May 7, 2012

Seeking the Bedouin, 1914 | Walking Through Egypt

Seeking the Bedouin, 1914
Elizabeth Cooper

Seeking the Bedouin
To see the Bedouin one must go to his home and see him in his native tents. There are Bedouins in the cities, and one soon learns to distinguish them, with their keen eyes, eager faces, and majestic stride, from the more contemplative, quiescent Egyptian. But in the city he is not his true self, it is among the shifting sands of the desert that these fascinating people are at their best. There the Bedouin carries out his tribal customs, and there one realizes that it is true that the virtue of hospitality is the first and the greatest in the eyes of the Arab. To share food and drink with another is to covenant with him in amity for the period of his stay as a guest in the domain of his host. Even to give a drink of water to a guest is to recognize that he is worthy of peaceable reception, while to partake of salt is to enter into brotherhood. . . . Tourists passing through Egypt hear and read of these people who appeal so to the imagination, and around whom are woven the romances and legends dear to the Western heart, and often with a dragoman they make trips to the desert, living in their hired tents, eating the same food as they would at Shepheard’s Hotel, doing the things that the dragoman thinks would appeal to the foreigner, and seeing the desert through the eyes of this clever showman, who makes everything picturesque if it is not already made so by nature. He is determined that his people will feel they have wisely invested their five pounds per day in desert scenery, even if he has to import his Bedouins from the neighboring villages. But we were long enough in Egypt to know that that was not the way to see the desert nor its people, and we were delighted when we received an invitation from a chief of the Bedouin tribe to pass several days with him in his castle at the edge of the desert.

We found a carriage waiting for us at the train; in fact a servant of the household had met us in the railway carriage several stations before our ultimate destination, assuring us in various signs and gestures mixed with Arabic and salaams, that we would very much be welcome at the castle of his chief.

We drove for miles across the well-irrigated lands, dotted with the variegated gowns of the Fellaheen cutting the wheat with the old-fashioned sickle, the donkey trotting along under his burden of bersein, while here and there at the doors of the mud huts women and children peered at us through their half-veiled faces.

As we drove into this semi-royal enclosure of the really sovereign potentate who rules with no mean government thousands of Bedouins scattered through Egypt and Tripoli, we were greeted by men of varying ages and degrees of distinction, all member of this important tribe which boasts of nine hundred years of ancestry and which had originally come from Arabia, the native land of the Bedouin.

[Elizabeth Cooper was met by the handsome chief and taken into his rambling two-storied house. She was soon invited to the harem and was greeted, in English, by a very pretty lady dressed in a modern French dress, with innumerable bracelets and rings. Later she was led to one of the tents: the sides piled with valuable hand- woven blankets, the floor covered with rugs “and for our benefit some chairs had been found.”]

... I sat down and looked at this charming home, never having imagined a tent could be so specious. The flap was open on two sides, and a strong wind from the desert blew in, and it was cool, although a burning sun was beating upon it. Around the sides were draped the gaily coloured blankets, striped red and yellow and black. It looked like a stage setting.

Bayard Taylor was visiting Egypt for the second time after •-many years and noticed the changes from the preindustrial land he had first seen.

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