Page images
PDF
EPUB

XXXVIII

WAYS THAT ARE EGYPTIAN

| WONDER why we are always taken first to the I mosques, or why, when our time is pretty limited, we are taken to them at all. Mosques are well enough, but when you have seen a pretty exhaustive line of them in Turkey and Syria, Egypt cannot furnish any very startling attractions in this field. For mosques are modern (anything less than a thousand years old is modern to us now), and Egypt is not a land of modern things. Besides, here in Cairo there are such a number of fascinating out-of-the-way corners which we are dying to see — unholy sidestreets, picturesquely hidden nooks, and mysterious, shut-in life; besides all the bazaars

Never mind; the mosques did have a certain interest, especially the mosque of Al-Azhar, which is nine hundred years old and built about a great court-an old mosque when America was still undiscoveredand the mosque of Hassan, “whose prayer will nevair be accept,” Abraham said (Abraham being our guide), “because when ze architec' have finish, ze Sultan Hassan have cut off hees han' so he cannot pro-duce him again.” Napoleon's first gun in Egypt hit a minaret of Hassan's mosque, it is said, and it has had bad luck generally, perhaps because of the cruel act of its royal builder. We were not even required to put on slippers to enter it, so it cannot be held in very great veneration. Then there is the mosque of Mohammed Ali, built within the last century and modern throughout, the only mosque in the world, I believe, to have electric lights!

It was Mohammed Ali who settled the Mameluke problem in the conclusive way which sultans adopt at times. The Mamelukes were the Janizaries of Egypt, though fewer in number. Still, there were enough of them to make trouble and keep matters stirred up, and Ali grew tired of them. So did the public, according to our guide:

Ali, he say to some people, “You like get rid of zose Mameluke?' an'all ze people say, 'Yez, of course.' So Ali he make big dinner, an' ze Mameluke come an' eat, an' have fine, big time.”

It was on the ist of March, 1811, that Ali issued his general invitation to the Mameluke leaders to attend a function at the Citadel; and, after entertaining them hospitably, invited them to march through a narrow passageway, which was suddenly closed at each end, while from above opened a musket-fire that presently concluded those Mamelukes-470 of them, with the exception of one man, who is said to have leaped his horse through a window down a hundred feet or so, where he “Jump from hees horse and runrun fas' to Jaffa!” which was natural enough.

There was only one trouble with that story. Abraham did not explain how this particular Mameluke came to have his horse at luncheon, and why, with or without horses, a number of those other Mamelukes did not follow him. Every Mameluke of my acquaintance would have gone through that window, mounted or otherwise, and without calculating the distance to the ground. However, Abraham showed us the passage and the place of the leap, and later the graves of the 470, all of which was certainly convincing. Following the removal of the leaders, a general burial of Mamelukes took place throughout Egypt, since which time members of that organization have been extremely hard to catch. It must have been Ali's neat solution of the Mameluke problem which fifteen years later was copied in Constantinople by Mahmoud II., when he disposed of the Janizaries.

It was at the tomb of a distinguished pasha-a fine, inviting place—that we saw a small green piece of the robe of Abraham. It was incorporated in a very sacred rug, one of the twelve which Cairo, Constantinople, and Damascus contribute to Mecca each year. We asked how Abraham's robe could hold out this way, and his namesake shrugged and smiled:

“Oh, zay take little piece of ze real robe an' roll him 'roun' an' 'roun' wiz many piece of goods, an' zay become all ze robe of Abraham.”

Thus does a thread leaven a whole wardrobe.

Laura and I escaped then. We did not care for any more tombs and mosques, and we did care a great deal for a street we had noticed where, squatted on the ground on both sides of it, their wares spread in the dust, were sellers of certain trinkets and jars which, though not of the past, had a fatal lure we could not all forget. Our driver was a black, scarred semi-Nubian who looked as if he had been through a fire, and had possibly five words of English. It does not matter-- Menelek (so we named him) served us well, and will retain a place in my affections.

We took the back track, and presently were in the street of small sellers, driving carefully, for there was barely room to pass between their displayed goods. Here and there we stooped to inspect, and we bought a water-jar for a piastre—an Egyptian piastre, which is really money and worth exactly five cents. Beyond the jars was a woman selling glass bracelets, such as the Arab women wear. I had wanted some of those from the beginning. I picked out a gay handful, and then discovered I had only a gold twenty-franc piece to pay with. The woman had never owned twenty francs, and no seller in the neighborhood could furnish the change. So I handed it to Menelek, who grinned and disappeared while we sat there in the carriage waiting.

I suppose he had to go miles in that neighborhood for as much change as that. I know we sat there in the sun and looked at all the curious things in all the assortments about us, over and over, and discussed them and wondered if Menelek would ever return. It became necessary at last that he should do so. No vehicle could pass us in that narrow thoroughfare, and in a string behind there was collecting as motley an assortment of curiosities as ever were gathered in a menagerie. There was a curious two-wheeled cart or dray, drawn by waterbuffaloes, upon which a man had his collection of wives out for an airing; there was a camel loaded with huge water-jars until they projected out over the heads of the selling people; there was a load of hay drawn by a cow; there was a donkey train that reached back to the end of the street, and what lay beyond only Allah knew.

The East is patient, but even the East has its limits. Presently we began to be interviewed by dark mencamel-drivers and the like-who had a way of flinging up their hands, while from behind came a rising tide of what I assumed to be imprecation.

We were calm—that is, we assured each other that we were calm-and we told them quite pleasantly how matters stood. The result was not encouraging. One Bedouin grabbed the bridle, and I was at the point of slaying him with my water-jar when at the same moment appeared a member of the Cairo police --one of those with a tall red fez-also Menelek, our long - lost Menelek, with the change, out of which there was baksheesh for the discontented drivers. Everything was all right then. We headed the procession. Behind us came the buffalo-cart-the wives, sandwiched fore and aft and smiling—the camel with his distended load of jars; the heaped-up little hay-wagon; the string of donkeys all in blue beads, with heaven knows what else trailing down the distance. All the curses were removed; all the drivers singing; traffic congestion in the East was over.

One of the first things we had noticed in Egypt was the curious brass spool affair which Arab women wear, suspended perpendicularly across the forehead, from the headgear to the top of their veil. It extends from the nose upward, and has sharp, saw-like ridges on it, which look as if they would cut in. When we asked about these things we were told that

« PreviousContinue »