The circumstances which gave birth to Pickthall’s travelogue Oriental Encounters are described in the Introduction below. His manservant Rashid later joined the Suez Canal Police, and met Pickthall again during one of the latter’s passages to India, in 1922.
Early in the year 1894 I was a candidate for one of two vacancies in the Consular Service for Turkey, Persia, and the Levant, but failed to gain the necessary place in the competitive examination. I was in despair. All my hopes for months had been turned towards sunny countries and old civilisations, away from the drab monotone of London fog, which seemed a nightmare when the prospect of escape eluded me. I was eighteen years old, and, having failed in one or two adventures, I thought myself an al-round failure, and was much depressed. I dreamed of Eastern sunshine, palm trees, camels, desert sand, as of a Paradise which I had lost by my shortcomings. What was my rapture when my mother one fine day suggested that it might be good for me to travel in the East, because my longing for it seemed to indicate a natural instinct, with which she herself, possessing Eastern memories, was in full sympathy!
I fancy there was some idea at the time that if I learnt the languages and studied life upon the spot I might eventually find some backstairs way into the service of Foreign Office; but that idea, though cherished by my elders as some excuse for the expenses of my expedition, had never, from the first, appealed to me; and from the moment when I got to Egypt, my first destination, it lost whatever lustre it had had at home. For then the European ceased to interest me, appearing somehow inappropriate and false in those surroundings. At first I tried to overcome this feeling or perception which, while I lived with English people, seemed unlawful. All my education until then had tended to impose on me the cult of the thing done habitually upon a certain plane of our society. To seek to miux on an equality with Orientals, of whatever breeding, was one of those things which were never done, nor even contemplated, by the kind of person who had always been my model.
My sneaking wish to know the natives of the country intimately, like other unconventional desires I had at times experienced, might have remained a sneaking wish until this day, but for an accident which freed me for a time from English supervision. My people had provided me with introductions to several influential English residents in Syria, among others to family of good position in Jerusalem; and it was understood that, on arrival in that country, I should go directly to that family for information and advice. But, as it chanced, on board the ship which took me to Port Said from Naples I met a man who knew those people intimately -–had been, indeed, for years an inmate of their house – and he assumed the office of my mentor. I stayed in Cairo, merely because he did, for some weeks, and went with him on the same boat to Jaffa. He, for some unknown reason – I suspect insanity – did not want me in Jerusalem just then; and, when we landed, spun me a strange yarn of how the people I had thought to visit were exceedingly eccentric and uncertain in their moods; and how it would be best for me to stop in Jaffa until he sent me word that I was sure of welcome. His story was entirely false, I found out later, a libel on a very hospitable house. But I believed it at the time, as I did all his statements, having no other means of information on the subject.
So I remained at Jaffa, in a little gasthaus in the German colony, which had the charms of cleanliness and cheapness, and there I might have stayed till now had I awaited the tidings promised by my counsellor. There for the first two weeks I found life very dull. Then Mr. Hanauer, the English chaplain, and a famous antiquarian, took pity on my solitary state, walked me about, and taught me words of Arabic. He was a native of Jerusalem, and loved the country. My sneaking wish to fraternise with Orientals, when I avowed it after hesitations, appeared good to him. And then I made acquaintance with a clever dragoman and one of the most famous jokers in all Syria, who happened to be lodging at my little hostelry, with nothing in the world to do but stare about him. He helped me to throw off the European ad plunge into the native way of living. With him I rode about the plain of Sharon, sojourning among the fellâhîn and sitting in the coffee-shops of Ramleh, Lydda, Gaza, meeting all sorts of people, and acquiring the vernacular without an effort, in the manner of amusement. From dawn to sunset we were in the saddle. We went on pilgrimage to Nabî Rubîn, the mosque upon the edge of marshes by the sea, half-way to Gaza; we rode up northward to the foot of Carmel; explored the gorges of the mountains of Judaea; frequented Turkish baths; ate native meals and slept in native houses – following the customs of the people of the land in all respects. And I was amazed at the immense relief I found in such a life. In all my previous years I had not seen happy people. These were happy. Poor they might be, but they had no dream of wealth; the very thought of competition was unknown to them, and rivalry was still a matter of the horse and spear. Wages and rent were troubles they had never heard of. Class distinctions, as we understand them, were not. Everybody talked to everybody. With inequality they had a true fraternity. People complained that they were badly governed, which merely mean that they were left to their devices save on great occasions. A Government which touches every individual and interferes with him to some extent in daily life, though much esteemed by Europeans, seems intolerable to the Oriental. I had a vision of the tortured peoples of the earth impelled by their own misery to desolate the happy peoples, a vision which grew clearer in the after years. But in that easy-going Easter life there is a power of resistance, as everybody knows who tries to change it, which may yet defeat the hosts of joyless drudgery.
My Syrian friend –the Suleymân of the following sketches – introduced me to the only Europeans who espoused that life – a French Alsatian family, the Baldenspergers, renowned as pioneers of scientific bee-keeping in Palestine, who hospitably took a share in my initiation. They had innumerable hives in different parts of the country – I have seen them near the Jaffa gardens and among the mountains south of Hebron – which they transported in due season, on the backs of camels, seking a new growth of flowers. For a long while the Government ignored their industry, until the rumour grew that it was very profitable. Then a high tax was imposed. The Balden spergers would not pay it. They said the Government might take the hives if it desired to do so. Soldiers were sent to carry out the seizure. But the bee-keepers had taken out the bottom of each hive, and when the soldiers lifted them, out swarmed the angry bees. The soldiers fled; and after that experience the Government agreed to compromise. I remember well a long day’s ride with Emile and Samuel Baldensperger, round by Askelon and Ekron, and the luncheon which a village headman had prepared for us, consisting of a whole sheep, roast and stuffed with nuts and vegetables; and a day with Henri Baldensperger in the Hebron region. The friendships of those days were made for life. Hanauer, the Baldenspergers, Suleymân, and other natives of the country – those of them who are alive – remain my friends to-day.
In short, I ran completely wild for months, in a manner unbecoming to an Englishman; and when at length, upon a pressing invitation, I turned up in Jerusalem and used m introductions, it was in semi-native garb and with a love for Arabis which, I was made to understand, was hardly decent. My native friends were objects of suspicion. I was told that they were undesirable, and, when I stood up for them, was soon put down by the retort that I was very young. I could not obviously claim as much experience as my mature advisers, whose frequent warnings to me to distrust the people of the country thus acquired the force of moral precepts, which it is the secret joy of youth to disobey.
That is the reason why the respectable English residents in Syria figure in these pages as censorious and hostile, with but few exceptions. They were hostile to my point of view, which was not then avowed, but not to me. Indeed, so many of them showed me kindness – particularly in my times of illness – that I cannot think of them without a glow of friendliness. But the attitude of most of them was never mine, and the fact that at the time I still admired that attitude as the correct one, and thought myself at intervals a sad backslider, made it seem forbidding. In my Oriental life they really were, as here depicted, a disapproving shadow in the background. With one – referred to often in these tales – I was in full agreement. We lived together for some months in a small mountain village, and our friendship then established has remained unbroken. But, he, though not alone, was an exception.
Owing to the general verdict on my Arab friends, I led what might be called a double life during the months of my first sojourn in Jerusalem; until Suleymân, the tourist season being ended, came with promise of adventure, when I flung discretion to the winds. We hired two horses and a muleteer, and rode away into the north together. A fortnight later, at the foot of the Ladder of Tyre, Suleymân was forced to leave me, being summoned to his village. I still rode on towards the north, alone with one hired muleteer, a simple soul. A notion of my subsequent adventures may, perhaps, be gathered from the following pages, in which I have embodied fictionally some impressions still remaining clear after the lapse of more than twenty years. A record of small things, no doubt; yet it seems possible that something human may be learnt from such a comic sketch-book of experience which would never be derived from more imposing works.
The brown plain, swimming in a haze of heat, stretched far away into the distance, where a chain of mountains trenched upon the cloudless sky. Six months of drought had withered all the herbage. Only thistles, blue and yellow, and some thorny bushes, had survived; but after the torrential winter rains the whole expanse would blossom like the rose. I traversed the plain afterwards in spring, when cornfields waved for miles around its three mud villages, wild flowers in mad profusion covered its waste places, and scarlet tulips flamed amid its wheat.
Now all was desert. After riding for four days in such a landscape, it was sweet to think upon the journey’s end, the city of perennial waters, shady gardens, and the song of birds. I was picturing the scene of our arrival – the shade and the repose, the long, cool drinks, the friendly hum of the bazaars – and wondering what letters I should find awaiting me, all to the tune of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ – for the clip-clap of a horse’s hoofs invariably beats out in my brain some tune, the most incongruous, against my will – when a sudden outcry roused me. It came from my companion, a hired muleteer and sounded angry. The fellow had been riding on, ahead. I now saw that he had overtaken other travellers – two men astride of one donkey – and had entered into conversation with them. One of the two, the hindmost, was a Turkish soldier. Except the little group they made together, and a vulture, a mere speck above them in the blue, no other living creature was in sight. Something had happened, for the soldier seemed amused, while my poor man was making gestures of despairing protest. He repeated the loud cry which had disturbed my reverie then turned his mule and hurried back to meet me.
‘My knife!’ he bellowed. ‘My knife! – that grand steel blade which was my honour! – so finely tempered and inlaid! – an heirloom in the family! That miscreant, may Allah cut his life! – I mean the soldier – stole it. He asked to look at it a minute, seeming to admire. I gave it, like the innocent I am. He stuck it in his belt, and asked to see the passport which permitted me to carry weapons. Who ever heard of such a thing in this wild region? He will not give it back, though I entreated. I am your Honour’s servant, speak for me and make him give it back! It is an heirloom!’ That grey-headed man was crying like a baby.
Now, I was very young, and his implicit trust in my authority enthralled me. I valued his dependence on my manhood more than gold and precious stones. Summoning all the courage I possessed, I clapped spurs to my horse and galloped after the marauder.
‘Give back that knife!’ I roared. ‘O soldier! it is thou to whom I speak.’
The soldier turned a studiously guileless face – a handsome face, with fair moustache and a week’s beard. He had a roguish eye.
‘What knife? I do not understand,’ he said indulgently.
‘The knife thou stolest from the muleteer here present.’
‘Oh, that!’ replied the soldier, with a deprecating laugh: ‘That is a thing unworthy of your Honour’s notice. The rogue in question is a well-known malefactor. He and I are old acquaintance.’
‘By the beard of the Prophet, by the August Coran, I never saw his devil’s face until this minute!’ bawled the muleteer, who had come up behind me.
‘Give back the knife,’ I ordered for the second time.
‘By Allah, never!’ was the cool reply.
‘Give it back, I say!’
‘No, it cannot be – not even to oblige your Honour, for whose pleasure, Allah knows, I would do almost anything,’ murmured the soldier, with a charming smile. ‘Demand it not. Be pleased to understand that if it were your Honour’s knife I would return it instantly. But that man, as I tell thee, is a wretch. It grieves me to behold a person of consideration in such an unbecoming temper upon his account – a dog, no more.’
‘If he is a dog, he is my dog for the present; so give back the knife!’
‘Alas, beloved, that is quite impossible.’
With a wave of the hand dismissing the whole subject the soldier turned away. He plucked a cigarette out of his girdle and prepared to light it. His companion on the donkey had not turned his head nor shown the slightest interest in the discussion. This had lasted long enough. I knew that in another minute I should have to laugh. If anything remained for me to do it must be done immediately. Whipping my revolver from the holster, I held it close against the rascal’s head, yelling: ‘Give back the knife this minute, or I kill thee!’
The man went limp. The knife came back as quick as lightning. I gave it to the muleteer, who blubbered praise to Allah and made off with it. Equally relieved, I was about to follow when the utterly forlorn appearance of the soldier moved me to open the revolver, showing that it was not loaded. Then my adversary was transfigured. His back straightened, his mouth closed, his eyes regained their old intelligence. He stared at me a moment, half incredulous, and then he laughed. Ah, how that soldier laughed! The owner of the donkey turned and shared his glee. They literally hugged each other, roaring with delight, while the donkey underneath them both jogged dutifully on.
Before a caravanserai in a small valley green with fruit-trees, beside a slender stream whose banks were fringed with oleander, I was sitting waiting for some luncheon when the donkey and its riders came again in sight. The soldier tumbled off on spying me and ran into the inn like one possessed. A minute later he brought out the food which I had ordered and set the table for me in the shade of trees.
‘I would not let another serve thee,’ he informed me, ‘for the love of that vile joke that thou didst put upon me. It was not loaded. After all my fright! … It is a nice revolver. Let me look at it.’
‘Aye, look thy fill, thou shalt not touch it,’ was my answer; at which he laughed anew, pronouncing me the merriest of Adam’s race.
‘But tell me, what wouldst thou have done had I refused? It was not loaded. What wouldst thou have done?’
His hand was resting at that moment on a stool. I rapped his knuckles gently with the butt of the revolver to let him know its weight.
‘Wallahi!’ he cried out in admiration. ‘I believe thou wouldst have smashed my head with it. All for the sake of a poor man of no account, whom thou employest for a week, and after that wilt see no more. Efendim, take me as thy servant always!’ Of a sudden he spoke very earnestly. ‘Pay the money to release me from the army. It is a largish sum – five Turkish pounds. And Allah knows I will repay it to thee by my service. For the love of righteousness accept me, for my soul is thine.
I ridiculed the notion. He persisted. When the muleteer and I set forth again, he rode beside us, mounted on another donkey this time – ‘borrowed,’ as he put it – which showed he was a person of resource. ‘By Allah, I can shoe a horse and cook a fowl; I can mend garments with a thread and shoot a bird upon the wing,’ he told me. ‘I would take care of the stable and the house. I would do everything your Honour wanted. My nickname is Rashîd the Fair; my garrison is Karameyn, just two days’ journey from the city. Come in a day or two and buy me out. No matter for the wages. Only try me!’
At the khan, a pretty rough one, where we spent the night, he waited on me deftly and enforced respect, making me really wish for such a servant. On the morrow, after an hour’s riding, our ways parted.
‘In sh’Allah, I shall see thee before many days,’ he murmured. ‘My nickname is Rashîd the Fair, forget not. I shall tell our captain thou art coming with the money.’
I said that I might think about it possibly.
‘Come,’ he entreated. ‘Thou wouldst never shame a man who puts his trust in thee. I say that I shall tell our captain thou art coming. Ah, shame me not before the Commandant and all my comrades! Thou thinkest me a thief, a lawbreaker, because I took that fellow’s knife?’ he asked, with an indulgent smile. ‘Let me tell thee, O my lord, that I was in my right and duty as a soldier of the Sultan in this province. It is that muleteer who, truly speaking, breaks the law by carrying the knife without a permit. And thou, hast thou a passport for that fine revolver? At the place where we had luncheon yesterday were other soldiers. By merely calling on them to support me I could have had his knife and thy revolver with ease and honesty in strict accordance with the law. Why did I not do so? Because I love thee! Say thou wilt come to Karameyn and buy me out.’
I watched him jogging on his donkey towards a gulley of the hills along which lay the bridle-path to Karameyn. On all the evidence he was a rogue, and yet my intimate conviction was that he was honest. All the Europeans in the land would lift up hands of horror and exclaim: ‘Beware!’ on hearing such a story. Yet, as I rode across the parched brown land towards the city of green trees and rushing waters, I knew that I should go to Karameyn.
THE long day’s ride was uneventful, but not so the night. I spent it in a village of the mountains at a very curious hostelry, kept by a fat native Christian, named Elias, who laid claim, upon the signboard, to furnish food and lodging ‘alafranga’ – that is, in the modern European manner. There was one large guest-room, and an adjoining bedroom of the same dimensions, for some thirty travellers. I had to find a stable for my horse elsewhere. A dining-table was provided, and we sat on chairs around it; but the food was in no wise European, and the cooking was degraded Greek. A knife, fork, and spoon were laid for every guest, but several cast these on the floor and used their fingers. In the long bedroom were a dozen beds on bedsteads. By offering a trifle extra I secured one to myself. In others there were two, three, even four together. An elderly Armenian gentleman, who had a wife with him, stood guard with pistols over her all night. He was so foolish as to threaten loudly anyone who dared approach her. After he had done so several times a man arose from the bed next to mine and strolling to him seized him by the throat.
‘O man,’ he chided. ‘Art thou mad or what, thus to arouse our passions by thy talk of women? Be silent, or we honest men here present will wring thy neck and take thy woman from thee. Dost thou understand?’ He shook that jealous husband as a terrier would shake a rat. ‘Be silent, hearest thou? Men wish to sleep.’
‘Said I not well, O brother?’ said the monitor to me, as he got back to bed.
‘By Allah, well,’ was my reply. The jealous one was silent after that. But there were other noises. Some men still lingered in the guest-room playing cards. The host, devoted to things European, had a musical-box – it was happily before the day of gramophones – which the card-players kept going all night long. I had a touch of fever. There were insects. Sleep was hopeless. I rose while it was yet night, went out without paying, since the host was nowhere to be seen, and, in some danger from the fierce attacks of pariah dogs, found out the vault in which my horse was stabled. Ten minutes later I was clear of the village, riding along a mountain side but dimly visible beneath the stars. The path descended to a deep ravine, and rose again, up, up, interminably. At length, upon the summit of a ridge, I felt the dawn. The mountain tops were whitened like the crests of waves, while all the clefts and hollows remained full of night. Behind me, in the east, there was a long white streak making the mountain outlines bleak and keen. The stars looked strange; a fresh breeze fanned my cheek and rustled in the grass and shrubs. Before me, on an isolated bluff, appeared my destination, a large village, square-built like a fortress. Its buildings presently took on a wild-rose blush, which deepened to the red of fire – a splendid sight against a dark blue sky, still full of stars. A window flashed up there. The sun had risen.
Some English people, when informed of my intention to buy a man out of the Turkish Army, had pronounced it madness. I did not know the people of the land as they did. I should be pillaged, brought to destitution, perhaps murdered. They, who had lived in the country twenty, thirty years, were better qualified to judge than I was. For peace and quiet I pretended acquiescence, and my purpose thus acquired a taste of stealth. It was with the feelings of a kind of truant that I had set out at length without a word to anyone, and with the same adventurous feelings that I now drew near to Karameyn. Two soldiers, basking in the sunshine on a dust-heap, sprang up at my approach. One was the man I sought, the rogue Rashîd. They led me to their captain’s house – a modest dwelling, consisting of a single room with hardly any furrniture. A score of soldiers followed after us.
The Captain – Hasan Agha – an old man, with face scarred and heavy white moustache, was in full uniform, and, as I entered, was engaged in putting on a pair of cotton gloves. He was one of the old ‘alaïli,’ Turkish officers – those whose whole knowledge of their business was derived from service in a regiment or ‘alaï,’ instead of from instruction at a military school; and his manner towards the men had nothing of the martinet. He addressed them as ‘my children,’ with affection; and they, though quite respectful, conversed freely in his presence. Hasan Agha paid me many compliments, and repeatedly inquired after my health. He would not hear about my business till I had had breakfast. Luncheon had been arranged for me, he said, but that could not be ready for some hours. Would I be so kind as to excuse a makeshift? Even as he spoke, a soldier entered with a tray on which were slabs of Arab bread, a pitcher of sour milk, and heaps of grapes. Another soldier began pounding coffee, while yet another blew upon the charcoal in a brazier. I refused to eat unless my host ate with me, which he did only after much polite resistance. After the meal, we sat and talked, the soldiers joining in the conversation. They told me of old wars and deeds of valour. Hasan Agha was, it seemed, a famous fighter; and the men did all they could to make him tell me of his battles. They brought an old man in out of the town to see me because he had fought in the Crimean war, and knew the English. Before it grew too hot, they took me out to see the barracks and a ramshackle old fieldpiece which they seemed to idolise. Then followed luncheon with its long array of Arab dishes, of which the soldiers had their share eventually. Rashîd assured me afterwards that all the food on this occasion had been ‘borrowed.’ That was in Abdul Hamid’s golden days. After luncheon, there was coffee with more compliments; and then at last we got to business.
A public writer was brought in. He wrote out a receipt for me, and also the discharge Rashîd required. Hasan Agha stamped both documents with an official seal, and handed them to me, who gave him in exchange the money.
‘Bismillah!’ he exclaimed. ‘I call all here to witness that Rashîd, the son of Alî, called the Fair, is free henceforth to go what way he chooses.’
To me he said: ‘Rashîd is a good lad, and you will find him useful. The chief fault I have found in him is this: that, when obeying orders, he is apt to think, and so invent a method of his own, not always good. Also, he is too susceptible to female charms, a failing which has placed him in some strange positions.’
The last remark evoked much laughter, relating, evidently to some standing joke unknown to me. Rashîd looked rather sheepish. Hasan Agha turned to him, and said:
‘My son, praise Allah for thy great good fortune in finding favour in the sight of one so noble and benevolent as our beloved guest, who is henceforth thy master. Remember, he is not as I am – one who has been what thou art, and so knows the tricks. Serve him freely with thy mind and soul and conscience, not waiting for commands as in the Army. Come hither, O my son, grasp hands with me. I say, may God be with thee now and always. Forget not all the good instruction of thy soldier days. Be sure that we shall pray for thy good master and for thee.’
The old man’s eyes were wet, so were Rashîd’s, so were the eyes of all the soldiers squatting round.
Rashîd, dismissed, went off to change his uniform for an old suit of mine which I had brought for him, while Hasan Agha talking of him as a father might, explained to me his character and little failings.
At last I took my leave. Rashîd was waiting in my cast-off clothes, a new fez of civilian shape upon his head. He held my stirrup, and then jumped on to a raw-boned beast which had been ‘borrowed’ for him by his friends, so he informed me. It might be worth my while to buy it for him, he suggested later – the price was only eight pounds Turk, the merest trifle. The whole garrison escorted us to the last houses, where they stood a long while, waving their farewells. Two hours later, on the mountain-ridge, beyond the wady, we turned to look our last on Karameyn. It stood amid the flames of sunset like a castle of the clouds.
We returned, then, to the ‘alafranga’ hostelry; but Rashîd, having heard the story of my sleepless night, would not allow me to put up there. I paid my debt to the proprietor, and then he found for me an empty house to which he brought a mattress and a coverlet, a lot of cushions, a brazier, and the things required for making coffee, also a tray of supper – all of them borrowed from the neighbouring houses. I might be pillaged, brought to destitution, and eventually murdered by him, as my friends had warned me. At least, the operation promised to be comfortable.
THE moon began to shine upon the gardens of Damascus, casting pale shadows, though the daylight had not quite departed, and the sky behind the trees to westward was still green. We were sitting out on stools under the walnut trees, beside a strem which made a pleasant murmur. The air was laden with the scent of unseen roses. Behind us was a little tavern with a lantern lighted in its entrance arch, a solitary yellow eye amid the twilight.
We were the centre of a crowd, as usual when Suleymân was with us. His voice attracted people like a drum, and the matter of his talk had power to hold them. It was a weighty voice of studied modulations, which promised wisdom on the brink of laughter. He generally chose some moral or religious subject for discourse, and illustrated it by what we call ‘nawâdir’ (rare things) selected from his vast experience of life. By his own account he had journeyed to the world’s rim, and had associated not alone with men, but also with jinn and ghouls. On the other hand, he had been to Europe several times, and knew the streets of Paris and of London. Somehow, one never doubted any of his stories while he was telling them, the accents of his voice had such conviction. One was conscious that his tales – even the most extravagant – were true in some mysterious, intrinsic way. This time he chose to speak to us of guilt and innocence, of good and evil works, and their effect on man’s salvation. He aired the theory, which roused approving murmuers in the listening circle, that to have a good intention was the chief desideratum for every son of Adam on his journey through the world, no matter though his works might turn out bad or unsuccessful.
‘To lie with good intention is better than to tell the truth with bad intention,’ he declared.
‘To lie is the salt of a man; the shame is to him who believes,’ put in Rashîd, my servant, who was great at proverbs.
Suleymân paid no heed to the interruption.
‘A sin committed thoughtlessly,’ said he, ‘is light compared with one which thou hast hatched and planned.’
‘Nay, O belover, a sin is a sin, appointed so by the Most High; and the duty of a man is to avoid it. The hurt to man’s salvation is the same, however he approach it,’ said an old man in the audience. ‘If I cut my hand, is the wound less, is it not rather likely to be more – for being thoughtless?’
There was a murmur of applause as all eyes turned on this objector, whose likeness could not be distinguished in the gloaming.
I spoke in approbation of the view expressed, and the old man, emboldened, laughed:
‘To lie is bad, to kill is bad, to steal is bad. Our Lord destroy this rogue of an Intention, which plain men cannot catch nor understand!’
‘Nay, listen!’ Suleymân became persuasive and profoundly earnest, as was his manner always under opposition. ‘Thou hast not altogether caught my meaning. I say a man should trust in the Most High, not think too much beforehand of his ways. By thinking beforehand, he may form a bad intention, since man’s thoughts are naturally fallible. Let him think afterwards, thus he will learn to shun such snares in future, and by repentance place a good work to his credit. Men learn wisdom from their sins, not from their righteous deeds. And the consciousness of sin, the knowledge that they may at any moment fall into it, preserves them from the arrogance of goodness.’
‘There may be some small grain of sense in what thou sayest,’ chuckled the objector, ‘but not enough to make sin righteous, nor yet to abrogate the sacred law.’
Suleymân pursued unheeding: ‘I have a rare thing, which will show you what I mean.
‘A new judge had been appointed to the Holy City. He was departing from Stambûl by ship to take up his appointment. On the quay, a Jew of his acquaintance came to him with reverence, and begged him kindly to convey a basket of bastirma to his (the Jew’s) son at the Holy City, which the Jews in their own language call Jerusalem. You all know what bastirma is. It is dried and salted mutton – very tasty – a dish of which the Turks are most inordinately fond. The Cadi graciously consented, bidding his major-domo take the basket, and bestow it carefully among the things. The Jew departed. The Cadi and his party journeyed till they reached their destination, where, upon arrival, they discovered a young Jew inquiring earnestly about a basket of bastirma. The Cadi had forgotten its existence. ‘Ah, to be sure!’ he cried. ‘I gave it to my major-domo for safe keeping.’
‘He called the servant, and commanded him to give the basket of bastirma to the Jew there waiting. The major-domo bowed his head, folded his hands upon his breast, and said: ‘I ask forgiveness, O my lord. The basket still remains, but the bastirma was so excellent that, having tasted all but a piece of it, I wanted more, so that, in fact, I ate it all upon the journey. I wish to pay the price of it to this young Jew.’’
‘The Cadi thought his servant’s offer fair enough, but the young Jew went mad. Flying at the throat of the major-domo, he flung him to the ground, and tried to tear the soul out of his body with his teeth and nails. The Cadi called upon the bystanders for held. The Jew was dragged with difficulty from his victim. Then the Cadi asked:
‘‘Why, pray, did you attack my servant in that savage manner?’
‘’That man,’ said the Jew, still white with rage, and pointing with his tallow finger at the major domo, who had risen from the ground – ‘that man contains my grandfather.’
‘‘What words are these? Explain yourself!’ the Cadi cried.
‘‘Three weeks ago, O gracious Excellency, my grandfather died in Stambûl. It had ever been his dearest wish to be buried in the Holy City, near the scene of Judgment; and that wish of his was law on us his offspring. But how could we fulfil it? How, I ask? No skipper, whether Nazarene or Muslim, would receive a dead Jew on his ship for less than the corpse-weight in gold. And we are poor. To take him overland was quite impossible. And so my father and my mother in Stambûl cured his dead limbs, and made of them bastirma, and sent him hither in the way thou knowest. It follows that thy servant has committed a most dreadful crime. Let him be killed, I pray, and buried in the tomb we have prepared, so that my grandfather’s great wish may be fulfilled.’
‘The major-domo was more dead than living as he heard that story. He rent his clothes and fell down on the ground insensible.
‘The Cadi answered the young Jew with wisdom, saying: ‘Thou art entitled to the price of one basket of bastirma, and no more, from this my servant; but he, on his side, has a right to all thou ownest. What wealth can ever compensate him for the haunting fear that on the Last Day he may rise inextricably mingled with thy worthy grandfather? Go, I say, and never venture to approach him any more, or I shall surely act upon this judgment and denude thee quite.’ The major-domo – ’
Cries of ‘Miskîn! Miskîn!’ (poor fellow!) interrupted the narrative.
One said: ‘I once ate pig’s flesh by mistake, but this man’s plight is much more horrible.’
Suleymân’s opponent cried: ‘It was a judgment on him, evidently, for his theft of the bastirma. Say, what became of his thereafter, O narrator?’
‘The major-domo, who, till then, had been a precious rogue – I knew him intimately from a child, and so can vouch for it – became from that day forth the saintliest of men. He thought about his crime and mourned for it, and deemed himself an unclean beast until he died – may God have mercy on him – and was buried in the Holy City as the Jew desired. He thought of nothing but good deeds, yet without seeking merit, knowing that nothing he could do would ever cleanse him. He became the humblest and the best of men, who had beforebeen arrogant and very wicked. Therefore I say that it is well for men to think of their sins after rather than before committing them.’
‘But the intention! What of the intention, O my master? His intention was not good. He stole!’
‘His intention went no further than a basket of bastirma. The Jew was only an unpleasant accident, in respect whereof no guilt attached to him. The case is clear, and yet, although I used to argue with him on the subject, I never could contrive to make him see it. One thing is certain, and will prove to you the worth of good intentions. He only meant to eat a basket of bastirma; therefore he felt great remorse when he devoured a Jew, and so became a saint for Paradise. Had he intended to devour a Jew he could not possibly have felt such great remorse. What say you?’
And everyone agreed that it was so.
Though I had known Suleymân for nealry two years, and had had him with me for some six months of that time, I had never seen him in his function of a dragoman, by which he earned enough in two months of the year to keep a wife and children in a village of the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, of which he spoke with heart-moving affection, though he seldom went there. It was only after much insistence that he allowed us to conduct him thither on one memorable occasion, when I could not but admire his perfect manners as a despot. When first I met him he had been a gentleman at large, and it was as that, and a familiar friend, that he repaired to me whenever he had nothing else to do. Judging from his gifts of conversation, which we all admired, and his unbounded knowledge of the country, I thought that, as a guide for tourists, he would be invaluable. So, when I heard that English friends of mine were coming out to Palestine, I wrote advising them to ask for him, him, only; and I was glad to hear soon afterwards that he was with them. When they came north, I joined the party at Damascus and travelled with them for their last fortnight.
It did not take me many minutes in the camp to see that Suleymân was not himself, and that my friends were not so charmed with him as I had thought they would be. On the first evening in their tent I heard complaints. They told me he was most unconscionably lazy, and would not take them to the places they desired to visit. The trouble was, as I soon learnt, that they possessed a map and guidebook which they studied reverently every night, finding out places said therein to be of interest. Suleymân, on his side, had, at setting out, possessed a plan to make their tour the most delightful one imaginable. He hoped by visiting selected spots and people to give it sequence and significance. In a word, he was an artist in travel, wishing to provide them with delicious memories, while they were English and omnivorous of facts and scenes. When he learnt from various rebuffs that they would not confide themselves to him, he lost all pleasure in the tour. It was a listless and disgusted upper servant, most unlike the man I knew, whom I found in glorious raiment sitting by the cook’s fire in the gardens of Damascus, which were then a wilderness of roses.
He did not explain matters to me all at once. When I reproached him for neglecting friends of mine, he answered only: ‘It is the will of Allah, who made men of different kinds, some sweet, some loathsome.’ But my arrival mended things a little. At least, my English friends professed to see a great improvement in the conduct of Suleymân and all the servants. I think it was because the poor souls knew that they had someone now to whom they could express their grievances, someone who would condescend to talk with them; for nothing is more foreign to the Oriental scheme of life than the distance at which English people keep their servants. In the democratic East all men are equal, as far as rights of conversation are concerned. It is a hardship for the Oriental to serve Europeans, and only the much higher and more certain wages bring him to it.
My English friends had few good words to say for any of their Arab servants; but I found they had conceived a perfect hatred for the cook, who had undoubtedly a villainous appearance. He was a one-eyed man with a strong cast in his surviving eye. A skull-cap, which had once been white, concealed his shaven poll, and his long pointed ears stood out upon it.. he wore a shirt of indigo impaired by time, over which, when riding, he would throw an ancient Frankish coat, or, if it chanced to rain, a piece of sacking. His legs were bare, and he wore scarlet slippers. To see him riding on an ass hung round with cooking tins, at the head of the procession of the beasts of burden, suggested to the uninformed spectator that those beasts of burden and their loads had all been stolen.
I spoke about him to Suleymân one day when in my company he had regained his wonted spirits, telling him of the extreme dislike my friends had taken to the man.
‘They are foolish,’ he replied, ‘to grumble at the figure of a mill which grinds good flour. They profit by his cooking, which is excellent. Indeed, he is the best cook in the world, and most particular. I took great trouble to secure him for this expedition, knowing that the Khawâjât were friends of yours.’ The tone of grievance in his voice became acute.
I feared that he was going to cry, so answered quickly:
‘It is not that. They like his cooking. But his manners – ’
‘What know they of his manners? Has he ever entered the saloon or bed-tent to defile them? Has he ever spoken insult in their hearing? Inform me of his crime, and I will beat him bloody. But well I know he has done nothing wrong, for I have kept him in the strictest order all these days. It is only his appearance they object to; and that is God’s affair, not theirs. The Lord repay them!’
‘You say that you have kept him in strict order? Is that necessary?’
‘Of course it is, for the poor man is mad. I thought his madness would amuse them; it is very funny. But Allah knows that there is not a laugh in all their bodies. So I have kept him from approaching them.’
The word ‘majnûn,’ which I have here translated ‘mad,’ has often, as I knew, a complimentary value; and I gathered from Suleymân’s way of speaking that the cook was not a raving maniac, but rather what in English country-places we should call ‘a character.’
I cultivated his acquaintance after that, and was astonished by his powers of story-telling and of mimicry; still more, perhaps, by a curious dry scepticism, expressed facetiously and sometimes with profanity, which was evident in almost everything he said. This it was which chiefly pleased the waiter and the muleteers, who were his usual listeners, since they were together on the road. They would laugh and curse him in religious terms for a blasphemer and a wicked atheist, reproofs which he received as high applause. It was his custom to salute his friends with insults, which they took kindly from him, being what he was. They told me in low tones of awe, yet with a chuckle, that he had even sold his father’s grave in a facetious way. But I could never get them to relate that story clearly.
I could understand then why Suleymân had kept him in strict order on the journey; for my English friends were quite incapable of seeing any fun in such a character. Nor did I ever tell them of the great adventure of that journey, in which their cook was very nearly done to death.
It happened near the village of Mejdel-esh-Shems, down in the valley underneath Mount Hermon. We remained in camp there over Sunday, and on Sunday afternoon my friends were resting in the tent. Suleymân and I had seized that opportunity to go off for a ramble by ourselves, which did us good. We were returning to the camp in time for tea, when a crowd of fellâhîn came hurrying from the direction of our tents, waving their arms and shouting, seeming very angry. Suleymân called out to them to learn the matter.
‘Zandîq!’ (an atheist) they cried. ‘Zandîq! Zandîq!’
‘Where?’ I asked eagerly.
‘There, in yonder tent,’ an old white-bearded man informed me, with wide eyes of horror. He pointed to the canvas windscreen against which our famous cook sat gazing at the kettle he had set to boil for tea. ‘We go to fetch the wherewithal to kill him properly.’
‘Stop!’ said Suleymân peremptorily. ‘You are mistaken. That is our cook – a good, religious man, but mad occasionally.’
‘No, there is no mistake, O lords of honour,’ cried a score of voices; while the old man who had pointed out the cook to me, explained:
‘He said – may God protect us from the blame of it! – He said: “You see that mountain! It is I who made it. Prostrate yourselves before me for I made the world.” We had been standing round him inoffensively, asking him questions, as the custom is, about his parentage, his trade, and so forth. But when we heard that awful blasphemy, we rent our clothes, and ran in haste to fetch our weapons, as thou seest. Delay us not, for he must surely die.’
‘Commit not such a wickedness! The man is mad!’
‘No; he is sane.’
‘Quite mad, I do assure you. Return with us, and I will prove it to your understanding,’ cried Suleymân.
I added my assurance. They came back with us, but murmuring, and in two minds. I could not but admire the simple piety which prompted them at once to kill a man whose speech betrayed him as an atheist. But I was very much afraid of what might happen, and of the sad impression it would make upon my English friends. And everything depended on the cook’s behaviour.
‘I tell you he is mad,’ said Suleymân, advancing towards the fire. ‘It were a sin for you to slay a fellow-creature thus afflicted. Come hither, O Mansûr,’ he cried as to a dog.
The cook rose up and came towards us with a foolish air.
‘Lie down before my horse. I would ride over thee.’
The cook fell prostrate, then turned over on his back. His mouth hug open idiotically; his tongue lolled out.
‘Now rise and kiss my boot.’
The cook obeyed. By that time there were murmurs of compassion from the would-be slayers.
‘Spake I not truly?’ asked Suleymân.
‘Aye, O sun of verity! He is quite mad, the poor one,’ said the old man who had acted spokesman. ‘It were a sin for us to kill him, being in that state. His manner at the first deceived us. Allah heal him! How came the dreadful malady upon him?’
‘It came upon him through the pangs of unrequited love.’
‘Alas, the poor one! Ah, the misery of men! May Allah heal him!’ cried the women, as the group of villagers moved off, contented. Just when the last of them passed out of sight the longest tongue I ever saw in man emerged from the cook’s mouth, and the rascal put his finger to his nose in a derisive gesture. Those portents were succeeded by a realistic cock-crow.
‘What makes the cook like that, devoid of reverence?’ I asked of Suleymân.
‘It is because he was born in Jerusalem,’ was the astonishing reply. ‘He is a Christian, and was born poor; and the quarrels of the missionaries over him, each striving to obtain his patronage for some absurd belief, have made him what he is – a kind of atheist.’
Selîm, the waiter, who was near and overheard this ending, burst out laughing.
‘An atheist!’ he cried. ‘Your Honour understands? It means a man who thinks there is no God. Just like a beetle!’ and he held his quaking sides.
Both he and Suleymân appeared to think that atheism was a subject to make angels laugh. And yet they were as staunch believers as those fellâhîn.