« PreviousContinue »
hurry the Orient-one waits on it. We did go up there, all in good time, and then we found it was the Kasba, the same where had occurred the incident which had brought about the fall of Algiers.
They did not show us the room where that historic spark had been kindled, but they did tell us the story again, and they showed us a view of the city and the harbor and the Atlas Mountains with snow on them, and one of our party asked if those mountains were in Spain. I would have been willing to watch that view for the rest of the day had we had time. We did not have time. We were to lunch somewhere by and by, and meantime we were to go through the very heart, the very heart of hearts, of Algiers.
That is to say, the Arab quarter—the inner circle of circles where, so far as discoverable, French domination has not yet laid its hand. We left the carriages at a point somewhere below the Kasba, passed through an arch in a dead wall-an opening so low that the tallest of us had to stoop (it was a “needle's eye,” no doubt)—and there we were. At one step we had come from a mingling of East and West to that which was eternally East with no hint or suggestion of contact with any outside world.
I should say the streets would average six to eight feet wide, all leading down hill.' They were winding streets, some of them dim, and each a succession of stone steps and grades that meander down and down into a stranger labyrinth of life than I had ever dreamed of.
How weak any attempt to tell of that life seems! The plastered, blind-eyed houses with their mysterious entrances and narrow dusky stairways leading to what dark and sinister occupancy; the narrow streets bending off here and there that one might follow, who could say whither; the silent, drowsing, strangely garbed humanity that regarded us only with a vague scornful interest and did not even offer to beg; the low dim
coffee - houses before which men sat drinking and contemplating—so inattentive to the moment's event that one might believe they had sat always thus, sipping and contemplating, and would so sit through time — how can I convey to the reader even a faint reflection of that unreal, half-awake world or conjure again the
spell which, beholding ETERNALLY EAST WITH NO HINT OF THE OUTSIDE WORLD
it for the first time,
one is bound to feel? Everywhere was humanity which belonged only to the East—had always belonged there—had re
mained unchanged in feature and dress and mode of life since the beginning. The prophets looked and dressed just as these people look and dress, and their cities were as this city, built into steep hillsides, with streets a few feet wide, shops six feet square or less, the dreaming shopkeeper in easy reach of every article of his paltry trade.
I do not think it is a very clean place. Of course the matter of being clean is more or less a comparative condition, and what one nation or one family considers clean another nation or family might not be satisfied with at all. But judged by any standards I have happened to meet heretofore I should say the Arab quarter of Algiers was not overclean.
But it was picturesque. In whatever direction you looked was a picture. It was like nature untouched by civilization—it could not be unpicturesque if it tried. It was, in fact, just that-nature unspoiled by what we choose to call civilization because it means bustle, responsibility, office hours, and, now and then, clean clothes. And being nature, even the dirt was not unbeautiful.
Somebody has defined dirt as matter out of place. It was not out of place here. Nor rags. Some of these creatures were literally a mass of rags-rag upon rag—sewed on, tacked on, tied on, hung on-but they were fascinating. What is the use trying to convey all the marvel of it in words? One must see for himself to realize, and even then he will believe he has been dreaming as soon as he turns away.
In a little recess, about half-way down the hill, heeding nothing—wholly lost in reverie it would seem
-sat two venerable, turbaned men. They had long beards and their faces were fine and dignified. These were holy men, the guides told us, and very sacred. I did not understand just why they were holy-a mere trip to Mecca would hardly have made them as holy as that, I should think—and nobody seemed to know the answer when I asked about it. Then I asked if I might photograph them, but I could see by the way our guide grabbed at something firm to sustain himself that it would be just as well not to press the suggestion.
I was not entirely subdued, however, and pretty soon hunted up further trouble. A boy came along with one of the copper water-jars—a small oneprobably children's size. I made a dive for him and proposed buying it; that is, I held out money and reached for the jar. He probably thought I wanted a drink, and handed it to me, little suspecting my base design. But when he saw me admiring the jar itself and discussing it with Laura, who was waiting rather impatiently while our party was drifting away, he reached for it himself, and my money did not seem to impress him.
Now I suspect that those jars are not for sale. This one had a sort of brass seal with a number and certain cryptic words on it which would suggest some kind of record. As likely as not those jars are all licensed, and for that boy to have parted with his would have landed us both in a donjon keep. I don't know in the least what a donjon keep is, but it sounds like a place to put people for a good while, and I had no time then for experimental knowledge. Our friends had already turned a corner when we started on and we hurried to catch up, not knowing whether or not we should ever find them again.
We came upon them at last peering into an Arab school. The teacher, who wore a turban, sat crosslegged on a raised dais, and the boys, who wore fezzes —there were no girls—were grouped on either sideon a rug — their pointed shoes standing in a row along the floor. They were reciting in a chorus from some large cards—the Koran, according to the guide —and it made a queer clatter.
It must have struck their dinner-hour, just then, for suddenly they all rose, and each in turn made an obeisance to the teacher, kissed his hand, slipped on a pair of little pointed shoes and swarmed out just as any school-boy in any land might do. Only they were not so noisy or impudent. They were rather grave, and their curiosity concerning us was not of a frantic kind. They were training for the life of contemplation, no doubt; perhaps even to be holy men.
We passed little recesses where artizans of all kinds were at work with crude implements on what seemed unimportant things. We passed a cubby-hole where a man was writing letters in the curious Arabic characters for men who squatted about and waited their turn. We saw the pettiest merchants in the world-men with half a dozen little heaps of fruit and vegetables on the ground, not more than three or four poor-looking items in each heap. In a land where fruit and vegetables are the most plentiful of all products, a whole stock in trade like that could not be worth above three or four cents. I wonder what