Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter iii (continued)

The house consists of two courtyards, with buildings round them. The larger and handsomer is the haram or women’s house, which is strictly enclosed, has no exterior windows, and its one door into the men’s house is guarded by a very ancient eunuch. The courtyard of this house is surrounded partly by arched serdabs, with green lattice fronts, and partly by a kitchen, bakery, wood-house, hammam or hot bath, and the servants’ quarters. The haram has a similar arrangement on the lower floor. A broad balcony, reached by a steep and narrow stair, runs round three sides of the upper part of this house. There are very few rooms, and some of them are used for storing fruit. The wet baggage is mostly up here, and under the deep roof the servants and orderlies camp, looking miserable. The haram has a balcony all round it, on which a number of reception and living rooms open, and though not grand or elaborately decorated, is convenient and comfortable.

The Turkish host evidently did not know what to do with such an embarrassing guest as a European woman, and solved the difficulty by giving me the guest-chamber in the men’s house, a most fortunate decision, as I have had quiet and privacy for three days. Besides, this room has a projecting window, with panes of glass held in by nails, and there is not only a view of the alley with its slush, but into the house of some poor folk, and over that to the Holwan, sometimes in spate, sometimes falling, and through all the hours of daylight frequented by grooms for the purpose of washing their horses. Some shingle banks, now overflowed, sustain a few scraggy willows, and on the farther side is some low-lying land. There may be much besides, but the heavy rain-clouds blot out all else.

My room is whitewashed, and is furnished with Persian rugs, Austrian bent-wood chairs, and a divan in the window, on which I sleep. Lamps, samovars, and glasses are kept in recesses, and a black slave is often in and out for them. Otherwise no one enters but Hadji. I get my food somewhat precariously. It is carved and sent from table at the beginning of meals, chiefly pillau, curry, kabobs, and roast chicken, but apparently it is not etiquette for me to get it till after the men have dined, and it is none the better for being cold.

The male part of the household consists of the Governor and his brother-in-law, a Moslem judge, and the quarantine doctor, a Cretan, takes his meals in the house. The Governor and doctor speak French. My fellow-traveller lives with them.

The night we arrived, the Governor in some agitation asked me to go and see his wife, who is very ill. The cholera has only just disappeared, and the lady had had a baby, which died of it in three days, and “being a boy her heart was broken,” and “something had come under her arm.” So I went with him into the haram, which seemed crowded with women of various races and colours, peeping from behind curtains and through chinks of doors, tittering and whispering. The wife’s room is richly carpeted and thoroughly comfortable, with a huge charcoal brazier in the centre, and cushions all over the floor, except at one end, where there is a raised alcove with a bed in it.

On this the lady sat — a rather handsome Kurdish woman, about thirty-five, dressed in a silk quilted jacket, and with a black gauze handkerchief round her head, and a wadded quilt over her crossed legs. She was supported by a pile of pillows. Since then I have been sent for to see her several times every day, and found her always in the same position. There is surely something weird about it. She says she sits there all night, and has not lain down for two months. A black slave was fanning her, and two women, shrouded in veils of tinselled gauze, sat on the bed combing her luxuriant hair. She is not really beautiful at all, but her husband assures me constantly that she is “une femme savante.” She has property and the consideration which attaches to it. She was burning with fever and very weak.

I had scarcely returned to my room when my host sent again, begging that I would go back and see the doctor. I found that it was expected that I should persuade the lady to consent to have the abscess, or whatever it is, reopened. The room was full of women and eunuchs, and the chief eunuch, an elderly Arab, sat on the bed and supported her while the doctor dressed the wound, and even helped him with it. Her screams were fearful, and five people held her with difficulty. Her husband left the room, unable to bear her cries.

Quite late I was sent for again, and that time by the lady, to know if I thought she would die. It appears that her brother, the judge, remains here to see that she is not the victim of foul play, but I don’t like to ask to whom the suspicion points, or whether our host, although the civil governor, keeps him here that he may not be suspected in case his rich wife dies.

Except for the repeated summonses to the sick-room, a walk on the slime of the roof when the rain ceases for a time, and on the balcony of the haram when it does not, and a study of the habits of my neighbours over the way, it is very dull. I have patched and mended everything that gave any excuse for either operation, have written letters which it is not safe to post, and have studied my one book on Persia till I know it throughout, and still the rain falls nearly without cessation and the quagmires outside deepen.

So bad is it that, dearly as Orientals love bazars and hammams, Hadji refuses leave to go to either. I remarked to him that he must be glad of such a rest, and he replied in his usual sententious fashion: “They who have to work must work. God knows all.” I fear he is very lazy, and he has no idea of making one comfortable or of keeping anything clean. He stamps the mud of the courtyard into the carpets, and wipes my plates without washing them, with his shirt. He considers that our host has attained the height of human felicity. “What is there left to wish for?” he says. “He has numbers of slaves, and he’s always buying more, and he’s got numbers of women and eunuchs, and everything, and when he wants money he just sends round the villages. God is great! Ya Allah!

Khannikin, being the nearest town to the Persian frontier, should be a place of some importance. It is well situated at an altitude of 1700 feet among groves of palms, on both banks of the Holwan, and having plenty of water, the rich alluvium between it and Yakobiyeh is able to support its own population, though it has to import for caravans. Most of the Persian trade with Baghdad and thousands of Shiah pilgrims annually pass through it. It is a customs station, and has a regiment of soldiers. Nevertheless, it is very ruinous, and its population has diminished of late years from 5000 to about 1800 (exclusive of the troops), and of this number a fifth have been carried off by cholera within the last few weeks. It has no schools, and no special industries. The stamp of decay rests upon it. Exactions, crushing hope out of the people, the general insecurity of property, and the misrule which has blighted these fine Asiatic provinces everywhere, sufficiently explain its decadence.

The imposition of quarantine on arrivals from Persia has all but stopped the supply of charcoal, and knowing the scarcity in the house, I am going without a fire, as most of the inhabitants are doing. A large caravanserai outside the walls is used as a quarantine station, and three others are taken as lazarettos. Out of these arrangements the officials make a great deal of money in fees, but anything more horrible than the sanitary state of these places cannot be conceived. The water appears to be the essence of typhoid fever and cholera, and the unfortunate détenus are crowded into holes unfit for beasts, breathing pestiferous exhalations, and surrounded by such ancient and modern accumulations of horrors that typhus fever, cholera, and even the plague might well be expected to break out.

Yesterday, for a brief interval, hills covered with snow appeared through rolling black clouds, and a change seemed probable, but rain fell in torrents all night; there is a spate in the river, and though we were ready to start at eight this morning, the katirgis declined to move, saying that the road could not be travelled because of the depth of the fords and the mud.

The roof, though a good one, is now so leaky that I am obliged to sleep under my waterproof cloak, and the unputtied window-frames let in the rain. Early this morning a gale from the south-west came on, and the howling and roaring have been frightful, the rain falling in sheets most of the time. Sensations are not wanting. One of the orderlies is seriously ill, and has to be left behind under medical care till he can be sent to India — the second man who has broken down. A runner came in with the news that all caravans are stopped in the Zagros mountains by snow, which has been falling for five days, and that the road is not expected to be open for a fortnight. Later, the Persian agent called to say that on the next march the road, which is carried on a precipice above the river, has slid down bodily, and that there are fifteen feet of water where there should be only two. Of course this prolonged storm is “exceptional.” The temperature is falling, and it is so cold without a fire that though my bed is only a blanket-covered dais of brick and lime, dripped upon continually, in a window with forty draughts, I am glad to muffle myself up in its blankets and write among wraps.

The Governor, recognising the craze of Europeans for exercise, sent word that M—— might walk in the balcony of the haram if I went to chaperon him, and this great concession was gladly accepted, for it was the only possible way of getting warm. The apparition of a strange man, and a European, within the precincts of the haram was a great event, and every window, curtain, and doorway was taken advantage of by bright dark eyes sparkling among folds of cotton and gauze. The enjoyment was surreptitious, but possibly all the more keen, and sounds of whispering and giggling surged out of every crevice. There are over thirty women, some of them negresses. Some are Kurds and very handsome, but the faces of the two handsomest, though quite young, have something fiendish in their expression. I have seldom seen a haram without its tragedies of jealousy and hate, and every fresh experience makes me believe that the system is as humiliating to men as it is to women.

The haram reception-rooms here are large and bright, with roofs and cornices worked daintily in very white plaster, and there are superb carpets on the floors, and divans covered with Damascus embroidery in gold silk on cream muslin.

Each day the demands for my presence in the sick-room are more frequent, and though I say that I can scarcely aspire to be a nurse, they persist in thinking that I am a Hakiīm, and possibly a useful spy on the doctor. I have become aware that unscrupulous jealousy of the principal wife exists, and, as is usual in the East, everybody distrusts everybody else, and prefers to trust strangers. The husband frequently asks me to remove what seems a cancerous tumour, and the doctor says that an operation is necessary to save the lady’s life, but when I urge him to perform it, and offer a nurse’s help, he replies that if she were to die he would be at once accused of murder, and would run a serious risk.

The Governor today was so anxious that I should persuade the lady to undergo an operation that he even brought Hadji into the room to interpret what I said in Arabic. His ceaseless question is, “Will she die?” and she asks me the same many times every day. She insists that I shall be present each day when the wound is dressed, and give help, lest the doctor without her leave should plunge a knife into the swelling. These are most distressing occasions, for an hour of struggle and suffering usually ends in delirium.

This afternoon, however, she was much freer from pain, and sent for me to amuse her. She wore some fine jewels, and some folds of tinselled gauze round her head, and looked really handsome and intelligent. Her husband wished that we could converse without his imperfect interpreting, and repeated many times, “She is a learned woman, and can write and read several languages.” The room was as usual full of women, who had removed their veils at their lord’s command. I showed the lady some Tibetan sketches, but when I came to one of a man the women replaced their veils!

When I showed some embroidery, the Governor said he had heard that the Queen of England employed herself with her needle in leisure hours, but that it is not comme il faut here for ladies to work. It seems that the making of sweetmeats is the only occupation which can be pursued without loss of dignity. Is it wonderful that intolerable ennui should be productive of the miserable jealousies, rivalries, intrigues, and hatreds which accompany the system of polygamy?

The host, although civil governor of a large district, also suffers from ennui. The necessary official duties are very light, and the accounts and reports are prepared by others. If money is wanted he makes “an exaction” on a village, and subordinates screw it out of the people. Justice, or the marketable commodity which passes for such, is administered by a kadi. He clatters about the balconies with slippered feet, is domestic, that is, he spends most of the day in the haram, smokes, eats two meals of six or seven courses each, and towards evening takes a good deal of wine, according to a habit which is becoming increasingly common among the higher classes of Moslems. He is hospitable, and is certainly anything but tyrannical in his household.

The customs and ways of the first Turkish house I have visited in would be as interesting to you as they were to myself, but it would be a poor return for hospitality to dwell upon anything, unless, like the difficulties regarding the illness of the principal wife, it were a matter of common notoriety.

It is a punishable act in Persia, and possibly here also, to look into a neighbour’s house, but I cannot help it unless I were to avoid the window altogether. Wealth and poverty are within a few feet of each other, and as Moslems are charitable to a degree and in a manner which puts us to shame, the juxtaposition is advantageous.

My neighbour’s premises consist of a very small and mean yard, now a foot deep in black mire, a cow-shed, and a room without door or windows, with a black uneven floor, and black slimy rafters — neither worse nor better than many hovels in the Western Isles of Scotland. A man in middle life, a woman of dubious age, two girls from eight to ten years old, and a boy a little older are the occupants. The furniture consists of some wadded quilts, a copper pot, an iron girdle, a clay ewer or two, a long knife, a wooden spoon, a clay receptacle for grain, two or three earthenware basins, glazed green, and a wicker tray. The cow-shed contains — besides the cow, which is fed on dried thistles — a spade, an open basket, and a baggage pad. A few fowls live in the house, and are disconcerted to find that they cannot get out of it without swimming.

The weather is cold and raw, fuel is enormously dear, work is at a standstill, and cold and ennui keep my neighbours in bed till the day is well advanced. “Bed” consists of a wadded quilt laid on the floor, with another for a covering. The man and boy sleep at one end of the room, the woman and girls at the other, with covered heads. None make any change in their dress at night, except that the man takes off the pagri of his turban, retaining only a skull cap.

The woman gets up first, lights a fire of tamarisk twigs and thistles in a hole in the middle of the floor, makes porridge of some coarse brownish flour and water, and sets it on to warm — to boil it, with the means at her disposal, is impossible. She wades across the yard, gives the cow a bunch of thistles, milks it into a basin, adds a little leaven to the milk, which she shakes in a goat skin till it is thick, carries the skin and basket to the house, feeds the fowls from the basket, and then rouses her lord. He rises, stretches himself, yawns, and places himself cross-legged by the fire, after putting on his pagri. The room is dense with pungent wood smoke, which escapes through the doorway, and only a few embers remain. The wife hands him an earthen bowl, pours some porridge into it, adds some “thick milk” from the goat skin, and stands before him with her arms crossed while he eats, then receives the bowl from his hands and kisses it, as is usual with the slaves in a household.

Then she lights his pipe, and while he enjoys it she serves her boy with breakfast in the same fashion, omitting the concluding ceremony, after which she and the girls retire to a respectful distance with the big pot, and finish its contents simultaneously. The pipe over, she pours water on her lord’s hands, letting it run on the already damp floor, and wipes them with her chadar. No other ablution is customary in the house.

Poor as this man is, he is a Hadji, and having brought from Mecca a “prayer stone,” with the Prophet’s hand upon it, he takes it from his girdle, puts it on the floor, bows his forehead on it, turning Mecca-ward, and says his prayers, repeating his devotions towards evening. The first day or two he went out, but the roads now being almost impassable, he confines himself to the repairing of a small dyke, which keeps the water from running into the room, which is lower than the yard, and performs its duty very imperfectly, the soak from the yard and the drip from the roof increasing the sliminess hourly. These repairs, an occasional pipe, and much sleep are the record of this man’s day till an hour before sunset, when the meal of the morning is repeated with the addition of some cheese.

The children keep chiefly in bed. Meanwhile the woman, the busy bee of the family, contrives to patter about nearly all day in wet clothing, carrying out rubbish in single handfuls, breaking twigs, cleaning the pot, and feeding the cow. The roof, which in fine weather is the scene of most domestic occupations, is reached by a steep ladder, and she climbs this seven times in succession, each time carrying up a fowl, to pick for imaginary worms in the slimy mud. Dyed yarn is also carried up to steep in the rain, and in an interval of dryness some wool was taken up and carded. An hour before sunset she lights the fire, puts on the porridge, and again performs seven journeys with seven fowls, feeds them in the house, attends respectfully to her lord, feeds her family, including the cow, paddles through mire to draw water from the river, and unrolls and spreads the wadded quilts. By the time it is dark they are once more in bed, where I trust this harmless, industrious woman enjoys a well-earned sleep.

The clouds are breaking, and in spite of adverse rumours it is decided coûte que coûte to start tomorrow. For my own part I prefer the freedom even with the “swinishness” of a caravanserai to receiving hospitality for which no fitting return can be made.

I. L. B.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52