Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/March 1882/Entertaining Varieties

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ENTERTAINING VARIETIES.
 

 

THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON;

OR,

TRAVELS AND ADVENTURES OF HAKIM BEN SHEYTAN.

Translated by F. L. O.

INTRODUCTION.

The result of the first Tunisian expedition to the interior of Africa is too well known to require here more than a general mention. After the treaty of Khundabad, the commander of the exploring-party tried to reach the Mongha highlands by following the valley of the Bar-el-Nun, and had already crossed the foot-hills that form the western boundary of the Fant hunting-grounds, when the vanguard of his auxiliaries was routed by an attack of the Galla marauders, who captured sixteen of his companions, including his five Tripolitan merchants, and effected their retreat across the mountains before the arrival of the Khundabad rescuing party. But this very disaster, which defeated the immediate object of the explorers, helped to enlist the aid of the Tripolitan Government, and thus led to the marvelous discoveries of the second expedition.

In the last week of November, 1878, the command of Marut Pasha assembled at Wady el Kamr, where they were joined by a troop of Tunisian volunteers, mostly relatives of the captured merchants. Hakim Ben Sheytan, the medical and quasi-scientific attaché of the expedition, had been appointed at the special recommendation of the mollah or high-priest of Tripoli, who had also induced the government to furnish the commissary supplies from the Dey's own Beit-el-Habbada or body-guard barracks. The caravan reached Moorzook in midwinter, and, in spite of the doctor's protest, the commander attempted to cross the Bedeyat lowlands before the end of the rainy season. The Harra-Ghul, the terrible jungle-fever of the waddies, broke out before they had reached the Soodan hill-country; the Tunisian volunteers, and at last even the pasha's veterans, were decimated by the epidemic, and upon their arrival at Darfoor all but twenty of them had to be sent to the Arabian hospital. But the instructions were very stringent: the sick were left in charge of a native surgeon, and with twenty-five followers, including Dr. Sheytan and three Darfoor guides, the commander continued his journey to Gallaland. They followed the windings of the Bar-el-Adda, a stream that takes its rise in the Mountains of the Moon, and at last reached the land of the Khundi Fants, and made their way to the chief village, where the news from the frontier brought them to a full stop. The Khundi chieftain, however, received them hospitably, and, being on trading terms with the Gallas, offered to mediate the ransom of the merchants. Pending these negotiations, the Tripolitan commander had to go into camp, and now and then led a hunting expedition to the western Sierras, while the doctor tried to requite the hospitality of the Fants by nursing the sick of the chieftain's household. His success gradually extended his practice to a rather undesired degree, since the messengers from the highland settlements kept him nearly all day in the saddle; but during one of these trips Dr. Sheytan crossed the main ridge of the Moon Mountains, and in the ultramontane valleys discovered such a remarkable race of autochthones that he considered the Khundi-town delay the luckiest accident of his life.

The Monakees, or inhabitants of the western Moon Mountains, appear to be unlike any other race of the known world. In mechanical arts advanced far beyond their neighbors, they are at the same time addicted to most preposterous habits and superstitions. With the aid of an interpreter, and his knowledge of the Fant-Arabian dialects, the Hakim interviewed their priests and medicine-men, inspected their dwellings, caves, and temples, and visited many of their outlying villages, and continued his investigations even after his official duties had recalled him to Khundabad. For the Khundi chieftain, in the mean while, had ascertained the whereabouts of the captive traders, and finally effected their release, and after the end of the next rainy season the Tripolitans returned to Darfoor, where the Hakim took charge of the sick, and employed his leisure in writing the chronicle of his discovery. This chronicle, addressed to his kinsman, the mollah of Tripoli, gives a circumstantial description of the Monakee race, their habits, physical peculiarities, and singular superstitions—interpersed with an account of his personal adventures and of the reflections which occurred to him while traveling through their country. "The work abounds with incidents and graphic descriptions," says the reviewer of the first German translation, "as well as with scientific disclosures that throw a suggestive light on the origin of the customs and vices of civilized life." Besides his first professional trips across the frontier, the Hakim seems to have spent nearly eight months among the Monakees, collecting information on all possible topics, interviewing the just and watching the wicked, traveling from village to village, often at the risk of his life, but always sustained by the conviction that "Allah had appointed him to perform this work," and the hope that the world would recognize its importance.

The result has fully justified that hope. Even the first rumor of the discovery created a general sensation at Tunis, and was repeatedly discussed during the October sessions of the Vienna Geographical Society, though it was not yet positively known that the explorer had crossed the western frontier of Khun-Fandistan; but the controversies on this point were soon settled by the famous circular of Dr. Reidor, to whom the Tripolitan Government had intrusted the publication of the Hakim's chronicle. As the preliminary account of the Anabasis through the Soodan waddies (sufficiently known from the writings of Barth and Burton) is little more than a collection of military march reports, it has not been included in the second edition of Dr. Reidor's translation, and the present brief summary will suffice for the explanation of subsequent events.

But the chronicle itself is a work of quite a different character, and at once attracted the attention of the scientific public. Its general interest may be inferred from the success of the German[1] and Spanish[2] editions, though the speculative portion of the original has been partly omitted in both works, and, strangely enough, especially in the German version, whose (Austrian) expurgators have found it necessary to suppress the most interesting political and ethical reflections. I shall offer no apology for having restored those passages. From European prejudices the author of the "Chronicle" is as free as Hafiz Ben Eddin, but his work is certainly not immoral, and can be called irreligious only where that word has not yet ceased to be a synonym of truth-loving. The commentaries of the Spanish translator have greatly aided me in the exegesis of the Mauritanian idioms; but, where a literal translation would fail to elucidate the ambiguity of certain topographical terms, I have thought it safer to retain the nomenclature of the Arabian text.

f. l. o.

 

 

THE CHRONICLE OF HAKIM BEN SHEYTAN, THE SERVANT OF ALLAH.

CHAPTER I.

In the Name of the All-merciful, etc., Adna-Mullah Ibn Saddi: To my Father, Greeting and Peace.

Not now, Namullah, nor in weeks of speech and free discourse, could I recount all the hardships of our journey since we parted at El Kamr. And yet I praise the lord, and through these, and twice as many dangers I would go again, for all the wonders he has thus revealed, and for the ever-memorable manifestations of his judgment upon the impious who violate the laws of his Word, the laws which Nature has proclaimed even to the heathens.

The death of Abu Riyah you will have learned from the pasha's report, as well as the fate of Sheik Hanbal's companions; and I will begin my relation from the Alms-week of the New Year (February 9th-16th), when the last messenger departed from our camp at Khundabad.

After the recovery of his imam, Sheik Kedar (the Khundi chieftain) treated me with great kindness, and urged me to remove my tent to his cottage-yard; but I had set my heart on visiting the towns of the Monakees, and the plan moved my soul night and day, especially when the Fanti traders gave me to understand that the emir was anxious to see me, and was going to send me a guide and a traveling present. Our commander considered that report as an idle rumor, but on the last day of the Alms-week our doubts were removed by the arrival of a messenger with a grace-firman (safe-conduct) of the Monghistan emir, whose son had been stricken with a sore disease, and who (supposing that I had entered the service of the Fants) besought the sheik to grant me a leave of absence. My departure was then decided upon. The messenger returned to announce the shiek's consent, and, three days after, the pasha intrusted me to our old guide Abbad, surnamed El Karman ("the Maimed," from the loss of three of his fingers), and we ascended the mountains, by way of the North Pass, where a month ago my companions had captured the strange baboon I sent you with the cargo of the Tunisian traders.

But the weather was now much drier, and I urged the Karman to speed our march, for my soul had grown restless with wondering expectation. All reports presaged a land of marvels. The texture of the Monakee garments was said to be superior to the best linen of Soodan, and from the excellence of their weapons the Monakees were dreaded as foes, though not loved as allies. Far stranger than all the rumors about the marvels of their country were the doubts about the humanity[3] of their race. The perfection of their manufactures inclined some to credit them with superhuman skill, while others argued that their habits and appearance proved them to be an inferior variety of monkeys. My own opinion I shall give by-and-by. Of their skill in textile fabrics I had a proof when the Karman showed me a pair of foot-sacks (calcetes, probably a sort of woven gaiters), gay-colored and of great strength, and cheap withal, though not to the weavers; for my guide told me that such goods are manufactured in houses where the air is thick with dust, and where scores of the young Monakees are killed with overwork.

People who treat their own children so unkindly can not be expected to show much mercy to their enemies, and I did not wonder when we passed a field where human bones were bleaching in large heaps—the monuments of a battle in which the Monakees had slain twenty thousand of their neighbors. Still I thought that the cause of the war might somehow justify such deeds, but I learned that the sole object of the invaders was the suppression of certain views or doubts about the secrets of a future existence. Their adversaries, it seems, confine their worship to the God of the Sun, while the priests of the Monakees address their prayers to several other deities, especially to the Man in the Moon, whom they call the nephew of Allah. It is true that they also assert the superior sanctity of their nation, and, the Karman's faith being opposed to theirs, I was unwilling to adopt his views on this point; but even before we had entered the dwellings of the Monakees I could not help noticing a peculiar smell in the air, an odor resembling the fumes of the East-Bombay[4] rum-shops. A few miles farther west we met a poor boy, who took to his heels as soon as he saw us, though the Karman called after him to stop and not to mistake us for Monakees. He belonged to the race of the Musanites, a tribe of dissenters who live here and there in the Monakee settlements, and seem to be treated well enough as soon as they have acquired a certain amount of wealth, though the poor ones are often subjected to gross indignities. Their offense, too, consists only in a difference of opinion. They seem to be a harmless and very industrious sort of people, but they have no great faith in the Moon-man.

We made thirty miles the next day, and toward evening crossed the Monghistan frontier on the west shore of a dry river-bed. I have seen Persia and India, and the palm-gardens of Yemen, but I believe that this country was originally far more favored by Nature: mountains constantly alternate with plains, highlands with terrace-lands, all intersected by lakes and broad river-valleys, and considering the fertility of the soil it seems that Monghistan must once have been a land of transcendent beauty. Once, I say, for the river-beds are now dry; the lakes are bordered with naked rocks. While Shadissa Ibrahim[5] (may Allah receive his soul kindly!) did his best to redeem our land by planting millions of shade-trees, these unfortunates seem to vie in destroying the last remnants of their woodlands; on all the ridges I saw heaps of felled trees, and in the plains moldering stumps are the only traces of the original forests.

Here, as in India and Darfoor, I have noticed a strange circumstance. As soon as the tall trees (Hochwald, W.) disappear, the underbrush becomes thorny; acacias, mimosas, prickly palms, cactus, and camel-thorns are here the only wild-growing shrubs. By this armor of spines Allah seems to protect these poor plants against the hand of the destroyer, though the Turks of Stamboul would probably say that the thorn-trees were there before the destruction began, and were able to hold their ground while other trees perished.[6]

The highlands, however, are still pretty well wooded, and there is no lack of game, though the extraordinary shyness of the birds shows that they must suffer much persecution. Of the four-footed animals, too, the smaller ones are more timid and the large ones much fiercer than in our own country; at our approach deer and rabbits fled with incredible swiftness, and, when we went into camp, a troop of baboons up in the rocks kept up a continuous sort of coughing bark, like enraged watch-dogs. The Karman told me that the Monakees kill them without mercy, and I must own that they are certainly very provoking brutes. Yet they are children of our elder mother[7] and have preserved the knowledge that men have lost by their sins. "They know the way, and teach us without speech," as the poet says; and for days have I often watched them without sating my pleasure. Their inquisitiveness tempted them to approach our camp from behind, and, if we pretended to be otherwise engaged, they came nearer and nearer and diverted me much as I watched them from behind my shawl-tent; but, if my rogue of a guide rose suddenly to his feet, they fled with shrieks that made our ears ache. At last I persuaded the Karman to keep quiet, and just before sunset another troop came down from the cliffs on our right, and tried to steal upon us by crawling along under cover of the bushes and rocks. They walked on all-fours, but now and then one of the old ones would raise himself on his hind-legs to reconnoiter, while the youngsters raced around like frisky puppies. I verily believe that they would have entered our tent if we had continued to keep still; but, seeing that one of the youngsters had approached within a dozen yards of the camp, I made a sudden rush, just as he was in the act of climbing a tree-stump. Before he had reached the cliffs I overtook him, and finding escape impossible he threw himself on his back; and, instead of fighting me when I tried to lay hold of him, he leaped upon my arm, and, hugging it with all his might, began to chatter, very much like a prisoner pleading for mercy. But, when I grabbed him by the neck, his chattering turned into piercing shrieks, that continued even after I had wrapped him up in my shawl. His relatives had rushed up the cliffs like a flock of frightened goats; at the sound of the screams, however, they suddenly stopped, and some of the old males began to move upon our camp with hoarse yells that often resembled the challenge of a human voice.

They had advanced within half a stone's-throw, when the Karman whispered to me that in Kapibad[8] I could buy young monkeys by the dozen, and that we had better let this one go. As the noise was

growing deafening, I concluded to follow his advice; so, taking the youngster out, I put him on the ground and gave him a slap as a hint to be off. At first he did not stir, though he kept up his screams; but, seeing me retire behind the tent, he ran for his life and soon rejoined his relatives.

As soon as the old ones caught sight of him they stopped their yelling, and, crowding around him, seemed to examine him very carefully, after which the whole troop wheeled around and rushed away much quicker than before, as if they had not overcome their natural fear, and risked their lives merely to save the youngster's—which shows that these animals treat their young ones more kindly than the Monakees (with all their gods) treat their children.

The next morning we started at sunrise and ascended the slope of a mountain whose rocks were covered with creepers,[9] bearing clusters of sweetish berries. To the production of these berries, and a broadleafed weed (both used for the purpose of intoxication), the Monakees devote a considerable portion of their arable territory, which seemed the more surprising as I was informed that thousands of their poor live in bitter want of their daily bread. Yet the luxuriance of those noxious weeds proves their planters to be expert husbandmen, and they can certainly not be reproached with laziness, whatever may be their other vices.

After a march of three or four hours we reached the southern slope of a harrat,[10] and I beheld now for the first time one of those famous rock-kraals of Monghistan, a sort of city, crowning the brow of a distant hill. The houses looked like white dots on the blue heights, but even at this distance I could distinguish a peculiar kind of conical castles that towered high above all other buildings. These piles, the Karman told me, were temples of the Moon-man—mosques, so to say—some of them so elaborately finished that they had cost wagon-loads of money, and the labor of countless masons. Their very dimensions attested the skill of the architects; but I marveled that people who could do so much for the moon had done so little for their earth; the valley at the foot of the harrat was in a wretched condition, a sheer quagmire, studded with lagoons and reed patches, though a little drainage would have turned those bogs into fertile fields.

Still, Allah has not withdrawn his hand from this country, and at the bank of a little creek farther below I saw bottom-lands that would support more trees to the acre than our poor waddies on a square mile. And even the driest valleys abound with water-signs; if these poor people had learned the sheriat-wakil,[11] every field of their country would be blessed with good wells.

Before we reached the top of the next ridge the heat of the day obliged us to halt in the shade of a rock-tomb; hut curiosity soon got the better of my fatigue, and after a short rest we continued our march toward a river-valley, where we expected to meet the first living Monakees.

 

 

—— Curious Matrimonial Anomaly.—Hassanyeh Arab wives enjoy at times "a freedom from the ties and responsibilities of the marriage state unknown, I believe, to any other race in the world." When the parents of the man and woman meet to settle the price of the woman, the price depends on "how many days in the week the marriage tie is to be strictly observed." The woman's mother first of all proposes that, taking "everything into consideration, with a due regard to the feelings of the family, she could not think of binding her daughter to a due observance of that chastity which matrimony is expected to command for more than two days in the week." After a great deal of apparently angry discussion, and the promise on the part of the relatives of the man to pay more, it is arranged that "the marriage shall hold good, as is customary among the first families of the tribe, for four days in the week—viz., Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; and, in compliance with old established custom, the marriage rites during the three remaining days shall not be insisted on, during which days the bride shall be perfectly free to act as she may think proper, either by adhering to her husband and home, or by enjoying her freedom and independence from all observation of matrimonial obligation."—Spencer's "Descriptive Sociology."

—— A Healthy Climate.—Papua is the paradise of birds, Natal of large quadrupeds, Surinam of snakes, Java of butterflies, but Borneo of crocodiles. On a river-island, hardly a mile in length, Professor Keppel counted not less than 740 of these eupeptic pets. But the climate in which, as reported several years ago, things have got most mixed, is New Holland, where it is summer when it is winter in Europe, and vice versa; where the barometer rises before bad weather, and falls before good; where the north is the hot wind and the south the cold; where the humblest house is fitted up with cedar and mahogany, and myrtle is burned for fuel; where the swans are black, and the eagles white; where the kangaroo, an animal between a squirrel and a deer, has five claws on its fore-paws, and three talons on its hind-legs, and yet hops on its tail; where the mole lays eggs and has a duck's bill; where there is a bird with a broom in its mouth instead-of a tongue; where there is a fish one half belonging to the genus Raia and the other half to that of Squalus; where the pears are made of wood with the stalk at the broader end; and where the cherry grows with the cherry-stone outside.

  1. "Die Wunder des Mond-Gebirges. Von Prof. D. P. . Widerleger." 2 vols., sq. 8vo. Vienna, 1881.
  2. "Las Aventuras de Hakim Ben Sheytan. Por el Dr. S. L. Reidor." 2da edicion. 8vo. Salamanca. 1881.
  3. "Menschlichkeit," W.—Cristianismo, says Dr. Reidor, probably from an inadvertent confusion of correlative terms. Even in the language of our country-people the two words are sometimes used as interchangeable synonyms, as in the phrase, "He takes his grog just like a Christian"—in referring to the accomplishments of a trained monkey.
  4. "Bumbad el Shork," East-Bombay, a suburb of sailors and gamblers.
  5. Ibrahim Pasha.—Mehemet Ali and his son Ibrahim planted 20,000,000 forest-trees in the Thebaïs and along the shore of the Red Sea.—(Marsh, "Man and Nature," p. 189.)
  6. Dr. Reidor understands this passage as an allusion to the Darwinian survival theory, but Professor Widerleger is probably right that it refers merely to the ridicule which the metropolitan Turks are apt to visit upon the theological speculations of the Arabs.
  7. "Beni abd'il Kabira," hijos de la prima madre; a term derived from the writings of the Sufist mystics.
  8. The chief town of Monakistan.
  9. "Schling-Pflanzen," twining plants or vines.
  10. Harrat, from harr, heat or fire. A mountain of igneous rocks, a basalt-hill.
  11. Sheriat-wakil, the "water-place science." Pallas says that the Arabian well-finders eschew the tricks of the divining-rod mystics, and follow a system of practical rules that apply to every kind of soil or rock. They have an endless list of "signs" "indications," as our gold-hunters would call them. Every tribe has its professional sheriat-nebbed; and where a committee of these experts fail to find water there is a strong presumption that Allah must have withdrawn his hand, as from the deserts of Western Hadramaut, where on an area of nine thousand square miles an artesian explorer might bore through to the antipodes without attaining his object.