The Fire of Desert Folk/Chapter 12

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CHAPTER XII

IN AN OUTPOST OF THE RIF

THANKS to the graciousness of General de Chambrun, who knew of my love for shooting, I was invited to go out with a party of officers for my first day on the African field. Though a year at my desk in Warsaw had filched from me much of the endurance I had gained during my wanderings and hard life on the plains and in the mountains of Asia, it had not taken my enthusiasm for a new discovery in ornithology, which came with the first partridge out of the many which I subsequently shot during my African trip. The bird proved to be a rock-partridge, the Caccabis petrosa, or Perdix rubra, and, to my surprise, was constantly flushed from the branches on the shady side of olive- and fig-trees, a fact which was explained to me by the French officers as a question of defense by the birds against the numerous foxes and jackals which hunted them relentlessly. They added also that there was no other species of the partridge found in the north of French Africa and that one must go to the edge of the Sahara for the gray variety, which they designate locally as the English partridge. As a matter of fact, I later came upon a covey of these latter birds between the oases of Berguent and Figig.

The morning following our day in the field I was taken by one of the staff cars in another direction and into more serious surroundings, that is, to the north to visit the front. The car was carrying two officers who were to be left at an intermediate post. The road led first in the direction of Tasa but soon turned and followed the valley of the Fez, becoming a strategic highway, along which we frequently passed heavy military camions, laden with soldiers or materials, that told a story of what was going on to the north. The country was mountainous with large valleys between the ranges and was well peopled and rich. Fields of wheat, maize and sorghum, vineyards, fig- and olive-orchards stretched away in all directions, while higher up on the mountain slopes numerous herds were pasturing.

As we passed through this fertile land, I noticed frequently that the French had impounded the waters from all the springs in the country and had led life-giving streams to the villages and farms below. Along the way we flushed large coveys of partridges that rose from near the river and settled in the palm-thicket on the slopes above. While the car stopped to allow the chauffeur to put in water and oil, I wandered afield and succeeded in bringing down two more of my old acquaintances from the eastern branches of the Altai, near Lake Shira-Kul and the valleys of Urianhai, Searching for others, I went farther into the brush and was rewarded by the sight of a jerboa, or Dipus aegypticus, a small rodent resembling a hare but with such short forelegs and such long ones aft that it gives the impression of possessing only these two larger ones. It leaped away in great jumps, looking, with its long, thin tail, quite like a miniature kangaroo.

At a distance of some twenty-five miles we turned away from the river and crossed a large plain that brought us into foot-hills which were dotted with Berber villages and farms. Though the lands were rich and fertile, the people were most miserably clad, among them well-to-do villagers in such rags as would have put to shame a meskin of Fez. Flocks of sheep, guarded by biblical-looking shepherds in white robes and with long curved staffs in their hands, were grazing on the prairie grass.

After leaving the two officers at the camp of Aïn Aïcha, we crossed the Sbu on a pontoon-bridge and entered upon the last twenty-five miles of our journey over a road that was just in course of construction. Everywhere we passed large gangs of native workers, occupied in gathering and breaking stones and in shaping the roadbed. Hundreds of these Berber laborers were directed by a single overseer, unarmed and without any guard. I have seen much work done by Russians in Central Asia, Manchuria and even in their own country of Siberia and have always found each engineer and technical assistant armed and accompanied by a Cossack guard, without which they have very often been afraid to enter the workarea. In contrast to this, in North Africa I visited many towns with small French administrative staffs having a guard of only ten or twenty spahis, Berbers or Arabs. In the upper Atlas, in the mountains of Algeria among the Kabyles, on the borders of the Sahara and here on the edge of the revolted Rif I met solitary overseers, state agriculturalists and veterinaries, surrounded by the sea of natives and working among them without fear, without any means of defense and even at times without telephonic communication with administrative or military posts.

What is the reason behind this? Are the followers of the Prophet so peaceful or do they understand so well the beneficial work of these solitary Europeans? Are the foreigners respected and appreciated by the natives because they endeavor to learn and respect the psychology of these lands? I was too short a time in Africa to formulate a satisfactory answer to this really exceptional phenomenon. I found it at least very characteristic of the two races and consider it a most encouraging feature in their political outlook.

At the end of our run through beautiful country and prosperous-looking settlements we came to the village of Taunat, smothered in olive- and fig-orchards and set in a circle of green-clad mountains, whose sides were covered with fields of millet and wheat. The inhabitants met us most amiably and directed us on to the outposts of Taunat, perched on an overlooking hill as a strange vanguard of European civilization and political ideas. From this vantage-point one can see with a field-glass to the south the mountains surrounding Fez, with the summit of Zalagh that is shaped like the back of a monstrous fish, and to the north the ranges of the Rif, rising one behind the other.

Major Richard, the commandant of this section, and his senior assistant. Lieutenant de Seroux, welcomed me, as we drove up. The commandant was in a strange uniform—a loose blouse and trousers like those of a Cossack, a cap with a broad vizor and a protecting piece of cloth for the back of the neck, heavy, hobnailed shoes and short leather gaiters, all of which indicated a life of hard work and difficulties, well confirmed by the deep lines about his mouth and on his forehead. If I were to paint a soldier of the valorous, immortal guard of Napoleon, the one, for instance, who was the genii of the glory of his great father at the side of the weak Duke of Reichstadt, I should beg Major Richard to pose for me. It would be difficult to find a better model for Rostand's heroic figure.

His senior assistant. Lieutenant de Seroux, an officer of the General Staff, was of another and quite modern type. Young, of an aristocratic family, nervous and well educated, he understood thoroughly and was full of enthusiasm for the European mission among the more backward peoples. Two other officers were present.

Lieutenants Mourre and Taoudi, the latter an Arab who had graduated from a school of high standing for native officers in Meknes.

During the excellent luncheon which had been prepared against my arrival these officers told me that the detachment defending this section from the attacks of the Arab gangs of the Rif was composed of only two hundred soldiers, the greater number of whom were from the Shlu tribe of the upper Atlas region, and had merely a handful of French officers and sergeants to direct them. Lieutenant de Seroux at one point remarked:

"You see that our life is primitive and difficult in such a place, but the results are good. We have convinced all the population of our section that we did not come here to exploit them, to conquer or to do them any harm, but only to give effect to the terms of the accord with the sultan, to insure peace to the whole countryside, to further its economic development and to promote that culture without which no man and no nation can today live and develop. We have to repulse, just as we did last night, for instance, the attacks of Abd el-Krim, who sends out raiding parties for the food which is so scarce in the mountains of the Rif; we make roads that assure the movement of trucks, purchase from the natives what they produce, export it and bring back to them the goods they need. We have built a warehouse, which the natives administer themselves; we have organized a hospital in which six hundred of them can ask for aid; we have proved to the Berbers that peace is the only sound basis of lasting welfare and, when we had ample proof that our seed had fallen upon good ground, we armed considerable groups of men in the neighborhood, who can now defend their villages and property from the raiding gangs that come out of the mountains. Look out there, for instance. Those three Shlu horsemen are packing ammunition for the inhabitants of the two villages further out, where another raid is momentarily expected."

After luncheon we visited the observation-post on a neighboring height and had from there an extended view along a great part of the Riffian front. Lieutenant de Seroux showed me through his field-glasses the mountains where the principal forces of Abd el-Krim were for the moment gathered. In the discussions with these officers I sensed considerable inquietude in the face of coming events.

"We do not want war," they said, "but Abd el-Krim cannot be allowed to run off food from the territory of the sultan of Morocco for the maintenance of his army; and, as the war with the Spanish is bound to be protracted, he will be obliged, after the supplies in the Rif are exhausted, to make repeated raids upon the peaceful inhabitants of this country to revictual his army, and he may even force the tribesmen here into service against the Spaniards. If this happens, we shall be drawn into more formidable conflict with him."

Thus spoke the French officers, but I had other thoughts on the matter. Regardless of whether the operations of the rebel chief should prove successful or not, his invasion of the zone of French influence seemed to me to be inevitable. I had heard in Fez the confidences of the Kairween mullah and the words of the man in the black bournous; I had felt the unrest in the attitude of the crowd in the Medina; I knew the Bolshevik system, the system of these destroyers of the peace of the world, and I knew that Abd el-Krim would be exploited by them to the utmost. They would urge him to attack Fez el-Bali and help him to take this town of Idris; they would play at a Holy War and would make of this adventurer a new Mahdi. Only concerted action by the French, Spanish, Italian and English can paralyze this plan, the success of which would tend to ruin the whole of the civilizing work of the white race not only in North Africa but throughout other parts of the continent.

However, it were well if the nations would come to an understanding with regard to the colonization of the Dark Continent; and it would be well, too, if they did not interfere with and hinder one another, a fact which, as an accidental observer, I noticed in innumerable places. This is the weak feature in the European influence of the present day everywhere outside the limits of our own continent It were well also, in this connection, to ponder over the future of a Europe betrayed by one hundred thirty million Russians, who were until recently looked upon as Europeans but who now, under the influence and leadership of the Red Terror, have been transformed into renegades and enemies of the West.

After a short and delightful partridge-hunt with Major Richard, I took leave of these interesting men in this unusual setting and was back in Fez at ten o'clock, white as a miller with the fine dust of the road, but extremely impressed and pleased with my day at the outpost before the lines of Abd el-Krim.