FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND
RAMBLES AMONG THE OASES OF TUNISIA
By Norman Douglas
I. EN ROUTE
II. BY THE OUED BAIESH
III. THE TERMID
IV. STONES OF GAFSA
V. SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG
VI. AMUSEMENTS BY THE WAY
VII. AT THE CAFE
VIII. POST-PRANDIAL MEDITATIONS
IX. SOME OF OUR GUESTS
X. THE OASIS OF LEILA
XI. A HAVEN OF REFUGE
XII. THE MYSTERIOUS COUNT
XIII. TO METLAOUI
XV. THE SELDJA GORGE
XVI. AT THE HEAD OF THE WATERS
XVII. ROMAN OLIVE-CULTURE
XVIII. THE WORK OF PHILIPPE THOMAS
XIX. OVER GUIFLA TO TOZEUR
XX. A WATERY LABYRINTH
XXI. OLD TISOUROS
XXII. THE DISMAL CHOTT
XXIII. THE GARDENS OF NEFTA
XXIV. NEFTA AND ITS FUTURE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
GAFSA AND JEBEL ORBATA
ENTRANCE TO THE TERMID
AT THE TERMID
A STREET IN GAFSA
THE LAST PALMS
CAFE BY THE MULBERRY-TREE
MY FRIEND SILENUS
NATIVES OF GAFSA
THE ROMAN WALL
OLIVES IN THE OASIS
TOZEUR AND ITS OASIS
THE WATERS OF TOZEUR
THE SHRINE ON THE CHOTT
MARABOUT IN THE NEFTA GARDENS
FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND
Likely enough, I would not have remained in Gafsa more than a couple of days. For it was my intention to go from England straight down to the oases of the Djerid, Tozeur and Nefta, a corner of Tunisia left unexplored during my last visit to that country—there, where the inland regions shelve down towards those mysterious depressions, the Chotts, dried-up oceans, they say, where in olden days the fleets of Atlantis rode at anchor....
But there fell into my hands, by the way, a volume that deals exclusively with Gafsa—Pierre Bordereau's "La Capsa ancienne: La Gafsa moderne"—and, glancing over its pages as the train wound southwards along sterile river-beds and across dusty highlands, I became interested in this place of Gafsa, which seems to have had such a long and eventful history. Even before arriving at the spot, I had come to the correct conclusion that it must be worth more than a two days' visit.
The book opens thus: One must reach Gafsa by way of Sfax. Undoubtedly, this was the right thing to do; all my fellow-travellers were agreed upon that point; leaving Sfax by a night train, you arrive at Gafsa in the early hours of the following morning.
One must reach Gafsa by way of Sfax....
But a fine spirit of northern independence prompted me to try an alternative route. The time-table marked a newly opened line of railway which runs directly inland from the port of Sousse; the distance to Gafsa seemed shorter; the country was no doubt new and interesting. There was the station of Feriana, for instance, celebrated for its Roman antiquities and well worth a visit; I looked at the map and saw a broad road connecting this place with Gafsa; visions of an evening ride across the desert arose before my delighted imagination; instead of passing the night in an uncomfortable train, I should be already ensconced at a luxurious table d'hote, and so to bed.
The gods willed otherwise.
In pitch darkness, at the inhuman hour of 5.55 a.m., the train crept out of Sousse: sixteen miles an hour is its prescribed pace. The weather grew sensibly colder as we rose into the uplands, a stricken region, tree-less and water-less, with gaunt brown hills receding into the background; by midday, when Sbeitla was reached, it was blowing a hurricane. I had hoped to wander, for half an hour or so, among the ruins of this old city of Suffetula, but the cold, apart from their distance from the station, rendered this impossible; in order to reach the shed where luncheon was served, we were obliged to crawl backwards, crab-wise, to protect our faces from a storm which raised pebbles, the size of respectable peas, from the ground, and scattered them in a hail about us. I despair of giving any idea of that glacial blast: it was as if one stood, deprived of clothing, of skin and flesh—a jabbering anatomy—upon some drear Caucasian pinnacle. And I thought upon the gentle rains of London, from which I had fled to these sunny regions, I remembered the fogs, moist and warm and caressing: greatly is the English winter maligned! Seeing that this part of Tunisia is covered with the forsaken cities of the Romans who were absurdly sensitive in the matter of heat and cold, one is driven to the conclusion that the climate must indeed have changed since their day.
And my fellow-traveller, who had slept throughout the morning (we were the only two Europeans in the train), told me that this weather was nothing out of the common; that at this season it blew in such fashion for weeks on end; Sbeitla, to be sure, lay at a high point of the line, but the cold was no better at the present terminus, Henchir Souatir, whither he was bound on some business connected with the big phosphate company. On such occasions the natives barricade their doors and cower within over a warming-pan filled with the glowing embers of desert shrubs; as for Europeans—a dog's life, he said; in winter we are shrivelled to mummies, in summer roasted alive.
I spoke of Feriana, and my projected evening ride across a few miles of desert.
"Gafsa ... Gafsa," he began, in dreamy fashion, as though I had proposed a trip to Lake Tchad. And then, emphatically:
"Gafsa? Why on earth didn't you go over Sfax?"
"Ah, everybody has been suggesting that route."
"I can well believe it, Monsieur."
In short, my plan was out of the question; utterly out of the question. The road—a mere track—was over sixty kilometres in length and positively unsafe on a wintry night; besides, the land lay 800 metres in height, and a traveller would be frozen to death. I must go as far as Majen, a few stations beyond Feriana; sleep there in an Arab funduk (caravanserai), and thank my stars if I found any one willing to supply me with a beast for the journey onward next morning. There are practically no tourists along this line, he explained, and consequently no accommodation for them; the towns that one sees so beautifully marked on the map are railway stations—that and nothing more; and as to the broad highways crossing the southern parts of Tunisia in various directions—well, they simply don't exist, voila!
"That's not very consoling," I said, as we took our seats in the compartment again. "It begins well."
And my meditations took on a sombre hue. I thought of a little overland trip I had once undertaken, in India, with the identical object of avoiding a long circuitous railway journey—from Udaipur to Mount Abu. I remembered those "few miles of desert."
Decidedly, things were beginning well.
"If you go to Gafsa," he resumed, "—if you really propose going to Gafsa, pray let me give you a card to a friend of mine, who lives there with his family and may be useful to you. No trouble, I assure you!"
He scribbled a few lines, addressed to "Monsieur Paul Dufresnoy, Engineer," for which I thanked him. "We all know each other in Africa," he said. "It's quite a small place—our Africa, I mean. You could squeeze the whole of it into the Place de la Concorde.... Nothing but minerals hereabouts," he went on. "They talk and dream of them, and sometimes their dreams come true. Did you observe the young proprietor of the restaurant at Sbeitla? Well, a short time ago some Arabs brought him a handful of stones from the mountains; he bought the site for two or three hundred francs, and a company has already offered him eight hundred thousand for the rights of exploitation. Zinc! He is waiting till they offer a million."
A solitary station upon the wintry plain—three or four shivering Arabs swathed in rags—desolation all around—the sun setting in an angry cloud. It was a strong impression; one realized, for the first time, one's distance from the life of civilized man. Night descended with the rush of a storm, and as the friendly train disappeared from my view, I seemed to have taken leave of everything human. This feeling was not lessened by my reception at the funduk, whose native manager sternly refused to give me that separate sleeping-room which, I had been assured, was awaiting me and which, as he truthfully informed me, was even then unoccupied. The prospect of passing the night with a crowd of Arabs was not pleasing.
Amiability being unavailing, I tried bribery, but found him adamantine.
I then produced a letter from the Resident of the Republic in Tunis, recommending me to all the bureaux indigenes of the country, my translation of it being confirmed and even improved upon, at the expense of veracity, by a spahi (native cavalryman) who happened to be present, and threatened the man with the torments of the damned if he failed to comply with the desires of his government.
"The Resident," was the reply, "is plainly a fine fellow. But he is not the ponsechossi."
"Ponsechossi. What's that?"
"THIS," he said, excavating from under a pile of miscellaneous rubbish a paper whereon was displayed the official stamp of the Ponts et Chaussees—the Department of Public Works for whose servants this choice apartment is—or rather ought to be—exclusively reserved: the rule is not always obeyed.
"Bring me THIS"—tapping the document proudly—"and you have the room."
"Could I at least find a horse in the morning—a mule—a donkey—a camel?"
"We shall see!" And he slouched away.
There was nothing to be done with the man. Your incorruptible Oriental is always disagreeable. Fortunately, he is rather uncommon.
But the excellent spahi, whom my letter from head-quarters had considerably impressed, busied himself meanwhile on my behalf, and at seven in the morning a springless, open, two-wheeled Arab cart, drawn by a moth-eaten old mule, was ready for my conveyance to Gafsa. In this instrument of torture were spent the hours from 7.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m., memories of that ride being blurred by the physical discomfort endured. Over a vast plateau framed in distant mountains we were wending in the direction of a low gap which never came nearer; the road itself was full of deep ruts that caused exquisite agony as we jolted into them; the sun—a patch of dazzling light, cold and cheerless. At this hour, I reflected, the train from Sfax would already have set me down at Gafsa.
Save for a few stunted thorns in the moister places, the whole land, so far as the eye could reach, was covered with halfa-grass—leagues upon leagues of this sad grey-green desert reed. We passed a few nomad families whose children were tearing out the wiry stuff—it is never cut in Tunisia—which is then loaded on camels and conveyed to the nearest depot on the railway line, and thence to the seaboard. They were burning it here and there, to keep themselves warm; this is forbidden by law, but then—there is so much of it on these uplands, and the wind is so cold!
The last miles were easier travelling, as we had struck the track from Feriana on our left. Here, at an opening of the arid hills, where the road begins to descend in a broad, straight ribbon, there arose, suddenly, a distant glimpse of the oasis of Gafsa—a harmonious line of dark palm trees, with white houses and minarets in between. A familiar vision, and often described; yet one that never fails of its effect. A man may weary, after a while, of camels and bedouin maidens and all the picturesque paraphernalia of Arab life; or at least they end in becoming so trite that his eyes cease to take note of them; but there are two spectacles, ever new, elemental, that correspond to deeper impulses: this of palms in the waste—the miracle of water; and that of fire—the sun.
A low hill near the entrance of the town (it is marked Meda Hill on the map) had attracted my attention as promising a fine view. Thither, after settling my concerns at the hotel, I swiftly bent my steps; it was too late; the wintry sun had gone to rest. The oasis still lay visible, extended at my feet; on the other side I detected, some three miles away, a white spot—a house, no doubt—standing by a dusky patch of palms that rose solitary out of the stones. Some subsidiary oasis, probably; it looked an interesting place, all alone there, at the foot of those barren hills.
And still I lingered, my only companion being a dirty brown dog, of the jackal type, who walked round me suspiciously and barked, or rather whined, without ceasing. At last I took up a stone, and he ran away. But the stone remained in my hand; I glanced at it, and saw that it was an implement of worked flint. Here was a discovery! Who were these carvers of stones, the aboriginals of Gafsa? How lived they? A prolonged and melodious whistle from the distant railway station served to remind me of the gulf of ages that separates these prehistoric men from the life of our day.
But as if to efface without delay that consoling impression, my downward path led past a dark cavern before which was lighted a fire that threw gleams into its recesses; there was a family crouching around it; they lived in the hollow rock. A high-piled heap of bones near at hand suggested cannibalistic practices.
These, then, are the primitives of Gafsa. And for how long, I wonder, has this convenient shelter been inhabited? From time immemorial, perhaps; ever since the days of those others. And, after all, how little have they changed in the intervening thousands of years! The wild-eyed young wench, with her dishevelled hair, ferocious bangle-ornaments, tattooings, and nondescript blue rags open at the side and revealing charms well fitted to disquiet some robust savage—what has such a creature in common with the rest of us? Not even certain raptures, misdeemed primeval; hardly more than what falls to man and beast alike. On my appearance, she rose up and eyed me unabashed; then sank to the ground again, amid her naked and uncouth cubs; the rock, she said, was warmer than the black tents; they paid no rent; for the rest, her man would return forthwith. And soon there was a clattering of stones, and a herd of goats scrambled up and vanished within the opening.
The partner was neither pleased nor displeased at seeing me there; every day he went to pasture his flock on the slopes of the opposite Jebel Guetter, returning at nightfall; he tried to be civil but failed, for want of vocabulary. I gave him the salutation, and passed on in the gloaming.
BY THE OUED BAIESH
This collecting of flint implements grows upon one at Gafsa; it is in the air. And I find that quite a number of persons have anticipated me in this amusement, and even written tomes upon the subject—it is ever thus, when one thinks to have made a scientific discovery. These stones are scattered all over the plain, and Monsieur Couillault has traced the site of several workshops—ateliers—of prehistoric weapons near Sidi Mansur, which lies within half a mile of Gafsa, whence he has extracted—or rather retrieved, for the flints merely lie upon the ground—quantities of instruments of every shape; among them, some saws and a miniature spade.
My collection of these relics, casually picked up here and there, already numbers two hundred pieces, and illustrates every period of those early ages—uncouth battle-axes and spear-points; fine needles, apparently used for sewing skins together; the so-called laurel-leaves, as thin as card-board; knife-blades; instruments for scraping beast-hides—all of flint. What interests me most, are certain round throwing-stones; a few are flat on both sides, but others, evidently the more popular shape, are flat below and rise to a cone above. Of these latter, I have a series of various sizes; the largest are for men's hands, but there are smaller ones, not more than eleven centimetres round, for the use of children: one thinks of the fierce little hands that wielded them, these many thousand years ago. Even now the natives will throw by preference with a stone of this disk-like shape—the cone pointing downwards. But, judging by the size of their implements, the hands of this prehistoric race can hardly have been as large as those of their modern descendants.
Then, as now, Gafsa must have been an important site; the number of these weapons is astonishing. Vast populations have drifted down the stream of time at this spot, leaving no name or mark behind them, save these relics fashioned, by the merest of chances, out of a practically imperishable material; steel and copper would have rotted away long ago, and the stoutest palaces crumbled to dust under the teeth of the desert air.
The bed of the Oued Baiesh, which flows past Gafsa and is nearly half a mile broad in some places, is rich in these worked flints which have been washed out of its steep banks by the floods. Walking here the other day with a miserable young Arab who, I verily believe, had attached himself to me out of sheer boredom (since he never asked for a sou), I observed, in the distance, a solitary individual, a European, pacing slowly along as though wrapped in meditation; every now and then he bent down to the ground.
"That's a French gentleman from Gafsa. He collects those stones of yours all day long."
Another amateur, I thought.
"But not like yourself," he went on. "He picks them up, bad and good, and when they don't look nice he works at them with iron things; I've seen them! He makes very pretty stones, much prettier than yours. Then he sends them away."
"How do you know this?"
"I've looked in at his window."
A modern "atelier" of flints—this was an amusing revelation. Maybe—who knows?—half the museums of Europe are stocked with these superior products.
Sages will be interested to learn that Professor Koken, of Tuebingen, in a learned pamphlet, lays it down that these flints of Gafsa belong to the Mesvinian, Strepyian, Praechellean—to say nothing of the Mousterian, Aurignacian, Solutrean, Magdalenian, and other types. So be it. He further says, what is more intelligible to the uninitiated, that a bed of hard conglomerate which crops up at Gafsa on either side of the Oued Baiesh, has been raised in days of yore; it was raised so slowly that the river found time to carve itself a bed through it during the process of elevation; nevertheless, a certain class of these artificial implements, embedded since God knows when, already formed part of this natural conglomerate ere it began to uplift itself. This will give some idea of the abysm of time that lies between us and the skin-clad men that lived here in olden days.
An abysm of time...
But I remembered the cave-wench of the Meda Hill. And my companion to-day was of the same grade, a characteristic semi-nomad boy of the poorest class; an orphan, of course (they are nearly all orphans), and quite abandoned. His whole vocabulary could not have exceeded one hundred and fifty words; he had never heard of the Apostle of Allah or his sacred book; he could only run, and throw stones, and endure, like a beast, those ceaseless illnesses of which only death, an early death as a rule, is allowed to cure them. His clothing was an undershirt and the inevitable burnous, brown with dirt.
"What have you done to-day?" I asked him.
"Nothing. Why should I do anything?"
"Don't you ever wash?"
"I have nobody to wash me."
Yet they appreciate the use of unguents. The other day a man accidentally poured a glassful of oil into the dusty street. Within a moment a crowd of boys were gathered around, dabbling their hands into it and then rubbing them on their hair; those that possessed boots began by ornamenting them, and thence conveyed the stuff to their heads—the ground was licked dry in a twinkling; their faces glistened with the greasy mixture. "That's good," they said.
Such, I daresay, were the pastimes of those prehistoric imps of the throwing-disks, and their clothing must have been much the same.
For what is the burnous save a glorified aboriginal beast-skin? It has the same principle of construction; the major part covers the human back and sides; the beast's head forms the hood; where the forefeet meet, the thing is tied together across the breast, leaving a large open slit below, and a smaller one above, where the man's head emerges.
The character of the race is summed up in that hopeless garment, which unfits the wearer for every pleasure and every duty of modern life. An article of everyday clothing which prevents a man from using his upper limbs, which swathes them up, like a silkworm in its cocoon—can anything more insane be imagined? Wrapped therein for nearly all their lives, the whole race grows round-shouldered; the gastric region, which ought to be protected in this climate of extremes, is exposed; the heating of their heads, night and day, with its hood, cannot but injure their brains; their hands become weak as those of women, with claw-like movements of the fingers and an inability to open the palm to the full.
No wonder it takes ten Arabs to fight one negro; no wonder their spiritual life is apathetic, unfruitful, since the digits that explore and design, following up the vagrant fancies of the imagination, are practically atrophied. You will see beggars who find it too troublesome, on cold days, to extricate their hands for the purpose of demanding alms! Man has been described as a tool-making animal, but the burnous effectually counteracts that wholesome tendency; it is a mummifying vesture, a step in the direction of fossilification. Will the natives ever realize that the abolition of this sleeveless and buttonless anachronism is one of the conditions of their betterment? Have they made the burnous, or vice-versa? No matter. They came together somehow, and suited one another.
The burnous is the epitome of Arab inefficiency.
They call it simple, but like other things that go by that name, it defeats it own objects of facilitating the common operations of life. It is amusing to watch them at their laundry-work. Unless a man stand still and upright, the end of this garment is continually slipping down from his shoulders; one of the washerman's hands, therefore, is employed in holding it in its place; the other grasps a stick upon which he leans while stamping a war-dance with his feet upon the linen. This is only half the performance, for a friend, holding up his cloak with one hand, must bend over and ladle the necessary water upon the linen with the other. Thus two men are requisitioned to wash a shirt—a hand of one, two feet of the other. No wonder they do not wash them often; the undertaking, thanks to the burnous, is too complicated.
Yet there is no denying that it adds charm to the landscape; it is highly decorative; its colour and shape and peculiar texture are as pleasing to the beholder as must have been the toga of the old Romans (which, by the way, was a purely ceremonial covering, to be doffed during work: so Cincinnatus, when the senators found him at the plough, went in to dress in his toga ere receiving them).
Stalking along on their thin bare shanks, their glittering eyes and hooked noses shaded within its hood, many adult Arabs assume a strangely bird-like appearance; while the smooth-faced youths, peering from under its coquettish folds, remind one of third-rate actresses out for a spree. In motion, when some half-naked boy sits merrily upon a galloping stallion, his bare limbs and flying burnous take on the passionate grace of a panathenaic frieze; it befits equally well the repose of old age, crouching at some street-corner in hieratic immobility.
Yes, there is no denying that it looks artistic; the burnous is picturesque, like many antediluvian things. And of course, where nothing better can be procured, it will protect you from the cold and the stinging rays of the sun. But if a European wants a chill in the liver or any other portion of the culinary or postprandial department, he need only wear one for a few days on end; raise the hood, and you will have a headache in ten minutes.
Nevertheless I have bought one, and am wearing it at this very moment. But not as the poorer Arabs do. Beneath it there is a suit of ordinary winter clothing, as well as two English ulsters—and this indoors. Perhaps this will give some idea of the cold of Gafsa. There is no heating these bare rooms with their icy walls and floorings: out of doors a blizzard is raging that would flay a rhinoceros. And the wind of Gafsa has this peculiarity, that it is equally bitter from whichever point of the compass it blows. Let those who contemplate the supreme madness of coming to the sunny oasis at the present season of the year (January) bring not only Arctic vestment, eiderdowns, fur cloaks, carpets and foot-warmers, but also, and chiefly, efficient furnaces and fuel for them.
For such things seem to be unknown hereabouts.
The chief attractions of Gafsa, beside the oasis, are the tall minaret with its prospect over the town and plantations, and the Kasbah or fortress, a Byzantine construction covering a large expanse of ground and rebuilt by the French on theatrical lines, with bastions and crenellations and other warlike pomp; thousands of blocks of Roman masonry have been wrought into its old walls, which are now smothered under a modern layer of plaster divided into square fields, to imitate solid stonework. It looks best in the moonlight, when this childish cardboard effect is toned down.
One of the two hot springs of Gafsa is enclosed within this Kasbah, while the other rises near at hand and flows into the celebrated baths—the termid, as the natives, using the old Greek word, still call it. It is a large and deep stone basin, half full of warm water, in which small fishes, snakes and tortoises disport themselves; the massive engirdling walls demonstrate its Roman origin. Thick mists hang over the termid in the early mornings, when the air is chilly, but later on it becomes a lively place, full of laughter and splashings. Here, for a sou, you may get the boys to jump down from the parapet and wallow among the muddy ooze at the bottom; the liquid, though transparent, is not colourless, but rather of the blue-green tint of the aquamarine crystal; it flows rapidly, and all impurities are carried away.
There are always elderly folk idling about these premises, and youngsters with rods tempting the fish out of the water; day after day the game goes on, the foolish creatures nibble at the bait and are drawn up on high; their fellows see the beginning of the tragedy, but never the end, where, floundering in the street, the victims cover their silvery scales with a coating of dust and expire ignominiously, as unlike live fishes as if they came ready cooked out of the kitchen panes et frits.
Above this basin is another one, that of the women; and below it, at the foot of a lurid stairway, a suite of subterranean (Roman) chambers, a kind of Turkish bath for men, where the water hurries darkly through; the place is reeking with a steamy heat, and objectionable beyond words; it would not be easy to describe, in the language of polite society, those features in which it is most repulsive to Europeans.
How easily, as in former days, might now a health-giving wonder be created out of these waters of Gafsa, that well up in a river of warmth and purity, only to be hopelessly contaminated! The French tried the experiment, but the natives objected, and they gave way: these are the spots on the sunny ideal of "pacific penetration." Any other nationality—while allowing the Arabs a fair share of the element—would simply have rebuilt this termid and put it to a decent use, in the name of cleanliness and civilization; the natives acquiescing, as they always do when they recognize their masters. Or, if a display of force was considered inadvisable, why not try the suaviter in modo? Had a couple of local saints been judiciously approached, the population would soon have discovered that the termid waters are injurious to health and only fit for unbelievers. What is the use of a marabout, if he cannot be bribed?
I am all for keeping up local colour, even when it entails, as it generally does, a certain percentage of local smells; yet it seems a pity that such glorious hot springs, a gift of the gods in a climate like this, should be converted into a cloaca maxima, especially in Gafsa, which already boasts of a superfluity of open drains.
But my friend the magistrate showed me a special bathing room which has lately been built for the use of Europeans. We tried the door and found it locked.
Where was the key?
At the Ponts et Chaussees.
Thither I went, and discovered an elderly official of ample proportions dozing in a trim apartment—the chief of the staff. Great was this gentleman's condescension; he bade me be seated, opened his eyes wide, and enquired after my wants.
The key? The key of the piscine? He regretted he could give me no information as to its whereabouts—no information whatever. He had never so much as seen the key in question; perhaps it had been lost, perhaps it never existed. Several tourists, he added, had already come on the same quest as myself; he also, on one occasion last year, thought he would like to take a bath, but—what would you? There was no key! If I liked to bathe, I might go to the tank at the gardens of Sidi Ahmed Zarroung.
I gently insisted, pointing out that I did not care for a walk across the wind-swept desert only to dip myself into a pool of lukewarm and pestilentially sulphureous water. But "the key" was evidently a sore subject.
"There is no key, Monsieur"; and he accompanied the words with a portentous negative nod that blended the resigned solicitude of an old and trusted friend with the firmness of a Bismarck. This closed the discussion; with expressions of undying gratitude, and a few remarks as to the palpable advantages to be derived from keeping a public bathing-room permanently locked, I left him to his well-earned slumbers....
It is hard to understand what the guide-books mean when they call the market of Gafsa "rich and well-appointed": a five-pound note, I calculate, would buy the entire exhibition. The produce, though varied, is wretched; but the scenery fine. Over a dusty level, strewn with wares, you look upon a stretch of waving palms, with the distant summit of Jebel Orbata shining in the deep blue sky. Here are a few butchers and open-air cooks who fry suspicious-looking bundles of animal intestines for the epicurean Arabs; a little saddlery; half a camel-load of corn; a broken cart-wheel and rickety furniture put up to auction; one or two halfa-mats of admirable workmanship; grinding-stones; musty pressed dates, onions, huge but insipid turnips and other green things, red peppers——
Those peppers! An adult Arab will eat two pounds of them a day. I have seen, native women devouring, alternately, a pepper, then a date, then another pepper, then another date, and so on, for half an hour. An infant at the breast, when tired of its natural nourishment, is often given one of these fiery abominations to suck, as an appetizer, or by way of change and amusement. Their corroding juices are responsible for half the stomach troubles of the race; a milk diet would work wonders as a cure, if the people could be induced to do things by halves; but they cannot; it is "all peppers or all milk," and, the new diet disagreeing with them at first, they return to their peppers and a painful disease.
It is this lack of measure and reasonableness among them which accounts for what I believe to be a fact, namely, that there are more reclaimed drunkards among Arabs than among ourselves. They will break off the alcohol habit violently, and for ever. And this they do not out of principle, but from impulse or, as they prefer to call it, inspiration; indeed, they regard our men of fixed principles as weaklings and cowards, who stiffen themselves by artificial rules because they cannot trust their judgments to deal with events as they arise—(the Arab regards terrestrial life as a chain of accidents)—cowards and infidels, trying to forestall by human devices the unascertainable decrees of Allah.
Allah wills it! That is why they patiently bear the extremes of hunger, and why, if fortune smiles, they gorge like Eskimos, like boa-constrictors.
I have seen them so distended with food as to be literally incapable of moving. Only yesterday, there swept past these doors a bright procession, going half-trot to a lively chant of music: the funeral of a woman. I enquired of a passer-by the cause of her death.
"She ate too much, and burst."
During the summer months, in the fruit-growing districts, quite a number of children will "burst" in this fashion every day.
Mektoub! the parents then exclaim. It was written.
And no doubt there is such a thing as a noble resignation; to defy fate, even if one cannot rule it. Many of us northerners would be the better for a little mektoub. But this doctrine of referring everything to the will of Allah takes away all stimulus to independent thought; it makes for apathy, improvidence, and mental fossilification. A creed of everyday use which hampers a man's reasoning in the most ordinary matters of life—is it not like a garment that fetters his hands?
Mektoub is the intellectual burnous of the Arabs....
There is some movement, at least, in this market; often the familiar story-tellers, surrounded by a circle of charmed listeners; sometimes, again, a group of Soudanese from Khordofan or Bournu, who parade a black he-goat, bedizened with gaudy rags because devoted to death; they will slay him in due course at some shrine; but not just now, because there is still money to be made out of his ludicrous appearance, with an incidental dance or song on their own part. Vaguely perturbing, these negro melodies and thrummings; their reiteration of monotony awakens tremulous echoes on the human diaphragm and stirs up hazy, primeval mischiefs.
And this morning there arrived a blind singer, or bard; he was led by two boys, who accompanied his extemporaneous verses—one of them tapping with a pebble on an empty sardine-tin, while the other belaboured a beer-bottle with a rusty nail: both solemn as archangels; there was also a professional accompanist, who screwed his mouth awry and blew sideways into a tall flute, his eyes half-closed in ecstatic rapture. Arab gravity never looks better than during inanely grotesque performances of this kind; in such moments one cannot help loving them, for these are the little episodes that make life endurable.
The music was not altogether original; it reminded me, with its mechanical punctuations, of a concerto by Paderewski which contains an exquisite movement between the piano and kettledrum—since the flute, which ought to have supported the voice, was apparently dumb, although the artist puffed out his cheeks as if his life depended upon it. Only after creeping quite close to the performers could I discern certain wailful breathings; this brave instrument, all splotched with variegated colours, gave forth a succession of anguished and asthmatic whispers, the very phantom of a song, like the wind sighing through the branches of trees.
STONES OF GAFSA
There are interesting walks in the neighbourhood of Gafsa, but I can imagine nothing more curious than the town itself; a place of some five thousand inhabitants, about a thousand of whom are Jews, with a sprinkling of Italian tradespeople and French officials and soldiers. Beyond naming the streets and putting up a few lamps, the Government has left it in its Arab condition; the roadways are unpaved, hardly a single wall is plumb; the houses, mostly one-storied, lean this way and that, and, being built of earthen-tinted sun-dried brick, have an air of crumbling to pieces before one's very eyes. A heavy and continuous shower would be the ruin of Gafsa; the structures would melt away, like that triple wall of defence, erected in medieval times, of which not a vestige remains. Yet the dirt is not as remarkable as in many Eastern places, for every morning a band of minor offenders is marched out of prison by an overseer to sweep the streets. Sometimes an upper room is built to overlook, if possible, the roadway; it is supported on palm-rafters, forming a kind of tunnel underneath. Everywhere are immense blocks of chiselled stone worked into the ephemeral Arab clay as doorsteps or lintels, or lying about at random, or utilized as seats at the house entrance; they date from Roman or earlier times—columns, too, some of them adorned with the lotus-pattern, the majority unpretentious and solid.
What do the natives think of these relics of past civilization? Do they ever wonder whence they came or who made them? "The stones are there," they will tell you. Yet the wiser among them will speak of Ruman; they have heard of Ruman moneys and antiquities.
Arabs have a saying that Gafsa was founded by Nimrod's armour-bearer; but a more reasonable legend, preserved by Orosius and others, attributes its creation to Melkarth, the Libyan and Tyrian Hercules, hero of colonization. He surrounded it with a wall pierced by a hundred gates, whence its presumable name, Hecatompylos, the city of a hundred gates. The Egyptians ruled it; then the Phoenicians, who called it Kafaz—the walled; and after the destruction of Carthage it became the retreat and treasure-house of Numidian kings. Greeks, too, exercised a powerful influence on the place, and all these civilized peoples had prepared Gafsa to appreciate the beneficent rule of the Romans.
Then came Vandals and Byzantines, who gradually grew too weak to resist the floods of plundering Arab nomads; the rich merchants fled, their palaces fell to ruins; the town became a collection of mud huts inhabited by poor cultivators who lived in terror of the neighbouring Hammama tribe of true Arabs, that actually forbade them to walk beyond the limits of the Jebel Assalah—a couple of miles distant. So the French found them in 1881.
There are, however, a few decent houses, two-storied and spacious; in one of them, I am told, lives the family of Monsieur Dufresnoy, to whom my fellow traveller at Sbeitla gave me a card. He is absent at the Metlaoui mines just now, and his wife and children in Paris.
The cleansing of the streets by prisoners does not extend to the native houses and courtyards, which therefore survive in all their original, inconceivable squalor—squalor so uncompromising that it has long ago ceased to be picturesque. What glimpses into humble interiors, when native secretiveness has not raised a rampart of earthen bricks at the inside of the entrance! In the daytime it is like looking into vast, abandoned pigsties, fantastically encumbered with palm-logs, Roman building-blocks and rubbish-heaps which display the accumulated filth of generations—there is hardly a level yard of ground—rags and dust and decay! Here they live, the poorer sort, and no wonder they have as little sense of home as the wild creatures of the waste. But at night, when the most villainous objects take on mysterious shapes and meanings, these courtyards become grand; they assume an air of biblical desolation, as though the curse of Heaven had fallen upon the life they once witnessed; and even as you look into them, something stirs on the ground: it is an Arab, sleeping uneasily in his burnous; he has felt, rather than heard, your presence, and soon he unwinds his limbs and rises out of the dust, like a sheeted ghost.
It is an uncanny gift of these folks to come before you when least expected; to be ever-present, emerging, one might almost say, out of the earth. Go to the wildest corner of this thinly populated land, and you may be sure that there is an Arab, brooding among the rocks or in the sand, within a few yards of you.
The stones are there. This is another feature which they have in common with the beasts of the earth: never to pause before the memorials of their own past. Goethe says that where men are silent, stones will speak. If ever they spoke, it is among these crumbling, composite walls of Gafsa.
A Roman inscription of the age of Hadrian, which now forms the step of an Arab house, will arrest your glance and turn your thoughts awhile in the direction of this dim, romantic figure. How little we really know of the Imperial wanderer, whose journeyings may still be traced by the monuments that sprang up in his footsteps! Never since the world began has there been a traveller in the grandiose style of Hadrian; he perambulated his world like a god, crowned with a halo of benevolence and omnipotence.
And it occurs to me that there must be other relics of antiquity still buried under the soil of Gafsa, which is raised on a mound, like an island, above the surrounding country; particularly in the vicinity of the termid, which we may suppose to have lain near the centre of the old town. And where are the paving-stones? The painstaking John Leo says that the streets of Gafsa are "broad and paved, like those of Naples or Florence." Have they been slowly submerged under the debris of Arabism, or taken up and worked into the masonry of the Kasbah and other buildings? Not one is left: so much is certain.
I borrowed Sallust and tried to press some flavour out of his description of Marius' march to the capture of Gafsa. It was a fine military performance, without a doubt; he led his troops by unsuspected paths across the desert, fell upon the palace, sacked and burnt it, and divided the booty among his soldiers: all this without the loss of a single man. The natives needed a lesson, and they got it; to this day the name of Marius is whispered among the black tents as that of some fabulous hero. But what interests me most is the style of Sallust himself. How ultra-modern this historian reads! His outlook upon life, his choice of words, are the note of tomorrow; and when I compare with him certain writers of the Victorian epoch, I seem to be unrolling a papyrus from Pharaoh's tomb, or spelling out the elucubrations of some maudlin scribe of Prester John.
The stones are there. And the quarries whence the Romans drew them have also been found, by Guerin; they lie in the flanks of the Jebel Assalah, and are well worth a visit; legions of bats—tirlils, the Arabs call them—hang in noisome clusters from the roof.
Concerning these bats, the following story is told in Gafsa.
Not long ago a rich Englishman came here. He used to go out in the evenings and shoot bats; then he put them into bottles with spirits of wine—he was an amateur of bats. On the day of his departure from the place, he said to the polyglot Arab guide whom he had picked up somewhere on his wanderings:
"You will rejoin me in Tunis in ten days. Bring me more bats—tirlils: comprenni?—from this country. I will give you fifty centimes apiece."
"Bon, Monsieur," said the guide, and took counsel with the folks of Gafsa, who, after certain reservations and stipulations, showed him the way into these quarries.
On the day appointed he entered the rich tourist's hotel in Tunis, followed by ten porters, each carrying a large sack.
"Hallo!" said the Englishman, "what's all this?"
"Eh? How much?"
"Bats; tirlils, chauve-souris, pipistrelli... They will need much bottles. Six hundred tirlils in each sack; ten sacks; six thousand tirlils. Much bottles! Three thousand francs, Monsieur. Shall I open him?"
The tourist cast a dismayed glance over the sacks, gently heaving with life.
"Look here," he said, "I'll give you fifty francs...."
The Arab was surprised and grieved. He thought he was giving a pleasure to Monsieur, who had asked for bats. He had been obliged to borrow money from his aged mother to help to pay the nine hundred francs which he had already disbursed for assistance in catching the tirlils; he had risked his life; there were the transport expenses, too: very heavy. He had travelled with many Englishmen and had always found them to be men of honour—men who kept their word. And in this case there were witnesses to the bargain, who would be ready, if necessary, to go into the French tribunals and testify to what they had heard....
"I see. Well, come to-morrow morning, but go away now, quick! before I break your head. Take your damned tirlils to your damned funduk, and be off!—clear out!—comprenni?"
And he looked so very angry that the Arab, a prudent fellow, walked backwards out of the room, more surprised and grieved than ever.
Thanks to the disinterested and strenuous exertions of a Jewish international lawyer, the affair was settled out of court after all—fifteen hundred francs, plus expenses of transport.
SIDI ARMED ZARROUNG
Sidi Ahmed Zarroung—that is the name of the miniature oasis visible from the Meda Hill, at the foot of those barren slopes. It is a pleasant afternoon's walk from Gafsa.
The intervening plain is encrusted with stones—stones great and small. Here and there are holes in the ground, where the natives have unearthed some desert shrub for the sake of its roots which, burnt as fuel, exhale a pungent odour of ammonia that almost suffocates you. Once the water-zone of Gafsa is passed, every trace of cultivation vanishes. And yet, to judge by the number of potsherds lying about, houses must have stood here in days of old. An Arab geographer of the eleventh century says that there are over two hundred flourishing villages in the neighbourhood of Gafsa; and Edrisius, writing a century later, extols its prosperous suburbs, and pleasure-houses.
Where are they now?
One of these villages, surely, must have lain near this fountain of Sidi Ahmed Zarroung, which now irrigates a few palms and vegetables and then loses itself in the sand; a second spring, sulphureous and medicinal, but destructive to plants, rises near at hand. This is the one which the gentleman of the Ponts et Chaussees recommended me for bathing purposes.
But I saw no trace of ancient life here; there is only a muddy pond, full of amorous frogs and tortoises, cold-blooded beasts, but fiery in their passions; and a few Arabs that live in the large white house, or camp on the plain around. They told me that the descendants of the holy man who gave his name to the place are still alive, but they knew nothing of his history beyond this, that he was very pious indeed.
If you do not mind a little scrambling, you can climb from here up to the last spur of the Jebel Guettor which overlooks the plain—it is crowned by a ruined building, once whitewashed, and easily visible from Gafsa. On its slopes I struck a vein of iron, another of those scientific discoveries, no doubt, like the flint implements, in which someone else will have anticipated me. And here I also found iron in a more civilized shape, a fragment of a shell—relic, perhaps, of the first French expedition against Gafsa, or of some more recent artillery practice.
From its summit one sees the configuration of the country as on a map; the high Jebel Orbata, 1170 metres, now covered with snow, coming forward to meet you on the other side of the wide valley. From this point it is easy to realize, as did the commander of that French expedition, the significance of this speck of culture, its strategic value: Gafsa is a veritable key to the Sahara. I daresay the abundant water-supply of the town is due to these two chains of hills which almost touch each other and so force the water to rise from its underground bed.
At this elevation you perceive that Gafsa is truly a hill-oasis, bleak mountains rising up on all sides save the south. There, where the two highest ranges converge from east and west, where the broad waterway of the Oued Baiesh has in olden days, when it wandered with less capricious flow, carved itself a channel through the opening—there, at the very narrowest point—sits the oasis. A tangle of palms that sweep southward in a radiant trail of green, the crenellated walls of the Kasbah gleaming through the interstices of the foliage—the whole vision swathed in an orange-tawny frame of desolation, of things non-human....
I was tempted to think that the sunset view from the Meda eminence was the finest in the immediate neighbourhood of Gafsa. Not so; that from the low hills behind Sidi Mansur, with the stony ridge of Jebel Assalah at your back, surpasses it in some respects. Through a gap you look towards the distant green plantations, with a shimmering level in the foreground; on your other side lies the Oued Baiesh, crossed by the track to Kairouan, where strings of camels are for ever moving to and fro, laden with merchandise from the north or with desert products from the oases of Djerid and Souf. The dry bed of the torrent glows in hues of isabel and cream, while its perpendicular mud-banks, on the further side, gleam like precipices of amber; the soil at your feet is besprinkled with a profusion of fair and fragile flowerlets.
Here stand, like sentinels at the end of all things living, the three or four last, lonely palms—they and their fellows lower down are fed by a silvery streamlet which is forced upwards, I suppose, by contact with Professor Koken's conglomerate; above and below this oasis-region the river-bed is generally dry. It must be a wonderful sight, however, when the place is in flood—a deluge of liquid ooze careering madly southward towards the dismal Chotts amid the crashing of stones and palm trees and the collapse of banks. For the Oued Baiesh can be angry at times; in 1859 it submerged fifty hectares of the Gafsa gardens.
Instead of returning by the main road from Sidi Mansur, one can bend a little to the right and so pass the military hospital, a large establishment which looks as if it could be converted into a barrack in case of need. This is as it should be. Gafsa is a rallying-point, and must be prepared for emergencies. Here, too, lie the cemeteries: the Jewish, fronting the main road, with a decent enclosure; that of the Christians, framed in a wire fence and containing a few wooden crosses, imitation broken columns and tinsel wreaths; Arab tombs, scattered over a large undefined tract of brown earth, and clustering thickly about some white-domed maraboutic monument, whose saintly relics are desirable companionship for the humbler dead.
The bare ground here is littered with pottery and other fragments of ancient life testifying to its former populousness: flint implements, among the rest. Of the interval between the latest of these stone-age primevals and the first Egyptian invasion of Gafsa we know nothing; they, the Egyptians, brought with them that plough which is figured in the hieroglyphics, and has not yet changed its shape. You may see the venerable instrument any day you like, being carried on a man's back to his work in the oasis.
Athwart this region there runs an underground (excavated) stream of water, led from Sidi Mansur to nourish the Gafsa plantations. Through holes in the ground one looks down upon the element flowing mysteriously below; figs and other trees are set in these hollows for the sake of the shade and moisture, and their crowns barely reach the level of the soil. This is no place to wander about at night—a false step in the darkness and a man would break his neck. There was talk, at one time, of leading this brook, which is sweet and non-mineral, into Gafsa for drinking purposes, but the native garden proprietors raised their inevitable howl of objections, and the project was abandoned.
If you ask a local white man as to the misdeeds of his administration, be sure he will mention the affair of the railway station which was built too far from the town, and this of the Sidi Mansur water. And who, you ask, was to blame for these follies? Oh, the controlleur, as usual; always the controlleur! It is no sinecure being an official of this kind in Tunisia, with precise Government instructions in one pocket, and in the other his countrymen's contrary lamentations and suggestions, often reasonable enough....
Loaded down with a choice selection of Sidi Mansur flints, which are singular as having a white patina, I returned to Gafsa in the late afternoon and entered my favourite Arab cafe. Here, at all events, if you do not mind a little native esprit de corps, you will be able to thaw your frozen limbs; all the other rooms of Gafsa, public and private, are like ice-cellars. There are many of these coffeehouses in the town, and this is one of the least fashionable of them. Never a European darkens its door; seldom even a native soldier; it is not good enough for them; they go to finer resorts.
At its entrance there lie, conveniently arranged as seats, some old Roman blocks, overshadowed by a mulberry, now gaunt and bare. It must be delightful, in the spring-time, to sit under its shade and watch the street-life: the operations at the neighbouring dye-shop where gaudy cloths of blue and red are hanging out to dry, or, lower down, the movement at the wood-market—a large tract of "boulevard" encumbered with the impedimenta of nomadism. There is a ceaseless unloading of fuel here; bargains are struck about sheep and goats, the hapless quadruped, that refuses to accompany its new purchaser good-naturedly, being lifted up by the hind legs and made to walk in undignified fashion on the remaining two. Fires gleam brightly, each one surrounded by a knot of camels couched in the dust, their noses converging towards the flame, while old desert hags, bent double with a life of hardship, bustle about the cooking-pots. There are brawls, too—Arabs seizing each other by the throat, raising sticks and uttering wild imprecations....
But within that windowless chamber, all is peace. Eternal twilight reigns, and your eyes must become accustomed to the gloom ere you can perceive the cobwebby ceiling of palm-rafters, smoke-begrimed and upheld by two stone columns that glisten with the dirt of ages. Here is the hearth, overhung by a few ancient pots, where the server, his head enveloped in a greasy towel, officiates like some high priest at the altar. You may have milk, or the mixture known as coffee, or tea flavoured in Moroccan style with mint, or with cinnamon, or pepper. The water-vessels stew everlastingly upon a slow fire fed with the residue of pressed olives. Or, if too poor, you may take a drink of water out of the large clay tub that stands by the door. Often a beggar will step within for that purpose, and then the chubby serving-lad gives a scowl of displeasure and makes pretence to take away the cup; but the mendicant will not be gainsaid—water is the gift of Allah! And, if so please you, you may drink nothing at all, but simply converse with your neighbour, or sit still and dream away the days, the weeks, the year, sleeping by night upon the floor.
A few of the customers are playing at cards or sedately chatting; others begin to prepare their favourite smoke of hashish. A board is called for and the hashish-powder spread out upon it. The operator chops it into still finer particles by means of a semicircular blade, deftly blowing away the dust—this brings out its strength. He is in no hurry; it is a ceremony rather than a task. Slowly he separates the coarser from the finer grains, his fingers moving with loving deliberation over the smooth board. Then the cutting process is repeated once more, and yet again. Maybe he will now add a little of the Soufi stuff, to improve the taste.
At last all is ready, and small pipes are extracted from the folds of the burnous and filled with half a thimbleful of the precious mixture. Two or three whiffs, deeply inhaled, stream out at mouth and nostrils; then the pipe is swiftly passed on to a friend, who drains the last drop of smoke and knocks out the ashes. Not a word is spoken.
Hand him your pipe, if you are wise, and let him fill it for you. This kif, they say, affects people differently; but I think that, as a general effect, you will discover a genial warmth stealing through your limbs, while the things of this world begin to reveal themselves in a more spiritual perspective.
I thought of the sunset this afternoon, as viewed from Sidi Mansur. They are fine, these moments of conflagration, of mineral incandescence, when the sober limestone rocks take on the tints of molten copper, their convulsed strata standing out like the ribs of some agonized Prometheus, while the plain, where every little stone casts an inordinate shadow behind it, clothes itself in demure shades of pearl. Fine, and all too brief. For even before the descending sun has touched the rim of the world the colours fade away; only overhead the play of blues and greens continues—freezing, at last, to pale indigo. Fine, but somewhat trite; a well-worn subject, these Oriental sunsets. Yet the man who can revel in such displays with a whole heart is to be envied of a talisman against many ills. I can conceive the subtlest and profoundest sage desiring nothing better than to retain, ever undiminished, a childlike capacity for these simple pleasures....
A spirit of immemorial eld pervades this tavern. Silently the shrouded figures come and go. They have lighted the lamp yonder, and it glimmers through the haze like some distant star.
And I remembered London at this sunset hour, a medley of tender grey-in-grey, save where a glory of many-coloured light hovers about some street-lantern, or where a carriage, splashing through the river of mud, leaves a momentary track of silver in its rear. There are the nights, of course, with their bustle and flare, but nights in a city are apt to grow wearisome; they fall into two or three categories, whose novelty soon wears off. How different from the starlit ones of the south, each with its peculiar moods and aspirations!
Yet the Thames—odd how one's kif-reveries always lead to running water—the Thames, I know, will atone for much. It is even more impressive at this season than in its summer clarity, and as I walk, in imagination, along that rolling flood flecked with patches of unwholesome iridescence and crossed by steamers and barges that steer in ghostly fashion about the dusky waters, I marvel that so few of our poets have responded to its beauty and signification. They find it easier, doubtless, to warble a spring song or two. The fierce pulsations of industry, the shiftings of gold that make and mar human happiness—these are themes reserved for the bard of the future who shall strike, bravely, a new chord, extracting from the sombre facts of city life a throbbing, many-tinted romance, even as out of that foul coal-tar some, who know the secret, craftily distil most delicate perfumes and colours exquisite. The bard of the future ... h'm! Will he ever appear? As an atavism, perhaps. Take away from modern poetry what appeals to primitive man—the jingle and pathetic fallacy—and the residue, if any, would be better expressed in prose.
My neighbour, a sensible person, has ceased to take interest in the proceedings. Perched upright at first, his head drooping within the folds of his cloak, he has slowly succumbed; he has kicked off his sandals, stretched himself out, and now slumbers. I, too, am beginning to feel weary, and no wonder....
Primitive man with those flints of his, that weigh me down at this moment. This stone-collecting, par exemple! I wonder what induced me to take up such a hobby. The German Professor, as usual. Ah, Mr. Koken, Mr. Koken—those light words of yours have borne a heavy fruit. I possess four hundred implements now, and they will double the weight of my luggage and ruin my starched shirts, especially those formidable "praechellean" skull-cleavers. And I know exactly what the customs officer at Marseilles will say, when he peeps into my bag:
"Tiens, des cailloux! Monsieur est botaniste?"
And then a crowd of people will assemble, to whom I must explain everything, with the result of being arrested for smuggling forbidden mining samples out of a colony and ending my days in some insanitary French prison.
AMUSEMENTS BY THE WAY
Meanwhile, to satiate myself with Gafsa impressions, I linger by the margin of the pool that lies below the fortress. Hither the camels are driven to slake their thirst, arriving sometimes in such crowds as almost to fill up the place. Donkeys and horses are scoured by half-naked lads; in the clearer parts, a number of tattooed Bedouin girls are everlastingly washing their household stuffs. Only on rare occasions is the liquid undisturbed, and then it shines with the steely-blue transparency of those diamonds that are a class by themselves, superior to "first-water" stones. At the slightest agitation all the accumulated ooze and filth of generations—rags and decomposing frogs and things unmentionable—rise to the surface in turbid clouds. The element wells out hot, from under the neighbouring Kasbah, with a pestiferous mineral aroma.
Hither comes, at fixed intervals, my friend Silenus, the water-carrier, on his philosophic donkey; nearly all Gafsa draws its supply of cooking and drinking water from this fetid and malodorous mere.
A fine example of French inefficiency, this "abreuvoir." Two hundred francs would suffice to tap the liquid a few yards higher up, by means of a common cast-iron pipe, whence it would rush out, pure and undefiled, to fill in a few moments those multitudinous water-skins that are now laboriously furnished, by hand, out of the often tainted pool below.
And of native inefficiency, likewise. Day after day, age after age, have these women done their laundry-work at this spot, and yet their clothing, for purposes of the work, is more hopelessly inadequate than the burnous of the males. They will arrive wrapped up in twenty rags that are always falling off their backs and shoulders (they possess no baskets). One by one these articles are removed, soaped with one little hand, stamped upon by two little feet, and laid aside. Nothing remains, at last, but a single covering garment—a loose chemise full of artistic possibilities for the onlookers. It gives the poor girls endless trouble, for it is continually slipping off their bodies on one side or the other, and one hand is engaged, all the time, in counteracting these mischievous movements. Standing as they do up to their knees in the water, it is tucked up high and of course tumbles down again every minute. At the end of their washing they are as wet as drenched poodles.
No harm in this, in summer-time; but with the thermometer below freezing-point they would suffer considerably were they not inured, like to other creatures of the desert, to every kind of discomfort.
The chief mental exercise of the Arab, they say, consists in thinking how to reduce his work to a minimum. Now this being precisely my own ideal of life, and a most rational one, I would prefer to put it thus: that of many kinds of simplification they practise only one—omission, which does not always pay. They are imaginative, but incredibly uninventive. How different from the wily Hindu or Chinaman, with his almost preternatural sagacity in small practical matters! Scorn of theories is one of their chief race-characteristics, and that is why they end in becoming stoics—stoics, that is, as the beasts are, who suffer without knowing why.
There was one of these girls in particular whom I noticed every day, and whom, at last, I compassionately supplied with a couple of safety-pins, after explaining their uses. She was decidedly ugly. But sometimes you may see others here, with neatly chiselled limbs and elfish eyes of a sultry, troubling charm into which, if sentimentally disposed, you can read an ocean of love; these need not be supplied with safety-pins. An enthusiastic Frenchman at Gabes actually married one of these sphynx-like creatures—a hazardous and quixotic experiment. As brides for a lifetime (slaves) they cost from a hundred to six hundred francs apiece, and even more; and you will do well to abonner yourself with the family beforehand, in order to be sure of obtaining a sound article, as with the Tartar girls in Russian Asia and elsewhere. As a general rule, those of the semi-nomads—the Gourbi people—cost more than those of the true wanderers. The price varies according to the season and a thousand other contingencies; it rises, inevitably, in the neighbourhood of settled places, where employment of one kind (olive-picking, etc.) or another—chiefly of another—can be found for them.
One of the prettiest I ever saw was offered me for three hundred francs. It was an uncommon bargain, due to a drought and certain family mishaps. These little wildlings are troublesome to carry about. They are less nimble and amiable than the boys, and often require more beating than a European has time to give them. You can always sell them again, of course; and sometimes (into the towns) at a good profit.
The Arab woman is the repository of all the accumulated nonsense of the race, and her influence upon the young brood is retrogressive and malign. It matters little what happens in the desert where men and women are necessarily animals, but it does among the middle and upper native classes of the larger places. Here the French have established their so-called Arab-French schools, excellent institutions which are largely attended, and would produce far better results but for the halo of sanctity with which boys in every country—but particularly in half-civilized ones—are apt to invest the most flagrantly empty-headed of mothers. In Tunisia, as soon as the youngsters return home, these women quickly undo all the good work, by teaching them that what they have learnt at school is dangerous untruth, and that the Koran and native mode of life are the only sources of happiness. Then, to keep the son at home, the mother will hasten to catch a bride for him who shall be, if possible, more incompetent than herself, in order that she, the mother, may retain her ascendency over him. The father, meanwhile, shrugs his shoulders: Mektoub! There is no fighting against such heroic perseverance on a woman's part; besides, was he not brought up on the same lines?
The mischief is done, for Arabs relapse easily; even native officers, who have served for years in the French army, will, on returning home, don the burnous, sit at street corners, and become more arabized than ever. So it comes about that, if the eyes of the former generation were entirely averse from French rule, the present one is Janus-faced—looking both ways. Some day, presumably, there will be a further adaptation, and their eyes, like those of certain flat-fish, will wander round and settle down definitely on the right side....
This is a favourite month for native weddings. There was one going on last night. I looked into the courtyard of a ruinous building which was crammed with spectators. The Aissouyiahs were performing, in honour of the occasion.
These are the dervish fanatics whom everyone knows. They eat scorpions, glass, nails, and burning coals; they cut themselves with knives and other instruments—impostors, for the most part.
It is mere child's play to what you can see further East.
Yet, with the starry night overhead, and the flare of torches lighting up a seething mass of faces below, of bronzed limbs and bright-tinted rags dangling at every altitude from the palm rafters and decayed stairway, the scene was more weirdly fascinating than as one generally sees it—in mosques or in the open daylight. There were wild strains of music and song; a wave of disquietude, clearly, was passing over the beholders. These performances, at such a time, may originally have taken place for purposes of nuptial excitement or stimulation; but it requires rather an exotic mentality to be stimulated, otherwise than unpleasantly, by the spectacle of little boys writhing on the ground in simulated agony with a long iron skewer thrust through their cheeks. They catch them young; and these scholars, or aspirants, are indubitably frauds and often worse than frauds. Mixed with them are a certain proportion of unbalanced, half-crazy individuals, who really work themselves into a frenzy and give the semblance of veracity to the entertainment. A judge of native physiognomy can generally tell the two types apart. There are also a few sensible men—butchers, porters, and the like—who do not mind a little pain for the sake of the profit.
For the rest, the ceaseless mandarin-like head-wagglings and mutterings of the names of Allah would stupefy anyone's brain up to a point. It is not only Arabs who daze their understandings with godly ejaculations, oft repeated. The marabout leader, who is a kind of maitre de ballet, enfolds each performer in his arms and makes a few passes round him, or kisses him. The uninitiated then reel off in a trance of hypnotic joy; the others do the same, in more theatrical fashion. At the end of each one's trick he de-mesmerizes him once more, and perhaps touches the wound with his hands. He passes the skewer or sword between his lips as a disinfectant—a wise precaution.
These lacerations heal quickly. I have spoken to men labouring in the fields on the day following such excesses, and found them ready to "work" again the same evening.
It ended up with a beast-dance—two fine negroes, all but naked, depicting the amorous rages of panthers or some other cat-like feral. This was really good, of its kind; and if, as regards the earlier part of the programme, it was still difficult to tell where religion ended and sensuality began (it sometimes is), there was no doubt about the last item, which was purely sadistic. Soon there issued the familiar trillings from the balcony, and the firing-off of guns, to announce that the drama was terminated.
It is we shrinkingly aesthetic creatures who conjure up by a mere effort of the imagination what these blunt folks cannot conceive without gross visual stimulants. That is because they have not enjoyed our advantages; they are not civilized. Among other things, they have not gone through a "reformation." Take a northern stock, sound in mind and body; infuse into it a perverse disrespect for the human frame and other anti-rational whimsies; muddle the whole, once more, by a condiment of Hellenistic renaissance and add, as crowning flavour, puritan "conscience" and "sinfulness"—mix up, in a general way, good nourishment with ascetic principles—and you will attain to a capacity of luxuriance in certain matters that may well be the envy and despair of poor primitives like the Arabs.
Extremes meet. Performances such as these are beyond good and evil. They are for the wholly savage or the wholly civilized. We complain considerably just now of the swamping of class distinctions in our lands, but a man of culture has a prerogative to which the biliously moral middle classes can never aspire: to be an Arab, when it suits him.
AT THE CAFE
Whether it be due to the incessant cold and dry winds, that parch the more genial humours, or to some other cause, there is certainly a tone of exacerbation, at this moment, among the European residents at Gafsa. I noticed it very clearly yesterday evening in the little French cafe—a soul-withering resort, furnished with a few cast-iron tables and uncomfortable chairs that repose on a flooring of chill cement tiles—where, in sheer desperation, two or three of us, muffled up to our ears, congregate before dinner to exchange gossip and imbibe the pre-prandial absinthe.
I announced my intention of leaving shortly for Tozeur.
"So you have not yet taken your fill of dirt and discomfort in Tunisia, Monsieur?" asked one of the clients. He is a wizened old nondescript with satyr-like beard, a kind of Thersites, who is understood to have established, from the days of Abdelkader and "for certain reasons," his headquarters at Gafsa, where he sips absinthes past all computation, exercising his wit upon everybody and everything with a fluent and rather diverting pessimism. "You will probably perish on the road to Tozeur, in a sandstorm."
"Ah, those sandstorms: they interest me. Have you ever been to Tozeur?"
"God forbid! Gafsa is quite bad enough for me. Or you may be strangled by the Arabs; such things occur every day. You smile? Read the papers! At some places, like Sfax, there are regular organized bands of assassins, the police being doubtless in their pay. Be sure to hold your revolver in readiness—better carry it in your jacket pocket, like this.... No revolver! (To the company at large) He has no revolver! In that case, don't dream of going out after sunset, here or anywhere else in this country. And read the papers."
It was always "read the papers."
I mentioned that I had walked home, at midnight on the previous evening, from the station.
"Then don't do it again, if you value your life. Not long ago a lieutenant was attacked on that very road, and almost beaten to death. He managed to crawl back to barracks, and is now a wreck, incapacitated from further service. By a miracle he was able to identify one of his assailants. They gave him—what do you think?—two years' imprisonment! Why not the Legion d'Honneur while we are about it? Then there was the Italian—a respectable Italian, for a wonder—who went out for a walk and was never heard of again. The country was scoured for two months, but not so much as a button was ever found—not a button! They had buried his body in the sand. That's their usual system, cheap and effective. And the guide-books say that Tunisia is as safe as the heart of France—ha, ha, ha! I wonder how much they are paid for making that statement, and who pays it?"
"The hotel proprietors, with an occasional subsidy from the Government." This from a bloodthirsty young extremist in gaiters and riding-breeches, who had once been a colon, a farmer, but had given it up in disgust. "We cherish these savages," he went on, "as if they were our uncles and aunts; everywhere, that is, save in those districts which are still under military rule. There you should see the natives stand up and salute you! I am anti-military myself; but I maintain that this salute should be kept up, as demonstrating the gulf that exists between ourselves and them. But the moment you leave that zone the gulf is systematically bridged over, to make it more pleasant for the poor, misused Arab. Let me tell you what I think. I think that the Sicilians would have managed things better than we have done. And I also think that our controlleurs, they are not Frenchmen, but Arabs."
"Voyons, voyons!" said a clear voice from another table—a new-comer, apparently. "These are the criticisms to which we are exposed, because we introduce an enlightened and progressive policy."
"Progressive policy be damned! We have held Gafsa for the last thirty years, and what have we done to improve the place? Nothing."
"Pardon me! We have planted twenty-seven pepper trees. Tunisia exists for needy people in search of work. If you can't make it pay, leave it alone. You have every facility for buying land, for importing this and that—why don't you settle down and make yourselves at home? A colony, my friend, is not an orchid."
"And as for those Sicilians," interposed the faun-like wooer of the Green Fairy, "I think you're all wrong. I admit that they are more flexible than we are, if you like to put it that way. They will do things that no Frenchman can do; they will establish themselves in places where no Frenchman could live; they will eat things which no Frenchman could swallow; they will oust the very Arabs out of the country in course of time, by sheer number of progeny and animal vitality. Oh, yes; it's clear the Sicilians can lower their standard to any extent. But they can never raise it. They are the cancer of Tunisia. Wherever they go, they bring their filth, their mafia, roguery and corruption. Every Sicilian is a potential Arab, the difference between them being merely external; the true African variety wears less clothes and keeps his house cleaner. I know them! A race of sinister buffoons and cut-throats, incapable of any ennobling thought, whose highest virtues are other men's vices, whose only method of reasoning is the knife.... Don't accuse me, Messieurs, of prejudice, when I am trying to state the case impartially."
You will often hear it put as baldly as that. The alien inhabitants of Tunisia are well hated by a certain type of Frenchmen. The country has been compared to a wine-bottle that bears some high-flown label indicative of fine stuff within—the French administration—but is filled, unfortunately, with a poisonous mixture from round the corner, the Jews, Sicilians, Maltese, and Corsicans.
It is as difficult for a tourist to arrive at a just opinion on this subject as for the average Frenchman. The traveller will not find it easy to acquire the necessary first-hand data, while the other is warped by his congenital xenophobia.
In 1900 there were 80,000 Italians, mostly Sicilians, in the Regency, as opposed to 20,000 Frenchmen, one-half of whom were Government servants. This great predominance of a foreign stock scared some good folks, and a "Comite du peuplement francais" was organized, to study ways and means of populating Tunisia with French citizens.
If Sicilians could obtain grants of land under the same conditions as Frenchmen, large tracts, now waste, would be converted into gardens, to the profit of the exchequer. Is it worth while? No, thinks the Government; and with reason. French rule in Northern Africa is a politico-moral experiment on a large scale, with what might be called an idealistic background, such as only a civilized nation can conceive. Italians might improve the land, but they could never improve the Arab; they are themselves not sufficiently wise, or even well-intentioned.
The Anti-Semitic agitation has died a natural death: you may curse the Jews, but you cannot crush them. They make good citizens, and are for ever trying to gain more political influence, which is surely to their credit, though it annoys a certain class in Tunis. As intermediaries between the Arab and the white man they are invaluable, their plasticity allowing them to ascend or descend in either direction, while their broad and active tolerance, fruit of bitter experience in the past, has honeycombed the land with freemasonry and scientific charity and liberalism. So far as I can see, their dirt does not detract from their astuteness—perhaps it aids it, by removing one source of mental preoccupation, cleanliness. The old distinction between Livornese and Tunisian Jews is slowly becoming effaced.
If there is one class of these immigrants whom the ordinary French employe hates more than another it is his own countrymen, the Corsicans. They have the gift of climbing into small but lucrative posts of administration, and there, once established, they sit fast like limpets, to the dismay of competing French office-seekers. Eject them? You might as well propose to uproot Atlas or Ararat. Not only can they never be displaced, but from year to year, by every art, good or evil, they consolidate their position. That done, they begin to send for their relations. One by one new Corsicans arrive from over the sea, each forming a centre in his turn, where he sits tight, with a pertinacious solidarity that borders on the superhuman.
Cave-hunting savages at heart, and enemy to every man save their own blood relations, the Corsicans are the nightmare of the Arabs on account of their irreclaimable avarice and brutality. They would flay the native alive, if they dared, and sell his skin for boot-leather. They can play at being plus arabes que les arabes, and then, if the game goes against them, they invoke their rights of French citizenship in the grand manner. The Frenchman knows it all; he regrets that such creatures should be his own compatriots—regrets, maybe, that he is not possessed of the same primordial pushfulness and insensibility; and shrugs his shoulders in civilized despair.
As for the Maltese, they would be all very well if—if they were not British subjects. But such being the case, you never know! It is disheartening to find such babble in the mouth of respectable officials and writers.
I am well aware that there is a Sicilian in fabula who is not "mafioso"; that the crude banditism which sits in every Corsican's bones has raised him to the elysium of martyrs and heroes and not, where he ought to have gone, to the gallows; that the Maltese are not merely cantankerous and bigoted (Catholic) Arabs, but also sober, industrious, and economical. I have lived with all these races in their own countries and—apart from a fatal monkey-like apprehensibility which passes for intelligence but, as a matter of fact, precludes it—have found chiefly this to admire in them, that they are prolific and kind to their offspring.
Small praise? Not altogether. The same may apply to cats and dogs, but it does not always apply to civilized races of men. The Scotchman, for instance, can produce children, but is often unkind to them (Read the papers!); the Frenchman is kind to children, but often cannot produce them. It would seem that chiefly in half-cultured people are these two qualities, twin roots of racial and domestic virtues, to be met with side by side.
Whatever may be the cause of it—better food, a different legislation or climate, or contact with other nations—the suggestive fact remains, that the more objectionable idiosyncrasies of the Maltese, Corsicans and Sicilians become diluted on African soil. Can it be the mere change from an island to a continent? There may be some truth in Bourget's "oppression des iles." Insulani semper mali, says an old Latin proverb....
"Do you know," the gaitered young ex-farmer was saying—"do you know how many French colons there are in the whole regency? Eight or nine hundred, drowned in an ocean of Arabs, who own the land. And that's what we call settling a country. The Americans knew better when they cleared out the redskins! And how do the English manage in India? Why, they shoot them—piff-paff: it's done! That's the way to colonize (looking approvingly at me)—supprimez l'indigene! A nation cannot condescend to the idealistic ravings of an individual."
I observed that I had never heard of that method being actually adopted in India.
"You say that, Monsieur, because you fear it sounds a little drastic. But we are not in Paris or London just now; we can say what we think. Or better still" (glowing with enthusiasm), "they tie them to the mouth of a big gun, and then—Boum ... houpla!! Biftek a la tartare."
"You are misinformed, my friend," said the voice from the other table. "That Indian cannon business was merely an administrative experiment."
I looked at the speaker, who was smiling mirthfully to himself. He was a fair-complexioned man of about forty-five, rather carefully dressed, blue-eyed, with a short, well-groomed beard—evidently an old acquaintance of the company.
"It's all right for you," the other retorted, "with your comfortable offices and your fat, ever-increasing salaries. You are not a harassed agriculturist, skulking in fear of his life, or a public servant, starving on four francs a day. Behold!" he went on, extracting a newspaper out of his pocket, "behold the latest portrait of yourself and your colleagues—you have an air of revolting prosperity. And your whole biography, too, in black and white; your wife, your children, your past career ... what it is to be a capitalist!"
"Tiens! I never saw this. And printed in Paris a fortnight ago! But it may be lying somewhere about the house. I only returned at midday, you know. Not exactly a flattering likeness...."
The document was handed round. It was a French journal devoted to mining interests, and contained a long article dealing with the phosphate industry of Metlaoui, near Gafsa, with views of the works and portraits of its principal representatives. Beneath that of the speaker were printed the words—
"PAUL DUFRESNOY, Ingenieur civil des mines,"
and some other titles.
An odd coincidence, this meeting, on the eve of my departure.
I passed over to his table and mentioned that I possessed an introductory letter to him.
"How? And you are leaving to-morrow for the Djerid? You are not coming to see me?"
I replied that I would gladly give myself that pleasure. His family, he explained, was away just now, but if I could arrange to delay my departure for a little while he would accompany me as far as Metlaoui, which lies on the Tozeur route, and show me over the mines. He was to return to his work there in a week or so. The proposal was too tempting to be refused.