Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 20


A SERPENT OF OLD NILE

Modern Cairo is an unkempt place. The streets are dirty and
ill-constructed, the pavements unswept and often broken, the tramways
thrown, rather than laid, down, the gutters neglected. One expects
better than this in a city where the tourist spends so much every
season. Granted that the tourist is a dog, he comes at least with a bone
in his mouth, and a bone that many people pick. He should have a cleaner
kennel. The official answer is that the tourist-traffic is a flea-bite
compared with the cotton industry. Even so, land in Cairo city must be
too valuable to be used for cotton growing. It might just as well be
paved or swept. There is some sort of authority supposed to be in charge
of municipal matters, but its work is crippled by what is called 'The
Capitulations.' It was told to me that every one in Cairo except the
English, who appear to be the mean whites of these parts, has the
privilege of appealing to his consul on every conceivable subject from
the disposal of a garbage-can to that of a corpse. As almost every one
with claims to respectability, and certainly every one without any,
keeps a consul, it follows that there is one consul per superficial
meter, arshin, or cubit of Ezekiel within the city. And since every
consul is zealous for the honour of his country and not at all above
annoying the English on general principles, municipal progress is slow.

Cairo strikes one as unventilated and unsterilised, even when the sun
and wind are scouring it together. The tourist talks a good deal, as you
may see here, but the permanent European resident does not open his
mouth more than is necessary--sound travels so far across flat water.
Besides, the whole position of things, politically and administratively,
is essentially false.

Here is a country which is not a country but a longish strip of
market-garden, nominally in charge of a government which is not a
government but the disconnected satrapy of a half-dead empire,
controlled pecksniffingly by a Power which is not a Power but an Agency,
which Agency has been tied up by years, custom, and blackmail into all
sorts of intimate relations with six or seven European Powers, all with
rights and perquisites, none of whose subjects seem directly amenable to
any Power which at first, second, or third hand is supposed to be
responsible. That is the barest outline. To fill in the details (if any
living man knows them) would be as easy as to explain baseball to an
Englishman or the Eton Wall game to a citizen of the United States. But
it is a fascinating play. There are Frenchmen in it, whose logical mind
it offends, and they revenge themselves by printing the finance-reports
and the catalogue of the Bulak Museum in pure French. There are Germans
in it, whose demands must be carefully weighed--not that they can by any
means be satisfied, but they serve to block other people's. There are
Russians in it, who do not very much matter at present but will be heard
from later. There are Italians and Greeks in it (both rather pleased
with themselves just now), full of the higher finance and the finer
emotions. There are Egyptian pashas in it, who come back from Paris at
intervals and ask plaintively to whom they are supposed to belong. There
is His Highness, the Khedive, in it, and _he_ must be considered not a
little, and there are women in it, up to their eyes. And there are great
English cotton and sugar interests, and angry English importers
clamouring to know why they cannot do business on rational lines or get
into the Sudan, which they hold is ripe for development if the
administration there would only see reason. Among these conflicting
interests and amusements sits and perspires the English official, whose
job is irrigating or draining or reclaiming land on behalf of a trifle
of ten million people, and he finds himself tripped up by skeins of
intrigue and bafflement which may ramify through half a dozen harems and
four consulates. All this makes for suavity, toleration, and the blessed
habit of not being surprised at anything whatever.

Or, so it seemed to me, watching a big dance at one of the hotels. Every
European race and breed, and half of the United States were
represented, but I fancied I could make out three distinct groupings.
The tourists with the steamer-trunk creases still across their dear,
excited backs; the military and the officials sure of their partners
beforehand, and saying clearly what ought to be said; and a third
contingent, lower-voiced, softer-footed, and keener-eyed than the other
two, at ease, as gipsies are on their own ground, flinging half-words in
local _argot_ over shoulders at their friends, understanding on the nod
and moved by springs common to their clan only. For example, a woman was
talking flawless English to her partner, an English officer. Just before
the next dance began, another woman beckoned to her, Eastern fashion,
all four fingers flicking downward. The first woman crossed to a potted
palm; the second moved toward it also, till the two drew, up, not
looking at each other, the plant between them. Then she who had beckoned
spoke in a strange tongue _at_ the palm. The first woman, still looking
away, answered in the same fashion with a rush of words that rattled
like buckshot through the stiff fronds. Her tone had nothing to do with
that in which she greeted her new partner, who came up as the music
began. The one was a delicious drawl; the other had been the guttural
rasp and click of the kitchen and the bazaar. So she moved off, and, in
a little, the second woman disappeared into the crowd. Most likely it
was no more than some question of the programme or dress, but the
prompt, feline stealth and coolness of it, the lightning-quick return to
and from world-apart civilisations stuck in my memory.

So did the bloodless face of a very old Turk, fresh from some horror of
assassination in Constantinople in which he, too, had been nearly
pistolled, but, they said, he had argued quietly over the body of a late
colleague, as one to whom death was of no moment, until the hysterical
Young Turks were abashed and let him get away--to the lights and music
of this elegantly appointed hotel.

These modern 'Arabian Nights' are too hectic for quiet folk. I declined
upon a more rational Cairo--the Arab city where everything is as it was
when Maruf the Cobbler fled from Fatima-el-Orra and met the djinn in the
Adelia Musjid. The craftsmen and merchants sat on their shop-boards, a
rich mystery of darkness behind them, and the narrow gullies were
polished to shoulder-height by the mere flux of people. Shod white men,
unless they are agriculturists, touch lightly, with their hands at most,
in passing. Easterns lean and loll and squat and sidle against things as
they daunder along. When the feet are bare, the whole body thinks.
Moreover, it is unseemly to buy or to do aught and be done with it. Only
people with tight-fitting clothes that need no attention have time for
that. So we of the loose skirt and flowing trousers and slack slipper
make full and ample salutations to our friends, and redouble them toward
our ill-wishers, and if it be a question of purchase, the stuff must be
fingered and appraised with a proverb or so, and if it be a
fool-tourist who thinks that he cannot be cheated, O true believers!
draw near and witness how we shall loot him.

But I bought nothing. The city thrust more treasure upon me than I could
carry away. It came out of dark alleyways on tawny camels loaded with
pots; on pattering asses half buried under nets of cut clover; in the
exquisitely modelled hands of little children scurrying home from the
cookshop with the evening meal, chin pressed against the platter's edge
and eyes round with responsibility above the pile; in the broken lights
from jutting rooms overhead, where the women lie, chin between palms,
looking out of windows not a foot from the floor; in every glimpse into
every courtyard, where the men smoke by the tank; in the heaps of
rubbish and rotten bricks that flanked newly painted houses, waiting to
be built, some day, into houses once more; in the slap and slide or the
heelless red-and-yellow slippers all around, and, above all, in the
mixed delicious smells of frying butter, Mohammedan bread, kababs,
leather, cooking-smoke, assafetida, peppers, and turmeric. Devils cannot
abide the smell of burning turmeric, but the right-minded man loves it.
It stands for evening that brings all home, the evening meal, the
dipping of friendly hands in the dish, the one face, the dropped veil,
and the big, guttering pipe afterward.

Praised be Allah for the diversity of His creatures and for the Five
Advantages of Travel and for the glories of the Cities of the Earth!
Harun-al-Raschid, in roaring Bagdad of old, never delighted himself to
the limits of such a delight as was mine, that afternoon. It is true
that the call to prayer, the cadence of some of the street-cries, and
the cut of some of the garments differed a little from what I had been
brought up to; but for the rest, the shadow on the dial had turned back
twenty degrees for me, and I found myself saying, as perhaps the dead
say when they have recovered their wits, 'This is my real world again,'

Some men are Mohammedan by birth, some by training, and some by fate,
but I have never met an Englishman yet who hated Islam and its people as
I have met Englishmen who hated some other faiths. _Musalmani awadani_,
as the saying goes--where there are Mohammedans, there is a
comprehensible civilisation.

Then we came upon a deserted mosque of pitted brick colonnades round a
vast courtyard open to the pale sky. It was utterly empty except for its
own proper spirit, and that caught one by the throat as one entered.
Christian churches may compromise with images and side-chapels where the
unworthy or abashed can traffic with accessible saints. Islam has but
one pulpit and one stark affirmation--living or dying, one only--and
where men have repeated that in red-hot belief through centuries, the
air still shakes to it.

Some say now that Islam is dying and that nobody cares; others that, if
she withers in Europe and Asia, she will renew herself in Africa and
will return--terrible--after certain years, at the head of all the nine
sons of Ham; others dream that the English understand Islam as no one
else does, and, in years to be, Islam will admit this and the world will
be changed. If you go to the mosque Al Azhar--the thousand-year-old
University of Cairo--you will be able to decide for yourself. There is
nothing to see except many courts, cool in hot weather, surrounded by
cliff-like brick walls. Men come and go through dark doorways, giving on
to yet darker cloisters, as freely as though the place was a bazaar.
There are no aggressive educational appliances. The students sit on the
ground, and their teachers instruct them, mostly by word of mouth, in
grammar, syntax, logic; _al-hisab_, which is arithmetic; _al-jab'r w'al
muqabalah_, which is algebra; _at-tafsir,_ commentaries on the Koran,
and last and most troublesome, _al-ahadis,_ traditions, and yet more
commentaries on the law of Islam, which leads back, like everything, to
the Koran once again. (For it is written, 'Truly the Quran is none other
than a revelation.') It is a very comprehensive curriculum. No man can
master it entirely, but any can stay there as long as he pleases. The
university provides commons--twenty-five thousand loaves a day, I
believe,--and there is always a place to lie down in for such as do not
desire a shut room and a bed. Nothing could be more simple or, given
certain conditions, more effective. Close upon six hundred professors,
who represent officially or unofficially every school or thought, teach
ten or twelve thousand students, who draw from every Mohammedan
community, west and east between Manila and Morocco, north and south
between Kamchatka and the Malay mosque at Cape Town. These drift off to
become teachers of little schools, preachers at mosques, students of the
Law known to millions (but rarely to Europeans), dreamers, devotees, or
miracle-workers in all the ends of the earth. The man who interested me
most was a red-bearded, sunk-eyed mullah from the Indian frontier, not
likely to be last at any distribution of food, who stood up like a lean
wolfhound among collies in a little assembly at a doorway.

And there was another mosque, sumptuously carpeted and lighted (which
the Prophet does not approve of), where men prayed in the dull mutter
that, at times, mounts and increases under the domes like the boom of
drums or the surge of a hot hive before the swarm flings out. And round
the corner of it, one almost ran into Our inconspicuous and wholly
detached Private of Infantry, his tunic open, his cigarette alight,
leaning against some railings and considering the city below. Men in
forts and citadels and garrisons all the world over go up at twilight as
automatically as sheep at sundown, to have a last look round. They say
little and return as silently across the crunching gravel, detested by
bare feet, to their whitewashed rooms and regulated lives. One of the
men told me he thought well of Cairo. It was interesting. 'Take it from
me,' he said, 'there's a lot in seeing places, because you can remember
'em afterward.'

He was very right. The purple and lemon-coloured hazes of dusk and
reflected day spread over the throbbing, twinkling streets, masked the
great outline of the citadel and the desert hills, and conspired to
confuse and suggest and evoke memories, till Cairo the Sorceress cast
her proper shape and danced before me in the heartbreaking likeness of
every city I had known and loved, a little farther up the road.

It was a cruel double-magic. For in the very hour that my homesick soul
had surrendered itself to the dream of the shadow that had turned back
on the dial, I realised all the desolate days and homesickness of all
the men penned in far-off places among strange sounds and smells.

Rudyard Kipling

Sorry, no summary available yet.