The Fire of Desert Folk/Chapter 17

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SAYING good-bye to our friends, Monsieur Urbain ^ Blanc and Monsieur Leroy, we set out once more along the coast road to Casablanca, but remained only two days in this port that holds little interest for a student of the real life of Morocco and turned inland again toward Marrakesh, the Berber capital and the "Paris of Maghreb."

Through a fertile and well-cultivated country we made our way to the river of Umm er-Rbi'a, beyond which the fields, pastures and large villages, like Ber Reshid, Settat and Ben Abbu, disappeared and left us surrounded by a stony, barren and sometimes totally dead desert, where one meets nothing but the occasional camel caravans, automobiles, lizards and scorpions. This landscape, so tiring in its sameness, stretched itself to the foot of the Jebilet range, through which we ran along a winding road that brought us out through a narrow cleft from where we had our first view of Marrakesh, not really of the town itself but of the oasis surrounding it on all sides except from the south, where the old Berber capital reaches right up to the edge of the desert that unrolls itself from the foot of the Atlas range. We could, however, see, in the midst of the velvet green of the datepalms and across the shimmering Tensift River, a tower raising itself like the needle of Cleopatra on the deep blue background of the sky. It was Kutubia, the minaret of the mosque built by Yakub el-Mansur and designed by the creator of the Giralda in Seville and of the tragic tower of Hassan in Rabat.

As the road pierced the oasis and was flanked by the tall, feathery palms, Phoenix dactylifera, with their luscious burden of red or golden fruit, we discovered that the whole oasis was divided by adobe walls into rectangles of private property. Pools and streams of water was everywhere in the landscape, with men, sheep and camels completing a picture that made a very definite impression of calm, welfare and hospitality. It was so picturesque on every side, there was such an abundance of gurgling water, singing birds and inviting shade and the sky was so bright and clear that there seemed no place left in the life of the verdant spot for hatred and strife. We were at once caught up by the spirit of it all and forgot our fatigue, though we had completed a run of over one hundred forty miles. We entered the Gheliz quarter, where the French live, and sought out our hostelry, the Hôtel du Pacha, set in the midst of eucalyptus-trees and palms. We were no more than in our quarters when the hotel manager rushed up and led us off in haste to some rooms with a southern exposure, chattering excitedly the while:

"Come quick, come quick! It never occurs at this time of year."

The ranges of the High Atlas, reaching up one above the other in a menacing threat toward the sky, towered over the palms at a distance of some thirty odd miles to the south. In the months of September and October the summits are constantly shrouded in heavy clouds, so that only the dark, blue wall of the mountainsides is to be seen. But this evening above the rocks the very tops of the ranges glimmered marvelously in their brilliant white sheen of snow and ice. Even as we watched, the purity of the snows began to yield to the delicate pink hues which the rays of the setting sun tinted them. After a moment this gave way in turn to the gray tones that rose up out of the darkening valleys, before they were all engulfed in the returning masses of enveloping clouds. The phenomenon lasted for only a few moments, during which it was, however, magnificent in its grandeur and beauty of contrasts.

Although I had been so weak in Rabat from the fever contracted at Meknes that the doctor ordered me away to the mountains at once, I had little conception of what the change to this air and these surroundings could mean. I had been in Marrakesh but a little while, when I felt that all people ill in body and spirit would do well to go there, where in the shadow of the palms, in the beautiful parks, within the calm of the pantheon of the Saadian sherifs or the tomb of Yusuf ibn Teshufin and near the vivifying fountains of water coming down from the snowy summits of the Atlas, illness and pain are banished not only from the body but from the spirit, unless it be some sweet sadness or longing as light and wavering as the desert mirage, as gentle as the voice of the water In the fountains of Sidi Hassan. And this is the reason why the sultan, the great caids of the mountains, the pashas, imams and the rich merchants from Fez, Meknes and Rabat have their palaces and villas here, and not because Marrakesh is the Paris of Morocco and in season boasts all the metropolitan attractions of our ultra-modern civilization.

The morning following our arrival, before going to present our letter from Minister Blanc to the senior resident French official, we thought to wander through the town to orient ourselves a bit and to gather an initial, general impression of the place under our own guidance. At first we saw little out of the ordinary except the beautiful Kutubia minaret with its seven distinct stories and its unusual enamel decorations that reminded one of the turquoise of Persia and with its three golden balls set with jewels offered by the wife of Sultan El-Mansur. A whole regiment of spirits defends each of these balls, and woe to him who would dare to touch one of them. A little further on we found a kubba of peculiar construction, provided, as it was, with the usual four walls but without the stereotyped dome. Under the branches of a solitary tree that lent its shadow to the tomb there sat a well-dressed native, who, we found, spoke French and answered our curiosity by telling us that we were before the tomb of the sultan, Ibn Teshufin, founder of the Almoravide dynasty in Morocco, who had sprung up like a storm from his oasis in the Sahara at the beginning of the eleventh century to sweep through the mountains and conquer their tribes, to build Marrakesh, to confirm the faith in Allah and to leave for his descendants a tradition of conquest that carried them eventually to the throne of Andalusia.

"Why has the tomb no dome nor roof?" I inquired.

"The spirit of the sultan nightly leaves the tomb to journey to the north and east to course and guard the bournes of Maghreb. When the first dome was erected, the spirit destroyed it the very night of its completion and subsequently repeated this several times. Now no one dares to try to impede the spirit, as every one knows that this would be followed by great misfortunes."

As we wandered through the suks, we were especially attracted by the interesting displays of old arms and weapons and of the native jewelry. Among some very old weapons I picked out a so-called "khenjer," a curved knife of the Sous tribe, lodged in a scabbard of chiseled copper, and with this a schula, the straight blade of the Shlu tribe, also in a copper scabbard, this time with a strip of velvet let into it. In the Berber jewelry we found the most unmistakable evidence of Persian and Byzantine influences. In the diadems, arm- and ankle-bands, ear-rings and large trinkets worn on necklaces there were man y bits of amber and enamel as well as cabochons, brilliant stones and even bits of glass. We were especially interested in finding silver armlets with radiating points, such as are worn by the women of Central Africa, and speculated upon the possibility that the Almoravides, having conquered Timbuktu and Senegal, brought back this fashion from Senegal and the Niger.

Through narrow streets we finally came out upon the place where the administrative office was located. Our letter from Mensieur Blane gained for us an exceptional guide in the person of Monsieur Delarue, one of the senior officials and a most charming, intelligent man with a fine command of the Arab tongue. He loved the country, the people and their way of life, knew apparently everything and everybody in the town and was a great favorite with the natives. He impressed me as the finest type of colonial official.

Our new friend began by conducting us to the roof of the palace in which his office was located to show us the sea of flat roofs and terraces with their crowds of women, the minarets, the squares, the great sweep of the forest of palms and, towering above us to the south, the ranges of the Atlas. Just at our feet was the place, Jemaa el-Fna, encircled by the French buildings and native shops. It made a bright and thrilling picture with its white-clad Berber men and women, nomads from the Sahara in their dark-blue bournouscs, donkeys laden with their panniers of gaudy tomatoes, cream-colored grapes, purple figs, yellow lemons, reddish oranges and mottled pomegranates, turbaned riders trying to quiet their chafing mounts, black slaves and camels. This eddy of men and beasts, this mass of colors and tints held our attention riveted on Jemaa el-Fna for some little time.

We learned that a market holds sway here in the morning hours, attracting the Berbers from the mountains with their products and animals, while after the noonday rest the square takes on the character of a place of public entertainment, of the city's club. The afternoon crowd is as large as that of the morning but much less mobile, separating and holding itself in numerous groups, surrounding the singers, musicians, jugglers, snake-charmers, quacks and fortune-tellers who come in from everywhere. Allah only knows who is not there at some time during the afternoon. But it turned out that the grave bards and religious poets, the connoisseurs and creators of madih, or poems glorifying the Prophet, visit but rarely this more common ground, reserving to themselves the little place near the Kutubia mosque.

I was told by many of the residents that no political propaganda is felt here in Marrakesh, where, perhaps more than in any other part of Morocco, tlie native life flows along in its own channel, not mingling with that of the French administration. Though I am not certain that this statement may be accepted literally, I very distinctly sensed the friendly attitude of the Berbers and Arabs toward the Europeans and did not remark those distrustful and hostile looks which one so frequently met in Tasa, Fez and even in Sali.

When we mingled among the entertainers later in the day, we stopped first on the edge of a circle of whiteclad Arabs who were watching a little stout man, with slanting eyes that made him look like a Kalmuck, performing what appeared to be a very dangerous trick. In his hands he rubbed and fondled a round, smooth stone, accompanying his actions with a stream of comment that periodically sent the crowd into peals of laughter. Suddenly he was silent and threw the far-from-light stone well into the air, offering to it, as it came down, his bald skull to break its fall. We heard a dull thud and a sound resembling that of breaking bones. A shout of fright escaped from some veiled women near us, and a little child began to cry. The artist revived in a moment and resumed his polishing of the stone together with his illuminating comment before sending it aloft on another mission of destruction. We watched him attentively and soon had the solution of his trick. Just before the stone reached his forehead, he jerked his head aside and took the fall on the strongly developed muscles of his neck; but he made the movement with such incredible speed that it carried the deceit through without detection. It required some longer observation to run down the noise of crackling bones, which we finally located as that of stones rattled above the belt or within the sleeve of his bournous.

Later, when we saw the man had finished his performance, we watched him rubbing the muscles of his neck and quite openly taking some stones from the sleeve of his bournous to toss them into his property basket. As he dressed, he chattered continually and kept the crowd in a merry mood. Finally, making the sign of the salaam, he shot them a parting bolt that made his audience roar and clap their hands. The chouse whom Monsieur Delarue had kindly loaned us as interpreter, while he finished his office work, rendered for us the juggler's words with an evident effort in maintaining the seriousness which his office demanded:

"Mumeni, when you hear that they are needing another teacher in the medersa, tell the wise ones that you know Ali, who also possesses a strong, hard head!"

In the next circle four dancers of the Shlu tribe, dressed in white robes girt with red belts and wearing turbans, were going through a slow, rhythmical dance which suggested to my wife the first movements of the Caucasian lesgine. Near by, a boy made his trained dog and little monkey perform tricks for his restricted audience, as he was encircled only by children, and these so lightly clad that they had not a single place where they might hide their admission fees. Determined to have some reward for his running monologue and for the tricks of his trained animals, the juvenile performer snatched a lump of sugar from the hands of one of his admiring onlookers, bit off a part of it, gave the dog and the monkey a lick each at the remaining moiety and then handed this back to its crying owner, who immediately took the precaution to guard it from further spoliation by putting it in his mouth and was thus appeased.

Down at the further end of Jemaa el-Fna another crowd surrounded an itinerant quack. Those who know the country say that real doctors are to be found among the Berbers and Arabs but that they are fast disappearing; yet pure medical science, as it is known in European countries, does not exist in Moslem lands today. Only traditions remain, and most of these are derived from the realm of magic, inasmuch as all the superstitions of the peoples with whom the Arabs and Berbers have come into contact have injected themselves into the questions of health as well as into the world of sorcery. The Arab medical book known as the "Rhama" is an unordered collection of magical recipes together with expositions of the healing properties of certain plants, salts and mineral springs. This name "Rhama" brought to my mind the "Rama" of Central Asia, whom the Lamaites looked upon as a magus, a doctor and a chief. The resemblance between the name of this book and the word "Brahman" of the Veda cult in India is also very suggestive. In the Atharva-Veda, which is a book of magic formulas, the word "Brahman" is used to signify prayer and incantations. At the courts of the Indian princes a Brahman performed the functions of a fortune-teller, incantator and doctor. It is more than possible that the Moslems in their fight with Buddhism took from India the elements of their book, Rhama. The Moslem doctor, or hakim, knows magic formulas and the properties of herbs, possessing as well the mysterious traditions of Plato, Aristotle, Hermes Trismegistus and the Alexandrian school. The attainment of the title and position of a doctor comes about through the study, by a man learned in the reading of the Koran, of magic or medical books and the subsequent attestation of the ijaza of the medersa that he has familiarized himself with the Rhama, which is the equivalent of saying that he is a qualified hakim. Also, each sherif is by virtue of his exalted position through descent from the Prophet an ex-officio doctor.

It is said to be very difficult today to find a real hakim who possesses and preserves the knowledge of the renowned Arabian doctors of the past, whereas, on the other hand, barbers, smiths and charlatans of all descriptions are practising everywhere as doctors, though they are but arrant quacks in reality. Although the French authorities have begun a campaign against these irregular practitioners which is driving them away from inhabited centers, I was told in Berguent that certain quacks reputed to have great power still exist and that the sick make long and tiring pilgrimages to reach them.

This one of the brotherhood working openly in the place was so thorough a charlatan that he was not even abashed when we approached him in company with an official chouse, for he turned his impudent face in our direction and winked one of his eyes as though he were plainly saying:

"My physics will not help, but they will also do no harm; so do not prevent me from fooling these poor individuals. I, too, must live."

A cure was just in progress. The figure of a bedraggled woman, wrapped in a dirty rag of a bournous, stood unveiled before the hakim. The greenish-gray hue of her face combined with the lusterless eyes and a cough that shook her wasted frame to make clear the severity of the patient's malady. She stood before the wonderworker humble and silent with her gaze fixed upon a figure which he had drawn in the sand. Then the "doctor" held up a bottle containing, as he loudly advertised, water from a magic spring—but which he probably took from the nearest well—recited continuously some unintelligible phrases, prayed intermittently and then touched the head, breast and abdomen of the patient with the bottle. Following this, he made her drink some of the water, took from her a coin and threw the dirty haik over her face, as he lightly pushed her toward the crowd to make place for the next "happy victim." As the woman walked away stiff, indifferent and silent, the chouse, laughing, explained to me:

"The people here in Marrakesh continue to go to the hakims in spite of the fact that there is an immense French hospital for natives in Mamunia Park. They are so stupid!"

"You are not from these parts?" I asked.

"Oh, no sir!" he exclaimed with pride. "I am an Arab from Algiers."

Suddenly from up the square we heard drums, pipes, sharp cries and weird singing. When we learned from our chouse that tire snake-charmers were beginning a special performance, we hurriedly made our way to the circle gathering around the two conjurers, who sat on the ground with their linen-covered baskets before them. Between their drumming and cries they repeated frequently the same phrase.

"They say that a holy man will soon arrive upon whom the snakes are powerless to work any harm, as he is endowed with magic strength and is loved of Allah," the chouse interpreted with a contemptuous smile.

The next moment one of the men had taken two venomous-looking vipers and had thrust them into the faces of the circle of onlookers, which, though it broke in retreat and trampled its members, at the same time laughed over the snake man's joke.

"Welcome to the Faithful in the name of Allah," sounded suddenly in a powerful and melodious voice. "Welcome in the name of Sidi Bel Abbes, in the name of Ben Sliman, in the name of Sidi Abd el-Aziz, in the name of Abd Allah ben Hosim ben Reshid!"

A murmur of the crowd rose in answer to these words. As I turned I saw a rider clad in white and mounted on a fine, gray beast. The light wind that was coming down off the mountains played with the shock of his thick, curly hair. The rather pallid, emaciated face, expressive and almost beautiful, took its light from big, dark eyes. Stroking his black beard with a small, nervous hand, the rider made a long announcement to the crowd, toward the end of which he raised his voice until it took on the tones of a sharp cry.

"He is praising Allah, repeating some of his ninetynine names, and challenges djinns, the demons of snakes and the demons of their venom to battle with him," explained the chouse.

During the speech of this dramatically entered conjurer, the crowd remained serious and reverent and piously raised their hands in prayer, repeating after the speaker the words of his petitions and the numerous names of Allah, as well as those of the holy patrons of the town. When the rider had finished speaking, he leaped from his horse and strode to the center of the circle, where his lesser associates crawled toward him on their knees and kissed the hem of his bournous. They presented him with a single viper, which he held above his head as he began saying something to the throng. Then, grasping the viper by its neck, he looked steadily into its eyes, as though calming it When he had finished with this one, he threw it to the ground, while his helpers took out from the baskets other vipers and one longer and thinner type, resembling the Naja but totally black, which lay apart from the others.

Talking continuously, making violent gestures and darting swift glances about with his eyes, the conjurer caught up the vipers and threw them from one spot to another. Then he seized one of them and opened its jaws with a stick, so that the long, sharp fangs with venom dropping from them could be plainly seen. After this he carried the viper round the circle, exhibiting it to his gaping audience and reminding them of the deadly poison of the animal. When he had dropped it among the other snakes, he straightened up and in solemn tones made the announcement that he would now be bitten by a viper and would prove that Allah had given him power to fight and subdue the djinns of venom.

At this point I began observing most carefully the movements of the conjurer. Without seeming to look down on them, he touched each one of the snakes but picked up the very one which he had just compelled to throw its venom and thus to empty for a considerable period the glands that secrete and carry the poisonous saliva. Having once more opened the jaws of the snake, he touched its nose to his cheek and then, after a moment of violent shouting, began to beat his matted head with the bared fangs, thus probably getting rid of the last traces of venom that remained. With all this done, he allowed the angered viper to rest against his forehead, until we saw plainly two distinct bites and blood freely flowing from them.

I know that in India the fakir-conjurers of cobras are accustomed since childhood to the venom of the snakes, as they are inoculated with gradually increasing doses of the saliva until they are rendered immune. Confident that the viper had little venom left in its mouth, I felt sure that the performance was finished; but it continued, and with increased tension, while the drums rolled and the pipes whimpered, only to drop into a sudden and contrasting silence. The bitten conjurer smeared the blood over his whole face and disheveled his hair, after which he ordered one of his assistants to give him a drum and the basin of burning coals which had been blown red by the other. When these were placed before him, he was suddenly seized by a sort of convulsion, during which his face suffused with blood and his lips swelled and became purple. He coughed, and his mouth frothed with foam. We were apparently seeing the tortures of a man suffering from viper poisoning and watched him pick up the black snake, which lay at one side, bite its head, loosen the skin from its neck and begin to pull at this with his teeth.

Then he twisted the writhing form into a knot, closely resembling that on the enigmatical coat of arms of Seville, threw it on the burning coals and, when he had sniffed the roasting flesh, jumped to his feet, pushed back the hair from his forehead and showed that no traces of the bites remained.

The crowd roared in approval and relief, after they had been astonished and harassed by the conjurer's representation. With a rather lavish contribution of funds dropping into the basket of one of the assistants, the man of mysterious powers distributed amulets against snake bites to his audience. But here it was not the magic of the desert but European science that had been drawn upon and had triumphed, for these amulets were bits of paper carrying legends made through the medium of a rubber stamp and aniline colors. As we gave two francs, we received five of these charms, so that the reader need have no worry for us during our journey through Central Africa, the country of snakes, under the protection of the talismans of Abd Allah ben Hosim ben Reshid, that is, if the tropical rains do not wash off the synthetic dyes.

On our way back to the palace where the office of Monsieur Delarue was located, we stopped for a moment before an orchestra composed of Arab violins, mandolins, guitars, flutes and the omnipresent drum. When they began playing, the sounds proved so discordant and so lacking in all melody that Zofiette cried out, according to the established customs of the Moslem:

"In the name of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Bach, Mendelssohn, Wieniawski; in the name of Rozycki, Szymanowski, Szopski, Niewiadomski and Rogowski; in the name of all wali and ulema of music let us fly!"

When we reached the administrative building, Monsieur Delarue was awaiting us with the car to take us to see Dar el-Makhzen, the palace of the sultan. Once a year the head of the state comes to Marrakesh to collect taxes and receive homage from the mountain tribes. With its great area the palace reminds one of the vast ruins of Mulay Ismail in Meknes, though there are no ruins here. In the large outer court the Sultan receives the chieftains of the mountain tribes and addresses them from a small balcony. Another court is given over to the palace slaves, who are for the most part black, owing to the long-established preference of the Alawite dynasty for Negroes and Arabs rather than for the more warlike, independent and unreliable Berbers.

The great fruit-plantation of Aguedal stretches far away behind the walls of the palace. From the rich yield of its olive-, orange-, pomegranate-, fig-, lemon- and apricot-trees Glawi, the Bashaw of Marrakesh and the powerful feudal prince of the Atlas, yearly receives great revenues, sometimes as much as five hundred thousand francs for oranges and one hundred fifty thousand for figs alone. It is within the Aguedal that the harem ladies walk and play during the sultan's sojourn in Marrakesh. Among them are some European women, as well as beautiful Georgians and Tcherkess natives from the Caucasus. Of course, during these days, all the entrances to the gardens are closed and carefully watched by the Black Guard.

As we rode through the city and its environs, I could not but note the marked difference between this southern capital and the northern one, Fez. There in the city of Idris, the home of exacting science, fanatical faith and debauch that is deceitfully shrouded in mysticism and mystery, the population is pressed together in narrow streets and small squares tucked away among mosques, frowning dars, the homes of merchants and the dens of the poor; here, though there is a similar labyrinth of suks, the places are larger, there are more unwalled gardens open to the eyes of ordinary man, greater spaces void of buildings, where people can collect, much more accessible mosques and medersas and, with it all, a much closer touch with the life of the palms, of the mountains and of the desert. Here the development of thought is less restricted by the laws of the Faith and by tradition, and no walls can encompass it. This is noticeable even in the attitude of the native toward foreigners, for the distrust, contempt and hate of Fez are replaced by friendliness, comprehension and hospitality, which would seem to say:

"Everybody must live, and where could life be more easy and happy than in Marrakesh, in the gay whirl of Jetnaa el-Fna and in the shade of the forest of palms? Therefore, let the men of other lands live and enjoy it with us, praising the name of Allah, the One God, and showing respect to the great sultans who made here a paradise on earth."