A RETURN TO THE EAST
The East is a much larger slice of the world than Europeans care to
admit. Some say it begins at St. Gothard, where the smells of two
continents meet and fight all through that terrible restaurant-car
dinner in the tunnel. Others have found it at Venice on warm April
mornings. But the East is wherever one sees the lateen sail--that
shark's fin of a rig which for hundreds of years has dogged all white
bathers round the Mediterranean. There is still a suggestion of menace,
a hint of piracy, in the blood whenever the lateen goes by, fishing or
fruiting or coasting.
'This is _not_ my ancestral trade,' she whispers to the accomplice sea.
'If everybody had their rights I should be doing something quite
different; for my father, he was the Junk, and my mother, she was the
Dhow, and between the two of 'em they made Asia.' Then she tacks,
disorderly but deadly quick, and shuffles past the unimaginative
steam-packet with her hat over one eye and a knife, as it were, up her
Even the stone-boats at Port Said, busied on jetty extensions, show
their untamed descent beneath their loaded clumsiness. They are all
children of the camel-nosed dhow, who is the mother of mischief; but it
was very good to meet them again in raw sunshine, unchanged in any rope
Old Port Said had disappeared beneath acres of new buildings where one
could walk at leisure without being turned back by soldiers.
Two or three landmarks remained; two or three were reported as still in
existence, and one Face showed itself after many years--ravaged but
'Yes,' said the Face, 'I have been here all the time. But I have made
money, and when I die I am going home to be buried.'
'Why not go home before you are buried, O Face?'
'Because I have lived here _so_ long. Home is only good to be buried
'And what do you do, nowadays?'
'Nothing now. I live on my _rentes_--my income.'
Think of it! To live icily in a perpetual cinematograph show of excited,
uneasy travellers; to watch huge steamers, sliding in and out all day
and all night like railway trucks, unknowing and unsought by a single
soul aboard; to talk five or six tongues indifferently, but to have no
country--no interest in any earth except one reservation in a
It was a cold evening after heavy rain and the half-flooded streets
reeked. But we undefeated tourists ran about in droves and saw all that
could be seen before train-time. We missed, most of us, the Canal
Company's garden, which happens to mark a certain dreadful and exact
division between East and West.
Up to that point--it is a fringe of palms, stiff against the sky--the
impetus of home memories and the echo of home interests carry the young
man along very comfortably on his first journey. But at Suez one must
face things. People, generally the most sympathetic, leave the boat
there; the older men who are going on have discovered each other and
begun to talk shop; no newspapers come aboard, only clipped Reuter
telegrams; the world seems cruelly large and self-absorbed. One goes for
a walk and finds this little bit of kept ground, with comfortable
garden-gated houses on either side of the path. Then one begins to
wonder--in the twilight, for choice--when one will see those palms again
from the other side. Then the black hour of homesickness, vain regrets,
foolish promises, and weak despair shuts down with the smell of strange
earth and the cadence of strange tongues.
Cross-roads and halting-places in the desert are always favoured by
djinns and afrits. The young man will find them waiting for him in the
Canal Company's garden at Port Said.
On the other hand, if he is fortunate enough to have won the East by
inheritance, as there are families who served her for five or six
generations, he will meet no ghouls in that garden, but a free and a
friendly and an ample welcome from good spirits of the East that awaits
him. The voices of the gardeners and the watchmen will be as the
greetings of his father's servants in his father's house; the evening
smells and the sight of the hibiscus and poinsettia will unlock his
tongue in words and sentences that he thought he had clean forgotten,
and he will go back to the ship (I have seen) as a prince entering on
There was a man in our company--a young Englishman--who had just been
granted his heart's desire in the shape of some raw district south of
everything southerly in the Sudan, where, on two-thirds of a member of
Parliament's wage, under conditions of life that would horrify a
self-respecting operative, he will see perhaps some dozen white men in a
year, and will certainly pick up two sorts of fever. He had been moved
to work very hard for this billet by the representations of a friend in
the same service, who said that it was a 'rather decent sort of
service,' and he was all of a heat to reach Khartum, report for duty,
and fall to. If he is lucky, he may get a district where the people are
so virtuous that they do not know how to wear any clothes at all, and so
ignorant that they have never yet come across strong drink.
The train that took us to Cairo was own sister in looks and fittings to
any South African train--for which I loved her--but she was a trial to
some citizens of the United States, who, being used to the Pullman, did
not understand the side-corridored, solid-compartment idea. The trouble
with a standardised democracy seems to be that, once they break loose
from their standards, they have no props. People are _not_ left behind
and luggage is rarely mislaid on the railroads of the older world. There
is an ordained ritual for the handling of all things, to which if a man
will only conform and keep quiet, he and his will be attended to with
the rest. The people that I watched would not believe this. They charged
about futilely and wasted themselves in trying to get ahead of their
Here is a fragment from the restaurant-car: 'Look at here! Me and some
friends of mine are going to dine at this table. We don't want to be
'You 'ave your number for the service, sar?' 'Number? What number? We
want to dine _here_, I tell you.'
'You shall get your number, sar, for the first service?'
'Haow's that? Where in thunder do we _get_ the numbers, anyway?'
'I will give you the number, sar, at the time--for places at the first
'Yes, but we want to dine together here--right _now._'
'The service is not yet ready, sar.'
And so on--and so on; with marchings and counter-marchings, and every
word nervously italicised. In the end they dined precisely where there
was room for them in that new world which they had strayed into.
On one side our windows looked out on darkness of the waste; on the
other at the black Canal, all spaced with monstrous headlights of the
night-running steamers. Then came towns, lighted with electricity,
governed by mixed commissions, and dealing in cotton. Such a town, for
instance, as Zagazig, last seen by a very small boy who was lifted out
of a railway-carriage and set down beneath a whitewashed wall under
naked stars in an illimitable emptiness because, they told him, the
train was on fire. Childlike, this did not worry him. What stuck in his
sleepy mind was the absurd name of the place and his father's prophecy
that when he grew up he would 'come that way in a big steamer.'
So all his life, the word 'Zagazig' carried memories of a brick shed,
the flicker of an oil-lamp's floating wick, a sky full of eyes, and an
engine coughing in a desert at the world's end; which memories returned
in a restaurant-car jolting through what seemed to be miles of
brilliantly lighted streets and factories. No one at the table had even
turned his head for the battlefields of Kassassin and Tel-el-Kebir.
After all, why should they? That work is done, and children are getting
ready to be born who will say: '_I_ can remember Gondokoro (or El-Obeid
or some undreamed of Clapham Junction, Abyssinia-way) before a single
factory was started--before the overhead traffic began. Yes, when there
was a fever--actually fever--in the city itself!'
The gap is no greater than that between to-day's and t'other day's
Zagazig--between the horsed vans of the Overland Route in Lieutenant
Waghorn's time and the shining motor that flashed us to our Cairo hotel
through what looked like the suburbs of Marseilles or Rome.
Always keep a new city till morning, 'In the daytime,' as it is written
in the Perspicuous Book, 'thou hast long occupation,' Our window gave
on to the river, but before one moved toward it one heard the thrilling
squeal of the kites--those same thievish Companions of the Road who, at
that hour, were watching every Englishman's breakfast in every compound
and camp from Cairo to Calcutta.
[Footnote 6: The Koran.]
Voices rose from below--unintelligible words in maddeningly familiar
accents. A black boy in one blue garment climbed, using his toes as
fingers, the tipped mainyard of a Nile boat and framed himself in the
window. Then, because he felt happy, he sang, all among the wheeling
kites. And beneath our balcony rolled very Nile Himself, golden in
sunshine, wrinkled under strong breezes, with a crowd of creaking
cargo-boats waiting for a bridge to be opened.
On the cut-stone quay above, a line of cab drivers--a _ticca-gharri_
stand, nothing less--lolled and chaffed and tinkered with their
harnesses in every beautiful attitude of the ungirt East. All the ground
about was spotted with chewed sugarcane--first sign of the hot weather
all the world over.
Troops with startlingly pink faces (one would not have noticed this
yesterday) rolled over the girder bridge between churning motors and
bubbling camels, and the whole long-coated loose-sleeved Moslem world
was awake and about its business, as befits sensible people who pray at
I made haste to cross the bridge and to hear the palms in the wind on
the far side. They sang as nobly as though they had been true coconuts,
and the thrust of the north wind behind them was almost as open-handed
as the thrust of the Trades. Then came a funeral--the sheeted corpse on
the shallow cot, the brisk-pacing bearers (if he was good, the sooner he
is buried the sooner in heaven; if bad, bury him swiftly for the sake of
the household--either way, as the Prophet says, do not let the mourners
go too long weeping and hungry)--the women behind, tossing their arms
and lamenting, and men and boys chanting low and high.
They might have come forth from the Taksali Gate in the city of Lahore
on just such a cold weather morning as this, on their way to the
Mohammedan burial-grounds by the river. And the veiled countrywomen,
shuffling side by side, elbow pressed to hip, and eloquent right hand
pivoting round, palm uppermost, to give value to each shrill phrase,
might have been the wives of so many Punjabi cultivators but that they
wore another type of bangle and slipper. A knotty-kneed youth sitting
high on a donkey, both amuleted against the evil eye, chewed three
purplish-feet of sugar-cane, which made one envious as well as
voluptuously homesick, though the sugar-cane of Egypt is not to be
compared with that of Bombay.
Hans Breitmann writes somewhere:
Oh, if you live in Leyden town
You'll meet, if troot be told,
Der forms of all der freunds dot tied
When du werst six years old.
And they were all there under the chanting palms--saices, orderlies,
pedlars, water-carriers, street-cleaners, chicken-sellers and the
slate-coloured buffalo with the china-blue eyes being talked to by a
little girl with the big stick. Behind the hedges of well-kept gardens
squatted the brown gardener, making trenches indifferently with a hoe or
a toe, and under the municipal lamp-post lounged the bronze policeman--a
touch of Arab about mouth and lean nostril--quite unconcerned with a
ferocious row between two donkey-men. They were fighting across the body
of a Nubian who had chosen to sleep in that place. Presently, one of
them stepped back on the sleeper's stomach. The Nubian grunted, elbowed
himself up, rolled his eyes, and pronounced a few utterly dispassionate
words. The warriors stopped, settled their headgear, and went away as
quickly as the Nubian went to sleep again. This was life, the real,
unpolluted stuff--worth a desert-full of mummies. And right through the
middle of it--hooting and kicking up the Nile--passed a Cook's steamer
all ready to take tourists to Assuan. From the Nubian's point of view
she, and not himself, was the wonder--as great as the Swiss-controlled,
Swiss-staffed hotel behind her, whose lift, maybe, the Nubian helped to
run. Marids, and afrits, guardians of hidden gold, who choke or crush
the rash seeker; encounters with the long-buried dead in a Cairo
back-alley; undreamed-of promotions, and suddenly lit loves are the
stuff of any respectable person's daily life; but the white man from
across the water, arriving in hundreds with his unveiled womenfolk, who
builds himself flying-rooms and talks along wires, who flees up and down
the river, mad to sit upon camels and asses, constrained to throw down
silver from both hands--at once a child and a warlock--this thing must
come to the Nubian sheer out of the _Thousand and One Nights_. At any
rate, the Nubian was perfectly sane. Having eaten, he slept in God's own
sunlight, and I left him, to visit the fortunate and guarded and
desirable city of Cairo, to whose people, male and female, Allah has
given subtlety in abundance. Their jesters are known to have surpassed
in refinement the jesters of Damascus, as did their twelve police
captains the hardiest and most corrupt of Bagdad in the tolerant days of
Harun-al-Raschid; while their old women, not to mention their young
wives, could deceive the Father of Lies himself. Delhi is a great
place--most bazaar storytellers in India make their villain hail from
there; but when the agony and intrigue are piled highest and the tale
halts till the very last breathless sprinkle of cowries has ceased to
fall on his mat, why then, with wagging head and hooked forefinger, the
storyteller goes on:
'_But_ there was a man from Cairo, an Egyptian of the Egyptians,
who'--and all the crowd knows that a bit of real metropolitan devilry is