Morocco - Ahmet Entertains
( Originally Published 1922 )
THE afternoon had been most trying. The sirocco from the Sahara had blown a pitiless, dry, burning blast of heat over the city. The windows of hell were opened, as the Arabs say, and God had not yet sent the grateful night breeze from the gate of heaven, off beyond the sunset. The acetylene flares in the withered garden of the Hôtel de France sputtered annoyingly and made choking smells. Madamoiselle was laying the table for dinner. The patron, a round fat French colonial, mopped his hot red face and bade me good evening. He puffed and sat down just tangent to his chair, and with deprecating shrugs apologised:
"You will have a dinner so bad, Monsieur, but what would you? There is no salad to be had, the good French wine is finished and the Algerian is tellement mauvais! The mutton was good yesterday, but there is no ice. In effect, it is a pig of a country!" And then, his Arab house painters would work only two or three days a week and then loaf until they needed another handful of francs, and they demanded twice as many paper francs as silver ones, and there was no more silver. He was vexed with his wife who had been expecting for some time, and all the other hotel keepers' wives had had their babies weeks ago ; he was quite out-classed. And his wife and he had just quarrelled for the fortieth time over the naming of the children (for they were sure they would be twins) . He was for Lyauté and Mangin, the two generals who are the heroes of French Morocco, but Madame insisted that the holy saints, Pierre and Paul, should not to be slighted. If to add to his misfortune the bon Dieu should send that one child should be a girl, she should of course be called Anne, after a wealthy, but somewhat parsimonious Breton aunt.
"And if they are both girls?" I asked.
This was too much. He fled into the kitchen and poured out a voluble blend of Franco-Arabic remarks on the kitchen boy. I reconciled myself to the thought of the bad dinner, and mused longingly on Paris and Foyot's and settled down to study the perplexing ways of Arabic verbs. After dinner I could sit on the housetop and watch the moon rise behind the Koutoubia and listen to the faint rhythms of distant tom-toms in the thousands of Moorish courtyards, that would show far on toward morning a tantalising mysterious glow of lantern light, and make me long to see from the inside the baffling oriental life going on all around me.
Then came my charming young friend Ahmet Ben Abbes, bringing another boy also on leave from the military school, Mâhommet Ben Missaoud. With perfect Arab courtesy they each asked me six times how I did, and kissed their hands that had shaken mine. They had come to take me to dinner at Ahmet's house. We walked through an intricate maze of dark streets that twist and turn between high mud walls. We pass innumerable black doorways and I wonder what is behind them. The outside of all the houses is the same in Marrakesh; a square low doorway in a high mud wall may lead to a cloth bazaar, a bath, a palace, a brothel, or a graveyard; and the passage leading in always turns at right angles after a few feet so that from the street one sees only a black mystery behind which may be love, misery, piety, luxury, or death.
One of the doors we pass is conspicuously barricaded from the outside and marked with the rudely painted good-luck sign the five fingers of the hand of Fatima. Ahmet tells me in an awed whisper that the place belongs to a tribe of djinns. Someone once fitted the house up as a public bath, but a newly married girl was drowned in the pool and her body could not be rescued; so the place was abandoned to the djinns and boarded up.
At length we turn into one of the doorways, first to the right, then to the left. A heavy door is opened by a slave with a lantern, who ushers us in. We cross a dimly lighted court, go through another passage; the slave lifts a heavy curtain, and we pass into an inner court. Candles in glass Moorish lanterns throw a soft light on old arabesque designs on window blinds and doorways—an intricate geometric weaving of pale blue, rose, and green, washed dim by years of strong sunlight. In one corner is a charcoal brazier, and beside it, a brass tea service glints through an embroidered veil covering. Thick mattresses and silk cushions are arranged invitingly on mats and gay carpets. Before stepping on the mats the Arabs slip off their yellow babooches, and I take off my shoes, and we recline comfortably on the cushions. We wait, chatting indolently, for a long time. Then the entertainers arrive—a man and two girls. The girls unwrap two or three bundly outer garments, take off their veils, and sit opposite us. They are gaily dressed, one in yellow and one in bright magenta, and much bedecked with silver ornaments. One has the usual heavily sensual oriental beauty, too passively inexpressive to be beauty to western eyes. The other is slim and graceful, with a dark, disquieting loveliness. Her eyes are deep brown pools with depths very dark and very still, and they make you wonder what they are like when they are troubled. But you rarely see them, for she keeps them shadowed with their black fringed lashes. Her little chin is marked with thin blue lines of tattooing that adds an exotic charm, like the fascinating artificiality of Arabic art or the strangeness in African landscapes. She looks sad and a little tired as she warms her tambourine before the glowing charcoal in the brass perfume burner. A little slave throws a handful of fragrant powder in the burner, and the girl looks up and smiles across at me through the thin smoke, and my heart feels a delightful thrill.
The other guests arrive, two friends of Ahmet and the caïd's son who drove over with us the other day. He has brought with him several servants and an elderly relative, white-bearded and patriarchal in dignity. With exquisite courtesy we exchange Salamaleks all round many times with kissing of hands, and the guests sit cross-legged on embroidered leather cushions or recline indolently on mattresses arranged in a circle. There is no noisy talk or the affected gaiety of an American party.
The guests talk or are silent as they choose ; if one prefers to say nothing there is no embarrassment. The old patriarch sits quietly smoking his kief pipe, and a boy beside him, heels in the air and chin on hands, prattles on in a low tone.
It is now ten o'clock, the hour when Arabs usually dine in summer. The night air is pleasantly cool and the perfume from the brass burner fills the court with a vague eastern fragrance, languorous and strange ; and overhead, the sign of Scorpio burns very bright. A black slave brings the tea service over to Ahmet's cousin, who makes the brew with much care and ceremony. He warms the silver teapot and the glasses, puts in a generous handful of tea and stuffs the pot full of fresh mint and big lumps of sugar. He tastes the decoction three times before he gets it to please him, and then the little glasses are handed round until everyone has drunk three. The man musician starts a barbaric melody on a European violin which he rests on his knee, and the girls strike an accompaniment on a tambourine and a pottery tom-tom. The strange rhythms beat in my blood and the unfamiliar intervals of the melody emphasise the sense of romantic differentness which is the alluring charm of the orient. There is nothing so trans-ports the imagination as barbaric eastern music, based on other scales than ours, leaping or sliding in other intervals, and springing from unfamiliar racial hearts. One knows the soul of Africa as different from that of the western world.
The banquet begins. A servant brings round a copper basin and pours rose water over our hands, and we pass the towel from one to another. The party is too large to eat from one dish and we break into two circles, each grouped about a wooden tray covered with a high peaked basket. The cover is removed, and a rich steam from chickens roasted with olives and lemon and peppery herbs keenly delights the appetite. The host breaks the loaves of bread and we all eagerly sop up the sauce, and seven or eight hands reaching at once tear the chickens apart. Conversation ceases and one hears only the sticky working of jaws or a request for water, the only beverage, which an attendant hands from one to another, in a brass bowl. It is a mark of courtesy for friends to put specially choice morsels into one another's mouths, and I as a stranger guest am continually crammed speechless.
Before the dish is half eaten, it is removed, and more chickens brought in, this time cooked with a white sauce of eggs, savoury and hot. Then follow a mutton stew, which is a meal in itself, and a kouskous, the national dish. This is a mixture of unsuspected African vegetables boiled with a little meat and served in a wall of steamed white maize. I am painfully replete and my mouth is always full, yet I am reproached for my lack of appetite. And then comes a great roast of mutton flavoured with argan oil. There is a hint of savagery about the tearing asunder of a roast, that makes one shudder if he is no longer hungry. But the guests do noble work, and not more than half the dish is sent back uneaten to the women who prepared the banquet in some mysterious depth of the house. Finally, for dessert there is a huge platter of red grapes. A servant brings the rose water again and we perform thorough soapy ablutions of hands and mouth. "May Allah be praised!" murmur the good Moslems, and we sit back reclining on the cushions.
The music starts again, haunting strange arabesques of sound, that begin nowhere and end nowhere on some high note that leaves you expectant and unresolved. The melody pauses; the tom-tom beats on; then the melody recommences at a frenzied pitch. The pattern is so interwoven and intangible that the ear cannot grasp it, but the body is seized with its moods and beats time to the pulsations of the tom-tom. The voices of the women shrill to their highest notes and the rhythm beats faster and faster, and the guests clap their hands in tune, and I find myself doing it too. There is a sense of communion in this communal rhythm, a fellowship of hearts that speech cannot so easily induce, an enchantment of spirit through mystic sorceries of sound.
In the intervals of pause we drink tea once more, much tea. I soon lose count of the glasses. The man with the violin sings an Arab love chant, at first in slow complaining notes, then in a mood of yearning desire, and ends in a wailing falsetto of despair.
During the music, a group of funny little black children, the brood of the household slaves, have slipped into the court and stare wide-eyed at the festivities from a shadowed corner. The very little ones are getting drowsy, but any attempt to coax them to bed is met with loud wails, until at length they are carried in fast asleep. The music subsides for a while, the musicians chat among themselves, and the guests fall into conversation. The feasting has made us all feel well acquainted, and they ask me many questions :
How much did I pay for my watch; and how much for my sun-helmet? Why do I wear glasses? The caid's son wishes to know whether I have any false teeth; he has two gold ones he is extremely proud of. And I tell them something about American life, tall buildings, express trains, telephones, and steamships. They ask me why so many people are always moving about over the country? And what is the use of piling fifty stories on top of one another, instead of spreading them out over the ground in one huge palace with courtyards and gar-dens? These questions I found hard to answer. But Mâhommet Ben MIssaoud who came from Fez and had lived at Casablanca and had seen a great deal of the French point of view, expressed scorn at his friends' simplicity. He explained that the Arabs of Fez were not so backward and understood these matters better. There was, however, a point he would like to ask: Was France a very rich and fertile country, well-watered and beautiful as a pasha's garden? "Well, then, why do the French come here and take our poor barren country away from us? Does the horse eating from his full crib covet the home of the wild goat in the rocks?"
Here was another I couldn't answer ! Then the caïd's son asked whether it is true Americans have but one wife. I admitted that that is the usual number. "But they have many women and dancing girls?" I said that this was not a universal custom with us. "Are there no strong men among you like the Arabs?
I was relieved from replying by the crashing in of the music which abruptly recommenced with the strident tones and quick beating rhythms of an exulting chant. The Arabs lost all interest in talking and fell under the intoxicating spell of their exciting music, for music is to them what alcohol is to the west, or narcotics to the far east. The tambourine and the tom-tom beat fast, the violin exuberantly vibrated in rapid running mazes of intricate sound patterns, and the girls' shrill voices followed the intangible theme, repeated it a dozen times, then lost it, found it, and repeated it again and suddenly stopped as abruptly as they began.
Then to a slow religious chant, the lovely Zara begins a stately dance. Her charming little bare feet pace the court slowly to and fro, and as she turns, her little heels, stained red with henna, twinkle beneath her bright saffron caftan. Her face is languidly immovable and her eyelids half closed, but the yellow lantern light throws shadows over t as she moves, and makes it seem responsive to emotions. The dance ended, she sings a song, one of the gems of modern Arabic poetry, and as she sings, her face, before so passive, becomes mobile and changes with the fierce passion, the wild love-hate of the song. And her eyes, before so quiet, now lure one's heart and make it afraid.
The music kept on, the young Arab connoisseurs completely under its spell. The party continued all night long, the pauses in the music and the singing filled with indolent and casual conversation, but by two o'clock I was sleepy and rose to go. The leave-taking was long and ceremonious. Mahommet Ben Missaoud accompanied me through the intricate tangle of lost black streets—utter darkness and mystery except for the wavering pool of dim light which the lantern, carried by a little black slave, cast just at our feet. Once we came to a huge barred timber gate that separated one quarter of the city from another. Mahommet with a kick or two wakes the gate-keeper, an ugly, half naked one-eyed negro giant. The lantern light gleams on his muscular back, as he strains over the Homeric wooden bolt, and on the wall great grotesque shadows of his moving arms swell and dwindle. It is as though Rembrandt had painted Polyphemus barring his cave, or Samson tearing the gates of Gaza from their hinges. Our passage wakens a holy beggar, asleep just outside the gate. The horrible heap of rags blinks blindly and begins the penetrating perpetual cry of his waking hours—"Allah Allah ! Allah !" The cry pursues us up the hollow black street, and long after we have turned a corner we hear the mingled hope and despair of this piercing blind voice—"Allah! Allah!"
When I reach the hotel I go up on the housetop to smoke a cigarette and think about the glimpse that I have had of the Arab soul revealed in poetry, music, and the fellowship of hospitality. The vast inchoate city lies all around me in silent sleep except for the faint beat of a single tom-tom some-where far off in the vague night. Already the first white glimmer of the "false dawn" makes the pale stars fade, and the Milky Way, the "River of the sky," dies in a dim faint haze.