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Chapter 5




To occidental travellers the most vivid impression produced by a first
contact with the Near East is the surprise of being in a country where
the human element increases instead of diminishing the delight of the

After all, then, the intimate harmony between nature and architecture
and the human body that is revealed in Greek art was not an artist's
counsel of perfection but an honest rendering of reality: there were,
there still are, privileged scenes where the fall of a green-grocer's
draperies or a milkman's cloak or a beggar's rags are part of the
composition, distinctly related to it in line and colour, and where the
natural unstudied attitudes of the human body are correspondingly
harmonious, however humdrum the acts it is engaged in. The discovery,
to the traveller returning from the East, robs the most romantic scenes
of western Europe of half their charm: in the Piazza of San Marco, in
the market-place of Siena, where at least the robes of the Procurators
or the gay tights of Pinturicchio's striplings once justified man's
presence among his works, one can see, at first, only the outrage
inflicted on beauty by the "plentiful strutting manikins" of the modern

Moroccan crowds are always a feast to the eye. The instinct of skilful
drapery, the sense of colour (subdued by custom, but breaking out in
subtle glimpses under the universal ashy tints) make the humblest
assemblage of donkey-men and water-carriers an ever-renewed delight. But
it is only on rare occasions, and in the court ceremonies to which so
few foreigners have had access, that the hidden sumptuousness of the
native life is revealed. Even then, the term sumptuousness may seem
ill-chosen, since the nomadic nature of African life persists in spite
of palaces and chamberlains and all the elaborate ritual of the Makhzen,
and the most pompous rites are likely to end in a dusty gallop of wild
tribesmen, and the most princely processions to tail off in a string of
half-naked urchins riding bareback on donkeys.

As in all Oriental countries, the contact between prince and beggar,
vizier and serf is disconcertingly free and familiar, and one must see
the highest court officials kissing the hem of the Sultan's robe, and
hear authentic tales of slaves given by one merchant to another at the
end of a convivial evening, to be reminded that nothing is as democratic
in appearance as a society of which the whole structure hangs on the
whim of one man.



In the verandah of the Residence of Rabat I stood looking out between
posts festooned with gentian-blue ipomeas at the first shimmer of light
on black cypresses and white tobacco-flowers, on the scattered roofs of
the new town, and the plain stretching away to the Sultan's palace above
the sea.

We had been told, late the night before, that the Sultan would allow
Madame Lyautey, with the three ladies of her party, to be present at
the great religious rite of the Aïd-el-Kebir (the Sacrifice of the
Sheep). The honour was an unprecedented one, a favour probably conceded
only at the last moment: for as a rule no women are admitted to these
ceremonies. It was an opportunity not to be missed, and all through the
short stifling night I had lain awake wondering if I should be ready
early enough. Presently the motors assembled, and we set out with the
French officers in attendance on the Governor's wife.

The Sultan's palace, a large modern building on the familiar Arab lines,
lies in a treeless and gardenless waste enclosed by high walls and close
above the blue Atlantic. We motored past the gates, where the Sultan's
Black Guard was drawn up, and out to the _msalla_,[A] a sort of common
adjacent to all the Sultan's residences where public ceremonies are
usually performed. The sun was already beating down on the great plain
thronged with horsemen and with the native population of Rabat on
mule-back and foot. Within an open space in the centre of the crowd a
canvas palissade dyed with a bold black pattern surrounded the Sultan's
tents. The Black Guard, in scarlet tunics and white and green turbans,
were drawn up on the edge of the open space, keeping the spectators at a
distance; but under the guidance of our companions we penetrated to the
edge of the crowd.

[Footnote A: The _msalla_ is used for the performance of religious
ceremonies when the crowd is too great to be contained in the court of
the mosque.]

The palissade was open on one side, and within it we could see moving
about among the snowy-robed officials a group of men in straight narrow
gowns of almond-green, peach-blossom, lilac and pink; they were the
Sultan's musicians, whose coloured dresses always flower out
conspicuously among the white draperies of all the other court

In the tent nearest the opening, against a background of embroidered
hangings, a circle of majestic turbaned old men squatted placidly on
Rabat rugs. Presently the circle broke up, there was an agitated coming
and going, and some one said: "The Sultan has gone to the tent at the
back of the enclosure to kill the sheep."

A sense of the impending solemnity ran through the crowd. The mysterious
rumour which is the Voice of the Bazaar rose about us like the wind in
a palm-oasis; the Black Guard fired a salute from an adjoining hillock;
the clouds of red dust flung up by wheeling horsemen thickened and then
parted, and a white-robed rider sprang out from the tent of the
Sacrifice with something red and dripping across his saddle-bow, and
galloped away toward Rabat through the shouting. A little shiver ran
over the group of occidental spectators, who knew that the dripping red
thing was a sheep with its throat so skilfully slit that, if the omen
were favourable, it would live on through the long race to Rabat and
gasp out its agonized life on the tiles of the Mosque.

The Sacrifice of the Sheep, one of the four great Moslem rites, is
simply the annual propitiatory offering made by every Mahometan head of
a family, and by the Sultan as such. It is based not on a Koranic
injunction, but on the "Souna" or record of the Prophet's "custom" or
usages, which forms an authoritative precedent in Moslem ritual. So far
goes the Moslem exegesis. In reality, of course, the Moslem
blood-sacrifice comes, by way of the Semitic ritual, from far beyond and
behind it, and the belief that the Sultan's prosperity for the coming
year depends on the animal's protracted agony seems to relate the
ceremony to the dark magic so deeply rooted in the mysterious tribes
peopling North Africa long ages before the first Phoenician prows had
rounded its coast.

Between the Black Guard and the tents, five or six horses were being led
up and down by muscular grooms in snowy tunics. They were handsome
animals, as Moroccan horses go, and each of a different colour, and on
the bay horse was a red saddle embroidered in gold, on the piebald a
saddle of peach-colour and silver, on the chestnut, grass-green
encrusted with seed-pearls, on the white mare purple housings, and
orange velvet on the grey. The Sultan's band had struck up a shrill
hammering and twanging, the salute of the Black Guard continued at
intervals, and the caparisoned steeds began to rear and snort and drag
back from the cruel Arab bits with their exquisite _niello_
incrustations. Some one whispered that these were His Majesty's
horses--and that it was never known till he appeared which one he would

Presently the crowd about the tents thickened, and when it divided
again there emerged from it a grey horse bearing a motionless figure
swathed in blinding white. Marching at the horse's bridle, lean brown
grooms in white tunics rhythmically waved long strips of white linen to
keep off the flies from the Imperial Presence, and beside the motionless
rider, in a line with his horse's flank, rode the Imperial
Parasol-bearer, who held above the sovereign's head a great sunshade of
bright green velvet. Slowly the grey horse advanced a few yards before
the tent; behind rode the court dignitaries, followed by the musicians,
who looked, in their bright scant caftans, like the slender music-making
angels of a Florentine fresco.

The Sultan, pausing beneath his velvet dome, waited to receive the
homage of the assembled tribes. An official, riding forward, drew bridle
and called out a name. Instantly there came storming across the plain a
wild cavalcade of tribesmen, with rifles slung across their shoulders,
pistols and cutlasses in their belts, and twists of camel's-hair bound
about their turbans. Within a few feet of the Sultan they drew in, their
leader uttered a cry and sprang forward, bending to the saddle-bow,
and with a great shout the tribe galloped by, each man bowed over his
horse's neck as he flew past the hieratic figure on the grey horse.

Again and again this ceremony was repeated, the Sultan advancing a few
feet as each new group thundered toward him. There were more than ten
thousand horsemen and chieftains from the Atlas and the wilderness, and
as the ceremony continued the dust-clouds grew denser and more
fiery-golden, till at last the forward-surging lines showed through them
like blurred images in a tarnished mirror.

As the Sultan advanced we followed, abreast of him and facing the
oncoming squadrons. The contrast between his motionless figure and the
wild waves of cavalry beating against it typified the strange soul of
Islam, with its impetuosity forever culminating in impassiveness. The
sun hung high, a brazen ball in a white sky, darting down metallic
shafts on the dust-enveloped plain and the serene white figure under its
umbrella. The fat man with a soft round beard-fringed face, wrapped in
spirals of pure white, one plump hand on his embroidered bridle, his
yellow-slippered feet thrust heel-down in big velvet-lined stirrups,
became, through sheer immobility, a symbol, a mystery, a God. The human
flux beat against him, dissolved, ebbed away, another spear-crested wave
swept up behind it and dissolved in turn; and he sat on, hour after
hour, under the white-hot sky, unconscious of the heat, the dust, the
tumult, embodying to the wild factious precipitate hordes a long
tradition of serene aloofness.



As the last riders galloped up to do homage we were summoned to our
motors and driven rapidly to the palace. The Sultan had sent word to
Mme. Lyautey that the ladies of the Imperial harem would entertain her
and her guests while his Majesty received the Resident General, and we
had to hasten back in order not to miss the next act of the spectacle.

We walked across a long court lined with the Black Guard, passed under a
gateway, and were met by a shabbily dressed negress. Traversing a hot
dazzle of polychrome tiles we reached another archway guarded by the
chief eunuch, a towering black with the enamelled eyes of a basalt bust.
The eunuch delivered us to other negresses, and we entered a labyrinth
of inner passages and patios, all murmuring and dripping with water.
Passing down long corridors where slaves in dim greyish garments
flattened themselves against the walls, we caught glimpses of great dark
rooms, laundries, pantries, bakeries, kitchens, where savoury things
were brewing and stewing, and where more negresses, abandoning their
pots and pans, came to peep at us from the threshold. In one corner, on
a bench against a wall hung with matting, grey parrots in tall cages
were being fed by a slave.

A narrow staircase mounted to a landing where a princess out of an Arab
fairy-tale awaited us. Stepping softly on her embroidered slippers she
led us to the next landing, where another golden-slippered being smiled
out on us, a little girl this one, blushing and dimpling under a
jewelled diadem and pearl-woven braids. On a third landing a third
damsel appeared, and encircled by the three graces we mounted to the
tall _mirador_ in the central tower from which we were to look down at
the coming ceremony. One by one, our little guides, kicking off their
golden shoes, which a slave laid neatly outside the door, led us on soft
bare feet into the upper chamber of the harem.

It was a large room, enclosed on all sides by a balcony glazed with
panes of brightly-coloured glass. On a gaudy modern Rabat carpet stood
gilt armchairs of florid design and a table bearing a commercial bronze
of the "art goods" variety. Divans with muslin-covered cushions were
ranged against the walls and down an adjoining gallery-like apartment
which was otherwise furnished only with clocks. The passion for clocks
and other mechanical contrivances is common to all unmechanical races,
and every chief's palace in North Africa contains a collection of
time-pieces which might be called striking if so many had not ceased to
go. But those in the Sultan's harem of Rabat are remarkable for the fact
that, while designed on current European models, they are proportioned
in size to the Imperial dignity, so that a Dutch "grandfather" becomes a
wardrobe, and the box-clock of the European mantelpiece a cupboard that
has to be set on the floor. At the end of this avenue of time-pieces a
European double-bed with a bright silk quilt covered with Nottingham
lace stood majestically on a carpeted platform.

But for the enchanting glimpses of sea and plain through the lattices of
the gallery, the apartment of the Sultan's ladies falls far short of
occidental ideas of elegance. But there was hardly time to think of
this, for the door of the _mirador_ was always opening to let in another
fairy-tale figure, till at last we were surrounded by a dozen houris,
laughing, babbling, taking us by the hand, and putting shy questions
while they looked at us with caressing eyes. They were all (our
interpretess whispered) the Sultan's "favourites," round-faced
apricot-tinted girls in their teens, with high cheek-bones, full red
lips, surprised brown eyes between curved-up Asiatic lids, and little
brown hands fluttering out like birds from their brocaded sleeves.

In honour of the ceremony, and of Mme. Lyautey's visit, they had put on
their finest clothes, and their freedom of movement was somewhat
hampered by their narrow sumptuous gowns, with over-draperies of gold
and silver brocade and pale rosy gauze held in by corset-like sashes of
gold tissue of Fez, and the heavy silken cords that looped their
voluminous sleeves. Above their foreheads the hair was shaven like that
of an Italian fourteenth-century beauty, and only a black line as narrow
as a pencilled eyebrow showed through the twist of gauze fastened by a
jewelled clasp above the real eye-brows. Over the forehead-jewel rose
the complicated structure of the headdress. Ropes of black wool were
plaited through the hair, forming, at the back, a double loop that stood
out above the nape like the twin handles of a vase, the upper veiled in
airy shot gauzes and fastened with jewelled bands and ornaments. On each
side of the red cheeks other braids were looped over the ears hung with
broad earrings of filigree set with rough pearls and emeralds, or gold
loops and pendants of coral, and an unexpected tulle ruff, like that of
a Watteau shepherdess, framed the round chin above a torrent of
necklaces, necklaces of amber, coral, baroque pearls, hung with
mysterious barbaric amulets and fetiches. As the young things moved
about us on soft hennaed feet the light played on shifting gleams of
gold and silver, blue and violet and apple-green, all harmonized and
bemisted by clouds of pink and sky-blue, and through the changing group
capered a little black picaninny in a caftan of silver-shot purple with
a sash of raspberry red.

But presently there was a flutter in the aviary. A fresh pair of
_babouches_ clicked on the landing, and a young girl, less brilliantly
dressed and less brilliant of face than the others, came in on bare
painted feet. Her movements were shy and hesitating, her large lips
pale, her eye-brows less vividly dark, her head less jewelled. But all
the little humming-birds gathered about her with respectful rustlings as
she advanced toward us leaning on one of the young girls, and holding
out her ringed hand to Mme. Lyautey's curtsey. It was the young
Princess, the Sultan's legitimate daughter. She examined us with sad
eyes, spoke a few compliments through the interpretess, and seated
herself in silence, letting the others sparkle and chatter.

Conversation with the shy Princess was flagging when one of the
favourites beckoned us to the balcony. We were told we might push open
the painted panes a few inches, but as we did so the butterfly group
drew back lest they should be seen looking out on the forbidden world.

Salutes were crashing out again from the direction of the _msalla_:
puffs of smoke floated over the slopes like thistle-down. Farther off, a
pall of red vapour veiled the gallop of the last horsemen wheeling away
toward Rabat. The vapour subsided, and moving out of it we discerned a
slow procession. First rode a detachment of the Black Guard, mounted on
black horses, and, comically fierce in their British scarlet and Meccan
green, a uniform invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century by
a retired English army officer. After the Guard came the
standard-bearers and the great dignitaries, then the Sultan, still
aloof, immovable, as if rapt in the contemplation of his mystic office.
More court officials followed, then the bright-gowned musicians on foot,
then a confused irrepressible crowd of pilgrims, beggars, saints,
mountebanks, and the other small folk of the Bazaar, ending in a line of
boys jamming their naked heels into the ribs of world-weary donkeys.

The Sultan rode into the court below us, and Vizier and chamberlains,
snowy-white against the scarlet line of the Guards, hurried forward to
kiss his draperies, his shoes, his stirrup. Descending from his velvet
saddle, still entranced, he paced across the tiles between a double line
of white servitors bowing to the ground. White pigeons circled over him
like petals loosed from a great orchard, and he disappeared with his
retinue under the shadowy arcade of the audience chamber at the back of
the court.

At this point one of the favourites called us in from the _mirador_. The
door had just opened to admit an elderly woman preceded by a respectful
group of girls. From the newcomer's round ruddy face, her short round
body, the round hands emerging from her round wrists, an inexplicable
majesty emanated; and though she too was less richly arrayed than the
favourites she carried her headdress of striped gauze like a crown.

This impressive old lady was the Sultan's mother. As she held out her
plump wrinkled hand to Mme. Lyautey and spoke a few words through the
interpretess one felt that at last a painted window of the _mirador_ had
been broken, and a thought let into the vacuum of the harem. What
thought, it would have taken deep insight into the processes of the Arab
mind to discover; but its honesty was manifest in the old Empress's
voice and smile. Here at last was a woman beyond the trivial
dissimulations, the childish cunning, the idle cruelties of the harem.
It was not a surprise to be told that she was her son's most trusted
adviser, and the chief authority in the palace. If such a woman deceived
and intrigued it would be for great purposes and for ends she believed
in; the depth of her soul had air and daylight in it, and she would
never willingly shut them out.

The Empress Mother chatted for a while with Mme. Lyautey, asking about
the Resident General's health, enquiring for news of the war, and
saying, with an emotion perceptible even through the unintelligible
words: "All is well with Morocco as long as all is well with France."
Then she withdrew, and we were summoned again to the _mirador_.

This time it was to see a company of officers in brilliant uniforms
advancing at a trot across the plain from Rabat. At sight of the figure
that headed them, so slim, erect and young on his splendid chestnut,
with a pale blue tunic barred by the wide orange ribbon of the Cherifian
Order, salutes pealed forth again from the slope above the palace and
the Black Guard presented arms. A moment later General Lyautey and his
staff were riding in at the gates below us. On the threshold of the
inner court they dismounted, and moving to the other side of our balcony
we followed the next stage of the ceremony. The Sultan was still seated
in the audience chamber. The court officials still stood drawn up in a
snow-white line against the snow-white walls. The great dignitaries
advanced across the tiles to greet the General, then they fell aside,
and he went forward alone, followed at a little distance by his staff. A
third of the way across the court he paused, in accordance with the
Moroccan court ceremonial, and bowed in the direction of the arcaded
room; a few steps farther he bowed again, and a third time on the
threshold of the room. Then French uniforms and Moroccan draperies
closed in about him, and all vanished into the shadows of the audience

Our audience too seemed to be over. We had exhausted the limited small
talk of the harem, had learned from the young beauties that, though they
were forbidden to look on at the ceremony, the dancers and singers would
come to entertain them presently, and had begun to take leave when a
negress hurried in to say that his Majesty begged Mme. Lyautey and her
friends to await his arrival. This was the crowning incident of our
visit, and I wondered with what Byzantine ritual the Anointed One fresh
from the exercise of his priestly functions would be received among his

The door opened, and without any announcement or other preliminary
flourish a fat man with a pleasant face, his djellabah stretched over a
portly front, walked in holding a little boy by the hand. Such was his
Majesty the Sultan Moulay Youssef, despoiled of sacramental burnouses
and turban, and shuffling along on bare yellow-slippered feet with the
gait of a stout elderly gentleman who has taken off his boots in the
passage preparatory to a domestic evening.

The little Prince, one of his two legitimate sons, was dressed with
equal simplicity, for silken garments are worn in Morocco only by
musicians, boy-dancers and other hermaphrodite fry. With his ceremonial
raiment the Sultan had put off his air of superhuman majesty, and the
expression of his round pale face corresponded with the plainness of his
dress. The favourites fluttered about him, respectful but by no means
awestruck, and the youngest began to play with the little Prince. We
could well believe the report that his was the happiest harem in
Morocco, as well as the only one into which a breath of the outer world
ever came.

Moulay Youssef greeted Mme. Lyautey with friendly simplicity, made the
proper speeches to her companions, and then, with the air of the
business-man who has forgotten to give an order before leaving his
office, he walked up to a corner of the room, and while the
flower-maidens ruffled about him, and through the windows we saw the
last participants in the mystic rites galloping away toward the
crenellated walls of Rabat, his Majesty the Priest and Emperor of the
Faithful unhooked a small instrument from the wall and applied his
sacred lips to the telephone.



Before General Lyautey came to Morocco Rabat had been subjected to the
indignity of European "improvements," and one must traverse boulevards
scored with tram-lines, and pass between hotel-terraces and cafés and
cinema-palaces, to reach the surviving nucleus of the once beautiful
native town. Then, at the turn of a commonplace street, one comes upon
it suddenly. The shops and cafés cease, the jingle of trams and the
trumpeting of motor-horns die out, and here, all at once, are silence
and solitude, and the dignified reticence of the windowless Arab

We were bound for the house of a high government official, a Moroccan
dignitary of the old school, who had invited us to tea, and added a
message to the effect that the ladies of his household would be happy to
receive me.

The house we sought was some distance down the quietest of white-walled
streets. Our companion knocked at a low green door, and we were admitted
to a passage into which a wooden stairway descended. A brother-in-law
of our host was waiting for us; in his wake we mounted the ladder-like
stairs and entered a long room with a florid French carpet and a set of
gilt furniture to match. There were no fretted walls, no painted cedar
doors, no fountains rustling in unseen courts: the house was squeezed in
between others, and such traces of old ornament as it may have possessed
had vanished.

But presently we saw why its inhabitants were indifferent to such
details. Our host, a handsome white-bearded old man, welcomed us in the
doorway, then he led us to a raised oriel window at one end of the room,
and seated us in the gilt armchairs face to face with one of the most
beautiful views in Morocco.

Below us lay the white and blue terrace-roofs of the native town, with
palms and minarets shooting up between them, or the shadows of a
vine-trellis patterning a quiet lane. Beyond, the Atlantic sparkled,
breaking into foam at the mouth of the Bou-Regreg and under the towering
ramparts of the Kasbah of the Oudayas. To the right, the ruins of the
great Mosque rose from their plateau over the river; and, on the
farther side of the troubled flood, old Salé, white and wicked, lay like
a jewel in its gardens. With such a scene beneath their eyes, the
inhabitants of the house could hardly feel its lack of architectural

After exchanging the usual compliments, and giving us time to enjoy the
view, our host withdrew, taking with him the men of our party. A moment
later he reappeared with a rosy fair-haired girl, dressed in Arab
costume, but evidently of European birth. The brother-in-law explained
that this young woman, who had "studied in Algeria," and whose mother
was French, was the intimate friend of the ladies of the household, and
would act as interpreter. Our host then again left us, joining the men
visitors in another room, and the door opened to admit his wife and

The mistress of the house was a handsome Algerian with sad expressive
eyes, the younger women were pale, fat and amiable. They all wore sober
dresses, in keeping with the simplicity of the house, and but for the
vacuity of their faces the group might have been that of a Professor's
family in an English or American University town, decently costumed for
an Arabian Nights' pageant in the college grounds. I was never more
vividly reminded of the fact that human nature, from one pole to the
other, falls naturally into certain categories, and that Respectability
wears the same face in an Oriental harem as in England or America.

My hostesses received me with the utmost amiability, we seated ourselves
in the oriel facing the view, and the interchange of questions and
compliments began.

Had I any children? (They asked it all at once.)

Alas, no.

"In Islam" (one of the ladies ventured) "a woman without children is
considered the most unhappy being in the world."

I replied that in the western world also childless women were pitied.
(The brother-in-law smiled incredulously.)

Knowing that European fashions are of absorbing interest to the harem I
next enquired: "What do these ladies think of our stiff tailor-dresses?
Don't they find them excessively ugly?"

"Yes, they do;" (it was again the brother-in-law who replied.) "But
they suppose that in your own homes you dress less badly."

"And have they never any desire to travel, or to visit the Bazaars, as
the Turkish ladies do?"

"No, indeed. They are too busy to give such matters a thought. In _our
country_ women of the highest class occupy themselves with their
household and their children, and the rest of their time is devoted to
needlework." (At this statement I gave the brother-in-law a smile as
incredulous as his own.)

All this time the fair-haired interpretess had not been allowed by the
vigilant guardian of the harem to utter a word.

I turned to her with a question.

"So your mother is French, _Mademoiselle_?"

"_Oui, Madame_."

"From what part of France did she come?"

A bewildered pause. Finally, "I don't know . . . from Switzerland, I
think," brought out this shining example of the Higher Education. In
spite of Algerian "advantages" the poor girl could speak only a few
words of her mother's tongue. She had kept the European features and
complexion, but her soul was the soul of Islam. The harem had placed its
powerful imprint upon her, and she looked at me with the same remote and
passive eyes as the daughters of the house.

After struggling for a while longer with a conversation which the
watchful brother-in-law continued to direct as he pleased, I felt my own
lips stiffening into the resigned smile of the harem, and it was a
relief when at last their guardian drove the pale flock away, and the
handsome old gentleman who owned them reappeared on the scene, bringing
back my friends, and followed by slaves and tea.



What thoughts, what speculations, one wonders, go on under the narrow
veiled brows of the little creatures destined to the high honour of
marriage or concubinage in Moroccan palaces?

Some are brought down from mountains and cedar forests, from the free
life of the tents where the nomad women go unveiled. Others come from
harems in the turreted cities beyond the Atlas, where blue palm-groves
beat all night against the stars and date-caravans journey across the
desert from Timbuctoo. Some, born and bred in an airy palace among
pomegranate gardens and white terraces, pass thence to one of the feudal
fortresses near the snows, where for half the year the great chiefs of
the south live in their clan, among fighting men and falconers and packs
of _sloughis_. And still others grow up in a stifling Mellah, trip
unveiled on its blue terraces overlooking the gardens of the great, and,
seen one day at sunset by a fat vizier or his pale young master, are
acquired for a handsome sum and transferred to the painted sepulchre of
the harem.

Worst of all must be the fate of those who go from tents and cedar
forests, or from some sea-blown garden above Rabat, into one of the
houses of Old Fez. They are well-nigh impenetrable, these palaces of
Elbali; the Fazi dignitaries do not welcome the visits of strange women.
On the rare occasions when they are received, a member of the family
(one of the sons, or a brother-in-law who has "studied in Algeria")
usually acts as interpreter; and perhaps it is as well that no one from
the outer world should come to remind these listless creatures that
somewhere the gulls dance on the Atlantic and the wind murmurs through
olive-yards and clatters the metallic fronds of palm-groves.

We had been invited, one day, to visit the harem of one of the chief
dignitaries of the Makhzen at Fez, and these thoughts came to me as I
sat among the pale women in their mouldering prison. The descent through
the steep tunnelled streets gave one the sense of being lowered into the
shaft of a mine. At each step the strip of sky grew narrower, and was
more often obscured by the low vaulted passages into which we plunged.
The noises of the Bazaar had died out, and only the sound of fountains
behind garden walls and the clatter of our mules' hoofs on the stones
went with us. Then fountains and gardens ceased also, the towering
masonry closed in, and we entered an almost subterranean labyrinth which
sun and air never reach. At length our mules turned into a _cul-de-sac_
blocked by a high building. On the right was another building, one of
those blind mysterious house-fronts of Fez that seem like a fragment of
its ancient fortifications. Clients and servants lounged on the stone
benches built into the wall; it was evidently the house of an important
person. A charming youth with intelligent eyes waited on the threshold
to receive us; he was one of the sons of the house, the one who had
"studied in Algeria" and knew how to talk to visitors. We followed him
into a small arcaded _patio_ hemmed in by the high walls of the house.
On the right was the usual long room with archways giving on the court.
Our host, a patriarchal personage, draped in fat as in a toga, came
toward us, a mountain of majestic muslins, his eyes sparkling in a
swarthy silver-bearded face. He seated us on divans and lowered his
voluminous person to a heap of cushions on the step leading into the
court, and the son who had studied in Algeria instructed a negress to
prepare the tea.

Across the _patio_ was another arcade closely hung with unbleached
cotton. From behind it came the sound of chatter, and now and then a
bare brown child in a scant shirt would escape, and be hurriedly pulled
back with soft explosions of laughter, while a black woman came out to
readjust the curtains.

There were three of these negresses, splendid bronze creatures, wearing
white djellabahs over bright-coloured caftans, striped scarves knotted
about their large hips, and gauze turbans on their crinkled hair. Their
wrists clinked with heavy silver bracelets, and big circular earrings
danced in their purple ear-lobes. A languor lay on all the other inmates
of the household, on the servants and hangers-on squatting in the shade
under the arcade, on our monumental host and his smiling son; but the
three negresses, vibrating with activity, rushed continually from the
curtained chamber to the kitchen, and from the kitchen to the master's
reception-room, bearing on their pinky-blue palms trays of Britannia
metal with tall glasses and fresh bunches of mint, shouting orders to
dozing menials, and calling to each other from opposite ends of the
court; and finally the stoutest of the three, disappearing from view,
reappeared suddenly on a pale green balcony overhead, where, profiled
against a square of blue sky, she leaned over in a Veronese attitude and
screamed down to the others like an excited parrot.

In spite of their febrile activity and tropical bird-shrieks, we waited
in vain for tea; and after a while our host suggested to his son that I
might like to visit the ladies of the household. As I had expected, the
young man led me across the _patio_, lifted the cotton hanging and
introduced me into an apartment exactly like the one we had just left.
Divans covered with striped mattress-ticking stood against the white
walls, and on them sat seven or eight passive-looking women over whom a
number of pale children scrambled.

The eldest of the group, and evidently the mistress of the house,
was an Algerian lady, probably of about fifty, with a sad and
delicately-modelled face; the others were daughters, daughters-in-law
and concubines. The latter word evokes to occidental ears images of
sensual seduction which the Moroccan harem seldom realizes. All the
ladies of this dignified official household wore the same look of
somewhat melancholy respectability. In their stuffy curtained apartment
they were like cellar-grown flowers, pale, heavy, fuller but frailer
than the garden sort. Their dresses, rich but sober, the veils and
diadems put on in honour of my visit, had a dignified dowdiness in odd
contrast to the frivolity of the Imperial harem. But what chiefly
struck me was the apathy of the younger women. I asked them if they had
a garden, and they shook their heads wistfully, saying that there were
no gardens in Old Fez. The roof was therefore their only escape: a roof
overlooking acres and acres of other roofs, and closed in by the naked
fortified mountains which stand about Fez like prison-walls.

After a brief exchange of compliments silence fell. Conversing through
interpreters is a benumbing process, and there are few points of contact
between the open-air occidental mind and beings imprisoned in a
conception of sexual and domestic life based on slave-service and
incessant espionage. These languid women on their muslin cushions toil
not, neither do they spin. The Moroccan lady knows little of cooking,
needlework or any household arts. When her child is ill she can only
hang it with amulets and wail over it, the great lady of the Fazi palace
is as ignorant of hygiene as the peasant-woman of the _bled_. And all
these colourless eventless lives depend on the favour of one fat
tyrannical man, bloated with good living and authority, himself almost
as inert and sedentary as his women, and accustomed to impose his whims
on them ever since he ran about the same _patio_ as a little
short-smocked boy.

The redeeming point in this stagnant domesticity is the tenderness of
the parents for their children, and western writers have laid so much
stress on this that one would suppose children could be loved only by
inert and ignorant parents. It is in fact charming to see the heavy eyes
of the Moroccan father light up when a brown grass-hopper baby jumps on
his knee, and the unfeigned tenderness with which the childless women of
the harem caress the babies of their happier rivals. But the
sentimentalist moved by this display of family feeling would do well to
consider the lives of these much-petted children. Ignorance,
unhealthiness and a precocious sexual initiation prevail in all classes.
Education consists in learning by heart endless passages of the Koran,
and amusement in assisting at spectacles that would be unintelligible to
western children, but that the pleasantries of the harem make perfectly
comprehensible to Moroccan infancy. At eight or nine the little girls
are married, at twelve the son of the house is "given his first
negress"; and thereafter, in the rich and leisured class, both sexes
live till old age in an atmosphere of sensuality without seduction.

The young son of the house led me back across the court, where the
negresses were still shrieking and scurrying, and passing to and fro
like a stage-procession with the vain paraphernalia of a tea that never
came. Our host still smiled from his cushions, resigned to Oriental
delays. To distract the impatient westerners, a servant unhooked from
the wall the cage of a gently-cooing dove. It was brought to us, still
cooing, and looked at me with the same resigned and vacant eyes as the
ladies I had just left. As it was being restored to its hook the slaves
lolling about the entrance scattered respectfully at the approach of a
handsome man of about thirty, with delicate features and a black beard.
Crossing the court, he stooped to kiss the shoulder of our host, who
introduced him as his eldest son, the husband of one or two of the
little pale wives with whom I had been exchanging platitudes.

From the increasing agitation of the negresses it became evident that
the ceremony of tea-making had been postponed till his arrival. A metal
tray bearing a Britannia samovar and tea-pot was placed on the tiles of
the court, and squatting beside it the newcomer gravely proceeded to
infuse the mint. Suddenly the cotton hangings fluttered again, and a
tiny child in the scantest of smocks rushed out and scampered across the
court. Our venerable host, stretching out rapturous arms, caught the
fugitive to his bosom, where the little boy lay like a squirrel,
watching us with great sidelong eyes. He was the last-born of the
patriarch, and the youngest brother of the majestic bearded gentleman
engaged in tea-making. While he was still in his father's arms two more
sons appeared: charming almond-eyed schoolboys returning from their
Koran-class, escorted by their slaves. All the sons greeted each other
affectionately, and caressed with almost feminine tenderness the dancing
baby so lately added to their ranks; and finally, to crown this scene of
domestic intimacy, the three negresses, their gigantic effort at last
accomplished, passed about glasses of steaming mint and trays of
gazelles' horns and white sugar-cakes.



The farther one travels from the Mediterranean and Europe the closer the
curtains of the women's quarters are drawn. The only harem in which we
were allowed an interpreter was that of the Sultan himself, in the
private harems of Fez and Rabat a French-speaking relative transmitted
(or professed to transmit) our remarks; in Marrakech, the great nobleman
and dignitary who kindly invited me to visit his household was deaf to
our hint that the presence of a lady from one of the French government
schools might facilitate our intercourse.

When we drove up to his palace, one of the stateliest in Marrakech, the
street was thronged with clansmen and clients. Dignified merchants in
white muslin, whose grooms held white mules saddled with rose-coloured
velvet, warriors from the Atlas wearing the corkscrew ringlets which are
a sign of military prowess, Jewish traders in black gabardines,
leather-gaitered peasant-women with chickens and cheese, and beggars
rolling their blind eyes or exposing their fly-plastered sores, were
gathered in Oriental promiscuity about the great man's door; while under
the archway stood a group of youths and warlike-looking older men who
were evidently of his own clan.

The Caïd's chamberlain, a middle-aged man of dignified appearance,
advanced to meet us between bowing clients and tradesmen. He led us
through cool passages lined with the intricate mosaic-work of Fez, past
beggars who sat on stone benches whining out their blessings, and pale
Fazi craftsmen laying a floor of delicate tiles. The Caïd is a lover of
old Arab architecture. His splendid house, which is not yet finished,
has been planned and decorated on the lines of the old Imperial palaces,
and when a few years of sun and rain and Oriental neglect have worked
their way on its cedar-wood and gilding and ivory stucco it will have
the same faded loveliness as the fairy palaces of Fez.

In a garden where fountains splashed and roses climbed among cypresses,
the Caïd himself awaited us. This great fighter and loyal friend of
France is a magnificent eagle-beaked man, brown, lean and sinewy, with
vigilant eyes looking out under his carefully draped muslin turban, and
negroid lips half-hidden by a close black beard.

Tea was prepared in the familiar setting; a long arcaded room with
painted ceiling and richly stuccoed walls. All around were ranged the
usual mattresses covered with striped ticking and piled with muslin
cushions. A bedstead of brass, imitating a Louis XVI cane bed, and
adorned with brass garlands and bows, throned on the usual platform; and
the only other ornaments were a few clocks and bunches of wax flowers
under glass. Like all Orientals, this hero of the Atlas, who spends half
his life with his fighting clansmen in a mediaeval stronghold among the
snows, and the other half rolling in a 60 h.p. motor over smooth French
roads, seems unaware of any degrees of beauty or appropriateness in
objects of European design, and places against the exquisite mosaics and
traceries of his Fazi craftsmen the tawdriest bric-à-brac of the cheap

While tea was being served I noticed a tiny negress, not more than six
or seven years old, who stood motionless in the embrasure of an archway.
Like most of the Moroccan slaves, even in the greatest households, she
was shabbily, almost raggedly, dressed. A dirty _gandourah_ of striped
muslin covered her faded caftan, and a cheap kerchief was wound above
her grave and precocious little face. With preternatural vigilance she
watched each movement of the Caïd, who never spoke to her, looked at
her, or made her the slightest perceptible sign, but whose least wish
she instantly divined, refilling his tea-cup, passing the plates of
sweets, or removing our empty glasses, in obedience to some secret
telegraphy on which her whole being hung.

The Caïd is a great man. He and his famous elder brother, holding the
southern marches of Morocco against alien enemies and internal
rebellion, played a preponderant part in the defence of the French
colonies in North Africa during the long struggle of the war.
Enlightened, cultivated, a friend of the arts, a scholar and
diplomatist, he seems, unlike many Orientals, to have selected the best
in assimilating European influences. Yet when I looked at the tiny
creature watching him with those anxious joyless eyes I felt once more
the abyss that slavery and the seraglio put between the most
Europeanized Mahometan and the western conception of life. The Caïd's
little black slaves are well-known in Morocco, and behind the sad child
leaning in the archway stood all the shadowy evils of the social system
that hangs like a millstone about the neck of Islam.

Presently a handsome tattered negress came across the garden to invite
me to the harem. Captain de S. and his wife, who had accompanied me,
were old friends of the Chief's, and it was owing to this that the
jealously-guarded doors of the women's quarters were opened to Mme. de
S. and myself. We followed the negress to a marble-paved court where
pigeons fluttered and strutted about the central fountain. From under a
trellised arcade hung with linen curtains several ladies came forward.
They greeted my companion with exclamations of delight; then they led us
into the usual commonplace room with divans and whitewashed walls. Even
in the most sumptuous Moroccan palaces little care seems to be expended
on the fittings of the women's quarters: unless, indeed, the room in
which visitors are received corresponds with a boarding-school
"parlour," and the personal touch is reserved for the private

The ladies who greeted us were more richly dressed than any I had seen
except the Sultan's favourites, but their faces were more distinguished,
more European in outline, than those of the round-cheeked beauties of
Rabat. My companions had told me that the Caïd's harem was recruited
from Georgia, and that the ladies receiving us had been brought up in
the relative freedom of life in Constantinople; and it was easy to read
in their wistfully smiling eyes memories of a life unknown to the
passive daughters of Morocco.

They appeared to make no secret of their regrets, for presently one of
them, with a smile, called my attention to some faded photographs
hanging over the divan. They represented groups of plump
provincial-looking young women in dowdy European ball-dresses; and it
required an effort of the imagination to believe that the lovely
creatures in velvet caftans, with delicately tattooed temples under
complicated head-dresses, and hennaed feet crossed on muslin cushions,
were the same as the beaming frumps in the photographs. But to the
sumptuously-clad exiles these faded photographs and ugly dresses
represented freedom, happiness, and all they had forfeited when fate
(probably in the shape of an opulent Hebrew couple "travelling with
their daughters") carried them from the Bosphorus to the Atlas.

As in the other harems I had visited, perfect equality seemed to prevail
between the ladies, and while they chatted with Mme. de S. whose few
words of Arabic had loosed their tongues, I tried to guess which was the
favourite, or at least the first in rank. My choice wavered between the
pretty pale creature with a _ferronnière_ across her temples and a
tea-rose caftan veiled in blue gauze, and the nut-brown beauty in red
velvet hung with pearls whose languid attitudes and long-lidded eyes
were so like the Keepsake portraits of Byron's Haidee. Or was it perhaps
the third, less pretty but more vivid and animated, who sat behind the
tea-tray, and mimicked so expressively a soldier shouldering his rifle,
and another falling dead, in her effort to ask us "when the dreadful war
would be over"? Perhaps ... unless, indeed, it were the handsome
octoroon, slightly older than the others, but even more richly dressed,
so free and noble in her movements, and treated by the others with such
friendly deference.

I was struck by the fact that among them all there was not a child; it
was the first harem without babies that I had seen in that prolific
land. Presently one of the ladies asked Mme. de S. about her children,
in reply, she enquired for the Caïd's little boy, the son of his wife
who had died. The ladies' faces lit up wistfully, a slave was given an
order, and presently a large-eyed ghost of a child was brought into the

Instantly all the bracelet-laden arms were held out to the dead woman's
son; and as I watched the weak little body hung with amulets and the
heavy head covered with thin curls pressed against a brocaded bosom, I
was reminded of one of the coral-hung child-Christs of Crivelli,
standing livid and waxen on the knee of a splendidly dressed Madonna.

The poor baby on whom such hopes and ambitions hung stared at us with a
solemn unamused gaze. Would all his pretty mothers, his eyes seemed to
ask, succeed in bringing him to maturity in spite of the parched
summers of the south and the stifling existence of the harem? It was
evident that no precaution had been neglected to protect him from
maleficent influences and the danger that walks by night, for his frail
neck and wrists were hung with innumerable charms: Koranic verses,
Soudanese incantations, and images of forgotten idols in amber and coral
and horn and ambergris. Perhaps they will ward off the powers of evil,
and let him grow up to shoulder the burden of the great Caïds of the

Edith Wharton

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