May 27, 2012

Englishmen and Arabs in the Desert | Egyptian Deserts

Englishmen and Arabs in the Desert, 1835
Alexander Kinglake

Egyptian Desert
I can understand the sort of amazement of the orientals at the scantiness of the retinue with which an Englishman passes the Desert, for I was somewhat struck myself when I saw one of my countrymen making his way across the wilderness in this simple style. At first there was a mere moving speck on the horizon; my party of course became all alive with excitement, and there were many surmises. Soon it appeared that three laden camels were approaching, and that two of them carried riders. In a while I saw that one of the riders wore the European dress, and at last the travellers were pronounced to be an English gentleman and his servant; by their side were a couple of Arabs on foot; and this, if I rightly remember, was the whole party. . . . This Englishman, as I afterwards found, was a military man returning to his country from India, and crossing the Desert at this part in order to go through Palestine. As for me, I had come pretty well straight from England, and so here we met in the wilderness about half way from our respective starting- points. As we approached each other, it became with both a question whether we should speak. I thought it likely that the stranger would accost me, and in the event of his doing so, I was quite ready to be as sociable, and as chatty as I could be, according to my nature; but I still could not think of any thing particular that I had to say to him. Of course, among civilised people, the not having anything to say is no excuse at all for not speaking; but I was shy, and indolent, and I felt no great wish to stop, and talk like a morning visitor in the midst of those broad solitudes. The traveller, perhaps, felt as I did, for, except that we lifted our hands to our caps, and waved our arms in courtesy, we passed each other quite as distantly, as if we had passed in Bond Street.

Our attendants, however, were not to be cheated of the delight that they felt in speaking to new listeners, and hearing fresh voices once more. The masters, therefore, had no sooner passed each other, than their respective servants quietly stopped and entered into conversation. As soon as my camel found that her companions were not following her, she caught the social feeling and refused to go on. I felt the absurdity of the situation, and determined to accost the stranger, if only to avoid the awkwardness of remaining stuck fast in the Desert, whilst our servants were amusing themselves. When with this intent I turned round my camel, I found that the gallant officer, who had passed me about thirty or forty yards, was in exactly the same predicament as myself. I put my now willing camel in motion, and rode up towards the stranger, who seeing this, followed my example, and came forward to meet me.

He was the first to speak; he was much too courteous to address me as if he admitted the possibility of my wishing to accost him from any feeling of mere sociability, or civilian-like love of vain talk; on the contrary, he at once attributed my advances to a laudable wish of acquiring statistical information; and, accordingly, when we got within speaking distance, he said, “I dare say, you wish to know how the Plague is going on in Cairo?” and then went on to say, he regretted that his information did not enable him to give me in numbers a perfectly accurate statement of the daily deaths. He afterwards talked pleasantly enough upon other, and less ghastly, subjects.

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