I will not weary you, dear L., with descriptions of twenty-six quiet, similar, uninteresting days — days of sleep, and pipes, and coffee — spent at Zayla, whilst a route was traced out, guides were propitiated, camels were bought, mules sent for, and all the wearisome preliminaries of African travel were gone through. But a journee in the Somali country may be a novelty to you: its events shall be succinctly depicted.
With earliest dawn we arise, thankful to escape from mosquitoes and close air. We repair to the terrace where devotions are supposed to be performed, and busy ourselves in watching our neighbours. Two in particular engage my attention: sisters by different mothers. The daughter of an Indian woman is a young person of fast propensities — her chocolate-coloured skin, long hair, and parrot-like profile1 are much admired by the elegants of Zayla; and she coquettes by combing, dancing, singing, and slapping the slave-girls, whenever an adorer may be looking. We sober-minded men, seeing her, quote the well-known lines —
“Without justice a king is a cloud without rain;
Without goodness a sage is a field without fruit;
Without manners a youth is a bridleless horse;
Without lore an old man is a waterless wady;
Without modesty woman is bread without salt.”
The other is a matron of Abyssinian descent, as her skin, scarcely darker than a gipsy’s, her long and bright blue fillet, and her gaudily fringed dress, denote. She tattoos her face 2: a livid line extends from her front hair to the tip of her nose; between her eyebrows is an ornament resembling a fleur-de-lis, and various beauty-spots adorn the corners of her mouth and the flats of her countenance. She passes her day superintending the slave-girls, and weaving mats3, the worsted work of this part of the world. We soon made acquaintance, as far as an exchange of salams. I regret, however, to say that there was some scandal about my charming neighbour; and that more than once she was detected making signals to distant persons with her hands.4
At 6 A.M. we descend to breakfast, which usually consists of sour grain cakes and roast mutton — at this hour a fine trial of health and cleanly living. A napkin is passed under my chin, as if I were a small child, and a sound scolding is administered when appetite appears deficient. Visitors are always asked to join us: we squat on the uncarpeted floor, round a circular stool, eat hard, and never stop to drink. The appetite of Africa astonishes us; we dispose of six ounces here for every one in Arabia — probably the effect of sweet water, after the briny produce of the “Eye of Yemen.” We conclude this early breakfast with coffee and pipes, and generally return, after it, to the work of sleep.
Then, provided with some sanctified Arabic book, I prepare for the reception of visitors. They come in by dozens — no man having apparently any business to occupy him — doff their slippers at the door, enter wrapped up in their Tobes or togas 5, and deposit their spears, point-upwards, in the corner; those who have swords — the mark of respectability in Eastern Africa — place them at their feet. They shake the full hand (I was reproved for offering the fingers only); and when politely disposed, the inferior wraps his fist in the hem of his garment. They have nothing corresponding with the European idea of manners: they degrade all ceremony by the epithet Shughl el banat, or “girls’ work,” and pique themselves upon downrightness of manner — a favourite mask, by the by, for savage cunning to assume. But they are equally free from affectation, shyness, and vulgarity; and, after all, no manners are preferable to bad manners.
Sometimes we are visited at this hour by Mohammed Sharmarkay, eldest son of the old governor. He is in age about thirty, a fine tall figure, slender but well knit, beardless and of light complexion, with large eyes, and a length of neck which a lady might covet. His only detracting feature is a slight projection of the oral region, that unmistakable proof of African blood. His movements have the grace of strength and suppleness: he is a good jumper, runs well, throws the spear admirably, and is a tolerable shot. Having received a liberal education at Mocha, he is held a learned man by his fellow-countrymen. Like his father he despises presents, looking higher; with some trouble I persuaded him to accept a common map of Asia, and a revolver. His chief interest was concentrated in books: he borrowed my Abu Kasim to copy6, and was never tired of talking about the religious sciences: he had weakened his eyes by hard reading, and a couple of blisters were sufficient to win his gratitude. Mohammed is now the eldest son7; he appears determined to keep up the family name, having already married ten wives: the issue, however, two infant sons, were murdered by the Eesa Bedouins. Whenever he meets his father in the morning, he kisses his hand, and receives a salute upon the forehead. He aspires to the government of Zayla, and looks forward more reasonably than the Hajj to the day when the possession of Berberah will pour gold into his coffers. He shows none of his father’s “softness:” he advocates the bastinado, and, to keep his people at a distance, he has married an Arab wife, who allows no adult to enter the doors. The Somal, Spaniard-like, remark, “He is one of ourselves, though a little richer;” but when times change and luck returns, they are not unlikely to find themselves mistaken.
Amongst other visitors, we have the Amir el Bahr, or Port Captain, and the Nakib el Askar (Commandant de place), Mohammed Umar el Hamumi. This is one of those Hazramaut adventurers so common in all the countries bordering upon Arabia: they are the Swiss of the East, a people equally brave and hardy, frugal and faithful, as long as pay is regular. Feared by the soft Indians and Africans for their hardness and determination, the common proverb concerning them is, “If you meet a viper and a Hazrami, spare the viper.” Natives of a poor and rugged region, they wander far and wide, preferring every country to their own; and it is generally said that the sun rises not upon a land that does not contain a man from Hazramaut.8 This commander of an army of forty men9 often read out to us from the Kitab el Anwar (the Book of Lights) the tale of Abu Jahl, that Judas of El Islam made ridiculous. Sometimes comes the Sayyid Mohammed el Barr, a stout personage, formerly governor of Zayla, and still highly respected by the people on acount of his pure pedigree. With him is the Fakih Adan, a savan of ignoble origin. 10 When they appear the conversation becomes intensely intellectual; sometimes we dispute religion, sometimes politics, at others history and other humanities. Yet it is not easy to talk history with a people who confound Miriam and Mary, or politics to those whose only idea of a king is a robber on a large scale, or religion to men who measure excellence by forbidden meats, or geography to those who represent the earth in this guise. Yet, though few of our ideas are in common, there are many words; the verbosity of these anti-Laconic oriental dialects11 renders at least half the subject intelligible to the most opposite thinkers. When the society is wholly Somal, I write Arabic, copy some useful book, or extract from it, as Bentley advised, what is fit to quote. When Arabs are present, I usually read out a tale from “The Thousand and One Nights,” that wonderful work, so often translated, so much turned over, and so little understood at home. The most familiar of books in England, next to the Bible, it is one of the least known, the reason being that about one fifth is utterly unfit for translation; and the most sanguine orientalist would not dare to render literally more than three quarters of the remainder. Consequently, the reader loses the contrast — the very essence of the book — between its brilliancy and dulness, its moral putrefaction, and such pearls as
“Cast the seed of good works on the least fit soil.
Good is never wasted, however it may be laid out.”
And in a page or two after such divine sentiment, the ladies of Bagdad sit in the porter’s lap, and indulge in a facetiousness which would have killed Pietro Aretino before his time.
Often I am visited by the Topchi-Bashi, or master of the ordnance — half a dozen honeycombed guns — a wild fellow, Bashi Buzuk in the Hejaz and commandant of artillery at Zayla. He shaves my head on Fridays, and on other days tells me wild stories about his service in the Holy Land; how Kurdi Usman slew his son-in-law, Ibn Rumi, and how Turkcheh Bilmez would have murdered Mohammed Ali in his bed.12 Sometimes the room is filled with Arabs, Sayyids, merchants, and others settled in the place: I saw nothing amongst them to justify the oft-quoted saw, “Koraysh pride and Zayla’s boastfulness.” More generally the assembly is one of the Somal, who talk in their own tongue, laugh, yell, stretch their legs, and lie like cattle upon the floor, smoking the common Hukkah, which stands in the centre, industriously cleaning their teeth with sticks, and eating snuff like Swedes. Meanwhile, I occupy the Kursi or couch, sometimes muttering from a book to excite respect, or reading aloud for general information, or telling fortunes by palmistry, or drawing out a horoscope.
It argues “peculiarity,” I own, to enjoy such a life. In the first place, there is no woman’s society: El Islam seems purposely to have loosened the ties between the sexes in order to strengthen the bonds which connect man and man. 13 Secondly, your house is by no means your castle. You must open your doors to your friend at all hours; if when inside it suit him to sing, sing he will; and until you learn solitude in a crowd, or the art of concentration, you are apt to become ennuye and irritable. You must abandon your prejudices, and for a time cast off all European prepossessions in favour of Indian politeness, Persian polish, Arab courtesy, or Turkish dignity.
“They are as free as Nature e’er made man;”
and he who objects to having his head shaved in public, to seeing his friends combing their locks in his sitting-room, to having his property unceremoniously handled, or to being addressed familiarly by a perfect stranger, had better avoid Somaliland.
You will doubtless, dear L., convict me, by my own sentiments, of being an “amateur barbarian.” You must, however, remember that I visited Africa fresh from Aden, with its dull routine of meaningless parades and tiresome courts martial, where society is broken by ridiculous distinctions of staff-men and regimental-men, Madras-men and Bombay-men, “European” officers, and “black” officers; where literature is confined to acquiring the art of explaining yourself in the jargons of half-naked savages; where the business of life is comprised in ignoble official squabbles, dislikes, disapprobations, and “references to superior authority;” where social intercourse is crushed by “gup,” gossip, and the scandal of small colonial circles; where — pleasant predicament for those who really love women’s society! — it is scarcely possible to address fair dame, preserving at the same time her reputation and your own, and if seen with her twice, all “camp” will swear it is an “affair;” where, briefly, the march of mind is at a dead halt, and the march of matter is in double quick time to the hospital or sick-quarters. Then the fatal struggle for Name, and the painful necessity of doing the most with the smallest materials for a reputation! In Europe there are a thousand grades of celebrity, from statesmanship to taxidermy; all, therefore, co-exist without rivalry. Whereas, in these small colonies, there is but one fame, and as that leads directly to rupees and rank, no man willingly accords it to his neighbour. And, finally, such semi-civilised life abounds in a weary ceremoniousness. It is highly improper to smoke outside your bungalow. You shall pay your visits at 11 A.M., when the glass stands at 120°. You shall be generally shunned if you omit your waistcoat, no matter what the weather be. And if you venture to object to these Median laws — as I am now doing — you elicit a chorus of disapproval, and acquire some evil name.
About 11 A.M., when the fresh water arrives from the Hissi or wells, the Hajj sends us dinner, mutton stews, of exceeding greasiness, boiled rice, maize cakes, sometimes fish, and generally curds or milk. We all sit round a primitive form of the Round Table, and I doubt that King Arthur’s knights ever proved doughtier trenchermen than do my companions. We then rise to pipes and coffee, after which, excluding visitors, my attendants apply themselves to a siesta, I to my journal and studies.
At 2 P.M. there is a loud clamour at the door: if it be not opened in time, we are asked if we have a Nazarene inside. Enters a crowd of visitors, anxious to pass the afternoon. We proceed with a copy of the forenoon till the sun declines, when it is time to escape the flies, to repair to the terrace for fresh air, or to dress for a walk. Generally our direction is through the town eastwards, to a plain of dilapidated graves and salt sand, peopled only by land-crabs. At the extremity near the sea is a little mosque of wattle-work: we sit there under the shade, and play a rude form of draughts, called Shantarah, or at Shahh, a modification of the former.14 More often, eschewing these effeminacies, we shoot at a mark, throw the javelin, leap, or engage in some gymnastic exercise. The favourite Somali weapons are the spear, dagger, and war-club; the bow and poisoned arrows are peculiar to the servile class, who know
“the dreadful art
To taint with deadly drugs the barbed dart;”
and the people despise, at the same time that they fear firearms, declaring them to be cowardly weapons15 with which the poltroon can slay the bravest.
The Somali spear is a form of the Cape Assegai. A long, thin, pliant and knotty shaft of the Dibi, Diktab, and Makari trees, is dried, polished, and greased with rancid butter: it is generally of a dull yellow colour, and sometimes bound, as in Arabia, with brass wire for ornament. Care is applied to make the rod straight, or the missile flies crooked: it is garnished with an iron button at the head, and a long thin tapering head of coarse bad iron16, made at Berberah and other places by the Tomal. The length of the shaft may be four feet eight inches; the blade varies from twenty to twenty-six inches, and the whole weapon is about seven feet long. Some polish the entire spear-head, others only its socket or ferule; commonly, however, it is all blackened by heating it to redness, and rubbing it with cow’s horn. In the towns, one of these weapons is carried; on a journey and in battle two, as amongst the Tibboos — a small javelin for throwing and a large spear reserved for the thrust. Some warriors especially amongst the Eesa, prefer a coarse heavy lance, which never leaves the hand. The Somali spear is held in various ways: generally the thumb and forefinger grasp the third nearest to the head, and the shaft resting upon the palm is made to quiver. In action, the javelin is rarely thrown at a greater distance than six or seven feet, and the heavier weapon is used for “jobbing.” Stripped to his waist, the thrower runs forward with all the action of a Kafir, whilst the attacked bounds about and crouches to receive it upon the round targe, which it cannot pierce. He then returns the compliment, at the same time endeavouring to break the weapon thrown at him by jumping and stamping upon it. The harmless missiles being exhausted, both combatants draw their daggers, grapple with the left hand, and with the right dig hard and swift at each other’s necks and shoulders. When matters come to this point, the duel is soon decided, and the victor, howling his slogan, pushes away from his front the dying enemy, and rushes off to find another opponent. A puerile weapon during the day, when a steady man can easily avoid it, the spear is terrible in night attacks or in the “bush,” whence it can be hurled unseen. For practice, we plant a pair of slippers upright in the ground, at the distance of twelve yards, and a skilful spearman hits the mark once in every three throws.
The Somali dagger is an iron blade about eighteen inches long by two in breadth, pointed and sharp at both edges. The handle is of buffalo or other horn, with a double scoop to fit the grasp; and at the hilt is a conical ornament of zinc. It is worn strapped round the waist by a thong sewed to the sheath, and long enough to encircle the body twice: the point is to the right, and the handle projects on the left. When in town, the Somal wear their daggers under the Tobe: in battle, the strap is girt over the cloth to prevent the latter being lost. They always stab from above: this is as it should be, a thrust with a short weapon “underhand” may be stopped, if the adversary have strength enough to hold the stabber’s forearm. The thrust is parried with the shield, and a wound is rarely mortal except in the back: from the great length of the blade, the least movement of the man attacked causes it to fall upon the shoulder-blade.
The “Budd,” or Somali club, resembles the Kafir “Tonga.” It is a knobstick about a cubit long, made of some hard wood: the head is rounded on the inside, and the outside is cut to an edge. In quarrels, it is considered a harmless weapon, and is often thrown at the opponent and wielded viciously enough where the spear point would carefully be directed at the buckler. The Gashan or shield is a round targe about eighteen inches in diameter; some of the Bedouins make it much larger. Rhinoceros’ skin being rare, the usual material is common bull’s hide, or, preferably, that of the Oryx, called by the Arabs Waal, and by the Somal, Baid. These shields are prettily cut, and are always protected when new with a covering of canvass. The boss in the centre easily turns a spear, and the strongest throw has very little effect even upon the thinnest portion. When not used, the Gashan is slung upon the left forearm: during battle, the handle, which is in the middle, is grasped by the left hand, and held out at a distance from the body.
We are sometimes joined in our exercises by the Arab mercenaries, who are far more skilful than the Somal. The latter are unacquainted with the sword, and cannot defend themselves against it with the targe; they know little of dagger practice, and were beaten at their own weapon, the javelin, by the children of Bir Hamid. Though unable to jump for the honour of the turban, I soon acquired the reputation of being the strongest man in Zayla: this is perhaps the easiest way of winning respect from a barbarous people, who honour body, and degrade mind to mere cunning.
When tired of exercise we proceed round the walls to the Ashurbara or Southern Gate. Here boys play at “hockey” with sticks and stones energetically as in England: they are fine manly specimens of the race, but noisy and impudent, like all young savages. At two years of age they hold out the right hand for sweetmeats, and if refused become insolent. The citizens amuse themselves with the ball17, at which they play roughly as Scotch linkers: they are divided into two parties, bachelors and married men; accidents often occur, and no player wears any but the scantiest clothing, otherwise he would retire from the conflict in rags. The victors sing and dance about the town for hours, brandishing their spears, shouting their slogans, boasting of ideal victories — the Abyssinian Donfatu, or war-vaunt — and advancing in death-triumph with frantic gestures: a battle won would be celebrated with less circumstance in Europe. This is the effect of no occupation — the primum mobile of the Indian prince’s kite-flying and all the puerilities of the pompous East.
We usually find an encampment of Bedouins outside the gate. Their tents are worse than any gipsy’s, low, smoky, and of the rudest construction. These people are a spectacle of savageness. Their huge heads of shock hair, dyed red and dripping with butter, are garnished with a Firin, or long three-pronged comb, a stick, which acts as scratcher when the owner does not wish to grease his fingers, and sometimes with the ominous ostrich feather, showing that the wearer has “killed his man:” a soiled and ragged cotton cloth covers their shoulders, and a similar article is wrapped round their loins.18 All wear coarse sandals, and appear in the bravery of targe, spear, and dagger. Some of the women would be pretty did they not resemble the men in their scowling, Satanic expression of countenance: they are decidedly en deshabille, but a black skin always appears a garb. The cantonment is surrounded by asses, camels, and a troop of naked Flibertigibbets, who dance and jump in astonishment whenever they see me: “The white man! the white man!” they shriek; “run away, run away, or we shall be eaten!”19 On one occasion, however, my amour propre was decidedly flattered by the attentions of a small black girl, apparently four or five years old, who followed me through the streets ejaculating “Wa Wanaksan!”—“0 fine!” The Bedouins, despite their fierce scowls, appear good-natured; the women flock out of the huts to stare and laugh, the men to look and wonder. I happened once to remark, “Lo, we come forth to look at them and they look at us; we gaze at their complexion and they gaze at ours!” A Bedouin who understood Arabic translated this speech to the others, and it excited great merriment. In the mining counties of civilised England, where the “genial brickbat” is thrown at the passing stranger, or in enlightened Scotland, where hair a few inches too long or a pair of mustachios justifies “mobbing,” it would have been impossible for me to have mingled as I did with these wild people.
We must return before sunset, when the gates are locked and the keys are carried to the Hajj, a vain precaution, when a donkey could clear half a dozen places in the town wall. The call to evening prayer sounds as we enter: none of my companions pray 20, but all when asked reply in the phrase which an Englishman hates, “Inshallah Bukra”—“if Allah please, to-morrow!”— and they have the decency not to appear in public at the hours of devotion. The Somal, like most Africans, are of a somewhat irreverent turn of mind.21 When reproached with gambling, and asked why they persist in the forbidden pleasure, they simply answer “Because we like.” One night, encamped amongst the Eesa, I was disturbed by a female voice indulging in the loudest lamentations: an elderly lady, it appears, was suffering from tooth-ache, and the refrain of her groans was, “O Allah, may thy teeth ache like mine! O Allah, may thy gums be sore as mine are!” A well-known and characteristic tale is told of the Gerad Hirsi, now chief of the Berteri tribe. Once meeting a party of unarmed pilgrims, he asked them why they had left their weapons at home: they replied in the usual phrase, “Nahnu mutawakkilin”—“we are trusters (in Allah).” That evening, having feasted them hospitably, the chief returned hurriedly to the hut, declaring that his soothsayer ordered him at once to sacrifice a pilgrim, and begging the horror-struck auditors to choose the victim. They cast lots and gave over one of their number: the Gerad placed him in another hut, dyed his dagger with sheep’s blood, and returned to say that he must have a second life. The unhappy pilgrims rose en masse, and fled so wildly that the chief, with all the cavalry of the desert, found difficulty in recovering them. He dismissed them with liberal presents, and not a few jibes about their trustfulness. The wilder Bedouins will inquire where Allah is to be found: when asked the object of the question, they reply, “If the Eesa could but catch him they would spear him upon the spot — who but he lays waste their homes and kills their cattle and wives?” Yet, conjoined to this truly savage incapability of conceiving the idea of a Supreme Being, they believe in the most ridiculous exaggerations: many will not affront a common pilgrim, for fear of being killed by a glance or a word.
Our supper, also provided by the hospitable Hajj, is the counterpart of the midday dinner. After it we repair to the roof, to enjoy the prospect of the far Tajurrah hills and the white moonbeams sleeping upon the nearer sea. The evening star hangs like a diamond upon the still horizon: around the moon a pink zone of light mist, shading off into turquoise blue, and a delicate green like chrysopraz, invests the heavens with a peculiar charm. The scene is truly suggestive: behind us, purpling in the night-air and silvered by the radiance from above, lie the wolds and mountains tenanted by the fiercest of savages; their shadowy mysterious forms exciting vague alarms in the traveller’s breast. Sweet as the harp of David, the night-breeze and the music of the water come up from the sea; but the ripple and the rustling sound alternate with the hyena’s laugh, the jackal’s cry, and the wild dog’s lengthened howl.
Or, the weather becoming cold, we remain below, and Mohammed Umar returns to read out more “Book of Lights,” or some pathetic ode. I will quote in free translation the following production of the celebrated poet Abd el Rahman el Burai, as a perfect specimen of melancholy Arab imagery:
“No exile is the banished to the latter end of earth,
The exile is the banished to the coffin and the tomb
“He hath claims on the dwellers in the places of their birth
Who wandereth the world, for he lacketh him a home.
“Then, blamer, blame me not, were my heart within thy breast,
The sigh would take the place of thy laughter and thy scorn.
“Let me weep for the sin that debars my soul of rest,
The tear may yet avail — all in vain I may not mourn! 22
“Woe! woe to thee, Flesh! — with a purer spirit now
The death-day were a hope, and the judgment-hour a joy!
“One morn I woke in pain, with a pallor on my brow,
As though the dreaded Angel were descending to destroy:
“They brought to me a leech, saying, ‘Heal him lest he die!’
On that day, by Allah, were his drugs a poor deceit!
“They stripped me and bathed me, and closed the glazing eye,
And dispersed unto prayers, and to haggle for my sheet.
“The prayers without a bow23 they prayed over me that day,
Brought nigh to me the bier, and disposed me within.
“Four bare upon their shoulders this tenement of clay,
Friend and kinsmen in procession bore the dust of friend and kin.
“They threw upon me mould of the tomb and went their way —
A guest, ‘twould seem, had flitted from the dwellings of the tribe!
“My gold and my treasures each a share they bore away,
Without thanks, without praise, with a jest and with a jibe.
“My gold and my treasures each his share they bore away,
On me they left the weight! — with me they left the sin!
“That night within the grave without hoard or child I lay,
No spouse, no friend were there, no comrade and no kin.
“The wife of my youth, soon another husband found —
A stranger sat at home on the hearthstone of my sire.
“My son became a slave, though not purchased nor bound,
The hireling of a stranger, who begrudged him his hire.
“Such, alas, is human life! such the horror of his death!
Man grows like a grass, like a god he sees no end.
“Be wise, then, ere too late, brother! praise with every breath
The hand that can chastise, the arm that can defend:
“And bless thou the Prophet, the averter of our ills,
While the lightning flasheth bright o’er the ocean and the hills.”
At this hour my companions become imaginative and superstitious. One Salimayn, a black slave from the Sawahil24, now secretary to the Hajj, reads our fortunes in the rosary. The “fal”25, as it is called, acts a prominent part in Somali life. Some men are celebrated for accuracy of prediction; and in times of danger, when the human mind is ever open to the “fooleries of faith,” perpetual reference is made to their art. The worldly wise Salimayn, I observed, never sent away a questioner with an ill-omened reply, but he also regularly insisted upon the efficacy of sacrifice and almsgiving, which, as they would assuredly be neglected, afforded him an excuse in case of accident. Then we had a recital of the tales common to Africa, and perhaps to all the world. In modern France, as in ancient Italy, “versipelles” become wolves and hide themselves in the woods: in Persia they change themselves into bears, and in Bornou and Shoa assume the shapes of lions, hyenas, and leopards. 26 The origin of this metamorphic superstition is easily traceable, like man’s fetisism or demonology, to his fears: a Bedouin, for instance, becomes dreadful by the reputation of sorcery: bears and hyenas are equally terrible; and the two objects of horror are easily connected. Curious to say, individuals having this power were pointed out to me, and people pretended to discover it in their countenances: at Zayla I was shown a Bedouin, by name Farih Badaun, who notably became a hyena at times, for the purpose of tasting human blood.27 About forty years ago, three brothers, Kayna, Fardayna, and Sollan, were killed on Gulays near Berberah for the crime of metamorphosis. The charge is usually substantiated either by the bestial tail remaining appended to a part of the human shape which the owner has forgotten to rub against the magic tree, or by some peculiar wound which the beast received and the man retained. Kindred to this superstition is the belief that many of the Bedouins have learned the languages of birds and beasts. Another widely diffused fancy is that of the Aksar28, which in this pastoral land becomes a kind of wood: wonderful tales are told of battered milk-pails which, by means of some peg accidentally cut in the jungle, have been found full of silver, or have acquired the qualities of cornucopiae. It is supposed that a red heifer always breaks her fast upon the wonderful plant, consequently much time and trouble have been expended by the Somal in watching the morning proceedings of red heifers. At other times we hear fearful tales of old women who, like the Jigar Khwar of Persia, feed upon man’s liver: they are fond of destroying young children; even adults are not ashamed of defending themselves with talismans. In this country the crone is called Bidaa or Kumayyo, words signifying a witch: the worst is she that destroys her own progeny. No wound is visible in this vampyre’s victim: generally he names his witch, and his friends beat her to death unless she heal him: many are thus martyred; and in Somali land scant notice is taken of such a peccadillo as murdering an old woman. The sex indeed has by no means a good name: here, as elsewhere, those who degrade it are the first to abuse it for degradation. At Zayla almost all quarrels are connected with women; the old bewitch in one way, the young in another, and both are equally maligned. “Wit in a woman,” exclaims one man, “is a habit of running away in a dromedary.” “Allah,” declares another, “made woman of a crooked bone; he who would straighten her, breaketh her.” Perhaps, however, by these generalisms of abuse the sex gains: they prevent personal and individual details; and no society of French gentlemen avoids mentioning in public the name of a woman more scrupulously than do the misogynist Moslems.
After a conversazione of two hours my visitors depart, and we lose no time — for we must rise at cockcrow — in spreading our mats round the common room. You would admire the Somali pillow 29, a dwarf pedestal of carved wood, with a curve upon which the greasy poll and its elaborate frisure repose. Like the Abyssinian article, it resembles the head-rest of ancient Egypt in all points, except that it is not worked with Typhons and other horrors to drive away dreadful dreams. Sometimes the sound of the kettledrum, the song, and the clapping of hands, summon us at a later hour than usual to a dance. The performance is complicated, and, as usual with the trivialities easily learned in early youth, it is uncommonly difficult to a stranger. Each dance has its own song and measure, and, contrary to the custom of El Islam, the sexes perform together. They begin by clapping the hands and stamping where they stand; to this succeed advancing, retiring, wheeling about, jumping about, and the other peculiarities of the Jim Crow school. The principal measures are those of Ugadayn and Batar; these again are divided and subdivided; — I fancy that the description of Dileho, Jibwhayn, and Hobala would be as entertaining and instructive to you, dear L., as Polka, Gavotte, and Mazurka would be to a Somali.
On Friday — our Sunday — a drunken crier goes about the town, threatening the bastinado to all who neglect their five prayers. At half-past eleven a kettledrum sounds a summons to the Jami or Cathedral. It is an old barn rudely plastered with whitewash; posts or columns of artless masonry support the low roof, and the smallness of the windows, or rather air-holes, renders its dreary length unpleasantly hot. There is no pulpit; the only ornament is a rude representation of the Meccan Mosque, nailed like a pothouse print to the wall; and the sole articles of furniture are ragged mats and old boxes, containing tattered chapters of the Koran in greasy bindings. I enter with a servant carrying a prayer carpet, encounter the stare of 300 pair of eyes, belonging to parallel rows of squatters, recite the customary two-bow prayer in honor of the mosque, placing sword and rosary before me, and then, taking up a Koran, read the Cow Chapter (No. 18.) loud and twangingly. At the Zohr or mid-day hour, the Muezzin inside the mosque, standing before the Khatib or preacher, repeats the call to prayer, which the congregation, sitting upon their shins and feet, intone after him. This ended, all present stand up, and recite every man for himself, a two-bow prayer of Sunnat or Example, concluding with the blessing on the Prophet and the Salam over each shoulder to all brother Believers. The Khatib then ascends his hole in the wall, which serves for pulpit, and thence addresses us with “The peace be upon you, and the mercy of Allah, and his benediction;” to which we respond through the Muezzin, “And upon you be peace, and Allah’s mercy!” After sundry other religious formulas and their replies, concluding with a second call to prayer, our preacher rises, and in the voice with which Sir Hudibras was wont
“To blaspheme custard through the nose,”
preaches El Waaz30, or the advice-sermon. He sits down for a few minutes, and then, rising again, recites El Naat, or the Praise of the Prophet and his Companions. These are the two heads into which the Moslem discourse is divided; unfortunately, however, there is no application. Our preacher, who is also Kazi or Judge, makes several blunders in his Arabic, and he reads his sermons, a thing never done in El Islam, except by the modice docti. The discourse over, our clerk, who is, if possible, worse than the curate, repeats the form of call termed El Ikamah; then entering the Mihrab or niche, he recites the two-bow Friday litany, with, and in front of, the congregation. I remarked no peculiarity in the style of praying, except that all followed the practice of the Shafeis in El Yemen — raising the hands for a moment, instead of letting them depend along the thighs, between the Rukaat or bow and the Sujdah or prostration. This public prayer concluded, many people leave the mosque; a few remain for more prolonged devotions.
There is a queer kind of family likeness between this scene and that of a village church, in some quiet nook of rural England. Old Sharmarkay, the squire, attended by his son, takes his place close to the pulpit; and although the Honoratiores have no padded and cushioned pews, they comport themselves very much as if they had. Recognitions of the most distant description are allowed before the service commences: looking around is strictly forbidden during prayers; but all do not regard the prohibition, especially when a new moustache enters. Leaving the church, men shake hands, stand for a moment to exchange friendly gossip, or address a few words to the preacher, and then walk home to dinner. There are many salient points of difference. No bonnets appear in public: the squire, after prayers, gives alms to the poor, and departs escorted by two dozen matchlock-men, who perseveringly fire their shotted guns.
1 This style of profile — highly oval, with the chin and brow receding — is very conspicuous in Eastern Africa, where the face, slightly prognathous, projects below the nose.
2 Gall-nuts form the base of the tattooing dye. It is worked in with a needle, when it becomes permanent: applied with a pen, it requires to be renewed about once a fortnight.
3 Mats are the staple manufacture in Eastern, as in many parts of Western, Africa. The material is sometimes Daum or other palm: there are, however, many plants in more common use; they are made of every variety in shape and colour, and are dyed red, black, and yellow — madder from Tajurrah and alum being the matter principally used.
4 When woman addresses woman she always uses her voice.
5 The Tobe, or Abyssinian “Quarry,” is the general garment of Africa from Zayla to Bornou. In the Somali country it is a cotton sheet eight cubits long, and two breadths sewn together. An article of various uses, like the Highland plaid, it is worn in many ways; sometimes the right arm is bared; in cold weather the whole person is muffled up, and in summer it is allowed to full below the waist. Generally it is passed behind the back, rests upon the left shoulder, is carried forward over the breast, surrounds the body, and ends hanging on the left shoulder, where it displays a gaudy silk fringe of red and yellow. This is the man’s Tobe. The woman’s dress is of similar material, but differently worn: the edges are knotted generally over the right, sometimes over the left shoulder; it is girdled round the waist, below which hangs a lappet, which in cold weather can be brought like a hood over the head. Though highly becoming, and picturesque as the Roman toga, the Somali Tobe is by no means the most decorous of dresses: women in the towns often prefer the Arab costume — a short-sleeved robe extending to the knee, and a Futah or loin-cloth underneath.
As regards the word Tobe, it signifies, in Arabic, a garment generally: the Somal call it “Maro,” and the half Tobe a “Shukkah.”
6 Abu Kasim of Gaza, a well known commentator upon Abu Shujaa of Isfahan, who wrote a text-book of the Shafei school.
7 The Hajj had seven sons, three of whom died in infancy. Ali and Mahmud, the latter a fine young man, fell victims to small pox: Mohammed is now the eldest, and the youngest is a child called Ahmed, left for education at Mocha. The Hajj has also two daughters, married to Bedouin Somal.
8 It is related that a Hazrami, flying from his fellow-countrymen, reached a town upon the confines of China. He was about to take refuge in a mosque, but entering, he stumbled over the threshold. “Ya Amud el Din”— “0 Pillar of the Faith!” exclaimed a voice from the darkness, calling upon the patron saint of Hazramaut to save a Moslem from falling. “May the Pillar of the Faith break thy head,” exclaimed the unpatriotic traveller, at once rising to resume his vain peregrinations.
9 Mercenaries from Mocha, Hazramaut, and Bir Hamid near Aden: they are armed with matchlock, sword, and dagger; and each receives from the governor a monthly stipend of two dollars and a half.
10 The system of caste, which prevails in El Yemen, though not in the northern parts of Arabia, is general throughout the Somali country. The principal families of outcasts are the following.
The Yebir correspond with the Dushan of Southern Arabia: the males are usually jesters to the chiefs, and both sexes take certain parts at festivals, marriages, and circumcisions. The number is said to be small, amounting to about 100 families in the northern Somali country.
The Tomal or Handad, the blacksmiths, originally of Aydur race, have become vile by intermarriage with serviles. They mast now wed maidens of their own class, and live apart from the community: their magical practices are feared by the people — the connection of wits and witchcraft is obvious — and all private quarrels are traced to them. It has been observed that the blacksmith has ever been looked upon with awe by barbarians on the same principle that made Vulcan a deity. In Abyssinia all artisans are Budah, sorcerers, especially the blacksmith, and he is a social outcast as among the Somal; even in El Hejaz, a land, unlike Yemen, opposed to distinctions amongst Moslems, the Khalawiyah, who work in metal, are considered vile. Throughout the rest of El Islam the blacksmith is respected as treading in the path of David, the father of the craft.
The word “Tomal,” opposed to Somal, is indigenous. “Handad “is palpably a corruption of the Arabic “Haddad,” ironworker.
The Midgan, “one-hand,” corresponds with the Khadim of Yemen: he is called Kami or “archer” by the Arabs. There are three distinct tribes of this people, who are numerous in the Somali country: the best genealogists cannot trace their origin, though some are silly enough to derive them, like the Akhdam, from Shimr. All, however, agree in expelling the Midgan from the gentle blood of Somali land, and his position has been compared to that of Freedman amongst the Romans. These people take service under the different chiefs, who sometimes entertain great numbers to aid in forays and frays; they do not, however, confine themselves to one craft. Many Midgans employ themselves in hunting and agriculture. Instead of spear and shield, they carry bows and a quiver full of diminutive arrows, barbed and poisoned with the Waba — a weapon used from Faizoghli to the Cape of Good Hope. Like the Veddah of Ceylon, the Midgan is a poor shot, and scarcely strong enough to draw his stiff bow. He is accused of maliciousness; and the twanging of his string will put to flight a whole village. The poison is greatly feared: it causes, say the people, the hair and nails to drop off, and kills a man in half an hour. The only treatment known is instant excision of the part; and this is done the more frequently, because here, as in other parts of Africa, such stigmates are deemed ornamental.
In appearance the Midgan is dark and somewhat stunted; he is known to the people by peculiarities of countenance and accent.
11 The reason why Europeans fail to explain their thoughts to Orientals generally is that they transfer the Laconism of Western to Eastern tongues. We for instance say, “Fetch the book I gave you last night.” This in Hindostani, to choose a well-known tongue, must be smothered with words thus: “What book was by me given to you yesterday by night, that book bringing to me, come!”
12 I have alluded to these subjects in a previous work upon the subject of Meccah and El Medinah.
13 This is one of the stock complaints against the Moslem scheme. Yet is it not practically the case with ourselves? In European society, the best are generally those who prefer the companionship of their own sex; the “ladies’ man” and the woman who avoids women are rarely choice specimens.
14 The Shantarah board is thus made, with twenty-five points technically called houses. The players have twelve counters a piece, and each places two at a time upon any of the unoccupied angles, till all except the centre are filled up. The player who did not begin the game must now move a man; his object is to inclose one of his adversary’s between two of his own, in which case he removes it, and is entitled to continue moving till he can no longer take. It is a game of some skill, and perpetual practice enables the Somal to play it as the Persians do backgammon, with great art and little reflection. The game is called Kurkabod when, as in our draughts, the piece passing over one of the adversary’s takes it.
Shahh is another favourite game. The board is made thus, and the pieces as at Shantarah are twelve in number. The object is to place three men in line — as the German Muhle and the Afghan “Kitar,”— when any one of the adversary’s pieces may be removed.
Children usually prefer the game called indifferently Togantog and Saddikiya. A double line of five or six holes is made in the ground, four counters are placed in each, and when in the course of play four men meet in the same hole, one of the adversary’s is removed. It resembles the Bornou game, played with beans and holes in the sand. Citizens and the more civilised are fond of “Bakkis,” which, as its name denotes, is a corruption of the well-known Indian Pachisi. None but the travelled know chess, and the Damal (draughts) and Tavola (backgammon) of the Turks.
15 The same objection against “villanous saltpetre” was made by ourselves in times of old: the French knights called gunpowder the Grave of Honor. This is natural enough, the bravest weapon being generally the shortest — that which places a man hand to hand with his opponent. Some of the Kafir tribes have discontinued throwing the Assegai, and enter battle wielding it as a pike. Usually, also, the shorter the weapon is, the more fatal are the conflicts in which it is employed. The old French “Briquet,” the Afghan “Charay,” and the Goorka “Kukkri,” exemplify this fact in the history of arms.
16 In the latter point it differs from the Assegai, which is worked by the Kafirs to the finest temper.
17 It is called by the Arabs Kubabah, by the Somal Goasa. Johnston (Travels in Southern Abyssinia, chap. 8.) has described the game; he errs, however, in supposing it peculiar to the Dankali tribes.
18 This is in fact the pilgrim dress of El Islam; its wide diffusion to the eastward, as well as west of the Red Sea, proves its antiquity as a popular dress.
19 I often regretted having neglected the precaution of a bottle of walnut juice — a white colour is decidedly too conspicuous in this part of the East.
20 The strict rule of the Moslem faith is this: if a man neglect to pray, he is solemnly warned to repent. Should he simply refuse, without, however, disbelieving in prayer, he is to be put to death, and receive Moslem burial; in the other contingency, he is not bathed, prayed for, or interred in holy ground. This severe order, however, lies in general abeyance.
21 “Tuarick grandiloquence,” says Richardson (vol. i. p. 207.), “savours of blasphemy, e.g. the lands, rocks, and mountains of Ghat do not belong to God but to the Azghar.” Equally irreverent are the Kafirs of the Cape. They have proved themselves good men in wit as well as war; yet, like the old Greenlanders and some of the Burmese tribes, they are apparently unable to believe in the existence of the Supreme. A favourite question to the missionaries was this, “Is your God white or black?” If the European, startled by the question, hesitated for a moment, they would leave him with open signs of disgust at having been made the victims of a hoax.
The assertion generally passes current that the idea of an Omnipotent Being is familiar to all people, even the most barbarous. My limited experience argues the contrary. Savages begin with fetisism and demon-worship, they proceed to physiolatry (the religion of the Vedas) and Sabaeism: the deity is the last and highest pinnacle of the spiritual temple, not placed there except by a comparatively civilised race of high development, which leads them to study and speculate upon cosmical and psychical themes. This progression is admirably wrought out in Professor Max Muller’s “Rig Veda Sanhita.”
22 The Moslem corpse is partly sentient in the tomb, reminding the reader of Tennyson:
“I thought the dead had peace, but it is not so;
To have no peace in the grave, is that not sad?”
23 The prayers for the dead have no Rukaat or bow as in other orisons.
24 The general Moslem name for the African coast from the Somali seaboard southwards to the Mozambique, inhabited by negrotic races.
25 The Moslem rosary consists of ninety-nine beads divided into sets of thirty-three each by some peculiar sign, as a bit of red coral. The consulter, beginning at a chance place, counts up to the mark: if the number of beads be odd, he sets down a single dot, if even, two. This is done four times, when a figure is produced as in the margin. Of these there are sixteen, each having its peculiar name and properties. The art is merely Geomancy in its rudest shape; a mode of vaticination which, from its wide diffusion, must be of high antiquity. The Arabs call it El Baml, and ascribe its present form to the Imam Jaafar el Sadik; amongst them it is a ponderous study, connected as usual with astrology. Napoleon’s “Book of Fate” is a specimen of the old Eastern superstition presented to Europe in a modern and simple form.
26 In this country, as in Western and Southern Africa, the leopard, not the wolf, is the shepherd’s scourge.
27 Popular superstition in Abyssinia attributes the same power to the Felashas or Jews.
28 Our Elixir, a corruption of the Arabic El Iksir.
29 In the Somali tongue its name is Barki: they make a stool of similar shape, and call it Barjimo.
30 Specimens of these discourses have been given by Mr. Lane, Mod. Egypt, chap. 3. It is useless to offer others, as all bear the closest resemblance.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51