Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Modern pilgrims

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As I lately travelled about six hundred miles with several hundred Arab pilgrims on their way to Meccah, some account of the journey may prove interesting. I had no intention to become a Hadjee, nor did I ever dream of pretending to be a Mussulman, even for the satisfaction of going through the excitement necessary to surmount the dangers which I had always understood to be inseparable from such a pilgrimage. My impressions of fanatical Arabs on the march were clearly defined; the weather should be terribly hot, the journey should be over a sandy desert, the people should be half-starved, and all must be armed to the teeth, and the route should be marked by successive skeletons. Years ago I had crossed the desert from the Nile to the Red Sea, and therefore I had a feeling of respect for Arabs in general, especially when they were well armed; but now any poetical notions I might have entertained on these subjects were doomed to be rudely thrust aside, for every man was at once disarmed, searched, and numbered—no one being permitted to carry even a pilgrim’s staff. Instead of the Christians putting on disguises, and hiding themselves from fear of Mussulman fanaticism, they were the conductors of the enterprise, and pushed and cuffed the pilgrims into their places. Steam has much to answer for, if by its influence many more devout Hadjees can pay their devotions to the shrine of the prophet, and return absolved of all their sins, and be fit aspirants for the seventh heaven; and the fact is, the pilgrims were making a pilgrimage by steam!

After passing some time very pleasantly at Algiers (a most delightful winter climate, with good hotels, church, pleasant society, opera, carriages innumerable, and nothing at all expensive—only four days from London!), I had determined to go to Tunis; but the difficulty was how to get there, for in spring there were no steamers excepting French government mail-boats carrying no passengers. A land journey was not considered safe without an escort: in fact, it was a very dog-in-the-manger sort of business, for by the only route which was safe—that is in company with the officers and crew of the mail steamers—no one was allowed to take you, and if you wished to go by land no one was allowed to go with you. By the kind interest of a friend in high authority, our party was at last promised a passage by sea as guests of the officers. But circumstances prevented us making this agreeable journey; for one fine day I saw a large English steamer approach the harbour; she did not at once enter; there was something suspicious about her, as she had the quarantine flag flying to prevent people boarding her. At last down came the yellow flag, and she entered port. I boarded her, and found she was going to Tunis. Just the very thing I wanted—fine roomy cabins, a pleasant captain, and start next day; the only objectionable point was this—she was engaged to carry a whole deck load of pilgrims who were going to Meccah viâ Tunis, Malta, and Alexandria. We were strongly recommended by some friends to avoid such fellow-passengers; but others, who seemed to know the Arabs best, told us there was no danger. The sprightly little captain promised that not a single Arab should be permitted to enter our cabin, and we were to have the whole quarters to ourselves and a clear deck kept on the poop. So we took passage to Tunis on these conditions. I soon found out that there was quite a rivalry among some of the steam-ship owners to get these pilgrims, and our captain did not get, at Algiers, as many as he expected. A French steamer had engaged a great many, and intended not to take them to Alexandria, as it would be out of her usual voyage. She was to give them the benefit of a trip to Marseilles, transferring them there to another vessel, which plied between that city and Alexandria. As the Arabs provided themselves with their own food and water, this little extra journey was no additional expense to the steamers, and merely served to show how completely the Mussulmen are at the mercy of the Christians, and how the Christians vie with each other in enabling the devout followers of the prophet to carry out one of the principal forms of the Mahomedan religion.

I had noticed the Arabs gathering on the quays, and submitting meekly to the rough examination of their baggage by the customs’ officers. Their quietness surprised me almost as much as their apparent poverty. They were all ill-clad, and most of them had the hard, half-starved look which is almost a type of the child of the desert. How they could afford to go by steam to Meccah I could not at first make out; but afterwards I found that the expense was very small, and the steam journey had one advantage: it could be accomplished, going and returning, in a few months, with no very great loss of life, whereas the land journey was full of dangers and hardships, took more than a year to carry out (from Algiers), and the mortality used to be frightful. There was some honour in being a Hadjee in the old days, but now taking a pilgrimage by steam reminds one of the story of the pilgrim who boiled the peas he had to put in his shoes.

But, after all, this pilgrimage was not such an easy affair for the Arabs; for even setting aside all feelings of insulted dignity at being ordered and cuffed about by the rough giaours of sailors, they had to suffer many great inconveniences, especially as it was at the period of Ramadan, when they must not taste anything till after sunset, no matter how ill they were. One man almost died from exhaustion; and, eventually, when we had a violent storm to contend with, it was quite a wonder we were not all drowned—indeed I believe some of the Arabs were lost; the sea made clean sweeps over the forecastle, and dashed in floods about the deck, carrying all before it. With the Arabs, however, this was all kismut; they were tossed to and fro, and appeared to be perfectly helpless. Our crew worked all night lashing spars about the deck to make, as it were, folds or sheep-pens to prevent the whole mass of pilgrims being sent violently from one end to the other. Their baggage was all destroyed, and as they sat here and there, perched on the top of it, they looked like misery crowned with resignation. The good steamer could scarcely make a knot an hour headway; the sea came in short, heavy rolls, making her labour tremendously. We were full to the hatches with cargo, and had 700 passengers on deck. I remember looking upon the whole affair in a business point of view, and thought that we should have been a bad risk for any underwriter, even at over 50 per cent. premium. The Arabs were certainly quite out of their element, and probably thought that that night was worse than months of toil over the sandy deserts.

In the fine weather, however, we had great amusement in watching the manners of our fellow-passengers. Those from Algiers were under command of five sheiks, two of whom took the most active part. One was a fine-looking, though rather delicate young man; the other was a venerable, good-humoured old fellow, with a long white beard and a striking expression, decidedly more advanced in civilisation than the others. Yet he often looked puzzled about some things; especially on one hazy evening. Our little captain was a wag, and that night the old chief came up to get particulars about sunset, and the exact direction of Meccah. The captain put him right as to the hour, but pointed exactly in the wrong direction for the chief and his followers to bow when praying towards the holy city of Mahommed: but before it went too far, we got this also set right. The old man, however, seemed to put less faith in the captain, though he had a profound respect for him on one account—namely, as a sort of magician: for one day the captain took a small instrument to the division where the sheiks were, and placing two tubes in the old sheik’s hands, began at once to electrify him so hard that the old man could not leave go. He was very much astonished, but persuaded a young servant to try, who got a desperate shaking before he was let off. All was done in very good humour, and it was really wonderful how well everything went off, for no one of the steamer’s crew could speak Arabic, and none of the Arabs could speak English. We found out two who knew something of French, so that I could manage to do a little as interpreter, and facilitate arrangements.

It was wonderful to see the patience of the poor fellows, rigidly keeping from food all day, till about four or five o’clock, when they began to cook simple messes of lentils, grain or fruit (without meat), and did not offer to taste a morsel till after sunset prayers. At sunset, the old chief called them all to prayer, and it was really a fine sight to see how earnest they were; they set a strong example to some Christian congregations.

A few of the men had a curious custom, from the practice of which they must have suffered great pain. From a small metal box they took an iron pin, covered with a dark powder; this they scraped round the inside of their eye-lids, the eye-ball became bloodshot at once, and the eyelids had a blue tint. It was very disagreeable to witness. As a preventive of sea-sickness, I noticed many kept a piece of orange peel up one or both nostrils; but they were not all successful. Out of the whole number I never saw more than two reading; and they all appeared very idle, and quite accustomed to do nothing. There were few really handsome men among them, and none well dressed. Each had his valuables and money attached to his person by a belt, frequently hung over one shoulder under his clothing. Every man was disarmed on coming on board. The Algerines (as we called those which came on board at Algiers, though they were nearly all Kabyles) had very few weapons; but the men who came on board at Tunis were well supplied with swords and guns. It was fortunate that the arms were taken away, for the Algerines were not at all disposed to let the Tunis Arabs turn them out of good places on deck. Words came to blows, and at last, while at anchor off Tunis, we had to send on shore for a guard of soldiers to keep order among them. It was after leaving Tunis for Malta that we felt the heavy gale, which took all ideas of fighting out of their heads; perhaps fortunately so, for our crew was a very small one for so large a ship, and though very willing, could scarcely manage the steamer, and could not attempt to make her “snug aloft.” So the Arabs saw practically how much more a ship can roll than a camel, whose walking is so proverbially uncomfortable to unpractised riders.

Of the Arab women we saw nothing, though we knew that several bundles of clothes were meant to represent humanity intended to be invisible. How these bundles must have suffered in the gale, utterly drenched, and with no chance of a “change,” even after the pleasant addition of two days’ coaling in Malta harbour. It would require more than the turning of a stone in the hand and pretending to wash with it that would make them clean. There was a form of ablution, daily, before prayers; each man went through the form of washing, using only a stone: the latter, having been brought from Meccah, was supposed to cleanse thoroughly as well as water. I was told that in the desert, when water is scarce, this is the customary manner of ablution. We were warned that the Arabs would bring many “passengers” on board with them; of such passengers we saw daily massacres; on the whole, I put down these Arabs as a dirty set, and in several respects inferior to many Asiatics. And even though we do help them on in their pilgrimage, and they seem very devout in thus devoting much of their time exclusively to a long religious penance, I cannot help thinking that with their view of an “hereafter,” so much a sensual one as it is, all this rigid religion and fanatical penance is a good deal like a man saving up money, and starving himself to be able some day to launch out in a grand revel, made up of all his savings. But there is no doubt much good in these men, or would be, if they were more civilised, and not kept in a state of ignorance, which, with their mode of living, makes them mere fanatics.

They may lose some of their fanaticism when they find that the Christians take advantage of it to make money, and that there is really not much honour, or chivalry, in making a pilgrimage by steam. Though our fellow-passengers were all journeying with the same object in view, the selfish feeling of the Arab was very prominently developed. I noticed it particularly with regard to water—the treasure of the desert; even on board ship this was zealously guarded. Each man had his own supply generally in a goat skin, and it looked anything but tempting when poured out—being quite discoloured and warm, from the skin being exposed to the sun. Some of the men had met with accidents and lost their supply; but no one would share a drop with his neighbour, so after a few ineffectual demands they sat down, resigned to their fate. It was melancholy to see them not tasting a morsel all day, evidently sea-sick, feverish, and suffering, yet with no water to help them. The ship had only a small stock, and that had to be guarded, for even those Arabs who had a supply endeavoured to save it for themselves. I noticed two men sitting together, who were both suffering terribly from thirst, pointing to their parched lips. I went to my cabin and brought a glass of water, and smuggled it into the hands of one of them. He took the whole to himself, notwithstanding the urgent entreaties of the other. The captain at last allowed the guard to give out water at a certain hour each afternoon, even though attempts had been made to overpower the guard. The sailors had very hard work, and when we arrived at Malta, several told me they would take care never to come on such a voyage again. The little captain was all enthusiasm for his owners, and took everything cheerfully. His poor first officer, quite a young man, had no rest, and was heartily sick of the Arabs: I must confess I was glad to get quietly on shore, and felt thankful to be able to look at the pilgrims from a distance, as I gazed down upon the steamer from the open arches of the Baracca. The pilgrimage appeared to be a sham, and I could not help thinking that Mahommed was in some way or other being cheated, and that the Viceroy of Egypt was not behaving fairly to his memory by running pilgrim steam-boats from Suez to Meccah, and gathering pilgrims from Mediterranean ports to meet them, and helping them, too, across the desert, by “excursion trains.”