My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XXIV

Hamed of Jeddah

“Caravans that from Bassora’s gate

With Westward steps depart;

Or Mecca’s pilgrims, confident of fate

And resolute of heart.”

More of a Dutchman in build than Arab — broad-based, bandy-legged, stubby, stolid, and slow; spare of his speech, but nimble with his fingers in all that appertains to the rigging and working of small boats, as much at ease in the water as a rollicking porpoise — such is Hamed of Jeddah.

His favourite garment is a light green woollen sweater. He wears other, but less obvious things. His green sweater sets all else at naught. If it be a fact that one of the pleasures to which the true Mohammedan looks forward in the region of the blest is to recline in company with the Houris on green sofas while contemplating the torments of the damned, Hamed was merely foretasting that which is to come. The everlasting green sweater became a torture — at least to me. Perhaps he was aware of the fact, and because he knew that my damnation is inevitable his unsoothing preliminary was merely human. For Hamed is amicable in all respects.

Though his sentiments may be truly Arabian, his figure, as I have remarked, is a travesty on that of the typical Arabian — the Arab of the boundless and comfortless desert. I have tried to picture him as a lean and haughty mameluke in loose, white robes, mounted on a dust-distributing camel, and, lance in hand, peering ferociously across the desert

“The desert with its shifting sand And unimpeded sky.”

But the tubby form in the green sweater and those bleached dungarees shortened in defiance of all the prescriptions of fashion, positively refuses to be glorified. Except for his swarthiness Hamed is unreconcilable to the ideals of an Arab, and he has a most heretical dislike to the desert. All his best qualities are under suppression on dry land. He is the Arab of the dhow. His eyes are muddy. The pupils begin to show opacity. He follows slowly and with stumbling steps through the bush and often misses his way, for he cannot see far ahead and you cannot always be looking backward and hailing him. Still, he is never lost. When he fails to recognise landmarks and his guide is out of sight, his cup-shaped ears detect the faintest call of the sea. Then he works in a direct course to the beach, where everything is writ large and plain to his understanding. Of his own motive he never ventures inland without a compass, and with that in his hand he is safe, even in a strange place and out of sound of the sea.

Hamed tells a wonderful story of a ride that befell him in his early youth. By the way, there is something to be said of his age which, according to his own account, varies. Sometimes he is 72, then 48, and again 64 and 35. Like the present-day almanacs of his race, his age is shifty and uncertain. Hamed’s ride occurred “a long time ago”— that hazy, half-obliterated mark on life’s calendar. Pious Mohammedan that he is, he undertook a pilgrimage to Medina. To that holy orgy he rode on a donkey. So miraculous was the chief event of the journey that it is due to Hamed that his own uncoloured version should be given.

“So hot the sun of my country you carn ride about alonga a day. Every time you trabel alonga night — sit down daytime. We start. We ride all night. I ride alonga dunkee. Sit down one day, ride night time. Dunkee he no go quick — very slow. I am tired. That dunkee tired. B’mbi that dunkee he talk. He say —‘Hamed, you good man, you kind man. Subpose you no hammer me too much I take you up, alonga Medina one time quick.’ I say, ‘I no want hammer you.’ My word, that dunkee change! — dunkee before, horse now — Arab horse. Puff! We along Medina! Wind bin take ’em!” With the wind in his favour Hamed does wonders even now — at sea. It was not seemly to suggest to him that cynical memory dulled the polish of his story; but if there really are chinks in the world above at which they listen to words from below, did the Prophet smile to hear the parable by which his devout and faithful follower brought his own ride on the flying mare up to date?

Having the unwonted privilege of cross-examining a man who had ridden or rather been wafted to Medina specially that he might do homage at the Tomb of the Prophet, I asked a few questions respecting the famous coffin. Was it a fact that the coffin hung in the air on a wire so fine that no one could see it? Was it, in fact, without lawful visible means of support?

Hamed would neither deny nor confirm the legend. “I dunno what people you! I bin tell-straight my yarn go one time like wind to Medina. What more you want? I dunno what kind people you!” One mystery at a time is enough for Hamed.

Hamed now deals in oysters. In the trade he had a partner — a fair lad of Scandinavian origin named Adolphus. All these orientals have extraordinary faith in the medicinal properties of the gall of out-of-the-way creatures. That of a wallaby is prized; of a “goanna” absolutely precious; while in respect of a crocodile, only a man who has leisure to be ill and is determined to doctor himself on the reckless principle of “blow the expense,” could afford any such luxurious physic. It is reckoned next in virtue to a text from the Koran written on board: “Wash off the ink, drink the decoction, and lo! the cure is complete.” So, too, if the Lama doctor has no herbal medicines he prescribes something symbolic. He writes the names of the remedies on scraps of paper, moistens the paper with saliva, and rolls them into pills, which the patient tosses down with the same perfect confidence as though they were genuine medicaments, his faith leading him to believe that swallowing a remedy or its name is equally efficacious.

A “goanna” scrambled for safety up a small tree. Adolphus undertook to kill it. Hamed insisted on preemption of the gall, while yet the quaking reptile certainly had the best title to it; but Hamed stood below and some distance off, for he was nervous. Adolphus climbed the tree, killed the “goanna” offhand, and threw it so that it fell close to Hamed, and Hamed fell in a spasm of fright, upon recovering from which he chased fair, fleet-footed, laughing Adolphus for half an hour — murder in his pearly eyes, a mangrove waddy in his hand, frothy denunciations on his lips, and nothing on his body but the green sweater. Peace was restored on the presentation to him of the all-healing gall; and then Hamed apologised, almost tearfully, explaining, “That goanna, when you chuck heem, close broke heart of me!”

A dissolution of partnership was then and there decided on, and Hamed thus detailed his sentiments to me:—

“That boy, I like heem too much. Good-for-working boy. Me and heem make ’em three-four beg oyster every day. He bin say: ‘You carn be mate for me!’ He go along two Mulai boy. Dorphy [Adolphus] carn mek too much now — one sheer belonga him, Mulai boy two sheers. Carn beat me — one sheer one man.” Hamed has clean-cut notions on the disadvantages of multiplicity of partners.

Hamed has been to Europe, and there — he does not mention the country — he was initiated into the mysteries of making Irish stew. In an outburst of thankful confidence for some little entertainment at the table he let out the secret in these terms: “Eerish sdoo you make ’em. Four potats, two ungin, hav-dozen garleek, one hav-bucket water.” At first it appeared that he had obtained his knowledge from a passionate vegetarian, but upon reflection we concluded that in his opinion meat was so essential an item that it was to be taken for granted. Any one wishing to try the recipe would be safe in adding “meat to taste.”

Hamed revels in chillies, fiery, red, vitriolitic little things that would bring tears to the eyes of a molten image. Even his recipe for porridge (likewise obtained during his ever-memorable European travels) is not complete without them: “Alonga one hand oot-meal, pannikan water, one hav-handful chillies. My word, good fellow; eatem up quick; want ’em more.”

Possibly Hamed might be considered by some folks a “common” man. He is far from that, and the very opposite from commonplace, for some of the magic of the coral seas has tinctured his blood. His career as a pearl-shell diver has been illuminated by the discovery of pearls — big and precious. In his youth and buoyancy he gambled them away. Now that his heart is subdued and slow he still looks for pearls, and tempts coy Fortune with dramatic sincerity and most untempting things. He wants one pearl more, that he may acquire the means of travelling to his native land. Hamed of Jeddah would die there.

So strenuous is his desire for one smile on the part of Fortune that Hamed’s favourite topic is pearls, and of the good old days when, if a man found a patch where the grass was not too thick, he might pick up as many as a hundred shells in a day. Under conditions and circumstances all in favour, the diver relies upon an inevitable infirmity on the part of the oyster for the revelation of its whereabouts.

“When man he dibe,” says Hamed, “that go’lip quick he shut ’em mout. Carn see ’em. Subpose open mout, man quick he see ’em — shove-em alonga beg.”

At the peril of its life the oyster gapes.

Hamed cherishes thoroughly Oriental theories, too, for the wooing of Chance, who (for Chance is very real and personal to him), he declares, presides over the fortune and the fate of divers.

“Last night I bin drim. My word — good drim. Subpose you gibe one fowl he make lucky — we get good pearl. Must be white fowl. Black fow!”—(and here he lowered his voice to a mysteriously confidential whisper) “no good; spoil ’em lucky!”

Months have elapsed since the sacrifice of the white fowl and the pouring of its blood to the accompaniment of droning supplications on the face of the contemptuous sea, and albeit the divination was cheerfully suspicious, the sulky jade still look askance, and Hamed is still far from Jeddah.


When Hamed of Jeddah left just before Christmas with four “begs” of over-mature oysters, intended for the tickling of European palates, he was not elated by the nearness of the hallowed time. Indeed, his state of mind was quite contrary. He had none of that peace and goodwill towards men with which those of us who are not Mohammedans adulate the approach of the season.

His one-time partner, the fair and fleet-footed “Dorphy,” had deserted him for good and sufficient cause, and his hard old heart rebelled against priggish Christians and their superior ways. Some of the tardiness of age has come upon him. Though he had “worked” the oysters with all the resourcefulness of the lone hand, the marketable results were less in bulk than formerly. “Dorphy” had been wont to re-sort and classify Hamed’s gleanings, for Hamed’s eyes are misty; also his desire to emulate “Dorphy’s” quickness was so ingenuous that in lieu of oysters he would frequently stow away flat stones and pieces of coral. Such things may be abomination in the eyes of the conscientious oyster-getter, but with Hamed they helped to fill the “beg.” Vain old Arab! He deceived no one — in the end not even himself, for none of his fakes passed the final inspection of clear-sighted “Dorphy,” with whom the moralities of the firm rested, but who in Hamed’s eyes was a finicking precisian.

For weeks after his partner’s withdrawal from the business Hamed was perplexed. The swing of the seasons set the tides adversely. Hence his complaint —“Water no much dry. Carn dry long. No good one man work himself. Subpose have mate he give hand along nother man. One man messin’ abeaut. One small beg oyster one day. My word, ‘Dorphy’ smart boy — good-for-working boy!”

As a lone hand — his honour thrown upon himself — Hamed was so precise and methodic that by the time the second “beg,” had been painfully chipped off semi-submerged rocks, the first was past its prime. When the third was full, the first was good merely in parts. On the completion of the fourth “beg” one passed the neighbourhood of the first on the other side with a precautionary sniff. It contained self-assertive relics.

But Hamed took all four “begs” with him in his little cutter, and “Billy,” the toothless black boy, who lisped not in affectation but in broad and conscious profusion, for a blow from a nulla-nulla years ago deprived him for ever of the grace of distinct articulation, sailed with him. No sensation of sorrow fretted me when on that lovely Monday morn I saw the sail of the odoriferous cutter a mere fleck of saintly white on the sky-line among the islands to the north. Can so lovely a thing be burdened with so ponderous a smell? Will it not — if two more days of windless weather prevail — ascend to the seventh heaven and tarnish the glitter of the Pleiades? I mused as I strolled on the tide-smoothed beach of my own scented isle.

Before his departure, Hamed had realised that his oysters had passed the phase which Christians in their absurd queasiness prefer. Perhaps he designed to trade them off on coloured folks with less sensitive organs and no dainty prejudices. But his temper was consonant with, at least, my perception of the condition of his oysters. It was bad; and he spoke harsh things of white men, and of Christmas and of the doings of Christians during the celebration of the birthday of the Founder of their faith. Perhaps he was paying off in advance for the scorn with which his fragrant oysters were sure to be received.

When a man who is with us, but not of us, deliberately expresses his opinions about our faulty ways and contradictory customs, and when the critic is disinterested, in matters of religion at any rate, however humble he may, be, it is instructive to treat him as a philosopher. The art of learning is to accept the teachings of everything, from a blade of grass to an epic poem. Hamed moralised in angry mood. All the better. Neither flattery nor fear was in his words.

The impatient oysters fuming in the tiny hold of his cutter merely gave to his tongue a defiant stimulus. To me they were pathetically pleading for a belated watery grave. A quaint sort of eloquence took command of Hamed’s tongue, and I suffered the oysters gladly as I listened.

“Ramadan! Ah! One month!” There were worlds of meaning and longing in those few words. The pious Mohammedan, the exile, the patriot spoke, uttering a prayer, a sigh, and a glorious hope in one breath. “Ramadan! In my country one month holiday — quiet, clean, no row. First time burn old clothes.”

“Come fill the cup, and in the fire of spring, The winter garment of repentance fling.”

“Wash everything. Clean out house. Put clothes clean — white like anything. Sit down. One day eat nothing. Then feast plenty. Good goat of my country — more fatter.” (It was a graceless cut, for the previous day I had given him a well-grown kid). “No messin’ abeaut. Plenty talk with friend. Walk about bazaar. Full up people — clean, nice. No row — nothing. Subpose I make lucky. I find one pearl, I go along my own country for Ramadan!”

With half-shut eyes Hamed dwelt silently on the bliss of his faraway home, and woke snappily to the crude realities of his Christian environment.

“Chrissmiss!” he sneered —” nothing. Messin’ abeaut! You want to see drunk man — Chrissmiss, plenty! You want to see row, plenty — Chrissmiss! You want lissen bad language, plenty Chrissmiss! Subpose I am at that place Cairnsee, Chrissmiss, I take my flattie anchor out along inlet — keep quiet. My heart broke altogether from that drink. Chrissmiss — mix ’em up plenty with drink and messin abeaut! Good job you keep out of the way when Chrissmiss he come!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50