of the place came to request my interference in a matter which had occasioned vast excitement.

And now I must tell you how it came to happen, as it did continually, that people thought it worth while to claim the assistance of a mere traveller, who was totally devoid of all just pretensions to authority or influence of even the humblest description, and especially I must explain to you how it was that the power thus attributed did really belong to me, or rather to my dragoman. Successive political convulsions had at length fairly loosed the people of Syria from their former rules of conduct, and from all their old habits of reliance. The violence and success with which Mehemet Ali crushed the insurrection of the Mahometan population had utterly beaten down the head of Islam, and extinguished, for the time at least, those virtues and vices which had sprung from the Mahometan faith. Success so complete as Mehemet Ali’s, if it had been attained by an ordinary Asiatic potentate, would have induced a notion of stability. The readily bowing mind of the Oriental would have bowed low and long under the feet of a conqueror whom God had thus strengthened. But Syria was no field for contests strictly Asiatic. Europe was involved, and though the heavy masses of Egyptian troops, clinging with strong grip to the land, might seem to hold it fast, yet every peasant practically felt, and knew, that in Vienna or Petersburg or London there were four or five pale-looking men who could pull down the star of the Pasha with shreds of paper and ink. The people of the country knew, too, that Mehemet Ali was strong with the strength of the Europeans — strong by his French general, his French tactics, and his English engines. Moreover, they saw that the person, the property, and even the dignity of the humblest European was guarded with the most careful solicitude. The consequence of all this was, that the people of Syria looked vaguely, but confidently, to Europe for fresh changes. Many would fix upon some nation, France or England, and steadfastly regard it as the arriving sovereign of Syria. Those whose minds remained in doubt equally contributed to this new state of public opinion, which no longer depended upon religion and ancient habits, but upon bare hopes and fears. Every man wanted to know, not who was his neighbour, but who was to be his ruler; whose feet he was to kiss, and by whom HIS feet were to be ultimately beaten. Treat your friend, says the proverb, as though he were one day to become your enemy, and your enemy as though he were one day to become your friend. The Syrians went further, and seemed inclined to treat every stranger as though he might one day become their Pasha. Such was the state of circumstances and of feeling which now for the first time had thoroughly opened the mind of Western Asia for the reception of Europeans and European ideas. The credit of the English especially was so great, that a good Mussulman flying from the conscription, or any other persecution, would come to seek from the formerly despised hat that protection which the turban could no longer afford; and a man high in authority (as, for instance, the Governor in command of Gaza) would think that he had won a prize, or at all events, a valuable lottery ticket, if he obtained a written approval of his conduct from a simple traveller.

Still, in order that any immediate result should follow from all this unwonted readiness in the Asiatic to succumb to the European, it was necessary that some one should be at hand who could see and would push the advantage. I myself had neither the inclination nor the power to do so, but it happened that Dthemetri, who as my dragoman represented me on all occasions, was the very person of all others best fitted to avail himself with success of this yielding tendency in the Oriental mind. If the chance of birth and fortune had made poor Dthemetri a tailor during some part of his life, yet religion and the literature of the Church which he served had made him a man, and a brave man too. The lives of saints with which he was familiar were full of heroic actions provoking imitation, and since faith in a creed involves a faith in its ultimate triumph, Dthemetri was bold from a sense of true strength. His education too, though not very general in its character, had been carried quite far enough to justify him in pluming himself upon a very decided advantage over the great bulk of the Mahometan population, including the men in authority. With all this consciousness of religious and intellectual superiority Dthemetri had lived for the most part in countries lying under Mussulman governments, and had witnessed (perhaps too had suffered from) their revolting cruelties: the result was that he abhorred and despised the Mahometan faith and all who clung to it. And this hate was not of the dry, dull, and inactive sort. Dthemetri was in his sphere a true Crusader, and whenever there appeared a fair opening in the defences of Islam, he was ready and eager to make the assault. These sentiments, backed by a consciousness of understanding the people with whom he had to do, made Dthemetri not only firm and resolute in his constant interviews with men in authority, but sometimes also (as you may know already) very violent and even insulting. This tone, which I always disliked, though I was fain to profit by it, invariably succeeded. It swept away all resistance; there was nothing in the then depressed and succumbing mind of the Mussulman that could oppose a zeal so warm and fierce.

As for me, I of course stood aloof from Dthemetri’s crusades, and did not even render him any active assistance when he was striving (as he almost always was, poor fellow) on my behalf; I was only the death’s head and white sheet with which he scared the enemy. I think, however, that I played this spectral part exceedingly well, for I seldom appeared at all in any discussion, and whenever I did, I was sure to be white and calm.

The event which induced the Christians of Nablus to seek for my assistance was this. A beautiful young Christian, between fifteen and sixteen years old, had lately been married to a man of her own creed. About the same time (probably on the occasion of her wedding) she was accidentally seen by a Mussulman Sheik of great wealth and local influence, who instantly became madly enamoured of her. The strict morality which so generally prevails where the Mussulmans have complete ascendency prevented the Sheik from entertaining any such sinful hopes as an European might have ventured to cherish under the like circumstances, and he saw no chance of gratifying his love except by inducing the girl to embrace his own creed. If he could induce her to take this step, her marriage with the Christian would be dissolved, and then there would be nothing to prevent him from making her the last and brightest of his wives. The Sheik was a practical man, and quickly began his attack upon the theological opinions of the bride. He did not assail her with the eloquence of any imaums or Mussulman saints; he did not press upon her the eternal truths of the “Cow,”41 or the beautiful morality of “the Table”; 42 he sent her no tracts, not even a copy of the holy Koran. An old woman acted as missionary. She brought with her a whole basketful of arguments — jewels and shawls and scarfs and all kinds of persuasive finery. Poor Mariam! she put on the jewels and took a calm view of the Mahometan religion in a little hand-mirror; she could not be deaf to such eloquent earrings, and the great truths of Islam came home to her young bosom in the delicate folds of the cashmere; she was ready to abandon her faith.

The Sheik knew very well that his attempt to convert an infidel was illegal, and that his proceedings would not bear investigation, so he took care to pay a large sum to the Governor of Nablus in order to obtain his connivance.

At length Mariam quitted her home and placed herself under the protection of the Mahometan authorities, who, however, refrained from delivering her into the arms of her lover, and detained her in a mosque until the fact of her real conversion (which had been indignantly denied by her relatives) should be established. For two or three days the mother of the young convert was prevented from communicating with her child by various evasive contrivances, but not, it would seem, by a flat refusal. At length it was announced that the young lady’s profession of faith might be heard from her own lips. At an hour appointed the friends of the Sheik and the relatives of the damsel met in the mosque. The young convert addressed her mother in a loud voice, and said, “God is God, and Mahomet is the Prophet of God, and thou, oh my mother, art an infidel, feminine dog!”

You would suppose that this declaration, so clearly enounced, and that, too, in a place where Mahometanism is perhaps more supreme than in any other part of the empire, would have sufficed to have confirmed the pretensions of the lover. This, however, was not the case. The Greek priest of the place was despatched on a mission to the Governor of Jerusalem (Aboo Goosh), in order to complain against the proceedings of the Sheik and obtain a restitution of the bride. Meanwhile the Mahometan authorities at Nablus were so conscious of having acted unlawfully in conspiring to disturb the faith of the beautiful infidel, that they hesitated to take any further steps, and the girl was still detained in the mosque.

Thus matters stood when the Christians of the place came and sought to obtain my assistance.

I felt (with regret) that I had no personal interest in the matter, and I also thought that there was no pretence for my interfering with the conflicting claims of the Christian husband and the Mahometan lover, and I therefore declined to take any step.

My speaking of the husband, by-the-bye, reminds me that he was extremely backward about the great work of recovering his youthful bride. The relations of the girl, who felt themselves disgraced by her conduct, were vehement and excited to a high pitch, but the Menelaus of Nablus was exceedingly calm and composed.

The fact that it was not technically my duty to interfere in a matter of this kind was a very sufficient, and yet a very unsatisfactory, reason for my refusal of all assistance. Until you are placed in situations of this kind you can hardly tell how painful it is to refrain from intermeddling in other people’s affairs — to refrain from intermeddling when you feel that you can do so with happy effect, and can remove a load of distress by the use of a few small phrases. Upon this occasion, however, an expression fell from one of the girl’s kinsmen which not only determined me against the idea of interfering, but made me hope that all attempts to recover the proselyte would fail. This person, speaking with the most savage bitterness, and with the cordial approval of all the other relatives, said that the girl ought to be beaten to death. I could not fail to see that if the poor child were ever restored to her family she would be treated with the most frightful barbarity. I heartily wished, therefore, that the Mussulmans might be firm, and preserve their young prize from any fate so dreadful as that of a return to her own relations.

The next day the Greek priest returned from his mission to Aboo Goosh, but the “father of lies,” it would seem, had been well plied with the gold of the enamoured Sheik, and contrived to put off the prayers of the Christians by cunning feints. Now, therefore, a second and more numerous deputation than the first waited upon me, and implored my intervention with the Governor. I informed the assembled Christians that since their last application I had carefully considered the matter. The religious question I thought might be put aside at once, for the excessive levity which the girl had displayed proved clearly that in adopting Mahometanism she was not quitting any other faith. Her mind must have been thoroughly blank upon religious questions, and she was not, therefore, to be treated as a Christian that had strayed from the flock, but rather as a child without any religion at all, who was willing to conform to the usages of those who would deck her with jewels, and clothe her with cashmere shawls.

So much for the religious part of the question. Well, then, in a merely temporal sense, it appeared to me that (looking merely to the interests of the damsel, for I rather unjustly put poor Menelaus quite out of the question) the advantages were all on the side of the Mahometan match. The Sheik was in a much higher station of life than the superseded husband, and had given the best possible proof of his ardent affection by the sacrifices he had made, and the risks he had incurred, for the sake of the beloved object. I, therefore, stated fairly, to the horror and amazement of all my hearers, that the Sheik, in my view, was likely to make a most capital husband, and that I entirely “approved of the match.”

I left Nablus under the impression that Mariam would soon be delivered to her Mussulman lover. I afterwards found, however, that the result was very different. Dthemetri’s religious zeal and hate had been so much excited by the account of these events, and by the grief and mortification of his co-religionists, that when he found me firmly determined to decline all interference in the matter, he secretly appealed to the Governor in my name, and (using, I suppose, many violent threats, and telling no doubt many lies about my station and influence) extorted a promise that the proselyte should be restored to her relatives. I did not understand that the girl had been actually given up whilst I remained at Nablus, but Dthemetri certainly did not desist from his instances until he had satisfied himself by some means or other (for mere words amounted to nothing) that the promise would be actually performed. It was not till I had quitted Syria, and when Dthemetri was no longer in my service, that this villainous, though well-motived trick, of his came to my knowledge. Mysseri, who had informed me of the step which had been taken, did not know it himself until some time after we had quitted Nablus, when Dthemetri exultingly confessed his successful enterprise. I know not whether the engagement which my zealous dragoman extorted from the Governor was ever complied with. I shudder to think of the fate which must have befallen poor Mariam if she fell into the hands of the Christians.

41, 42 These are the names given by the Prophet to certain chapters of the Koran.

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