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The Egyptian's Idea of Serving His Country
Sudan (so effectively, that, instead of having over eight million people living in it, as there were before the invasion, there were less than two millions after the collapse of Mahdism), no Egyptian who was recruited for the army ever expected to see his home again. Service mostly meant service in the Sudan, and being slaughtered or led into captivity by the Mahdi.
In country Egypt traditions die hard. Barely five per cent. of the population can read, and the men who bring news from the newspapers to the fellahin are mostly agitators who wish to represent the Government and all its works in the worst possible light; therefore the fool of a fellah is allowed to think that the Mahdi is still tyrannising over the Sudan, and that he will be sent there to be devoured.
Also, to the country Egyptians it has, until lately, been almost like death to be separated from their relations at all. The consequence is that the conscription has been dreaded much worse than an epidemic of cholera. We saw evidence of this at Luxor on the day we arrived down from the Sudan, where military service was quite popular. We were riding out to Karnak, intending to work hard in making its stupendous ruins tally with our various guide-books, which was probably impossible, when we found our way blocked by hundreds of weeping women, and men too. They were crowding round the office of the Mamur, and, at intervals of a few minutes, were being broken up and driven off by footpolice and horse-police, armed with canes and courbashes. The Mamuriya of Luxor is a low building, surrounded by
broad sandy roads bordered with shady trees. Such of the crowd as were not trying to force their way into the Mamur were squatting in the dust, weeping, and wailing, and gnashing their teeth. " What is this?" I asked a donkey-boy. “Sir, it is taking our young men for the army.” “But why are they howling?" "Because the young men will not be able to stay in their homes when they are with the army."
The population was wildly excited. So often as they were driven back they crowded in again towards the steps of the Mamuriya. They were evidently waiting for some one to come out. The first thing that came out was a boy about eighteen, stark naked. He was so excited about getting out that he had forgotten his clothes, such as they were. The police smacked his head and drove him back. When he re-emerged, he had not got more than three yards from the steps before several men ran forward and literally fell on his neck to kiss him. They were so elated at his not having to serve his country. He rejoiced positively, and they rejoiced in the Mamur's declaration that he was physically unfit. Presently another man came out carrying a paper which showed that he was considered fit. The whole assemblage burst out into such wails that the police began arresting them, and taking them into the Mamuriya, until it would not hold any more, when they rode over them and hit them on the faces with sticks instead. It seemed brutal; but an American missionary said that the police understood them better than we did. He may have been embittered by experience. But the impression remained. The men were crying as well as the women ; but I suppose things were not very serious, because the ghaffirs, who had been drafted in from the yarious villages to help the police in case it was necessary, were sitting on the ground mixed up with the mourners, and being ridden over by the police with the rest. The Egyptian policeman when he is excited takes very active measures with natives.
The ghaffirs, or watchmen, the people whose disappearance is the signal for danger, some of them armed with guns and some with quarter-staves, were dressed in brown like
dervishes, and wore pale brown tarbooshes, with bands of various colours according to their districts. Ghaffirs are nice men, but quite useless except as guides. I think the fellaheen boys must have thought that the Mamur would steal their clothes, for most of them came with so very littlema sort of night-shirt and a white skull-cap. At first it was highly interesting to see these boys running the gauntlet of the police out of the Mamuriya, and being received by their relatives. I say running the gauntlet, because none of them walked down the steps—they all bolted like rabbits, and the police flicked at them with their whips or canes, not to hurt them-a mere ebullition of amusement.
It was a really pretty and patriarchal sight to see a boy, pronounced unfit for service, being embraced by his relatives. The men especially kissed him charmingly. Their eloquent Egyptian eyes were brimming over with feeling ; tears of gladness were often raining down their cheeks. I thought of Jacob when he got Benjamin back again, and those other inimitable pictures of parental affection in the Bible. I thought of the Prodigal Son.
But the reverse side of the shield did not reflect pleasantly. These boys were not going to suffer any injury; in serving their country they were going to be better housed and better clothed than they were at home. They were going to be made into fine men and smart soldiers ; they were going to see the world, and there was hardly any chance of their having to do any fighting, unless there was a Nationalist riot, or they were sent to punish the desert people for some outrage.
It was natural that their mothers and even their fathers, thinking as they did, and being Egyptians, should give way to paroxysms of mourning. But the boys themselves ought to have felt ashamed, for often when they reached their parents, though they were eighteen years of age, they stood there and bellowed. There were exceptions, certainly, and they were the best-looking boys in physique and class. Some of them remained firm, and begged their parents not to weep, because it was no misfortune, but a duty to their
country and an honourable means of making their living. Joseph, our donkey-boy, was, as I have said, one of these. His eldest brother, a very fine-looking man, had been a soldier, but his second brother, a strikingly handsome Arab, of a more effeminate type, had escaped service by the liberality of an Englishman in whose employ he had been, who had paid up his badalia or exemption money for him.
To show what a thoroughly nice family this was, I may mention that whenever this Englishman came to Egypt, the brother whose badalia he had paid gave up all other engagements, and insisted on dragomaning for this Englishman free of charge.
I shall not easily forget that sight. The square in front of the Mamuriya, and the road all round it, were full of black-coated and white-turbaned men, and black-veiled women, seated on the ground in rows awaiting the doom of their children, patient in their acquiescence, uncontrollable in their grief, in the weird but graceful poses of the Orient. The women were made more picturesque by their barbaric jewellery, and the numbers of little children sitting astride on their shoulders, after the manner of Upper Egypt, holding on like monkeys and crying too, though they did know what it was about. You could hear the people crying round the Mamuriya, from the great Luxor temple many hundred yards away. A gay little mosque and a palm grove completed the easternness of the scene.
Once or twice the people lost their patience and began an ugly rush, but the superb, military-looking trooper of the Egyptian mounted police riding, like Death, upon a white horse, would fling himself upon them, slash their faces, make his courbash of hippopotamus-hide hurtle upon their backs, trample on a few. And then the rush would stop, and there was no trace of anybody being hurt.
The Egyptian women who have reached a certain age are hideous enough when they smile, but when they are working themselves up into a frenzy of professional mourning, they are indescribable. I could not help photographing them as they sat there in their rows with the monkeying little
children. It made no difference to them, because they were much too occupied to notice me. But a pleasant young Egyptian police-lieutenant came and stood beside me, in case any persons, who had no grieving to do, tried to make a grievance out of it, and created a disturbance. None did ; no one noticed me. I photographed all I wished, and then he suggested that I should go into the Mamuriya, and see the Mamur, selecting the conscripts. I went, of course ; but the Mamur, who was inspecting them in a very dark room, where no camera would have been of the slightest use, let alone a mere kodak, was convinced that I wanted to photograph him in the execution of his duties. It was in vain that I offered to leave the camera with one of the policemen outside. He was too excited to listen to me. But as, fortunately, an Egyptian cannot express himself under about five minutes on account of his verbosity, I saw all I wanted while I was arguing the point with him.
He had a row of unhappy young Egyptians, most of them fellahin, drawn up, stark naked, in front of him. He looked as if he was giving instructions to a diving-class in that dark, bare cellar of a room. An English doctor stood beside him. I supposed that no Egyptian doctor could be trusted not to collude with the conscripts. They trembled before the great man; the doctor felt them, and kneaded them, and sounded them, and looked at their teeth and eyes. His task was an easy one. There was an obvious defect in most, such as eyes made worthless with ophthalmia, even if neither of them was missing; and these candidates for the army were most of them desperately anxious to be plucked in their medical.
It was no wonder that the Mamur was excited; he would have had half the population of Luxor locked up if he had had accommodation for them, and all the young men who passed their medical were locked up in the prison till they could be sent under a police escort to the railway station, after being allowed to go out and say good-bye to their friends, it is true, under the eyes of the watchful police. They had, I suppose, to be sent to a distance from their homes until they got accustomed to the army, or else they would desert.