Part 2 out of 3
The motley crew of Gafsa have become his favourites ever since his arrival
in the country two weeks ago, and he has a theory that it is a mistake to
endeavour to learn their language--it only leads you astray, it spoils the
He is a well-known French painter, whom some eye trouble has forced--only
temporarily, let us hope--to abandon the brush. Despite his patriarchal
beard, he is an impenitent romanticist of contagious youthfulness; the
entire universe lies so harmoniously disposed and in such roseate tints
before his mental vision, that no one save Madame M----, a wise lady of
the formal-yet-opulent type, whom Maupassant would have classed as "encore
desirable," is able to drag him to earth again, with a few words of
Just for the fun of the thing, and to while away his hours of enforced
idleness, he is collecting facts for a book to be entitled "Customs of the
Arabs," as exemplified by the life of Gafsa. The idea came to him quite
suddenly, after reading some descriptions which he considered sadly
misleading. Customs of the Arabs! To tease him, I quote the authority of
Bordereau, who says that there are practically no Arabs in Gafsa; that the
customs of this town are one thing and those of the Arabs another, unless
he applies the word Arab to all the Mohammedan races of these parts.
The objection is brushed aside; one word is as good as another,
I point out a genuine Arab who happens to be passing; he has come down
from the hills and is leading a camel loaded with halfa; he is gaunt and
ill-clad, but walks with a fine swagger, and is evidently a valuable young
person, to judge by his tattooings.
"That? That's only a young savage from the mountains. How are you to find
out anything about him? And I make a point, you know, of only recording
what I see with my eyes. No theories for me! I mean to see everything and
to set it down; to describe the Arabs as they are--as they _really are_,
in all the circumstances of their daily lives. One must see everything."
As a painter, I urge, he must have discovered how useful it is to restrict
the field of vision now and then; to be deliberately half blind.
"Painting, Monsieur, is one thing, and writing another. It is one of the
few advantages of growing old that things begin to fall, so to speak, into
their proper places. When I go to my studio, I go for distraction; art, it
seems to me, is there to create moods, pleasurable or otherwise; a painter
must seize impressions. But I go to my library for information; the
business of a writer is to collect and arrange facts; a book, as I
apprehend it, should be--a book. That is my quarrel with this Tunisian
literature; many of the things that have been written about the country
are not books at all; while others are full of mistakes. Look at these two
volumes, for instance! Impressionistic realism, I suppose they would call
it, scrawled down by an excitable female journalist who, I am sorry to
say, has created quite a rage for European and American lady tourists
among these Arabs, to the great discredit of our civilization. Read them,
Monsieur, as a warning example, and perhaps you will give me your
Bordereau instead; there may be something in it, after all."
I gladly make the exchange, and regard the transaction in the light of an
omen, an epoch. I have been craving for something different from the facts
of Bordereau, who has been my companion all these days. A solid little
piece of work, by the way, which often set me wondering whether our
British public would care to pay four shillings for a technical account of
the climate, history and natural products of some remote Egyptian oasis.
But perhaps the cost of production has been defrayed by some Government
These two volumes by Isabelle Eberhardt--where have I heard that name
before?--look tempting. I promise myself some hours of pleasant reading.
"And then, for downright misstatement," he continued, "look at this. Here
is a Monsieur Kocher, who passes for an authority, and who, describing the
Arab marriage customs, talks of the 'brutalite du viol dans le
marriage--un drame lugubre.' Now that comes of not examining things with
one's own eyes. Since my arrival here I have already seen several Arab
weddings and something of their married life, and I must say, candidly,
that I find it full of romance. Say what you will, these Arabs are
"And if you want still further information," I said, "ask the boy whom I
saw blacking your boots this morning. He will describe to you the minutest
details of his married life with surprising frankness. His father bought
him a wife two weeks ago, under the condition, however, that his little
brother is to be allowed to share in the joys of matrimony. That young
savage from the mountains would blush, if Arabs ever could blush, to hear
"Oh, oh, oh! You appal me! But I would like to make personal enquiries
into the matter; that is, if I can make them understand me. It is my rule,
"Do, Monsieur; question both the brothers, and write down their answers,
the perusal of which will be a liberal education for our boys at home.
Among other things, they say that whenever----But here is Madame coming!"
"Never mind her! She takes an interest in Arab institutions, as I do....
Only imagine, Amelie, our shoeblack is said to be actually married; and so
is his little brother, and they have one and the same bride! Two husbands
to one wife, or half a wife apiece--what do you think of that?"
"I think it's quite enough to begin with. Remember, _mon cher_, they are
_THE OASIS OF LEILA_
I rode, for a farewell visit, to the small oasis of Leila, or Lalla, which
lies a few miles beyond the railway station. It is one of several
parasitic oases of Gafsa: a collection of mud-houses whose gardens are
watered by a far-famed spring, the fountain of Leila.
The water gushes out, tepid and unpleasant to the taste--but
health-giving, they say, like so many unpleasant things--from under steep
banks of clay through which the railway to Sfax has been cut. It is a
sleepy hollow of palms, a place to dream away one's cares. The picturesque
but old-fashioned well at this spot has just been replaced by a modern
trough of cement. I watched the work from beginning to end, ten or fifteen
Arabs, supervised by a burly Sicilian mason, finishing the job in a few
"These Saracens!"--such was the overseer's constant lament--"these
Saracens! You don't know, dear sir, what fools they are."
In never-ending procession of gaudy rags the village folk come to these
waters, the boys mostly on horseback, the women afoot. Donkeys are loaded
with the heavy black goat-skins of water; there is laundry-work going on,
and a good deal of straightforward love-making under the shade. These
children of nature have a wild beauty of their own, and the young girls
are frolicsome as gazelles and far less timid. They have none of the
pseudo-bashfulness of the townsfolk. For the rest, only the _dessus du
panier_ of womankind goes veiled hereabouts--a few portly dames of Gafsa,
that is, who are none the worse, I suspect, for keeping their features
hidden. Perhaps the good looks of these Leila people are a heritage from
olden days, for this oasis is known to be a race islet, inhabited almost
exclusively by men of the Ellez stock--one of the three races that have
chiefly contributed to the formation of the modern Gafsa type; a
conquering brood of European origin, small but shapely.
But untold ages ere this the waters of Leila were already frequented by
men of another kind, by the flint-artists. Among the relics of their
occupation I picked up, here, an unusually fine implement of the
Not a soul in Gafsa, native or foreign, could tell me who was the lady
Leila that gave her name to this fountain. On the spot, however, I heard
this tale: She was a young girl, madly enamoured of an Arab youth, but
strictly guarded. Her married sister alone knew of their infatuation, and
used to help her by keeping a look-out for him at the water-side; and when
he appeared, she would return home and sing to herself (as if it were a
snatch of some old ditty)--Leila, Leila, your lover comes! But the maiden
understood, and swiftly, under pretence of fetching water, she would run
to meet him at the well, and take her joy. The story has an air of
probability; such things are done every day, at every fountain throughout
the land. This lingering at the well is one of the moments when their hard
life is irradiated by a gleam of romance.
An old man also gave me the following account:--
Ages ago, he said, when Gafsa belonged to the Sultan of Trablus (Tripoli)
there was sad misgovernment in the land. The taxes became quite
unendurable, and the city was half emptied of its inhabitants, who fled
this way and that, rather than submit to the extortions of the Sultan's
officers. And among those who escaped in this fashion was a god-fearing
widow and her children. Her name was Leila. She took up her abode near
this fountain, which was then little frequented. Here she dwelt, doing
good works whenever occasion offered. And here, at length, she was
received into the mercy of Allah and entombed. The country-folk gave her
name to the water, to perpetuate the memory of her pious life....
The depression beyond this fountain is celebrated as the resort of game,
and yesterday a French gentleman of my acquaintance went there, provided
with all the accoutrements of sport, not omitting a copious
luncheon-basket--there might be snipe or partridges, or perhaps a hare, a
gazelle, a leopard--who knows?
He returned in good time for dinner.
"_Voila ma chasse_!" he said, opening his bag. It contained a bundle of
wild asparagus, for salad, and fourteen frogs, which he had killed with a
"You can't get frogs as easily in my part of France," he told me. "If the
sport were not forbidden for seven months out of the twelve, the species
would long ago have become extinct."
I enquired whether the close-season for frogs was officially set down,
like that of hares or wildfowl.
"Frogs," he explained, "are not considered game in the governmental sense
of that word; they fall into the category of fisheries which, as you know,
comes under the jurisdiction of the respective prefects. Hence the
close-time, though officially fixed, varies according to the different
provinces. In my department, for example, it begins on the 15th of
January. At Gafsa, if I may judge by certain indications, it would
probably be arranged to commence still earlier."
Far be it from me to decry the succulent hams of _Rana esculenta_ (or
rather _ridibunda_). I have been offered far more fearful wild-fowl nearer
home--certain ornithological wrecks, I mean, that have been kept beyond
the feather-adhering stage, and then reverently held before a fire, for
two minutes, wrapped in a bag, lest the limbs should drop off.
There is considerable talk at Gafsa of the wild mountain sheep, the
Barbary mouflon. They say that as late as the early nineties it was no
uncommon thing to meet with flocks of over thirty grazing in the
mountains. Although a special permit must now be obtained to be allowed to
shoot them, their numbers have much diminished. But the accounts vary so
wonderfully that one cannot form any idea of their frequency. Some talk of
seventeen being shot in the course of two weeks' camping, others of three
in a whole season. As a rule, they are not stalked, but driven, by an army
of Arabs which the sheikh organizes for that purpose, towards certain
openings in the hills where the sportsman takes up his stand. The desert
lynx is sometimes met with, and hyenas, they say, occur as near to Gafsa
as the Jebel Assalah. Arabs have told me that the fat of the hyena is used
by native thieves and burglars to smear on their bodies when they go
marauding. The dogs, they say, are so terrorized by the smell of it, so
numbed with fear and loathing, that they have not the heart to bark.
(Pliny records an ancient notion to the effect that dogs, on coming in
contact with the hyena's shadow, lose their voice.)
Here, at the Jebel Assalah, I encountered a jackal--a common beast, but
far oftener heard than seen. While resting in a sunny hollow of rock, I
heard a wild cry which came from a shepherd who was driving the jackal
away from his goats. The discomfited brute trotted in my direction, and
only caught sight of me at a few yards' distance. I never saw a jackal
more surprised in my life. When a camel expires in the plain near some
nomads' tents, they sometimes set a spring-trap for jackals near the
carcase--they eat these beasts and sell their skin for a few francs; the
traps are craftily concealed underground, with a little brushwood thrown
over them to aid the deception. It is impossible to be aware of their
existence. But woe betide the wanderer who steps on them!
For the machine closes with the shock of an earthquake, a perfect volcano
of dust and iron teeth leaping into the air. Its force is such that the
jackal's leg is often cut clean off, and he hops away on the remaining
three. For this and other reasons, therefore, it is advisable not to
approach too near a dead camel.
The desert hare is shot or coursed with muzzled greyhounds, _sloughis_,
who strike it down with their paws; unmuzzled, they rend it to pieces.
There are few of them in Gafsa just now, on account of the cold to which
they are sensitive; although muffled in woollen garments they shiver
pitifully. Of falconers, I have only met one riding to the chase. It was
the Kaid of Gafsa, a wealthy man of incalculable political influence both
here and in Tunis. It is even whispered--But no; one must not repeat all
With the proprietor's permission I went over a young plantation of trees
and vegetables that has sprung up near the railway line, about halfway
between Gafsa and Leila. Excavating to a depth of six metres at the foot
of the bare Rogib hill, they encountered an apparently unlimited supply of
water, and here, where formerly nothing but a few scorched grasses and
thorns could be seen, is now a luxuriant little oasis. More might be done
with the place, but the owner seems to have lost interest in it; the
locusts, too, have been rather destructive of late.
He had planted quantities of prickly pears, he said, but the Bedouins'
cattle had devoured them. These are useful growths in Tunisia, requiring
hardly any moisture and forming, when full-grown, impenetrable walls of
spiky green. They also bring in a respectable revenue. In the district of
Kairouan, for instance, many families draw their entire income from them.
A few have been planted at Sidi Mansur and elsewhere near Gafsa, but they
are unprotected and liable to be trodden down in their early years, or
eaten. Barbed wire, herald of civilization, is almost unknown in these
Like most tradespeople, this proprietor was rather despondent about the
future of Gafsa. There had certainly been some improvement within the last
twenty years--slight, but steady; the building of the railway station so
far outside the town he considered a disgraceful piece of jobbery, a crime
which had permanently injured the prospects of the place. Merchants, he
said, are entirely dependent on the state of the Metlaoui mines. If, like
last year, these do well, then Gafsa also thrives. If there is a strike or
over-production, as at this moment, Gafsa suffers.
[Illustration: The Roman Wall]
Tourists come to this town, he said, but they leave next day. Nothing is
done to make their stay agreeable.
The natives are not of a kind to take much interest in its welfare. Gafsa
has gone through too many vicissitudes to be anything but a witches'
cauldron of mixed races. Seldom one sees a handsome or characteristic
face. They have not the wild solemnity of the desert folk, nor yet the
etiolated, gentle graces of the Tunisian citizen class; much less the
lily-like personal beauty of the blond Algerian Berbers. Apart from some
men that possess, almost undiluted, the features of the savage Neanderthal
brood that lived here in prehistoric times, the only pure race-type that
survives is one of unquestionably Egyptian origin, one to which Monsieur
Bordereau, in his book on Gafsa, has already referred. No wonder; since
Egyptian invasions of this region went on for centuries, culminating in
the extended sea-dominion of Thotmes III at the end of the seventeenth
A bastard Greco-Latin was the language of the place up to the thirteenth
This confusion of blood has done one good thing for them--it has given
them considerable tolerance in matters of religion. They are the least
bigoted Orientals one could wish to meet. Only fifteen in a hundred,
perhaps even less, perform the devotions prescribed by the Prophet. And it
is part of their charming heterodoxy to be dog-eaters. They will catch and
devour each other's dogs; they even breed them for the market, though they
dare not expose the meat publicly, any more than that of swine, which they
eat with relish. But up to a few days ago they had never ventured to touch
the dog of a foreigner. On Wednesday evening, however, a fox-terrier
belonging to a French official was found in the street, dead, with its
throat cut. A stream of blood was traced from that spot to the door of a
native eating-shop, and enquiries from the neighbours elicited the fact
that the cook of the establishment had caught the beast and cut its
throat; that the miserable creature, in its dying struggles, had escaped
from his grasp and run in the direction of home, only to stagger by the
roadside and expire from loss of blood.
There was a wild excitement over this little episode. The dog of a
Frenchman killed, for culinary purposes, by an Arab; it was the _comble_
of temerity! The owner of the animal, on hearing the news, buckled on his
revolver and repaired to the shop with the avowed intention of shooting
his man, whom the police, fortunately, had already conjured into some safe
place of custody. If he is wise he will languish in prison for some days
Gafsa lies high, and I ask myself whether its fierce shiftings of heat and
cold, its nocturnal radiation that splits the very rocks and renders life
impossible for many plants (outside the cultivated zone, which equalizes
these extremes)--whether all this has not had a numbing and stupefying
influence on the character of the inhabitants. Would not a man, under such
perennial vexations, end in bowing his head and letting things take their
course? I notice the climatic effect upon myself is a growing incapacity
for mental effort. It is time to depart for the Djerid, where the sun,
they say, still exhales a certain amount of warmth.
Add to this, Arab frugality and the cheapness of native living throughout
the country, which removes all stimulus to work. A middle-class citizen
tells me that he has just returned from Tunis, where a lawsuit had kept
him for two years. He went there with an overland caravan which cost next
to nothing; he slept in a _zaouiah_, where he also obtained a bath gratis;
he spent on his food four sous a day, neither more nor less, and by way of
amusement took coffee with his friends or strolled down to the harbour to
look at the ships. Six pounds in two years! And natives in authority, who
are generally the richest, pay nothing whatever for their nourishment.
Like the Kaid of Gafsa, they simply requisition it in the market; the
sellers grumble, but conform to custom.
How quickly their looks can improve is shown by those who join the army.
In a few months they grow fat, cheerful, and bright-complexioned, thanks
to the hygienic life and better food. As it is, I have noticed single
individuals among the poorest classes who look remarkably well as compared
with their fellows. "They drink milk," was the explanation given me.
There is vitality enough among the young boys who play hockey--these ball
games are non-Arabic, a relic of Berberism--and keep up the sport till
late at night amid a good deal of ill-tempered fighting and pulling about.
Their mothers' milk is still inside them; they have not yet succumbed to
the ridiculous diet, clothing, and life-habits of their elders. But soon
manhood descends upon them like a cataclysm; it tears them with a frenzy
which is anything but divine and thereafter absorbs them, to the exclusion
of every other interest. Hockey-sticks are thrown away....
That witchery of Orientalism, with its immemorial customs, its wondrous
hues of earth and sky--it exists, chiefly, for the delectation of
hyperborean dreamers. The desert life and those many-tinted, mouldering
cities have their charms, but the misery at intermediate places like Gafsa
(and there are hundreds of them) is too great, too irremediable to be
otherwise than an eyesore. They have not solved the problem of the simple
life, these shivering, blear-eyed folk. Their daily routine is the height
of discomfort; they are always ailing in health, often from that disease
of which they plaintively declare that "whoever has not had it, cannot
enter the kingdom of Heaven," and which, unlike ourselves, they contract
by their patriarchal habit of eating and drinking out of a common dish.
They die like flies. Naturally enough; for it is not too much to say, of
the poorer classes, that they eat dirt, and that only once a day. A fresh
shirt in the year is their whole tailor's bill; two or three sous a day
will feed them; sunshine, and the stone floor of a mosque or coffee-house
by night, is all they ask for, and more than they sometimes get.
An old Arab song contains words to this effect: "Kafsa is miserable; its
water is blood; its air is poison; you may live there a hundred years
without making a friend." No doubt the plethoric Sicilian mason at the
Leila fountain would thoroughly endorse this statement with his "Ah,
signore--these Saracens!"... But one learns to like the people none the
less. They are merely depressed; they are not deficient in mother-wit or
kindliness; a little good food would work wonders.
The oasis people are milk-drinkers, and would be healthier than the
townsmen but for the agues, fevers and troublesome "Gafsa boil" to which
they are subject.
I go to these plantations at night-time, after dinner, when the moon plays
wonderful tricks of light and shadow with the over-arching foliage. The
smooth sandy stretches at the outskirts of the gardens shine like water at
rest, on which the leaves of an occasional sparse tuft of palms are etched
with crystalline hardness of delineation.
This untilled region is most artistic, the isolated clumps shooting up
like bamboos out of the bare soil. The whole grove is still wrapped in its
wintry sleep, and one can look through the naked branches of the fruit
trees into its furthest reaches. Only the palm leaves overhead and the
ground at one's feet are green; the middle spaces bleak and brown. But, do
what he will, a man who has lived in the tropics becomes rather _blase_ in
the matter of palms. Besides, there are no flints to be found here....
[ILLUSTRATION: Olives in the Oasis]
Yet such is the abundance of water that these Gafsa gardens have a
character different from most African plantations. They are more artlessly
furnished, with rough, park-like districts and a not unpleasing impression
of riot and waste--waste in the midst of plenty.
Then there is a charming Theocritean bit of country--the temperate region
at the tail-end of the grove. Only olives grow here; seventy-five thousand
of them. Beside their silvery-grey trunks you may see herds of the small
but brightly-tinted oxen reposing; the ground is pied with daisies and
buttercups, oleanders border the streamlets, and the plaintive notes of
the _djouak_, the pastoral reed of the nomads, resound from some hidden
There will be nothing of this kind, I fear, in the carefully-tended oases
of the Djerid.
_A HAVEN OF REFUGE_
The cold being past all endurance and belief, I was tempted to fulfil my
promise and call upon Monsieur Dufresnoy. What kind of man was this that
managed to survive it?
They led me to his house, which is one of the few two-storied buildings of
the town and lies in a squalid street of mud-dwellings. Villainously dirty
walls surround a massive entrance-gate studded with nails and bands of
iron, intervolved in artful designs. No bell, no knocker, no door-handle;
only an impressive lock. At the sight of this doorway I paused--it was
grim, claustral, almost menacing; there was an air of enchantment about
the mansion, as if once in a hundred years its forbidding portals might
turn on their rusty hinges.
Finally, I fled away altogether, in a kind of godly panic.
M. Dufresnoy, on his way homewards, almost ran into me. I tried to explain
the sensations his domicile had aroused in my mind; he laughed at first,
and then admitted that he had often felt the same thing. The house was apt
to look like that, he said, when his wife was away.
The inside appearance, once that portal has been passed, is quite
different, and I was glad to have an opportunity of seeing the place, as
it is one of the surprises of Gafsa, one of the few remaining town-houses
that date from better days, being built originally for some Turkish
grandee or governor--for him, I daresay, who drove the god-fearing widow
to the sylvan seclusion of Leila. You step through the gate into an open
square patio, surrounded, on the sides not abutting on the street, by an
arched passage that reposes on old Roman columns. This covered loggia,
running round three fronts of the court, is the feature of the house:
wonderful how a few arcades and pillars will impart an air of distinction
and even luxury! Almost nothing has been done to change the old appearance
of this small but well-proportioned patio; the walls have been freshly
whitewashed, the original mud-flooring replaced by tiles, a bright
flower-bed set in the centre--nothing more.
The five or six lower rooms to which the loggia gives access must be
delightfully cool in summer, but they are dark and chilly at this season.
Luckily, the mansion possesses an upper story where the family resides
during the winter, in rooms that are actually floored with wood. From
here, looking out of the windows, there is a wondrous view over a
wilderness of decayed Arab dwellings upon the oasis beyond, and the
distant purple mountains.
There is an irresistible air of geniality about this home: can it be the
house itself? For a subtle influence, no doubt, penetrates to the heart of
man from the mere form and disposition of inanimate things. I was prepared
to be smothered in a profusion of local effects; of saddle-cloths, silk
hangings, water-pipes, daggers and match-locks, dim nooks with divans, and
those other decorations that suggest the glamour of the Orient to certain
Western minds. Or again, I said to myself, this European wife will have
imported certain tastes from over the sea; the house will be replete with
trifles carefully disposed in negligent fashion, silver photograph frames
and flower vases reposing on diminutive tables, and such-like indications
of what our novelists call the "tender but indefinable touches of a
Nothing of the kind. The place is simply comfortable: it appeals to one's
sense of propriety. There are carpets and genuine arm-chairs--unique
phenomena in this part of the world; best of all, fire-places wherein
ample logs of olive-wood glimmer and glister all day long.
And so the last few days have passed. Mentally, too, I am thawing once
more; the hotel life and solitary walks of Gafsa had begun to affect me
disagreeably. Such things are endurable and perhaps stimulating in youth
and in the plenitude of health; but there comes a period when one lives
less in future dreamings than in the experiences of the past--unpleasant
company, for the most part; when one craves to see the faces and hear the
opinions of rational fellow-creatures; when one requires, in short, to be
distracted. This is the age, too, at which a man begins to realize the
significance of those once-despised material comforts. Tunisian hotels can
only be inhabited by young hopefuls.
The house contains a considerable library of local literature--mostly
technical and dealing with Dufresnoy's Metlaoui district, but some of it
intelligible to a simple traveller like myself. From certain books I have
begun to make extracts concerning the places I am likely to visit:
Metlaoui, the Djerid oases, and the Chott country.
Dufresnoy is essentially a mining engineer. He evidently knows his
business thoroughly; he has been employed in various parts of the French
dominions and likes the work; all of which has not prevented him from
becoming a man of the world and keeping his other intellectual pores open.
There is nothing of the professional in his conversation. He is rather
undemonstrative, for a Frenchman.
He told me an odd thing about the native rising in Thala in 1896, when a
marabout preached death to all foreigners, with the result that several
white men were murdered (it was a hastily collected band of Italian
tradesmen who put down the insurrection). They caught him, and in due time
he died (?) in prison--they were probably afraid to execute him: perhaps
he killed himself--and the odd thing is this: that although the necessary
sum has been contributed for erecting a monument to these unhappy victims
of native ferocity, yet the Franco-Tunisian authorities are averse to the
plan, on the ground that such a public monument might offend Arab
susceptibilities. This struck me as overdoing the "pacific penetration"
policy; and he thought so too, more especially as there is a commemorative
stone to some preposterous native bigot at the very place....
I shall be sorry to leave Dufresnoy at Metlaoui. In him I often admire
that fine trait of his race: the clarifying instinct. He possesses--with
no pretension at knowledge beyond his mining sphere--an innate rigour of
judgment in every matter of the mind; he avoids crooked thinking by a
process of ratiocination so swift and sure as to appear intuitive. Even as
a true collector of antiques has quite a peculiar way of handling some
rare snuff-box or Tanagra statuette and, though unacquainted with that
particular branch of art, yet straightway classes it correctly as to its
merits, so, to him, an idea of whatever kind is an _objet de vertu_, to be
appraised with unfailing accuracy. He is a connoisseur of abstractions.
What the Goth carves out grotesquely after a painful labour of mental
elimination, the right deposited, as residue, after a thousand
wrongs--what the Latin smothers under a deluge of mere words: this your
Frenchman of such a type will nimbly disentangle from all its
unessentials; he presents it to your inspection in reasonable and
convincing shape--purified, clipped, pruned. What is this gift, this
Discipline of the mind, culminating in intellectual chastity--in what may
be called a horror of perverse or futile reasoning.
He mentioned, incidentally, the case of suicides among the natives to
prove that the _Mektoub_ doctrine is not wholly pernicious. Suicides were
quite unusual, he said; the Arabs do not seem to be able to fall in with
the idea, preferring to bear the greatest evils rather than take an active
part in the undoing of themselves. That was _Mektoub_: to bow the head,
dumbly resisting. And were they not right? Did not the great majority of
European cases of suicide imply a neurotic condition--such as when men of
business have suffered reverses on Exchange or lost some trivial
appointment? How easily things could be bridged over, or repaired, or even
endured! The most hopeless invalid could testify to the fact that some
pleasure can still be extracted out of a maimed or crippled existence; a
man, however impoverished, might still live in dignified and fairly
He thought that in the matter of suicides, as in that of remorse, we were
too "spectacular and altruistic"; that we lived in a rather unwholesome
atmosphere of self-created and foolish ideas concerning honour and duty;
that the _Mektoub_ practice of the Arabs pointed to an underlying
primitive sanity which we would do well to foster within us.
_THE MYSTERIOUS COUNT_
Gafsa, even Gafsa, has its enigmas.
I climbed this afternoon to the summit of the Rogib hill, which lies near
the railway station, on the further side of the Oued Baiesh. This,
presumably, is the site where Marius halted for the last time before
attacking the town; and the spot was also interesting to me on account of
its flint implements....
A sad and barren range of hills. There was no sunshine, for a
scirocco-storm raised clouds of dust and obscured the sky; the wind was
bitterly cold. Finding it impossible to attune my phantasy to the picture
of Marius and his soldiers, I descended once more.
On the station turnpike I overtook a solitary foot-passenger, who plodded
slowly along. It was the Polish Count. He had been absent from the hotel
for several days, and now appeared to be in the gloomiest of humours.
Where had he been?
For a promenade, he said. It was too dreary sitting indoors, all alone. He
had left the hotel. The place was too noisy: the dogs barked incessantly.
He had taken rooms with a Jew, and arranged to have his meals at a small
This was a half-truth, I felt sure. The dogs of Gafsa, no doubt, are past
all endurance; they are worse than in any Turkish village where they howl
at least in unison, and so continuously through the night that one ceases
to take note of them; but the man's real reason for this change of
domicile was probably another one.
"You must find that much quieter," I said, "and cheaper as well. These
hotels are rather pretentious."
"Pretentious and dear. Here I am, stranded in an unknown place, without
friends; remittances are due to me, and they never come"--he broke into
the subject without reserve--"and it is hard, I assure you, to deprive
oneself of things, of trifles, if you like to call them so, to which one
is nevertheless accustomed and entitled, so to speak, by birthright. But I
am talking to the winds, no doubt. You, Monsieur, are one of the fortunate
ones; you don't know--you don't know----"
"Yes I do," I replied, trying to think of something to say in the way of
consolation. "I know quite well----"
"How do you know?" he interrupted. And next, with needless vehemence:
"_What_ do you know?"
I was surprised at his sudden change of tone. It was awkward, all this. I
gave utterance to such commonplaces on the instability of human affairs as
occurred to me, and ended up by offering, I hope with sufficient delicacy,
to assist him to the small extent that lay in my power.
He seemed infinitely relieved by my words: he evidently expected some
answer of quite another import. Turning his back to the wind, and pausing
for a moment to adjust his clothing, he replied, with ambassadorial
"You may be certain, Monsieur, that I would not easily forget a kindness
of this nature; my lot in life has been far too unhappy to make me
undervalue what you, a stranger, have just offered me. But I will decline:
what are a few francs to me? Pray don't think me ungrateful, however. You
have caught me in an almost delirious moment, and your friendly words just
now, when I felt myself so abandoned and in so critical a state of mind,
with this dreadful desert wind moaning and everything, as it seems,
hostile to me: your kind words, I say, touched me more deeply than I can
express." (Here he wiped away a genuine tear.) "But my luck may yet turn,
and then, be sure, I will make you forget all my childish querulousness."
And he went on, almost gaily:
"I never could keep money! And the worst of it is, I hate work; I was not
brought up to it, and you will admit that I am too old to begin life anew.
Yet I object on principle to so-called charity, being intelligent enough
to know that there is only one kind of charity, and Justice is its name.
But what is justice? I suppose we all possess some kind of natural rights,
according to our stations; justice, I take it, would consist in our being
permitted to enjoy those rights. If this is correct, then--ah, Monsieur,
the demoralizing effects of poverty, of non-justice, on a man like myself;
how it lowers your self-respect and makes you capable of actions that you
would reprobate, in your right mind--"
"In your right mind? Is a poor man, then, insane?"
"How can I make you understand? Tell me, is not poverty a kind of madness,
an obsession that haunts you night and day? To puzzle, at every hour, how
to meet this demand and how to shun that one; to deny yourself the
necessities of life, and your friends those poor little pleasures that you
are yearning to bestow upon them--is it not a mental malady, a fever; is
it not damnation itself? The thousand meannesses: how they degrade you;
how they suck away your strength, your ambition, your faith! To see no
openings before you, save ever darker gulfs of despair! I cannot hope to
make you conceive such a hell: one must have been there oneself. But note
this, Monsieur: never judge an impoverished man by your own standards of
right and wrong--never! For the old-established meanings of things shift
for him--they shift; and his temptations become formidably subtle beyond
belief. When rich, he says calmly _Non; ca ne va pas_. But to forego an
advantage, when poor, is the same as if--let me see ... as if one asked
you to leave lying some fascinating flint in the desert waste."
"That simile, surely, is all wrong, Count. Nobody can be injured by my
"I know, I know; I am not trying to excuse things; I am only explaining
how they happen. But how explain to others? We always talk of putting
ourselves in our neighbours' place; idlest of phrases! since we cannot
possibly avoid bringing our personal apparatus to bear on their problems.
There is a gulf between man and man. You will hardly believe that I used
to take an interest--quite superficial, you know, but none the less
real--in all those questions of the day that absorb the ordinary man of
ease, in politics and art and whatnot; but nowadays all my interests are
centred on one single point. On what point, do you think? On keeping up
the external appearance, and the manners, of well-being. I have no energy
left for anything else; and even this effort quite exhausts me. Art and
politics! What, in the name of heaven, do I care for art and politics,
with the knife at my throat? I only utilize these things; yes, I utilize
them for conversational purposes, in order to deceive others as to my
true, incessant and miserable preoccupations. Laughable, is it not? Why
don't you smile, Monsieur--you, who have never known the bitterness?"
We were crossing the broad Oued Baiesh, a stretch of yellow sand and
stones. To obviate damage by sudden floods, the French have covered this
tract of the road with a coating of asphalt; but the busy life here, the
droves of camels and sheep, the Arab folk laughing over their laundry-work
in the shallow streamlet that trickles through the waste--all these things
were gone for the moment.
But for the torn line of Gafsa palms that confronted us on the other side
of the river-bed, we might have been in the veriest wilderness. Although
the wind was lulled, petulant little pillars of sand still arose here and
there among the boulders, and sank down again, as if exhausted; the
descending sun had emerged, a lurid disk, framed in a sulphureous halo
that melted imperceptibly into the gold of the west.
It was growing chillier than ever, and the Count, shivering with cold,
drew his burnous more closely about him; he had bought one for fifteen
francs, probably in imitation of myself, or because I once jokingly called
it "a garment for millionaires who need not use their hands." He liked to
be taken for a millionaire.
I looked at him awhile, wondering what thoughts were ruling the expression
of his perplexed and sorrowful features, and then tried to turn the
conversation into other channels.
"Are there interesting people at your Italian restaurant?"
"Well, there is Hirsch, the young German: you know him?"
"The police commissaire was talking to me about his case yesterday."
"Ha, was he? Let me tell you that I have investigated it thoroughly, and
find it most instructive. This young fellow is not yet twenty; he ran away
from home for no discoverable reason, then signed on a merchant vessel at
Marseilles and, disliking the work, slipped out as soon as she touched
port at Sfax, and climbed without a ticket into a night-train, thinking to
reach Tunis. Instead of that, he woke up in the morning and found himself
at Gafsa! Here, you see, are all the elements of wrong-doing, and the
authorities have learnt his history from his papers which they seized. As
a German and a Jew, the French instinctively dislike him; as a Jew and a
foreigner--the Arabs; he is objectionable to look at, dull of wit, and
knows not a word of French or Arabic. But he is poor, and therefore--every
one loads him with kindness."
"And why not?" I asked.
"Why not, indeed? Your friend the magistrate has given him some money out
of his own pocket; the restaurant proprietress refuses to be paid for his
food, while another one, near the station, sends word to say that he can
have a plate of soup there whenever he likes; a young Arab boy--these
Arabs are really incomprehensible--gives him as many cups of tea or coffee
as he can drink; a Jewish lawyer has sent him some clothes; a gentleman in
your hotel a quantity of linen; the Italian barber shaves him gratis; a
certain shopkeeper sends him a bottle of liqueur--of liqueur!--every
second day; the commissaire has given him, free of charge, a decent
unoccupied bedroom in the prison, where he can go in and out as he
pleases; best of all, the _Ponts et Chaussees_ are now employing him at
three francs a day--a princely income, they tell me--at some agricultural
job: pure kindness, inasmuch as he has never handled a spade or pickaxe in
his life. He can have a pleasant time in Gafsa; he can marry an heiress if
so disposed; then, when the place begins to bore him, the German Consul in
Tunis will repatriate him at his Government's expense. 'He's a poor
devil,' they say. Why do I tell you all this? Because--well--I am also
Always harping on the old theme!
"The cases are not quite parallel, are they?"
"No. He is young, and fit for work, whereas I am past the middle term of
life. Old age--another horror! Besides, I am a gentleman----"
"Exactly. We should be ashamed to shave you gratis."
"I suppose you're right, Monsieur. I was only trying to explain--to
explain myself--to myself, I mean. Pardon me if I speak too much of my
wretched affairs. But I'll tell you what I think. To endure this revolting
destitution a man must be an Arab. Now, I cannot pretend to be an Arab; I
would not adopt their ideals if I could. And yet, alas! I am beginning to
believe in predestination, as they do; to believe that our faults and our
virtues are distilled beforehand in the silent laboratory of the past. A
sad creed, to think of men born to misfortune; to be obliged to consider
yourself--how do you say in English?--_a stepchild of nature_...."
He was always a good talker, but it is impossible to describe the
intensity of feeling in his speech to-day. He seemed to suffer from some
imperious need of unburdening himself, even to a chance acquaintance like
me; long days of loneliness, maybe, had worked on his nerves and produced
a kind of congestion. But in his words and voice I detected lapses into
other moods, into some other state of being; they gave me the impression
as of two different individuals addressing me. The man did not ring true,
altogether; he was mentally disorganized, disharmonious; those
meretricious reasonings about justice, for example, struck me
And I could not help contrasting his rambling emotionalism with the
logic--the relentless, diamond-like _justesse_--of the mining engineer. He
is the very antithesis of that pellucid and homogeneous character. The
sanguine temperament ...
What is a man of this type doing in Gafsa?
The rest of us, the cynical Greek doctor, the artist-sage and lover of
Arab institutions, myself (flint-maniac)--to say nothing of men like
Dufresnoy--we all contrive to fit, after a fashion, into the place; we
have a _raison d'etre_. But this composite, unadaptive city-dweller: how
incongruous a figure against that background of palms and barren
An enigmatical creature, and yet not wholly unlovable; he may be unsound
or even unprincipled, he may be deficient in qualities that go to make men
respected and satisfied with the world in general, but he possesses, I
think, certain citizen-virtues unintelligible to the self-centred, rustic
type of mind. He could be stirred to acts of unworldly enthusiasm; he
would share his last crust with some shipwrecked sailor, or shed his blood
gaily for a generous idea. And he is plainly in hard case just now.
_A stepchild of nature_....
"You have a very good English accent, Count."
"We were carefully brought up in languages. Not every one understands
Polish, you know."
"By the way, how does it come about that you, being a Pole, should have a
Russian family name?"
The question seemed to astonish and perplex him. At last he said:
"Oh, it's about the same thing, isn't it? Nowadays, I mean," he added,
with grandiloquent pathos, "ever since the misfortunes of my unhappy
At the entrance to the town we separated, and I watched for some time his
bowed form as it crept along the wood-market in the direction of the
This is one of the figures that will persist in my mind very clear and
pathetic, and I shall long remember those plaintive remarks about poverty
that welled up, surely, from the bottom of his heart. How far, I wonder,
is such a man the author of his own calamities, and how far have they
_made him_? Academic questionings, based on out-of-date philosophy! Our
vices, he said, are distilled for us beforehand in the dim laboratory of
the past. His vice, evidently, is to hate work of every kind; his
faculties, therefore, never undergo the rhythmic joy of reaction, for he
is too well nourished to live the _vita minor_ of a starveling, to endure
Arab acquiescence in non-production.
"I am only trying to explain myself--to myself." Half-truth, I imagine. He
is probably conscience-stricken, or at least dissatisfied with his conduct
for one reason or another, and endeavouring to justify some base plan of
action by re-stating ethics in terms of hunger; a specious line of
argument, since hunger is not the rule but the exception.
And then I shall think of his red nose and watery little eyes, his absurd
jewellery--a fine presence, none the less, when he pulls himself together;
there is about him an air of faded distinction that softly symbolizes the
history of his adopted country.
Why a count? Because all Poles are counts--those that are not princes. But
why a Pole? Well, perhaps from the convenience of vagueness, inasmuch as
there is something international about a Pole--international, and yet
neither equivocal nor vulgar; every one sympathizes with them, for they
all possessed, once upon a time, vast estates whose loss is borne in
cheerful resignation, and never so much as alluded to; they know
everybody, and everybody worth knowing is related to them, by marriage or
otherwise, in this or some other century; as men of the world, they are
ready to talk upon any subject with tolerance, geniality and a pleasingly
personal note that withers up the commonplace, smoking, meanwhile,
innumerable cigarettes out of mouthpieces which display a complex
escutcheon contrived in gold and rubies upon the amber surface. Yes, his
choice was good: Poles are gentlemen. But why caricature them? And why,
above all things, select an inappropriate Muscovite name? That argues a
lack of general intelligence and might easily spoil everything; so true it
is, as a legal friend once observed to me, that "it takes a wise man to
handle a lie. A fool had better remain honest."
What can be the meaning of this unlovely comedy? Some defalcation or
forgery? Likely enough. But I think he lacks the cleverness requisite for
a habitual criminal. Perhaps he is only a poor survivor, drifting about in
lonely and distracted fashion while waiting for the inevitable end. Others
may solve the enigma, but not I; for to-morrow we go to Metlaoui.
Yet I know that long after the palms and minarets of Gafsa have faded into
the blurred image of countless other palms and other minarets, I shall be
able to call up the figure of this forlorn and ambiguous fellow-creature,
standing on the asphalt of the river-crossing with his cheap burnous
wrapped around him, sighing, shivering, and setting forth certain views
concerning human life for which there is, after all, a good deal to be
I should be sorry to say how long the train takes to crawl through the
thirty odd kilometres that separate Gafsa from Metlaoui. My companion on
the trip, M. Dufresnoy, tells me that the return journey is still slower,
because the line runs mostly uphill and the trucks, thirty or forty of
them, are loaded with minerals. Fortunately, the car in which we
travelled--each train has only a single passenger carriage--was
comfortable, being built after the fashion of the Swiss "Aussichtswagen,"
with seats on the exterior platform whence one can admire the view.
It gave me some idea of the goods traffic (phosphates) along this line
when he told me that during the past seven days 23,000 tons of mineral had
been conveyed to the port of Sfax alone, to say nothing of those that had
gone further on, to Sousse and Tunis. And not long ago, he said, the
company had an unpleasant surprise: sixteen new engines of a powerful
type, which they had ordered from Winterthur, were suddenly discovered to
be liable to a duty of 1000 francs apiece as "imported articles."
"We can afford it," he said. "Our five hundred-franc shares are standing
at three thousand seven hundred francs."
But he thought that a grave error had been committed in selecting the
narrow metre gauge; it was all very well for phosphate transport, but once
the line over Feriana and the branch to Tozeur are completed, they would
have to deal with other material, such as tourists, that require fast
They had an accident last year. The couplings of a train, climbing uphill
from Gafsa past the Leila oasis, suddenly broke, with the result that the
rear portion rushed backwards again, careered through the Gafsa station
and up the artificial incline which leads towards the Oued Baiesh, crossed
the bridge, and thundered at a vertiginous pace into the desert beyond. As
luck would have it, another train was just then approaching Gafsa. They
collided with terrific force and, telescoping being out of the question
since both were loaded with minerals, escaladed each other in Eiffel-tower
fashion. Arab eye-witnesses say that the stoker of the up-train was thrown
out by the impact and flew across country "like a bird" for half a mile;
he alighted on his feet, and was found, after a week or so, wandering
about the plain in a dazed condition. The driver was killed outright, and
his widow draws a respectable pension from the company.
Since then two engines are always employed to move the train up the few
miles beyond Gafsa.
The cream-tinted level is speckled with white incrustations and sombre
tufts of desert herbs; here and there, where the winter's rain lingers
underground, are spots of brilliant green; short-lived crops of corn, sown
by the nomads. The hills to the right of the line are bare and torn into
wild ravines; lilac-hued patches, ever changing and fair to see, move
among their warm complexities: cloud-shadows. Here, if anywhere, one
learns that shadows are not always grey or black; even those cast in
moonlight have a certain ghostly coloration.
It was a marvellously clear day, and not many miles before reaching our
destination we looked back upon the downhill route traversed which, so far
as one could see, might have been a dead level. At a distance of nearly
twenty miles Gafsa was plainly visible--white buildings piercing a dusky
line of palms--an hour's walk, it seemed. I observed in the brushwood a
couple of bustards, their heads peering above the herbage. These birds are
rather rare hereabouts, and shy of approach. Arabs say that the bustard is
like the camel: once it begins to run, you never know when it will stop.
They surround them therefore cautiously, and gradually close the circle to
within shooting distance.
Metlaoui is the name of two distinct villages which have been conjured out
of the waste by the discovery of its phosphate deposits--the station
village and, a mile or so further on, Metlaoui proper, with its big
establishments for working the minerals.
Here already, at the station settlement, there is more life than in Gafsa,
though the surroundings are decidedly unpropitious--a waterless plain,
with low hills in the foreground, phosphate-bearing, and wondrously tinted
in rose and heliotrope. There are respectable stores here, very different
from the shops of Gafsa. I entered a large Italian warehouse which
contained an assortment of goods--clothing, jams, boots, writing-paper,
sealing-wax, nails, agricultural implements, guns, bedding, mouse-traps,
wire, seeds, tinned foods--and vainly endeavoured to think of some article
which a _colon_ might require and not find here. The only drawback is that
there are no "colons" in the district.
While waiting for a conveyance to take me to the industrial settlement, I
strolled about and found my way across a sad stretch of ground littered
with tin cans, bottles, and other refuse, to a slight eminence whereon lay
a cemetery. In this forlorn square are about twenty tombs, already
crumbling to dust, although not one of those I saw was five years old.
Humble victims for the most part--Italians in the prime of life who had
come to these regions to gain a little money; or little children, carried
off by the harsh climate (yet the climate of this place is preferred to
that of Gafsa). The enclosure is filling up with drift-sand; the
inscriptions on the tombs, often a mere charcoal scrawl of some unlettered
friend or parent, is soon effaced by winds and rain.
One is wholly unprepared for the appearance of Metlaoui proper. In ten
years' time a village has sprung up here, partly of factories and smoky
chimneys, but chiefly of trim bungalows, with white walls and red roofs,
that are dotted over the uneven surface of the ground. The whole site is
owned by the company, and inhabited by its officials and overseers. It has
its own church, shops, schools, hospital, workmen's clubs, bakeries, and
its air of neatness and well-being contrasts pleasingly with the forsaken
landscape all around.
The higher posts are reserved for Frenchmen, but among the lower grades
you may find a number of other nationalities; Spaniards and
Sardinians--hardiest of white Mediterranean races--as well as some
Italians, and not a few Greeks. The manual labour in the mines is
performed by Africans.
Not along ago nearly every drop of water for this settlement had to be
conveyed from Gafsa on the backs of camels. But the company has now
captured a spring at the head of the Seldja gorge, about eight miles
distant, which brings a copious flow of water into the place. Thus they
have been enabled to plant a great number of trees, but I wish they could
be persuaded to adopt a little more variety in their choice of them. One
grows tired of the eucalyptus, that doleful and dismal growth, and even of
the eternal pepper trees, green as they are; and the results, in a few
years' time, would be far more charming if they would take the trouble to
copy some of the Algerian municipalities in this respect, or--better
still--obtain professional advice from the Agricultural Institute at
Tunis, which could furnish them with a large list of ornamental timber and
shrubs that would thrive equally well, and convert Metlaoui into a
veritable garden city. The plants suffer at first from the strong winds,
but they acclimatize themselves by degrees.
Remembering what had been told me of the unsuccessful attempt of the
French to appropriate the water springs of Sidi Mansur, near Gafsa, I
asked Dufresnoy whether the Arabs had not contested the action of his
company at Seldja.
"I should think so!" he said. "They raised the devil. But we are not civil
servants here, who must humour the caprices of half a dozen savages: the
health of the settlement was dependent on our getting this water, and we
took it, _voila!_ The great ambition of the company is to fix its people
on the spot; to make life here so pleasant for them that they don't want
"You must find it difficult. The Arabs, I suspect, run back to the desert
as soon as they have earned a few francs; and as for the European
tradesmen, no doubt they get rich quickly, and then return to their homes
again as soon as possible."
"That is exactly what the company manages to avoid. Let them prosper, we
say; but slowly. And we succeed."
"By manipulating the rates of merchandise transport. The railway to Sfax
belongs to us, and we can regulate prices as it suits us; if we liked, we
could choke off all trade. Ah, the company knows its business! Of course,
that makes us many enemies; they call it high-handedness and brutality--a
concern like ours is bound to expose itself to such remarks--_we_ call it
common sense. If the railway were not ours, if we were not practically
dictators of the country, those Americans, with their immense phosphate
importation into Europe, would eat us up; and then these local merchants
would lose everything. That is the justification of our so-called tyranny.
Are we to have nothing for our risks? Look at this installation of
machinery--all built, too, with a view to future aggrandizement: does it
strike you as a half-hearted speculation?"
Daring, on the contrary. Here are gargantuan sheds, capable of holding
thirty thousand tons of mineral apiece; furnaces, miniature volcanoes, for
drying them artificially in winter-time, when the sun's heat is
insufficient; all around you a gehenna of mad industrial life, smoke and
steam, a throbbing agglomeration of wheels and belts and pistons; there
are chains of buckets, filled with phosphates, wandering overhead in
endless progression or disappearing sullenly into the bowels of the earth;
passionate electric motors; mountains of coal and iron contrivances;
railway engines snorting and whistling, or bearing a load of minerals down
from the hills to where an army of Arabs will tear them out of the cars to
dry, amid clouds of tawny dust. One might well grow crazy at the idea of
the primary difficulties involved in grafting upon the desert soil this
ordered mechanical efflorescence, this frenzied blossoming of human
What is happening?
They are separating the crude phosphate from its natural impurities;
drying, pounding, and loading it upon trains for removal to the sea-board.
That is all.
A light railway leads up to the hills where the phosphates lie. Here you
may see the fiends at work. A legion of wild-eyed, swart and nearly nude
creatures are disembowelling the hoary mountain: visions such as this must
have floated before Milton's eye when he drew his picture of Mammon, who,
with his horde of demons, opened in the hill a spacious wound--
Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of our mother Earth
For treasure better hid....
The workers are chiefly of three races: Tripolitan, Khabyle (Algerian),
and Moroccan; they live in separate clusters among the rocks, each with
their peculiar national traits and mode of building; there is hardly a
woman among them all.
Besides these tribes a certain proportion of Tunisian Arabs are employed,
but they are too weak or timorous to relish underground work; a sprinkling
of negroes, as well as some of the hillfolk from the district surrounding
Metlaoui, who go by the quaint name of Boujaja.
"Good fellows," said Dufresnoy. "They will slit your throat for a you."
The surface phosphates having already become exhausted, the mineral is now
pursued into the dim recesses of the earth. Tunnels are excavated, whence
smaller ones radiate in definite directions--all of them sustained by
wooden beams; the amount of material to be extracted from a given spot is
scientifically fixed; it is shattered by minute blasts of dynamite and,
once the trolley cars have carried it away, the wooden supports are
removed and these cavities filled up by the collapse of the roof. By this
means accidents are forestalled such as that which took place some years
ago when, owing to an oversight of some subordinate left in charge, an
immense mass of mountain fell in, entombing about three hundred miners,
whose bodies are not yet recovered. The ill-fated engineer who was legally
responsible for the mishap was in Paris at the time; he returned in all
haste. After seeing the mischief, he tried to throw himself into an Arab
well, and, baulked of this, lay down at night under a passing train and
They showed me a map of this subterranean world, variously tinted
according to the regions already exploited and those yet virgin. It
reminded me, with its regular streets and blocks, of some model city in
the Far West.
The underground workings here are about thirty kilometres in length.
Beside these Metlaoui deposits, the company has begun to attack those of
Redeyeff, and will shortly open an assault upon the others at Ain
Moulares, which lie near Henchir Souatir, the present terminus of the
Feriana line. It employs six thousand men; some of the mineral goes as far
as Japan; the output of last year amounted to over a million tons.
One may well be interested in the discoverer of these phosphates, in the
man who has revolutionized the trade of Tunisia. He is a veterinary
surgeon in the French Army--Monsieur Philippe Thomas.
His record is of the best.
Born in 1843, he has taken part in twelve military campaigns,
distinguishing himself particularly in the Franco-Prussian war.
But, above all, he is a savant.
He has written valuable treatises on the diseases of domestic beasts,
describing, among other things, a hitherto unobserved infectious malady of
goats. He is the author of a number of memoirs on the geology of Northern
Africa, and has discovered no less than two hundred new species of fossil
animals of that country; he has made numerous contributions to our
knowledge of its ethnology, prehistoric tombs, and flint implements. Many
of these writings date from the seventies and earlier; they have procured
for him the membership of learned societies, as well as medals and
decorations of all kinds.
A man of such distinction, one would think, coming to Tunisia in 1885 at
the head of a scientific expedition sent by the Ministry of Public
Instruction, would be received according to his merits. It was far
otherwise. Whether from distrust of his capacities or some other cause,
Monsieur Cambon, the Resident, assumed towards him a most chilling
official manner, and the commanding military officer, General Boulanger,
all but refused to grant the escort necessary for his expedition. In one
of his papers he speaks of this reception as "several degrees below zero."
Then, in the same year, appeared his sensational report of the discovery
of phosphate deposits which he had traced over a long line of country;
realizing their commercial value, he insisted that they should be
exploited "_pour le plus grand bien de l'agriculture francaise et
algerienne._" Nevertheless, ten years passed ere a company could be
formed, as financiers were diffident about the American competition and
the risks of installation in a desert country.
A tardy recognition of his services to the company took the form of a
pecuniary grant, in 1904, of fifteen thousand francs--little enough, in
all conscience, considering the millions he has gained for them. They
further honoured him by changing the name of the station-settlement of
Metlaoui into "Philippe-Thomas."
"It's very economical," Dufresnoy observed.
I am glad to think that another place of that name, the mining village,
will continue to exist; it would seem a pity to erase from the map the
tuneful word Metlaoui, which contains the five vowels in a remarkably
Dufresnoy tells me that those barren slopes where the mines lie, and where
the different races now work together in apparent amity, were once the
scene of a sanguinary primitive battle. There is a steep gully at one
point, a dry torrent; the Khabyles lived on one side of it, the
Tripolitans on the other, and between these two races there occurred, on a
starlit night in May, 1905, an affray of unearthly ferocity.
The Khabyles, prudent folk, many of whom had served in the French Army,
had long been laying in a store of warlike provisions; their secret was
well kept, although it was observed that piles of stones were being
collected round their huts, and that a goodly quantity of dynamite and
petroleum was missing from the stores; some of them possessed guns and
revolvers, the rest were armed with knives, daggers and savage mining
gear. They chose a Sunday for the attack, well knowing that the
Tripolitans, who are good-natured simpletons, would be least prepared to
resist them on that day, and half of them in a state of jollification; and
they were so sagacious, that they actually induced a few drunken
Tripolitans to insult them, before beginning the conflict. This, they
knew, would be counted in their favour afterwards.
Hardly was the night come when they advanced in battle array--the fighting
contingent in front; behind them the boys and older men, who kept them
supplied with stones and weapons. A well-nourished volley of missiles
greeted the Tripolitans, some of whom rushed to the fray, while others
took refuge in their huts or with the Moroccans who lived in their own
village near at hand. It was now quite dark, but at close quarters the
stones began to take effect, and hardly was a man down, than five or six
Khabyles ran out of the ranks to finish him off with their knives; others,
meanwhile, went to the locked huts and fired them, or burst them open with
The explosions and lights began to attract attention in Metlaoui; the
whole sky was aflame; there were mysterious bursts of sound, too, and a
chorus of wild howls. Something was evidently wrong, up there.
A party of Europeans, accompanied by a small force of local police, went
up to the mines to investigate. They found themselves powerless; "keep
yourselves out of danger," they were told, "and let us settle our own
affairs." The carnage was in full swing; it was hell let loose. Not
content with killing, they mutilated each other's corpses, bit off noses,
gouged out eyes, and thrust stones in the mouths of the dead; burnt and
hacked and slashed each other till sunrise; no element of bestiality was
lacking. The wounded crawled away to die in caves, or were carried to
nomad camps. The number of the dead was never ascertained; Dufresnoy says
"about a hundred," which is probably below the mark, as an eye-witness saw
three railway trucks loaded with the slain. To this day they find
mouldering human remains, relics of that battle, hidden away in crevices
of the rocks.
Although, once roused, the Tripolitans fought like demons, they were
worsted--the others were too numerous. They had a brief moment of revenge,
however; for during their retreat, on Monday morning, they encountered two
young Khabyle boys who had been on absence and were now returning to work
at the mines, blissfully ignorant of what was going on. These unfortunate
lads were literally torn to shreds.
I confess that, as a spectacle, I should have preferred that night's
engagement to anything in modern warfare. It must have been a stupendous
exhibition of the _bete humaine_.
The Khabyles meditated nothing short of a total extirpation of the
Tripolitan stock; they sent to the mines of Redeyeff for auxiliaries of
their nation, some of whom actually arrived in time for the slaughter; the
rest were intercepted on the hill-paths by the police of Gafsa, who had
been telegraphically summoned and despatched by special train. And soon
afterwards, elated by success, the Khabyles fell foul of the Moroccans and
sent word that they meant to fight them too for sheltering Tripolitan
fugitives in their huts. The Moroccans were delighted at the prospect; but
the management got wind of the project in good time, which was just as
well, for the Moroccans are not only the most orderly of the native
settlers at the mines, but also by far the strongest and fiercest, and it
might have fared ill with the Khabyles. The Tripolitan village has now
been moved to another site--a certain number of troops, too, are
definitely stationed at Metlaoui.
"As usual," said Dufresnoy, "we came in for the blame. They say that we
did not allow the real authors, the Khabyles, to be punished, because they
are French citizens, and all the rest of it. Don't believe a word of that.
If it had been the Tripolitans, we would have acted just the same; we
cannot be bothered with decisions of civil courts, which would have
satisfied nobody, besides depriving us, probably, of a number of good
workmen. There was a little outcry about this, too: that none of the
wounded were treated in our hospital, but carried down to the native
_funduk_ near the station. 'The hospital,' said our director, 'is for
those who are injured in the performance of their duty, and not for
bloodthirsty savages.' That's sound--that's military. One cannot afford to
be sentimental in this country."
I asked what could possibly be the reason for such a ferocious outbreak of
"Long-standing animosities of race," he said, "and, as determining cause,
_cherchez la femme_"
"But you said that there were no women on the place."
"_Eh bien, cherchez toujours_...."
And then it also occurred to me that among the mass of local literature
and newspaper files I had perused in his house there was not a single
criticism of this affair. I thought it strange, I said.
"Local politics, my friend! We are obliged to keep the Press well under
control, you know. Don't compare Tunisian life with life in England; there
is no public opinion here, no idea of fair play. These papers, if they
were not subventioned, would print abominations such as no English
journalist could conceive; they would alienate our best friends in the
long run. The company must take account of things as they are, not as they
should be--of Arab savagery, Franco-Tunisian malevolence; of journalistic
venality and public credulity. Whoever is not for us is against us. That
is why the only papers that dare to criticize our management are those
which nobody reads; those, to put it bluntly, which are not worth bribing.
For the rest, there is not a writer in the whole country capable of
grasping either our aims or our methods; the poor fellows have not had the
required education. They only want their mouths stopped."
"That must be more convenient than libel suits; and more economical as
"Just so. Above all things, we are bound to consider the interests of our
_THE SELDJA GORGE_
It is good, after such visions of human infirmity and of death, to ride
over the plain to the Seldja gorge, an astonishing freak of nature. I was
twice within its towering walls of rock; the first time on horseback,
accompanied by a young Tripolitan miner, and in the evening; yesterday
again, in the torrid noon, afoot, alone.
You will do well, in every case, to ride as far as the _bordj_, or
rest-house, that stands near the entrance of the cleft, since there are
about four wearisome miles of level country to be traversed after leaving
Metlaoui. On the first occasion the Tripolitan ran for this whole long
stretch beside my horse, which trotted briskly; he amused himself, none
the less, in belabouring its hind-quarters with a club to make it go still
faster, and I confess to being not scandalized, not inordinately
scandalized, at this performance. We grow hard among the implacable desert
stones. Besides, it was only a hired beast. Any true lover of animals will
Skirting the foot of the hills that trend along, apparently closed, one
suddenly encounters a broad stream-bed with a rivulet meandering down its
centre; this is the Seldja-water (_arabice_, Thelja). It issues out of a
gateway, hitherto unrevealed; and here you may turn aside from the plain
and enter into the heart of the mountains, into a world of nightmare
effects. This very portal is fantastic, theatrical; it leads into an arena
of riven rocks that might serve as council-chamber for a cloud of Ifrits,
and is closed at the further end. There is a second gateway to be passed
before you can enter the gorge itself.
The track winds upwards--the whole length of the defile is about three
miles--sometimes between walls of rock which are chiselled so smoothly by
the gentle waters that one can hardly believe them to be of natural
workmanship (and at these points, as a rule, your only path is the
stream-bed itself); opening out again into wide amphitheatres, rose-tinted
cirques of desolation, where masses of debris, slipped down from the
heights, lie prone in Dantesque confusion. There are rock-doves and
falcons fluttering about the sunny precipices; cliff-swallows build
precarious habitations against the roof of yawning caverns; sandpipers and
wagtails skim over the streamlet that glides in a smiling flood across
reaches of yellow sand. The charm of water in the waste! This Seldja-brook
is a true child of the sun; cold in the morning and evening hours, its
restless little heart becomes tepid at midday with the glowing beams.
Spiky reeds and tamarisks trip alongside, and the wild fig thrusts
demoniac roots into the crevices; here and there you may see a group of
oleasters, descendants, maybe, of the now vanished Roman olive plantations
in the plain, or a stunted palm that has shot up from the stone cast away
by some passing caravan. For these Oueds are all highways dating from
immemorial ages; there is a ceaseless passage of man and animals along
We passed numbers of camels, groaning and snorting among the slippery
rocks, with the water splashing over their feet; higher up, a large
descending flock of sheep, over six hundred of them, completely blocked up
the valley. They were being led to the plain below, where, thanks to the
recent rains, a succulent but ephemeral crop of green had sprung up. Their
owner was a fine Boujaja, some six and a half feet in height, accompanied
by a sturdy brood of children: milk-drinkers. The upland pastures could
wait, he said. Strange to think that two more showers a year might make
settlers of these vagrants.
It was among these rocks that Philippe Thomas first detected the traces of
those phosphates that have made his name famous. Tissot, in 1878, already
anticipated their discovery.
In point of sheer grandeur, of convulsed stratification and cloven ravine,
of terrorizing features, I have seen gorges far finer than this of Seldja.
Yet it contains one stretch of superlative beauty--a short defile or
canon, I mean, formed of two opposing precipices with a chasm of some
thirty yards between them; they wind and curve, parallel to one another,
with such magisterial accuracy that one would think they had been designed
with mighty compasses from on high, and then carved out, sagaciously, by
some titanic blade.
Here we halted; it was time to turn back. There was an indentation in the
rocks near at hand, fretted away by hungry floods of the past and
overhung, now, with creepers and drooping fernery, concerning which my
Tripolitan companion told me a long and complicated legend. This shadowy
hollow, he explained, was the bridal couch, in olden days, of an earthly
maiden and her demon-lover. He was a simple fellow, unfortunately, who
knew the story too well to be able to tell it coherently.
On my second visit, however, I pushed vigorously up the stream-bed in the
heat of the morning, determined to reach the head of the waters. Gradually
the aspect of the valley changes. It opens out; the rocks melt away into
bare white dunes, the country assuming the character of a tableland; you
begin to feel a sense of aloofness.
There was blazing sunshine in these upper regions, but a fresh breeze;
this is the Ras el-Aioun, where the French have bridled some of the wild
waters, thrusting them into a tube that carries them in a mad whirl to
their settlement at Metlaoui. Here, too, they have planted a promising
youthful oasis, a kind of nursery garden of poplars and cypresses and
tamarisks and mimosas, in whose shade grow geraniums, mesembryanthemum and
other flowers and creepers, as well as a host of vegetables of every kind.
I soon discovered a recess in this delectable pleasaunce, and began my
solemn preparations for luncheon.
Out of the pool below there resounded a tuneful croaking of frogs: it
spoke of many waters....
Presently an Italian workman or gardener with curly grey hair and
moustache--the ubiquitous Italian--came up and began to talk,--_per fare
un po' di compania_. He conversed delightfully, a smile playing about his
kindly old face. He told me about the garden, about the French engineers,
about himself, chiefly about himself, in limpid, child-like fashion. He
had travelled far in the Old and New Worlds; in him I recognized, once
again, that simple mind of the wanderer or sailor who learns, as he goes
along, to talk and think decently; who, instead of gathering fresh
encumbrances on life's journey, wisely discards even those he set out
Seldja, he told me, used to be a dangerous place for Europeans to
traverse; many robberies and even murders had taken place there in times
past; the new regime, of course, had put an end to all that. But there
were still two perils: the frightful flies that bred diseases and made the
gorge almost impassable in the hot months (every one suffered from
fevers), and the serpents. Ah, those _maladette bestie di serpenti_--they
swarmed among the rocks: they were of every kind and size; worst of all,
the spleenful naja. He himself had killed one that measured two metres in
length and was as thick as a man's arm. They don't wait till you can hit
them, he said, but rush straight at you, swift as an arrow, upraised on
their massive posterior coils, hissing like a steam-engine, and swelling
out their throat with diabolical rage.
This is the beast that figured in the competition between Aaron and
Pharaoh's conjurers, and it remains the favourite of modern African
snake-charmers, who catch it after first irritating it by means of a
woollen cloth wherein the fangs are embedded and broken. It is also, no
doubt, the dreaded species which Sallust describes as infesting the region
of Gafsa. But Lucan goes a little too far in his account of Cato's
expedition into these parts; this veracious historian has inserted a few
pages of sublime serpent nonsense, exquisite fooling....
Of all the deadly worms that breed in these wildernesses the most
formidable, because the most sluggish, is the two-horned nocturnal
cerastes, the "pretty worm of Nilus." No sensible person, nowadays, goes
into the bled [Footnote: This is one of the many Arabic words which
admit of no clear translation. As opposed to a town, it means a village or
encampment; as opposed to that, the open land, a plain, or particular
district. When colonists talk of "going into the bled," they mean their
farms; in newspaper language it signifies the country generally, inhabited
or not--what we should call "the provinces "; oftentimes, again, the
barren desert or (more technically) the soil.] in summer-time unless armed
with a phial of the antidote--Trousse Calmette or Trousse Legros--whose
liquid is injected with a hypodermic syringe above and below the wound,
and has saved many lives.
"And the scorpions, Signore! We have to tie cotton-wool round the legs of
our beds so that these infernal creatures cannot climb up while we are
asleep; they get entangled in it, ha, ha! And that is why we all keep cats
and hens, who eat them, you know, just like the Arabs do. And sometimes it
I had heard that story before, from natives; and it may well be founded on
fact. The terrific gusts of desert wind overturn the stones under which
the scorpions lie; the fragile beasts are exposed to the blast and, being
relatively light, swept skyward across leagues of country with the flying
sand. A similar explanation has been given for those old accounts of frog
and fish rains.
"Yes; they drop from the clouds. During certain storms I have picked them
off my clothes, three or four at a time. Rather a ticklish operation,
So we discussed the world in that umbrageous shelter, to the music of the
frogs. He condescended to partake of a microscopic share of my meal, and
thereafter left me, with some old-world compliment, to irrigate his
_AT THE HEAD OF THE WATERS_
I sat alone, screened from the midday heat, drowsy and content. It was a
pleasant resting-place, under that leafy arbour, through which only a few
rays of light could filter, weaving arabesque designs that moved and
melted on the floor as the wind stirred the foliage overhead. And a
pleasant occupation, listening to those amiable amphibians in the mere
below--they carried my thought back to other frog-concerts, dimly
remembered, in some other lands--and gazing through the green network of
branches upon that sun-scorched garden, where now a silvery thread of
water began to attract my attention as it stole, coyly, among the
The day is yet young, methought; it is too hot to think of marching home
at this hour. Now is the time, rather, for a pipe of _kif_--if only to
demonstrate the difference that exists between man and the ape. For your
monkey can be taught to eat and drink like a Christian; he can even learn
to smoke tobacco. But he cannot smoke _kif_: the stuff would choke him.
Four pipes, reverentially inhaled ... it was almost too much, for a mere
But the mystery of the frogs, the when and where of it, was solved. Slowly
and benignly the memories travelled back, building themselves into a
vision so clear-cut and elaborate withal, that I might have been holding
it, as one holds some engraving or miniature, in my hand. It was in the
Rhine-woods, of course; long years ago, in summertime. But the frog-music
here was not amiable at all; never have I heard such angry batrachian
vociferations. They came in a discontented and menacing chorus from ten
thousand leathery throats, and almost drowned our converse as we crept
along through the twilight of trees that shot up from the swampy earth.
These Rhine-woods are like pathless tropical jungles: everything is so
green and luxuriant; and morning grew to midday while we threaded our way
through the tangle of interlacing boughs and undergrowth. Yet we knew, all
the time, that something else was in store for us, some joy, some
surprise. And lo! there was an opening in the forest, and we suddenly
found ourselves standing upon the summit of a high bank at whose foot
there rolled a sunlit and impetuous torrent. Too staid for the formation
of ripples, too swift for calm content, the river seemed to boil up from
below in a kind of frolicsome rage. A blissful sight.
"_Er spinnt_" my companion was saying.
In what obscure chamber of the brain had those words slumbered, closely
folded, for thirty years? It was indeed an authentic weaving of arabesque
designs upon the even texture of the living liquid mass; multitudinous
rings and ovals and lozenges were cast up from the green depths as from a
mighty over-bubbling cauldron; some fiercely engulfed again, others torn
hither and thither into new and pleasing shapes, fresh ones for ever
emerging; only a few contrived to linger unchanged, floating in sunny
splendour down the face of the waters. A blissful sight! The dark and mazy
woodlands, now, were left far behind--the croaking of the frogs sounded
strangely distant. We gazed in ecstasy upon that shining flood....
On my return journey down the Seldja gorge, that afternoon, I had a narrow
escape. It struck me that it would be more agreeable, instead of once more
following the windings of the brook, to proceed along the railway--a
single line--that climbs down from Ras-el-Aioun to within a few hundred
yards of the _bordj_, where my horse was waiting. It was easier walking;
it would also be shadier (in the tunnels) and, last and chiefest, I would
enjoy a change of scene by looking down into the valley instead of up at
This line is a pretty little piece of engineering; there are bridges and
steep embankments that afford fine views into the tortuous depths of the
gorge; there are tunnels, blasted into the rock without lining of masonry,
deliciously cool and all too short--all too short save one, that seemed
never-ending. It writhed about, too, in that dark mountain; I saw no speck
of light, either before or behind me; the iron roadway was raised about a
foot, on rough stones, above the narrow path that followed the jagged,
irregular wall of rock along which I was groping and stumbling. Rather an
awkward place, I thought, to meet a train----
And as if in that reflection had lain the potency of a spell, there came
upon me, at that moment, from behind, a distinct blast of wind and a low
rumbling sound. I pricked up my ears. There was no doubt about it: a
train, still invisible, was gliding in good-natured fashion, with steam
shut off, down the gradient. A considerable number of ideas, incongruous
and quite beside the mark, passed through my mind; but also this one--if I
ran, I should inevitably stumble against a sleeper or some projecting
stone; if I stumbled, I should lose my presence of mind, and then,
perhaps--! Meanwhile, the noise grew louder, deafening; already, in
imagination, I felt the monster's hot breath upon me.
Walking steadily, therefore, for a few more yards, I felt a little cavity
in the rough-hewn wall of rock that appeared deeper than the others; there
I compressed myself, feeling flatter than a turbot, and absurdly resigned.
It was the nick of time. The earth was trembling under the mechanical
horror; it passed me, with a roar and rush of wind, by I know not how many
inches; there were flashes of light, a screeching of machinery, an acrid
smell of mineral oils and heated metal. Then all was over again, save for
a choking-fit produced by a deluge of bituminous coal.
Just a little flutter.
But outside that tunnel, in the sunshine, I sat down and indulged in
certain musings. _Suicide of an Englishman in Tunisia_: that was it;
inasmuch as even they who know me well could hardly be brought to believe
that such an act of abysmal foolishness, as this of not investigating on
which side the safety-niches were, could be the result of accident. An
ignoble, ridiculous death.
It must have been a fit of temporary obliviousness, brought about by the
unaccustomed heat of the sun.
Or possibly the _kif_....
It affects people differently.
I must limit myself to three pipes, in future.
Now, on the former occasion, instead of descending into the _bordj_ from
the railway line, I rode with the Tripolitan once more out of the
rock-portal into the plain, that glowed with the fugitive fires of sunset.
It is a treeless waste, bereft of every sign of cultivation.
And yet, if you look on your left hand as you issue from the gorge, you
will perceive, at the very narrowest point, some fragments of ancient
masonry adhering to the cliff; they are all that remains of a Roman dam
which blocked up the valley, regulated the supply of water flowing from
above, and purified it from stones and sand. The inference is clear: the
plain must have been cultivated in those days. Likely enough, it was
covered, like many other parts of "Africa," with olives, that drew their
life from this judiciously managed water-supply.
The Oued Seldja to-day fulfils no such useful function. Once the
rock-portal is passed, it unlearns all its sprightly grace and trickles
disconsolately through the sands, expiring, at last, in the dreary Chott
Monsieur Bordereau thinks that the ancient "forest of Africa" was composed
chiefly of olive plantations, and proofs of the former abundance of these
trees can be found in certain local names, such as Jebel Zitouna--the
Mount of Olives--clinging to localities where not a tree is now visible;
there are also sporadic oleasters growing near many Roman ruins. Strong
evidence; and still stronger is this: that Roman oil-presses have actually
been found, buried in the desert sand. Up to a short time ago the Arabs
deliberately destroyed the olives, to avoid paying the tax on them; the
French have changed all this, and though I am not aware that they go so
far as did the Romans, who encouraged tree-planting by exemption from
imposts, yet they have inaugurated a severe regime; one reads with
satisfaction of exemplary penalties inflicted for illicit timber-cutting.
It is good to remember, also, that whereas the Romans had five centuries
of peace to bring Tunisia to its high pitch of prosperity, the French only
began yesterday. And they have a harder task before them, for in the
interval the Arabs have arrived in the country. It is they, with their
roving and pastoral habits, who have done the mischief, changing arable
land into pasture, which grows ever poorer, and finally desert. The
fertility of these regions may be said to have been annihilated by the
goats of a nomad race, whose faith has made it improvident and mentally
[Footnote 1: I have just re-perused Lapie's _Civilizations Tunisiennes_.
He says that "la chevre est le genie malfaisant de la Regence.... Plus que
le despotisme, plus que le fatalisme, elle a ruine le pays: c'est la
chevre, en effet, qui deboise et surtout qui s'oppose au reboisement, et
l'on sait quelle influence a eue sur le regime des eaux et sur la
fertilite du sol le deboisement de la province d'Afrique." Apropos of this
pasturing by nomad cattle, it is a singular fact that whereas a large
proportion of desert plants of northern Tunisia are poisonous to camels
and goats, here, in the south, nearly all of them are edible.]
Yet it may be disputed whether the land was as thickly wooded under the
Romans as some would have us believe. If so, how was it that after three
centuries of their rule there should come a drought lasting for five
years? Wood brings water, and if things were so satisfactory, why did they
penuriously hive and distribute the element? They described Africa as a
"waterless land"; Marius, when he made his forced march across country to
surprise Gafsa, took in at one place a sufficient provision of water to
last for three days. This, however, may be due to the fact that he
purposely kept to the desert lest, by following the main route, his
designs should be made public.
One thing strikes me as conclusive evidence that the "Africa" of olden
days was a different country: they had no camels. These beasts were
unknown there at the time of Julius Caesar, and only came into common usage
towards the end of the fourth century. The Africa of to-day, without
camels, would be almost uninhabitable.
Some years ago, whilst staying among the magnificent forests of
Khroumiria, forests such as certainly never clothed these southern hills,
I grew interested in this question of the old African water-supply.
Comparing the accounts of classic authors with what has been written by
modern students like Bourde, Carton and others, whose very names have
faded from my memory, I remember coming to the conclusion--a very obvious
one, no doubt--that supposing all the ruined Roman hydraulic contrivances
were now in working order, supposing them even to be furnished with such
improvements as modern science could suggest, still the French would be
unable to obtain, at the present moment, the agricultural results of the
Romans. The positive diminution in the supply of liquid has been too
great. Archaeologists, for instance, have discovered in the district of
Gafsa alone over a hundred Roman wells and reservoirs, of every shape and
size; but it would be sheer waste of money to re-activate many of these
ancient works--there are wells which would remain dry from one year's end
to another; the watercourses, too, have shrunk or altogether expired.
Quite apart from what the French have taken from it, this Seldja brook
must have carried down a larger volume of water in those days, helped, as
is very probable, by small tributary streamlets which have now ceased to
Old Arab authors say that one used to be able to walk from one end of
North Africa to the other in the shade. Allowing for some exaggeration,
this means that either the legendary African forest of the Romans
continued to subsist, or that certain bare tracts covered themselves with
timber in post-Roman periods of abandonment, before the Arabs and their
goats had time--for it must have required time--to change the climate and
aspect of the province.
These woodlands, at all events, cannot have been all of olives. There is
Sbeitla, for instance, the Roman city whose remains I was unable to visit
owing to the Arctic blasts of wind; viewed from the railway, its
surroundings look so bleak and bare that nobody would believe they could
ever have been timbered. Yet, concerning Sbeitla, we happen to possess the
testimony of three independent older eye-witnesses, who visited the spot
at different periods: first Shaw (about 1725), then Bruce, then the
botanist Desfontaines. All three of them describe the region as wooded.
And, as if to clinch the matter, Leo Africanus, writing in 1550, says that
the inhabitants of Gafsa and its district made their boots out of the
skins of stags. (These are no doubt the fortassa deer, a few of which
still linger in the country north of Feriana.) Stags can only live in
timbered regions. If these forests were still in existence there would be
a greater abundance of water; the cold in winter would be less intense,
and so would the summer heat, since forests are harmonizers of all
Now these woodlands were not composed of olives, but for the most part of
junipers and of Aleppo pines, a precious growth to which the French began
to pay attention some five years ago. These bright and graceful trees
flourish on the poorest soil and multiply rapidly; they are valuable not
only for their timber, but for their turpentine. You can buy, in the Gafsa
market, a crude black tar made from this tree; the Arabs use it for
impregnating the linings of their water-skins, like the Greeks for their
receptacles of rezzinato wine.
The only drawback to these pines is that their inflammable branches are
always suggesting a display of extempore fireworks to the Arabs, who are
the veriest pyromaniacs.
_THE WORK OF PHILIPPE THOMAS_
The old olive plantations are creeping back again into regions that have
been deserted for centuries. They follow the railway lines; and nothing is
a fitter commentary on the medievalism which deplores _the building of
railways into the desert_ than facts like that of the plain of Maknassy--a
sterile tract up to a few years ago--which is now covered, for a distance
of sixty kilometres, by olive groves. Why? Because the line from Sfax to
Gafsa happens to pass through it.
The same will take place in due course along the Feriana and other
southern lines, and thus one of the gravest problems that confront the
Tunisian administration will be solved: the unstable nomads will fix
themselves--they are already fixing themselves--round these new
agricultural centres. In 1890 there were still eight tents to every five
houses in Tunisia, but this proportion is rapidly changing. And besides
this, the railway, with its facility for the rapid conveyance of troops,
has given security to regions formerly so dangerous that no settler,
however favourable the soil, would have dared to establish his home there;
it has awakened the date industry and created halfa deposits all along the
There is one of them at Gafsa station, for instance--relatively small; and
yet, in the season, two hundred camel-loads of this costly hay arrive
there every day, to be dried, pressed and stored ready for transportation
to the coast, whence it is shipped to Europe. In 1905 sixteen thousand six
hundred tons of halfa were forwarded from the interior by the Sfax-Gafsa
And were it not for this railway the branch line to Tozeur would never
have been contemplated; the oases of Souf and Djerid and Nefzaoua, with
their teeming populations, would have slumbered the sleep of ages in their
burning desert sands. And to realize what a change it has wrought in the
appearance of the ports of Sfax, Sousse and even Tunis, one must have
known these places in the olden days. The company pays yearly half a
million francs to the Government; it contributes another yearly sum of
600,000 francs towards the harbour enlargement scheme of Sfax; indeed, it
may be said to have created the modern town of Sfax, its hotels, banks,
And what brought the railway?
The phosphates. But for their discovery no Utopian would have thought of
constructing these lines just yet. An unlovely deposit of brown dust has
worked a revolution upon the minds of men, upon the face of the country.
It has even enriched the French vocabulary.
"Your friend, is he an _alfatier_?"
"No, sir; he is a _phosphatier_."
As I issued out of the rock-portal of the Seldja gorge and beheld that
strip of masonry which told so plain a story, with the now barren plain at
its foot, it struck me that this spot was pregnant with a romance beyond
that of mere scenery. It was well, here, to pause awhile and contrast old
and new notions of African prosperity. The Romans had the same
difficulties to contend with as have the French: a harsh climate, and
fickle and faithless natives who "cannot be bridled by threats or
kindness." They had the same ambitions; so Strabo tells us that they used
every endeavour to make settlers of them and fix them to the soil, and
"paid particular attention to Masanasses, King of Numidia, because it was
he who formed the nomads of civil life and directed their attention to
Both administrations are necessarily based on military rule. And if the
now uncultivated plain affronts our eye, there is already a set-off to
this apparent superiority of the ancient regime in the new line of railway
which, at great expense, has been made to climb up the sinuosities of the
Seldja gorge itself.
To fetch more phosphates!
Here they lie, the quintessential relics of those little Eocene fishes and
other sea beasts, if such they were, that swam and crawled about the
waters many years ago--piled up on terraces so high that the mind grows
dizzy at contemplating their multitudes, or the ages required to squeeze
them into this priceless powder; piled up for 500 miles along their old
sea-beach--an arid inland chain of hills, nowadays, where hardly a blade
of grass will grow; sterile themselves, the cause of surpassing fertility
elsewhere. These phosphates are something of a symbol: there are men and
women fashioned after this model.
I question whether the men of the _Pax Romana_ could ever have reached the
phosphate-extracting stage. They were not trending in that direction. Eyes
were turning inwards, and the age of sober thinking was past and over for
the time being, since the Orient began to infect the world with the
mephitic vapours of self-consciousness. Truth was a drug in the market;
for twenty long centuries the Banu-Israel, with their ferocious contempt
of craftsmanship and honest intellectual labour, were enabled to foul the
stream of human endeavour. It is gratifying to think how thoroughly the
modern Jews have shaken off their ancient bigotry--a good refutation, by
the way, of those scholars who still argue about the "immutability of
But those earlier and artless Galileans, methinks, must have been on the
mental level of the Tripolitan savage running beside my horse: it needs no
very cunning marabout to convince him that his little troubles will be set
aright in a world hereafter, where he shall sit comfortably enthroned and
listen to his enemies gnashing their teeth. For the poor in mind are like
children in this, that they create realities to coincide with emotional
states; and for such as these, they say, is the kingdom of Heaven
Nevertheless, though men sought the "inner light" and not phosphate
deposits in those days, yet certain men of God, roaming about these same
stony wildernesses, made discoveries in natural history no less surprising
than that of Monsieur Philippe Thomas. Saint Anthony encountered a
faun--half-man, half-goat; he spoke to the creature and was charmed by its
edifying discourse. You will object that Saint Anthony is known to have
been a hallucinated neyropathe; that the story, therefore, may not be
true. So be it.
But such a description can hardly be applied with decency to certain
holier and wiser men, who saw with their own eyes things yet stranger. The
great Augustin tells his congregation--it is in one of his sermons, I
believe--that in these deserts there are men without heads, men who have
one single eye placed in the centre of their breasts. You may suggest that
the saint was quoting from the heathen pages of Herodotus, the _Father of
Lies_. Nothing of the kind. He is too conscientious to speak from hearsay
of such marvellous matters; he says that he personally went among these
headless monocular folk; he says that he spoke to them and lived with
them; that he made a study of their morals and social institutions, which,
in this particular sermon, he holds up as an example to his two-eyed
And Saint Augustin has the reputation of being a fairly truth-loving saint
and _doctor ecclesiae_.
No; phosphate-hunting was assuredly out of the question under such
conditions; scientific curiosity and commercialism, parents of fair talk
and fair dealing among men, retire discomfited when there are immortal
souls to be saved. And soon enough they came, those Ages of Faith, of
moral dyspepsia and perverse aspirations, when truth-seeking, useless
under the _Pax Romana_, became much worse than useless--perilous, that is,
to life and limb. So quickly do we forget past torments, that some of us
continue to yearn for those picturesque days of burnings and
Meanwhile, if truth is found useful for the moment, it is due to the
humanizing work of those quiet investigators like Philippe Thomas--to the
men who have armed their country for the heroic task of cleansing the
Monsieur Dufresnoy had never met the phosphate discoverer, but another
gentleman described him as follows:--
"He is a simple fellow, and the devil for work. Married, and a good
husband; clear eyes; spectacles, a short beard, rather stout, and not
dark; never so happy as when he is examining old bones and trash of that
kind. A _bon garcon_, mind you. And yet--Lord! what a simpleton. He could
have become a millionaire if he had managed the thing properly. Too
modest, perhaps--too unworldly; too foolish, or too proud: who can tell?
"You never know what is going on in the minds of these _savants_. He told
them he was a veterinary surgeon, and not a man of business. Can you
understand such an attitude?"
"I must think about it, Monsieur."
And so I did, riding home that evening from the Seldja gorge--and next day
too; but, somehow or other, have not yet attained a mature opinion on the
subject. It may be, however, that there is nothing to prevent a man from
being simultaneously modest and proud--nothing, save the fact that we have
not yet coined a word for an alloy of these particular ingredients. We
have words, always either too few or too many; words which are for ever
emancipating themselves from our control and becoming masters instead of
slaves, so that our ideas, which ought to be formed by independent
cerebration, are half derived from mere verbal symbols, which become a
kind of intellectual pepsine that weakens the strongest systems. So when
we speak of a man being "proud," that miserable expression is apt to
engross and dominate us, conjuring up an image which excludes certain
others: that of modesty, for instance.
It comes to this, that if we wish to describe a man who does not seem to
fit into any of the categories permitted by ordinary words, we are driven
to refer him to some exemplar recognized in legend or history--we talk of
his being Epicurean, Voltairean, and so forth.
Let us say, therefore, that Monsieur Thomas, like Pasteur, is of the
Promethean type--a seeker after verity, a light-bringer.
POSTSCRIPT.--This is surely a land of coincidences. In a Tunisian paper of
this very morning I read of the death, on the 13th of February, of
Monsieur Thomas. It describes him as "one of the most perfect citizens of
our poor humanity." He only lived a year to enjoy the annuity of six
thousand francs which the Government of the Regency, with belated
thoughtfulness, had granted him.
_OVER GUIFLA TO TOZEUR_
A mule, a sturdy beast, was waiting to convey me from Metlaoui to Tozeur.
Leaving my heavier baggage to follow with some camels, I rode into the
Considerably less than half-way stands the rest-house of Guifla, kept by
an Algerian with a pretty wife. Here I saw a few carved Roman stones which
had been found, the man told me, in the neighbouring Oued Baghara. At
Guifla, according to Valery Mayet, they killed an ostrich twenty years
ago--a _rara avis_ in these parts.
There were numbers of engineers and workmen at this place, engaged in
laying down the line of railway which will unite Tozeur to Metlaoui. It
cannot help being a paying concern, I should think, to judge by the
traffic that passed me in the course of this day, for I was hardly ever
out of sight of a caravan.
It was an ideal day for desert travelling--a grey, sunless sky, a gentle
breeze. Another weary stretch brings one to El-Hamma, a small oasis fed by
hot springs which the Romans long ago utilized, and where I had hoped to
refresh myself with a Turkish bath. Alas! the hammam is only a shallow
tank covered with palm-thatching; there were some twenty Arabs splashing
about this establishment and soaping themselves and their
boy-children--bathing was out of the question. Near at hand lies the
women's bath, which is built on the same primitive lines. A pious legend
runs to the effect that this water of El-Hamma used to be cold, but an
Arab marabout was persuaded to spit into it and, lo! it suddenly became
hot and mineral....
As you approach Tozeur the landscape becomes more desert-like; mountains
are left behind; stones are rarer; you wade in sand. One realizes how
useless it would be to construct a good road in these parts, since every
storm would drown it. And such storms are sometimes of great force; there
was a celebrated one in 1857 which lasted for seventy-two hours. It threw
some of the riders of a French detachment off their horses, and finally
obliged the whole company to stamp up and down for twenty-four hours in
the twilight of raging sand for fear of being buried alive. It submerged
several hundred palm trees of the Tozeur oasis _up to their crowns_ (they
are 60 to 100 feet high).
[Illustration: Tozeur and its Oasis]
Notwithstanding these difficulties, an enterprising Maltese runs a
motor-car from Metlaoui to Tozeur and Nefta for all such persons as are
prepared to pay his price, and I hear that the speculation has paid well.
There were moments during my ride when I regretted not having come to some
understanding with him; when I grew tired of the jolting mule, the rough
track and an Arab saddle which keeps one's legs at an angle of 179
degrees. True, my conveyance had only cost four francs....
Straining my eyes at the water-shed beyond El-Hamma, whence one has the
first view of Tozeur and its palm forest, I thought to detect, at an