Part 3 out of 3
immeasurable distance, two minute dusky streaks, swimming in air--other
oases, no doubt. They seemed to dangle, by some gossamer thread, from the
grey vault of Heaven.
This first view of the oasis of Tozeur, and the Chott Djerid beyond it,
has often been praised. To me, arriving at the water-shed on a cloudy
afternoon, that line of inky-black palm trees with its background of
blanched sterility melting into a lowering, leaden-hued sky, conveyed a
most uncanny impression: the prospect was absolutely familiar! Yes, there
was no doubt about it: I had seen the place before; not in Africa, of
course, but--somewhere else. Where--where? Suddenly I remembered: it was a
northern landscape, a well-known forest of sombre firs, rising out of the
wintry plain. The white, salty expanse, filling up the interstices between
the palms, helped to complete the illusion; it was powdered snow among the
tree-tops. For a brief moment I was _transported_....
It was not long before I found a companion at Tozeur. He was an Arab from
the Souf, region of sand; dark-skinned, oval-faced, with straight
eyelashes, straight nose, and an infectious, lingering smile; quite a
worthless fellow; he had picked up a few words of French slang, and never
tired of exhibiting them. We rode out to the Chott to see the extraction
of the salt, which is a Government monopoly; the track leads past a famous
lotus, a Methuselah among trees, whose shadow covers 120 square metres of
ground and whose branches are so long, so weary with age, that they bend
downward and touch the earth with their elbows--to rest, as it were--and
then rise up again, refreshed. These salines are about three miles from
Tozeur and an uncommonly simple establishment; they dig a ditch in the
morass which promptly fills with water; the liquid evaporates, leaving the
salt, which impregnates it, to be piled up in heaps on dry land. Next,
they stow the mineral in sacks and transport it to Tozeur on donkeys. It
undergoes no preparation whatever, but is sold as it comes out of the
Chott, agreeable to the palate though rather yellowish in colour. Needless
to say the Government runs no risk of the supply failing; there is salt, a
swooning stretch of salt, as far as eye can reach.
Once you have issued from the oasis in this direction it is all a level of
dried-up mud, speckled with low shrubs and dangerous watery spots, where a
man may slowly sink down and disappear for ever. A strange desert lily,
purple and golden, starts leafless, like a tall orchid, out of the bitter
waste; camels eat its fat, bulbous, snowy-white root; the Arabs call it
I saw some darker markings on the surface of the expanse which the workman
at the salines declared to be the ruins of old buildings and quite
inaccessible nowadays, but they may well have been small ridges of sand,
magnified by mirage: those oasis-Arabs have rather indifferent eyesight.
Plainly visible, however, was a line of palms about eight miles distant to
the east; it was one of a group of oases of Oudiane. I looked at it,
wondering whether I should pass that way on my homeward journey.
But my companion, with a languishing gesture, pointed in the other
direction, towards his home.
Tozeur, he thought, was all very well, and so were Oudiane and all the
rest of them, but Eloued was fairer by far. And only three days' journey!
Why not leave this country and go to the Souf, to Eloued, instead? _Sacre
nom!_ I could return by way of Biskra if I liked. And if I paid him five
francs for a camel he would accompany me the whole way, like a brother.
The five francs, he explained, were only for camel-hire; he did not want
me to pay for his food; he liked me for my company--it seems I reminded
him, in a way, of the folks at Eloued. They must be charming people, and I
was almost tempted to follow his advice and make their acquaintance.
Later on we went to what they call the Roman _barrage_ of the main oasis
river; the large blocks of which it is composed are unquestionably
antique, but they have been carried to this spot not by the ancients, but
by Berber cultivators of long ago. Gazing upon these venerable stones we
were led to talk of past times, of buried treasures and their wondrous
lore. One of his uncles, he tells me, is versed in the black arts and an
adept at raising hoards; he learnt it from a Moroccan. But bad luck had
dogged his footsteps lately. He discovered a treasure whose guardian _jin_
offered to surrender it if he brought three things: a white goat, certain
materials for fumigation, and "the book." It seemed a very simple request,
but each time, unfortunately, that he arrived at the enchanted spot,
he found that, for some extraordinary reason, he had left at home one or
the other of these three articles; and when at last he managed to bring
all three of them together, he accidentally--_sale bete!_--said a pious
"bismillah" at the critical moment, which of course spoilt everything.
And here a wild craving came upon me: I wished to follow the winding of
this brook and trace it to its source, which I judged to be not far
distant. The companion, smiled, as usual; he was ready for anything; but
the undertaking proved to be rather arduous. We walked and climbed for
long among the gardens, crawling under vines and thorny shrubs, wading
tributary brooks and clambering up and down their steep earthen banks with
a hundred dogs in full pursuit; there was no possibility of orientation;
we doubled our tracks over and over again--it was like being imprisoned in
the works of a clock.
At last, and doubtless by the merest of accidents, we emerged from the
true oasis of orderly fruit trees and vegetables; the soil became sandy
and uneven, with palms sprouting up in isolated clusters amid tamarisks
and bristly reeds. The stream, meanwhile, continued to divide and
subdivide into smaller rivulets. After a good deal of walking on this kind
of ground, we finally reached the head of the waters--the eye, as the
Arabs poetically call a fountain, alluding to its liquid purity, its
genial play of light and movement.
It trickles out under a tall incline of sand, and the crowns of the palms
at this spot are not quite on a level with the desert overhead. Looking
down from these sandy heights, I found that we had followed a tortuous
river of green palms, that flowed through yellow sands into a distant lake
of the same green--the oasis.
But the companion had become quite silent. He was bewitched, apparently,
by the rural charms of this place. At last he said:
"If only I had brought some _kif_ to smoke!"
Your Oriental, as a rule, becomes hungry at the sight of a fair landscape;
he manifests a sudden yearning for food. Not so these Souafa; they must
have their native _kif_ on such occasions. They are all, I am sorry to
say, partakers of the pernicious drug.
"You have forgotten your _kif_?" I asked. "Well, that _was_ an oversight!"
And, to his astonishment, I fumbled in my pocket, produced the stuff and
lit a pipe. I smoked on placidly, looking at him and wondering what his
thoughts might be. "An Inglis"--perhaps he was saying to himself--"one of
those who joke and talk in such friendly fashion, and then, when it cornes
to a you's worth of _kif_--a single puff of his pipe...! _Sacre cochon!_
That is how they grow rich."
Possibly he reasoned thus, but I fancy he reasoned not at all. There he
sat, and kept his eyes fixed on the ground; a European might have feigned
interest in something else, or cheerful indifference, but this
desert-child did none of these things. He simply sat and suffered dumbly:
it was a blow of fate, to be borne like all the rest of them. A fine
exemplar (_edition mignonne_) of the mektoub profession. It gave a dignity
to the fellow.
Presently I made him a gift of the whole apparatus. He was quite
speechless, at first, with surprise.
The spot was well chosen for indulgence in the divine herb, bland quencher
of doubts, begetter of blissful images; impossible to conceive anything
but a good genius residing amid these bubbling waters and gently stirring
foliage. Everything was kindly and gracious, and yet----
"Yonder," he said, pointing dreamily with his pipe-stem to a place not far
distant, "yonder they killed a man and a woman. They hacked them to little
And he unfolded a tale of love and revenge.
It was the usual intrigue; with this peculiarity, that the woman was quite
a poor creature, of blameless past, married and mother of children; the
man--though what we should call a "gentleman by birth"--had long ago
become a vagabond, a child of iniquity, an outcast from the coast-towns,
whom some wave of misfortune had left stranded on this green island in the
desert. Listening to the hazy and rather disconnected recital, I tried to
piece the story together as it really happened; to discover its logic, its
necessity; the arts by which this decayed citizen, proficient only in the
lore of vice and scorned by the whole populace, had gained his end; above
all, how it came about that these two never wearied of their infatuation.
Had he struck some latent and hideously defective chord in her motherly
breast, that began to throb in response to his amorous complexities--was
_that_ their common bond?
But I would prefer to think otherwise. I would prefer to think that this
woman's very simplicity, and this green dell, had worked a miracle;
purging and simplifying him, carrying him away from depraved memories of
middle life towards certain half-forgotten and holier ideals of youth that
revived, at last, and took shape in the prime features of this--as he may
have called it--pastoral diversion; making him cling to them stubbornly,
even as we might promise ourselves to cling to some friend of past days,
were he ever to return....
The idyll lasted for long, ere the awful retribution came--the element of
insecurity acting, I suppose, as a cement. There is in most of us, Arabs
or otherwise, a deep-seated sporting instinct (is that the right word?)
which the system of legalized unions was contrived to curb, but cannot; if
connubial life were a hazardous liaison there would be fewer divorces.
A perverse and sordid romance, you will say.
And yet it endured, like many of its kind.
_A WATERY LABYRINTH_
Tozeur is more than twice as large as Gafsa, and the inhabitants are a
healthier race, good-natured and docile, with much of the undiluted Berber
blood still in their veins. The houses are also of better construction,
and not a few of them can boast of cool, vaulted chambers and an upper
story. Unfortunately for the artistic effect, new French buildings are
rising up here and there; it is inevitable--the place cannot be expected
to stand still; artists and dreamers must now go further afield.
And the oasis is a forest of sumptuous splendour, wherein grow bananas
(absent in Gafsa), together with every other kind of fruit and vegetable,
but chiefly date-palms, that give the highest and most constant return.
They cultivate seventy different varieties. There are half a million trees
paying taxes--the common variety sixty centimes, the delicate amber-tinted
and translucent _deglat_ twice as much; some trees produce more than fifty
francs a year. But they require incessant care; "palms must eat and
drink," say the Arabs; they drink, in the summer months, a hundred cubic
metres of water apiece!
The export of these dates has been going on for centuries; in 1068 the
geographer Bekri wrote that almost every day a thousand camels, or even
more, leave Tozeur loaded with dates, and the trade will become still
livelier when they have finished building the railway which is to connect
this place with the present terminus Metlaoui. Maybe the Egyptians
introduced the tree into these regions: they cultivated dates as early as
3000 B.C. It is perhaps the earliest fruit of which we have clear record,
save that old apple of 4004 B.C. which gave some trouble to Adam and Eve.
In olden days they sold negro slaves here for two or three quintals of
The irrigation of these palms is a hair-splitting business.
Water-conduits, varying in size from a brook to the merest runlet, cross
and recross each other on palm-stem aqueducts at different levels; the
properties are served with the precious element according to time. And
inasmuch as the labourers have no clocks or watches, they have devised a
complicated and apparently frivolous system of marking the hours; the
water is cut off from a certain property, for instance, when a certain
shadow shall have attained the length of three footsteps of a man, and so
forth; the shadow varies according to the seasons, but, in the long run,
everybody is satisfied. There is peace now under the palms; the days are
over when the lean and hungry desert folk, who cannot climb trees, used to
ride hither and, pointing their guns at the terrified cultivators, make
them clamber aloft and throw down a month's provision of dates.
Arabs will tell you that there are 194 water springs at Tozeur; they are
ready to give you the names of every one of them, and several more; these
unite to form what might almost be called a river, which is then
artificially divided into three rivulets--divided so neatly, says an old
writer, that even some fragment of wood or other object drifting down the
current is split up, perforce, into three equal parts, one for each of
them; these three, later on, are once more subdivided into seven smaller
ones apiece--twenty-one in all; and these, again, into a certain fixed
number of almost microscopic brooklets. Allah is all-knowing! To me,
wandering for the first time in this region, the irrigation canals seemed
to flow from every point of the compass. I teased my spirit with the
imaginary task of unperplexing the liquid maze, of drawing a map of this
daedal network of intersecting waters.
[Illustration: The Waters of Tozeur]
You can stroll in every direction along shady paths in the oasis and never
weary of its beauty. The tiller-folk are a happy people--one can see from
their faces that they have few cares; those that are not at work under the
trees may be seen splashing about the brooks or wending to market with
donkeys that almost disappear under immense loads of green stuff; they
will greet you with a smile and a "Bon soir, Moussie!" (It is always bon
Seven little villages nestle under the palms; here and there, too, you
enter unexpectedly upon gem-like patches of waterless, shimmering
sand--mock-Saharas, golden and topaz-tinted, set in a ring of laughing
greenery; there are kingfishers in arrowy flight or poised, like a flame
of blue, over the still pools; overhead, among the branches, a ceaseless
cooing of turtle-doves. At this season, a Japanese profusion of white
blossoms flutters in the breeze and strews the ground; these peaches,
apricots, plums and almonds are giants of their kind, and yet
insignificant beside the towering trunks of the palms whose leaves shade
them from the sunny rays; the fruit trees, in their turn, protect the
humble corn and vegetables growing at their feet.
During the Turkish period these oases were in danger of their lives; the
sand invaded them, choking up the waters and gradually entombing the
plants. The nomads and their flocks and camels, pasturing at liberty round
the cultivated tracts, had destroyed the scrub vegetation which hindered
the flying desert sands from penetrating into the groves; they had
trampled to powder the soil at these spots, so that every breath of wind
raised it heavenwards in a cloud. But the peril is averted now by the
system of _tabias_ or sand-dykes introduced some twenty years
ago--introduced, I believe, in accordance with the suggestion of Monsieur
Baraban, whose book on Tunisia drew attention, among other things, to this
deplorable condition of the oases and the threatened loss to the
Now, if you look closely at this sand, you will see that it is full of
minute crystalline particles, and that, in places where it lies
undisturbed, these hard and jagged grains wedge themselves into the softer
ones and form a coherent crust. It was observed that the wind cannot raise
this crust, and the problem how to manufacture it in the neighbourhood of
the oases was solved by enclosing the near-lying tracts of half-desert
within low mounds crowned by upright palm branches, and forbidding all
access to man and beast. The flying plague heaps itself against the
palisade and submerges it; a new set of branches is then inserted, and so
the structure grows higher and more efficacious every year. The soil
within the enclosures, meanwhile, grows hard; wild shrubs sprout up to
help in the work, and though the crust yields, like thin ice, at the
slightest pressure of the fingers, the end is accomplished.
The protected districts are already assuming a different aspect from the
true desert outside, which shifts with the breeze; apart from their tufts
of vegetation, the soil has become quite dark in colour. Only the most
reckless of nocturnal nomads will dare to violate these hallowed precincts
in search of firewood; the citizens have already learned to regard them
with reverential fear. At a long distance from the town I asked a small
boy to climb over the palisade.
"Not if you give me a packet of cigarettes!" he said. "The
_brigadier_"--in an awed whisper--"he sees everything."
Hearing that protective works of a new kind are being carried on at this
moment, I walked yesterday to the bare slopes that lead down to the
water-springs. A hundred or more Arabs were engaged, under the supervision
of a keen-eyed young Frenchman, in digging a multitude of curved
concentric ditches across the hollow of the catchment area, intersected by
diagonal ones here and there; the general appearance of the work--the
bright yellow of the newly excavated part set against the dark ground of
the old--was as if some gigantic fishing-net had been carelessly thrown
across the country. These little dykes were about two feet deep, and there
must have been already some twenty miles of them. The overseer explained:
"You see what happens. Our putting this tract under the tabia-system had
prepared us an unpleasant surprise. The rain formerly used to sink into
the soft sand, but since the crust has formed, thanks to our efforts, it
no longer sinks, but runs over the hard surface, pours in a flood down
that steep incline at whose foot the fountains issue, and threatens to
suffocate them with soil torn from its banks. The very life of the oasis
was imperilled by our well-meant artifices. But now, with these little
ditches, we hope to catch and tame the showers, and force them to wander
about in these channels till they either sink into the earth or evaporate.
Not a drop of liquid is to leave the catchment basin; it is exactly the
reverse of what we desire in Europe."
It struck me as a simple and efficient device.
Midday came and the workers were paid off, each of them receiving a slip
of printed paper for the half-day's work; the possession of four of these
slips entitles them to exemption from the yearly tax of two francs forty
centimes which they would otherwise pay: a good example of the "politique
d'association." They trooped away gleefully, and I could not help
remarking on their cheerful humour.
"They are gentle as young girls," he said, "and far more tractable;
thievish, of course, and untruthful--but so are all children! They attach
themselves to me in a pathetic, dog-like fashion, without hope of
preferment or any ulterior object.... Yes, they have established
themselves in my heart, somehow or other; perhaps because I am an orphan
and rather lonely and susceptible.... I really love these poor Arabs, as a
father might love them----"
"That stick of yours: it looks business-like. May I ask whether you ever
"Why not? Would I not thrash my own children if they deserved it? This
work in Africa," he went on, "attracts and interests me. At home I lose my
personality and become a sheep in a herd, but here, in the desert, I can
create and leave a mark, which has always been my ambition. I think I
could live in this country for ever. Can you understand such a feeling?
None of my colleagues can; their minds are in France, and they complain of
a colonial exile, as if Tunisia were the Devil's Island; they call me an
enthusiast, because I think well of this warm, palpitating soil in which I
seem, I don't know how, to have struck deep roots."
And he gazed lovingly over the sea of glossy palm-tops, down yonder, on
our right. This, I thought, was a most unusual type of Frenchman; and yet
there was something in his language, or perhaps in his ideas, which was
already familiar to me.
"To be Sultan of Tozeur, for example--ha! I would bend them to my will; I
would lead them to battle and give them laws; I would have them about me
as slaves and companions--they should sing to me and tell me stories while
I go to sleep. This fair land seems like the realization of some old,
dimly remembered dream of mine. How does it all come about, I wonder?"
_Sultan of Tozeur_--that gave me the cue, and I hazarded the guess that he
had inherited his tastes from certain old rovers and conquerors of the
"True," he said, "our family comes from Normandy, though we have lived in
Paris for two generations. Now how on earth did you find that out?"
These are the men whom the Franco-Tunisian administration will do well to
encourage as officials and settlers in the wilder parts.
There is a daily recurring spectacle at Tozeur which enchanted me: the
camping ground at dawn. Here the caravans repose after their desert
journeys; hence they start, at every hour, in picturesque groups and
movement. But whoever wishes for a rare impression of Oriental life must
go there before sunrise, and wait for the slow-coming dawn. It is all dark
at first, but presently a sunny beam flashes through the distant palms,
followed by another, and yet another--long shafts of yellow light
travelling through the murk; then you begin to perceive that the air is
heavy with the smoke of extinguished camp-fires and suspended particles of
dust; the ground, heaving, gives birth to dusky shapes; there are weird
groans and gurglings of silhouetted apparitions; and still you cannot
clearly distinguish earth from air--it is as if one watched the creation
of a new world out of Chaos.
But even before the sun has topped the crowns of the palms, the element of
mystery is eliminated; the vision resolves itself into a common plain of
sand, authentic camels and everyday Arabs moving about their
business--another caravan, in short....
And at midday?
Go, at that hour, to the thickest part of the grove; then is the time; it
must be the prick of noon, for the slanting lights of morning and eve are
quite another concern; only at noon can one appreciate the incomparable
effects of palm-leaf shadows. The whole garden is permeated with light
that streams down from some undiscoverable source, and its rigid trunks,
painted in a warm, lustreless grey, are splashed with an infinity of keen
lines of darker tint, since the sunshine, percolating through myriads of
sharp leaves, etches a filigree pattern upon all that lies below. You look
into endless depths of forest, but there is no change in decorative
design; the identical sword-pattern is for ever repeated on the identical
background, fading away, at last, in a silvery haze.
Here are no quaint details to attract the eye; no gorgeous colour-patterns
or pleasing irregularities of form; the frosted beauty of the scene
appeals rather to the intelligence. Contrasted with the wanton blaze of
green, the contorted trunks and labyrinthine shadow-meanderings of our
woodlands, these palm groves, despite their frenzied exuberance, figure
forth the idea of reserve and chastity; an impression which is heightened
by the ethereal striving of those branchless columns, by their joyous and
effective rupture of the horizontal, so different from the careworn tread
of our oaks and beeches.
Later on, when the intervening vines and fruit trees are decked in leaves,
the purity of this geometrical design will be impaired....
The origin of Tozeur is lost in the grey mists of antiquity, since a site
like this must have been cultivated from time immemorial; the first
classical writer to mention the town is Ptolemy, who calls it Tisouros; on
Peutinger's Tables it is marked "Thusuro." The modern settlement has
wandered away from this ancient one which now slumbers--together, maybe,
with its hoary Egyptian prototype--under high-piled mounds whereon have
arisen, since those days, a few mediaeval monuments and crumbling
maraboutic shrines and houses of more modern date, patched together with
antique building blocks and fragments of marble cornices: an island of
sand and oblivion, lapped by soft-surging palms.
They call it Bled-el-Adher nowadays, and this is the place to spend the
evening. I was there yesterday, perhaps for the last time.
It exhales a soporific, world-forgotten fragrance. There is no market
here, no commercial or social life, save a few greybeards discussing
memories on some doorstep; the only mirthful note is a swarm of young boys
playing hockey on the sand-heaps, amid furious yells and scrimmages.
True hockey being out of the question on account of the deep sand, they
have invented a variant, a simple affair: they arrange themselves roughly
into two parties, and the ball is struck into the air with a palm branch
from the one to the other; there, where it alights, a general rush ensues
to get hold of it, clouds of sand arising out of a maze of intertwining
arms and legs. The lucky possessor is entitled to have the next stroke,
and the precision and force of their hitting is remarkable; they evidently
do little else all day long.
I noticed an element of good humour and fair play not prevalent among the
Gafsa boys; there was no peevish squabbling, and I only saw one fight
which was a perfectly correct transaction--nobody interfering with the two
combatants who hammered lustily at each other's faces, and at last
separated, satisfied and streaming with blood.
For some days past they had seen my interest in the game, and yesterday I
observed that it was suddenly suspended; a consultation was taking place,
and presently one of the boys approached me and politely asked whether I
would not care to join; if so, I might have his club; and he placed the
weapon and ball in my hand. The proposition tempted me; it is not every
day that one is invited in such gentlemanly fashion to wallow on all fours
with young Arabs. I made one or two strokes, not amiss, that called forth
huge applause; and then returned, rather regretfully, to my sand-heap, to
meditate on my own misspent youth, a subject that very rarely troubles me.
There is a tall, round building that stands within a hundred yards of
where I sat; they call it the "Roman" tower, and the foundation-stones,
though not _in situ_, are probably of that period; it was a Byzantine
bell-tower, then a minaret, now a ruin. And here, confronting me, lie a
few stones, that are all that remain of a pagan temple which became a
Christian basilica and afterwards a mosque. In the fifth century
Tisouros--this slumberous Bled-el-Adher--was a dependency of the Greek
"Duke of Gafsa" (how strange it sounds!); Florentinus, its bishop, was
executed by the king of the Vandals; Christian churches survived, side by
side with mosques, as late as the fourteenth century. There seems to have
been no great religious intolerance in those days.
They showed me a gold coin of the Emperor Gordian--the same who built the
amphitheatre of El-Djem--which was found here, as well as some lamps and
sculptured fragments of stone. Bruce speaks of cipollino columns; they are
still to be seen, if you care to look for them, split up, since his time,
to mend walls and doorsteps. Tozeur must have looked well enough under the
And now, sand-heaps and a brood of young savages, shouting at their game.
It is long since these people knew the meaning of refined things, although
some of the houses, their fronts decorated with gracious designs in
brickwork, testify to a not extinct artistic feeling--the citizens once
enjoyed a reputation for delicacy and love of letters. There is nothing
like systematic misgovernment for degrading mankind, and I think it likely
that the gradual fusion of the Arab and Berber races, so antagonistic in
all their aspirations, may have helped to abrade the finer edges of both
parent-stocks. But the native civilization was not remarkable at any time.
The climate, and then their religion, has made them hard and incurious; it
is a land of uncompromising masculinity. The softer element--thanks to the
Koran--has become non-existent, and you will look in vain for the
creative-feminine, for those intermediate types of ambiguous, submerged
sexuality, the constructive poets and dreamers, the men of imagination and
women of will, that give to good society in the north its sweetness and
_chatoyance_; for those "sports" and eccentrics who, among our lower
classes, are centrifugal--perpetually tending to diverge in this or that
direction. The native is pre-eminently centripetal. His life is reduced to
its simplest physiological expression; that capacity of reflection, of
forming suggestive and fruitful concepts, which lies at the bottom of
every kind of progress or culture, has been sucked out of him by the sun
and by Mahomet's teaching.
A land of violence, remorseless and relentless; the very beetles, so
placid elsewhere, seem to have acquired a nervously virile temperament;
they scurry about the sand at my feet with an air of rage and
So I mused, while the game went on boisterously in the mellow light of
sunset till, from some decaying minaret near by, there poured down a
familiar long-drawn wail--the call to prayer. It was a golden hour among
those mounds of sand, and I grew rather sad to think that I should never
see the place again. How one longs to engrave certain memories upon the
brain, to keep them untarnished and carry them about on one's journeyings,
in all their freshness! The happiest life, seen in perspective, can hardly
be better than a stringing together of such odd little moments.
_THE DISMAL CHOTT_
Hearing that there are few or no tourists in Nefta just now, I left Tozeur
three days ago, an hour or so before sunrise.
This region, the Djerid, is all sand; an isthmus of sand thrust in between
the two Chotts of Djerid and Rharsa; the oases ara scattered about the
country, says some old writer, like the spots on a leopard's skin....
The air was keen, and I shivered on my mule, looking back often at the
dark forest of Tozeur, where I had spent some happy days.
After about five miles of comfortable wading through soft sand, I became
aware of a ghostly radiance that hovered over the pallid expanse of the
Chott. Abruptly, with the splendour of a meteor, the morning star shot up.
Then the sun's disk rose, more sedately, at the exact spot where Lucifer
had shown the way; and climbing upwards, produced a spectacle for which I
was not prepared.
For as it left the horizon, a counterfeit sun began to unroll itself from
the true, as one might detach a petal from a rose; at first they clung
together, but soon, with a wrench, parted company, and while the one
soared aloft, the image remained below, weltering on the treacherous mere.
For a short while the flaming phantasma lingered firm and orb-like, while
the space between itself and reality grew to a hand's breadth; then slowly
deliquesced. It gave a prolonged shiver and sank, convulsed, into the
Light was diffused; the colour of daytime invaded the ground at our feet,
flitting like some arterial rill through the dun spaces. Wonderful, this
magic touch of awakening! It is the same swiftness of change as at sunset,
when the desert folds itself to sleep, like some gorgeously palpitating
flower, in the chill of nightfall; or rather, to use a metaphor which has
often occurred to me, it hardens its features, crystallizing them into a
stony mask, even as some face, once friendly, grows strangely indifferent
My companion of this morning, who happened to be of a religious turn of
mind, took the opportunity to glide off his beast and, standing a little
apart, with his arms thrown through the reins to prevent the mule from
straying, recited the dawn prayer. The noble gesticulations looked well on
that bare sandy dune, in the face of the Chott.
As for myself, I thought of the old god Triton, who dwelt in yonder foul
lake and showed some kindness to Jason, long ago, when his ships were
entangled in the ooze; I thought of Tritogeneia, the savage, mud-born
creature who, cast into the purifying crucible of Hellenic mythopoesis,
emerged as bright-eyed Athene, mother of wisdom and domestic arts. The
Amazon maidens of the country used to have combats in her honour with
sticks and stones, and the fairest of them, decked in a panoply of Grecian
armour, was conducted in a chariot about the lake. A fabled land! Here,
they say, Poseidon was born, and Gorgo and Perseus, Medusa and Pegasus and
other comely and wondrous shapes that have become familiar to us through
These folks of Atlantis "saw no dreams," but they studied astronomy and
navigation; their priests may well have been those Druids whose
temple-structures, the senams and cromlechs, have wandered from the
Tripolitan frontier as far as the chilly coasts of Brittany, and Salisbury
Plain, and Ultima Thule. And every day, as the sun passed over their
heads, they saluted him not as the Giver of Life or Lord of Earth, but
cursed him with imprecations long and loathsome, for his scorching fires.
Shaw, I believe, was the first to identify the Chotts with Lake Triton.
There were islands in this sea; the sacred isle of Phla, for instance,
which the Spartans were commanded by an oracle to colonize, and whereon
stood a temple to Aphrodite. There are islands to this day, great and
small; one of them is called Faraoun--evidently an Egyptian name, for
Egyptian influence was felt early in these regions; at Faraoun grows a
peculiar kind of date which, we are told, an Egyptian army had left there.
The waters of the pool touched Nefta, whose Kadi gave Tissot a description
of a buried vessel which, from its shape, could be nothing but a "galere
antique"--it was dismembered for fuel, and metal nails were found in its
Movers is probably correct in seeking at Nefta the Biblical Naphtuhim of
the generation of Noah: an Egyptian document speaks of it as the "land of
Napit." Arabs have another theory of its origin. According to a chronicle
preserved in the Nefta mosque, the founder of the town was Kostel, son of
Sem, son of Noah; he called it Nefta because it was here that water
boiled, for the first time, after the Deluge. The Romans called it Nepte,
but, in confirmation of this old story, I observe that the Arabs of to-day
invariably pronounce Nefta as _Nafta_. It is quite likely, too, that the
name Hecatompylos, the city of a hundred gates, which has been applied to
Gafsa, is a misreading for Hecatompolis, the land of those hundred cities
which, they say, studded the shores of this great lake.
For it was a lake, or series of lakes, and nothing else; geological
evidence is opposed to the supposition that the Chott country was ever a
gulf of the Mediterranean within historical times--it was merely a chain
of inland waters. And another surprising discovery has been made of late,
namely, that these depressions lie at different levels and have, each of
them, its own system of alimentation. This fact came to light between 1872
and 1883, when a number of studies were undertaken with a view to the
restoration of this ancient Libyan Sea. Men of middle years will still
remember the excitement produced by this scheme which originated with
Tissot, though another name will for ever be associated with it, that of
Roudaire, a man of science dominated by an obsession, who clung to this
project with the blind faith of a martyr, his enthusiasm growing keener in
proportion as the plan was proved to be futile, fantastic, fatuous. True,
the great Lesseps had taken his part.
Desolation reigns on this morass of salt, where the life of man and beast,
and even of plants and stones, faints away in mortal agony. Unnumbered
multitudes of living creatures have sunk into its perfidious abysses. "A
caravan of ours," says an Arab author, "had to cross the Chott one day; it
was composed of a thousand baggage camels. Unfortunately one of the beasts
strayed from the path, and all the others followed it. Nothing in the
world could be swifter than the manner in which the crust yielded and
engulphed them; then it became like what it was before, as if the thousand
baggage camels had never existed." Yet it is traversed in several
directions, and if you strain your eyes from these heights you can detect
certain dusky lines that crawl in serpentine movement across the
melancholy waste--caravan tracks to the south.
Unlike the living ocean, this withered one never smiles: it wears a
hostile face. There is a charm, none the less--a charm that appeals to
complex modern minds--in that picture of eternal, irremediable sterility.
Its hue is ever-changing, as the light falls upon it; the plain, too,
shifts up and down with mirage play, climbing sometimes into the horizon,
or again sharply defined against it; often it resembles a milky river
flowing between banks of mud. The surface is rarely lustrous, but of a
velvety texture, like a banded agate, mouse-colour or liver-tinted, with
paler streaks in between, of the dead whiteness of a sheet of paper; now
and again there flash up livid coruscations that glister awhile like
enamel or burnished steel, and then fade away. These are the fields of
virgin salt which, when you cross them, are bright as purest Alpine snow,
and may blind you temporarily with their dazzling glare. Viewed from these
uplands, however, the ordered procession of horizontal bars stretching
into infinity, their subdued coloration, fills the mind with a wave of
Walking from Nefta to the Chott, you will reach, on the burning plain, a
maraboutic shrine that might serve as an asylum for some
conscience-stricken, malaria-proof penitent. They go well together,
maraboutism and the Chott--two factors that make for barrenness in man and
And Nefta is full of such shrines. Another one, for example, has been
built into the very heart of the rustling palm forest; the water glides
under its walls wherein sits the aged impostor who, unlike his amiable
colleague at Tozeur, is too holy even to speak to unbelievers (you are
permitted to gaze upon him through a grated window). Yet another one is
the humble Sidi Murzouk, the negroes' sanctuary, among the sand-hills on
the middle heights.
[Illustration: Nefta: The Shrine on the Chott]
These are three representative types of a hundred, at least.
It is hard to say why the French foster these Arab maraboutic tendencies
as opposed to the saner ideals of the Berber stock; perhaps they think it
politic to _arabize_ the older race in this and a few other particulars,
though it signifies, almost invariably, a retrograde movement of
Of these pious folk the paradox is true that the best are the worst;
those, that is, who do not expose themselves to ridicule or adverse
criticism, whose good intentions are self-evident, who carry out to the
letter the apostolic injunction of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry,
and succouring the distressed. It is they who pander to all the worst
qualities of the Arabs, improvident and incorrigible loafers, besides
affording an asylum to every criminal; their _zaouiahs_, like our own
mediaeval convents, are often enough mere menageries of deformed minds and
bodies. As for the much-vaunted calm to be found within their walls, it is
there, to be sure, together with certain other things--there and nowhere
else, since the frantic religious passions, of which such monastic
institutions are offshoots, have made peaceable living outside their walls
In a land where no one reads or writes or thinks or reasons, where dirt
and insanity are regarded as marks of divine favour, how easy it is to
acquire a reputation for holiness--(oral tradition alone can make a
saint)--to turn the god-habit of your fellow-creatures into a profitable
source of revenue: as easy as it was in Europe, in the days when we
cherished such knaves and neurotic dreamers. Some of them are simple
epileptics, verminous and importunate; others, shrewd worldly rogues who,
having run away from home after a fit of discontent or homicide, cruise
vaguely about Islamism for half a lifetime, and at last return, bearded
venerables, to be stared at by their kinsfolk as portents, heaven-sent,
because they have freighted themselves with a cargo of fond maxims such as
"The World is Illusion: all Flesh is Vanity," and similar gnomic
balderdash, the wisdom of the unlettered.
No wonder they despise what they call the world. For the real world, the
cosmos of rational thought and action, has never existed for them. At
Tangier, Mecca, Jerusalem or Timbuctu, they have sat eternally in the same
coffee-houses or mosques, and listened eternally to the same theological
chatterings; which accounts for a certain "family likeness" between all of
these mentally starved creatures, who are nevertheless favoured of Allah
so far as bodily comforts are concerned, inasmuch, as (if they play their
cards correctly) money, wives, and lands pour down upon them till, in old
age, they become so fuddled with homage and holy mumblings that they
themselves cannot exactly remember whether they are humbugs or not: this,
I take it, must be the culminating point, the _dernier mot_, of maraboutic
And beside these ten thousand impromptu saints that spring up daily out of
the fertile soil of Arab imagination and poverty, every one of the
descendants of Mahomet's daughter is a marabout, and all their children,
male and female, in _saecula saeculorum_.
God alone, who numbers the stars, can keep count of their legions.
_THE GARDENS OF NEFTA_
A person unacquainted with tropical vegetation would be amazed at the
prodigality of the oasis of Nefta; in point of exuberance it is as
superior to Tozeur as that to Gafsa. But the cathedral-like gravity of
Tozeur is lacking; there is too much riot and opulence, too many
voluptuous festoons and spears and spirals, a certain craving, so to
speak, after the purely ornate: if Tozeur represents the decorative style
of Louis Quatorze, this is assuredly Louis Seize. One great drawback is
that the thick undergrowth often obstructs the view; and another, that you
cannot walk about in all directions, as at Tozeur, because there is too
much running water--perhaps one should say too few paths and bridges. For
the last two days a sand-storm of unusual violence has been raging. On the
ridges above the town one can hardly stand on one's feet; the grains fly
upwards, over the crest of the hill, in blinding showers, mighty squadrons
of them careering across the plain below. The landscape is involved in a
dim, roseate twilight. But occasionally there comes a sickly radiance from
behind the curtain of cloud that glimmers lustreless, like an incandescent
lamp seen through a fog: it is the sun shining brightly in the pure
regions of the upper air.
Here, under the trees, the wind is scarce felt, though you can perceive it
by the fretful clashing of the palm branches overhead. And despite the
storm there is a strange hush in the air, the hush of things to come, a
sense of uneasiness; spring is upon us, buds are unfolding and waters draw
up forcefully from a soil which seems to heave under one's very feet. It
is a moment of throbbing intensity.
And the scirocco moans to these pangs of elemental gestation which man,
the creature of earth, still darkly feels within him.
The ground is cultivated with mathematical parsimoniousness and divided
into squares which made me think of the Roman _agrimensores_. But
concerning this point, a civilized old native told me the following
legend. Long ago, he said, these oases were wild jungles, and the few
human creatures who lived near them little better than beasts. Then came a
wise man who cut up and ploughed the watery district of Gafsa, Tozeur and
Nefta; he planted trees and all the other growths useful to mankind; he
divided the land into patches, led the water through them, and apportioned
them among certain families--in short, he gave these oases their present
shape, and did his work so well that up to this day no one has been able
to suggest any improvements or to quarrel with his arrangement. The story
interested me; it may be a variant of the old Hercules myth--it shows how
much the Arabs, with their veneration for past heroes and prophets, and
their sterile distrust in the possibility of any kind of progress, will
[Footnote 1: It shows, also, that one cannot be too careful what one
I will take this little credit to myself, that, unconvinced of my own
explanation, I made further enquiries and learned that--allowing for the
inevitable exaggeration--the man actually existed! His name was Ibn
Shabbath; he was a kind of engineer-topographer who lived about the
thirteenth century; he wrote a commentary, in three volumes, on some
well-known Arabic geographical poem--a commentary which exists only in a
few manuscript copies, one of which is preserved at the Grand Mosque in
Tunis, and another, I am told, in the library of Monsieur de Fleury.
[Illustration: Marabout in the Nefta Gardens]
Yet the _deglat_ palms which grow here in great abundance--the finest in
the world--with their lower leaves pendent, sere and yellow; the figs,
lemons, apricots and pomegranates clustering in savage meshes of unpruned
boughs among which the vine, likewise unkempt, writhes and clambers
liana-fashion, in crazy convolutions--all these things conspire to give to
certain parts of the oasis, notwithstanding its high cultivation, a
bearded, primeval look. The palms, particularly the young ones, are
assiduously tended and groomed by half-naked gardeners who labour in the
moist earth by relays, day and night.
What nights of brooding stillness in summer, under the palms, when those
leaves hang motionless in the steaming vapour as though carved out of
bronze, while the surrounding desert exhales the fiery emanations of
noontide, often 135 degrees in the shade. For the heat of Nefta is
hellish. One might think that the inhabitants, whom Bertholon holds to be
descendants, somewhat remote, of the old marrow-sucking,
grandmother-devouring Neanderthal folk, would have become placid by this
time; that all harshness must have been boiled out of them. Far from it!
The faces that one sees are less friendly than those at Tozeur, and they
were noted, in former days, for their vehemence in religious matters. I am
sorry to hear it, but not surprised. The arts and other fair flowerings of
the human mind may succumb to fierce climates, but theological zeal is one
of those things which no extremes of temperature can subdue; it thrives
equally well at the Poles or Equator, like that "Brown or Hanoverian rat"
which Charles Waterton--a glorious old zealot himself--so cordially
There are eight Europeans here, and thirteen thousand natives: I should
not care to be in Nefta on the day when the Senoussi are to realize their
long-deferred hopes. All the same, it is a relief not to hear the eternal
gossip of employes or to see the soldiers loitering at street corners,
like dressed-up chimpanzees. The better class of natives are sometimes of
an astonishing immaculate cleanliness from head to foot; they are often
remarkably handsome. The traveller Temple was struck, at Nefta, with the
beauty of its "desart nymphs, whose eyes are all fire and brilliancy," and
he might have said the same of the boys.
But I observe a defect in the eyes of all Arabs, namely, that they seem to
be unable to utilize them as a means of conveying thoughts; they have no
eye language, even among each other, and must express by words or by some
gesture what other people can make clear with a glance. The best-looking
youth or maiden has eyes which, beautiful as they are, might be those of a
stuffed cow for all the expression they emit. They cannot even wink.
From the rising ground at the back of Nefta you look down into a circular
vale of immoderate plant-luxuriance, a never-ending delight of the eye;
the French call it by the appropriate name of "la corbeille." Here the
springs issue--l52 of them--from under steep walls of sand; they form glad
pools of blue and green that mirror the foliage with impeccable
truthfulness and then, after coursing in distracted filaments about the
"corbeille," join their waters and speed downhill towards the oasis, a
narrow belt of trees running along either side. This marvellous
palm-embroidered rift sunders Nefta, seated on the arid sand-hills
overhead, into two distinct towns or settlements. The eye follows the
stream as far as the low-lying plantations and into the Chott beyond,
resting at last upon the violet haze of its mysterious southern shores.
Visible from here are also certain mounds at the eastern extremity of the
oasis, near the Chott; they are marked on the map as "ruins of Zafrana."
What this Zafrana was, or how it comes to have a name resembling that of a
small Sicilian village, I cannot tell; thither, at all events, I bent my
steps, having heard that ancient coins, as well as lamps, had been found
here. So far as I can make out there is only pottery on this site, and
none of it pre-Mohammedan; if a city ever stood here it has been
completely entombed, or torn into shreds by the wind, the flying sands,
and the heat. Nefta itself, built of soft loam, would crumble away in
briefest time if left unrepaired. The acute Guerin was not more successful
than myself at Zafrana, nor was Maltzan.
This being the most exposed corner of the oasis, the _tabias_ have grown
to a fine size; I climbed over the inner one, which must be ten yards high
and at least twenty in breadth. From its summit one perceives distant
forms of ruinous buildings rising up in the Tozeur direction, on the slope
which inclines to the Chott. Was this, perhaps, Zafrana?
No. Riding up to them, I found they were merely turret-like eminences of
hard bluish clay, the carapace of the desert, which the wind has carved
into quaint semblances of human dwellings. In the evening light they catch
the last rays of the sun and shine like diaphanous spectres upon the
darkened ground, but at sunrise, when the yellow sands sparkle with light,
they tower up grim and menacing: a mournful, ghoul-haunted region, like
those veritable townships of the past, Dougga, Timgad and the rest of
them, standing all forlorn in their African desolation.
Whoever has visited such sites will understand the impression they
conveyed to men of simpler ages. He will realize how they must have
inflamed the phantasy of those wandering mediaeval Arabs who could make no
distinction, in this respect, between the works of man and those of
nature, nor bring themselves to believe that such titanic structures were
reared by human hands or for any human purpose--were otherwise than an
illusion, or a natural incongruity. That amphitheatre of El-Djem, for
example, visible for leagues in the solitude around--what more apt to
become a true mountain of wondrous shape, the haunt of some Ifrit
imprisoned in its cup or soaring thence, a pillar of cloud, into the
These are the ruins whose report was carried to Bagdhad by those early
caravan traders, and there woven into the flowery tapestries of the
"Arabian Nights"--nightmare cities, rising like an enchantment out of the
desert sand; bereft of the voices and footsteps of men, but teeming with
hoarded treasure and graven images of gods that gaze down, inscrutable and
sternly resplendent, upon the wanderer who, stumbling fearfully through a
labyrinth of silent halls, suddenly encounters, in demon-guarded chamber,
some ensorcelled maiden, frozen to stone.
_NEFTA AND ITS FUTURE_
There are cities in the East where, from ramparts that support fairy-like
palaces--complicated assemblages of courts and plashing fountains and cool
chambers through which the breeze wanders in an artificial twilight of
marble screens pierced so craftily, one might think them a flowing drapery
of lace-work--where, from such wizard creations of Oriental pomp, you
glance down and behold, stretched at your feet, a burning waste of sand. A
fine incentive to the luxurious imagination of a tyrant, this contrast,
that has all the glamour of a dream....
But such abrupt transitions are not the rule. Midway between the pulsating
town-life and the desert there lies, mostly, a sinister extra-mural
region, a region of gaping walls and potsherds, where the asphodel shoot
up to monstrous tufts and the fallacious colocynth, the wild melon,
scatters its globes of bitter gold. For it is in the nature of Orientals
that their habitations should surround themselves with a girdle of
corrupting things, gruesome and yet fascinating: a Browning might have
grown enamoured of its macabre spell.
No European cares to linger about these precincts after dusk; here lie the
dead, in thick-strewn graves; here the jackal roams at night--it thrusts
its pointed snout through the ephemeral masonry of townsmen's tombs or
scratches downward within the ring of stones that mark some poor bedouin's
corpse, to take toll of the carrion horrors beneath; so you may find many
graves rifled. And if you come by day you will probably see, crouching
among the ruins, certain old men, pariahs, animated lumps of dirt and
rags. They are so uncouth and unclean, so utterly non-human, that one
wonders whether they are really of the sons of Adam, and not rather
goblins, or possibly some freak, some ill-natured jest on the part of the
vegetable or mineral kingdoms. Day after day they come and burrow for orts
among the dust-heaps, or brood motionless in the sunshine, or trace
cabalistic signs with their fingers in the sand--the future, they tell
you, can be unriddled out of its cascade-like movements.
It is one of the complaints of sentimentalists that the French are
abolishing these picturesque Arab cemeteries in Tunisia; combining
firmness with a great deal of tact, they insidiously appropriate these
sanctified premises and deck them with timber as a solace for coming
generations. Let them go! The undiluted Orient is still wide enough; and
no one will appreciate the metamorphosis more than the native citizens
themselves, who love, above all things, to play about and idle in the
shade of trees; perhaps, in the course of time, they will realize that not
only Allah, but also man, is able to plant and take care of them. Your
Arab often has a love of nature which is none the worse for being wholly
At Nefta there is no impure region, properly so called. The searching
sunbeams and the winds are inimical to all the lush concomitants of decay;
the sand also plays its part; so every dead dog, and every dead camel,
arrests the flying grains and is straightway interred--transformed into a
hillock, trivial but sanitary.
There are tombs, of course, tombs galore; but what strikes one most are
the numerous shrines erected to saints alive or dead, of which I have
You will do well to visit the Christian cemetery. It lies on an eminence
above the town and is almost buried under deep waves of sand, which have
risen to the summit of the surrounding walls and drowned the three graves,
all but their tall stones that emerge above the flood. One of them is that
of a _controlleur_ of the district who died at his post while combating a
cholera epidemic--there may be more of them, for aught I know, submerged
beneath the drift.
It is surely in the interests of French prestige to pay a few francs for
the cleansing of such a place in a land where, as conquerors, they live on
a pedestal and are to assert their superiority in every way. It will be
long ere Arabs can appreciate French art and science, but they understand
visible trifles of this kind, and, conversing with them, I have found
that, like many simple-minded people, they are disposed to contrast
unfavourably their own burial-grounds with our trim method of sepulture,
which assures to the defunct a few more years of apparent respect, while
flattering the vanity of the living. To a sensitive Christian this
cemetery of Nefta must be a sad and a scandalous sight; no humble nomad's
tomb on the bleak hillside is more neglected than these memorials to his
fellow-believers who have died, far from their homes, under the flaming
sun of Africa.
From this point you can see the tail-end of the oasis. It lies in the
Zafrana region, and is the worst nourished. This, I suppose, is
inevitable; the gardens must be continually moving--moving away from the
Chott towards their vital sources, which now lie under a respectable
precipice of sand. It is hard to believe that the present site of the
fountains is what one might call the natural, aboriginal one. I imagine
that the cultivators, in the course of ages, must have tracked the element
and followed it up, as a terrier will pursue a rabbit in its burrow,
planting trees in proportion as they laid bare its once subterranean bed.
Thus, the supply of liquid being constant, the oasis is impelled to wander
in the direction of its springs; the more you add to the head, the shorter
grows the tail. In prehistoric days, maybe, the water gushed out somewhere
near the Chott; the charming depression of the "corbeille" is perhaps the
work of human hands.
The same has struck me at Tozeur, which also marches horizontally away
from its termination. An exquisite corbeille could be manufactured here;
all the elements are present; it only requires a few thousand years of
labour. And what are they, in a land like this?
And the oases are undergoing another and more curious
progression--downwards. Strange to think that, while towns and villages
rise higher every year, these gardens are slowly descending into the
depths; they are already far below the circumambient desert, though not so
deeply sunk as the verdant, crater-like depressions of some parts of
Africa. For it stands to reason that as the stream-beds become excavated
more and more--and this is what has brought them to their present
position--the groves must irrevocably follow suit, since water escapes at
the lowest level, while trees cannot be suspended in air. Supposing the
system of dams, which now force the liquid to keep to a certain plane,
fell into disuse, how would it end?
The imagination of an Edgar Poe might picture these Nefta gardens as the
reverse of those of Semiramis--sunk, that is, further into the
profundities of the earth than the already existing Sahara
plantations--with this difference, that here, to obviate infiltration from
the ooze of the Chott, sturdy walls must enclose them. Ages pass, and
still the groves descend, while the defences grow so stout and high that,
viewed from above, the palms down there, in that deep funnel, look like
puny vegetables, and men like ants. And still they descend.... One day the
pale population engaged in tilling this shadowy paradise will be horrified
to perceive, in their encircling bulwarks, rents and crevices that ooze
forth ominous jets of mud. The damage is hastily repaired, but the cracks
appear once more, and, widening imperceptibly at first, soon burst asunder
and admit, from every side, a wrinkled flood of slime which closes with
sullen murmur over the site of the drowned oasis.
Or if the wells dried up? One of those geological displacements that have
taken place in past times would suffice to wipe out the memory of this
town--the palms would wither, the clay-built houses melt into the earth
whence they arose.
Meanwhile, perched on the last wave of an ocean of shining sand, Nefta
sits in immemorial contemplation of the desert and vividly green oasis
which flows, like a grand and luminous river, into the very heart of its
flat dwellings. There is a note of passionate solemnity about the place.
All too soon, I fear, the railway to Tozeur will have done its work; dusty
boulevards, white bungalows, eucalyptus trees and _bureaux de monopoles_
will profane its strangely wonderful beauty, its virginal monotone of
golden grey. Nefta will become a neurasthenic demi-mondaine, like Biskra.
Such, at least, is the prognosis.
But one is apt to forget on how precarious a tenure these gardens are
held, with the hungry desert gnawing ceaselessly at their outskirts; for
the desert is hungry and yet patient; it has devoured sundry oases by
simply waiting till man is preoccupied with other matters. And how rare
they are, these specks of green, these fountains in the sand--rare as the
smiles in a lifetime of woe! Beyond and all around lies a grave and
ungracious land, the land of the lawless, fanatical wanderers.
Those Romans and heathen Berbers, tillers of the soil, had remained in
contact with phenomena; unconcerned, relatively speaking, with the affairs
of the next world, they attained a passable degree of civilization in this
one. But your pastoral Arab scorns a knowledge of general mundane
principles. His life is a series of disconnected happenings which must be
enjoyed or endured; he is incapable of reading aright the past or present,
because he asks himself _why?_ instead of _how?_ Whoever despises the
investigation of secondary causes is a menace to his fellow-creatures.
Face to face with infinities, man disencumbers himself. Those abysmal
desert-silences, those spaces of scintillating rock and sand-dune over
which the eye roams and vainly seeks a point of repose, quicken his animal
perception; he stands alone and must think for himself--and so far good.
But while discarding much that seems inconsiderable before such wide and
splendid horizons, this nomad loads himself with the incubus of
dream-states; while standing alone, he grows into a ferocious brigand.
Poets call him romantic, but politicians are puzzled what to do with a
being who to a senile mysticism joins the peevish destructiveness of a
It is an almost universal fallacy to blame the desert for this state of
affairs; to insinuate, for example, that even as it disintegrates the
mountains into sand, so it decomposes the intellectual fabric of mankind,
his synthesizing faculty, into its primordial elements of ecstasy and
emotionalism. This is merely reaction: the desert's revenge. For we now
know a little something of the condition of old Arabia and Africa in the
days ere these ardent shepherds appeared on the scene, with their crude
and chaotic monotheism. The desert has not made the Arab, any more than it
made the Berber. It would be considerably nearer the truth to reverse the
proposition: to say that the evils which now afflict Northern Africa, its
physical abandonment, its social and economical decay, are the work of
that ideal Arab, the man of Mecca. Mahomet is the desert-maker.
Bled-el-Adher, _see_ Tozeur
Dufresnoy, M. Paul,
Lesseps, Ferdinand de.
Sidi Ahmed Zarroung,
Thomas, M. Philippe,