May 27, 2012

People of the Desert | Egyptian Deserts

People of the Desert, 1818
Frederic Cailliaud

People of the Desert
The Ababdeh maintain an entire independence; from time immemorial they have held possessions in the deserts, which they consider as their property. When we compelled them to come with us to the Nile, taking away their camels, their wood, their provisions, were we not liable to reprisals? Was it to be expected that the Ababdeh, who well knew our connection with the Pacha [Muhammad ‘Ali], would submit to our demands without resistance? The main defence and safeguard of these people is their poverty, their innocence and the sterility of the soil which they inhabit; these are the guarantees of that savage liberty which they enjoy. Can anyone envy their lot? A few shrubs here and there ... a few thorny herbs or plants, a little senna and coloquintda constitute the sole riches of the soil; still, however, the Ababdeh are not without apprehensions of being deprived of this their impoverished domain. They made earnest suit to me, repeatedly, to conceal from the Viceroy of Egypt the wretched productions of their deserts.

I was desirous to learn from them the reasons of their not living near the Nile, where they might lead a life more comfortable than in the wilds of these deserts. One of their Sheiks . . . one day made me this answer: “To any other European we would tell at length the attractions that allure us to a wandering life and to these deserts; but you are fully acquainted with them, and know how to value them as we do. We see you content amidst the toils of battering rocks from mom till night; but come and live with us under our tents, amidst these mountains that are works of heaven; of these flocks, wherein our wealth consists; of these sands that secure our independence. Why will you not tarry with us? By this time you may have forgotten your country, and may prefer ours. Dwell here with your friends the Abbadeh, and send back the Turkish soldiers to their master. You are accustomed to the same fatigues as we are; you sleep on the sand; your labours in the mountains are more toilsome than ours; we will select for you a young maiden that knows only the desert wherein she was born; the gazelle cannot match her for innocence and mildness. The Desert of Zabarah belongs to us; it may contain treasures (emeralds) that we are strangers to. As you are come here in quest of them, they are yours; you shall give us directions, and we will all labour with a will for you; my sheep and my camels shall be yours.”

I was sensibly touched by the kindness which accompanied the effusions of this venerable Sheik; his generous offers were accompanied with the most friendly expressions that his heart could dictate. I shared in his emotions, and, strange to tell, for a moment was half persuaded.

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