Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Eric Eldred, S.R.Ellison
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
[Illustration: Photo Portrait--Girl in Shawl]
IN THE SAND
RAMBLES AMONG THE OASES OF TUNISIA
_By Norman Douglas_
I. EN ROUTE
II. BY THE OUED BAIESH
III. THE TERMID
IV. STONES OF GAFSA
V. SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG
VI. AMUSEMENTS BY THE WAY
VII. AT THE CAFE
VIII. POST-PRANDIAL MEDITATIONS
IX. SOME OF OUR GUESTS
X. THE OASIS OF LEILA
XI. A HAVEN OF REFUGE
XII. THE MYSTERIOUS COUNT
XIII. TO METLAOUI
XV. THE SELDJA GORGE
XVI. AT THE HEAD OF THE WATERS
XVII. ROMAN OLIVE-CULTURE
XVIII. THE WORK OF PHILIPPE THOMAS
XIX. OVER GUIFLA TO TOZEUR
XX. A WATERY LABYRINTH
XXI. OLD TISOUROS
XXII. THE DISMAL CHOTT
XXIII. THE GARDENS OF NEFTA
XXIV. NEFTA AND ITS FUTURE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
GAFSA AND JEBEL ORBATA
ENTRANCE TO THE TERMID
AT THE TERMID
A STREET IN GAFSA
THE LAST PALMS
CAFE BY THE MULBERRY-TREE
MY FRIEND SILENUS
NATIVES OF GAFSA
THE ROMAN WALL
OLIVES IN THE OASIS
TOZEUR AND ITS OASIS
THE WATERS OF TOZEUR
THE SHRINE ON THE CHOTT
MARABOUT IN THE NEFTA GARDENS
_FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND_
Likely enough, I would not have remained in Gafsa more than a couple of
days. For it was my intention to go from England straight down to the
oases of the Djerid, Tozeur and Nefta, a corner of Tunisia left unexplored
during my last visit to that country--there, where the inland regions
shelve down towards those mysterious depressions, the Chotts, dried-up
oceans, they say, where in olden days the fleets of Atlantis rode at
But there fell into my hands, by the way, a volume that deals exclusively
with Gafsa--Pierre Bordereau's "La Capsa ancienne: La Gafsa moderne"--and,
glancing over its pages as the train wound southwards along sterile
river-beds and across dusty highlands, I became interested in this place
of Gafsa, which seems to have had such a long and eventful history. Even
before arriving at the spot, I had come to the correct conclusion that it
must be worth more than a two days' visit.
The book opens thus: _One must reach Gafsa by way of Sfax._ Undoubtedly,
this was the right thing to do; all my fellow-travellers were agreed upon
that point; leaving Sfax by a night train, you arrive at Gafsa in the
early hours of the following morning.
One must reach Gafsa by way of Sfax....
But a fine spirit of northern independence prompted me to try an
alternative route. The time-table marked a newly opened line of railway
which runs directly inland from the port of Sousse; the distance to Gafsa
seemed shorter; the country was no doubt new and interesting. There was
the station of Feriana, for instance, celebrated for its Roman antiquities
and well worth a visit; I looked at the map and saw a broad road
connecting this place with Gafsa; visions of an evening ride across the
desert arose before my delighted imagination; instead of passing the night
in an uncomfortable train, I should be already ensconced at a luxurious
table d'hote, and so to bed.
The gods willed otherwise.
In pitch darkness, at the inhuman hour of 5.55 a.m., the train crept out
of Sousse: sixteen miles an hour is its prescribed pace. The weather grew
sensibly colder as we rose into the uplands, a stricken region, tree-less
and water-less, with gaunt brown hills receding into the background; by
midday, when Sbeitla was reached, it was blowing a hurricane. I had hoped
to wander, for half an hour or so, among the ruins of this old city of
Suffetula, but the cold, apart from their distance from the station,
rendered this impossible; in order to reach the shed where luncheon was
served, we were obliged to crawl backwards, crab-wise, to protect our
faces from a storm which raised pebbles, the size of respectable peas,
from the ground, and scattered them in a hail about us. I despair of
giving any idea of that glacial blast: it was as if one stood, deprived of
clothing, of skin and flesh--a jabbering anatomy--upon some drear
Caucasian pinnacle. And I thought upon the gentle rains of London, from
which I had fled to these sunny regions, I remembered the fogs, moist and
warm and caressing: greatly is the English winter maligned! Seeing that
this part of Tunisia is covered with the forsaken cities of the Romans who
were absurdly sensitive in the matter of heat and cold, one is driven to
the conclusion that the climate must indeed have changed since their day.
And my fellow-traveller, who had slept throughout the morning (we were the
only two Europeans in the train), told me that this weather was nothing
out of the common; that at this season it blew in such fashion for weeks
on end; Sbeitla, to be sure, lay at a high point of the line, but the cold
was no better at the present terminus, Henchir Souatir, whither he was
bound on some business connected with the big phosphate company. On such
occasions the natives barricade their doors and cower within over a
warming-pan filled with the glowing embers of desert shrubs; as for
Europeans--a dog's life, he said; in winter we are shrivelled to mummies,
in summer roasted alive.
I spoke of Feriana, and my projected evening ride across a few miles of
"Gafsa ... Gafsa," he began, in dreamy fashion, as though I had proposed a
trip to Lake Tchad. And then, emphatically:
"_Gafsa?_ Why on earth didn't you go over Sfax?"
"Ah, everybody has been suggesting that route."
"I can well believe it, Monsieur."
In short, my plan was out of the question; utterly out of the question.
The road--a mere track--was over sixty kilometres in length and positively
unsafe on a wintry night; besides, the land lay 800 metres in height, and
a traveller would be frozen to death. I must go as far as Majen, a few
stations beyond Feriana; sleep there in an Arab funduk (caravanserai), and
thank my stars if I found any one willing to supply me with a beast for
the journey onward next morning. There are practically no tourists along
this line, he explained, and consequently no accommodation for them; the
towns that one sees so beautifully marked on the map are railway
stations--that and nothing more; and as to the broad highways crossing the
southern parts of Tunisia in various directions--well, they simply don't
"That's not very consoling," I said, as we took our seats in the
compartment again. "It begins well."
And my meditations took on a sombre hue. I thought of a little overland
trip I had once undertaken, in India, with the identical object of
avoiding a long circuitous railway journey--from Udaipur to Mount Abu. I
remembered those "few miles of desert."
Decidedly, things were beginning well.
"If you go to Gafsa," he resumed, "--if you really propose going to Gafsa,
pray let me give you a card to a friend of mine, who lives there with his
family and may be useful to you. No trouble, I assure you!"
He scribbled a few lines, addressed to "Monsieur Paul Dufresnoy,
Engineer," for which I thanked him. "We all know each other in Africa," he
said. "It's quite a small place--our Africa, I mean. You could squeeze the
whole of it into the Place de la Concorde.... Nothing but minerals
hereabouts," he went on. "They talk and dream of them, and sometimes their
dreams come true. Did you observe the young proprietor of the restaurant
at Sbeitla? Well, a short time ago some Arabs brought him a handful of
stones from the mountains; he bought the site for two or three hundred
francs, and a company has already offered him eight hundred thousand for
the rights of exploitation. Zinc! He is waiting till they offer a
A solitary station upon the wintry plain--three or four shivering Arabs
swathed in rags--desolation all around--the sun setting in an angry cloud.
It was a strong impression; one realized, for the first time, one's
distance from the life of civilized man. Night descended with the rush of
a storm, and as the friendly train disappeared from my view, I seemed to
have taken leave of everything human. This feeling was not lessened by my
reception at the funduk, whose native manager sternly refused to give me
that separate sleeping-room which, I had been assured, was awaiting me and
which, as he truthfully informed me, was even then unoccupied. The
prospect of passing the night with a crowd of Arabs was not pleasing.
Amiability being unavailing, I tried bribery, but found him adamantine.
I then produced a letter from the Resident of the Republic in Tunis,
recommending me to all the _bureaux indigenes_ of the country, my
translation of it being confirmed and even improved upon, at the expense
of veracity, by a spahi (native cavalryman) who happened to be present,
and threatened the man with the torments of the damned if he failed to
comply with the desires of his government.
"The Resident," was the reply, "is plainly a fine fellow. But he is not
"Ponsechossi. What's that?"
"THIS," he said, excavating from under a pile of miscellaneous rubbish a
paper whereon was displayed the official stamp of the _Ponts et
Chaussees_--the Department of Public Works for whose servants this choice
apartment is--or rather ought to be--exclusively reserved: the rule is not
"Bring me THIS"--tapping the document proudly--"and you have the room."
"Could I at least find a horse in the morning--a mule--a donkey--a camel?"
"We shall see!" And he slouched away.
There was nothing to be done with the man. Your incorruptible Oriental is
always disagreeable. Fortunately, he is rather uncommon.
But the excellent spahi, whom my letter from head-quarters had
considerably impressed, busied himself meanwhile on my behalf, and at
seven in the morning a springless, open, two-wheeled Arab cart, drawn by a
moth-eaten old mule, was ready for my conveyance to Gafsa. In this
instrument of torture were spent the hours from 7.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.,
memories of that ride being blurred by the physical discomfort endured.
Over a vast plateau framed in distant mountains we were wending in the
direction of a low gap which never came nearer; the road itself was full
of deep ruts that caused exquisite agony as we jolted into them; the
sun--a patch of dazzling light, cold and cheerless. At this hour, I
reflected, the train from Sfax would already have set me down at Gafsa.
Save for a few stunted thorns in the moister places, the whole land, so
far as the eye could reach, was covered with halfa-grass--leagues upon
leagues of this sad grey-green desert reed. We passed a few nomad families
whose children were tearing out the wiry stuff--it is never cut in
Tunisia--which is then loaded on camels and conveyed to the nearest depot
on the railway line, and thence to the seaboard. They were burning it here
and there, to keep themselves warm; this is forbidden by law, but
then--there is so much of it on these uplands, and the wind is so cold!
The last miles were easier travelling, as we had struck the track from
Feriana on our left. Here, at an opening of the arid hills, where the road
begins to descend in a broad, straight ribbon, there arose, suddenly, a
distant glimpse of the oasis of Gafsa--a harmonious line of dark palm
trees, with white houses and minarets in between. A familiar vision, and
often described; yet one that never fails of its effect. A man may weary,
after a while, of camels and bedouin maidens and all the picturesque
paraphernalia of Arab life; or at least they end in becoming so trite that
his eyes cease to take note of them; but there are two spectacles, ever
new, elemental, that correspond to deeper impulses: this of palms in the
waste--the miracle of water; and that of fire--the sun.
A low hill near the entrance of the town (it is marked Meda Hill on the
map) had attracted my attention as promising a fine view. Thither, after
settling my concerns at the hotel, I swiftly bent my steps; it was too
late; the wintry sun had gone to rest. The oasis still lay visible,
extended at my feet; on the other side I detected, some three miles away,
a white spot--a house, no doubt--standing by a dusky patch of palms that
rose solitary out of the stones. Some subsidiary oasis, probably; it
looked an interesting place, all alone there, at the foot of those barren
And still I lingered, my only companion being a dirty brown dog, of the
jackal type, who walked round me suspiciously and barked, or rather
whined, without ceasing. At last I took up a stone, and he ran away. But
the stone remained in my hand; I glanced at it, and saw that it was an
implement of worked flint. Here was a discovery! Who were these carvers of
stones, the aboriginals of Gafsa? How lived they? A prolonged and
melodious whistle from the distant railway station served to remind me of
the gulf of ages that separates these prehistoric men from the life of our
But as if to efface without delay that consoling impression, my downward
path led past a dark cavern before which was lighted a fire that threw
gleams into its recesses; there was a family crouching around it; they
lived in the hollow rock. A high-piled heap of bones near at hand
suggested cannibalistic practices.
These, then, are the primitives of Gafsa. And for how long, I wonder, has
this convenient shelter been inhabited? From time immemorial, perhaps;
ever since the days of those others. And, after all, how little have they
changed in the intervening thousands of years! The wild-eyed young wench,
with her dishevelled hair, ferocious bangle-ornaments, tattooings, and
nondescript blue rags open at the side and revealing charms well fitted to
disquiet some robust savage--what has such a creature in common with the
rest of us? Not even certain raptures, misdeemed primeval; hardly more
than what falls to man and beast alike. On my appearance, she rose up and
eyed me unabashed; then sank to the ground again, amid her naked and
uncouth cubs; the rock, she said, was warmer than the black tents; they
paid no rent; for the rest, her man would return forthwith. And soon there
was a clattering of stones, and a herd of goats scrambled up and vanished
within the opening.
The partner was neither pleased nor displeased at seeing me there; every
day he went to pasture his flock on the slopes of the opposite Jebel
Guetter, returning at nightfall; he tried to be civil but failed, for want
of vocabulary. I gave him the salutation, and passed on in the gloaming.
_BY THE OUED BAIESH_
This collecting of flint implements grows upon one at Gafsa; it is in the
air. And I find that quite a number of persons have anticipated me in this
amusement, and even written tomes upon the subject--it is ever thus, when
one thinks to have made a scientific discovery. These stones are scattered
all over the plain, and Monsieur Couillault has traced the site of several
workshops--_ateliers_--of prehistoric weapons near Sidi Mansur, which lies
within half a mile of Gafsa, whence he has extracted--or rather retrieved,
for the flints merely lie upon the ground--quantities of instruments of
every shape; among them, some saws and a miniature spade.
[Illustration: Gafsa and Jebel Orbata]
My collection of these relics, casually picked up here and there, already
numbers two hundred pieces, and illustrates every period of those early
ages--uncouth battle-axes and spear-points; fine needles, apparently used
for sewing skins together; the so-called laurel-leaves, as thin as
card-board; knife-blades; instruments for scraping beast-hides--all of
flint. What interests me most, are certain round throwing-stones; a few
are flat on both sides, but others, evidently the more popular shape, are
flat below and rise to a cone above. Of these latter, I have a series of
various sizes; the largest are for men's hands, but there are smaller
ones, not more than eleven centimetres round, for the use of children: one
thinks of the fierce little hands that wielded them, these many thousand
years ago. Even now the natives will throw by preference with a stone of
this disk-like shape--the cone pointing downwards. But, judging by the
size of their implements, the hands of this prehistoric race can hardly
have been as large as those of their modern descendants.
Then, as now, Gafsa must have been an important site; the number of these
weapons is astonishing. Vast populations have drifted down the stream of
time at this spot, leaving no name or mark behind them, save these relics
fashioned, by the merest of chances, out of a practically imperishable
material; steel and copper would have rotted away long ago, and the
stoutest palaces crumbled to dust under the teeth of the desert air.
The bed of the Oued Baiesh, which flows past Gafsa and is nearly half a
mile broad in some places, is rich in these worked flints which have been
washed out of its steep banks by the floods. Walking here the other day
with a miserable young Arab who, I verily believe, had attached himself to
me out of sheer boredom (since he never asked for a sou), I observed, in
the distance, a solitary individual, a European, pacing slowly along as
though wrapped in meditation; every now and then he bent down to the
"That's a French gentleman from Gafsa. He collects those stones of yours
all day long."
Another amateur, I thought.
"But not like yourself," he went on. "He picks them up, bad and good, and
when they don't look nice he works at them with iron things; I've seen
them! He makes very pretty stones, much prettier than yours. Then he sends
"How do you know this?"
"I've looked in at his window."
A modern "atelier" of flints--this was an amusing revelation. Maybe--who
knows?--half the museums of Europe are stocked with these superior
Sages will be interested to learn that Professor Koken, of Tuebingen, in a
learned pamphlet, lays it down that these flints of Gafsa belong to the
Mesvinian, Strepyian, Praechellean--to say nothing of the Mousterian,
Aurignacian, Solutrean, Magdalenian, and other types. So be it. He further
says, what is more intelligible to the uninitiated, that a bed of hard
conglomerate which crops up at Gafsa on either side of the Oued Baiesh,
has been raised in days of yore; it was raised so slowly that the river
found time to carve itself a bed through it during the process of
elevation; nevertheless, a certain class of these artificial implements,
embedded since God knows when, already formed part of this natural
conglomerate ere it began to uplift itself. This will give some idea of
the abysm of time that lies between us and the skin-clad men that lived
here in olden days.
An abysm of time...
But I remembered the cave-wench of the Meda Hill. And my companion to-day
was of the same grade, a characteristic semi-nomad boy of the poorest
class; an orphan, of course (they are nearly all orphans), and quite
abandoned. His whole vocabulary could not have exceeded one hundred and
fifty words; he had never heard of the Apostle of Allah or his sacred
book; he could only run, and throw stones, and endure, like a beast, those
ceaseless illnesses of which only death, an early death as a rule, is
allowed to cure them. His clothing was an undershirt and the inevitable
burnous, brown with dirt.
"What have you done to-day?" I asked him.
"Nothing. Why should I do anything?"
"Don't you _ever_ wash?"
"I have nobody to wash me."
Yet they appreciate the use of unguents. The other day a man accidentally
poured a glassful of oil into the dusty street. Within a moment a crowd of
boys were gathered around, dabbling their hands into it and then rubbing
them on their hair; those that possessed boots began by ornamenting them,
and thence conveyed the stuff to their heads--the ground was licked dry in
a twinkling; their faces glistened with the greasy mixture. "That's good,"
Such, I daresay, were the pastimes of those prehistoric imps of the
throwing-disks, and their clothing must have been much the same.
For what is the burnous save a glorified aboriginal beast-skin? It has the
same principle of construction; the major part covers the human back and
sides; the beast's head forms the hood; where the forefeet meet, the thing
is tied together across the breast, leaving a large open slit below, and a
smaller one above, where the man's head emerges.
The character of the race is summed up in that hopeless garment, which
unfits the wearer for every pleasure and every duty of modern life. An
article of everyday clothing which prevents a man from using his upper
limbs, which swathes them up, like a silkworm in its cocoon--can anything
more insane be imagined? Wrapped therein for nearly all their lives, the
whole race grows round-shouldered; the gastric region, which ought to be
protected in this climate of extremes, is exposed; the heating of their
heads, night and day, with its hood, cannot but injure their brains; their
hands become weak as those of women, with claw-like movements of the
fingers and an inability to open the palm to the full.
No wonder it takes ten Arabs to fight one negro; no wonder their spiritual
life is apathetic, unfruitful, since the digits that explore and design,
following up the vagrant fancies of the imagination, are practically
atrophied. You will see beggars who find it too troublesome, on cold days,
to extricate their hands for the purpose of demanding alms! Man has been
described as a tool-making animal, but the burnous effectually counteracts
that wholesome tendency; it is a mummifying vesture, a step in the
direction of fossilification. Will the natives ever realize that the
abolition of this sleeveless and buttonless anachronism is one of the
conditions of their betterment? Have _they_ made the burnous, or
vice-versa? No matter. They came together somehow, and suited one another.
The burnous is the epitome of Arab inefficiency.
They call it simple, but like other things that go by that name, it
defeats it own objects of facilitating the common operations of life. It
is amusing to watch them at their laundry-work. Unless a man stand still
and upright, the end of this garment is continually slipping down from his
shoulders; one of the washerman's hands, therefore, is employed in holding
it in its place; the other grasps a stick upon which he leans while
stamping a war-dance with his feet upon the linen. This is only half the
performance, for a friend, holding up _his_ cloak with one hand, must bend
over and ladle the necessary water upon the linen with the other. Thus two
men are requisitioned to wash a shirt--a hand of one, two feet of the
other. No wonder they do not wash them often; the undertaking, thanks to
the burnous, is too complicated.
Yet there is no denying that it adds charm to the landscape; it is highly
decorative; its colour and shape and peculiar texture are as pleasing to
the beholder as must have been the toga of the old Romans (which, by the
way, was a purely ceremonial covering, to be doffed during work: so
Cincinnatus, when the senators found him at the plough, went in to dress
in his toga ere receiving them).
Stalking along on their thin bare shanks, their glittering eyes and hooked
noses shaded within its hood, many adult Arabs assume a strangely
bird-like appearance; while the smooth-faced youths, peering from under
its coquettish folds, remind one of third-rate actresses out for a spree.
In motion, when some half-naked boy sits merrily upon a galloping
stallion, his bare limbs and flying burnous take on the passionate grace
of a panathenaic frieze; it befits equally well the repose of old age,
crouching at some street-corner in hieratic immobility.
Yes, there is no denying that it looks artistic; the burnous is
picturesque, like many antediluvian things. And of course, where nothing
better can be procured, it will protect you from the cold and the stinging
rays of the sun. But if a European wants a chill in the liver or any other
portion of the culinary or postprandial department, he need only wear one
for a few days on end; raise the hood, and you will have a headache in ten
Nevertheless I have bought one, and am wearing it at this very moment. But
not as the poorer Arabs do. Beneath it there is a suit of ordinary winter
clothing, as well as two English ulsters--and this _indoors_. Perhaps this
will give some idea of the cold of Gafsa. There is no heating these bare
rooms with their icy walls and floorings: out of doors a blizzard is
raging that would flay a rhinoceros. And the wind of Gafsa has this
peculiarity, that it is equally bitter from whichever point of the compass
it blows. Let those who contemplate the supreme madness of coming to the
sunny oasis at the present season of the year (January) bring not only
Arctic vestment, eiderdowns, fur cloaks, carpets and foot-warmers, but
also, and chiefly, efficient furnaces and fuel for them.
For such things seem to be unknown hereabouts.
The chief attractions of Gafsa, beside the oasis, are the tall minaret
with its prospect over the town and plantations, and the Kasbah or
fortress, a Byzantine construction covering a large expanse of ground and
rebuilt by the French on theatrical lines, with bastions and crenellations
and other warlike pomp; thousands of blocks of Roman masonry have been
wrought into its old walls, which are now smothered under a modern layer
of plaster divided into square fields, to imitate solid stonework. It
looks best in the moonlight, when this childish cardboard effect is toned
One of the two hot springs of Gafsa is enclosed within this Kasbah, while
the other rises near at hand and flows into the celebrated baths--the
_termid_, as the natives, using the old Greek word, still call it. It is a
large and deep stone basin, half full of warm water, in which small
fishes, snakes and tortoises disport themselves; the massive engirdling
walls demonstrate its Roman origin. Thick mists hang over the _termid_ in
the early mornings, when the air is chilly, but later on it becomes a
lively place, full of laughter and splashings. Here, for a sou, you may
get the boys to jump down from the parapet and wallow among the muddy ooze
at the bottom; the liquid, though transparent, is not colourless, but
rather of the blue-green tint of the aquamarine crystal; it flows rapidly,
and all impurities are carried away.
There are always elderly folk idling about these premises, and youngsters
with rods tempting the fish out of the water; day after day the game goes
on, the foolish creatures nibble at the bait and are drawn up on high;
their fellows see the beginning of the tragedy, but never the end, where,
floundering in the street, the victims cover their silvery scales with a
coating of dust and expire ignominiously, as unlike live fishes as if they
came ready cooked out of the kitchen _panes et frits_.
Above this basin is another one, that of the women; and below it, at the
foot of a lurid stairway, a suite of subterranean (Roman) chambers, a kind
of Turkish bath for men, where the water hurries darkly through; the place
is reeking with a steamy heat, and objectionable beyond words; it would
not be easy to describe, in the language of polite society, those features
in which it is most repulsive to Europeans.
[Illustration: Entrance to the Termid]
How easily, as in former days, might now a health-giving wonder be created
out of these waters of Gafsa, that well up in a river of warmth and
purity, only to be hopelessly contaminated! The French tried the
experiment, but the natives objected, and they gave way: these are the
spots on the sunny ideal of "pacific penetration." Any other
nationality--while allowing the Arabs a fair share of the element--would
simply have rebuilt this _termid_ and put it to a decent use, in the name
of cleanliness and civilization; the natives acquiescing, as they always
do when they recognize their masters. Or, if a display of force was
considered inadvisable, why not try the _suaviter in modo_? Had a couple
of local saints been judiciously approached, the population would soon
have discovered that the _termid_ waters are injurious to health and only
fit for unbelievers. What is the use of a _marabout_, if he cannot be
I am all for keeping up local colour, even when it entails, as it
generally does, a certain percentage of local smells; yet it seems a pity
that such glorious hot springs, a gift of the gods in a climate like this,
should be converted into a _cloaca maxima_, especially in Gafsa, which
already boasts of a superfluity of open drains.
But my friend the magistrate showed me a special bathing room which has
lately been built for the use of Europeans. We tried the door and found it
Where was the key?
At the _Ponts et Chaussees_.
Thither I went, and discovered an elderly official of ample proportions
dozing in a trim apartment--the chief of the staff. Great was this
gentleman's condescension; he bade me be seated, opened his eyes wide, and
enquired after my wants.
The key? The key of the _piscine?_ He regretted he could give me no
information as to its whereabouts--no information whatever. He had never
so much as seen the key in question; perhaps it had been lost, perhaps it
never existed. Several tourists, he added, had already come on the same
quest as myself; he also, on one occasion last year, thought he would like
to take a bath, but--what would you? There was no key! If I liked to
bathe, I might go to the tank at the gardens of Sidi Ahmed Zarroung.
I gently insisted, pointing out that I did not care for a walk across the
wind-swept desert only to dip myself into a pool of lukewarm and
pestilentially sulphureous water. But "the key" was evidently a sore
"There is no key, Monsieur"; and he accompanied the words with a
portentous negative nod that blended the resigned solicitude of an old and
trusted friend with the firmness of a Bismarck. This closed the
discussion; with expressions of undying gratitude, and a few remarks as to
the palpable advantages to be derived from keeping a public bathing-room
permanently locked, I left him to his well-earned slumbers....
It is hard to understand what the guide-books mean when they call the
market of Gafsa "rich and well-appointed": a five-pound note, I calculate,
would buy the entire exhibition. The produce, though varied, is wretched;
but the scenery fine. Over a dusty level, strewn with wares, you look upon
a stretch of waving palms, with the distant summit of Jebel Orbata shining
in the deep blue sky. Here are a few butchers and open-air cooks who fry
suspicious-looking bundles of animal intestines for the epicurean Arabs; a
little saddlery; half a camel-load of corn; a broken cart-wheel and
rickety furniture put up to auction; one or two halfa-mats of admirable
workmanship; grinding-stones; musty pressed dates, onions, huge but
insipid turnips and other green things, red peppers----
Those peppers! An adult Arab will eat two pounds of them a day. I have
seen, native women devouring, alternately, a pepper, then a date, then
another pepper, then another date, and so on, for half an hour. An infant
at the breast, when tired of its natural nourishment, is often given one
of these fiery abominations to suck, as an appetizer, or by way of change
and amusement. Their corroding juices are responsible for half the stomach
troubles of the race; a milk diet would work wonders as a cure, if the
people could be induced to do things by halves; but they cannot; it is
"all peppers or all milk," and, the new diet disagreeing with them at
first, they return to their peppers and a painful disease.
It is this lack of measure and reasonableness among them which accounts
for what I believe to be a fact, namely, that there are more reclaimed
drunkards among Arabs than among ourselves. They will break off the
alcohol habit violently, and for ever. And this they do not out of
principle, but from impulse or, as they prefer to call it, inspiration;
indeed, they regard our men of fixed principles as weaklings and cowards,
who stiffen themselves by artificial rules because they cannot trust their
judgments to deal with events as they arise--(the Arab regards terrestrial
life as a chain of accidents)--cowards and infidels, trying to forestall
by human devices the unascertainable decrees of Allah.
Allah wills it! That is why they patiently bear the extremes of hunger,
and why, if fortune smiles, they gorge like Eskimos, like
I have seen them so distended with food as to be literally incapable of
moving. Only yesterday, there swept past these doors a bright procession,
going half-trot to a lively chant of music: the funeral of a woman. I
enquired of a passer-by the cause of her death.
"She ate too much, and burst."
During the summer months, in the fruit-growing districts, quite a number
of children will "burst" in this fashion every day.
_Mektoub_! the parents then exclaim. It was written.
And no doubt there is such a thing as a noble resignation; to defy fate,
even if one cannot rule it. Many of us northerners would be the better for
a little _mektoub_. But this doctrine of referring everything to the will
of Allah takes away all stimulus to independent thought; it makes for
apathy, improvidence, and mental fossilification. A creed of everyday use
which hampers a man's reasoning in the most ordinary matters of life--is
it not like a garment that fetters his hands?
_Mektoub_ is the intellectual _burnous_ of the Arabs....
There is some movement, at least, in this market; often the familiar
story-tellers, surrounded by a circle of charmed listeners; sometimes,
again, a group of Soudanese from Khordofan or Bournu, who parade a black
he-goat, bedizened with gaudy rags because devoted to death; they will
slay him in due course at some shrine; but not just now, because there is
still money to be made out of his ludicrous appearance, with an incidental
dance or song on their own part. Vaguely perturbing, these negro melodies
and thrummings; their reiteration of monotony awakens tremulous echoes on
the human diaphragm and stirs up hazy, primeval mischiefs.
And this morning there arrived a blind singer, or bard; he was led by two
boys, who accompanied his extemporaneous verses--one of them tapping with
a pebble on an empty sardine-tin, while the other belaboured a beer-bottle
with a rusty nail: both solemn as archangels; there was also a
professional accompanist, who screwed his mouth awry and blew sideways
into a tall flute, his eyes half-closed in ecstatic rapture. Arab gravity
never looks better than during inanely grotesque performances of this
kind; in such moments one cannot help loving them, for these are the
little episodes that make life endurable.
[Illustration: At the Termid]
The music was not altogether original; it reminded me, with its mechanical
punctuations, of a concerto by Paderewski which contains an exquisite
movement between the piano and kettledrum--since the flute, which ought to
have supported the voice, was apparently dumb, although the artist puffed
out his cheeks as if his life depended upon it. Only after creeping quite
close to the performers could I discern certain wailful breathings; this
brave instrument, all splotched with variegated colours, gave forth a
succession of anguished and asthmatic whispers, the very phantom of a
song, like the wind sighing through the branches of trees.
_STONES OF GAFSA_
There are interesting walks in the neighbourhood of Gafsa, but I can
imagine nothing more curious than the town itself; a place of some five
thousand inhabitants, about a thousand of whom are Jews, with a sprinkling
of Italian tradespeople and French officials and soldiers. Beyond naming
the streets and putting up a few lamps, the Government has left it in its
Arab condition; the roadways are unpaved, hardly a single wall is plumb;
the houses, mostly one-storied, lean this way and that, and, being built
of earthen-tinted sun-dried brick, have an air of crumbling to pieces
before one's very eyes. A heavy and continuous shower would be the ruin of
Gafsa; the structures would melt away, like that triple wall of defence,
erected in medieval times, of which not a vestige remains. Yet the dirt is
not as remarkable as in many Eastern places, for every morning a band of
minor offenders is marched out of prison by an overseer to sweep the
streets. Sometimes an upper room is built to overlook, if possible, the
roadway; it is supported on palm-rafters, forming a kind of tunnel
underneath. Everywhere are immense blocks of chiselled stone worked into
the ephemeral Arab clay as doorsteps or lintels, or lying about at random,
or utilized as seats at the house entrance; they date from Roman or
earlier times--columns, too, some of them adorned with the lotus-pattern,
the majority unpretentious and solid.
[Illustration: A Street in Gafsa]
What do the natives think of these relics of past civilization? Do they
ever wonder whence they came or who made them? "The stones are there,"
they will tell you. Yet the wiser among them will speak of _Ruman_; they
have heard of _Ruman_ moneys and antiquities.
Arabs have a saying that Gafsa was founded by Nimrod's armour-bearer; but
a more reasonable legend, preserved by Orosius and others, attributes its
creation to Melkarth, the Libyan and Tyrian Hercules, hero of
colonization. He surrounded it with a wall pierced by a hundred gates,
whence its presumable name, Hecatompylos, the city of a hundred gates. The
Egyptians ruled it; then the Phoenicians, who called it Kafaz--the walled;
and after the destruction of Carthage it became the retreat and
treasure-house of Numidian kings. Greeks, too, exercised a powerful
influence on the place, and all these civilized peoples had prepared Gafsa
to appreciate the beneficent rule of the Romans.
Then came Vandals and Byzantines, who gradually grew too weak to resist
the floods of plundering Arab nomads; the rich merchants fled, their
palaces fell to ruins; the town became a collection of mud huts inhabited
by poor cultivators who lived in terror of the neighbouring Hammama tribe
of true Arabs, that actually forbade them to walk beyond the limits of the
Jebel Assalah--a couple of miles distant. So the French found them in
There are, however, a few decent houses, two-storied and spacious; in one
of them, I am told, lives the family of Monsieur Dufresnoy, to whom my
fellow traveller at Sbeitla gave me a card. He is absent at the Metlaoui
mines just now, and his wife and children in Paris.
The cleansing of the streets by prisoners does not extend to the native
houses and courtyards, which therefore survive in all their original,
inconceivable squalor--squalor so uncompromising that it has long ago
ceased to be picturesque. What glimpses into humble interiors, when native
secretiveness has not raised a rampart of earthen bricks at the inside of
the entrance! In the daytime it is like looking into vast, abandoned
pigsties, fantastically encumbered with palm-logs, Roman building-blocks
and rubbish-heaps which display the accumulated filth of
generations--there is hardly a level yard of ground--rags and dust and
decay! Here they live, the poorer sort, and no wonder they have as little
sense of home as the wild creatures of the waste. But at night, when the
most villainous objects take on mysterious shapes and meanings, these
courtyards become grand; they assume an air of biblical desolation, as
though the curse of Heaven had fallen upon the life they once witnessed;
and even as you look into them, something stirs on the ground: it is an
Arab, sleeping uneasily in his burnous; he has felt, rather than heard,
your presence, and soon he unwinds his limbs and rises out of the dust,
like a sheeted ghost.
It is an uncanny gift of these folks to come before you when least
expected; to be ever-present, emerging, one might almost say, out of the
earth. Go to the wildest corner of this thinly populated land, and you may
be sure that there is an Arab, brooding among the rocks or in the sand,
within a few yards of you.
_The stones are there_. This is another feature which they have in common
with the beasts of the earth: never to pause before the memorials of their
own past. Goethe says that where men are silent, stones will speak. If
ever they spoke, it is among these crumbling, composite walls of Gafsa.
A Roman inscription of the age of Hadrian, which now forms the step of an
Arab house, will arrest your glance and turn your thoughts awhile in the
direction of this dim, romantic figure. How little we really know of the
Imperial wanderer, whose journeyings may still be traced by the monuments
that sprang up in his footsteps! Never since the world began has there
been a traveller in the grandiose style of Hadrian; he perambulated his
world like a god, crowned with a halo of benevolence and omnipotence.
And it occurs to me that there must be other relics of antiquity still
buried under the soil of Gafsa, which is raised on a mound, like an
island, above the surrounding country; particularly in the vicinity of the
_termid_, which we may suppose to have lain near the centre of the old
town. And where are the paving-stones? The painstaking John Leo says that
the streets of Gafsa are "broad and paved, like those of Naples or
Florence." Have they been slowly submerged under the debris of Arabism, or
taken up and worked into the masonry of the Kasbah and other buildings?
Not one is left: so much is certain.
I borrowed Sallust and tried to press some flavour out of his description
of Marius' march to the capture of Gafsa. It was a fine military
performance, without a doubt; he led his troops by unsuspected paths
across the desert, fell upon the palace, sacked and burnt it, and divided
the booty among his soldiers: all this without the loss of a single man.
The natives needed a lesson, and they got it; to this day the name of
Marius is whispered among the black tents as that of some fabulous hero.
But what interests me most is the style of Sallust himself. How
ultra-modern this historian reads! His outlook upon life, his choice of
words, are the note of tomorrow; and when I compare with him certain
writers of the Victorian epoch, I seem to be unrolling a papyrus from
Pharaoh's tomb, or spelling out the elucubrations of some maudlin scribe
of Prester John.
The stones are there. And the quarries whence the Romans drew them have
also been found, by Guerin; they lie in the flanks of the Jebel Assalah,
and are well worth a visit; legions of bats--_tirlils_, the Arabs call
them--hang in noisome clusters from the roof.
Concerning these bats, the following story is told in Gafsa.
Not long ago a rich Englishman came here. He used to go out in the
evenings and shoot bats; then he put them into bottles with spirits of
wine--he was an amateur of bats. On the day of his departure from the
place, he said to the polyglot Arab guide whom he had picked up somewhere
on his wanderings:
"You will rejoin me in Tunis in ten days. Bring me more bats--tirlils:
_comprenni?_--from this country. I will give you fifty centimes apiece."
"Bon, Monsieur," said the guide, and took counsel with the folks of Gafsa,
who, after certain reservations and stipulations, showed him the way into
On the day appointed he entered the rich tourist's hotel in Tunis,
followed by ten porters, each carrying a large sack.
"Hallo!" said the Englishman, "what's all this?"
"Eh? How much?"
"Bats; _tirlils_, _chauve-souris_, _pipistrelli_... They will need much
bottles. Six hundred tirlils in each sack; ten sacks; six thousand
tirlils. Much bottles! Three thousand francs, Monsieur. Shall I open him?"
The tourist cast a dismayed glance over the sacks, gently heaving with
[ILLUSTRATION: Hadrian's Inscription]
"Look here," he said, "I'll give you fifty francs...."
The Arab was surprised and grieved. He thought he was giving a pleasure to
Monsieur, who had asked for bats. He had been obliged to borrow money from
his aged mother to help to pay the nine hundred francs which he had
already disbursed for assistance in catching the tirlils; he had risked
his life; there were the transport expenses, too: very heavy. He had
travelled with many Englishmen and had always found them to be men of
honour--men who kept their word. And in this case there were witnesses to
the bargain, who would be ready, if necessary, to go into the French
tribunals and testify to what they had heard....
"I see. Well, come to-morrow morning, but go away now, quick! before I
break your head. Take your damned tirlils to your damned funduk, and be
And he looked so very angry that the Arab, a prudent fellow, walked
backwards out of the room, more surprised and grieved than ever.
Thanks to the disinterested and strenuous exertions of a Jewish
international lawyer, the affair was settled out of court after
all--fifteen hundred francs, plus expenses of transport.
_SIDI ARMED ZARROUNG_
Sidi Ahmed Zarroung--that is the name of the miniature oasis visible from
the Meda Hill, at the foot of those barren slopes. It is a pleasant
afternoon's walk from Gafsa.
The intervening plain is encrusted with stones--stones great and small.
Here and there are holes in the ground, where the natives have unearthed
some desert shrub for the sake of its roots which, burnt as fuel, exhale a
pungent odour of ammonia that almost suffocates you. Once the water-zone
of Gafsa is passed, every trace of cultivation vanishes. And yet, to judge
by the number of potsherds lying about, houses must have stood here in
days of old. An Arab geographer of the eleventh century says that there
are over two hundred flourishing villages in the neighbourhood of Gafsa;
and Edrisius, writing a century later, extols its prosperous suburbs, and
Where are they now?
One of these villages, surely, must have lain near this fountain of Sidi
Ahmed Zarroung, which now irrigates a few palms and vegetables and then
loses itself in the sand; a second spring, sulphureous and medicinal, but
destructive to plants, rises near at hand. This is the one which the
gentleman of the _Ponts et Chaussees_ recommended me for bathing purposes.
But I saw no trace of ancient life here; there is only a muddy pond, full
of amorous frogs and tortoises, cold-blooded beasts, but fiery in their
passions; and a few Arabs that live in the large white house, or camp on
the plain around. They told me that the descendants of the holy man who
gave his name to the place are still alive, but they knew nothing of his
history beyond this, that he was very pious indeed.
If you do not mind a little scrambling, you can climb from here up to the
last spur of the Jebel Guettor which overlooks the plain--it is crowned by
a ruined building, once whitewashed, and easily visible from Gafsa. On its
slopes I struck a vein of iron, another of those scientific discoveries,
no doubt, like the flint implements, in which someone else will have
anticipated me. And here I also found iron in a more civilized shape, a
fragment of a shell--relic, perhaps, of the first French expedition
against Gafsa, or of some more recent artillery practice.
From its summit one sees the configuration of the country as on a map; the
high Jebel Orbata, 1170 metres, now covered with snow, coming forward to
meet you on the other side of the wide valley. From this point it is easy
to realize, as did the commander of that French expedition, the
significance of this speck of culture, its strategic value: Gafsa is a
veritable key to the Sahara. I daresay the abundant water-supply of the
town is due to these two chains of hills which almost touch each other and
so force the water to rise from its underground bed.
At this elevation you perceive that Gafsa is truly a hill-oasis, bleak
mountains rising up on all sides save the south. There, where the two
highest ranges converge from east and west, where the broad waterway of
the Oued Baiesh has in olden days, when it wandered with less capricious
flow, carved itself a channel through the opening--there, at the very
narrowest point--sits the oasis. A tangle of palms that sweep southward in
a radiant trail of green, the crenellated walls of the Kasbah gleaming
through the interstices of the foliage--the whole vision swathed in an
orange-tawny frame of desolation, of things non-human....
[ILLUSTRATION: The Last Palms]
I was tempted to think that the sunset view from the Meda eminence was the
finest in the immediate neighbourhood of Gafsa. Not so; that from the low
hills behind Sidi Mansur, with the stony ridge of Jebel Assalah at your
back, surpasses it in some respects. Through a gap you look towards the
distant green plantations, with a shimmering level in the foreground; on
your other side lies the Oued Baiesh, crossed by the track to Kairouan,
where strings of camels are for ever moving to and fro, laden with
merchandise from the north or with desert products from the oases of
Djerid and Souf. The dry bed of the torrent glows in hues of isabel and
cream, while its perpendicular mud-banks, on the further side, gleam like
precipices of amber; the soil at your feet is besprinkled with a profusion
of fair and fragile flowerlets.
Here stand, like sentinels at the end of all things living, the three or
four last, lonely palms--they and their fellows lower down are fed by a
silvery streamlet which is forced upwards, I suppose, by contact with
Professor Koken's conglomerate; above and below this oasis-region the
river-bed is generally dry. It must be a wonderful sight, however, when
the place is in flood--a deluge of liquid ooze careering madly southward
towards the dismal Chotts amid the crashing of stones and palm trees and
the collapse of banks. For the Oued Baiesh can be angry at times; in 1859
it submerged fifty hectares of the Gafsa gardens.
Instead of returning by the main road from Sidi Mansur, one can bend a
little to the right and so pass the military hospital, a large
establishment which looks as if it could be converted into a barrack in
case of need. This is as it should be. Gafsa is a rallying-point, and must
be prepared for emergencies. Here, too, lie the cemeteries: the Jewish,
fronting the main road, with a decent enclosure; that of the Christians,
framed in a wire fence and containing a few wooden crosses, imitation
broken columns and tinsel wreaths; Arab tombs, scattered over a large
undefined tract of brown earth, and clustering thickly about some
white-domed maraboutic monument, whose saintly relics are desirable
companionship for the humbler dead.
The bare ground here is littered with pottery and other fragments of
ancient life testifying to its former populousness: flint implements,
among the rest. Of the interval between the latest of these stone-age
primevals and the first Egyptian invasion of Gafsa we know nothing; they,
the Egyptians, brought with them that plough which is figured in the
hieroglyphics, and has not yet changed its shape. You may see the
venerable instrument any day you like, being carried on a man's back to
his work in the oasis.
Athwart this region there runs an underground (excavated) stream of water,
led from Sidi Mansur to nourish the Gafsa plantations. Through holes in
the ground one looks down upon the element flowing mysteriously below;
figs and other trees are set in these hollows for the sake of the shade
and moisture, and their crowns barely reach the level of the soil. This is
no place to wander about at night--a false step in the darkness and a man
would break his neck. There was talk, at one time, of leading this brook,
which is sweet and non-mineral, into Gafsa for drinking purposes, but the
native garden proprietors raised their inevitable howl of objections, and
the project was abandoned.
If you ask a local white man as to the misdeeds of his administration, be
sure he will mention the affair of the railway station which was built too
far from the town, and this of the Sidi Mansur water. And who, you ask,
was to blame for these follies? Oh, the _controlleur_, as usual; always
the _controlleur!_ It is no sinecure being an official of this kind in
Tunisia, with precise Government instructions in one pocket, and in the
other his countrymen's contrary lamentations and suggestions, often
Loaded down with a choice selection of Sidi Mansur flints, which are
singular as having a white patina, I returned to Gafsa in the late
afternoon and entered my favourite Arab cafe. Here, at all events, if you
do not mind a little native _esprit de corps_, you will be able to thaw
your frozen limbs; all the other rooms of Gafsa, public and private, are
like ice-cellars. There are many of these coffeehouses in the town, and
this is one of the least fashionable of them. Never a European darkens its
door; seldom even a native soldier; it is not good enough for them; they
go to finer resorts.
At its entrance there lie, conveniently arranged as seats, some old Roman
blocks, overshadowed by a mulberry, now gaunt and bare. It must be
delightful, in the spring-time, to sit under its shade and watch the
street-life: the operations at the neighbouring dye-shop where gaudy
cloths of blue and red are hanging out to dry, or, lower down, the
movement at the wood-market--a large tract of "boulevard" encumbered with
the impedimenta of nomadism. There is a ceaseless unloading of fuel here;
bargains are struck about sheep and goats, the hapless quadruped, that
refuses to accompany its new purchaser good-naturedly, being lifted up by
the hind legs and made to walk in undignified fashion on the remaining
two. Fires gleam brightly, each one surrounded by a knot of camels couched
in the dust, their noses converging towards the flame, while old desert
hags, bent double with a life of hardship, bustle about the cooking-pots.
There are brawls, too--Arabs seizing each other by the throat, raising
sticks and uttering wild imprecations....
[ILLUSTRATION: Cafe by the Mulberry Tree]
But within that windowless chamber, all is peace. Eternal twilight reigns,
and your eyes must become accustomed to the gloom ere you can perceive the
cobwebby ceiling of palm-rafters, smoke-begrimed and upheld by two stone
columns that glisten with the dirt of ages. Here is the hearth, overhung
by a few ancient pots, where the server, his head enveloped in a greasy
towel, officiates like some high priest at the altar. You may have milk,
or the mixture known as coffee, or tea flavoured in Moroccan style with
mint, or with cinnamon, or pepper. The water-vessels stew everlastingly
upon a slow fire fed with the residue of pressed olives. Or, if too poor,
you may take a drink of water out of the large clay tub that stands by the
door. Often a beggar will step within for that purpose, and then the
chubby serving-lad gives a scowl of displeasure and makes pretence to take
away the cup; but the mendicant will not be gainsaid--water is the gift of
Allah! And, if so please you, you may drink nothing at all, but simply
converse with your neighbour, or sit still and dream away the days, the
weeks, the year, sleeping by night upon the floor.
A few of the customers are playing at cards or sedately chatting; others
begin to prepare their favourite smoke of hashish. A board is called for
and the hashish-powder spread out upon it. The operator chops it into
still finer particles by means of a semicircular blade, deftly blowing
away the dust--this brings out its strength. He is in no hurry; it is a
ceremony rather than a task. Slowly he separates the coarser from the
finer grains, his fingers moving with loving deliberation over the smooth
board. Then the cutting process is repeated once more, and yet again.
Maybe he will now add a little of the Soufi stuff, to improve the taste.
At last all is ready, and small pipes are extracted from the folds of the
burnous and filled with half a thimbleful of the precious mixture. Two or
three whiffs, deeply inhaled, stream out at mouth and nostrils; then the
pipe is swiftly passed on to a friend, who drains the last drop of smoke
and knocks out the ashes. Not a word is spoken.
Hand him your pipe, if you are wise, and let him fill it for you. This
_kif_, they say, affects people differently; but I think that, as a
general effect, you will discover a genial warmth stealing through your
limbs, while the things of this world begin to reveal themselves in a more
I thought of the sunset this afternoon, as viewed from Sidi Mansur. They
are fine, these moments of conflagration, of mineral incandescence, when
the sober limestone rocks take on the tints of molten copper, their
convulsed strata standing out like the ribs of some agonized Prometheus,
while the plain, where every little stone casts an inordinate shadow
behind it, clothes itself in demure shades of pearl. Fine, and all too
brief. For even before the descending sun has touched the rim of the world
the colours fade away; only overhead the play of blues and greens
continues--freezing, at last, to pale indigo. Fine, but somewhat trite; a
well-worn subject, these Oriental sunsets. Yet the man who can revel in
such displays with a whole heart is to be envied of a talisman against
many ills. I can conceive the subtlest and profoundest sage desiring
nothing better than to retain, ever undiminished, a childlike capacity for
these simple pleasures....
A spirit of immemorial eld pervades this tavern. Silently the shrouded
figures come and go. They have lighted the lamp yonder, and it glimmers
through the haze like some distant star.
And I remembered London at this sunset hour, a medley of tender
grey-in-grey, save where a glory of many-coloured light hovers about some
street-lantern, or where a carriage, splashing through the river of mud,
leaves a momentary track of silver in its rear. There are the nights, of
course, with their bustle and flare, but nights in a city are apt to grow
wearisome; they fall into two or three categories, whose novelty soon
wears off. How different from the starlit ones of the south, each with its
peculiar moods and aspirations!
Yet the Thames--odd how one's _kif_-reveries always lead to running
water--the Thames, I know, will atone for much. It is even more impressive
at this season than in its summer clarity, and as I walk, in imagination,
along that rolling flood flecked with patches of unwholesome iridescence
and crossed by steamers and barges that steer in ghostly fashion about the
dusky waters, I marvel that so few of our poets have responded to its
beauty and signification. They find it easier, doubtless, to warble a
spring song or two. The fierce pulsations of industry, the shiftings of
gold that make and mar human happiness--these are themes reserved for the
bard of the future who shall strike, bravely, a new chord, extracting from
the sombre facts of city life a throbbing, many-tinted romance, even as
out of that foul coal-tar some, who know the secret, craftily distil most
delicate perfumes and colours exquisite. The bard of the future ... h'm!
Will he ever appear? As an atavism, perhaps. Take away from modern poetry
what appeals to primitive man--the jingle and pathetic fallacy--and the
residue, if any, would be better expressed in prose.
My neighbour, a sensible person, has ceased to take interest in the
proceedings. Perched upright at first, his head drooping within the folds
of his cloak, he has slowly succumbed; he has kicked off his sandals,
stretched himself out, and now slumbers. I, too, am beginning to feel
weary, and no wonder....
Primitive man with those flints of his, that weigh me down at this moment.
This stone-collecting, _par exemple!_ I wonder what induced me to take up
such a hobby. The German Professor, as usual. Ah, Mr. Koken, Mr.
Koken--those light words of yours have borne a heavy fruit. I possess four
hundred implements now, and they will double the weight of my luggage and
ruin my starched shirts, especially those formidable "praechellean"
skull-cleavers. And I know exactly what the customs officer at Marseilles
will say, when he peeps into my bag:
"_Tiens, des cailloux! Monsieur est botaniste?"_
And then a crowd of people will assemble, to whom I must explain
everything, with the result of being arrested for smuggling forbidden
mining samples out of a colony and ending my days in some insanitary
_AMUSEMENTS BY THE WAY_
Meanwhile, to satiate myself with Gafsa impressions, I linger by the
margin of the pool that lies below the fortress. Hither the camels are
driven to slake their thirst, arriving sometimes in such crowds as almost
to fill up the place. Donkeys and horses are scoured by half-naked lads;
in the clearer parts, a number of tattooed Bedouin girls are everlastingly
washing their household stuffs. Only on rare occasions is the liquid
undisturbed, and then it shines with the steely-blue transparency of those
diamonds that are a class by themselves, superior to "first-water" stones.
At the slightest agitation all the accumulated ooze and filth of
generations--rags and decomposing frogs and things unmentionable--rise to
the surface in turbid clouds. The element wells out hot, from under the
neighbouring Kasbah, with a pestiferous mineral aroma.
Hither comes, at fixed intervals, my friend Silenus, the water-carrier, on
his philosophic donkey; nearly all Gafsa draws its supply of cooking and
drinking water from this fetid and malodorous mere.
A fine example of French inefficiency, this "abreuvoir." Two hundred
francs would suffice to tap the liquid a few yards higher up, by means of
a common cast-iron pipe, whence it would rush out, pure and undefiled, to
fill in a few moments those multitudinous water-skins that are now
laboriously furnished, by hand, out of the often tainted pool below.
And of native inefficiency, likewise. Day after day, age after age, have
these women done their laundry-work at this spot, and yet their clothing,
for purposes of the work, is more hopelessly inadequate than the burnous
of the males. They will arrive wrapped up in twenty rags that are always
falling off their backs and shoulders (they possess no baskets). One by
one these articles are removed, soaped with one little hand, stamped upon
by two little feet, and laid aside. Nothing remains, at last, but a single
covering garment--a loose chemise full of artistic possibilities for the
onlookers. It gives the poor girls endless trouble, for it is continually
slipping off their bodies on one side or the other, and one hand is
engaged, all the time, in counteracting these mischievous movements.
Standing as they do up to their knees in the water, it is tucked up high
and of course tumbles down again every minute. At the end of their washing
they are as wet as drenched poodles.
[ILLUSTRATION: My Friend Silenus]
No harm in this, in summer-time; but with the thermometer below
freezing-point they would suffer considerably were they not inured, like
to other creatures of the desert, to every kind of discomfort.
The chief mental exercise of the Arab, they say, consists in thinking how
to reduce his work to a minimum. Now this being precisely my own ideal of
life, and a most rational one, I would prefer to put it thus: that of many
kinds of simplification they practise only one--_omission_, which does not
always pay. They are imaginative, but incredibly uninventive. How
different from the wily Hindu or Chinaman, with his almost preternatural
sagacity in small practical matters! Scorn of theories is one of their
chief race-characteristics, and that is why they end in becoming
stoics--stoics, that is, as the beasts are, who suffer without knowing
There was one of these girls in particular whom I noticed every day, and
whom, at last, I compassionately supplied with a couple of safety-pins,
after explaining their uses. She was decidedly ugly. But sometimes you may
see others here, with neatly chiselled limbs and elfish eyes of a sultry,
troubling charm into which, if sentimentally disposed, you can read an
ocean of love; these need not be supplied with safety-pins. An
enthusiastic Frenchman at Gabes actually married one of these sphynx-like
creatures--a hazardous and quixotic experiment. As brides for a lifetime
(slaves) they cost from a hundred to six hundred francs apiece, and even
more; and you will do well to _abonner_ yourself with the family
beforehand, in order to be sure of obtaining a sound article, as with the
Tartar girls in Russian Asia and elsewhere. As a general rule, those of
the semi-nomads--the Gourbi people--cost more than those of the true
wanderers. The price varies according to the season and a thousand other
contingencies; it rises, inevitably, in the neighbourhood of settled
places, where employment of one kind (olive-picking, etc.) or
another--chiefly of another--can be found for them.
One of the prettiest I ever saw was offered me for three hundred francs.
It was an uncommon bargain, due to a drought and certain family mishaps.
These little wildlings are troublesome to carry about. They are less
nimble and amiable than the boys, and often require more beating than a
European has time to give them. You can always sell them again, of course;
and sometimes (into the towns) at a good profit.
The Arab woman is the repository of all the accumulated nonsense of the
race, and her influence upon the young brood is retrogressive and malign.
It matters little what happens in the desert where men and women are
necessarily animals, but it does among the middle and upper native classes
of the larger places. Here the French have established their so-called
Arab-French schools, excellent institutions which are largely attended,
and would produce far better results but for the halo of sanctity with
which boys in every country--but particularly in half-civilized ones--are
apt to invest the most flagrantly empty-headed of mothers. In Tunisia, as
soon as the youngsters return home, these women quickly undo all the good
work, by teaching them that what they have learnt at school is dangerous
untruth, and that the Koran and native mode of life are the only sources
of happiness. Then, to keep the son at home, the mother will hasten to
catch a bride for him who shall be, if possible, more incompetent than
herself, in order that she, the mother, may retain her ascendency over
him. The father, meanwhile, shrugs his shoulders: _Mektoub_! There is no
fighting against such heroic perseverance on a woman's part; besides, was
he not brought up on the same lines?
The mischief is done, for Arabs relapse easily; even native officers, who
have served for years in the French army, will, on returning home, don the
burnous, sit at street corners, and become more _arabized_ than ever. So
it comes about that, if the eyes of the former generation were entirely
averse from French rule, the present one is Janus-faced--looking both
ways. Some day, presumably, there will be a further adaptation, and their
eyes, like those of certain flat-fish, will wander round and settle down
definitely on the right side....
This is a favourite month for native weddings. There was one going on last
night. I looked into the courtyard of a ruinous building which was crammed
with spectators. The Aissouyiahs were performing, in honour of the
These are the dervish fanatics whom everyone knows. They eat scorpions,
glass, nails, and burning coals; they cut themselves with knives and other
instruments--impostors, for the most part.
It is mere child's play to what you can see further East.
Yet, with the starry night overhead, and the flare of torches lighting up
a seething mass of faces below, of bronzed limbs and bright-tinted rags
dangling at every altitude from the palm rafters and decayed stairway, the
scene was more weirdly fascinating than as one generally sees it--in
mosques or in the open daylight. There were wild strains of music and
song; a wave of disquietude, clearly, was passing over the beholders.
These performances, at such a time, may originally have taken place for
purposes of nuptial excitement or stimulation; but it requires rather an
exotic mentality to be stimulated, otherwise than unpleasantly, by the
spectacle of little boys writhing on the ground in simulated agony with a
long iron skewer thrust through their cheeks. They catch them young; and
these scholars, or aspirants, are indubitably frauds and often worse than
frauds. Mixed with them are a certain proportion of unbalanced, half-crazy
individuals, who really work themselves into a frenzy and give the
semblance of veracity to the entertainment. A judge of native physiognomy
can generally tell the two types apart. There are also a few sensible
men--butchers, porters, and the like--who do not mind a little pain for
the sake of the profit.
For the rest, the ceaseless mandarin-like head-wagglings and mutterings of
the names of Allah would stupefy anyone's brain up to a point. It is not
only Arabs who daze their understandings with godly ejaculations, oft
repeated. The marabout leader, who is a kind of _maitre de ballet_,
enfolds each performer in his arms and makes a few passes round him, or
kisses him. The uninitiated then reel off in a trance of hypnotic joy; the
others do the same, in more theatrical fashion. At the end of each one's
trick he de-mesmerizes him once more, and perhaps touches the wound with
his hands. He passes the skewer or sword between his lips as a
disinfectant--a wise precaution.
These lacerations heal quickly. I have spoken to men labouring in the
fields on the day following such excesses, and found them ready to "work"
again the same evening.
It ended up with a beast-dance--two fine negroes, all but naked, depicting
the amorous rages of panthers or some other cat-like feral. This was
really good, of its kind; and if, as regards the earlier part of the
programme, it was still difficult to tell where religion ended and
sensuality began (it sometimes is), there was no doubt about the last
item, which was purely sadistic. Soon there issued the familiar trillings
from the balcony, and the firing-off of guns, to announce that the drama
It is we shrinkingly aesthetic creatures who conjure up by a mere effort of
the imagination what these blunt folks cannot conceive without gross
visual stimulants. That is because they have not enjoyed our advantages;
they are not civilized. Among other things, they have not gone through a
"reformation." Take a northern stock, sound in mind and body; infuse into
it a perverse disrespect for the human frame and other anti-rational
whimsies; muddle the whole, once more, by a condiment of Hellenistic
renaissance and add, as crowning flavour, puritan "conscience" and
"sinfulness"--mix up, in a general way, good nourishment with ascetic
principles--and you will attain to a capacity of luxuriance in certain
matters that may well be the envy and despair of poor primitives like the
Extremes meet. Performances such as these are beyond good and evil. They
are for the wholly savage or the wholly civilized. We complain
considerably just now of the swamping of class distinctions in our lands,
but a man of culture has a prerogative to which the biliously moral middle
classes can never aspire: to be an Arab, when it suits him.
_AT THE CAFE_
Whether it be due to the incessant cold and dry winds, that parch the more
genial humours, or to some other cause, there is certainly a tone of
exacerbation, at this moment, among the European residents at Gafsa. I
noticed it very clearly yesterday evening in the little French cafe--a
soul-withering resort, furnished with a few cast-iron tables and
uncomfortable chairs that repose on a flooring of chill cement
tiles--where, in sheer desperation, two or three of us, muffled up to our
ears, congregate before dinner to exchange gossip and imbibe the
I announced my intention of leaving shortly for Tozeur.
"So you have not yet taken your fill of dirt and discomfort in Tunisia,
Monsieur?" asked one of the clients. He is a wizened old nondescript with
satyr-like beard, a kind of Thersites, who is understood to have
established, from the days of Abdelkader and "for certain reasons," his
headquarters at Gafsa, where he sips absinthes past all computation,
exercising his wit upon everybody and everything with a fluent and rather
diverting pessimism. "You will probably perish on the road to Tozeur, in a
"Ah, those sandstorms: they interest me. Have you ever been to Tozeur?"
"God forbid! Gafsa is quite bad enough for me. Or you may be strangled by
the Arabs; such things occur every day. You smile? Read the papers! At
some places, like Sfax, there are regular organized bands of assassins,
the police being doubtless in their pay. Be sure to hold your revolver in
readiness--better carry it in your jacket pocket, like this.... No
revolver! (To the company at large) _He has no revolver_! In that case,
don't dream of going out after sunset, here or anywhere else in this
country. And read the papers."
It was always "read the papers."
I mentioned that I had walked home, at midnight on the previous evening,
from the station.
"Then don't do it again, if you value your life. Not long ago a lieutenant
was attacked on that very road, and almost beaten to death. He managed to
crawl back to barracks, and is now a wreck, incapacitated from further
service. By a miracle he was able to identify one of his assailants. They
gave him--what do you think?--two years' imprisonment! Why not the _Legion
d'Honneur_ while we are about it? Then there was the Italian--a
respectable Italian, for a wonder--who went out for a walk and was never
heard of again. The country was scoured for two months, but not so much as
a button was ever found--not a button! They had buried his body in the
sand. That's their usual system, cheap and effective. And the guide-books
say that Tunisia is as safe as the heart of France--ha, ha, ha! I wonder
how much they are paid for making that statement, and who pays it?"
"The hotel proprietors, with an occasional subsidy from the Government."
This from a bloodthirsty young extremist in gaiters and riding-breeches,
who had once been a _colon_, a farmer, but had given it up in disgust. "We
cherish these savages," he went on, "as if they were our uncles and aunts;
everywhere, that is, save in those districts which are still under
military rule. There you should see the natives stand up and salute you! I
am anti-military myself; but I maintain that this salute should be kept
up, as demonstrating the gulf that exists between ourselves and them. But
the moment you leave that zone the gulf is systematically bridged over, to
make it more pleasant for the poor, misused Arab. Let me tell you what I
think. I think that the Sicilians would have managed things better than we
have done. And I also think that our _controlleurs_, they are not
Frenchmen, but Arabs."
"_Voyons, voyons!_" said a clear voice from another table--a new-comer,
apparently. "These are the criticisms to which we are exposed, because we
introduce an enlightened and progressive policy."
"Progressive policy be damned! We have held Gafsa for the last thirty
years, and what have we done to improve the place? Nothing."
"Pardon me! We have planted twenty-seven pepper trees. Tunisia exists for
needy people in search of work. If you can't make it pay, leave it alone.
You have every facility for buying land, for importing this and that--why
don't you settle down and make yourselves at home? A colony, my friend, is
not an orchid."
"And as for those Sicilians," interposed the faun-like wooer of the Green
Fairy, "I think you're all wrong. I admit that they are more flexible than
we are, if you like to put it that way. They will do things that no
Frenchman can do; they will establish themselves in places where no
Frenchman could live; they will eat things which no Frenchman could
swallow; they will oust the very Arabs out of the country in course of
time, by sheer number of progeny and animal vitality. Oh, yes; it's clear
the Sicilians can lower their standard to any extent. But they can never
raise it. They are the cancer of Tunisia. Wherever they go, they bring
their filth, their _mafia_, roguery and corruption. Every Sicilian is a
potential Arab, the difference between them being merely external; the
true African variety wears less clothes and keeps his house cleaner. I
know them! A race of sinister buffoons and cut-throats, incapable of any
ennobling thought, whose highest virtues are other men's vices, whose only
method of reasoning is the knife.... Don't accuse me, Messieurs, of
prejudice, when I am trying to state the case impartially."
You will often hear it put as baldly as that. The alien inhabitants of
Tunisia are well hated by a certain type of Frenchmen. The country has
been compared to a wine-bottle that bears some high-flown label indicative
of fine stuff within--the French administration--but is filled,
unfortunately, with a poisonous mixture from round the corner, the Jews,
Sicilians, Maltese, and Corsicans.
It is as difficult for a tourist to arrive at a just opinion on this
subject as for the average Frenchman. The traveller will not find it easy
to acquire the necessary first-hand data, while the other is warped by his
In 1900 there were 80,000 Italians, mostly Sicilians, in the Regency, as
opposed to 20,000 Frenchmen, one-half of whom were Government servants.
This great predominance of a foreign stock scared some good folks, and a
"Comite du peuplement francais" was organized, to study ways and means of
populating Tunisia with French citizens.
If Sicilians could obtain grants of land under the same conditions as
Frenchmen, large tracts, now waste, would be converted into gardens, to
the profit of the exchequer. Is it worth while? No, thinks the Government;
and with reason. French rule in Northern Africa is a politico-moral
experiment on a large scale, with what might be called an idealistic
background, such as only a civilized nation can conceive. Italians might
improve the land, but they could never improve the Arab; they are
themselves not sufficiently wise, or even well-intentioned.
The Anti-Semitic agitation has died a natural death: you may curse the
Jews, but you cannot crush them. They make good citizens, and are for ever
trying to gain more political influence, which is surely to their credit,
though it annoys a certain class in Tunis. As intermediaries between the
Arab and the white man they are invaluable, their plasticity allowing them
to ascend or descend in either direction, while their broad and active
tolerance, fruit of bitter experience in the past, has honeycombed the
land with freemasonry and scientific charity and liberalism. So far as I
can see, their dirt does not detract from their astuteness--perhaps it
aids it, by removing one source of mental preoccupation, cleanliness. The
old distinction between Livornese and Tunisian Jews is slowly becoming
If there is one class of these immigrants whom the ordinary French employe
hates more than another it is his own countrymen, the Corsicans. They have
the gift of climbing into small but lucrative posts of administration, and
there, once established, they sit fast like limpets, to the dismay of
competing French office-seekers. Eject them? You might as well propose to
uproot Atlas or Ararat. Not only can they never be displaced, but from
year to year, by every art, good or evil, they consolidate their position.
That done, they begin to send for their relations. One by one new
Corsicans arrive from over the sea, each forming a centre in his turn,
where he sits tight, with a pertinacious solidarity that borders on the
Cave-hunting savages at heart, and enemy to every man save their own blood
relations, the Corsicans are the nightmare of the Arabs on account of
their irreclaimable avarice and brutality. They would flay the native
alive, if they dared, and sell his skin for boot-leather. They can play at
being _plus arabes que les arabes_, and then, if the game goes against
them, they invoke their rights of French citizenship in the grand manner.
The Frenchman knows it all; he regrets that such creatures should be his
own compatriots--regrets, maybe, that he is not possessed of the same
primordial pushfulness and insensibility; and shrugs his shoulders in
As for the Maltese, they would be all very well if--if they were not
British subjects. But such being the case, you never know! It is
disheartening to find such babble in the mouth of respectable officials
I am well aware that there is a Sicilian _in fabula_ who is not "mafioso";
that the crude banditism which sits in every Corsican's bones has raised
him to the elysium of martyrs and heroes and not, where he ought to have
gone, to the gallows; that the Maltese are not merely cantankerous and
bigoted (Catholic) Arabs, but also sober, industrious, and economical. I
have lived with all these races in their own countries and--apart from a
fatal monkey-like apprehensibility which passes for intelligence but, as a
matter of fact, precludes it--have found chiefly this to admire in them,
that they are prolific and kind to their offspring.
Small praise? Not altogether. The same may apply to cats and dogs, but it
does not always apply to civilized races of men. The Scotchman, for
instance, can produce children, but is often unkind to them (_Read the
papers!_); the Frenchman is kind to children, but often cannot produce
them. It would seem that chiefly in half-cultured people are these two
qualities, twin roots of racial and domestic virtues, to be met with side
Whatever may be the cause of it--better food, a different legislation or
climate, or contact with other nations--the suggestive fact remains, that
the more objectionable idiosyncrasies of the Maltese, Corsicans and
Sicilians become diluted on African soil. Can it be the mere change from
an island to a continent? There may be some truth in Bourget's "oppression
des iles." _Insulani semper mali_, says an old Latin proverb....
"Do you know," the gaitered young ex-farmer was saying--"do you know how
many French _colons_ there are in the whole regency? Eight or nine
hundred, drowned in an ocean of Arabs, who own the land. And that's what
we call settling a country. The Americans knew better when they cleared
out the redskins! And how do the English manage in India? Why, they shoot
them--_piff-paff_: it's done! That's the way to colonize (looking
approvingly at me)--_supprimez l'indigene_! A nation cannot condescend to
the idealistic ravings of an individual."
I observed that I had never heard of that method being actually adopted in
"You say that, Monsieur, because you fear it sounds a little drastic. But
we are not in Paris or London just now; we can say what we think. Or
better still" (glowing with enthusiasm), "they tie them to the mouth of a
big gun, and then--_Boum ... houpla!! Biftek a la tartare_."
"You are misinformed, my friend," said the voice from the other table.
"That Indian cannon business was merely an administrative experiment."
I looked at the speaker, who was smiling mirthfully to himself. He was a
fair-complexioned man of about forty-five, rather carefully dressed,
blue-eyed, with a short, well-groomed beard--evidently an old acquaintance
of the company.
"It's all right for you," the other retorted, "with your comfortable
offices and your fat, ever-increasing salaries. You are not a harassed
agriculturist, skulking in fear of his life, or a public servant, starving
on four francs a day. Behold!" he went on, extracting a newspaper out of
his pocket, "behold the latest portrait of yourself and your
colleagues--you have an air of revolting prosperity. And your whole
biography, too, in black and white; your wife, your children, your past
career ... what it is to be a capitalist!"
"_Tiens_! I never saw this. And printed in Paris a fortnight ago! But it
may be lying somewhere about the house. I only returned at midday, you
know. Not exactly a flattering likeness...."
The document was handed round. It was a French journal devoted to mining
interests, and contained a long article dealing with the phosphate
industry of Metlaoui, near Gafsa, with views of the works and portraits of
its principal representatives. Beneath that of the speaker were printed
Ingenieur civil des mines,"
and some other titles.
An odd coincidence, this meeting, on the eve of my departure.
I passed over to his table and mentioned that I possessed an introductory
letter to him.
"How? And you are leaving to-morrow for the Djerid? You are not coming to
I replied that I would gladly give myself that pleasure. His family, he
explained, was away just now, but if I could arrange to delay my departure
for a little while he would accompany me as far as Metlaoui, which lies on
the Tozeur route, and show me over the mines. He was to return to his work
there in a week or so. The proposal was too tempting to be refused.
We spoke of the spirit of irritation and discontent that seemed rife among
the Europeans in Gafsa.
"Yes, the wind," he said; "or perhaps Africa generally. I've often noticed
that men, and women too, put on new faces and characters hereabouts. This
contact with an inferior race upsets their nervous equilibrium. The lack
of comfort and the need of abrupt action makes them discard gentleness and
other external husks of civilization. The mildest of us are liable to
become brusque; and harsh ones, brutal. Only the native remains resigned."
Thereupon I propounded my hypothesis of the _Mektoub_ or resignation
doctrine: the intellectual burnous of the Arabs.
The theory, he thought, was so good that there must be something wrong
with it. His work brought him into daily contact with the natives, and, so
far as he could judge, _Mektoub_ was only one aspect of their general way
of looking at things. It was bound up, for instance, with that idea of
impenitence. Unlike ourselves, who approve of self-abasement, the Arab
regards repentance as only fit for slaves. He does not hunt for his own
sins; he hunts for yours, and hits you on the head when he finds them.
There was something in the notion, he thought, for surely remorse was
rather a provincial sensation; it implies that a man has really done
something wrong, or that he thinks he has; in either case, what was there
to boast of? He had little time for studies, nowadays, but it seemed to
him that the trend of feeling was in the direction of Old Testamentary
ideals. Men were growing tired of offering their other cheek to be
smitten; they found it degrading, as do the Arabs. Why not import some of
these sterner conceptions into our morality, as we import their peppery
curries and kouskous and pilaffs into our cuisine?
He was inclined to say amiable things about the English race. The
Anglo-Saxon, he thought, with his "constitutional non-morality," had come
nearest to discovering a sensible working system of conduct--as a nation.
It is his highest racial virtue to lead the Cosmic Life--to take all he
can get, and ask for more. That is why every one, in his heart of hearts,
envies and admires him. His chief defect, he thought, was a disdain of a
knowledge of general principles, justifiable enough in the times of
unsound teleological theorizings, but not nowadays, when we have at last
set foot upon earth.
"And what do you say," I asked, "to our so-called national hypocrisy?"
"Well, we others are apt to stand aside and marvel whether you have
succeeded by reason of it, or in spite of it. Of course it annoys us
beyond words! But there is a form of it which is highly laudable: the
Anglo-Saxon, it seems to me, often acts in apparently hypocritical fashion
out of consideration for what he conceives to be the opinions of the
majority. Profoundly self-respecting, he is equally careful not to impinge
upon the feelings of others, however wrong-headed he may think them. In
such cases, his hypocrisy is only a proof of civilization and genuine
politeness. Hence also that shyness and reserve which I have often noticed
in your countrymen--they are not signs of awkwardness or indecision, but
of strength systematically controlled."
"That is very gratifying. And what of our snobbishness?"
"The English snobbishness," he replied, "may not be beautiful, but its
origins are sufficiently venerable to inspire respect. It testifies to
long political stability; it is rooted in Magna Charta. We foreigners, who
upset our Governments and annihilate our aristocracies every ten years,
will never attain that mellow stage. One may dislike it; one dislikes the
by-products of many excellent institutions. Your Government, for example,
does extraordinarily little to foster art or literature or research. Taken
by itself, that is an evil. But as a by-product of the English cult of the
individual--of that avoidance of pestilential State interference in
everything which is the curse of continental Europe--it may be gladly
endured, if not admired."
"When one lives out of Europe, Monsieur, one learns to know England
better. To see things at their true perspective one must take up a stand
at a proper distance from them. England only begins to show its true
proportions at a point where other lands cease to be visible. Austria, for
instance, can only be examined on the spot. Once you have crossed the
insignificant Mediterranean, this immense and fertile country, with its
long history of rulers and battles, has already faded into air. _Ca
n'existe plus_. Your Gladstone explained the phenomenon correctly: Austria
has never done good to the world."
I gathered that the Metlaoui phosphate company had modelled its principles
on those of the "Anglo-Saxon." There is little "pestilential State
interference" in its management; the board of directors takes all it can
get, and asks for more. It is a paying concern, and consequently the
shareholders admire it unreservedly--in the rest of mankind, this feeling
is tinctured with a strong dose of envy.
One dines early in Gafsa, and afterwards there is nothing, absolutely
nothing, to do. Cafes become tedious with their card-games, cowboy
politics and persistent allusions to "la femme," that protean fetich which
dominates and saturates the Gallic mind, oozing out, so to speak, at every
pore of their social and national life. They never seem to grow out of the
_Ewig-weibliche_ stage. If only, like the Maltese, they would talk less
and do more in certain respects, the "comite du peuplement" might close
its doors. But such recklessness would ill comport with the ant-like
hiving quality which paid back, within I forget how few years, the German
After dinner, therefore, a short promenade about the streets and oasis, to
court that illusive phantom, sleep, and to replenish the mind with new and
peaceful images. I found a cloudless and relatively warm night. The wind
had died down, and there was a brilliant comet (the Johannesburg comet) in
the sky. Knots of natives were gazing at it with disfavour: I listened,
and heard one of them attributing the Franco-Tripolitan frontier incident
to its baleful fires. "And there is more to come," he added, "unless it
goes away." Townspeople, of course; the cultivators are asleep long ago.
Why don't you settle down and make yourselves at home? With those words
Dufresnoy had put his finger on the spot. The same idea must occur to
every one who compares the French method of colonization with that pursued
in English dependencies. Even our most ephemeral civil servants take
pleasure in "settling down"; they acquire local interests in golf, or
native folklore, or butterflies; they manage to surround themselves with
an atmosphere of home. Among the _colons_ of Tunisia you may find a home
establishment of the most comfortable type, but Government employes regard
the Regency in the light of an exile; they never try to make their life
more endurable, as they easily could do, with a little co-operation.
In Gafsa, for example, where the summer temperature is 100, no ice can be
procured unless you drive to fetch it from the station settlement where
the phosphate company has its servants; if you want good vegetables, you
must telegraph _inland_ for them to Metlaoui, whither they are brought
from the sea-coast, via Gafsa, for the consumption of the "company"; fresh
fish, which are caught in fabulous quantities at Sfax, and could be
transported by every over-night train, are hardly ever visible in the
Gafsa market. There is no chemist's shop in the place, not even the
humblest drug-store, where you can procure a pennyworth of boric acid or
court-plaster. So they live on, indulging all the time in a luxury of
There would be better shops in places like Gafsa if foreign commercial
settlers were not discouraged from establishing themselves. French ones,
needless to say, refuse to "settle."
The hotels in the country places, too, would be better. At present they
exist on a system of monopolism and favouritism; it is quite beyond the
ambitions of their managers to collect a clientele; most of these concerns
are palpably run on the following principle: to keep the guest in such a
state of chattering starvation, that he is _ready to eat anything_. How
often have I yearned, in these "Grand Hotels"--they are all _grand
hotels_--for the material comforts and the decent fare of some little
wayside hostelry in Finland, or a rest-house in the jungle of Ceylon!
Why do French travellers not complain oftener?
Well, the Frenchman is a patriotic creature and congenitally kind-hearted;
the proprietors of these establishments are country-people of his; they
are poor devils who have got stranded, somehow or other, in Tunisia; one
must have patience with them. Sometimes, however, your self-respecting
Gaul is strained beyond the point of patriotic endurance by the
concoctions of these Locustas and Borgias; then he unsheathes that
dagger-like Neanderthal manner which he carries about with him for rare
occasions of self-defence; and it warms the cockles of one's heart to hear
how pertinently he discourses damnation to the cringing host. For we
non-Frenchmen, be it understood, are all "des desequilibres" who demand
toast, hot water and such-like exotics; our complaints need not be taken
seriously; besides, foreigners are bound to pay in any case. But when a
countryman begins to find fault there is not only a possibility that
something, after all, may not be quite right with the cuisine or drainage,
but even a chance that one or two items will be coldly struck off the
reckoning. And that hurts!
They will tell you that there is nothing to be procured in the market; but
if you proceed to the spot, you will at least see succulent legs of mutton
exposed for sale. The _chef_ of the establishment, however, when making
his morning purchases, passes by these with scorn, and betakes himself to
a little booth whose table is strewn with dubious scraps of skin and
bones, which have already been fingered and contemptuously thrown aside by
fifty dirty Arabs (I speak as an eye-witness); he buys a few handfuls of
these horrors for three or four sous, and forthwith--hey, presto!--they
are transformed into a "ragout a la bretonne" for the famished traveller.
Tunisia is a sheep-rearing country--there are sixty thousand sheep in the
_controle_ of Gafsa alone--but you may live there a lifetime before seeing
a leg of mutton at a country table d'hote. For all the "gigots" that ever
appear at my host's entertainment, one might really think that the muttons
of Africa were a peculiar species, a species without legs: crawling,
maybe, on their bellies, like Nebuchadnezzar.
"Je m'en f--de vot' bon-homme," said one of these gentlemen to me,
referring to Baedeker, with whose sacred pages I had threatened him. "And
as for the tourists, they'll come just the same."
And so they do! But they all end in discovering that even the worm will
turn, when suffering from the torments of _dyspepsia tunesina veridica
sine qua non_ ...
A good deal of amateurish talking is done, in Gafsa, in regard to the
profits that would be gained were the oasis to be given over to Sicilian
cultivators. Apart from the fact that the wealthy Kaid of Gafsa, who is
the chief owner of it, would have something to say on the subject, these
advantages would be limited to pruning the trees and grafting some of
them; introducing, possibly, a few more vegetables, and having the ground
more parsimoniously tended than at present. The magnesia in the water is
hostile to the majority of delicate European growths. Something, no doubt,
could be done in the way of improvement, but as a set-off to a visionary
project of this kind, which is averse to the whole spirit of French rule
in Tunisia, there would be a great rise in prices: Italians would form
their inevitable ring. The extent of the gardens has almost doubled since
1880, without their help.
As to the Arabs----
If the French looked to their prison system they would soon arrive at
better results. For childish thefts and such-like trespasses, committed
nearly always at the instigation of their parents, boys of ten and twelve
are now locked up with hardened criminals, often for considerable periods:
what is this but a State-aided manufacture of crime? Go to the prison of
Sfax, and you will realize that there may be some reason for the
absinthe-drinker's remark as to the "organized bands of assassins" at that
place. I speak of what I have seen with my eyes. I found the prison of
Souk-el-Arba, for instance, so tightly packed with men and young boys that
there was not room for all of them to lie down at night, and such furious
fights used to occur for the possession of places near the wall (the room
was in pitch-darkness) that the warder was obliged to enter, every now and
then, and restore order by beating those nearest the door about the head
with a club.
The Arab boy, they will tell you, is full of guile, and must be repressed.
A colony, furthermore, is _not an orchid_.
_SOME OF OUR GUESTS_
I shall be glad to leave for Metlaoui and the Djerid. Gafsa is losing its
flavour; the novelty and pungency are gone. The same old faces, the same
old _bouts de conversation_; quickly, indeed, does one live oneself into a
place and learn, or think to learn, all its little secrets.
The hotel, too, has suddenly become an insufferable menagerie. Mysterious
inspectors come and go, and commercial travellers of unappetizing looks
and habits are far more frequent than formerly. But I shall regret the
earth-convulsing laughter of the Greek doctor, who has latterly taken to
putting in an appearance at meal-time. He is a gruff, jovial personage,
and so huge in bulk that he can barely squeeze into the door of his little
shop in the _souk_ where he sits, surrounded by unguents and embrocations,
to treat the natives for their multifarious distempers. He is quite
straightforward about the business. "You come to this country to spend
money," he tells me, "but I--to make it."
The profession is not all plain sailing, however, for the French
authorities raise every kind of obstacle in his path; they tear his red
advertisements down from the street walls and openly call him a quack.
Were it not for the Greek Consul in Tunis, who happens to be an old friend
of his, who knows how much longer they would allow him to practise in the
I sometimes go to watch his operations, which, so far as I can judge, are
fairly remunerative, thanks to Achmet the interpreter, one of whose many
duties it is to inform himself confidentially of the financial status of
prospective patients. For the richest sheikh will don tattered clothes
when he visits the surgery, and would doubtless be taken for some poor
labourer were it not for Achmet, who sees through the disguise and gives a
discreet sign to AEsculapius, whose services, of course, must be prepaid;
it is _money down_ before he will prescribe or give away a drop of
I was much interested in one of his methods as exemplified on the person
of a native youth who was led in the other day. He was an Aissouiyah
dancer, and had evidently overdone his part in the heat of enthusiasm;
there were no less than forty-three sword-cuts across his middle. After
receiving a handsome fee the doctor gave him some liniment which caused
exquisite pain: the patient writhed in agony.
[Illustration: Natives of Gafsa]
"That's good medicine," I heard Achmet telling him, reassuringly; "that's
strong. See how it hurts!"
For a while he bore up bravely, but the pain growing worse instead of
better, the doctor was at last persuaded, out of compassion and in return
for a second fee, to give him something with a more soothing effect.
But eye diseases are his speciality. His _piece de resistance_ is a Jewish
tradesman whom he has lately supplied with an admirable glass eye--a thing
almost unheard-of in these parts. This man and myself were sitting in the
shop not long ago when a Moroccan happened to be passing who had known him
in his one-eyed days; the stranger gave him a sharp look and then walked
swiftly away, apparently suspecting himself to be the victim of some
absurd hallucination as regards the new eye. But he returned anon, to make
sure of his mistake, I suppose; while the Jew confronted him with a
defiant glance of his two eyes. They stared at each other for some time in
silence. At last the Moroccan enquired:
"Are you the man who sold me that piece of cloth three weeks ago?"
"I am he."
There was another long pause. Then:
"That new eye: how came you by it?"
The Jew, a dreadful scoffer, pointed heavenwards with one finger.
"A thing of God!" he said. "A miracle has been vouchsafed me."
But the man of Mequinez answered nothing. He gazed at him once more, and
then, slowly bending down his head, folded his hands across his breast in
prayer, and walked away....
Then there is the Polish Count, Count Ponomareff, who arrived four days
ago. He is past middle age, with a drooping moustache and large red nose;
a wistful and woebegone figure, but a brilliant conversationalist, when
the mood is upon him. I have not taken very kindly to the man. Among other
things, he disapproves of flint-collecting; he asks, rather scornfully,
"whether one can sell such stones." And yet, for some obscure reason, he
has singled me out among the men as the object of his favourable notice,
affecting rather a distant manner towards the rest of us; the ladies,
however, are charmed by his courtly graces. He wears profuse jewellery, to
set off his title, no doubt. It is understood that he has held high
Government posts, and is now only waiting for some letters before joining
certain friends in a costly caravan expedition further south. Yet he seems
poor--hopelessly poor. I surprised him, soon after his arrival, in a
heated debate with the landlord on the subject of candles and _cafe au
lait_. Then he enquired if the country was safe.
"Not if you go out with a _machine comme ca_," touching the Count's
He knows, at least, how to handle his knife and fork, which is more than
can be said of all the inmates of this hostelry. A town-dweller,
evidently; he tells me he detests wild life of every kind and has come
here only to oblige his friends; he calls the Arabs "ignoble savages."
Such, however, is not the opinion of another guest, my friend Monsieur
M----. One must be careful how one criticizes the habits of the natives in
his presence; not that he would be angry, for he is too gentle to feel
wrath; or become argumentative--he is too sure of his ground for that; but
he might be wounded on his most sensitive spot, and he would certainly
think you--well, misinformed.