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Of the Humours of Egyptian Donkey-boys
LIKE the Egyptian donkey-boy. He is intelligent, and
he does not try and do you in the eye more than other cabmen.
The donkey-boy is the cabman of the country. Roads in Egypt are cockneys; they seldom go out of sight of city walls. If you strike the right gate of the town there may be a cemetery to get through before you are in the desert; but, roughly speaking, the Egyptian town has its face to the Nile and its back to the desert; and if you cannot take a boat or a train to your destination, you must take a donkey.
Donkey-boys have their wiles. The tariff is written up plainly at the donkey-stand—so much for the whole day; but the donkey-boy maintains that this tariff was made for natives who jog quietly along, not for foreigners who gallop about sight-seeing. For them they have devised a convention of bakshish which doubles the fare, and certain recognised extortions, like the big price for taking donkeys across the Nile. Still, if there are three or four people, and they make their contract with one boy beforehand, it is not impossible to keep the extras within limits. A contract in advance they must make, or the whole ride will be a series of bakshish traps.
Even when the contract is made they are not out of the wood. The foreigner contracts for special donkeys and special donkey-boys. The donkeys which are brought to him are broken-down or bad-tempered beasts, which no one will hire, driven by gamins from the gutter. The first time I went to Luxor I was charmed with the
speed and docility of No. 17. I bespoke him for the next day. No. 17 boy came, but not No. 17 donkey. At first he said it was No. 17 donkey; but the No. 17 I had ordered was a big, sleek donkey of a beautiful mauve colour, clean-shaven, and covered with patterns—the dandy of Luxor-a donkey upon whose personal appearance its owner lavished much more care than he did upon his own. The duplicate No. 17 which arrived was a woolly grey donkey, a disorderly stallion named Horace Greeley, giving to braying at the top of his voice and pursuing better-half donkeys.
I pointed out that his hair had grown an inch in the night. He then said that No. 17 donkey was hired out to the same gentleman by the month, but that yesterday the gentleman had been at Cairo. The donkey was on the stand, he declared, only for that day. Neither of the other two donkeys we had ordered had been brought. I asked if they too were hired by the month by people who went to Cairo (a journey of fifteen hours) for the day.
"No," he said ; "these two were the actual donkeys which had been ordered."
This was either a lie or they had changed their colour in the night
“Very well," I said, "the contract is off. I will go and choose my own donkeys from the stand."
He was terror-stricken: there is no esprit de corps among donkey-boys. He knew that any of them would contract against him for the day, and perhaps secure our patronage for the whole time that we were at Luxor.
“Wait here for a little," he entreated-he almost wailed. “I will go and see if that gentleman has come back from Cairo."
I knew that I had won, so I generously consented, and in a second he was flying on Horace (protesting at the top of his bray) to the stables, from which he returned in a quarter of an hour with the three donkeys originally ordered. They were all ready for us, he explained, and the other boys (who did not speak English) had just made a mistake and brought the wrong donkeys.
This villain was Joseph, from that day forward our faithful servant. He was only trying it on, to see how far he could
He thought he was treating us better than he was obliged to.
That is the Arab donkey-boy's attitude to strangers. But when you employ him regularly, if you always make a contract about the bakshish which you are to give him if you are satisfied, he does not spare himself or his donkeys. He exercises the Egyptian's best quality, that of trying to please in every way.
He even tells you (and truthfully) the standard prices of the small antiquities which the dealers are offering you at from twice to a hundred times their value.
Joseph soon found what desirable clients we were. We constantly took donkeys by the day. We took our boats from him at a fixed price and allowed him to sublet the contract, in which way we made the acquaintance of weird fishermen, who were not in the Nile ferrymen's ring, and probably did not receive a quarter of what we agreed to pay Joseph-much as that was below ring prices.
But our best quality, in Joseph's eyes, was that we did not do more riding in the time than a native, because we were continually off our donkeys, sight-seeing or photographing, and that we did the sights so thoroughly that it was like going through a dragoman's course for him.
Joseph would have done for an artist's model of a male nymph, with his long, well-formed legs, straight, slim body, and small, graceful, cat-like head. Perhaps he was more like one of the animal-headed Egyptian gods, with their thin, beautifully formed bodies and feline faces.
He did not think of this, but he thought he would make a very good-looking dragoman, like his brothers, when the time came; and he was always beautifully clean. By day he wore a long galabeah faded to pale blue, and apparently nothing else except a white knitted skull-cap. Each night, after donkey hours, he put on a fresh white galabeah, and I daresay some underclothing too, as he was going to loaf about, looking out for opportunities of conversations with his
patrons. He generally joined us, if we were out in the evening, and acted as a sort of guide and guardian. He took no money for this. It kept us out of the harmful way of other donkey-boys, and improved his English.
In one way Joseph was superior to most Egyptians : he had no desire to escape service in the army. He was convinced that a person of his physical perfections had no chance of getting off except by payment. But he always spoke of the time he would have to serve without horror or resentment. I think that he considered the policeman's lot a happy one-serving in the police is military service in Egypt-and I often fancied that Joseph envied the splendid military figure on a white horse, booted and breeched like a rich foreigner, who was autocrat of the donkey-boys at Karnak. Besides, Joseph spent every minute he could with the English, and took his ideas from them, and had plenty of opportunities of seeing what a little god the British officer is in Egypt.
Joseph was a wonderful product: he was barely eighteen, and he was a bare-legged donkey-boy; but he was willing to take up any contract for the conveyance of foreigners, and capable of carrying it out. He was a Mohammedan, educated at the American Mission School. I suppose he had held out hopes of being converted. There was staying with us a very pretty girl of twenty-two, Miss Lorimer's "Lorna," a fearless rider of horse and ass, who liked doing "young" things with the young Englishmen and Americans in the hotel, though she successfully kept them all at arm's length. Joseph adored her : she was she ; no one else wa allowed to share that proud title.
If we had ever taken him out camping with us he would have stolen all our blankets for her, as the half-breed did for the pretty girl on our Canadian journey.
Joseph showed his devotion in many ways. For instance, he never gave her Horace Greeley to ride, though she was the fittest of all to control that turbulent animal, who, whenever he saw another donkey, a not infrequent occurrence in Egypt, set up a defiant bray and bolted for it, followed by
Joseph belabouring him with a staff, and calling out : “ Ush, ush, ush. Steady, Horace !"
Joseph was sententious. The first night he accompanied us to Karnak—when the small black dogs were running along the roofs of the village barking out defiance at ushe said: "At night one dog worth more than sixteen men.' This is particularly true of Egypt, where you know when danger is approaching because the watchman runs away.
There is danger also in the devotion of a donkey-boy, as we learned from a candid friend. The candid friend arrived at the Winter Palace Hotel from the Sudan. It was Joseph's habit to enter into conversation with all pretty or important new arrivals, so that his lines might fall into pleasant places when we had gone. The candid friend was a stiff AngloIndian official. Joseph's way of ingratiating himself with him, which we learned to be Joseph's invariable way of ingratiating himself with the best class of men, was to say:
Do you know a very beautiful young lady called Miss Ireland ?" The candid friend said, “Yes." "Well," said Joseph, "she's looking for a husband.” None of the others to whom Joseph had addressed this leading question had known Miss Ireland, but doubtless they made a point of knowing her by sight, and were the victims of conflicting emotions when they saw her.
Joseph thought it awful that so pretty a woman had not got a husband. He often said to her : "I hope you come by husband: I hope you come by good husband next year.'
No, Joseph,” she said, trying to be severe, “English ladies don't like husbands.” But Joseph, wise for his years, said: "Oh, yes,” and added : “I think of you every time,” and set about that fine fresh way of getting her a husband.
Once Joseph hit upon another friend, who had seriously thought of fulfilling that function, and Joseph had an inkling of the fact. He met him coming down from the Sudan, and said: "I've been with 'she' just now. I take 'she' to the hotel."
Captain O'Halloran” was distinctly interested and most distinctly embarrassed. “All right, Joseph," he said, “tell she' that I will meet her in Cairo." When we left Luxor