The novel concerns an English governess who converts to Islam and marries Yûsuf Bey, a young aristocrat from Cairo’s Turkish elite in the 1870s.
WITH the return of reason a new spirit came to Barakah. At the moment of her seizure she had been exasperated with her Eastern life. She awoke to rapture in it, to impatience of the European nurse and doctor. The smell of them, as they leaned over her, was an offence; their voices jarred so that often she would hide her head beneath the bed-clothes to shut out the sound.
On the other hand, she listened eagerly to noises out of doors – the creak of the shadûf which tipped up water on the garden, the camel-bells, the chant of passing funerals; she watched the sunlight stud with gems the inky lacework of her lattice, and eagerly inhaled the breeze which entered; and Yûsuf’s daily visits were her joy. In the forest of distorted memories through which her soul had wandered friendless like a ragged child, the Europeans she encountered had reviled her; the love of Yûsuf and his people had been all her hope.
In the hunger which distressed her convalescence, the growing disaffection for a diet all of milk, her fancy pictured feasts of Eastern dishes, English cookery appearing loathsome in the memory. Strangest of all, she could now think in Arabic, of which, before her illness, she had scarce a sentence.
As soon as she had licence to see visitors, the Pasha’s harîm came in force to greet her. The lady Fitnah fell upon her in a transport of affection, and she responded with entire abandonment, thankful to have at last the love of Yûsuf’s mother. The elderly princess, Amînah Khânum, and other ladies of importance, paid her visits and, as her health improved, carried her off to their own houses – not for an hour, but for whole days together. There, in the perfumed shade, she was enthroned with cushions, fanned and sprinkled, nourished delicately, and sung to sleep when she showed signs of weariness. The sense of frailty and of worth was exquisite. She was content to be the guarded pet, and let them plan; regarding them as beings of a higher race, with whom it would be vanity to try to cope. Their freedom from the sentimental mists of Europe helped this feeling, and so did their bold vision of existence, blinking nothing. The potential cruelty which lurked beneath their gentleness subdued her; the way they talked of death habitually made her feel a timid child.
Thus, with the body pampered and the mind enslaved, she studied and observed their life, completely fascinated. The world of women was, she found, a great republic, with liberties extending to the meanest slave, and something of the strength which comes of solidarity. Unless in jealous fury, no woman would inform against another, bond or free; nor fail to help her in the hour of need. They had their shibboleths, their customs, rites, and ceremonies, even their courts of justice, independent of the world of men. Each lady owning slaves controlled them absolutely. Her husband never saw their faces, hardly knew them. The law against his making love among them, except by her command, was very drastic. The child of such a union would have been her slave. If her required a concubine, he had to buy, not steal one. So sacred with the Muslims was the married woman’s right to property – a right which was not recognized at all in England. Occasionally Barakah heard talk of cruelties which chilled her blood; but her friends excused them on the ground of anger, which was for them a visitation from on high. The very victims, they assured her, never felt as she did.
One feature of the harîm life which shocked her was the equalling of black with white. The Muslim faith disowning all race prejudice, a strain of negro blood appeared in the best families; and any negro having fortune was esteemed as marriageable as the fairest Turk. Then the black slaves, though less regarded because they cost less than the white Circassians, possessed great influence, particularly in the article of superstition, which they quite controlled. Weeds from the heathen Soudan, brought to Cairo in the convoy of the slave-dealer, luxuriated in that tank of guarded ignorance; and many an enlightened Muslim would have died of horror had he known the works of darkness countenanced by his harîm – the sacrifices to malignant beings; the veneration paid to hoary negresses for demoniacal possession; the use to which the name of God was sometimes put. To Barakah, however, in those early days, such fancies – what she heard of them – seemed merely comic. She ranked them with the women’s playfulness, their funny stories. She was enamoured of their life as she conceived it, enslaved and thrilled by its unblushing candour. This was the season of her real conversion, which reached its climax on a certain morning, when she was carried in a guarded litter to the citadel to witness the departure of the yearly pilgrimage. From a place reserved for ladies on the ramparts, she beheld the troops, the guilds of dervishes, defile before the Khedive’s tent, and then the great procession wind away. Fanfares sounded, cannons roared, and from the multitude which hid the square and covered every roof and balcony in sight, beading with heads the very summits of the citadel, a sigh went up.
Barakah was in an ecstasy. When her eyes wearied of the flash and movement, she surveyed the vast blue sky, the coloured, sun-lit walls, the minarets where doves were circling. She pictured the long journey of the pilgrims, on the shining sea, across the burning sands, to the eternal sanctuary. What scene in Christian Europe could be matched with this? Religion, but a mummy there, here lived and moved.
Returning home, she felt a craving to unbosom, and bethought her of a girl in England, once her friend. She called for ink and pens, and wrote forthwith to Julia Long, recounting her changed fortunes, and extolling Egypt. She described the scene she had that morning witnessed, and concluded:
“Julia darling, you with think it strange, but I am sure that this religion is the true one. Here every woman has a chance to marry, and the accidents of wealth and birth are not the barriers they are at home. Polygamy is not at all what people think. The Moslems are as strict as Puritans about morality; and the women here are happier than those at home. Europe has gone all wrong, and so has Christianity. Here we believe in Jesus just as you do: we know that his religion is the true one; but St. Paul and others after him corrupted it. Do think of this, and learn about Mahometanism. I would give anything that you might find the happiness that I have found. My husband will be taking me to Paris at the end of June. Do try and join us there. We will pay all expenses.
“With true affection from your old friend
“MARY, Madame Yousouf Bey Mohamed, c/o Mohamed Pasha Sâlih, Cairo, Egypt.”
This letter was read out to Yûsuf in the evening. He applauded it, and vowed she had a natural gift of eloquence. He asked for a minute description of her friend, seeming much pleased to think that they would meet in Paris; and when Barakah had satisfied him to the best of her remembrance, chuckled:
“And you love her? Then you would not object to have her for your durrah!”
She warned him archly that she could be jealous.
Barakah called often on the lady Fitnah, who just now was in high feather, having been commissioned by Murjânah Khânum to find out a husband for the latter’s slave, Gulbeyzah. At once she sent out go-betweens in all directions, threads of a gigantic web, in which she sat and waited. Flies soon came – ladies with eligible sons or husbands needing matrimony – whose claims the shrewd Egyptian sifted, smelling out the slightest fraud. Barakah was interested in these doings, naturally, seeing they concerned the welfare of her closest friend.
Murjânah Khânum wished to emancipate a charming slave and place her in a good position, at the same time seeking some remuneration for her previous outlay. She appointed Fitnah Khânum her intendant. Those were the naked facts. But the word ‘price’ was never mentioned in discussions of the subject; it was always ‘dowry,’ of which a third part would be paid, of course, to the bride’s people. Gulbeyzah was referred to as a cherished daughter of the house; her wishes were consulted with regard to each proposal; and no-one was annoyed when she seemed hard to please.
‘Thou art like Leylah Khânum,’ whispered Barakah. ‘Thou wilt choose and choose away till none are left.’
‘By no means,’ was the laughing answer. ‘I am a young maid. Moreover, it is not the man I stickle for, it is society.’
Whenever ladies whom she did not choose came to inspect her, Gulbeyzah donned a rustic air and talked to shock them. Barakah had no idea of what she meant when saying she required society, until one day she told her:
‘Praise to Allah! Only think, beloved! Three Circassians, young like me, from the same district! Their lord – a Pasha of the richest – wants another like them. They are gratified. I have been recommended. They come to-day for my inspection. Thou shalt see them presently, as also a Gulbeyzah no one ever saw before. O day of milk! O wave-crest of all days!’
Barakah had been summoned by the ladies and a carriage sent for her. Gulbeyzah had waylaid her on the way to the reception-room.
‘But what of the man – the husband?’ she inquired.
‘Splendid! Rich and generous; impartial as the prophet in division of his favours. If God wills, I shall bear him children. What more could girl require? Think – four of us, like sisters! Four pearls strung together, and inseparable! Thou wilt visit us, and we shall all four love thee dearly. O joy! Now go! I will rejoin thee presently.’
The clack of tongues was heard from the reception-room. Before the door stood rows of coloured slippers. All the dependants of the household, all the go-betweens, had rallied to support the ladies on a great occasion. Hardly had Barakah concluded greetings ere the three Circassians were announced. They were all charming, and all bore, she fancied, some resemblance to Gulbeyzah in their child-like faces and huge eyes. They had pretty, deferential manners, seeming to speak by pre-arrangement and to think in concert, obedient to some rule which bound them, just like nuns. They were still amid the storm of formal compliments when Gulbeyzah entered clad in soft apparel, and paused as if in awe at finding strangers. Then, blushingly, she went and kissed their hands, going on to kiss the hands of all the ladies present. In so doing she gave Barakah a little bite, and when her tour was ended sank down humbly at her feet.
‘They will unmask thee. Thou canst never keep this up for life,’ the Englishwoman whispered.
‘By Allah! only look!’ was the reply. ‘They too are acting.’ See now, the plump one: there is inward mirth.’
The visitors, impressed by her demeanour, put certain questions, which she answered to the point. It appeared that she could dance and sing; spoke Turkish, Arabic, and some Armenian. At mention of French also, they raised hands and eyes, declaring her a perfect prodigy. They then addressed her in their native dialect, when sudden smiles broke up their shy decorum. Turning to the hostesses, they asked forgiveness for employing private speech. They had but asked the dear one of her native village, and smiled to hear that it adjoined their own. They begged for leave to call again, which meant the bargain was acceptable; and then withdrew with every blessing on the house.
No sooner had they vanished than Gulbeyzah threw off her demureness and performed with energy a naughty dance which terminated in a sudden swoop to clasp Murjânah Khânum’s feet. Her mistress bent and kissed her forehead tenderly; the lady Fitnah was convulsed with glee; the humbler women gave forth wedding-cries. And the cause of all this joy, the object of that motherly consideration, was a slave! In Europe, people thought of slaves as miserable. Here was a story to be told to Julia Long.
‘O disappointment! Thou wilt be in Paris! Thou wilt miss my wedding!’ cried Gulbeyzah suddenly. ‘Yûsuf Bey should take some low girl with him since he needs must go. It is sinful to expose thy worth to the risks of travel.’
‘Have I not told him?’ cried the lady Fitnah. ‘The world will be quite black when she is gone. A girl for whom his father paid three thousand pounds. It is absurd to fling her into boats and filthy trains.’
Barakah smiled at their desire to keep her, thinking with rapture of the coming talks with Julia. She had not then had Julia’s answer to her letter. It arrived within a fortnight of the time of starting.
‘ … How can you write such wickedness? … I heard that you had married a Turk, but thought of course he was converted … I do not envy you your riches nor your rank at such a price! … No, I will not join you in Paris, and abet you in your infamy. I banish your most impious suggestions from my thoughts for ever.’
She crumpled up the closely written sheets, then flung them on the ground and stamped upon them. Yûsuf found her weeping uncontrollably, and asked the cause.
‘Then their women are fanatical like ours!’ he sighed when told. ‘Take heart, O fountain of my life! By Allah, such a friend is not worth weeping. We will none the less enjoy ourselves in Paris.’
‘I have no wish to go at all,’ sobbed Barakah.
GHANDÛR attended Yûsuf in the train to Alexandria, and accompanied the pair on board the steamer. Kissing hands at parting he wept uncontrollably, and in that condition was propelled by sailors to the boat awaiting him. Barakah would have liked to stand and watch the harbour, which offered charming pictures in the evening glow; but Yûsuf drew her down into a stuffy cabin, where he left her, bidding her secure the door against intrusion. He told her she must take her meals down there, since there was no separate dining-room assigned to women. Directly afterwards his voice resounded in the corridor, with others talking Arabic, by which she knew that he had friends on board.
A stewardess knocked at her door, bringing her supper, which consisted of a single dish of meat and vegetables. By then the pulse of engines could be felt; there was a noise of running overhead, shouts, and the clank of chains; the ship was moving. Having made an end of eating, she retired to bed and, being tired, went to sleep immediately. The slamming of the door by Yûsuf partly roused her. She could hear him swearing, asking Allah to be put on shore, and knew that he was sea-sick; but it seemed no matter. Next morning, as the sea was rather rough, she kept her bunk until eleven o’clock, when she got up and put on English clothes she had brought with her Yûsuf, more dead than living, asked what for.
‘I go to smell the air.’
He sobbed. ‘With face exposed! Behold me dead, while dogs defile my grave.’
Supposing his mind wandered – for she wore the English veil which he himself had said would be sufficient after leaving Egypt – she found her way on to the deck and spent an hour there, pacing up and down, enjoying the strong wind. When she returned to Yûsuf he was inarticulate. She stayed with him until the evening, when she went on deck again for a few minutes before turning in. It was five days before the gale abated.
At length, one morning they awoke to ease of movement, and Yûsuf rose. His smile was tentative at first, but soon grew confident. ‘I could not tell thee for my sickness,’ he informed her, ‘but there are common people of our faith on board. I would not have their talk asperse my wife. It mattered less while I myself made no appearance. No doubt they took thee for some Frankish woman. But now keep close in here. Wait till we get to Fransa.’
Without waiting for her answer, he went out. But in a minute he was back again, exclaiming:
‘The wife of Hâfiz Bey, my friend, lies near to death! Come thou and see what can be done for her, and God reward thee! Put on thy habbarah. My friend will guide thee.’
It was the first time he had spoken of his friends to her. She followed him and was presented to a fat, good-tempered-looking youth, exceeding swarthy, clad in a European suit too tight for him, who apologized in baby French for thus ‘deranging’ her. He opened the door of an adjacent cabin, bowed her in, and then retreated arm in arm with Yûsuf.
It was a two-berth cabin. In the lower bunk a buxom girl of eighteen years or less – a perfect blonde – lay with her eyes closed, making moan with every breath. The childish face was flushed, discoloured round the eyes with weeping; the hands clenched. Whatever her complaint, it was not sea-sickness.
‘How is thy health?’ the visitor asked softly.
‘O Lord! I die! I perish! O fresh air! O sun!” gasped out the sufferer. ‘O Allah! Was I born a fish to be thus thrown upon the sea – a snake, to be imprisoned in this box?’
‘Be brave! The voyage is now almost ended. In two days or three, at most, we are released. Tell me thy pains! What ails thee?’
The prostrate beauty opened great blue eyes of injured innocence and asked: ‘Who art thou?’
‘I am the wife of Yûsuf Bey, thy husband’s friend.’
‘The Englishwoman!’ She sat up and clung to Barakah. ‘How cans’t thou bear it, thou, an honoured wife! Will not thy parents take account for the indignity? Oh, end my life, I pray thee; it is unendurable!’
Slowly, by force of patience, Barakah elicited that the girl, by name Bedr-ul-Budûr, a pet slave of the mother of young Hâfiz Bey, had been presented to him for his comfort on this journey, since his bride, of high ideas, refused to travel. She had been a little frightened in the train, a new experience, but much elated till she came aboard this ship and felt the sea. Then she realized that she had been beguiled, defrauded, enticed to an undignified and hideous death. Hiccuping sobs broke in upon her narrative, which ended in a storm of tears.
Barakah tried to soothe her mind with cheerful talk, depicting all the charms of life in Paris.
‘Thy voice is sweetness,’ she entreated. ‘Stay with me! Turn out my consort: let him house with thine. What does one want with men when one is dying?’
Going out on that injunction, Barakah found Hâfiz and her husband waiting close at hand. The former, greatly scared by his companion’s illness, was prepared for any sacrifice to save her life; and Yûsuf raising no objection, Barakah’s effects were moved into the other cabin, while Hâfiz took his baggage to the ‘house of Yûsuf,’ as he called it, jesting.
Bedr-ul-Budûr gave praise to Allah. The presence of a lady of acknowledged standing relieved her of the sense of singular and base ill-treatment, which was all her illness.
At length, the ship stood still and filled with voices. It was night. The men called from the corridor to warn them that the landing would take place at the third hour next morning. Thus bidden, they took out their Frankish garments and compared them.
Barakah’s were old, of sober hue. Bedr-ul-Budûr’s brand-new and something garish. They slept but little, talking through the night.
When Barakah had finished dressing in the early morning, her companion, waking, screamed in horror at the English veil.
‘Merciful Allah! It is dreadful. It hides nothing. It is what the wantons wear. Wait but a minute! I have more than one. I will provide thee. My kind princess advised me what was right to wear.’
Tumbling out of her berth, Bedr-ul-Budûr found in her box a fold of thick white gauze, which she proceeded to throw round the face of Barakah, attaching it to the bonnet with two little brooches.
‘By Allah, that is better,’ she remarked, and then gave all her mind to her own dressing.
When this was finished, her appearance smote the eye. Her bonnet was sky-blue, the thick white veil depending from it like a curtain, her dress a lively pink, her stockings white, her boots and gloves bright yellow, shining in their newness; she had a pale blue parasol adorned with frills of lace.
‘The Franks wear many colours,’ she remarked to Barakah, adding with childish wonder, ‘Why are yours so dull? … By Allah, I feel naked in the middle.’
So did Barakah. To one accustomed to go shrouded, a dress which emphasises the hips and bust seemed vile at first.
Yûsuf and Hâfiz fetched them up on deck, where they found two more ladies garishly arrayed, and two more men in French-made suits and fezes.
After the introduction all stood awkwardly, gaping like children who have lost remembrance of their part. Barakah, to ease the strain, remarked to Hâfiz Bey upon the beauty of the morning, the bustle of the harbour of Marseilles; but his response was marred by evident embarrassment; his eyes kept veering round to look at Yûsuf, whom he soon rejoined. The ladies formed a group apart, in titters at each other’s odd appearance. Presently a man, clad as a Frank, approached with Arab greetings. He kissed the hand of Hâfiz Bey, who welcomed him. It seemed he had been warned by letter to prepare the way for them.
‘All is ready, lords of bounty!’ he exclaimed. ‘Deign but to follow me, the ladies with you.’
The drive along the quays through noisy streets to the hotel, the breakfast which their guide assured them had been cooked and chosen in accordance with religious law, were trammelled by constraint, and went off sadly. Only in the train, where they were separated, each sex enjoying a reserved compartment, did conversation flow. Among the women it was soon uproarious. They talked and laughed half through the night, appealing constantly to Barakah, a European born, for information. The appearance of the men at every station, to ascertain that they were well, produced a hush; but no sooner were the despots gone again than the mad talk and laughter raged anew.
At length they tired and tried to rest. They cursed the narrowness of the divans, the work of devils. When morning came, Bedr-ul-Budûr was at the point of death once more, asking her Maker what she had done to deserve such disrespectful treatment; while Barakah, looking out at European villages, was haunted by remembrance and grew sad.
The sun had long been up when they reached Paris. Yûsuf and Hâfiz, Bedr-ul-Budûr and Barakah, packed in one cab, were driven with a rattle through tumultuous streets to the hotel where rooms had been engaged for them. The hostess, a stout woman elegantly dressed in black, and the entire staff stood out to welcome them. The woman bowed incessantly, addressing Yûsuf and his friend as ‘Monseigneur.’ Finding that Barakah knew French she drew to her and poured a smooth flow of amenities into her ear.
‘Madame has only to command – all that she desires. Should madame require conversation, I am always at her service. The princes come to Paris for diversion, that is understood. Young men so rich! They must amuse themselves! But then their ladies must not find the life too sad.’
Thus prattling, she conducted them upstairs and flung open a door, exclaiming, ‘Voila!’ Crossing the landing to another door, she flung that open also. ‘Voila!’ she cried again. Bedr-ul-Budûr, so tired that she could hardly drag her feet up, chose the left-hand room, which happened to be nearest. Yûsuf and Barakah proceeded to the other. Both parties ordered coffee and some light refreshment, and after breakfasting went straight to bed. They rested until evening, when the men went out to find their friends, whose lodging was close by. They returned with sundry purchases, hats, gloves and scarves, which they declared they needed for complete disguise.
On the next morning the whole party, in two carriages, went out to smell the air and view the city. It was a cloudless day and the streets sparkled, the trees along the boulevards were like fat green posies. They were feeling happy when, in an important thoroughfare, they discovered people pointing at them, drivers shouting. Yûsuf and his seat companion Hâfiz grew uncomfortable. Cries of amazement reached them from the other carriage. Their cabman turned round with a grin and told them:
‘“Place aux dames,” messieurs! – That is what they cry. These ladies are not slaves with us, que diable!’
The two men had been lounging in the roomy seat which faced the horse. They at once resigned it, addressing bows and smiles of deference to the angry multitude; and called out to their friends to do the like. But the incident destroyed their pleasure in the drive; nor were the ladies happy in the seat of honour, a gazing-stock for infidels who might possess the evil eye.
‘Saw one ever such fanaticism?’ groaned Yûsuf. ‘And they call this country free – a place where every one does what he likes!’
That afternoon was spent in the hotel in a strange manner; Barakah, at the demand of Yûsuf, instructing the four men in foreign customs. They posed and pirouetted in her salon, rehearsing bows, the flourish of a hat, the proper compliments; while the three girls looked on with saucer eyes. After dinner they again appeared before her, this time without their fezes, wearing hats which gave them a very villainous and sleek appearance. Required to criticize their dress and bearing from a Frankish standpoint, she suggested some improvements which were hailed with gratitude. Yûsuf returned home after midnight, tired but garrulous. It seemed that they had lighted on a charming Frenchman, who undertook to show them all the sights. Next day the men rose late and then went out together, leaving the women to their own devices; returned to dinner, then went off again, remaining out this time till nearly morning.
The programme did not vary on succeeding days. The girls, deserted, clung to Barakah. They wailed and prayed to God, and dreamed of Cairo. At length one of them – it was Bedr-ul-Budûr – took courage to reproach her lord; when all four men were stricken with amazement. They had thought the ladies would be gay indoors without them, as they were at home. To cheer them up, a trip to Versailles was arranged. It passed off gaily, with less shyness than usually appeared when they all mixed together. As they strolled about the park, a youth named Izz-ud-dîn made up to Barakah, and with the greatest diffidence implored her to confide to him the secret how to win the love of Frankish ladies. When she smilingly assured him there was none, he cried:
‘O Lord of Heaven! Then thou wilt not tell it. They are so easy to their own men, as we know from books; to us so difficult. It cannot be fanaticism, since we seem as Franks.’
‘But what need hast thou of women, with a pearl of beauty here beside thee?’ questioned Barakah.
‘One who has beheld thy loveliness must evermore desire the like of it! Oh, that thou hadst a sister for me!’ he made answer glibly.
He moved away, but presently another came and made the same preposterous request, retreating with the same forced compliment; and on the journey home, when Yûsuf closed his eyes and seemed to sleep, Hâfiz Bey, whom she had thought more sensible, approached her in his turn. When she denied all knowledge of the matter he answered in low tones:
‘There is a secret, that is known, by Allah. Thou hast it, and hast given hints to Yûsuf; else why should he be more successful than the rest of us?’
‘Because he is better looking,’ it was on the tip of her tongue to say, as she surveyed the fat, good-tempered face of Hâfiz with its Chinese eyes. It was all that she could do to keep from screams of laughter.
‘It is my dream,’ he whispered. ‘By Allah it disturbs my nights with cruel pain – to take a lady just like thee in all respects – a Frank and noble, of extreme refinement – back with me to Masr.’
She derided him. He still continued pleading, supporting his petition with the grossest flattery, till they reached home, when Yûsuf suddenly sprang up and glowered at Hâfiz. He had been feigning sleep. It was a thunderbolt. Bedr-ul-Budûr screamed warning to her lord, who took but a single look and fled indoors, the jealous one pursuing like a madman. In the hall the harmless youth was overtaken and turned round to plead. With a howl of ‘Dog!’ Yûsuf sprang at his throat and bore him to the ground. Like dogs in very truth they fought until parted by the hotel servants with the help of broomsticks; while Barakah strove in vain to make her explanation heard. Bedr-ul-Budûr appealed to Allah and the prophet; and the landlady from the third step of the stairs, with hands and eyes thrown up, exclaimed repeatedly:
‘O ciel! C’est monseigneur!
(London: Evelyn Nash, 1913.)