Departure from Aden.
I doubt not there are many who ignore the fact that in Eastern Africa, scarcely three hundred miles distant from Aden, there is a counterpart of ill-famed Timbuctoo in the Far West. The more adventurous Abyssinian travellers, Salt and Stuart, Krapf and Isenberg, Barker and Rochet,--not to mention divers Roman Catholic Missioners,--attempted Harar, but attempted it in vain. The bigoted ruler and barbarous people threatened death to the Infidel who ventured within their walls; some negro Merlin having, it is said, read Decline and Fall in the first footsteps of the Frank. (15) Of all foreigners the English were, of course, the most hated and dreaded; at Harar slavery still holds its head-quarters, and the old Dragon well knows what to expect from the hand of St. George. Thus the various travellers who appeared in beaver and black coats became persuaded that the city was inaccessible, and Europeans ceased to trouble themselves about Harar.
It is, therefore, a point of honour with me, dear L., to utilise my title of Haji by entering the city, visiting the ruler, and returning in safety, after breaking the guardian spell.
The most auspicious day in the Moslem year for beginning a journey is, doubtless, the 6th of the month Safar (16), on which, quoth the Prophet, El Islam emerged from obscurity. Yet even at Aden we could not avail ourselves of this lucky time: our delays and difficulties were a fit prelude for a journey amongst those "Blameless Ethiopians," with whom no less a personage than august Jove can dine and depart. (17)
On Sunday, the 29th October, 1854, our manifold impediments were pronounced complete. Friend S. threw the slipper of blessing at my back, and about 4 P.M. embarking from Maala Bunder, we shook out our "muslin," and sailed down the fiery harbour. Passing the guard-boat, we delivered our permit; before venturing into the open sea we repeated the Fátihah-prayer in honour of the Shaykh Majid, inventor of the mariners' compass, (18) and evening saw us dancing on the bright clear tide, whose "magic waves," however, murmured after another fashion the siren song which charmed the senses of the old Arabian voyagers. (19)
Suddenly every trace of civilisation fell from my companions as if it had been a garment. At Aden, shaven and beturbaned, Arab fashion, now they threw off all dress save the loin cloth, and appeared in their dark morocco. Mohammed filled his mouth with a mixture of coarse Surat tobacco and ashes,--the latter article intended, like the Anglo-Indian soldier's chili in his arrack, to "make it bite." Guled uncovered his head, a member which in Africa is certainly made to go bare, and buttered himself with an unguent redolent of sheep's tail; and Ismail, the rais or captain of our "foyst," (20) the Sahalah, applied himself to puffing his nicotiana out of a goat's shank-bone. Our crew, consisting of seventy-one men and boys, prepared, as evening fell, a mess of Jowari grain (21) and grease, the recipe of which I spare you, and it was despatched in a style that would have done credit to Kafirs as regards gobbling, bolting, smearing lips, licking fingers, and using ankles as napkins. Then with a light easterly breeze and the ominous cliffs of Little Aden still in sight, we spread our mats on deck and prepared to sleep under the moon. (22)
My companions, however, felt, without perhaps comprehending, the joviality arising from a return to Nature. Every man was forthwith nicknamed, and pitiless was the raillery upon the venerable subjects of long and short, fat and thin. One sang a war-song, another a love-song, a third some song of the sea, whilst the fourth, an Ísa youth, with the villanous expression of face common to his tribe, gave us a rain measure, such as men chaunt during wet weather. All these effusions were naïve and amusing: none, however, could bear English translation without an amount of omission which would change their nature. Each effort of minstrelsy was accompanied by roars of laughter, and led to much manual pleasantry. All swore that they had never spent, intellectually speaking, a more charming soirée, and pitied me for being unable to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the dialogue. Truly it is not only the polished European, as was said of a certain travelling notability, that lapses with facility into pristine barbarism.
I will now introduce you to my companions. The managing man is one Mohammed Mahmud (23), generally called El Hammal or the porter: he is a Havildar or sergeant in the Aden police, and was entertained for me by Lieut. Dansey, an officer who unfortunately was not "confirmed" in a political appointment at Aden. The Hammal is a bull-necked, round-headed fellow of lymphatic temperament, with a lamp-black skin, regular features, and a pulpy figure,--two rarities amongst his countrymen, who compare him to a Banyan. An orphan in early youth, and becoming, to use his own phrase, sick of milk, he ran away from his tribe, the Habr Gerhajis, and engaged himself as a coaltrimmer with the slaves on board an Indian war- steamer. After rising in rank to the command of the crew, he became servant and interpreter to travellers, visited distant lands--Egypt and Calcutta--and finally settled as a Feringhee policeman. He cannot read or write, but he has all the knowledge to be acquired by fifteen or twenty years, hard "knocking about:" he can make a long speech, and, although he never prays, a longer prayer; he is an excellent mimic, and delights his auditors by imitations and descriptions of Indian ceremony, Egyptian dancing, Arab vehemence, Persian abuse, European vivacity, and Turkish insolence. With prodigious inventiveness, and a habit of perpetual intrigue, acquired in his travels, he might be called a "knowing" man, but for the truly Somali weakness of showing in his countenance all that passes through his mind. This people can hide nothing: the blank eye, the contracting brow, the opening nostril and the tremulous lip, betray, despite themselves, their innermost thoughts.
The second servant, whom I bring before you is Guled, another policeman at Aden. He is a youth of good family, belonging to the Ismail Arrah, the royal clan of the great Habr Gerhajis tribe. His father was a man of property, and his brethren near Berberah, are wealthy Bedouins: yet he ran away from his native country when seven or eight years old, and became a servant in the house of a butter merchant at Mocha. Thence he went to Aden, where he began with private service, and ended his career in the police. He is one of those long, live skeletons, common amongst the Somal: his shoulders are parallel with his ears, his ribs are straight as a mummy's, his face has not an ounce of flesh upon it, and his features suggest the idea of some lank bird: we call him Long Guled, to which he replies with the Yemen saying "Length is Honour, even in Wood." He is brave enough, because he rushes into danger without reflection; his great defects are weakness of body and nervousness of temperament, leading in times of peril to the trembling of hands, the dropping of caps, and the mismanagement of bullets: besides which, he cannot bear hunger, thirst, or cold.
The third is one Abdy Abokr, also of the Habr Gerhajis, a personage whom, from, his smattering of learning and his prodigious rascality, we call the Mulla "End of Time." (24) He is a man about forty, very old-looking for his age, with small, deep-set cunning eyes, placed close together, a hook nose, a thin beard, a bulging brow, scattered teeth, (25) and a short scant figure, remarkable only for length of back. His gait is stealthy, like a cat's, and he has a villanous grin. This worthy never prays, and can neither read nor write; but he knows a chapter or two of the Koran, recites audibly a long Ratib or task, morning and evening, (26) whence, together with his store of hashed Hadis (tradition), he derives the title of Widad or hedge-priest. His tongue, primed with the satirical sayings of Abn Zayd el Helali, and Humayd ibn Mansur, (27) is the terror of men upon whom repartee imposes. His father was a wealthy shipowner in his day; but, cursed with Abdy and another son, the old man has lost all his property, his children have deserted him, and he now depends entirely upon the charity of the Zayla chief. The "End of Time" has squandered considerable sums in travelling far and wide from Harar to Cutch, he has managed everywhere to perpetrate some peculiar villany. He is a pleasant companion, and piques himself upon that power of quotation which in the East makes a polite man. If we be disposed to hurry, he insinuates that "Patience is of Heaven, Haste of Hell." When roughly addressed, he remarks,--"There are cures for the hurts of lead and steel,
If a grain of rice adhere to our beards, he says, smilingly, "the gazelle is in the garden;" to which we reply "we will hunt her with the five." (28) Despite these merits, I hesitated to engage him, till assured by the governor of Zayla that he was to be looked upon as a son, and, moreover, that he would bear with him one of those state secrets to an influential chief which in this country are never committed to paper. I found him an admirable buffoon, skilful in filling pipes and smoking them; au reste, an individual of "many words and little work," infinite intrigue, cowardice, cupidity, and endowed with a truly evil tongue.
The morning sun rose hot upon us, showing Mayyum and Zubah, the giant staples of the "Gate under the Pleiades." (29) Shortly afterwards, we came in sight of the Barr el Ajam (barbarian land), as the Somal call their country, (30) a low glaring flat of yellow sand, desert and heat-reeking, tenanted by the Ísa, and a meet habitat for savages. Such to us, at least, appeared the land of Adel. (31) At midday we descried the Ras el Bir,--Headland of the Well,--the promontory which terminates the bold Tajurrah range, under which lie the sleeping waters of the Maiden's Sea. (32) During the day we rigged out an awning, and sat in the shade smoking and chatting merrily, for the weather was not much hotter than on English summer seas. Some of the crew tried praying; but prostrations are not easily made on board ship, and El Islam, as Umar shrewdly suspected, was not made for a seafaring race. At length the big red sun sank slowly behind the curtain of sky-blue rock, where lies the not yet "combusted" village of Tajurrah. (33) We lay down to rest with the light of day, and had the satisfaction of closing our eyes upon a fair though captious breeze.
On the morning of the 31st October, we entered the Zayla Creek, which gives so much trouble to native craft. We passed, on the right, the low island of Masha, belonging to the "City of the Slave Merchant,"-- Tajurrah,--and on the left two similar patches of seagirt sand, called Aybat and Saad el Din. These places supply Zayla, in the Kharif or hot season, (34) with thousands of gulls' eggs,--a great luxury. At noon we sighted our destination. Zayla is the normal African port,--a strip of sulphur-yellow sand, with a deep blue dome above, and a foreground of the darkest indigo. The buildings, raised by refraction, rose high, and apparently from the bosom of the deep. After hearing the worst accounts of it, I was pleasantly disappointed by the spectacle of white-washed houses and minarets, peering above a long low line of brown wall, flanked with round towers.
As we slowly threaded the intricate coral reefs of the port, a bark came scudding up to us; it tacked, and the crew proceeded to give news in roaring tones. Friendship between the Amir of Harar and the governor of Zayla had been broken; the road through the Ísa Somal had been closed by the murder of Masud, a favourite slave and adopted son of Sharmarkay; all strangers had been expelled the city for some misconduct by the Harar chief; moreover, small-pox was raging there with such violence that the Galla peasantry would allow neither ingress nor egress. (35) I had the pleasure of reflecting for some time, dear L., upon the amount of responsibility incurred by using the phrase "I will;" and the only consolation that suggested itself was the stale assurance that"Things at the worst most surely mend."
No craft larger than a canoe can ride near Zayla. After bumping once or twice against the coral reefs, it was considered advisable for our good ship, the Sahalat, to cast anchor. My companions caused me to dress, put me with my pipe and other necessaries into a cock-boat, and, wading through the water, shoved it to shore. Lastly, at Bab el Sahil, the Seaward or Northern Gate, they proceeded to array themselves in the bravery of clean Tobes and long daggers strapped round the waist; each man also slung his targe to his left arm, and in his right hand grasped lance and javelin. At the gate we were received by a tall black spearman with a "Ho there! to the governor;" and a crowd of idlers gathered to inspect the strangers. Marshalled by the warder, we traversed the dusty roads--streets they could not be called--of the old Arab town, ran the gauntlet of a gaping mob, and finally entering a mat door, found ourselves in the presence of the governor.
I had met Sharmarkay at Aden, where he received from the authorities strong injunctions concerning my personal safety: the character of a Moslem merchant, however, requiring us to appear strangers, an introduction by our master of ceremonies, the Hammal, followed my entrance. Sharmarkay was living in an apartment by no means splendid, preferring an Arish or kind of cow-house,--as the Anglo-Indian Nabobs do the bungalow"with mat half hung,
--to all his substantial double-storied houses. The ground was wet and comfortless; a part of the reed walls was lined with cots bearing mattresses and silk-covered pillows, a cross between a divan and a couch: the only ornaments were a few weapons, and a necklace of gaudy beads suspended near the door. I was placed upon the principal seat: on the right were the governor and the Hammal; whilst the lowest portion of the room was occupied by Mohammed Sharmarkay, the son and heir. The rest of the company squatted upon chairs, or rather stools, of peculiar construction. Nothing could be duller than this assemblée: pipes and coffee are here unknown; and there is nothing in the East to act substitute for them. (36)
The governor of Zayla, El Hajj Sharmarkay bin Ali Salih, is rather a remarkable man. He is sixteenth, according to his own account, in descent from Ishak el Hazrami, (37) the saintly founder of the great Gerhajis and Awal tribes. His enemies derive him from a less illustrious stock; and the fairness of his complexion favours the report that his grandfather Salih was an Abyssinian slave. Originally the Nacoda or captain of a native craft, he has raised himself, chiefly by British influence, to the chieftainship of his tribe. (38) As early as May, 1825, he received from Captain Bagnold, then our resident at Mocha, a testimonial and a reward, for a severe sword wound in the left arm, received whilst defending the lives of English seamen. (39) He afterwards went to Bombay, where he was treated with consideration; and about fifteen years ago he succeeded the Sayyid Mohammed el Barr as governor of Zayla and its dependencies, under the Ottoman Pasha in Western Arabia.
The Hajj Sharmarkay in his youth was a man of Valour: he could not read or write; but he carried in battle four spears, (40) and his sword-cut was recognisable. He is now a man about sixty years old, at least six feet two inches in stature, large-limbed, and raw-boned: his leanness is hidden by long wide robes. He shaves his head and upper lip Sháfei-fashion, and his beard is represented by a ragged tuft of red-stained hair on each side of his chin. A visit to Aden and a doctor cost him one eye, and the other is now white with age. His dress is that of an Arab, and he always carries with him a broad-bladed, silver-hilted sword. Despite his years, he is a strong, active, and energetic man, ever looking to the "main chance." With one foot in the grave, he meditates nothing but the conquest of Harar and Berberah, which, making him master of the seaboard, would soon extend his power as in days of old even to Abyssinia. (41) To hear his projects, you would fancy them the offspring of a brain in the prime of youth: in order to carry them out he would even assist in suppressing the profitable slave-trade. (42)
After half an hour's visit I was led by the Hajj through the streets of Zayla, (43) to one of his substantial houses of coralline and mud plastered over with glaring whitewash. The ground floor is a kind of warehouse full of bales and boxes, scales and buyers. A flight of steep steps leads into a long room with shutters to exclude the light, floored with tamped earth, full of "evening flyers", (44) and destitute of furniture. Parallel to it are three smaller apartments; and above is a terraced roof, where they who fear not the dew and the land-breeze sleep. (45) I found a room duly prepared; the ground was spread with mats, and cushions against the walls denoted the Divan: for me was placed a Kursi or cot, covered with fine Persian rugs and gaudy silk and satin pillows. The Hajj installed us with ceremony, and insisted, despite my remonstrances, upon occupying the floor whilst I sat on the raised seat. After ushering in supper, he considerately remarked that travelling is fatiguing, and left us to sleep.
The well-known sounds of El Islam returned from memory. Again the melodious chant of the Muezzin,--no evening bell can compare with it for solemnity and beauty,--and in the neighbouring mosque, the loudly intoned Amin and Allaho Akbar,--far superior to any organ,--rang in my ear. The evening gun of camp was represented by the Nakkarah, or kettle-drum, sounded about seven P.M. at the southern gate; and at ten a second drumming warned the paterfamilias that it was time for home, and thieves, and lovers,--that it was the hour for bastinado. Nightfall was ushered in by the song, the dance, and the marriage festival,--here no permission is required for "native music in the lines,"--and muffled figures flitted mysteriously through the dark alleys.
* * * * *
After a peep through the open window, I fell asleep, feeling once more at home.