Notes of a Journey From Cornhill to Grand Cairo, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter 11

A Day and Night in Syria

When, after being for five whole weeks at sea, with a general belief that at the end of a few days the marine malady leaves you for good, you find that a brisk wind and a heavy rolling swell create exactly the same inward effects which they occasioned at the very commencement of the voyage — you begin to fancy that you are unfairly dealt with: and I, for my part, had thought of complaining to the Company of this atrocious violation of the rules of their prospectus; but we were perpetually coming to anchor in various ports, at which intervals of peace and good-humour were restored to us.

On the 3rd of October our cable rushed with a huge rattle into the blue sea before Jaffa, at a distance of considerably more than a mile off the town, which lay before us very clear, with the flags of the consuls flaring in the bright sky and making a cheerful and hospitable show. The houses a great heap of sun-baked stones, surmounted here and there by minarets and countless little whitewashed domes; a few date-trees spread out their fan-like heads over these dull-looking buildings; long sands stretched away on either side, with low purple hills behind them; we could see specks of camels crawling over these yellow plains; and those persons who were about to land had the leisure to behold the sea-spray flashing over the sands, and over a heap of black rocks which lie before the entry to the town. The swell is very great, the passage between the rocks narrow, and the danger sometimes considerable. So the guide began to entertain the ladies and other passengers in the huge country boat which brought us from the steamer with an agreeable story of a lieutenant and eight seamen of one of Her Majesty’s ships, who were upset, dashed to pieces, and drowned upon these rocks, through which two men and two boys, with a very moderate portion of clothing, each standing and pulling half an oar — there were but two oars between them, and another by way of rudder — were endeavouring to guide us.

When the danger of the rocks and surf was passed, came another danger of the hideous brutes in brown skins and the briefest shirts, who came towards the boat, straddling through the water with outstretched arms, grinning and yelling their Arab invitations to mount their shoulders. I think these fellows frightened the ladies still more than the rocks and the surf; but the poor creatures were obliged to submit; and, trembling, were accommodated somehow upon the mahogany backs of these ruffians, carried through the shallows, and flung up to a ledge before the city gate, where crowds more of dark people were swarming, howling after their fashion. The gentlemen, meanwhile, were having arguments about the eternal backsheesh with the roaring Arab boatmen; and I recall with wonder and delight especially, the curses and screams of one small and extremely loud-lunged fellow, who expressed discontent at receiving a five, instead of a six-piastre piece. But how is one to know, without possessing the language? Both coins are made of a greasy pewtery sort of tin; and I thought the biggest was the most valuable: but the fellow showed a sense of their value, and a disposition seemingly to cut any man’s throat who did not understand it. Men’s throats have been cut for a less difference before now.

Being cast upon the ledge, the first care of our gallantry was to look after the ladies, who were scared and astonished by the naked savage brutes, who were shouldering the poor things to and fro; and bearing them through these and a dark archway, we came into a street crammed with donkeys and their packs and drivers, and towering camels with leering eyes looking into the second-floor rooms, and huge splay feet, through which mesdames et mesdemoiselles were to be conducted. We made a rush at the first open door, and passed comfortably under the heels of some horses gathered under the arched court, and up a stone staircase, which turned out to be that of the Russian consul’s house. His people welcomed us most cordially to his abode, and the ladies and the luggage (objects of our solicitude) were led up many stairs and across several terraces to a most comfortable little room, under a dome of its own, where the representative of Russia sat. Women with brown faces and draggle-tailed coats and turbans, and wondering eyes, and no stays, and blue beads and gold coins hanging round their necks, came to gaze, as they passed, upon the fair neat Englishwomen. Blowsy black cooks puffing over fires and the strangest pots and pans on the terraces, children paddling about in long striped robes, interrupted their sports or labours to come and stare; and the consul, in his cool domed chamber, with a lattice overlooking the sea, with clean mats, and pictures of the Emperor, the Virgin, and St. George, received the strangers with smiling courtesies, regaling the ladies with pomegranates and sugar, the gentlemen with pipes of tobacco, whereof the fragrant tubes were three yards long.

The Russian amenities concluded, we left the ladies still under the comfortable cool dome of the Russian consulate, and went to see our own representative. The streets of the little town are neither agreeable to horse nor foot travellers. Many of the streets are mere flights of rough steps, leading abruptly into private houses: you pass under archways and passages numberless; a steep dirty labyrinth of stone-vaulted stables and sheds occupies the ground-floor of the habitations; and you pass from flat to flat of the terraces; at various irregular corners of which, little chambers, with little private domes, are erected, and the people live seemingly as much upon the terrace as in the room.

We found the English consul in a queer little arched chamber, with a strange old picture of the King’s arms to decorate one side of it: and here the consul, a demure old man, dressed in red flowing robes, with a feeble janissary bearing a shabby tin-mounted staff, or mace, to denote his office, received such of our nation as came to him for hospitality. He distributed pipes and coffee to all and every one; he made us a present of his house and all his beds for the night, and went himself to lie quietly on the terrace; and for all this hospitality he declined to receive any reward from us, and said he was but doing his duty in taking us in. This worthy man, I thought, must doubtless be very well paid by our Government for making such sacrifices; but it appears that he does not get one single farthing, and that the greater number of our Levant consuls are paid at a similar rate of easy remuneration. If we have bad consular agents, have we a right to complain? If the worthy gentlemen cheat occasionally, can we reasonably be angry? But in travelling through these countries, English people, who don’t take into consideration the miserable poverty and scanty resources of their country, and are apt to brag and be proud of it, have their vanity hurt by seeing the representatives of every nation but their own well and decently maintained, and feel ashamed at sitting down under the shabby protection of our mean consular flag.

The active young men of our party had been on shore long before us, and seized upon all the available horses in the town; but we relied upon a letter from Halil Pasha, enjoining all governors and pashas to help us in all ways: and hearing we were the bearers of this document, the cadi and vice-governor of Jaffa came to wait upon the head of our party; declared that it was his delight and honour to set eyes upon us; that he would do everything in the world to serve us; that there were no horses, unluckily, but he would send and get some in three hours; and so left us with a world of grinning bows and many choice compliments from one side to the other, which came to each filtered through an obsequious interpreter. But hours passed, and the clatter of horses’ hoofs was not heard. We had our dinner of eggs and flaps of bread, and the sunset gun fired: we had our pipes and coffee again, and the night fell. Is this man throwing dirt upon us? we began to think. Is he laughing at our beards, and are our mothers’ graves ill-treated by this smiling swindling cadi? We determined to go and seek in his own den this shuffling dispenser of infidel justice. This time we would be no more bamboozled by compliments; but we would use the language of stern expostulation, and, being roused, would let the rascal hear the roar of the indignant British lion; so we rose up in our wrath. The poor consul got a lamp for us with a bit of wax-candle, such as I wonder his means could afford; the shabby janissary marched ahead with his tin mace; the two laquais-de-place, that two of our company had hired, stepped forward, each with an old sabre, and we went clattering and stumbling down the streets of the town, in order to seize upon this cadi in his own divan. I was glad, for my part (though outwardly majestic and indignant in demeanour), that the horses had not come, and that we had a chance of seeing this little queer glimpse of Oriental life, which the magistrate’s faithlessness procured for us.

As piety forbids the Turks to eat during the weary daylight hours of the Ramazan, they spend their time profitably in sleeping until the welcome sunset, when the town wakens: all the lanterns are lighted up; all the pipes begin to puff, and the narghiles to bubble; all the sour-milk-and-sherbet-men begin to yell out the excellence of their wares; all the frying-pans in the little dirty cookshops begin to friz, and the pots to send forth a steam: and through this dingy, ragged, bustling, beggarly, cheerful scene, we began now to march towards the Bow Street of Jaffa. We bustled through a crowded narrow archway which led to the cadi’s police-office, entered the little room, atrociously perfumed with musk, and passing by the rail-board, where the common sort stood, mounted the stage upon which his worship and friends sat, and squatted down on the divans in stern and silent dignity. His honour ordered us coffee, his countenance evidently showing considerable alarm. A black slave, whose duty seemed to be to prepare this beverage in a side-room with a furnace, prepared for each of us about a teaspoonful of the liquor: his worship’s clerk, I presume, a tall Turk of a noble aspect, presented it to us; and having lapped up the little modicum of drink, the British lion began to speak.

All the other travellers (said the lion with perfect reason) have good horses and are gone; the Russians have got horses, the Spaniards have horses, the English have horses, but we, we vizirs in our country, coming with letters of Halil Pasha, are laughed at, spit upon! Are Halil Pasha’s letters dirt, that you attend to them in this way? Are British lions dogs that you treat them so? — and so on. This speech with many variations was made on our side for a quarter of an hour; and we finally swore that unless the horses were forthcoming we would write to Halil Pasha the next morning, and to His Excellency the English Minister at the Sublime Porte. Then you should have heard the chorus of Turks in reply: a dozen voices rose up from the divan, shouting, screaming, ejaculating, expectorating (the Arabic spoken language seems to require a great employment of the two latter oratorical methods), and uttering what the meek interpreter did not translate to us, but what I dare say were by no means complimentary phrases towards us and our nation. Finally, the palaver concluded by the cadi declaring that by the will of Heaven horses should be forthcoming at three o’clock in the morning; and that if not, why, then, we might write to Halil Pasha.

This posed us, and we rose up and haughtily took leave. I should like to know that fellow’s real opinion of us lions very much: and especially to have had the translation of the speeches of a huge-breeched turbaned roaring infidel, who looked and spoke as if he would have liked to fling us all into the sea, which was hoarsely murmuring under our windows an accompaniment to the concert within.

We then marched through the bazaars, that were lofty and grim, and pretty full of people. In a desolate broken building, some hundreds of children were playing and singing; in many corners sat parties over their water-pipes, one of whom every now and then would begin twanging out a most queer chant; others there were playing at casino — a crowd squatted around the squalling gamblers, and talking and looking on with eager interest. In one place of the bazaar we found a hundred people at least listening to a story-teller who delivered his tale with excellent action, voice, and volubility: in another they were playing a sort of thimble-rig with coffee-cups, all intent upon the game, and the player himself very wild lest one of our party, who had discovered where the pea lay, should tell the company. The devotion and energy with which all these pastimes were pursued, struck me as much as anything. These people have been playing thimble-rig and casino; that story-teller has been shouting his tale of Antar for forty years; and they are just as happy with this amusement now as when first they tried it. Is there no ennui in the Eastern countries, and are blue-devils not allowed to go abroad there?

From the bazaars we went to see the house of Mustapha, said to be the best house and the greatest man of Jaffa. But the great man had absconded suddenly, and had fled into Egypt. The Sultan had made a demand upon him for sixteen thousand purses, 80,000l. — Mustapha retired — the Sultan pounced down upon his house, and his goods, his horses and his mules. His harem was desolate. Mr. Milnes could have written six affecting poems, had he been with us, on the dark loneliness of that violated sanctuary. We passed from hall to hall, terrace to terrace — a few fellows were slumbering on the naked floors, and scarce turned as we went by them. We entered Mustapha’s particular divan — there was the raised floor, but no bearded friends squatting away the night of Ramazan; there was the little coffee furnace, but where was the slave and the coffee and the glowing embers of the pipes? Mustapha’s favourite passages from the Koran were still painted up on the walls, but nobody was the wiser for them. We walked over a sleeping negro, and opened the windows which looked into his gardens. The horses and donkeys, the camels and mules were picketed there below, but where is the said Mustapha? From the frying-pan of the Porte, has he not fallen into the fire of Mehemet Ali? And which is best, to broil or to fry? If it be but to read the “Arabian Nights” again on getting home, it is good to have made this little voyage and seen these strange places and faces.

Then we went out through the arched lowering gateway of the town into the plain beyond, and that was another famous and brilliant scene of the “Arabian Nights.” The heaven shone with a marvellous brilliancy — the plain disappeared far in the haze — the towers and battlements of the town rose black against the sky — old outlandish trees rose up here and there — clumps of camels were couched in the rare herbage — dogs were baying about — groups of men lay sleeping under their haicks round about — round about the tall gates many lights were twinkling — and they brought us water-pipes and sherbet — and we wondered to think that London was only three weeks off.

Then came the night at the consul’s. The poor demure old gentleman brought out his mattresses; and the ladies sleeping round on the divans, we lay down quite happy; and I for my part intended to make as delightful dreams as Alnaschar; but — lo, the delicate mosquito sounded his horn: the active flea jumped up, and came to feast on Christian flesh (the Eastern flea bites more bitterly than the most savage bug in Christendom), and the bug — oh, the accursed! Why was he made? What duty has that infamous ruffian to perform in the world, save to make people wretched? Only Bulwer in his most pathetic style could describe the miseries of that night — the moaning, the groaning, the cursing, the tumbling, the blistering, the infamous despair and degradation! I heard all the cocks in Jaffa crow; the children crying, and the mothers hushing them; the donkeys braying fitfully in the moonlight; at last I heard the clatter of hoofs below, and the hailing of men. It was three o’clock, the horses were actually come; nay, there were camels likewise; asses and mules, pack-saddles and drivers, all bustling together under the moonlight in the cheerful street — and the first night in Syria was over.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00