91f.67 1^96 (E)
Acc.jtfo V 578862
KANSAS CITY MO. PUBLIC LIBRARY
Q QOD1 OlSELflE
THE MARSH ARAB
HAJI RIKKAN: MARSH ARAB
J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY
Copyright, 1938, by J. B. Lippincott Company
Printed in the
United States of America
OWING to her untimely death, this book
which was first undertaken at her sugges
tion appears without the fore-word promised
by Miss Gertrude Lowthian Bell; but a grate
ful acknowledgement may still be made of her
interest and encouragement.
The Arab tribes of 'Iraq, differing widely
as they do in details of custom, speech, and
manners, remain in the essentials of thought
and conduct homogeneous; and the two great
tribal confederations with which this book
deals the Albu Mohammad and the Bani
Lam may justly claim to be representative
of every aspect of tribal life. The country
which they people, lying astride the Tigris
from Kut-al-Amara in the north to Qurna
in the south, embraces wide deserts for the
shepherd and camel-breeding tribes, fertile
fields for the tillers of the soil, boundless swamp
for the marsh-dwellers; and into these three
classes the tribespeople throughout 'Iraq may
be roughly grouped. It is hoped that this
book, though its central figure is drawn from
the wildest and most primitive, as it is the least
known of these divisions, may present a not in
accurate picture of Arab tribal life as a whole,
and represent in some measure the outlook and
mentality and scale of values, so different from
our own, of this inarticulate people whose for
tunes, since the War first brought them into close
contact with our civilization, have been bound
up with ours.
The reader will catch glimpses here and
there of the difficulties which face the young
administration of 'Iraq, the prejudices and con
flicting tendencies with which she is gallantly
and successfully attempting to deal. Contrasts
between the present and the days of Turkish
dominion, drawn spontaneously by the out
spoken simplicity of the tribesmen, are enough
to show how much has already been accom
plished; how infinitely much remains to be
done, the reader of these pages will appreciate.
Cordial thanks are due to the many 'Iraq
friends who, wittingly or unwittingly, have by
story-telling and by patiently elucidating or
confirming points of detail contributed to thia
book. To the kind and unsparing critic who
commented upon its pages when in typescript
a debt of affectionate gratitude is warmly
Preface page 7
Chapter I The Peddler 13
II Across the Marsh 26
III A Pilgrimage 65
IV The Shrine of 'AH al Sharji 87
V The Place of Casting 114
VI The Fort of Kassara 132
VII The Coming of the English 150
VIII The Flag of 'Abbas 170
IX In Favour of Discretion 193
X The Burden of the Shaikh 216
XI Ghalib the Exile 243
XII The Chains 274
XIII The Burning of the Bait Hatim 305
THE MARSH ARAB
OTANDING in the prow of his uncle's
^ bitumen-coated birkash, Bahalul bent lei
surely to his pole; in the stern sat his twin
brother, Jahalul, guiding the clumsy craft with
'deft strokes of his paddle. They followed a
'narrow water-way which twisted and turned
between walls of high green reeds. From a
,sky a shade less blue than the still marsh water,
a brilliant sun shone down on the brown
.bodies of the brothers, naked but for a cloak
of coarse wool twisted round the waist. It
bronzed the rusty paraffin tins containing the
tea, coffee, spices, and flaked tobacco which
comprised the stock in trade of Haji Rikkan,
and warmed the bones of the old peddler him
self as he sat cross-legged in the "belly" of
(the boat. From my place facing him I watched
jthe changeful monotony of the marsh, the
Wilderness of reeds and water in which I was
privileged to accompany his wanderings. A
I 4 THE MARSH ARAB
cool breeze stirred the feathery, dun-coloured
heads of the tall reeds, the water sighed and
lapped among their roots, no louder sound than
the ripple from Jahalul's paddle broke the in
tense quiet of the spring day.
Behind me Jahalul began to sing. "Braying
forcedly in the nose" is Doughty's unkind
description of the singing of the Arabs; but
the plaintive air which, beginning in a burst of
sound, rose and fell mournfully until it died
away on the sub-dominant, a long-drawn note
only terminated by the failure of the singer's
breath, was far from being to my ears a "hide
ous desolation." Of the words I could dis
tinguish few, until Haji Rikkan repeated the
"An exaggeration," he said, with a laugh
that was half apologetic, half defensive, for the
Arabs have a high regard for their poets and
Jahalul sang to the woman he loved. The
words were in the homely marsh dialect despised
by purer-speaking Arabs, but they clothed a
romantic idealism in strange contrast with the
rough and primitive conditions of human life in
THE PEDDLER 15
"As one the cannon strikes, stricken am I
Now that thy cheeks, like apple-blossom fair,
Or flower of pomegranate, are far away.
So fragile are thy slender shoulders, sweet,
That e'en the lightest silken veil would bruise
And chafe the skin of my most lovely one."
Not once, but many times the gentle, droning
voice of Jahalul repeated the song, until it was
cut short by an abrupt order from Haji Rikkan.
We had left behind the narrow channel with
its flanking ramparts of reeds, and had come
out into a clearing of open water, above the
surface of which barely rose the flat shapes of
two low islands. To the nearest of these Jahalul
turned the boat, and as the high curved prow
ran aground the elder twin shipped his pole,
leapt lightly out, and splashing back through the
water joined his brother in the stern. The two
began to chat together in low tones, as though
this banking in on a lonely and deserted islet
were an occurrence to which they were accus
Haji Rikkan, holding out upturned palms, be
gan to recite.
"In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the
Compassionate. Praise to Allah, Lord of the
Worlds, . . , Master of the day of requital
16 THE MARSH ARAB
. . ." the rest of the muttered invocation was
lost in his beard. He sat for a while, silently
contemplating the barren islands; then a brisk
"Y f Allah!" sent his nephews to their places,
and the boat, gliding across the open water, slid
once more into the cool shadows of one of the
by-ways of the marsh.
"Dost ask why I have said the Fatihah?" said
Haji Rikkan. "Ask rather why in my wander
ings I am accompanied by my two nephews,
not by my grown sons. Where are they? May
thy head be whole ! Because of a man's love for
a woman my breast is straitened with grief, and
loneliness fills my heart. Sorrow has been mine
since the days when Shaikh Saihud fought
against the Turks, and fleeing, sought refuge in
Huwaiza. Many of his following went with
him, and among them one Tahir. Now 'Addai
bin Sa'dun, who was my friend, loved this man's
daughter; and one day he came to me, saying,
C I would cross the marsh to visit Tahir, but my
tribe is at feud with the Albu Ghanam, and I
fear to meet them. Let me travel under thy
tisyar thy protection and I shall cross in
safety. For this service I will give thee what
THE PEDDLER 17
"'Willingly/ I replied. Talk not of the
price ; I may yet require a like service of thee.'
"We set out on that journey, he and I to
gether. On the second day we passed two men
hunting fish with their spears, and one of them
called aloud, ' 'Addai bin Sa'dun, thou?'
fff Ee/ he replied, for it had been shame to
deny his name.
" 'Hast dared to come here?' cried the fisher
man, and 'Addai replied, 'I am ready.'
" 'Hast forgotten the feud?' the other called
again, and again 'Addai answered, 'I am
"Seeing their threatening looks, I spoke, tell
ing the men that he was under my protection;
but one replied, 'We do not recognize thy tisyar.
Prepare, O 'Addai 1'
" 'Stay in thy place, stayl' I cried. 'Come not
nearer, or my tribe will claim has him/ for by
our custom a woman must be paid in compensa
tion, if he who goes under protection is but
" 'I care not, my blood is hot,' shouted the
fisherman, he who had first called to us; and
with that he hurled his fishing spear at 'Addai,
and leapt back into the reeds. I fired, but they
i8 THE MARSH ARAB
"The spear had passed through his body, and
because of the barbs I could not draw it out;
so I held the shaft in my hand to ease his pain,
and bade my two sons paddle swiftly to the near
est village to find a smith who would cut off
the barbs. But when we reached the village, we
were told that the smith had gone to a neighbour
ing tribe ; and as we followed him, 'Addai died,
calling for Khadija whom he loved.
"Quickly we returned to our tribe, and told
the headmen what had befallen. Now the cus
tom of the marsh is clear on such a matter: if
a man under our protection is killed, we must
fight for a day to avenge his death; aye, the
Albu Ghanam must fight with us for the space
of a day, or if they would not fight they must
pay us forty women, leaving their islands for
three days that we might pound our coffee there,
and show to all men that they were beaten and
broken. But we are not without pride, even we
of the marshes, and no tribe has been known
to submit to that humiliation.
"Our headmen therefore planted war-flags
before their houses, and messengers were sent
to call in all the tribesmen. We laid our plans,
and when the day came we met the Albu
Ghanam in battle on the two islands which we
THE PEDDLER I9
left but now. But they were prepared for us,
and were more numerous than we, so that after
a bitter struggle our people broke at last and
fled, leaving many dead and wounded.
"In the evening I returned with some others
to the islands under the protection of a Saiyid.
" 'A truce, a truce,' he called aloud, that all
the Albu Ghanam might hear. 'It is I, Saiyid
Sadiq, who am come to bury the dead and bear
away the wounded.'
"Soon I found Mataghar, the youngest of my
" 'Bring my brothers to me,' he whispered,
'for I am dying.'
"I searched among the fallen and found
Mohammad, dead. Long I sought for Khalaf,
calling him by name, until I saw some of our
tribe dragging a body from the water. 'Who,
who?' I cried. We cannot see,' they answered.
I held a torch of flaming reeds, and saw the
face of Khalaf. Y'abouya, y'abouyal All three
sons dead! From that hour I became as thou
seest me now, an old man, white-bearded. Be
cause 'Addai loved Khadija, my sons were lost
to me. But why speak I thus? It was so de
creed from the beginning."
Silence followed Haji Rikkan's tale. Slowly
20 THE MARSH ARAB
the boat glided over the clear water, unruffled
and smooth as a mirror, and green with the re
flection of the thick reeds. Patches of flowering
weeds, pink and white, floated here and there
on its surface, swaying gently as we passed.
Smiling, serene, untroubled the marsh seemed
under the radiant sky, a haven of quiet and
peace, a refuge from the world ; yet the grief of
human hearts was here, and the wilderness of
reeds did but hide the despair and endurance of
We had travelled all day, and had seen no
faces but each other's. Now we began to come
upon traces of habitation. The reeds were tram
pled down in patches; a group of water-buf
faloes, half-submerged, were browsing among
the rushes ; we heard voices, and with unexpected
suddenness the high reeds fell away on either
side, as we came out into open water.
Facing us was a group of the strange mounds
or ishans which here and there, in the marshes
of Southern 'Iraq, stand out high, or seeming
high in that vast watery expanse. On these, the
remains of ancient cities, where once rich men
feasted under the sway of mighty Babylon, or
Abbasid merchants bartered their goods, the
marshman builds his hut. Alike in pattern but
THE PEDDLER 21
varying in size, the huts are of the simplest con
struction; bundles of tall reeds are bent and
fixed to the ground to form a tunnel-shaped
framework, over which are thrown a number of
mats of plaited reeds. At one end is a low and
narrow aperture which serves as doorway, win
dow, and chimney combined; on the rush-
strewn and miry floor sleep men and women,
children and buffaloes, in warm proximity.
Here dirt and disease should have given death
an easy victory, yet here was life triumphant.
On this bright morning the houses, closely hud
dled together, looked picturesque enough to
make one forget the wretched conditions in
which their owners live. In this malarious
swamp, tormented by flies and by the insects in
numerable bred in the mud the ground of his
hut often oozing water at every step, and every
sanitary precaution neglected the Marsh Arab
attains a surprisingly high physical level. It
is a case of the survival of the fittest, for the
infant mortality is appalling; but those who sur
vive to maturity have hardened in the process*
Under the scorching sun of summer and in the
bitterly cold winter winds alike, they are con
tent with one scanty garment, or with none. The
men are thickset and muscular, powerful swim-
22 THE MARSH ARAB
mers and capable of great endurance, though
lazy enough when work is not absolutely neces
sary. With their strong, well-built bodies, flash
ing white teeth, and thick black hair worn in
two plaits, the Ma' dan or Marsh Arabs compare
favourably with the townsmen, and need not
fear comparison with the pure-bred tribesmen
of the desert.
To my eyes, fresh from the soft tones of the
marsh, the village seemed full of colour. The
yellow reeds of the newer huts gleamed against
the sky, and the swinging draperies of the women
who moved to and fro between them were gaily
red, blue, and orange. The sturdy women of
the Ma* dan, dark-eyed and warmly brown in
colouring, are often handsome, even beautiful,
though they age early. In contrast with the
men's, their dress is ample and copious, high
to the neck and trailing on the ground. The
old crones who squatted at the doors of the huts
were dressed in sombre, dingy black, with
heavy swathed turbans of black stuff on their
heads. Under the prows of a row of moored
mashhufs, a group of village children played in
Mashhufs abounded, for every household
must possess its means of transport the only
THE PEDDLER 23
means in these three million acres of trackless
swamp. The marsh itself supplies most of the
simple needs of the marshman : reeds and rushes
provide shelter, bedding, and fuel, baskets,
ropes, and fodder for the buffaloes whose milk,
eaten curdled, is with the abundant fish his staple
diet. By the sale of reeds, either as fuel for
brick-kilns, or plaited into the mats used
throughout 'Iraq for a variety of purposes, he
obtains money for the purchase of such small
luxuries as those sold by Haji Rikkan, or of
the rifle which, in this land of blood-feuds, no
man can afford to be without.
The marshman's household goods are of the
scantiest. At the first hint of danger he can
pile them all into his boat, roll up the mats which
make his house, and driving his buffaloes before
him retire to the heart of his swampy fastness,
there to defy the outside world as he has done
for centuries past.
We approached the largest ishan, where a
group of women were busy at the water's edge
with their black cooking-pots. These were the
Haji's prospective customers, and he hailed
them with the traditional call of his profession.
(( Come, O women, come! Tea, sugar, coffee,
tobacco. Cucumbers and onions, weight for
24 THE MARSH ARAB
weight with rice. O comely ones ! Henna and
perfumes. Dates, sweet dates exchange rice
for dates, twice their weight in rice. Mirrors
for brides needles, thread, combs. Come, O
women! Pretty ones, come!"
Trade did not seem very brisk. A few women
came to the boat with shallow baskets of rice
on their heads, and squatted on the bank to bar
gain. One man had a badger's skin to barter,
an old woman a sack of feathers ; but the day's
trading was soon done. Haji Rikkan continued
to call his wares round the other islands, but
there was no answering hail. In a few minutes
Bahalul turned the boat's head, and the high
reeds soon hid the village from our sight
"By Hasan and Husain, in these days there
-is no money in all 'Iraq," muttered Haji Rikkan.
"I am become like the bathman's donkey, which
does but carry fuel to the fire, and ashes from
"Or like the camel," put in Bahalul, his im
passive and sternly-cut face lighting up as it
always did when he was moved to infrequent
speech, "which carries dates, but eats thorn."
"Eh <wah, eh wah" the Haji assented. "My
labours bring me no profit. As the saying goes,
THE PEDDLER 25
Like 'Abbas abu 'Arar,
Fifty years a soldier,
Yet still nafar nafar.
"Ah, well, Allah is bountiful."
With this Haji Rikkan threw off the troubles
of the world, and we relapsed into silence and
our own thoughts. Mine were busy with the
strange contrast between the squalor I had just
seen the filth and ignorance which made the
people's lives little better than those of the ani
mals which shared their huts and the Haji's
story of devotion to an ideal, of lives given
freely to avenge a stranger whose protection was
a matter of honour. Was it, I wondered, a sign
that the people of this land might yet become
a great nation; or was it the last glimmer of
a noble past in a decadent race?
What were the thoughts of Haji Rikkan and
of Bahalul, I do not know. Jahalul's were
where they had been all day, and once more
his voice rose in doleful song, the last sighing
notes drowned by the evening trilling of the
marsh's myriad frogs.
"Fourteen thy days, O lovely moon at full ;
Fourteen the years of my gazelle-eyed love;
Yet brighter far her face, more beautiful.
"Two red lips hast thou not, O moon above,
Thou hast not teeth like whitest pearls arrayed,
Nor braided plaits like those which deck my love."
ACROSS THE MARSH
BASKING in the quiet warmth of the April
afternoon, the whole village drowsed.
Across the water which separated Haji Rikkan's
solitary hut from the rest of the crowded com
munity, only one sound floated lazily the hum
of a majrasha which showed that somewhere a
woman was busy husking rice. Only on our
own small island was there stir and bustle, for
preparations were on foot for a long journey,
the longest I had yet taken with the old peddler.
Hospitality among the Arabs of the desert
has become a byword; yet it is not a whit less
common among the humbler folk of the marsh,
despised and wretched as they are. In the poor-'
est household any small store of butter or other
luxury which may have come its way is jealously
reserved; and to-day, though meat is the rarest
of luxuries, the Haji had killed a lamb in honour
of his guest.
Within the hut the women were busy over
ACROSS THE MARSH 27
the fire. The Haji, Bahalul, and myself sat on
a worn strip of carpet in the shade of the hut,
doing nothing as became the dignity of our sex.
Jahalul strolled restlessly here and there, a
naked dagger in his hand; for he was newly
wed, and to such the jlnns are always malevo
His bride, silently contemplating her world,
sat in the Haji's boat, which was moored to
the low bank. She seemed to be using the still
water as a mirror in which to survey and enjoy
her wedding finery. The simple, widely fash
ioned garments, made up from cotton stuff
bought in the nearest riverside market, would
all too soon become faded, draggled, and dirty;
but for a few days their crude colours were
bright and gay in the sunshine. She was a pretty
girl, sturdily built, barely fifteen ; a deep fringe
of black hair hid her forehead, a silver ring
set with blue stones was in her nose, and her
chin was decorated with indigo tattooing.
Perfect peace brooded over the village as the
warm afternoon drew to a close. The yellow
and brown huts were sharply outlined against
the deep blue of the sky. A group of buffaloes,
their bodies submerged, showed motionless black
heads above the surface of the water. The soft
28 THE MARSH ARAB
chatter of women inside Haji Rikkan's hut
seemed hardly to ruffle the silence.
"Fitna, O Fitna!" one of the voices was
raised shrilly. "Bring from the blrkash two
baskets of rice."
"I, when I am not yet out of my seven days?"
replied the bride with indignation. r
"No matter, no matter," called the older
woman indulgently. "I will fetch the rice my
Here Haji Rikkan broke into the conversa
"What, more rice? All I had thou didst take
three days ago. O shameless! While I am
absent on my journeys thou sellest for thyself
that which I have grown weary in getting. At
thine ease dost thou eat, while I daughter of
sixteen donkeys, why didst not say it was for the
guest? Two baskets? Go, fetch, four, fetch
eight, nay, empty the birkash take alll"
"O generous I" said the woman. "The lamb
will be well stuffed."
"Aye, stuff it well, O mother of 'Ubaid. Spare
not the almonds nor the onions. Go, my daugh
ter, fetch sultanas from the boat, from the tin
next the sugar. Spare not the spice, be lavish
with the cloves and the pepper. Forget not the
ACROSS THE MARSH 29
kirkum nor the krafus. The tin is empty, daugh
ter? No matter, it is as Allah willed. May He
strengthen you, my sisters!" And the women
bustled about their tasks, while Haji Rikkan
puffed reflectively at the reed stem of his hubble-
bubble of mud.
That evening several of the village elders were
invited to partake of the Haji's hospitality. Had
not a lamb been killed? a lamb which in retro
spect would soon grow into a sheep, slain in
honour of an occasion which would in time be
referred to as "the day on which I killed three
f sheep in honour of the Sahib's visit." Haji Rik-
kan's gnarled hand pulled limb from limb ; with
his fingers he tore the tenderest pieces of meat
from the back of the roasted lamb, and handed
them to me with a great fistful of the stuffing.
The rice was well cooked, but of the almonds,
sultanas, and spices which go to make up the
stuffing at the meals of richer men there was no
sign. It was not that the Haji's orders had been
disobeyed: he had never meant them to be lit
erally interpreted, for such luxuries were far
beyond the reach of his household. The desert
Arab gives ungrudgingly of his scanty best, and
to excuse the plainness of the repast will say
3 o THE MARSH ARAB
simply, "We are poor"; but the Marsh Arab,
more imaginative or more boastful, is apt to
shout to servants he does not possess, and to
order food he has not got, in an attempt to
show that, though straitened circumstances make
its complete fulfilment impossible, the hospital
ity of his intention is ungrudging.
The remnants of our food were left to reward
the labours of the women who had cooked it
Not even the humblest Arab of the marsh would
deign to eat with his wife. "We sleep in the
same bed as our womenfolk," said the Haji
once, "but eat with them? No, that were too
great a disgrace."
Early the next morning we set out on our
journey across the ttaarsh- The young bardi
through which we passed first was a sheet of
vivid green, unrelieved by any brown or faded
tints, for the Ma' dan each year burn down the
old rushes to encourage the new growth, rais
ing great pillars of smoke which are often seen
and wondered at by passengers on the distant
river. Gradually the bardi gave way to taller
reeds* The channel we followed wound its
sinuous way between high walls of impenetrable
thickness, which sheltered us at once from the
ACROSS THE MARSH 31
sun and from the gusty south wind which had
sprung up in the early morning.
"As the talk comes, so thou wishest me to
speak?" asked Haji Rikkan suddenly, breaking
a long silence; and to my "Na'm" Yes re
plied with a common play upon words. ff Na'm
Allah 'aliak" Allah's blessing upon thee.
Haji Rikkan was gifted with a rough elo
quence which he loved to exercise. His natural
intelligence, always above the average, had been
sharpened by contact with the world outside
the marshes, and he had besides a fund of sim
ple knowledge and tribal lore far above that
possessed by most of the Ma' dan. His ready
tongue and tenacious memory the accurate
memory of those who can neither read nor write
made him the most entertaining of compan
ions ; but long silences caused him no embarrass
ment, and we often travelled for hours together
without a word, until some trivial occurrence,
some sight or casual thought, unloosed his
tongue. Direct questioning soon wearied him,
and his best talk was the unpremeditated expres
sion of his moment's mood*
Now it was a long-legged bird, flapping out
of the reeds with a startled, angry cry at our
32 THE MARSH ARAB
intrusion on its peace, which moved the Haji
"Most Great is Allah, most Great is Allah!"
he exclaimed. "To raise his tent man must
have ropes and poles of wood, yet Allah's tent
is stretched above us without either. There it
remains, lit night by night, while the palaces of
the kings of former days are crumbled into dust.
Lord of the Worlds is He, Creator of how many
kinds of creatures, on each of which He has be
stowed instinct approaching the knowledge of
man! The ant stores for the coming winter,
the mouse knows the cat for its foe, and that
bird (it was a kind of heron) knows how to
guard itself as would a man. At night, when
the flock would sleep, one bird is chosen as sen
try; all sleep but he, who must place the sole
of one foot against the knee of the other leg, so
that if he sleep he falls. And if one of their
number is killed because of the negligence of
the sentry, then the whole flock seek him out
and peck him to death."
How much of the Haji's natural history was
observation, how much imagination, I could
not say ; but his rambling talk soon left the sub
"Most Great is Allah! To the animals and
ACROSS THE MARSH 33
birds he has given instinct, to man knowledge;
but of what avail knowledge without experi
ence? There was once a great man called Harun
al Rashid, a sultan he was, and a powerful. He
had a son who studied for twenty years, until
he had more knowledge than his teachers. The
sultan, seeing this "
The story was interrupted by the passing of
another birkash, in which the rusty tins and the
sugar cones in their thick blue paper were ar
ranged in the same way as were the Haji's.
There in the bow was the same rolled-up reed
mat ready to protect the precious stock from
rain, and rising from the middle the same
stripped branch, in the fork of which were hung
half a dozen red glass bracelets in a primitive
attempt at window-dressing.
It was evident from Haji Rikkan's uncompli
mentary remarks that this rival craft belonged
to, or was financed by, a non-Muslim. His
pungent curses on Jews and Christians alike
were felt to need no apology to me, for all
Englishmen he regarded as members of the
"British religion/' one inferior to Islam, but
far superior to the local Christianity, Harun
al Rashid forgotten, Haji Rikkan now began to
34 THE MARSH ARAB
talk of a celebrated Saiyid who was buried on
one of the many mounds along the river bank.
"But for the trickery of a Christian may his
grave be defiled! Saiyid Khalifa would have
died a rich man. It was his custom to go about
the marshes as I do, selling not sugar, tea, and
coffee, but pieces of Heaven. Because he was
a holy man, descended from our Prophet, the
tribesmen believed that he could indeed do this ;
and one who had bought a piece of Heaven big
enough for himself would proceed to save
enough to buy a piece for his wife, and another
for his family. When Heaven was being sold
piecemeal, who had money to spare for spices
and tobacco? Thus that Christian merchant
who was accustomed to send men into the
marshes to sell his goods began to lose his trade,
until at length he devised a plan.
"Going to the Saiyid with all due humility,
he said that though as a Christian he could not
buy a piece of Heaven, yet might he buy a piece
of Hell or all of it, if so much were for sale?
Gladly the Saiyid gave him a deed saying that
the whole of Hell was his. Then the Christian
sent out many mashhuf-lo&ds of his goods among
the tribes, bidding his peddlers announce his
ACROSS THE MARSH 35
purchase to every one. The tribesmen were not
slow to see the meaning: if the whole of Hell
was taken, they could but go to Heaven. Why
then pay? Thus Saiyid Khalifa sold no more
pieces of Heaven."
So talked the Haji, on every subject ready
with his simple say. His deep, resonant voice,
the expressive gestures of his eloquent hands,
an occasional twinkle in the dark eyes which,
deep-set by nature, seemed deeper still by rea
son of the bushy eyebrows overhanging them,
gave an indescribable charm to the spoken word.
Diffuse and wordy he could be, when not sure
of his ground; but when relating his own ex
periences, or talking on matters of which he
had first-hand knowledge, he was terse, vivid,
We left the sheltering reeds, and entered a
broad stream of clear water, the channel run
ning straight ahead as far as the eye could see,
as though cut by the hand of man ; as indeed it
must have been, for it was a fragment of the
famous Nahrwan Caiial, one of the great irriga
tion works which of old made Mesopotamia
a fertile land. These desolate marshes witnessed
the earliest beginnings of flow irrigation.
36 THE MARSH ARAB
Marduk laid a reed upon the face of the waters,
He formed dust and poured it out beside the reed,
That he might cause the gods to dwell
In the place of their hearts' desire.
The early Sumerians began the reclamation
of the "Sea-land" by erecting banks of earth
and reeds such as the marsh tribes build to this
day. From small beginnings the dykes grew
in size and extent, until vast areas were enclosed,
within which the land was cultivated by means
of flow irrigation through cuts in the dykes;
cities were built, and temples (the places of their
hearts' desire) raised to the gods. All these
were below the level of the water, protected from
inundation by the strength of the encircling
' The present desolation dates from the fifth
century, when a weak monarchy resulted in
years of neglect, and a sudden flood breached
the untended dykes, submerging all the low
lands south and west of the Tigris- A stronger
king was able to reclaim much of the land, but
two centuries later another flood, unprecedented
in its violence, broke down the bunds once more.
This was only a few years before the Muslim
invasion. The Sassanian king, Khasrau Parviz,
did what he could ; but though he "crucified in
one day forty dykemen at a certain breach," he
ACROSS THE MARSH 37
could not control the waters. After that deso
lation it was left for the Mongol hordes, a flood
more terrible even than the ungovernable waters,
finally to destroy the ancient irrigation system,
and make the great swamp permanent, accepted,
Soon branching off from our arrow-straight
waterway, we began to wind once more among
reeds which grew ever taller, until we were sur
rounded by mardi, the giant of the marshes,
which provides the Ma'dan with their long
mas hhuf -poles ; here it towered above our heads
to a height of twenty-five feet Slowly we
threaded our way among these silent, stately
monarchs of the waste, until, suddenly break*
ing through the gloom, we came out upon a
wide sea of sunny open water, blue as the Medi
terranean, and covered with white-crested waves.
The wind, which in the shelter of the mardi we
had not felt, was here blowing freshly, and Haji
Rikkan had doubts as to the wisdom of attempt
ing to cross; for the loss of a marsh boat in these
squalls of wind is by no means infrequent. In
the end he decided to skirt the edge of the reeds,
and with a pious "We are all in the hands of
Allah" gave the word to cross. Rocking and
tossing, and shipping a good deal of water, we
38 THE MARSH ARAB
reached the other side in safety, and slid into
the calm waters of a channel which wound be
tween walls of shababj the stout but pliable reed
from which the marshman makes the arched
framework of his hut Only the waving of their
silver feathery heads showed that above the
shelter of our little channel the wind blew as
strongly as before.
Always changing from hour to hour as we
penetrated more and more deeply into its heart,
yet always the same, the quiet marsh opened
its waterways to receive us. Like some Belle
Dame sans Merci, it seemed to beckon us on
and on, ever revealing fresh beauties, yet closing
fast the way of retreat. Its towering ramparts
rose silently behind us as though, having once
laid bare the wonders of its inmost hidden life,
the marsh would keep us for ever in its em
brace, lest we should go forth again and tell
the secret of its winds and waters to the world
At last, when to one's lulled senses the whole
universe seemed to be made up of murmuring
reeds and lapping water, we came to a village,
a large settlement on a group of islands.
"In sh'AllahGod willing I shall profit
here," said Haji Rikkan, "for their buffaloes
ACROSS THE MARSH 39
are good buffaloes, almost as good as those of
the Abraiha tribe of Gurmat 'All, which may
be milked from sunset to the setting of the star
Zahra, and even then not be dry."
Many hails of "Ya Abu Walim!" greeted us,
and the Haji seemed likely to do a brisk trade
in this centre of life so far from the beaten track.
As was sometimes his custom when a long halt
was to be made, he borrowed a challabiya from
the village, and sent me off with Bahalul and
Jahalul to get some shooting.
Back into the heart of the marsh we plunged,
the powerful strokes of the brothers sending
the tiny, narrow craft through the water at a
pace very different from that of the loaded
birkash. Both heavily built and rather below
the middle height, both strikingly muscular
even for marshmen, the twins though alike in
feature differed widely in character. Jahalul
was ready of tongue, quick to see a jest, some
thing of a flatterer, and his uncle's favourite.
He wore a thick silver ring, and his nails were
dyed with henna, two forms of adornment
scorned by the elder twin, who had also shorn
the two plaits of hair still worn by Jahalul in
common with most young men of his age. Ba-
halul's stern face seldom relaxed into a smile;
4 o THE MARSH ARAB
his words were at all times few; yet nothing
escaped the vigilance of his dark eyes, and it
was to him that Haji Rikkan unfailingly turned
for advice in a difficulty.
Duck and teal abounded, and so good was
our sport that it was not until I saw Bahalul
leaning from the boat to toss up water into his
mouth that I was reminded of my own thirst
I was hungry too, but we had left the village
without bringing either food or drink. The
marsh water was here so salt as to be to me
undrinkable ; I suggested that we make for the
nearest village, where we could be certain of
getting it well disguised in the form of tea.
An argument ensued between the brothers.
Apparently the nearest village was the one in
which we had left Haji Rikkan, by this time
"Wait I" said Bahalul. "The Weeper!"
Jahalul agreed. The Weeper lived quite
I was on the point of questioning them, when
I remembered that I had heard of an old woman
who for years had lived alone in the heart of
the marsh, spending every night in weeping and
beating her breasts. What, I wondered, had
driven her to seek this hermit's life? What
ACROSS THE MARSH 41
tragedy of fierce love and hate had been wit
nessed by the marsh, and buried in the deep
oblivion of its silence?
Twenty minutes' swift paddling brought us
to a small ishan marked by a single reed hut
As we neared it, a figure came down to the
water's edge and stood waiting the gaunt, erect
figure of a middle-aged woman with strongly-
marked features and bright, deep-set eyes. She
bade us welcome, and led us to her hut, where
she spread a rug for me, bidding the mashhuf-
men bring cushions from the far end. Appar
ently our visit did not seem to her strange or
even unusual; she asked no questions as to our
destination, but quietly set about preparing tea.
Taking a handful of dried reeds, she pushed
the ends into the fire, which blazed up merrily
round the old black kettle freshly filled with
water by Jahalul. From a wooden box she took
three small narrow-waisted glasses, washed and
shook them dry, and placed them on a metal
tray near the fire. From another box she took
a solid lump of white sugar, broke it in pieces,
and put in each glass a lump large enough nearly
to fill it. The kettle began to boil, and the
woman shook some tea into an old, broken-
spouted tea-pot, poured the water on, and set
42 THE MARSH ARAB
it on the fire to brew. For a few more minutes
we sat in silence; then she poured tea into the
little glasses, and handed one each to me and
to Bahalul and his brother, who sat together near
So far, beyond the ordinary common-places
of greeting, she had said nothing; but now, as
the brothers talked in low voices over their tea,
the word majnuna reached my ears, and hers
"Effendim," she said, "in thy country if a
great sorrow fills all a woman's thoughts and
all her life, is she counted mad?"
I had no answer ready, and she appeared to
expect none, but stared into the glowing embers
of the fire.
"He was a man!" she said, as if to herself.
Then she turned to me with a swift question.
"Thou hast heard of him?"
"No," I replied, not knowing of whom she
"Thou art but a youth," she said, excusing
my ignorance. "Yet I remember, as though
it had been last year, my first sight of him.
That was the year of the great hailstorm, and
he sat talking in my father's house. From be
hind the women's screen I looked at him : what
ACROSS THE MARSH 43
strength, what mighty limbs ! Ah, he was good
to look upon, bold of eye, and full-bearded. My
heart loved him as I looked.
"Then one day his brother's daughter came
to me. 'Ruwaidhi desires thee, he desires thee,'
she whispered, and I feared to believe her. But
the next day I passed him by the water's brink,
and as I passed I heard him say low, *O beauti
ful, thou hast killed me!' And drawing my
cloak over my face I hastened on.
"After that day we met no matter how
not once but several times. He wanted to take
me to wife, and I was ready, but I feared to
tell him. And then, as our custom is, I was
bidden with another woman to his house; and
I knew that he would watch, and if I ate noth
ing take the sign that I desired him not Trem
bling I stretched forth my hand to the food, and
when I had eaten he kissed my mouth."
Her voice died away, and I feared that I
should not hear my story after all ; but in a few
moments she began to speak again.
"Gold, gold! Who made gold? Allah or
the Evil One? When they came to ask for me
in Ruwaidhi's name, my father wanted seventy
golden liras for my price; for he was a proud
man, and I was beautiful How could they
44 THE MARSH ARAB
close with so high a price, when Ruwaidhi was
penniless? For only a few months before he
had given all he had to buy him a wife; but
that was before he saw me. All he could bor
row and pledge they offered, and one said,
'For my sake, reduce the sum by ten liras,' and
another, Tor my sake abate yet another ten';
but my father refused them all. So returning
to Ruwaidhi they said, 'All thou didst offer we
have offered, and more, yet her father refused.
What is thy wish?'
" 'Return again,' said he, 'and whatsoever her
father asks, accept that' And they agreed upon
"It was truly a high price, but I laughed at
Ruwaidhi for thinking of the gold. Was I not
ready to dare my father's wrath, and go with
him whatever might befall us?
" 'Foolish tongue,' he said. 'I want thee not
for a day nor a year, but for all time. Shall
thy father come and slay thee or me? Mine
is a weak tribe ; can I see all my kinsfolk slain
for a blood-feud of my beginning? Nay, fear
not. I will devise a plan to make thee mine
without such folly.'
"I knew that he was wise as well as fearless,
r and I waited, waited patiently though many
ACROSS THE MARSH 45
weeks went by, for I trusted him. And not
in vain, for a day came when he laid before me
fifty liras, golden and shining in the sun.
Whence?' I asked, and he told me.
"He had made a plan with Risan bin Ghachi
to steal and sell some buffaloes from the Bait
Wuhaib; but they failed, and barely escaped
with their lives. As they made their way home
in the mashhuf, bitterness filled the heart of
my lover, and he longed to kill the blundering
fool Risan, who had spoiled his plan and lost
him the fifty liras of which he thought night
and day. No blood-feud would the slaying of
Risan bring about, for he was long an outcast
from his tribe ; and as this thought crossed Ruw-
aidhi's mind, a new plan came to him, for he
remembered the bitter enmity between Shaikh
Hasan and Risan son of Ghachi. Ruwaidhi was
quick to brain and hand. He said to Risan:
" 'Let us rest awhile at Abu Dhahab.' They
kindled a fire with the dry pith of the reeds,
and as they sat by it Ruwaidhi returned to the
mashhuf, fetched his club, and stunned the man.
Quickly he bound him, cast him into the boat,
and bore him through the marsh until he reached
the shaikh's village. He hid the boat in the
4 6 THE MARSH ARAB
reeds, sought Hasan, and offered him the life
of his enemy for fifty liras.
" c No more than twenty is the dog's life
worth, 5 said the shaikh. But Ruwaidhi was firm,
and after much talk they struck a bargain.
Hasan should kill the man with his own hand,
and for his price forty-eight liras and a silver
ring should be Ruwaidhi's. Together they went
to the boat, but not until my lover had waited
while the shaikh brought the gold from its hid
ing-place under the mud floor. Then, as he
gazed down at his helpless enemy, he turned
" c The money was well earned,' he said. 'Give
me thy dagger.' Thus was my price paid by
the life of a man."
The woman paused again, then with a word
of apology rose and refilled our glasses. For
a moment she stood at the door of the hut, look
ing out over the marsh. I waited in silence,
for I felt she had more to tell. What would
be the sequel of this wild tale? She sat down
again before the fire, a sad smile lighting up her
"A year we had," she went on. "One short
year, before 'Ali bin Shabib made dakhala.
ACROSS THE MARSH 47
One year with him, and seventeen alone. May
Allah give him peace!"
She turned to me. "Bo the peoples across the
sea make dakhala?"
I shook my head, smiling as I thought how
embarrassed would be a peaceable Londoner if
a fugitive from justice should rush up and clasp
his feet, compelling him if he valued his honour
to protect him who thus claimed asylum, even
at the cost of his own life.
"He only did what his honour demanded,"
she went on, "but, oh Allah! how we women
suffer!" She wrung her hands, then resumed
in her former quiet tone of retrospect.
"For nearly a year we had been living on the
edge of the Nasif marsh, but grazing for the
buffaloes was getting short, and the tribe de
cided to move further into the marshes. We
were loath to go, we two, for we had been
happy in that house which was our first home
together; and when the tribe carried we said
that we would be the last to go. Ah, would that
we had been the first! On the last day, when
all the rest had gone, we waited alone for the
mashhuf which in a few hours would be back
to fetch us and our household things. I was
spinning wool, looking out to the water where
48 THE MARSH ARAB
Ruwaidhi In his challablya was hunting fish.
He hurled his spear a flash of silver, and he
was poling towards me with our midday meal.
Then from behind me came a rushing of feet;
a flying, hunted figure dashed across the mud,
ran straight to Ruwaidhi as he leapt from the
boat, and seized him by the feet 'Save, save!
I am thy suppliant! 7 he gasped. 'Wasalat go
no further,' answered Ruwaidhi.
"A bullet whistled over my head. My hus
band ran to the hut and seized his rifle. 'Ali's
pursuers, some six or seven in number, broke
shouting through the reeds, and called on Ruw
aidhi to give him up. 'Never!' he said, 'He
has made dakhala to me, and while I live I shall
defend him.' ? Ali had no weapon, and asked
for none; truly he was a craven youth, or per
haps spent with his flight, for he lay still where
he had fallen. But the strength and valour of
Ruwaidhi, and his deadly aim with a rifle, were
known throughout the marshes, and his assail
ants feared to come too near. My heart throbbed
with pride as I watched him one against seven.
One fell as his rifle rang out, but I heard my
baby wailing within, and ran to hide him in
the reeds where he might be safe. Then I went
back to my husband's side; he was wounded,
ACROSS THE MARSH 49
and the men were growing bolder. The bullets
came fast see, I was wounded here and here.
A great sleepiness came over me, and I crawled
closer that I might fall asleep near him. The
noise of the fighting grew fainter.
"Suddenly I heard Ruwaidhi's voice speak
ing in my ear. 'Beloved,' he said, 'I have but
six rounds unspent Tell the stranger to take
the challabiya and take to the marshes ; he will
find protection with my tribe.' Painfully and
slowly I struggled to the young man; I gave
him the message. Then darkness came over me.
When I awoke, I found my husband lying cold
in a pool of blood. The stranger and the chal
labiya had disappeared. I looked for my baby,
but even he had not been spared."
She stopped, and it seemed to me that a strange
chill was in the air.
"Ah, Effendim," she added, "the world calls
me mad; but those who love little, grieve
Our quest of tea had taken longer than I had
expected and we should have to hurry if we
were to be back at the village before nightfall.
The brothers, refreshed by their rest, paddled
vigorously. As our frail craft slipped swiftly
50 THE MARSH ARAB
through the narrow waterways, I asked whether
the story we had just heard were true.
"Allah knows," said the laconic Bahalul; but
Jahalul was more communicative. "I know this
only," he said. "If a man sees a jinn in the form
of a beautiful woman, and tries to make her his
own, he will become possessed, and will begin
to pine away, crying, 'She has gone from me,
she has gone from me,' until he dies of grief.
Perhaps it was a jinn whom this woman saw in
the form of a comely young man, and desired
him; thus she became bewitched, weeping and
wailing every night, as all who pass may hear,
for love of him whom she has lost. Who
The sun was setting in a cloud of flame, and
everything was still. The tall feathery heads
of the reeds had ceased their nodding ; no whis
perings in the rushes, no bird-voices from the
reeds broke the silence. Then a puff of chill
evening breeze rippled the water, and borne on
it I seemed to hear, as if from very far away,
the sound of a voice raised in lamentation.
We woke next morning to find that the south
wind had fulfilled its threat. The sky was dull
and overcast, and we had not long set out on
ACROSS THE MARSH 51
our day's journey before the heavens opened,
and the rain poured down in torrents. Our blue
and green world of yesterday was changed to
one of dull, monotonous greys.
Bahalul and Jahalul, frankly admitting that
there was no protection in their soaking gar
ments, soon threw them off, and poled steadily
on through the rain which ran in rivulets down
their brown, naked bodies. The Haji and my
self pretended to find some warmth in our sod
den clothes, and sat in shivering discomfort as
hour after hour we travelled through grey rain
on grey water, shut in by grey walls of reeds,
and overhung by an ever greyer sky. The
knowledge that not far ahead of us lay another
marsh settlement buoyed up our spirit; but
when we reached the ishan, it was deserted.
Only a few mud ovens, round and smoke-black
ened, showed that not long ago it had been as
busy a centre of life as the village we had left at
Leaning on their poles like two figures carver!
in bronze, Bahalul and Jahalul gazed cb,*vn at
the Haji as he silently debated our neit nove,
He seemed to be at a loss, and at length -*Al
jaziraf" suggested Bahalul.
The desert! It seemed very distant, very far
52 THE MARSH ARAB
removed from this apparently limitless expanse
of swamp. Distant indeed it was, but not beyond
our reach, as Haji Rikkan agreed when he saw
the force of Bahalul's suggestion ; for once there,
we were certain to find some hospitable tents
where the edge of the desert is washed by the
I had made many long journeys with Bahalul
and Jahalul, and never had I seen signs of
fatigue in either. Now this long day of rain and
gloom seemed to have taken the zest out of them.
They bent to their poles wearily and no won
der, for they had poled and paddled not only
long but fast, in the effort to reach shelter before
"My brothers, my brothers!" cried Haji Rik-
Jcan to encourage them, and with grunts they
would renew their efforts, only to slacken grad
ually as fatigue once more overcame them.
As the day darkened towards evening the rain
ceased. We left the reeds, and came out upon
a stretch of water across which the Haji, rising
to his / eet, peered anxiously in an effort to take
some* jearings for our landfall. The low mist
bafflt d even his unerring sense of direction.
ff Ba?d shaibi" he called encouragingly to his
weary nephews. "Nigh dear as my beard
ACROSS THE MARSH 53
dear as my heart 1" His exhortations became
more frequent as we moved more and more
slowly through the darkness. "Dear as my two
kidneys I" he cried at last, and for the first time
in that dreary day I laughed, and as we laughed
the birkash, with a slight shiver, ran on to a
bank of soft mud.
"To Him be praise!" ejaculated Haji Rik-
kan; then, "Silence," he ordered.
We all strained our ears, listening for some
sound which would tell of the nearness of man.
And we were rewarded, for out of the silence,
from far away, came the bark of a dog.
"Wasalna we have arrived," said Haji Rik-
kan with pride.
But an Arab is apt to use this comforting
phrase when one's destination is barely in sight.
We had yet to find in the darkness the tent!
from which that welcome bark had come. Leav
ing Bahalul and Jahalul in the boat, the Haji
and I trudged through water and mud in the
direction of the sound.
It seemed hours before we were challenged,
and learned that we had reached the tents of
Shaikh 'Arar. The watchman led us to the
madhif, where we were hospitably welcomed by
the shaikh's son, who did the honours without
54 THE MARSH ARAB
the slightest sign of surprise at the arrival of
two draggled and weary guests at nearly mid
night We were soaked to the skin: let more
brushwood be thrown on the fire ; we were hun
gry: even now they were bringing food to set
before us and the death-cry of a chicken out
side bore witness to the wide divergence between
truth and politeness.
We awoke next morning to a new world.
Though the marsh was but a short distance away
far shorter than it had seemed the night be
fore we had left the marsh life behind. Round
us now were camels, flocks, tethered horses, black
hair tents. The only sign of fusion between
desert and marsh was the use by some of the
Bedouin of reed mats as walls for their tents.
Shaikh 'Arar, who had been asleep when we
arrived, greeted me jovially. Why had I come
like a thief in the night? If he had been given
warning of my coming he would have killed
sheep, and given me a welcome which would
have shown his gratitude. Had I not once, he
said, years ago, rendered a service to the Bani
'Isa, who were his uncles? Because of that his
horses were my horses, his sons my slaves, his
tribe my body-guard, and he himself ready to
ride wheresoever I would in my service.
ACROSS THE MARSH 55
The suggestion of a ride was applauded by
Haji Rikkan. He himself wished to spend a
day or more in trading with the desert tribes
whose tents were set up along the edge of the
marsh ; and as no shooting was to be had in the
great open stretch of water before us, why should
I not pay a visit to Shaikh Fahad?
Shaikh Fahad ! That was a name which still
held for me a hint of glamour, of romance. It
had been on all men's lips at one time, the name
of a great leader, whose tribesmen revered him
because he openly strove and fought for that
freedom which was their inarticulate ideal. I
had never met this shaikh whose youthful de
fiance of the Turks had become legendary, who
had seen in the British Occupation a still greater
menace to Arab liberty, and had steadily refused
submission, remaining unmoved in the desert
to which he truly belonged while his lands were
given to rivals, his flocks were confiscated, and
the world moved on without him. Now that
the opportunity of seeing him had come, I gladly
Our way lay across a barren desert, once ir
rigated and thickly peopled. On all sides, look
ing enormous in the heat haze, rose irregular
mounds, sites of ancient cities. The ground was
56 THE MARSH ARAB
strewn in places with fragments of pottery,
glazed and unglazed, and with burnt bricks,
many of which were inscribed. A few of these,
laboriously carried to Baghdad, roused but faint
interest in the archaeologist to whom they were
shown, for they bore the names of Nebuchad
nezzar and Ur-nam-mu, two prolific builders
whose bricks are so common that they pave the
courtyards of many houses in lower 'Iraq to-day.
Traces of the old irrigation system were
easily discernible straight canals with distri
butaries taking off at regular intervals, in
marked contrast to the meandering, ill-designed
channels dug by the Arab of to-day. These
old canals are to be traced, not as might be ex
pected by depressions, but by ridges, the remains
of the ancient soil-banks. It may well have
been the heart-breaking task of silt-clearing these
canals which caused the children of Israel to
sit down and weep. Perhaps, I thought, they
hanged up their harps on the willows beside the
very canal along which we were riding, now
treeless and deserted; for we were well within
the southern limits of Babylonia. I recalled
the "Burden of Babylon": truly the "besom of
destruction" foretold by Isaiah could not have
swept more thoroughly.
ACROSS THE MARSH 57
It was nearly sunset when we dismounted at
the tents of Shaikh Fahad, who rose and came
to meet us as we entered his madhif. One side
of the great hair tent was open to the evening
breeze, and the roof had be^n raised with extra
poles for greater coolness; the floor was bare
earth, swept clean ; across the two ends were laid
narrow carpets of home weaving. In the mid
dle of the floor, marked off by a low rounded
ridge of earth, was the hearth, with its row of
beaked, smoke-blackened coffee-pots standing in
the embers. The coffee-man, his large brass pes
tle and mortar by his side, squatted beside it,
from time to time using his long iron tongs to
pile the embers round the coffee-pots. A few
tribesmen sat in a silent row at one end of the
long tent. Between us and the back of the ma
dhif > where its great tassels hung black and
sharp against the orange of the sunset sky, the
shaikh's hawk moved restlessly on its low perch
of carved wood, ornamented with bands of brass.
"Hawk-like," as I glanced from the bird to
the man, seemed to me to be the best word to
describe Shaikh Fahad. The hooked nose and
jutting chin, the sunken eyes, the firmly-closed
mouth above the short greying beard, must have
made up a face of remarkable beauty in youth,
58 THE MARSH ARAB
and one as full of character and power. But
Fahad's great days were past, and with them the
light had gone from his eyes; his face was ex
pressionless, lifeless, the face of a man who, hav
ing lost everything, no longer cares that it is
Refreshed by the strong, pungent coffee, and
thankful for the rest and coolness after our long
ride, we sat until the sunset had faded and only
the glowing hearth lit up the shaikh's madhif.
Conversation was desultory and fitful. At length
the talk turned on Arab customs, and grew more
animated; Shaikh Fahad seemed to rouse him
self from the brooding silence which he had
scarcely broken by a word since first greeting us,
"Than the customs of the Arabs none are bet
ter," he said. "But of what avail is it, when
they are being daily corrupted ?"
In the respectful silence which followed his
words, only one voice had the temerity to ask,
"By the English," he replied curtly, turning
"Listen," he went on in his deep and curi
ously vibrating voice* "This tale is true, as all
here know, though to thee who art a stranger it
ACROSS THE MARSH 59
may not be known. A man of the Khaza'il tribe
once had reason to fly from his own people, and
coming to the Shammar country took up his
abode and became neighbour to a certain Sham-
mari, who in accordance with our custom thus
became responsible for his welfare. One night
the Khaza'ili, returning from a journey, saw his
daughter hidden among the camels which were
tethered between the two tents; and she was
clasped in the arms of the Shammari's son, who
kissed her. And the next morning the Khaza'ili
left that place, his family and his beasts with
him. Now th Shammari was grieved that his
neighbour should thus have left him without
a word, and the more he searched his mind the
more certain he became that no action of his was
the cause. Then, fearing that it might be the
fault of his sons, he determined to question them.
"To the eldest he said, 'In the time of my
youth, a woman as beautiful as the daughter of
the Khaza'ili would not go unkissed.' To which
his son replied, 'It were a shame upon me,'
"To the second he said the same, and received
the same reply. But the third son, hoping to
please his father, answered,
" 'I have kissed her, and she has slept upon
my breast. 7
60 THE MARSH ARAB
"And his father answered, 'Good, my son. 5
"That day the Shammari set out for the desert,
taking with him his eldest and his youngest sons,
and in his saddle-bag a skein of wool. When
they had ridden a certain distance he called the
youngest son him who had caused the Khaza'ili
to leave his protector and cutting off his head
wrapped it in the wool he had brought.
" 'Ride,' he said to his eldest son, 'Find the
Khaza'ili, and give him this ball of wool.'
"The young man did as he was bidden, saying
to the Khaza'ili,
" This gift is sent thee by my father.'
"And the Khaza'ili, unwinding the wool, saw
the head of the youngest son. Then knew he
that the Shammari had wiped out the insult to
" Thy flag is white,' he said to the eldest son,
and returned with him to his father's tents."
In the silence that followed his story the vi
brant voice of the shaikh rang out with startling
fervour : "The English would have hanged that
Shammari I" 1
"These days are not like the days of our fath-
l This is not so, for tribal cases are judged according to a
special law, introduced during the British Occupation, which
makes full allowance for the binding obligation on a tribes
man to take life when his honour is at stake.
ACROSS THE MARSH 61
ers," Fahad continued, now evidently launched
on his favourite theme. He spoke slowly, gaz
ing at the fire without movement or gesture or
play of feature ; only his voice betrayed his earn
"In my father's time Husain of the Bait
'Abdul Khan, of the Bani Lam, having killed
a kinsman of the great Madhkur, fled with his
daughter Hasila to Shaikh Mansur of the Mun-
tafiq. Now Hasila was beautiful, and Mansur
wished to take her in marriage ; but because the
Bani Lam consider themselves of nobler birth
they would not give their daughters in marriage
to the Muntafiq, nor do they to this day; yet
could not Husain refuse when Mansur pressed,
being under obligation to him. Accordingly he
agreed to give the girl, asking but one day's de
lay in which to move his tents to a distance, that
Shaikh Mansur might come riding to ask for
her, as was befitting. Then during the night
Husain and his daughter fled, crossed the Tigris
at Kumait by the ferry that was there, and so
came to the tents of Shaikh Madhkur. Entering
the madhif; he tied his chafiya to the tent-pole ;
then drawing his sword cried, 'With this blade
take my life, but first I entrust this girl to thy
62 THE MARSH ARAB
" 'Speak, explain,' said Madhkur.
" C O Protected of Allah,' Husain replied, 'my
daughter is desired in marriage by Shaikh Man-
sur. But she is a woman of the Bani Lam, and
rather than let her wed a man of the Muntafiq
it seemed to me better to be slain by thee.'
" Thou hast done well,' said the great Madh
kur. 'As for the blood thou hast shed, let it be
a sacrifice for thee, for from thee will I take
no fasl neither woman nor blood-money. In
stead the land of Sabaibah shall be thy fief.'
"Not thus," concluded Fahad, "would the
shaikhs of the Bani Lam act to-day."
Here I was on firmer ground. Of the Sham-
mar and Khaza'ili tribes I knew little, but
among the Bani Lam I had many friends; I had
stayed in their tents, and all their great names
were familiar to me. Thus I knew that Shaikh
Fahad's indictment was not without foundation.
A generation or so ago, the desert code of the
Bani Lam had held unquestioned sway; the stern
virtues illustrated by these stories the pride,
the generosity, the quixotic gallantry and the
unsparing sacrifice were revered and cherished.
But of late years the tribe had tended to roam
the desert less, its leaders had ceased to be shep-
ACROSS THE MARSH 63
herds of great flocks and had begun to settle
down to cultivation of the land. Once bitten
by the desire for wealth and ease, the shaikhs
grew avaricious, and their cultivators were soon
feeling the yoke of the oppressor. Corruption
has indeed set in, but it cannot be laid at the
door of Turks or English; it began to spread,
an insidious poison, as soon as the Arabs aban
doned the stern but simple code of the desert
But are the Governments of 'Iraq, past and
present, altogether free from blame? It is still
the official policy to settle the nomad Arab on
the land, and the invariable result is immorality
and degeneration. It seems that the nomad can
not lose his wildness without losing his virtues
also. The Bedouin, when they walk through
the little towns at the desert's edge, to which they
come each year to trade, stop their nostrils in
scornful disgust at the stuffy, malodorous streets.
May not their instinct show a greater wisdom
than the wisdom of those who would tempt them
from the desert?
Shaikh Fahad, bidding us a courtly good
night, went to his own tent. An idealist, he had
fought all his life for his ideals, and though
beaten had not yet surrendered. He would al-
64 THE MARSH ARAB
ways be a great figure ; but the merciless desert
folk had passed their harsh verdict upon him.
"His sword," they said, "has become a sword
of lead; it glitters, but cuts not"
HERE at last was a channel of clear water!
All day, as we traversed the narrow by
ways of the marsh, our way had been impeded
and our progress hindered by the clinging water-
weeds. Wearying as they are to the boatman,
these flowering masses have a beauty of their
own. The goose-flower lies on the surface in
a sheet of white blossom like that of the wild
strawberry; ]at } the favourite food of the buf
falo and not despised by his master, has a gay
pink flower; the dull red of the 'oxtongue' and
the brighter red of the round-leaved gdaiba give
their note of colour to the marsh. None the
less, we all rejoiced when at last the hampering
masses were left behind, and we found ourselves
in a channel the limpid water of which was evi
dently kept clear by the frequent passage of
boats. A paddle stuck into the water to show
where its owner had cast poison to catch fish,
a net for snaring birds, were signs that my sur-
66 THE MARSH ARAB
mise had not been unfounded; and soon the
breeze bore faintly to our ears the distant shouts
Nearer to us, in a channel running parallel
to ours, but hidden from sight by the thick
barrier of reeds, we could hear the rapid sing
song chatter of two women as they paddled their
craft towards the village. The daughter of the
despised Ma'dan has one great advantage over
her social superiors; she goes unveiled, as free
as any English girl to comb her hair and don
her gayest dress when a chance meeting with
her lover seems possible. As the social level
rises, so does the seclusion of the Arab woman
become stricter. The rich shaikh, for example,
will build a reed fence or a wall of mud to give
greater privacy to his women's quarters, while
the shaikh of a desert tribe when moving camp
will hang some brightly-coloured cloth on the
leading camel, as a warning to strangers to keep
their distance. The bigger the shaikh, the more
rigid the seclusion of his women ; but the strictest
rules are those which govern the well-to-do fami
lies of the towns. There the woman must go
heavily veiled ; she may not see her future hus
band, nor he her; only in the bridal chamber do
they discover whether their messengers had been
A PILGRIMAGE 67
truthful, or whether, corrupted by gifts, they
had extolled imaginary charms. Even the seem
ingly innocuous practice of exchanging photo
graphs is condemned by the more conservative.
In the mashhuf which we could hear so close
to our own, one of the unseen women began to
"O youth in flowing cloak
New-dipped in henna fine,
Death by my father's sword were better
Than not be thine!'*
As the last lingering note of her "thin melan
choly music" died away, the second girl began
in her turn to sing.
"No ferry-man is here for me to pay,
No power have I to swim.
Like one who is poisoned, on this side I stay,
Staggering for love of him."
"Huh, huh!" cried Jahalul aloud. Stirred by
this crude appeal to passion he churned the water
into foam with the powerful strokes of his pad
dle. "A thousand greetings! Sing again!" he
shouted ; but silence answered him.
In a few minutes we came upon a marshman
cutting reeds with his sickle. He was naked,
and the muscles rippled under his brown skin as
68 THE MARSH ARAB
"Allah strengthen thee!" the Haji greeted him
"Allah guard theel" replied the reed-cutter.
Then he called after us, "Danger in thy way!"
"Ha?" queried the old peddler.
"WAllah" the marshman affirmed. It
seemed that a party of the Batabta, who were
at feud with the Haji and his tribe, had preceded
us on their way to the very village in which
we had intended to spend the night.
For a moment Haji Rikkan hesitated. Then,
"the Bait Sawad," he suggested.
"They have carried," was the curt reply.
This was unwelcome news, but it was decided
that we should none the less sleep on the ishan
vacated by the Bait Sawad, for no other settle
ment was near, and the Haji wished at all costs
to avoid an encounter with his enemies of the
It was dark when we reached the deserted
island. Bahalul and Jahalul busied themselves
with lighting a fire and trying their unprac
tised hands at cooking a meal, while the Haji
and I talked of the feud which was the cause
of our lonely sojourn. From the story of his
own we passed to feuds in general, and their
settlement by the tribal method of fasL
A PILGRIMAGE 69
"Female children," says Doughty somewhere,
"are a burden of small joy in a poor Muslim
family, for whom the father shall at last receive
but a slender bride-money, when they are di
vided from his household." But even the bride-
money can be little consolation to parents whose
daughter's fate it is to be a fasl-womzn.
Among the Arabs the primitive law of an
eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for
a life holds good. Every injury has its equiva
lent compensation, failure to pay which leads to
a blood-feud, an inter-tribal war of extermina
tion in which it is not a crime but a solemn duty
to murder, in cold blood or open warfare, as
many as possible of the enemy. The compensa
tion for an injury, whether to a man's body or
to his honour, varies widely among the tribes;
in one, the fast for killing a man's dog may be
enough grain to cover the dead body held up
by its tail, in another nothing less than the pay
ment of a woman may be required. In all cases
where human life has been taken, the fasl is
paid in women two, four, or six for each man's
life, according to the custom of the tribe and
according to the relationship of the murderer to
his victim : if they are members of the same tribe,
70 THE MARSH ARAB
the penalty is heavier than if no blood-relation
ship unites the two.
The only recognized method of ending a
blood-feud is this same method of fasl, com
pensation being paid to the side which has lost
the greater number of victims; the number by
which its losses exceed those of the other side
is counted up, and for each man's life two or
more women are handed over.
The lot of a /W-woman is a hard one. As
soon as she reaches marriageable age often as
early as eleven or twelve she is torn from her
parents and handed over, according to the terms
of a fasl arranged, perhaps, many years pre
viously, to a tribe hostile to her own and there
fore often hostile to herself. If she does not
bear a son to her new tribe, she may be handed
back in ignominy, another woman being de
manded in her stead ; in some tribes if she gives
birth to a son she may leave him behind, and
returning to her own people marry the man of
her choice, provided that the full bride-money is
paid to her former husband.
The yW-woman becomes the absolute chattel
of the stranger to whom she is allotted. How
ever bad her treatment and it is not likely
to be over-good she cannot demand a divorce.
A PILGRIMAGE 71
Still, she is one degree better off than a slave-
woman, whom her owner may kill if he so de
sires : the man who kills his fast-woman has to
pay women to her tribe, for, the Arabs argue,
she is given in blood only, and is not his in blood
and bone, as is the slave-woman.
It is inevitable that the yW-woman should
suffer cruelly in thus expiating the sins of her
tribe. To western minds it seems intolerable
that the custom of a money payment instead of
payment of a woman, sometimes adopted among
the tribes, should not be generally enforced.
But the Arabs have learned by long experience
that the old method of handing over women is
by far the most effective for ensuring future
amity between the tribes hitherto at feud. More
surely than the payment of money, this inter
marriage brings about a lasting and real recon
To his women-folk, who have thus become
the common currency for the settling of disputes,
the Arab is at once exacting and merciless.
Handed over like cattle as compensation for
the sins of men, the woman must herself con
form to the highest standard of virtue, one far
higher than that required of her husband ; from
this standard if she fall by ever so little, the
72 THE MARSH ARAB
penalty is death. The merest suspicion, the
slightest breath of scandal is enough; if her
reputation is barely called in question, it be
comes the duty of her nearest male relation to
take her life. Unless the husband is her cousin,
no dishonour attaches to him, for he is not of
her blood; he will merely drive her from his
home, leaving her father or brother to take what
action he must. Sometimes the woman meets
a merciful end; but it is not unusual for her
to be enveigled to some lonely spot, there abused
and reviled for her conduct, and stabbed with
a dagger or even beaten to death with a spade.
Often the avenger will cut off her right hand,
as a visible proof that his honour is clean and
that no reproach can now be levelled at him.
It is on such occasions that all the latent sav
agery of the Arab, that strain of brutality which
earned for him so bad a name with the British
Expeditionary Force, comes to the surface.
Even if the man would be merciful, public
opinion expressed by word or gesture drives
him to take action. The duty of punishing im
morality is one against which no natural affec
tion, no family sentiment, may contend. Be
tween the twin brothers who so often paddled
me about the marshes a strong tie of fraternal
A PILGRIMAGE 73
affection was evident, silent and undemonstra
tive though it might be; an equal tie probably
existed between them and the sister whom I
had seen some years earlier. Yet, so the Haji
told me as we sat together on this lonely ishan,
Bahalul had killed her with his own hand at a
taunt from an angry neighbour,
He had returned to his hut one day to find
his little brother in tears; the child had been
beaten, he said, by one Guhait, to whose hut
Bahalul went straightway in anger. "Words
passed between them, grew fierce and high.
Then said Guhait, 'Is it so great a crime to beat
a foolish boy? Why such heated words over
the sore back of a child, when thou thyself dost
allow thy sister to break the honour of our tribe
with Radhi?' So Bahalul left him with no more
speech, and returning to his mother's house
found Furaiha sitting within. 'Sister,' he said,
'the price of adultery is death,' and he stabbed
I was appalled at this savage act, and espe
cially that Bahalul should have acted on a mere
taunt, which might have been baseless.
"No," the Haji replied. "Not baseless, for
Guhait would not have dared. If it were so, by
our law he would be the cause of her death, and
74 THE MARSH ARAB
would have had to pay five women as fasl. No,
Bahalul did well, as all men agreed. We know
only our own law and that of our fathers for
many generations : every man is bidden to pre
serve the honour of his tribe, and Bahalul did
Haji Rikkan's defence was barely ended,
when Bahalul came towards us with the tea he
had just made. Feeling that the subject could
not but be an unhappy one to him, I hastened
to speak of something else.
"Tell me, O Haji," I said at random, "of thy
pilgrimage to Mecca."
"Mecca, Mecca the Honourable, the place
of the Cha'aba, truly a distant city," mused the
Haji, as with a piece of reed he stirred the glass
of tea handed him by his nephew.
"Ma sh'AllahJ" he cried after a pause, draw
ing himself up, and tossing back the ends of the
checked kafiya on his head, "What a journey!
"Eh wah!" assented Bahalul.
"As Allah liveth, a bold journey I" resumed
the Haji. "Aye, by the son of Abu Talib, oth
ers 'would have been afraid. None other would
have left the shelter and safety of the marsh,
A PILGRIMAGE 75
save only to trade in the villages beside the river.
But as for me "
"Aye," put in Jahalul sympathetically. "Well
might they be afraid, knowing that but few
who left the marsh in those days ever returned.
They remembered 'Ubaid bin Bakr."
"True, my son, true!" broke in the Haji, who
if a story was to be told liked to tell it, himself.
"May the All-powerful give him peace!' The
tale is a short one. 'Ubaid bin Bakr was a hunter
of fish, which he was used to barter for dates
and tobacco with Musa al Khanayab, a peddler
like myself. Now it chanced one day that he
had speech with a Sabaean, a smith, who went
from village to village repairing such mashhufs
as had need of his skill; and the Sabaean laughed
at his handful of dates and tobacco, telling him
of the high price which such fish as his would
fetch in the market at 'Amara. So 'Ubaid, filled
with the hope of great gain, determined to take
his next boat-load to 'Amara; and he and his
cousins fished by night and by day, until their
mashhuf was full. Then he left the marshes for
the distant town. But neither he nor his mash
huf was ever seen again no, nor the fish that
he had with him."
76 THE MARSH ARAB
"Nor, O my uncle, is my father's sister for
gotten," began Jahalul.
"He speaks of Khadifa," interrupted Haji
Rikkan, turning to me.
At this point Bahalul brought the dish of rice
and the bread he had baked, and we sat down
in a circle to our frugal meal. When we had
eaten and washed our hands, "What of Kha-
difa?" I asked.
"She lived among us for many years, a bar
ren woman/' began the Haji. "And when at
last she bore a child, it was a girl. So her grief
was great, that the fruit of her old age should
be no cause of pride; but at length she ceased
to weep, comforted by the thought that in time
her daughter would become the mother of sons.
Now it chanced that one of our tribe quarrelled
with one of the Bani Harb, and drawing his
dagger killed the man; then fasl was made be
tween our tribe and theirs, and the fasl was that
we should hand over three women to them. Of
these three one was the daughter of Khadifa;
and the Bani Harb was a camel-breeding tribe,
living far from our marshes in the desert. None
could console Khadifa for her daughter's de
parting, for with the maiden she lost the sons
she had hoped to have through her. Weeping
A PILGRIMAGE 77
and mourning she passed her days, lamenting
that never now would she see her daughter's
"In time a passing stranger brought word to
our village that Khadifa's daughtel had given
birth to a son. Joy strove with sorrow in her
heart joy for her daughter's motherhood, sor
row that never might she set eyes upon the child.
One day she heard that that same stranger was
returning on his way to his home, but three days
distant from the tents of the Bani Harb; and
it seemed to her that the desire of her heart might
at last be granted. And Allah seemed to be
gracious, for when she begged the stranger to
take her with him in his mashhuf, her entreaties
prevailed. Taking from its hiding-place the
small store of money which she had gathered
together, she bought a necklet of silver set with
turquoise: this was her gift for him whom she
called her new-born son. She wrapped it in
her garments, and set out in Hasan's mashhuf
with the confidence of one who knows naught.
"At the river's bank, near to the desert where
dwelt the Bani Harb, Hasan left her. He gave
her dates and a small skin of water, and saying
( May Allah strengthen thee' watched her set
out alone towards the distant tents which shel-
78 THE MARSH ARAB
tered her daughter. From that hour," concluded
Haji Rikkan solemnly, "no man set eyes upon
Khadifa, nor was word of her ever heard."
The hot day had turned into a drenching
night; the dew was so heavy that our clothes
were soaked as if with rain. For my greater
comfort or so I thought Haji Rikkan sent
off his nephews to collect fuel, that we might
dry our wet garments. When they had gone
he moved closer to me, and leaning forward
began to speak in low tones.
"Because of our friendship, nothing is hid
den between us. I have sent the young men
away, for I wish them not to hear the tale I shall
tell thee; to thee only will I tell all."
He paused impressively, giving me time to
realize the strict confidence with which I was
"It was through the madness of my sister's
husband that I became a haji," he went on, "and
this was the way of it. My sister not the
mother of these lads, yet daughter of the same
father as myself was wedded to one Talib, son
of 'Abdul Wahhab. Now this 'Abdul Wahhab,
though he married four wives, was childless for
many years, so that his reproach was great among
the people. And when he took at last a fifth
A PILGRIMAGE 79
wife, they mocked him. But Allah was gracious,
and the fifth wife brought him a son. Then, as
soon as the child was born, 'Abdul Wahhab
lifted him high above his head, saying, c Thanks
be to Allah, who at last has blessed me with a
son! Now I swear that this Talib my son shall
visit the great 'Abbas * ; with his necklet and ear
rings he shall pay honour to the tomb of the
"But it happened that while the child was
yet at his mother's breast, 'Abdul Wahhab died.
So the boy grew up and became a man, and him
self took a wife and begat children, and still
his father's vow was unfulfilled. But such an
oath as that is not lightly neglected; and one
night my sister was roughly awakened from her
" 'Mutaira, Mutairal' cried Talib, 'I have
dreamed a fearful dream. 'Abbas is angered
against me, wrathful because I have failed to
visit him, because I have not fulfilled my fath
er's sacred vow.' And kissing my sister from
her forehead to her feet, he swore a solemn oath
that he would not shave his head until he had
been to the shrine.
1 'Abbas, son of 'Alt bin Ahi Talilr, the Prophet's son-in-
law and nephew.
8o THE MARSH ARAB
"But in the morning my sister, watching him,
saw that often he could not bring his lips to say
the words he wished to utter. And when he saw
any man coming towards him, he would run
weeping and kiss him, crying, 'Ah, 'Abbas, son
of 'AH the beloved, I am come to fulfil my vow.'
Still he did harm to no man, but would wander
off alone into the marsh, until one day a stranger
struck him when he tried to embrace and greet
him; and from that time the madness of Talib
increased, making him fierce and wild and apt
to strike other men in sudden anger. All feared
"So at last Mutaira went to each of her kins
men, saying, 'May Allah preserve thee, may
He reward theel Accompany me, I pray, to
the tomb of the Avenger, the Adjutant of Al
lah, the Giver of Water to the Thirsty, that 'Ab
bas may restore my husband. As for money, I
will sell my bed and my ornaments, all that I
have shall be thine; only one golden lira will
I keep, that Talib may throw it to the Father
of the Hot Head at the tomb. Then surely 'Ab
bas will no longer be angry, but will let my hus
band return with us at peace.'
"But they refused every one, putting her off
with excuses: for they were marshmen, and
A PILGRIMAGE 81
feared to leave the shelter of the reeds to under
take so long and hazardous a journey. And I
was no better than the rest; for when she came
to me, begging me with tears to go with her,
I replied, 'Dear as my eyes, how can I leave
my home? Thou knowest as well as I that my
wife is big with child.' And I spoke not with
out reason, for she was my first wife, and my
heart was still warm to her."
The Haji threw away his cigarette, and gazed
meditatively into the moonlit night.
"Strange, strange how the memory of a first
wife will linger in a man's mind 1" he said. "I
have known men call on their death-beds upon
the name of their first wife, though she were
dead, or long ago divorced. As for me may
He forgive 1 to those who have no compassion
none shall be shown. I had none for Mutaira,
and truly my punishment came quickly, eh
"In due time my wife left me and went to
her mother's house, for it was her first child.
And when I heard her calling upon 'AH the
Lord of the Faithful is ever good to women in
travail I knew that her time had come, and I
listened to hear what I should hear. But
though I waited long, there came no cries of
83 THE MARSH ARAB
joy from the grandmothers around her; thus
knew I that a girl had been born to me. But
as the day drew to a close I heard lamentation
and a beating of breasts, and when messengers
came to me I refused to listen to their words,
for I knew what they would say.
"And when my wife and her child were
buried, the marsh seemed to me a place of
lonely solitude and gloom, and I found no
comfort in my kith and kin. So going to my
sister I said, 'Mutaira, I will go with thee to
the tomb of 'Abbas, and will keep thy husband
in my care; and may the Father of the Hot
Head be gracious/ "
Haji Rikkan's wrinkled face changed as
suddenly as a child's. His look of reminiscent
sadness disappeared, as he continued the tale
of his journey, that first venture outside the
marshes, which had so impressed itself upon his
mind that every detail, every halt and wayside
encounter, were after twenty years reproduced
for my benefit with what was evidently the
utmost fidelity. In his hands the simple recital
became a tale of high adventure, enlivened
everywhere by the shrewd mother-wit which
modified and balanced the credulity of this son
of the marsh.
A PILGRIMAGE 83
All went well on the journey to Karbala.
Brother and sister succeeded in so humouring
the poor mad Talib that no difficulties were
met with on their way out of the marshes and
up the river. As they drew near their journey's
end the number of pilgrims on the road grew
daily larger, and from time to time they were
overtaken by a horse or mule bearing a corpse
for burial near the Place of Martyrdom. At
last they sighted the twin golden minarets of
the shrine, which seem to hold out so fair a
promise of welcome and rest to the weary pil
grims from the surrounding desert. But in
the Holy City, once reached, Haji Rikkan
found swift disillusionment.
He was horrified at the rapacity of the Khan-
keeper; the price charged for the small corner
of the hostelry in which he and his two charges
were huddled seemed to him enough to hire
the whole khan. And when he went into the
market to buy food, the prices were fantastic
even if the seller had been prepared for an
hour or two of friendly bargaining; nothing
but sheer hunger drove the Haji at length to
close with such preposterous charges. This,
then, was the sacred city into which hundreds
of pious and defenceless pilgrims poured daily 1
84 THE MARSH ARAB
A city of thieves and sharks, thought Haji
But more enlightenment was in store. The
Saiyids and mumins, the professional men of
religion, were themselves, it appeared, the worst
offenders. Suave, persuasive, rapacious, their
cajoleries were not to be denied. "Where is
Allah's fifth?" they asked, " Where the share
of the Imam?" "Dost pay nothing for radd
al madhalim (indulgences)?" The servants of
the Shrine, when he entered to kiss the holy
tomb, were no better. "Give," said one, "for
the purse of 'Abbas"; "Give," said another,
seizing him by the shoulder, "that thou mayst
be recompensed seventy-fold" ; and yet another,
pulling him by his cloak, demanded money "for
his forbear's (the Prophet's) purse."
"They rested not," said Haji Rikkan bitterly,
"until they had obtained their desire, which was
my all," Penniless and resentful, he bade his
sister lose no time in visiting the tomb of the
Avenger, that they might return with all speed
to the familiar safety of the marsh,
"We returned," the Haji continued, "and
great was the rejoicing which greeted us, for
none had thought to see us alive again. My
tribe made hosa, firing their rifles in the air.
A PILGRIMAGE 85
And in jest, because I had been to distant
Karbala, one of my uncles called me Haji, which
nickname clung to me although, long absent as
I had been, never had I set foot in distant Mecca.
Thus in later years, when I began to have deal
ings outside the marsh, it became clear to me
that this title brought me respect and greater
consideration wherever I might be; so with
boldness I called myself Haji. The old men
soon forgot, the young men never knew, that my
journey had been not to Mecca but to Karbala;
iv'Allah, even I myself at times am verily
persuaded that I have indeed made the Pil
Haji Rikkan's eyes twinkled, but he quickly
resumed his air of dignity.
"All men now hail me a Haji," he said. "Yet
because nothing is hid between us, because of the
friendship that is ours, I tell thee the truth."
He looked at me with some apprehension,
wondering how I should take this confession of
a life-long deception.
"What, O Haji," I said, "of Talib? Did
'Abbas relent, and cure him of his madness?"
"B'lllah 'alaik, what question is this?" he
exclaimed ; but I could see that he was pleased
that I still called him by the familiar title.
86 THE MARSH ARAB
"Nay, have I not told thee that the servants
of the Tomb took from us our all? How then
should 'Abbas himself, the Father of the Hot
Head, the Swift to Avenge, be satisfied with
but a single lira? Nay, Talib returned as mad
as he had gone, and in that state remained to
the day of his death: may Allah show him
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI
WHY, I wondered idly, had Haji Rikkan
asked me to disembark at the little town
of Kumait, some fifty or sixty miles north of the
marshes which were his usual beat? I should
soon know, for the steamer on which I had come
from Baghdad was bearing full-speed down
stream on the top of a spring flood, and the
clump of willows and solitary date-palm which
mark Kumait were already in sight.
The flood was an unusually high one. More
than once on our way down the river I had seen
the cultivators working feverishly at the earthen
bunds which kept the rushing water off their
lands. Here the general slope of the land was
away from the river ; a single breach, one weak
spot unstrengthened, and many miles of land
might be submerged, hundreds of acres of crops
destroyed. Even now, as we neared Kumait, we
heard shouts from a group of tribesmen who
were digging furiously with their long-handled
88 THE MARSH ARAB
spades, and a woman ran along the bank hold
ing out imploring hands. It was evident that
they dreaded the effect of the vessel's wash on
their laboriously built bund; but their cries were
of no avail. The ship, with its heavy steel barges
lashed on each side, swept on its way, the great
wave licked along the bund, and at the weak
spot poured over; but whether the damage was
irreparable or not I never knew, for the little
band of cultivators, striving so desperately to
save their land from the hungry river, was soon
out of sight
We reached Kumait, and swinging round in
a wide curve the boat banked in. I threaded
my way among the high piles of sheep-skins on
the barge, and walked down the swaying plank.
A sonorous "Peace and kinship and welcome 1"
greeted my landing, and Haji Rikkan welcomed
me with a hearty kiss on both cheeks. Were we
not old friends, and had he not once saved my
He hurried me through the small crowd
which had watched the arrival of the steamer,
and led me to the chalya which he had in
waiting. In this frail craft we embarked on the
broad swirling bosom of the Tigris, and as we
made our slow way upstream I learned why the
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 89
Haji had fixed on Kumait as our meeting-place.
Once or twice a year he visited some tribes liv
ing round the marsh which, situated in the
middle of the Bani Lam desert, is fed by the
waters of the Duwairij and Tyb rivers from the
Persian hills. The shrine of 5 Ali al Sharji was
so little out of his way that it was his custom on
each visit to combine religious with professional
duty, and make a pilgrimage to the tomb; he
had arranged accordingly to meet me at the near
est place at which the steamer stopped. I was to
spend the night with my old friend Shaikh
Nasir, towards whose encampment we were now
sailing, and in whose tents he proposed to leave
me during the following day while he paid his
visit to the Tomb.
The blue dome, rising from its group of
willows, could now be seen, a welcome sight
to the traveller whose eyes are weary of the dull
brown banks between which the river winds for
so many featureless miles. The willows are fine
old veterans, thick-trunked, with widely-spread
ing branches. Beneath their shade sit the pil
grims, a strange picturesque assembly, gathered
together from who knows where at the call of a
common faith. As we passed we could see them
sitting in little groups; four or five families,
90 THE MARSH ARAB
perhaps, had travelled together, and babies,
chickens, cooking-pots, here and there a sheep
or two, were all dumped indiscriminately on the
patch of ground which they had chosen for their
camp* The men sat in a little company apart,
smoking in silence, while the women prepared
the evening meal. Each family had its own fire
of camel-thorn, and in the light of the leaping
flames the bright reds and greens of the women's
garments showed in vivid contrast to the sombre
black shailas on their heads. The children's
brown bodies shone roundly in the firelight, and
their shrill voices echoed on the quiet air. By
the river bank were moored the mashhufs in
which the pilgrims had travelled, their graceful
lines silhouetted, black and sharp, against a
background of curling blue smoke and ruddy
But the tomb of 'AH is not merely a pleasant
resort for pilgrims ; it has another aspect. Arabs
are inveterate liars. They are ready to swear
falsely the most solemn oaths by their honour,
by their Prophet, by their God, But there are
certain holy shrines which the superstition or
faith of generations has credited with such
powers that no Arab will swear a false oath by
them; of these the tomb of 'Ali al Sharji is one.
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 91
In spite of the unbounded reverence in which
his tomb is held, this 'AH does not seem to have
been a very important figure historically, and
it is not easy to find out anything about his life.
A number of rather uninteresting miracles are
attributed to him, but his fame consists chiefly
in reflected glory from the great names of his
brother, 'Ali al Ridha, whose shrine in Persia
is a well-known place of pilgrimage, and his
father, who gives his name to the famous mosque
and suburb of Baghdad, Kadhimain.
As our slow craft drew away from the Tomb,
the boatman made a remark which I did not
catch. From the heated tone of Haji Rikkan's
reply I gathered that some doubt had been cast
on the power of the holy man, dead these many
hundreds of years, to slay those who perjured
themselves at his tomb.
Leaving the Sunni 1 boatman to his own
impious thoughts, Haji Rikkan moved nearer
to me, and with more than his usual earnestness
defended the saint whose tomb he would rever
ently kiss on the morrow, seeing no incongruity
in the crude prints and mildewed mirrors and
broken clocks which adorn its walls. To his
i * The two great sects of Islam Shiah and Sunni are di
vided by no less bitter a hostility than were Roman Catholici
and Protettants in tyth century Europe.
92 THE MARSH ARAB
simple faith the power of 'Ali al Sharji to strike
the false swearer with instant death was in
dubitable ; it was a fact well-known, so widely
accepted that no tribesman, whatever he had at
stake, would perjure himself at the shrine. A
story of which he could vouch for the truth, the
Haji said earnestly, would show how great was
'Ali's reputation as one swift to punish perjury.
He himself had seen a robber brought to book
and his theft recovered by no other agency than
the mere name of 'AIL The story so anxious
was Haji Rikkan to omit no detail which might
lend weight to his defence of the saint became
a long one, too long to be retold in his own words.
On one of his periodical visits to the little
town at which he disposed of his surplus rice,
Haji Rikkan became the guest for the night of
a brother (and a more authentic) Haji Sa'd,
headman of a neighbouring village. Early in
the morning his sleep was broken by the sound
of angry voices ; accusations of theft and indig
nant denials ended in an acrimonious wrangle,
of which Haji Rikkan soon learned the cause.
Some days earlier a townsman of Basrah, Ja'far
by name, had come to Haji SaM's village to buy
buffaloes. Each night he had slept with his four
hundred gold liras under his pillow, and now
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 93
he had waked to find in place of the bag of gold
a clod of earth.
Unable to obtain satisfaction from the head
man, Ja'far had left the village threatening to
lodge a complaint against him with the governor
of the district ; and the threat was not an empty
one, for a few days later Haji Sa'd was arrested
and brought in to headquarters, where he was
informed by the Qaimmaqam that, as he was
responsible for what occurred in his village, he
must refund to the Basrawi the money stolen
Haji Sa'd protested vigorously against this
i "Is this justice?" he cried. "I am a true
servant of the government, every order given
by it is upon my head ; but how can I, a poor
man, pay so large a sum? Disgrace enough has
come upon me by the robbing of my guest, as
thine Honour knoweth. Had this Ja'far but
entrusted his wealth to me, as our custom is, all
would have been well ; yet because he failed to
do this, I must be ruined. O Excellency the
Qaimmaqam, dost give credence to every story
brought by lying tongues? Doubtless this towns
man gambled away the money in the coffee-
shops, and spread his tale of robbery to save
94 THE MARSH ARAB
himself from the master who entrusted it to
Haji Sa'd's words were not without effect.
He was allowed to return to his village pending
the result of an official search for the thief.
The headman, anxious to give what help he
could, sent out some of his tribesmen to pick
up the gossip of the country-side; but all they
were able to elicit was the fact that a certain
Daghar, a man of doubtful reputation of the
Matafar tribe, had been seen near the village
on the day before the theft. Even this man was
said by some witnesses to have since died, and
by some to have crossed into Persia, while ac
cording to others he had never been born.
No clue having been found by the police,
this was all the Qaimmaqam had to go upon;
but he resolved to make the most of it by apply
ing a test of which long experience in the district
had shown him the efficacy. He called in the
headmen of the Matafar, and in the presence of
Haji Sa'd and his witnesses, among whom was
Haji Rikkan, delivered his ultimatum.
"One Daghar son of Makki, of your tribe,"
he said, "has stolen four hundred liras from the
village of Haji Sa'd."
; "W Allah wa b'lllah nua t'lllah, I know
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 95
naught of it," swore one, and the other, "A curse
upon me if I am even acquainted with this
"Listen," said the Qaimmaqam, "Either you
will swear at the tomb of 'Ali al Sharji that what
you say is true, or one of you must remain in
prison until the thief and the money are
Silence followed his words. At last, with
downcast looks, one of the headmen spoke.
"We cannot swear. We are afraid."
"Stay in prison, thou," answered the Qaim
maqam, "while this other returns to bring the
"Let me stay in his stead," the second head
man put in.
"Because Daghar is my cousin, and on my
behalf will more readily return the money."
It was a definite admission. "And indeed,"
concluded Haji Rikkan, raising his voice that
the doubting boatman might hear, "who but our
'Ali could have composed the matter thus? The
government had sought the thief in vain; the
Qaimmaqam was in despair; yet by the name of
'Ali al Sharji his gold was restored to the
Basrawi who had thought never to see it again."
96 THE MARSH ARAB
"Am I ignorant, I who live at Kumait in sight
of 'All's tomb?" cried the boatman, ruffled at the
Haji's tone. "For every tale of his deeds known
to Haji Rikkan," he continued, turning to me,
"I know a score, and with thy leave I will tell
thee one. It is a true story, the tale of the Bald-
headed One, of Sikar and Shaikh 'Abdul Hadi.
Dost know it, Haji? No? Well do I remember
that night, for Sikar slept in my uncle's house,
and when the doctor came to dig up the body I
went with him to the grave " the boatman
plunged into a wealth of corroborative detail.
The sleeping village of Razifa had been
awakened by a woman's scream. "Beware of
the Bald-headed One, guard thyself from him
of the bald head," cried the voice, and was
abruptly silenced. The men of the village,
hastening into the now silent hut, found its
owner dead, and his wife dying. Her back was
covered with dagger thrusts, as though she had
flung herself down in an attempt to protect her
husband. The Police Inspector, Saiyid Moham
mad Effendi, was soon on his way, but before he
reached Razifa the woman was dead, and the
evidence of the only witness of the crime was
Saiyid Mohammad, having examined the hut
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 97
in which MIrhun and his wife had been killed,
sat in the shaikh's guest-house, asking question
after question. His effort to trace a motive for
the crime seemed rewarded when, after hours of
cross-examination, he discovered that ten years
previously, at the time of his marriage, Mirhun
had quarrelled with one Sikar, a tribesman liv
ing a few miles away; for him the Police In
spector sent forthwith.
I suggested to the boatman that so long-ago
a quarrel seemed small evidence on which to
base a suspicion of murder; but he disagreed.
"Among the Arabs an injury is never forgot
ten," he said. "Though a man let pass twenty
years before he slays, the tribes will say that he
is hasty in his vengeance 1"
It was sunset when Sikar was brought in, and
the Police Inspector at once broke off his
patient questioning of an old woman who
brought a vague tale of a mashhuf poled by
three men which she had seen leaving the village
at midnight The woman was hustled away, and
after a few brief questions to Sikar the Police
Inspector strode quickly across the floor and
snatched the kafiya from his head. He was as
bald as an egg.
This was conclusive enough for Saiyid Mo-
98 THE MARSH ARAB
hammad, and Sikar was taken under arrest to
'Amara; but the next day, somewhat crest
fallen, the Inspector was back again. Sikar
could prove a fairly convincing alibi, and had
shown that the cause of his dispute with Mirhun
was not such as would account for the crime.
The old woman's tale, overlooked in the stir
of Sikar's arrival at Razifa, now engaged the
Inspector's attention. The mashhuf had also
been seen in a village a few miles downstream,
and at daylight it had passed another, where
the three boatmen had been recognized as men
of the Ruhaiyil tribe. Here the trail was lost,
but a distant cast in the Ruhaiyil territory again
picked it up. Stage by stage it was followed
to the head of the Difla canal, where it definitely
vanished ; but the clue, though incomplete, was
not without significance. At the tails of the
Difla canal lived Shaikh 'Abdul Hadi, whose
nickname among the tribes was Abu Gara'a,
"He of the Bald Head."
Though investigations continued, no new
facts came to light. The evidence before the
Mutasarrif was of the slightest The murdered
woman had cried, "Beware of the Bald-headed
One 1" ; a bald-headed tribesman in a neighbour
ing village was known to have had a small
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 99
quarrel with Mirhun ; and the mysterious mash-
huf had been manned by three tribesmen of a
shaikh known as "the Bald-headed." As his
only chance of solving the problem, the Muta-
sarrif ordered both Sikar and the shaikh to
swear to their innocence on the tomb of 'Ali al
Sharji. Sikar, as the one of lesser birth, was
to be the first to take the oath; if he affirmed
his innocence, Shaikh 'Abdul Hadi would be
required to swear on the following day.
"With the kinsmen of Mirhun and with the
keeper of the Shrine," went on the boatman,
"Sikar entered the shrine. Placing his hand
upon the lattice-work round the Tomb, he said
aloud three times,
"By the truth of this 'Ali al Sharji al Kadhim,
I killed not Mirhun."
"He left the Shrine, and as he went we
watched him. He did not throw off his clothes
like one mad, nor did he crawl on the ground
and bite the earth, nor did he bark like a dog.
He returned to Kumait and went to my uncle's
house. There he supped and slept and in
the night he died."
"Allahu AkbarMost great is Allah!" ex
claimed Haji Rikkan in triumph. "Was not
the truth in my hand when I told thee that 'Ali
ioo THE MARSH ARAB
al Sharji struck dead all who forswore them
selves at his tomb?"
There was a grim light in the boatman's eye,
but Haji Rikkan rushed on unheeding.
"For all its effendis the government could not
find the murderer, yet our 'Ali knew that it was
Sikar, and slew him when he swore falsely!"
"Why dost thou speak?" interrupted the
boatman. "Thou hast a tongue, but so have
others. May I not finish my story? Thou art
like a majarsha^ never silent. 'Ali al Sharji had
erred, he had killed the innocent!"
Haji Rikkan drew his 'aba more tightly
round him, and put his hand to his beard. The
story had taken a turn little to his liking. He sat
in offended silence while the boatman ended.
"Because Sikar died, all men held him
guilty of the murder, and Shaikh 'Abdul Hadi
since now there was no need for him to
swear to his innocence returned to his place.
But after some days, the doctor from 'Amara
came to Kumait. Where,' he asked, 'is this
Sikar buried?' One showed him the way;
many followed him, and I among them.
"The doctor ordered the earth to be dug away
and the body taken from the grave : may he be
forgiven, for it was a sin. They unwound the
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 101
reed mat in which Mirhun was wrapped, and
the winding sheet also. Then, O Merciful !
the doctor cut open the dead body.
"After he had left us, we heard nothing for
many days. Then strange tidings reached our
ears. Sikar's body was full of poison ; the poison
had been brought from Baghdad, one of the
slaves of Shaikh 'Abdul Hadi was known to
have been sent thither. In the end we heard that
the Mutasarrif had ordered the presence of the
shaikh; but he, fearful now that his guilt was
known, fled to Huwaiza. As for what the Haji
has told thee "
"Wachij <wachi bank in!" shouted Haji
Rikkan. While we talked the sun had set and
the short twilight faded. On the bank ahead
a moving light spoke of tents. Our hail was
answered, and the lantern was waved to and fro
to show us where to land. Across a stretch of
rough, hummocky ground we followed the
shadowy figure with the welcoming light,
stumbling at length over tent-ropes as we neared
a small group of tribesmen.
In the midst of the group stood the broad,
upright figure of Shaikh Nasir, our host for the
night The light of the lanterns, thrown. up
wards, caught the gold thread which patterned
102 THE MARSH ARAB
his rich blue silk robe, and decorated the neck of
his voluminous cream-coloured 'aba. It shone
ruddily on his heavily-embroidered scarlet coat,
and on the rings set with turquoise which
adorned his powerful fingers.
As he led the way to his madhif, I wondered
whether the next generation of shaikhs would be
as virile and as dignified, as truly tribal leaders,
as this representative of a passing order. Nasir
and many others were like him did not hold
his shaikhship merely by virtue of being his
father's son. By courage and force of character
he had earned the goodwill which had put him
in that position, and by the same qualities had
maintained it for two score years. Leader in
battle, as his scarred and rugged face showed;
spokesman in the councils of the tribe; deep
schemer and intriguer when cunning served
him; his sons would certainly be more civil
ized, better educated ; but would they have his
force of character and leadership? Only time
The floor of Shaikh Nasir's madhif was richly
spread with Persian and Arab carpets ; at the far
end lay silk-covered mattresses piled with bol
sters of brightly-coloured velvet On one of
these I was bidden to seat myself, while the
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 103
shaikh, as a special mark of attention from host
to guest, lit a cigarette for me in his own mouth,
and himself stirred my glass of tea.
For some time the silence was unbroken after
the greetings of formality had been exchanged.
The shaikh left the tent, and I moved nearer
for a talk with his mullah or clerk, a member
of a class of Arab society whose power is cer
tainly doomed to wane in the next generation.
At present the mullah is indispensable to his
master, for only in rare cases can the shaikh
conduct his own correspondence. With paper
spread on the palm of one hand, and reed pen
held in the other, the mullah will write at his
master's dictation, signing the letter with the
impress of a ring taken from the shaikh's
finger. In the past, when inter-tribal warfare
was rather the rule than the exception, a man
might be a powerful shaikh one day and a
fugitive the next. He had no spare time for
the education of his sons in any arts save those
of war ; and the young Arabs of shaikhly birth
grew up, from the time they were able to sit
a horse, trained to wield the sword rather than
the pen. The mullah therefore, in his capacity
of secretary and confidant to the shaikh, often
possesses considerable power, and is sometimes
104 THE MARSH ARAB
with good reason more feared among the tribes
men than the shaikh himself.
As I discussed with the mullah the always
urgent question of the crops, all the Arabs in
the madhif rose respectfully at the entrance of
a tall old man. Clad in a coarse and worn
woolen 'aba, with a frayed leather belt round
his broad waist, and rough sandals on his feet,
he looked a typical cultivator ; and not until he
came close did I recognize him as my host,
Shaikh Nasir himself.
He came to apologize for so abruptly leaving
a guest. My slave his son, he said, would fulfil
my every wish, but his own presence was
urgently needed some miles downstream, where
a serious breach had occurred in the bund.
"What would ye?" he ended, a note of pride
in his voice. "Am I not the Father of Bunds?"
and he took his leave.
"Is he indeed called the Father of Bunds?"
I asked, turning to the mullah.
"Aye, that name has been his since first he
became shaikh, while yet a boy. But some there
be who call him Abu Mayitain the Father of
Two Dead Men."
"A strange title! How came he by it?"
"That will I tell to thine Honour," said the
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 105
mullah, tucking up his feet under him with a
sigh of pleasurable anticipation. In the black
hair tents of the desert, where narrative by word
of mouth has still to serve for novel, drama, and
newspaper, the post of story-teller is an honour
able one ; and the mullah with his rich, rolling
voice was well fitted to make the most of an
"In the year after the death of Ghadhban in
the fight against Kharaibat," he began, "my
sister's husband desired to lease the lands of
Khazaina from Shaikh Nasir. Now this is a
good rich land, and free from salt; but well-
nigh every year the river overflows its banks, and
breaks through the bunds, flooding the greater
part. For this reason the land was leased out
for only a quarter its value, and 'Abdullah, the
husband of my sister, offered two hundred liras
to the shaikh. But Nasir was in need of money;
for the last two years the crops had been poor,
he owed much revenue, and the Turks were
pressing for payment He would not lease the
land for less than six hundred liras.
" Were I but sure that my crops would be
safe from flood,' said 'Abdullah, 'willingly
would I pay this sum, for the land is good land.
106 THE MARSH ARAB
But thou knowest that not more than one year
out of five is the harvest safe.'
" This,' said Nasir, 'shall be the fifth yean'
" 'Dost know of the rise of the river before
ever the rains begin to fall, or the high snows
to melt upon the hills?' asked 'Abdullah.
" This year no flood shall cover the land of
Khazaina. I, Nasir, have said it. I will build
a great bund that shall safeguard the crops, let
the river rise as it will.'
" 'But if the bund should break?'
" 'I have spoken,' said Nasir. And he swore
a great oath, by Allah and by his Prophet and
by his own honour, that the land should be safe
The mullah paused, spreading out depre
catory palms in implicit apology for one who
would so swear, taking upon himself that which
only Allah could fulfil.
"So 'Abdullah took the land, and at the first
'rain he sowed and ploughed, and the young
wheat stood green as far as the edge of the desert
"Shaikh Nasir built the bund, of trodden
earth faced with camel-thorn, the work of many
tribesmen for many days. Then in due course,
as its custom is in spring, the river began to rise.
It reached the level of its banks, and crept above
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 107
them. It reached the broad strong bund of
Nasir's building, and lapped against it And
Nasir, mindful of his oath, set a watchman that
night upon the bund, telling him that if he slept
and any harm befell, he would cut off his right
"The watchman was Mahdi bin Lazim, who
till midnight walked upon the bund, keeping
good watch. He saw that it was strong, far
higher and broader than it was their custom to
build ; and as the night was cold, he gave thanks
to Allah that his shaikh had builded well, and
sat down to rest behind the bund. Thus it
chanced that he fell asleep. And while he slept
the wind changed, and lashed the swift-flowing
river into waves, which beat angrily against the
high bund. Now it was newly built, and the
earth was still loosely packed, and soon the water
found a weak place where a rat had dug her
"At first broke through a thin trickle, like
milk from a camel's udder; but Mahdi slept on,
and saw it not. When at the first light of dawn
his eyes opened, he saw a swift fierce stream
pouring through the bund; and he was afraid,
for he felt the knife already at his right hand.
Hastening to the village, he gathered his family
io8 THE MARSH ARAB
and his household goods, and crossing the river
took shelter with Shaikh Tahir, Nasir's enemy.
"The sun had been up an hour before the news
reached Nasir; and he cursed Mahdi and all his
forbears, and sent messengers to bring him in.
At the same time he sent others to call in all his
tribesmen, with their womenfolk and their beasts
of burden. But he, with his brothers and all the
men of his house, went quickly to the place, and
found my sister's husband gazing at the breach,
while his women cast earth upon their heads and
beat their breasts.
" <O Protected of Allah, 7 said 'Abdullah, <is
this the fulfilment of thine oath?'
" 'I will pluck out the eyes of Mahdi, who has
thus betrayed meP said the shaikh for then as
now (added the mullah, dropping his voice) he
was terrible in anger.
" 'His eyes, and the eyes of all his family, will
not save my crops,' said 'Abdullah. 'It will take
many days to close this breach; and two days
and two nights of this' he pointed to the surg
ing water 'will ruin all.'
" 'Thy crops are not yet lost/ answered Nasir.
'Am I to swear again the oath I swore, by Allah
and by his Prophet and by mine own honour,
that the land should be safe? Nay, but now I
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 109
swear, by the good grain that thou shalt surely
reap at harvest, the breach shall be closed before
tomorrow's sunset. 7
"He sent more messengers, to bring in even
the old men and the old women, the young
girls and the young boys. And those who were
already assembled he divided into parties, the
women to cut camel-thorn and tamarisk, and the
rough grass that grows beside the river, the men
to bring earth. Only the strongest men he kept
to stem the flow of water.
"Of these, half stood on one side of the breach,
half on the other. At a word from the shaikh
they rushed into the water, turning their backs
to the current, each man staying himself on his
misha, which he thrust into the ground before
him. Thus they tried to check the rush of the
water; but the current was fierce and strong, and
the quivering mishas showed how hard the men
had to struggle to keep their footing. In the
middle, where the stream was swiftest, not a
man could stand for more than a moment; one
after another was whirled off his feet At that
time Nasir was some thirty years of age, and at
the height of his strength, taller and broader
than any man there. Throwing off his garments,
he seized a mis ha and dashed into the water, call-
no THE MARSH ARAB
ing upon his brothers to follow him. In the
middle of the breach he stood upright, staying
the stream with his back as the others did ; thus
the chain of men met across the breach, and the
rush of water was stayed enough for the other
workers to begin to make ring bunds, one
close to the breach, the other farther back and
stronger, lest the first should break.
"Bundles of the camel-thorn brought by the
women were laid down, and on them earth was
heaped. Some dug it as best they might from
beneath the water, others farther afield, two
working together to fill an 'aba, which they
would then carry by the corners to the bund.
More men formed a line, passing clods of earth
from hand to hand.
"Night came; by Allah's mercy the moon was
full, and the work went on. The living barrier
still held back the flood, men being replaced by
fresh men as their strength was exhausted. The
women and children still brought their bundles,
but more slowly now, as they had to go farther
and farther afield to find the scrub. Then came
three camels of the shaikh, bearing dates for the
hungry labourers; no halt was called, but they
ate in hasty mouthfuls, while still striving
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI in
against their untiring enemy. For the wind blew
still hard from the north, and the strength of
the river seemed rather to grow than to lessen.
"All night the work went on. At dawn
came a long string of camels and cows, bearing
bundles of green barley, freshly cut from the
shaikh's own crops, for strengthening the bund.
'Rather would I lose the whole of my barley,'
said Nasir, 'than see my word broken.'
"By noon the two ring bunds were finished.
The weary men from the water, their faces grey
with fatigue, the men worn out with digging
earth and carrying, threw themselves down
where they were, and slept. The women also,
withdrawing a little way apart, slept."
The mullah sank back, the tension of his
body relaxed as if the fatigue of that day were
with him still. There was silence for a moment
before he continued his tale.
"Only Shaikh Nasir and 'Abdullah slept not.
" 'Behold,' said Nasir, as he looked at the
work which at one time had seemed beyond
human compassing, 'behold the promise of thy
"Together they looked at it. Then suddenly,
with no warning, part of the first ring bund
ii2 THE MARSH ARAB
crumpled and gave way, letting in a torrent of
the angry pent-up water to beat against the
second bund. Speechless with anxiety the two
men watched. Would it stand the strain? It
held it held no, a thin trickle was forcing its
way through, eating out a channel. It grew
wider so wide wider.
"With a shout the shaikh leapt to the weak
point, calling to the sleeping men to help. But
they were deep in slumber, and his voice was
hoarse from his ceaseless shouted encourage
ment of the day before.
"The water began to pour through. In two
minutes it would be beyond control. What, then,
of his oath?
"Nasir turned to the motionless figures beside
the bund. With his giant strength he seized two
sleeping men, thrust them into the widening
breach, and held them down. 'Abdullah had
awakened some of his tribesmen, and, stupid
with sleep, they obeyed the shaikh's command,
and piled earth and still more earth on the liv
"Thus was the breach closed, and the waters
came not to the land of Khazaina, and the
honour of Shaikh Nasir was saved."
THE SHRINE OF 'ALI AL SHARJI 113
With a dramatic gesture the mullah ended his
"What happened to the shaikh when this be
came known?" I asked.
"O Long in Years," the mullah replied
simply, "it took place in the time of the Turks."
THE PLACE OF CASTING
AT a pace very different from that of Haji
Rikkan's clumsy craft, the graceful mash-
huf of Shaikh Zamil bore me swiftly down
the Chahala canal. It bounded forward in
a series of darting leaps, as the paddles of the
shaikh's four stout negro slaves struck the water
in unison. The slender tapering prow of the
little craft rose high in the air, and the dripping
blades of its four bright blue paddles caught the
sun with each stroke. The boat's inner side was
decorated with large, flat-headed iron nails, and
all the woodwork was painted a vivid green in
strong contrast with the black of its bitumen-
coated outer side. Black also were the limbs and
faces of the slaves, an ebony blackness which
their white garments intensified. And for a last
touch of barbaric splendour, a mattress of purple
velvet was spread in the bottom of the boat.
On this I sat with Shaikh Zamil, my host of
the preceding night We were on our way to
THE PLACE OF CASTING 115
Qala't Baidha the White Castle where I was
to meet Haji Rikkan. From time to time the
featureless country through which the canal
wound its way was relieved by one of the low
mounds which in the dreary flatness of the plains
of Lower 'Iraq cannot fail to catch the eye.
These relics of a far-off past are often used by
the tribes as burial grounds, or serve as land
marks on some rarely-used caravan route; one
we now passed was called, the shaikh told
me, Masubb and the strange name roused my
curiosity. Why Masubb the Place of Casting?
Once, in earlier days, the mound had been sur
rounded by marshes; but the water, receding
year by year as the Tigris brought down its load
of silt, had left it high and dry until to-day it
stands on land which, once marsh, has become
first rice and then wheat and barley growing
"Why do they call that mound Masubb?" I
A voice behind me answered, before the
shaikh had time to reply, "I kiss thy hand."
I turned to look at the speaker. An old negro,
his face seamed and lined with wrinkles, the
ends of his grey beard dyed red with henna, laid
u6 THE MARSH ARAB
down his paddle in order to give his whole at
tention to his story.
"I will explain," he said. "Well do I know
the reason, for the tale was often told me by my
mother. And she was bought by the great Faisal
for twenty-five liras," he added with pride, as
one might mention the fact that one's ancestors
came over with the Conqueror.
Most of the shaikhs in 'Iraq are the owners
of slaves, who seem to have no quarrel with Fate
on the score of their condition. They are as a
rule well treated, address their master as "my
uncle," and may rise to positions of considerable
influence. As is natural in a Muslim country,
the yoke of slavery presses most heavily on the
women. A female slave may be given by her
owner to whom he will in order to add to the
number of his slaves, and the child belongs not
to her but to her master ; even if she is formally
married to another slave, with the usual pay
ment of dowry, their child is not freed from
bondage to its mother's owner. But though
slavery persists, the lot of the slaves has im
proved since the British connection with this
country; and the old man who had been
paddling vigorously behind me to-day was evi
dently one who found slavery to his liking. He
THE PLACE OF CASTING 117
was on the best of terms with his shaikh, and
felt quite at liberty to drop his paddle and join
in the conversation when it interested him.
"In the days of the great Faisal," he began,
"the Albu Mohammad, as now, were cultivators
of rice, though not as an independent tribe, for
they paid tribute to the Bani Lam. Now Faisal
was young, and a proud shaikh, and he counted it
a disgrace that his tribe should give tribute to
any. Thus one year he made excuses and did
not pay, and when after some months messengers
came from the shaikh of the Bani Lam ordering
him to send at least a part of his dues, he sent
them away with insults, openly refusing any
longer to acknowledge an overlord,
"Madhkur of the Bani Lam, as proud a man
as he, began to collect his tribes at Bahatha, for
the over-throwing of his disobedient vassal.
Faisal called together his own men likewise.
Then came news that Madhkur was building
mud forts at Bahatha, and we rejoiced with
scorn and taunting, for we thought he was afraid
to come down and fight our shaikh in open
battle. We rejoiced too early. Soon the reason
of his building became apparent: he had
brought together not only his armed warriors,
but men used to toil in the fields, and these he
u8 THE MARSH ARAB
had set to building a great dam across the
Chahala, from which our rice-fields drink their
water. Thus Madhkur achieved his end, with
no fighting and without venturing into our
marsh country; for Faisal, unable because of the
protecting forts to break down the dam, thought
it better to pay than to lose the whole of his rice
crop the value of ten years' tribute. But those
who sat with him that night say that he broke
silence only once, to swear by Allah and in Allah
and through Allah that this year of humiliation
should be his last of vassaldom.
"After that day his people saw no more of
Faisal for many weeks. He shut himself up
in his fort, and all we heard of him was an order
that no coffee should be drunk in the tribal
madhif until the stain of this disgrace, should be
washed away. Day after day the coffee-beakers
stood empty in the unkindled ashes, and the old
men who had gathered nightly to talk of war
and the good days of their youth came no more
to the madhif.
"At last Faisal came forth from his fort, smil
ing the smile of a conqueror, and made a great
feast for the headmen of the tribe. None knew
what his plan was, save that messengers who had
been sent with money to distant Baghdad had
THE PLACE OF CASTING 119
returned, bringing with them two strangers,
Saiyid Ghafuri and Salih al Takmaghchi. But
after the feast, Faisal gave orders to his mullah
that every family, both of his own tribe and of
those who owed allegiance to him, should send
him copper vessels, each household to the utmost
of its ability.
"The order went forth among the people, and
they hastened to obey, for Faisal was a shaikh
whose bidding it were best to do quickly. They
sent in cooking pots of copper, and coffee pots
of every size, from the tiny dalla to the heavy
gumgum; trays they sent and water vessels and
mushkhanas. There was no stint nor holding
back, for it was said that the shaikh was in need
of copper for the making of a mighty spell
against the Bani Lam.
"Faisal chose the ishan we have passed, that
which men now call Masubb, for the place to
which all the tribes should bring their gifts of
copper. Here, where the surrounding* marshes
gave him security from his enemies, he set to
work, building a mighty furnace. Every day
from dawn to sunset came mashhufs from all the
neighbouring tribes, bringing reeds and rushes
to Heat it, and every day came more mashhufs
120 THE MARSH ARAB
with household vessels from the more distant
"Saiyid Ghafuri and Salih directed the work.
They showed the shaikh's men how to make
moulds of dried mud, each one in a deep pit
The copper vessels were heated in the furnace,
and the molten metal poured into the moulds.
All the tribesmen made hosa, running round the
smoking pits, shaking their swords and lances,
praising the cunning of Faisal.
"The shaikh and all his people waited
breathlessly for the cannon which the Saiyid
had said should be made of their copper vessels;
but alas, there was no success. Then Faisal
ordered that the furnace be rekindled and the
metal melted once more, for he had set his
hand to the task, and would not own to failure.
This time sheep were slain as a sacrifice to
Allah, but still with no good result, so that the
people began to murmur, asking one another
how it could be possible for them, ignorant
folk of the marshes, to make cannon such as the
Turks used in their wars against other great
nations. And those who had spent many days
in bringing fuel for the furnace begged leave to
return to their homes, saying that it was now
the turn of others.
THE PLACE OF CASTING 121
"But Faisal would not listen. He ordered
the people to bring in more rushes, as much
again as they had brought before. And for the
third time the furnace was heated, many hun
dreds of men running to and fro with more fuel
and still more, while the shaikh himself stood
by and encouraged them with cheering words.
And this time, Allah was gracious.
"When under the direction of the Saiyid the
cannon had been taken from their moulds, some
of the men were set to smoothing them with
roughened iron, others the shaikh set to make
powder. That was a great work, of which men
talked far and wide, so that the Bani Lam heard
of the hostile plans of our tribe, and their shaikh
with many followers came out with war flags
against us. But Faisal determined to attack his
enemies, and free himself once and for all from
"Their forces, many hundreds of horsemen,
were collected at Abu Husainiya, on the great
bund which protects their land from the Tigris
floods. But when the men of the Albu Mo
hammad in their boats saw how many were
gathered against them, they were unwilling to
land, saying that though they feared no enemy
in their own marsh country, they could not hope
122 THE MARSH ARAB
to match the mounted men of the Bani Lam In
the open desert
"Then Faisal spoke to his people, and
promised them horses more fleet than those of
the enemy. He kept his word, for he had
brought his cannon on boats lashed two by two,
and with them he drove the Bani Lam from off
the great bund."
"Were many killed? 7 ' I asked.
"The Albu Mohammad fired but once,"
replied the negro, looking doubtfully towards
the great-grandson of Faisal.
"It is permitted. Speak!" said Shaikh Zamil.
"They fired but one of the cannon," went on
the slave, "and it split in pieces like an over
ripe melon. Those it killed were of our own
people, yet it was the Bani Lam who fled for
their terror at the great noise. Then with spades
the Albu Mohammad broke down the bund, and
the swift waters rushed in over the dry land,
overtaking the horses of the Bani Lam. Great
was their defeat, and their yoke was lifted from
us. Thus, Effendim, our Faisal brought freedom
to the people."
The old slave took up his paddle once more
and fell to work, crooning softly under his
breath. The song was a pathetic link with his
THE PLACE OF CASTING 123
unknown freedom, for the words, meaningless
to him, were those which are sung to their chil
dren by the mothers of far-off Africa.
A strange story he had told of pluck and
energy, of one man's will overcoming obstacles
which might well have seemed insuperable! It
was hardly credible that nearly a century ago an
untaught shaikh of these wild marshes should
not only have conceived such a project, but
should have carried it through to success. I
should have been inclined to doubt the old slave's
story, had I not heard of the cannon from other
sources, and learned of the disaster which in the
end they brought upon Faisal and his tribe. On
this point the negro had been silent.
In those days, the tribes on the Tigris, be
tween Baghdad and Basra were left by the
Turks to their own devices. But news of their
growing strength, perhaps even of the existence
of FaisaPs guns, reached the ears of the distant
rulers, who resolved to break the tribes before
it was too late. Thus the Albu Mohammad,
after one short taste of liberty, found themselves
under a yoke far heavier than that of the Bani
Lam, and under masters far more tyrannical,
grasping, and corrupt. The guns were taken to
Baghdad ; and I wondered whether, among the
i2 4 THE MARSH ARAB
collection of disused, antiquated cannon found
in the Citadel after the fall of the town, were
numbered the clumsy, home-made, splendid
guns of that fine old warrior Faisal.
By this time we had reached the rice-land
country which in Shaikh Faisal's time had been
marsh. The villages were little more than two
single lines of reed huts straggling along beside
the river for perhaps nearly a mile. On one
bank the doorways opened upon the river; to the
other bank each hut turned its back, for the
entrance of every dwelling must face towards
Mecca. Only the houses of Saiyids and mumins
were here placed broadside to the river, to warn
a thief that in daring to rob such a house he
would be guilty of sacrilege as well as theft; and
one or two traders had sought to secure im
munity for their goods by adopting the same
Between the villages, scores of small channels
took off at right angles to the main stream. At
this time of the year their water was heavy with
the rich silt which they were carrying on to the
rice-fields. To the rice cultivator the amount
of silt brought down by the river means as much
as his rainfall to the grower of wheat and barley,
for the yield of the crop varies in direct propor-
THE PLACE OF CASTING 125
tion to the depth of the silt deposit in which the
rice is planted.
It was from these rich and wide rice-fields
that Shaikh Zamil derived the wealth which had
made possible last night's lavish hospitality.
His madhif was the largest I had every seen
one hundred and eight feet in length, and eight
een in width; its height cannot have been less
than eighteen feet. No material other than
reeds, brought from the marshes, had gone to its
construction. Its plan was that of the ordinary
marsh hut, but its builders had been master-
craftsmen, who had spared no pains to make this
madhif a superb specimen of its kind. The
twenty-one arches of its framework, composed
of bundles of reeds wound round with plaited
rush ropes at regular intervals, were perfectly
symmetrical in their gradual tapering upwards
to the roof. The woven mats which formed the
curved roof showed an orderly and regular over
lapping. The lower part of the walls, to a
height of about four feet, was composed of a
lattice-work of reeds through which the air came
freshly. Smoothly-plaited reed mats covered
the floor; the square coffee-hearth near the door
way was surrounded by a rounded ledge of mud.
At the far end were spread fine Persian carpets.
126 THE MARSH ARAB
On two or three silk-covered mattresses were
piled scores of velvet and silken cushions, blue
and green, orange and scarlet a single bright
mass of colour which threw into high relief the
simplicity and fine proportions of the building.
Here we had seated ourselves. Though the
evening was far from cold, a slave entered with
a brass brazier heaped with glowing charcoal,
from which rose the faint scent of incense.
Other slaves, more richly dressed than their
master, brought in tea and coffee, and offered
cigarettes. Beside the shaikh sat a small child,
perhaps eight years old, a demure, dark-eyed
little girl the only one of her sex present in the
great madhif who, accompanying her tall
bearded father as the favourite daughter of a
shaikh often does, should have made a charming
picture of Arab childhood. But, alas! she
was dressed in pseudo-European fashion, with
feathered hat and tan buttoned boots: another
outlet for one small fraction of Zamil's super
On his domestic affairs, indeed, a great part
of this was expended. As a strict Mohammedan,
Zamil only permitted himself four wives; but
his religion placed no restriction on the number
of times these four might be changed. Quietly
THE PLACE OF CASTING 127
and without ostentation one of the four reign
ing queens would be divorced and sent back to
her home ; then, with rejoicing and acclamation,
feasting and merry-making, another wife would
come to rule over the unstable heart of Shaikh
Some two hours after our arrival a coloured
cloth was spread on the floor, and the evening
meal began to make its appearance began, for
it was a long business. In common with many
other tribal leaders, Zamil possessed wealth
enough to have enabled him to emulate the
princes of Arab folk-tales, and feast his guests
wittfthe costly if unsatisfying luxury of dishes
heaped with gold ; but this idea had fortunately
not occurred to him, and the meal was the
normal Arab supper, differing from that of
humbler folk only in the variety of food and
the number of servants.
First came the shaikh, bearing in his hand
a dish which he placed carefully on the cloth.
Behind him came a string of slaves and retainers,
each with two dishes, a seemingly endless pro
cession. Soon the cloth was covered with great
mounds of rice, roast chickens and wild duck,
savoury stews, plates of honey and ground rice,
sweet pastries made with date juice; but still the
128 THE MARSH ARAB
stream of servants entered at the arched door
way, plates were pushed more closely to make
room, and soon the whole floor was covered.
As I looked down the long madhij, and in the
dim light of the lanterns held up at intervals
by slaves saw the great white mounds of rice
in diminishing perspective, saw the whole roast
sheep and the deep bowls of sherbet, I thought
of other meals, when a few plates of food had
been put on a round mat, and Haji Rikkan and
his nephews had eaten with me from a common
dish. At such meals one shares the family life.
And for another reason I recalled those simple
meals : the mighty feast before me had taken so
long to bring in that every dish was stone cold !
Now in the afternoon sunshine we went on
between river banks which became ever lower
until they disappeared altogether, and we found
ourselves on a stretch of open water which I
might have thought mere marsh, had I not the
shaikh's word that below it lay his richest rice-
lands. As the water of the marsh receded, all
this area would be gradually uncovered, and
here would be grown the shittal rice, sown up
stream, but transplanted into this deep silt by
hand. Beyond, ahead of us, lay a line of reeds
which marked the beginning of the marsh
THE PLACE OF CASTING 129
proper, and above them we could see the turrets
of Zamil's fort, Qala't Baidha, gleaming white
in the sun. Like some fairy fortress it looked
as we approached; but disillusion followed.
The smooth marble walls of the castle were of
sun-dried mud, the battlements and turrets were
the crudest products of Arab moulding.
Shaikh Zamil now took his leave, and I
climbed alone to the top of one of the towers.
As the fort had been built for defence, the ascent
was not easy; a very low entrance had first to be
negotiated on hands and knees; then came a
ladder of stout reeds which, when climbed,
could be drawn up after one. I hauled myself
at length on to the flat roof, and looked over the
battlements at the many-coloured view.
Towards the east, in unbroken ranks, lay mile
upon mile of reeds, a solid phalanx stretching as
far as the eye could see. Upright as "spears and
javelins in array" they stood, while the slanting
sunlight glanced from their heads as though
from spikes of silver. So dense a mass seemed
impenetrable, impossible of navigation; but even
as I watched, a slim black craft slipped from
some hidden channel and made its way towards
the ishan on which Qala't Baidha stood. It was
i 3 o THE MARSH ARAB
Westwards the water was open, except for a
few clumps of tall reeds which already looked
black against the evening sky. Beyond them
I could see Shaikh Zamil's mashhuf, a tiny
black crescent on the stretch of water we had
crossed; already he had reached the turbid
brown of the silt-laden water. Far in the
distance one could make out the rounded roofs
of a rice-growers' village, the only sign of
habitation in the vast expanse over which I
Qala't Baidha was manned by a score or so
of Zamil's hoshiya, whose ostensible duty it was
to maintain law and order in the marsh area
held by him. A sarcastic comment from Haji
Rikfcan, who joined me now on the roof, in
formed me that the shaikh's real interest lay
less in maintaining order than in levying toll on
all the marsh craft which passed his fort.
"How do I know this?" the Haji went on.
"I know because I myself suffer from his exac
tions, and also " here his eyes lit up with
mirth "because I myself, when I was a chaoush
in the time of the Turks, did no otherwise."
Seated on the roof while the dying sun sank
into the sea of gold before us, while the short
twilight turned to darkness and the orange
THE PLACE OF CASTING 131
moon rose, I listened to the reminiscences of
Haji Rikkan. They were not recounted in the
chronological sequence in which they are here
set forth, but as the old man's rambling memory
served him, one incident leading to another. The
wealth of expressive gesture, the play of feature
which illuminated them, cannot, alas I be re
captured by the written word.
THE FORT OF KASSARA
HAJI RIKKAN'S first footing on the
ladder of fame a footing insecure and
not to be long retained was gained as an in
direct result of the "Great War," a phrase which
to him meant the intermittent conflict which
went on during his early manhood between the
Bani Lam and the Albu Mohammad, the two
great tribal confederations of the lower Tigris.
"Lost by a living woman, won by a dead,"
he said of the first battle of that long-drawn-out
struggle ; and at this paradox the lines round his
shrewd old eyes deepened with secret delight as
he waited the inevitable demand for an explan
"Eight thousand, nay, ten thousand were slain
in that war, which the folly of one man brought
about. It happened that Ibn Madhkur, shaikh
of the Bani Lam, left his great flocks in the care
of Dhamad of the Chanana, while he himself
went to Mohammerah. And while he was
THE FORT OF KASSARA 133
absent, Dhamad sold the wool of Ibn Madhkur's
sheep, and used in his own tents the butter made
from their milk, and killed many for food.
When Ibn Madhkur returned his anger was
great; he deprived Dhamad of the shaikhship,
and seized all his possessions verily a hard
"So Dhamad fled across the river to Saihud,
lord of the Albu Mohammad, and making
dakhala besought him to intercede with Ibn
Madhkur for the recovery of his flocks* But
Ibn Madhkur would not listen to the entreaties
of Saihud, and thus began war between them.
Each side prepared for battle. The men made
hosa, chanting their war-songs, shaking swords
and lances to the beat as they ran in circles
round the battle-flags held high in the air.
Thus did they steel their hearts for the fray.
And while they prepared for war, Ibn Madh
kur, Shaikh of the Bani Lam, took to himself
a new wife.
"For many generations has Sa'da been a
famous name among the Bani Lam. Hast not
even to-day heard them called the Brothers
of Sa'da? This Sa'da whom Ibn Madhkur
wedded was the daughter of Risan, shaikh of
a shepherd tribe dwelling in the foothills. So
134 THE MARSH ARAB
great was her beauty that all men marvelled;
and as for Ibn Madhkur, he saw naught else
not his tribes ready for war, nor the gathering
hosts of the enemy making hosa, nor the danger
that threatened. And when his headmen urged
him to advance, for they feared the wide river
so close behind them, their words were mean
ingless in his ears.
"Now the father of Sa'da was a stern man,
an Arab of the Arabs. One day, when Ibn
Madhkur was absent for a brief hour, he
entered his daughter's tent; kissing her eyes, he
put into her hand a small curved dagger whose
handle of horn was embossed with silver.
"She, running to the tent door as he would
have stridden away, caught his robe, whisper
ing, Why this? Must my hand strike him, and
I his wife?'
"And Risan answered sternly, 'Because of thee
this dalliance; because of thee this danger of
defeat Why should it be our lord that dies?'
Thus saying, he left the tent
"Ibn Madhkur returned, and hastened with
in to his wife's arms. All the camp heard the
great cry which left his throat, and soon all
knew that Sa'da was like to die from the wound
in her side. Day and night Ibn Madhkur
THE FORT OF KASSARA 135
sat watching the life that wished to leave her
"Well might she weep to her women when
speech returned to her, well might she lament.
'Wai, waij unworthy daughter I. Because I was
weak and timid, I struck not deep enough; and
now of what avail my act?' For Ibn Madhkur
remained by her side, nor would he leave her
to attack the Albu Mohammad. And when his
headmen came to him, he said, We are many,
they few. Spare our mares. Go ye, attack on
foot' Even when a messenger brought news of
the battle, saying, We prevail not!' he would not
leave her tent, but said, 'Let the Bani Lam take
to their horses, and attack again.' O fateful
"As the tribes turned to fetch their horses
from the tethering ground by the river bank, a
woman on the side of the Albu Mohammad saw
the chance of victory, and in her turn swayed
the tide of battle. Makia, sister of Saihud, saw
the Bani Lam turn to the river; lifting up her
dress to her neck she ran towards them, crying
aloud, 'Either the Bani Lam will ravish me, or
the Albu Mohammad will save me from themP
And at her words her brother's people pressed
forward, attacked fiercely, and prevailed. The
136 THE MARSH ARAB
Bani Lam, leaderless and in disorder, turned and
"The sounds of panic reached Ibn Madhkur
in his tent, and at last he awoke from his dream.
Hastily he bore Sa'da in his arms to a boat, and
bade his servant take her to the other side.
Then he rushed to the fray but too late.
Pressed by the furious onslaught of the Albu
Mohammad, his tribesmen could not escape
because of the river at their back; they were
swept by hundreds into the Tigris ; few reached
the other side. Tents, horses, arms, cattle,
powder, harness everything was captured.
Never was victory so complete, never defeat
"On the far bank of the river Sa'da lay dying,
for the hasty moving had opened again her
half-healed wound. She called feebly on her
father's name, begging his forgiveness. <Ah
wretched me,' she mourned, 'I must die, yet my
death has not availed to save the Bani Lam.'
"Suddenly her women scattered before a
galloping horse, whose trembling sides still
dripped with water. The rider, naked and
bleeding from a hundred wounds, flung himself
off and knelt beside her. It was Ibn Madhkur.
Taking her in his arms, he said, 'Because of thee
THE FORT OF KASSARA 137
and of the life that is leaving thee, I swear that
never will I rest until the Bani Lam, now broken
and scattered, are brought together and made
more powerful than before. This will I do for
love of thee, O Sa'daP
u And fulfil the vow he did, though Allah
alone knows how," said Haji Rikkan, spreading
expressive hands. "By valour and brave deeds,
by intrigue and cunning where it served his
ends, he rallied the tribes round him; by fair
words and gifts he gained adherents; by skilful
husbanding he replaced the treasure lost on that
day of loss, and purchased arms. But why say
more? Thou knowest as well as I that the end
was defeat for the Albu Mohammad."
The Haji in his remote marsh village had not
been affected by the early stages of his war,
which the Turks in pursuance of their policy of
"divide et impera" did nothing to abate. But
later, when traffic was hindered and passengers
were wounded by stray shots exchanged across
the river by the rival factions, the government
felt constrained to take action. According to
Haji Rikkan, one of its first moves was to
strengthen the garrisons of the small mud forts
along the banks of the Tigris ; to do this it was
necessary to deplete the garrisons lower down
i 3 8 THE MARSH ARAB
the river, in the unhealthy marsh country; and
here Haji Rikkan saw his chance.
Emboldened by his experiences as a pilgrim to
Karbala, he visited the yuzbashi captain of the
local gendarmerie, at Qala't Salih, the largest
riverside town in the marsh area. As a Haji
he obtained a respectful hearing; a judicious
distribution of osprey feathers and what little
money he possessed did the rest. He was ap
pointed chaoush or sergeant of the mud fort at
Kassara, and was told to enlist his own force
of six. A month's pay for himself and his men
was at once handed to him, and this was the only
wage he received during the three years of his
command. But the Haji was content
Content, indeed, he well might be. Not
only did the title of chaoush alone delight the
naive vanity which still characterized him in
old age; not only had he, a marshman of the
marshes, risen to eminence in the world outside;
the position gave him every opportunity of mak
ing and saving money. A true Arab, Haji
Rikkan let slip no chance of gain.
Kassara is situated a few miles above Ezra's
Tomb, just where a stream of clear blue water
from the marsh flows into the Tigris, running
for some distance on its own side of the river
THE FORT OF KASSARA 139
bed before its beautiful pellucid depths become
muddied as they mingle with the silt-laden
Tigris. Opposite the mouth of the stream stood
Haji Rikkan's mud fort, or rather his toll-bar;
for no danak, birkash, mashhuf, torrada, or
challabiya did he allow to issue from the marshes
until its owner had paid tribute. If it was bring
ing fish for sale, the Haji demanded a fifth of
their value ; reeds, feathers, mats, wild-fowl, all
were estimated by his ruthless eye, and on all
the toll was levied. Nothing escaped the Haji,
and he knew that he could go on his mildly
oppressive way with impunity. As long as the
Turkish authority at Qala't Salih was "eating"
the salary of himself and his six men, his mis
deeds would be looked at with a blind eye. No
attention would be paid to tales of his illegal
perquisites, even if the marsh folk, fearful of any
encounter with the government, dreamed of
making official complaint. The Haji grew rich ;
and at length, becoming rapacious through long
immunity, brought about his own downfall.
A message from the yuzbashi one day in
formed Haji Rikkan that a valuable roll of silk
had been stolen by marsh Arabs in a raid on a
river steamer. He was bidden to make full en
quiries, and to communicate at once with his
140 THE MARSH ARAB
superiors if he gleaned any information which
might lead to the capture of the thieves.
"On my head be it," said Haji Rikkan cheer
fully to the messenger. He was delighted with
the simplicity of the task ; all he had to do was
to listen to the tail bardi, the telegraph of the
reeds the common phrase for Rumour. He
would have accepted the charge less light-
heartedly, perhaps, had he known that not the
yuzbashi alone but several higher functionaries
were seriously perturbed about this very roll of
silk; that it was the property of a British firm
which, weary of similar losses, had referred the
matter to the Consul at Basra, who in his turn
had referred it to the British Resident at Bagh
dad. The position held by the Resident was
unique; hastily the Wali of Baghdad issued to
the Mutasarrif of the district concerned such
explicit orders for the immediate recovery of the
silk orders couched in such cold and threaten
ing terms that the local officials trembled for
the continued tenure of their lucrative posts. No
stone, they felt, must be left unturned; the
Wali's unwelcome attention must at all costs be
Of this activity in higher spheres Haji Rikkan
knew nothing. For several days he paddled
THE FORT OF KASSARA 141
about the marsh, listening to local gossip and
asking discreet questions from time- to time.
Rumour, as usual, was busy; but at length he
heard from more than one source a story which
seemed to have the ring of truth. The thieves
were said to be in hiding on a certain ishan
known as Umm Dibis, only a short way into the
marsh ; they hoped at night to intercept a sailing
boat on her slow way upstream, and sell their
booty to its owner.
Haji Rikkan was in two minds. If he went
to the yuzbashi with this tale, the thieves might
in the meantime sell their loot and escape; in
any case, as he had no proofs, he and his story
might be discredited. On the other hand, if he
alone were to recover the stolen silk, what
promotions, what rewards, what opportunities
might not be his! Cupidity prevailed. Secretly
he arranged that his half-brother Husain, with
another of his garrison by name Ridha, should
spy out the land.
The Haji's thoughts, he told me, were far
from the bale of silk when a few days later he
sat in his eyrie, idly speculating what "customs"
duty he would be able to reap from a mashhuf
which was coming slowly towards him. As it
approached, his keen eyes saw that it was empty;
142 THE MARSH ARAB
and calling one of the village boys, he bade him
bring it in. With swift strokes of his paddle the
boy drove his own small craft into midstream,
and rose to catch the high prow of the drifting
boat; then, with a shrill cry, he came paddling
madly back again. "Blood, blood!" he cried,
and fled to his hut
In some trepidation Haji Rikkan put off him
self with three of his men to bring in the myster
ious mashhuf. Lying in the bottom they found
two dead or dying men; in the body of one of
them a long curved dagger was still fast, while
between them, in strange contrast to those grim,
still forms, lay a bundle, half-unrolled, of rich
orange-coloured silk. Stained with blood,
crumpled as though it had been clutched and
struggled over, its shining folds were still beau
tiful, gleaming and shimmering in the sunset
light: surely of the very essence of temptation
to the colour-loving Arab.
The two men were lifted out of the boat The
one with the dagger in his side, Ridha, was dead.
Husain stirred and groaned as he was moved.
"We bore him to his house," said Haji
Rikkan. "Later his women fetched me, and I
knew by their grief that he had not many hours
THE FORT OF KASSARA 143
" 'My brother, my brother, 3 whispered Hus-
ain when he saw me. 'Hear the story of my
death, that thou mayst avenge me. Before I die,
hear how I brought back the silk. Very quietly
and with stealth, hardly moving, I and that
other May he burn! drew near to the ishan
of Umm Dibis. Peering through the reeds, we
could see that rumour had not lied ; the thieves
were there. Two seemed to be sleeping, the third
was on guard with his rifle on the only channel
leading to the ishan. Silently, having seen all
we needed to see, we made our way back a long
distance, and discussed how we could best seize
the silk. It seemed impossible. If we went up
the channel, however quickly, the man on guard
would shoot us ; however quietly we crept
through the reeds, our movements would be
heard, nor could we get near enough to shoot
with certainty. At last Ridha said, The smaller
the noise, the greater the danger. Let us make
a great noise as of buffaloes grazing.' So we
agreed, and crashed in among the reeds, advanc
ing towards the ishan, then retreating a little, but
ever drawing nearer and nearer. At last we saw
our chance, and rushed in. Two of the men
we killed; the third escaped, and we troubled
not to chase him, for there in the bottom of their
144 THE MARSH ARAB
mashhuf we found the stolen silk. Hastening
back as fast as we might, before the third man
could bring help against us, we reached the river
and set on our way downstream.
" 'As we went, Ridha unfolded a little of the
silk. It was very beautiful, smooth and shining
like the soft cheek of a bride, and there were
many spans. Ridha fingered it.
" c By 'All son of Abu Talib,' he exclaimed,
'have we risked our lives only to give silk such
as this, the price of many women, back to the
Dowla?' He unfolded more and more. 'It
were madness to give this up. Is it not ours by
right? None need ever know.'
" 'It were shame on Haji Rikkan to take it,'
I said, but Ridha cried, 'A curse upon his
father! We two alone have recovered the silk,
and half of it is mine. 1 Again I refused, where
upon he grew angry, and snatching the silk tried
to jump with it from the boat; but I held fast,
and pulled him back. He turned on me, and we
drew our daggers.'
"He could tell no more," said Haji Rikkan.
"But it was enough; before the dawn he died.
As for me, I hid the roll, waiting until I could
restore it to the yuzbashi. Each day I looked at
it, thinking it a sad thing that the kinsfolk of
THE FORT OF KASSARA 145
Husain should profit nothing by that for which
he had paid so dear a price. And when my
wife saw the silk, it seemed to her more beauti
ful than anything her eyes had seen; long she
gazed on it, stroking and smoothing it with her
hands, and when she heard that I purposed to
send it to the yuzbashi she wept sore, being desir
ous to keep it for her own adorning.
"Why should she not? I said to my own
heart. If the yuzbashi hears by chance that I
have found it, can I not deny it? Or what were
simpler perhaps, he and I can share it. And
even if he take it all, I am no loser, for he who
has licked the fat from my beard will not dare
to punish me."
Thus in a rash moment Haji Rikkan yielded
to his wife's entreaties. The roll of silk was
hidden beneath a pile of rice, to be stealthily
gloated over at night, by firelight, when the two
were safe from intrusion.
For some time no more was heard of the silk;
but at last the keen eyes of one of the Haji's men
sighted, coming slowly towards the fort, the
white-painted boat of the Mudir from Qala't
Salih. Haji Rikkan was no sooner warned than
he took precautions ; whatever the object of this
official visitation, a wetting would do the silk no
i 4 6 THE MARSH ARAB
harm, and who would think of searching the
river bed for it? He dragged it hastily from its
hiding-place, and threw it into the water. His
next step was to draw up his men on the bank,
in a line as ragged as the tattered garments
which, civilian in origin, had been militarized
by the addition of two cartridge belts to each
man, and to give the Mudir as martial a salute
as they could achieve. No neglect on the part
of Haji Rikkan Chaoush should ruffle the
temper of Jamil EffendL
"Thou knowest him well," said Haji Rikkan
"That Jamil?" I exclaimed.
I did know him well a Turkish official of
the best type, now a pensioner of the 'Iraq
Government in the little towa which he had
once ruled. Kindly, humane, and honest, he had
given loyal service for nearly half a century to
a government of which the ineptitude and in
dolence would have driven any official but a
Turk to line his pockets, or tender his resigna*
tion, or die of a broken heart Jamil Effendi
did none of these things, but with gentle detach
ment and in the face of every discouragement
pursued his dignified way, year after year.
THE FORT OF KASSARA 147
It is not usual for an Oriental to come to the
point of his visit either promptly or directly;
but according to the Haji, Jamil revealed the
object of his descent upon the mud fort with a
disarming directness which lent a hollow ring
to his own protestations of innocence.
"They say," he began, "that the stolen silk
is in thy house. By Allah, a lie! But those
above us have bidden me search. Disturb not
thyself, it is but a small matter a cursory
search, and I depart. Thus will our superiors
be satisfied with thee and me."
If the search conducted by Jamil Effendi was
cursory, the Haji wondered what a thorough
search would be like. Every possession of him
self and his family was carried outside, Rolled-
up mats were spread flat, the young reeds stacked
for buffalo-fodder and the bardi stored for fuel
were pulled down, the roof was tested for a
place of concealment, and finally the earthen
floor was dug up. Shrill screams from the Haji's
wife announced that their hidden store of wealth,
the savings of a lifetime, had been laid bare;
but it was not confiscated. Under the Mudir's
eye it was counted out and restored to her.
During the search the Mudir had stood by
in silence, surrounded by a slowly-nearing circle
148 THE MARSH ARAB
of naked, curious children. With dignified
benevolence he would now and again bestow on
one a pat on the head, on another a small coin ;
and when his clerk came out to tell him that the
search has been unrewarded, and the two walked
slowly along the river bank in conversation, the
children followed. The Haji saw him turn and
question them, and saw his own son answering.
Haji Rikkan spoke indulgently of the boy
"Fidwa ilak, a sacrifice for thee," he said, using
the tribal euphemism for "dead." He would
not believe that the child had betrayed him by
word or gesture ; all was laid at the door of the
effendi's guile. It cannot have been difficult for
Jamil Effendi, with his knowledge of human
nature gained in a lifetime of official service,
to glean the truth by cross-examining a small
and naked son of the marsh.
Fear first seized the heart of Haji Rikkan
when he saw the clerk approach a muhaila
banked-in near by, and borrow her four-pointed
anchor, with a length of rope. From a safe dis
tance he watched the systematic dragging of the
river; then, when he heard a shout from one
of the draggers, he took off and folded his 'aba.
Balancing it and his rifle on his head, he slipped
silently down the bank into the river ; with strong
THE FORT OF KASSARA 149
strokes he reached the shelter of the reeds on the
other side. There he was safe, for the marsh
does not give up her fugitive children ; but with
bitterness of heart he realized that, after all his
fair fortune, he was now a poorer man by far
than on the day on which he first took service
with the Padishah.
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH
THE years following upon his hasty flight
to the marshes were bitter ones to Haji
Rikkan. At no time are Arabs over-merciful
to the unfortunate, and many of the marshfolk
had suffered considerably from the Haji's ex
actions. His welcome was therefore not a warm
one, though the fact that he was in flight from
the hated government earned him more sym
pathy than he deserved.
Ever ready to vaunt his superior attainments,
Haji Rikkan now found little scope for them.
He had already learned that only outside the
limits of the marshes could he use his talents
to advantage. Now, not only was he confined
within these limits, a fugitive from justice, but
he had returned penniless to his tribe. With
a little money behind him, he might have at
tained to some small measure of eminence; but
even his native wit could do little with the capi
tal he possessed a coarse woollen *aba> the
usual Arab head-dress of kafiya and 'agal, and a
rifle, which all too soon had to be exchanged
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH 151
for a far inferior weapon in order that he might
have a little money for his pressing needs. For
no sooner had his guilt been established than
the Mudir's gendarmes had seized everything of
value in his hut; his not inconsiderable store of
money was appropriated; and his buffaloes,
which by evil chance were grazing near by, were
driven off Husain's wife, convinced that her
husband's death lay at the Haji's door, having
been careful to point them out.
For some years, then, Haji Rikkan lived a
precarious life. He was beginning to wonder
whether his offence was forgotten, whether he
might once more venture into the great world,
when strange rumours began to reach the ears
of the marshfolk. The Turks had fair words
for everyone; shaikhs, to their unbounded sur
prise, received chiswasj or presents of clothing;
arrears of pay, long regarded as irrecoverable,
began to reach even the humblest of the Pad-
"When I heard these strange tidings," said
the Haji, "hope stirred in my breast At last, I
said, the Constitution, at last Liberty has reached
the borders of our marshes. But I was wrong.
While we talked and wondered, the message
came: a Jihad, a Jihad! The English infidels
have come from the sea, and are at Basra!
152 THE MARSH ARAB
"Soon we knew that it was indeed war, for
we saw ships full of Turkish soldiers pass down
the river. Rumours flew thick as birds. Some
said the English had been driven back into the
sea, others that they had beaten the Turks and
slain their commander. We knew not what to
believe. But with our own eyes we saw more
ships bearing soldiers down to Basra, and again
ships filled with tribesmen, and bands of tribes-
fnen marching on foot southwards on the river
bank. Then at last we heard that a great battle
had been fought at Qurna.
"The first news of the fight was brought to
the marshes by Gata' bin Shamkhi, a man well
known to us as a flag-bearer of Shaikh Falih
of the Albu Mohammad.
" C I have heard the noise of guns before/ he
said, 'but never such guns as these which come
from the sea. Such a thunder it was that I be
came deaf, and in fear threw myself into the
shelter of a water-channel. And presently I
heard all round me the sound of men running in
terror. 'How can we fight against these Chris
tians,' they cried, 'when their prophet Isa * him
self is in the sky to aid them? 5 So I, throwing
1 The first aeroplane seen by the tribes was taken by them
for Jesus Christ coming in person.
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH 153
away my flag, ran with them. Who am I to
fight against a Prophet?' "
Panic-stricken, but by no means roughly han
dled, the tribal levies fled from Qurna and scat
tered to their flocks and fields. The Turkish
soldiers, infected by the general fear, followed
them, a beaten and broken rabble so broken,
according to Haji Rikkan, that the marsh
women, armed only with wooden clubs, were
able to reap a rich harvest of army rifles.
At length came the opportunity for which
Haji Rikkan had waited so long. One spring
evening, just before darkness fell, a large Turk
ish gunboat ran aground above Kassara, the
place at which the Haji had lorded it as chaoush
of the mud fort. From the shelter of the reeds
many hundred pairs of eyes watched the heavy
boat as, hampered by her lighters lashed on
either side, she struggled in the shallow water
in vain. She was stuck fast. Soldiers began to
unlash the lighters; and, directing them, Haji
Rikkan recognized the yuzbashi who had ap
pointed him to his former pos,t.
Evidently the Turks were in trouble ; this was
not the moment to recall a bale of stolen silk.
But if a service were rendered, might not the
yuzbashi remember the many months' salary due
154 THE MARSH ARAB
to his underling, and not only remember, but
pay? Not without trepidation, Haji Rikkan ap
proached the ship and respectfully greeted him.
To his relief, he was warmly welcomed. He
seemed to be the very man for whom the yuz-
bashi was looking. Other officers were called,
and an eager discussion followed of which Haji
Rikkan, ignorant of Turkish as he was, under
stood not a word.
"Did the Haji want to earn some money?"
asked the Turk at length in Arabic. He trickled
a few liras from one hand into the palm of the
other. A fifth of the booty should be his re
ward, and a golden lira in the hand to each man
who helped him.
"Dost see the tall masts of the ship below
'Uzair?" * went on the yuzbashi, in tones of
which the urgency impressed Haji Rikkan with
a sense of vital danger. Peering through the
gathering dusk he could just make out the tall,
spreading spars of a ship which on that flat
expanse of reeds and water seemed to tower into
"She is the Mother of Gold indeed," the of
ficer continued. "She is full of gold to pay the
English soldiers with gold of which one fifth
1 Ezra's tomb.
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH 155
shall be thine if the crew is dead and the ship
taken before morning; for if she is still there
when the sun rises, this ship is doomed, and we
are dead men."
Haji Rikkan, with nothing to lose and every
thing to gain, accepted the offer. To raid and
steal from a river boat was part of the ordinary
day's work to a marsh Arab. With his naked
body well greased to elude capture, he would
slip silently into the water, float downstream,
and take up his position under the hull of the
ship. There in the shadow, his dark features
indistinguishable from above, he would wait and
listen perhaps for hours, until the moment came
for him to climb swiftly and stealthily on board,
seize what he could, and dropping overboard
swim under water back into the covering reeds.
Just such a plan, to be carried out on a larger
scale, Haji Rikkan now outlined to the yuz-
Late that night, after the moon had set, a
hundred naked marshmen slid into the water.
Each man held a 'dagger in his teeth, and each
pushed before him a bundle of rushes, partly
to support his weight, partly to hide the sus
picious roundness of the human head on the sur
face of the water. Led by the Haji, they ap-
156 THE MARSH ARAB
preached the English gunboat; not a sound came
from her decks, hardly a splash from the river.
Yet suddenly a great beam of light leapt from
her bows and shone full in the dazzled faces of
the swimmers. "W Allah, I thought it was the
eye of Allah himself !" said Haji Rikkan as he
told the story. Desperately the panic-stricken
marshmen struck out for the shore, but too late.
The ship's machine guns spat viciously as the
searchlight swept from side to side of the riven
In a few moments all was quiet, but the muddy
Tigris waters as they flowed past the gunboat
were streaked with blood.
Haji Rikkan escaped the hail of bullets ; but
this adventure with its disastrous ending con
vinced him at last that he was not cut out for a
military career. He beat a hasty retreat, not
even waiting to hear the fate of the stranded
Turkish vessel which he had failed to save. He
heard later, from Arabs who had watched to the
end, that the Turks had worked all night in
the effort to refloat their gunboat, but without
success. At the first gleam of daylight, as the
yuzbashi had foretold, shells from the English
ship came hurtling through the air, the first fall
ing beyond its mark, the second short, but the
third and subsequent ones hitting with deadly
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH 157
accuracy. Soon the Turkish gunboat was in
flames, and her crew began to abandon hen This
emboldened the marsh Arabs, who fell to looting
rifles and ammunition from the lighters, murder
ing the wounded Turks and such stragglers as
they found among the reeds. Only on the ap
proach of the English ship did they in their turn
flee into the marsh. This was not a pleasant
picture of the people among whom I now wan
dered in Haji Rikkan's company, but it is un
deniable that all the worst and most savage
characteristics of the Ma' dan showed themselves
to both armies during the war.
Haji Rikkan returned discouraged to his
home. But the times were too stirring not to
provide a man of his restless spirit with an op
portunity. It seemed to the marsh Arabs that
all the river boats of the world were being as
sembled on the Tigris. Never had such daily,
hourly temptation presented itself. An ideal
opening for thieves 1 was offered by the slow
steam-boats, labouring upstream through the
Narrows with their loads of food-stuffs, forage,
1 As far back as the time of Harun al Rashid, the marsh-
men were notorious for looting and levying tolls on river
craft. Later they even succeeded in cutting off the supplies
of Baghdad, and an expedition (AJD. 834) was sent against
them, several thousand being exiled to Asia Minor, whence
they made their way to Europe as gypsies
i 5 8 THE MARSH ARAB
ammunition, medical stores, all the complex ne
cessities of an army. The lumbering barges
lashed to each side of the steamers would every
now and again graze the bank on one side, or
brush against the tall reeds on the other; what
wonder that the Ma' dan blessed Allah and prof
ited? So few rifles could be spared from the
fighting line to guard the lines of communica
tion that the raiders grew bold; scorning the
protection of darkness, they would spring in
broad daylight out of the reeds on to a passing
barge, seize what lay to hand, and dive over
board in defiance of the ragged volley which so
seldom found its mark.
But the shipping, inexhaustible as it seemed
to the Ma' dan, was unable to supply all the
needs of the ever-growing army. The marshf oik
watched uncomprehendingly the building of the
"shammandaffar" (chemin de fer) along the
only strip of firm ground which threaded their
fastnesses; but when they had overcome their
terror of the iron monster, its tail of trucks be
came as popular a source of wealth as the river
barges had been. As the long train slowed down
to negotiate one of the many curves of the line,
nothing could be easier for a marshman than
to swing himself up on to a truck and topple to
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH 159
the ground a few bags of wheat, atta, or sugar.
To check these depredations the military au
thorities reluctantly placed sepoy guards on the
trucks, and the prospect of meeting cold steel
made the railway line less attractive until the
marsh Arabs, ever inventive in wrong-doing,
made grappling irons by tying long ropes to
the barbed, five-pronged heads of their fishing
spears. When one night a hook lodged not in
a bag of flour but in the clothing of an Indian
soldier, whose bleeding body fell at their feet,
the Ma'dan feared reprisals, and allowed the
trains to pass unpilfered for a time. Later the
grappling hooks came out again, but when they
found the trucks covered with nets of stout rope,
the Arabs confessed defeat, and turned their
attention once more to the river.
Haji Rikkan, regarding them as martial ex
ploits and therefore to be avoided, took no part
in these raids. He did, however, find a real
opening for his talents. To quote his own
words, "In those days many persons found them
selves in possession of goods for which they had
no use; these I bartered to uch as had need
It was an odd freak of chance which a few
months later enlisted Haji Rikkan on the side
160 THE MARSH ARAB
of the forces of order. The persistent raids,
petty as was each separate attempt, had begun
to cause real concern to the military authorities ;
ration and equipment reserves were at a danger
ous minimum, and the army could not afford
the smallest loss. The telegraph wires hummed,
and the local political officers, now installed in
the empty chairs of the Turkish mutasarrifs and
qaimmaqams, were sharply called to task.
Thus it befell that Haji Rikkan, having one
day left his mashhuf with its illicit load moored
beside a date-garden a little below the town,
walked confidently through the market at Qala't
Salih. As once before in his career, he had
grown bold through long immunity; but he felt
uneasy as he observed a townsman pointing him
out to one of the newly-recruited police, and
heard him say, "That is Haji Rikkan."
"I call Allah to witness," said the Haji, "that
this was the first time I had feared blame for
helping others. The policeman took me by the
arm, and saying that the Hakim wanted me, led
me to the river bank. There I saw a mashhuf
with its crew of four waiting, and beside it
stood the Englishman talking to his sergeant of
police. Our language was still strange and heavy
upon his tongue, and as he talked I seized the
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH 161
chance to address the Indian clerk who waited
near. Telling him Allah pardon me, it was
a lie that I had sent six chickens to his house,
I asked what the Hakim wanted of me. In his
soft weak Arabic he replied that the General
was hot with anger against the Hakim because
of the many thefts committed by the Ma'dan;
that even now he was setting out to punish some
thieves of the Bait Khafi who he had heard were
at Abu Raml, only a few miles within the marsh ;
and that having heard of me as one who knew
the waterways, he required me to go with him
"I saw the Hakim turn and call for me. By
Allah's mercy it was the hour of prayer, and
I gained a few moments in which to think. As
I bent in prayer I spoke softly to one I knew
that stood by, bidding him hasten to my cousins
in the mashhuf and warn them that the Bait
Khafi was in danger.
"Allahu AkbarMost great is God!" ex
claimed Haji Rikkan after a pause. "Behold
me in the winking of an eye seated in the Hak
im's mashhuf, his four men paddling swiftly
downstream. I took comfort as we passed the
date-garden, and I saw that my mashhuf was no
longer there. My cousins knew of short cuts to
i6z THE MARSH ARAB
the ishan of Abu Raml; of these the Hakim's
boatmen were ignorant, and was it for me to
"Darkness fell, but still we went on, travelling
all night until we reached the village of
Zichiya, where for two hours we slept At ear
liest dawn Halshad, the chief mashhufchi, re
turned from the village where he had been to
gather news, and in low tones spoke with the
Hakim. From their dark looks I guessed what
he had heard, for I knew that by this time the
Bait Khafi must have fled from their island ; but
none the less the Hakim must needs go to Abu
Raml. We set off as the sun rose, I poling
while Halshad sat behind the Hakim with his
"Standing in the prow as I was, I could see
over the top of the rushes, and my heart rejoiced
as we drew near the ishan and I beheld nothing
but the bare framework of the reed houses. I
knew that my message had been in time, and
now surely I should be released from the post of
"But I was too hopeful. To Umm Khayis,'
said the Hakim shortly, without a word to me.
This island was also a settlement of the Bait
Khafi, but I dared not protest, for how could
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH 163
I tell what Halshad had heard of me In the vil
lage overnight? My best plan seemed to gain
what credit I could as a guide. That was a
long journey, but the Hakim had picked good
men who did not tire, and I also had to take my
share of paddling and poling.
"The Bait Khafi, having retreated so far into
the marsh, thought themselves secure, or were
perhaps weary after their hasty flight Umm al
Khayis was surrounded by their boats and rafts
of reed, but we reached the ishan without chal
lenge. One small hut had been erected, and
from it as I shouted their names came forth the
headmen, looking blank and bewildered at sight
of the Hakim thus appearing in a solitary mash-
"He, looking round him with a fearless air,
landed and walked to the hut None made mo
tion to stop him, but one of the men ran to a
boat beached near by, and from beneath the
piled-up household goods brought forth a car
pet, which he spread in the hut In silence the
Hakim seated himself, and in silence the head
men stood before him, surprise and fear having
driven from their tongues even the customary
greetings. Outside the men of the tribe crowded
together, speaking in hushed tones.
164 THE MARSH ARAB
"Halshad may he never thrive! now en
tered the hut, wearing an English soldier's coat,
and bearing in his hands other unfamiliar things
which made the guilt of the Bait Khafi plain to
"Then the Hakim addressed the four head
" 'It is not hidden from you that the great
British Government wishes all her people to
live in peace and quietness. Robbery and steal
ing are forbidden, yet the Bait Khafi are well
known as robbers and thieves/
"Mahawi was the first of the headmen to find
words to his tongue. 'Hakim,' he replied, 'May
Allah lengthen thy years ! Some enemy of ours
has brought thee lying tales. We are marsh-
dwellers, busy watching our buffaloes and weav
ing our mats. How could we rob from the
"The crowd outside, pressing against the sides
of the hut to hear what was said, murmured in
agreement But the Hakim drew from his
pocket a piece of paper, and in loud tones read
out a list of the things which had been stolen
from a steamboat two nights before.
"Now to me, who had lived outside the
marshes, the marvel of the telegraph was well
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH 165
oiown; but to the Bait Khafi it seemed a mira
" 'By Allah/ they exclaimed, 'he knows all.
Nothing is hidden from him. May Allah pro
tect Lafta and Barbutil*
"Mahawi, frowning in anger, called to the
people to be silent. But his words were too
late: the Hakim had good ears.
" 'Before I leave this place/ said he in a stern
voice, 'Lafta and Barbuti must be brought before
"At this the people were silent, consternation
filling their hearts; then they broke into hurried
speech, the craven-hearted urging obedience, the
bolder-spirited protesting. At length amid
much shouting they withdrew apart to discuss
what they had best do.
"I was now able to speak a few words to Ma
hawi, explaining to him my presence with the
" 'How many soldiers has he brought? We
can see none,' the headman muttered.
" 'Would one man come alone to the heart
of the marsh, holding his life in his hand?' I
scoffed, for I was afraid to tell him the truth.
The death of this Englishman, I thought,
might well be laid to my account.
i66 THE MARSH ARAB
"Mahawi, a man of known cunning, now tried
to move the Hakim to compassion. He brought
in two young boys, saying, 'Here are Lafta and
Barbuti, who in their childish folly have robbed
from the great and merciful government 5
"But the Hakim, rising in swift anger, pulled
Mahawi to the ground by his beard, and bidding
Fadhal his mashhufchi shoot him if he tried
to rise, loudly bade the people bring in the true
culprits. And the Bait Khafi, silent and fearful
because they believed that never would the Eng
lishman dare to insult a man's beard unless he
had many hundred troops near by, produced
"Questioned by the Hakim, Lafta and Barbuti
confessed their guilL But when he ordered his
men to tie them to the framework of the hut
for a punishment of thirty lashes, the tribes
men's faces grew dark. Courage returned to
the hearts of all when they thought that their
kinsmen's blood was to be shed. As for me, I
cursed all infidels and their religion and the rash
boldness which had brought me into danger;
for it seemed impossible that we should escape
with our lives. As I looked out from the hut,
beyond the threatening figures of the marsh-
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH 167
men I could see the reeds waving, and here and
there among the reeds was the glint of a rifle,
" 'Hakim,' I whispered, 'we are surrounded.
Unless these two thieves be released, we are
"But he paid no heed, except to order Mahawi
to sit beside him, so that none dare fire at him
for fear of wounding their headman. And as
we sat there, awaiting what fate had decreed,
we heard a sound of running feet. Into the
hut, tearing off their chafiyas as they ran, came
the headmen. They fell on their knees before
the Hakim, kissing his hands and feet, and cry
ing 'Dakhilak, dakhilak!* And when I heard
that, I knew that their fear had prevailed, so
that they hastened to make submission aye, and
to ask protection. We were saved.
"The Hakim was now able to impose his own
terms. For the things which the Bait Khafi had
stolen from the ship, he demanded five times
their value; the punishment of flogging would
be forgone, if the tribe handed over ten rifles;
and as a mark of submission the four headmen
must themselves paddle him back to the river.
Seeing their reluctance at this last condition, the
Hakim gave his word that they should return
"i 68 THE MARSH ARAB
"Amid much shouting the fine was collected,
and the homeward journey began. As we went
I found occasion to ask one of the headmen why
they had thus suddenly made dakhala to the
" We knew well,' he replied, 'that one man
would not come alone against us; so when
through the reeds we saw the gleam of his sol
diers' rifles, we became afraid for our lives and
the lives of our children.'
"At these words I laughed in my beard, for
I knew that none had been with the Hakim
save myself and his four mashhufchis.
"We reached and crossed the river, and the
Hakim ordered a great fire to be made. As
the flames rose high in the air, a loud wailing
arose from the reeds on the other bank. It
was the headmen's women, who, fearful of their
fate and trusting not to the Hakim's word, had
followed us ; when they saw the fire, they thought
that their menfolk were to be burned alive.
"When this was explained to the Hakim, he
laughed a great laugh, so that no man was in
fear of his life. Seizing the rifles, he flung
them on the fire ; then taking the chafiya in which
the money was tied from the man who carried*
THE COMING OF THE ENGLISH 169
it, h^ threw the five hundred rupees into the
"As Allah is exalted," exclaimed Haji Rik-
kan, "of all the things the Hakim had done,
none caused greater wonder than that. He flung
five hundred rupees into the river! Then he
bade the marshmen return to their homes. And
as they kissed his hand at parting, the oldest of
them muttered low, 'After what we have seen
to-day, we shall rob no more; for of this gov
ernment we are afraid P
"To please the Hakim, when we had reached
the town once more, I said to him, 'Ma sh' Allah,
never before have I seen one man defy a whole
" 'Fool,' he replied, 'they were not afraid of
me, but of the British Government.'
"Nevertheless," ended the Haji, looking at
me slyly, "it was not I but the Hakim who was
the f ooL For the Bait Khafi were afraid not of
him, nor of the British Government, but of their
own cousins, the glint of whose rifles they saw
in the reeds."
"Perhaps both they and thou saw only what
the eyes feared to see," I suggested.
"The All-Powerful alone knows," ejaculated
Haji Rikkan piously, but without conviction.
THE FLAG OF 'ABBAS
OHORTLY after this exploit, another sum-
O mons came to Haji Rikkan, and the deci
sion he had to make was not an easy one. Should
he become official marsh guide to the Political
Officer? He turned the pros and cons over in
his mind. The merit he had acquired as a Haji
would mitigate the stigma of serving an infidel
government; the dangers of the post would be
compensated by the rewards, for surely one who
threw into the river wealth which he might have
put in his own pocket would prove a generous
paymaster ! On the other hand, the Turks might
return with greater forces, and drive the un
believing English into the sea; but this seemed
to the Haji, for the present at any rate, unlikely.
In the end he decided that the new opening of
fered better opportunities for his talents than
the profession of "fence." His judgement was
vindicated when later, as will be related in its
place, he obtained the lucrative post of Chicken
THE FLAG OF 'ABBAS 171
Contractor to the Army of Occupation, which
in its turn led to his present trade of peddling
grocer. In the meantime it was with great re
lief that he learned of the transfer of the "Hot
Hakim," of whose rash and airy adventures he
had thoroughly disapproved.
The new Political Officer, he told me, was a
man of very different stamp, "small of body
but great in guile." While continuing his pred
ecessor's policy of suppressing the habitual raid
ing of the Ma'dan, he achieved success by
different methods. The Haji, whose timorous
nature ever chose the paths of peace, was loud
in his praise of a diplomacy which was as effec
tive as force could have been in stamping out
"Hardly will my words be believed," he said,
"but by thy head and thou art dearer to me
than a brother I speak truth, Hast ever
dreamed that a woman and a madman could do
the work of sword and rifle? Never; yet the
Hakim brought about no less,"
The first step of the new Political Officer had
been to provide himself with transport with
which the marsh Arabs could not compete.
From the mass of river craft which was hurried
out from home though too late to repair the
172 THE MARSH ARAB
army's serious shortage on the Tigris, he ob
tained a launch of shallow draught Small as
she was, she could carry enough armed men to
secure her from attack or ambush, and her speed
gave her an advantage over all the craft of the
One day, as the little launch, with Haji Rik-
kan on board as guide, made her way down a
long, reed-bordered channel, a birkash was seen
to enter at the far end. No sooner did its occu
pants see the launch than they seized their rifles,
jumped from the boat into the shallow water,
and dashed into the shelter of the reeds, through
which they could be heard pushing and crash
ing their way. The sudden flight was suspicious ;
the Ma'dan usually gazed in open-mouthed as
tonishment at the strange self-propelled craft.
The abandoned boat was therefore drawn up to
the launch and examined. It was loaded inno
cently enough with reeds ; but when the bundles
were pulled aside, half a dozen stout poles were
Here was a clue to the mystery of a daring
exploit. Although navigation on the Narrows
below 'Amara, difficult enough by day, was al
most impossible in darkness, the ships provision
ing the army could not be allowed to rest The
THE FLAG OF s ABBAS 173
Narrows were therefore lit up by electricity,
the lamps being supported on poles set at in
tervals along the river bank. One night a long
gap was observed in the line of brilliant lights ;
and the wireman sent out to investigate returned
with the news that ten poles had been uprooted
and carried off, almost under the eyes of the gar
rison at the control post.
The boat with its illicit load was taken in
tow, and the launch went on her way. At the
first marsh Arab encampment the Political Of
ficer landed. The village seemed almost de
serted; not a man was to be seen; only a few
gaping women stared at the launch.
"But as we landed," said Haji Rikkan, "an
other woman came from one of the reed houses.
It was Awasha, wife of the headman Salim,
'Bismillah, enter,' she said to the Hakim, and
led him to her house, where she began to make
"While the kettle was yet on the fire a young
girl entered, and whispered in Awasha's ear.
The Hakim heard not what she said, but I who
sat near heard her words : she had seen that the
birkash brought by us was that of Sa'id and
Habib, men of their village, and she feared for
174 THE MARSH ARAB
"Awasha made no reply, yet as she washed the
glasses for tea I saw that her hands trembled.
Till we had quenched our thirst she said noth
ing; and then, rising, she led the Hakim to the
far end of the hut, where slept a small infant
in its cradle.
" 'New,' she said, and I wondered much that
a mother's pride should prevail at this time of
danger. Then I saw that she did but dally with
the child until she might devise a plan to save
her village from the Hakim's wrath. So long
they stayed beside the cradle that the Hakim
thought she required of him a dilla', or birth-
gift; and removing the chafiya which he wore
not upon his head but round his neck, he gave
it to her for the child.
"She, delighted, ran with it to the doorway,
there in the light to gaze upon its bright colours.
And as she marvelled at it, holding it first close
before her eyes, then at a distance, she whispered
tome, What of Sa'id?'
" 'Salim safe/ I replied.
" 'And of Habib?'
"'Salim? I answered again.
"'What is this talk of Salim?' asked the
Hakim, who had followed Awasha to the door.
THE FLAG OF 'ABBAS 175
" 'I speak of Salim my husband, headman of
this bait' replied she with her ready woman*wit.
"Where is he?'
" 'Gone to do my bidding/
" 'And what is thy bidding?' he asked.
" 'Rest, and I will tell thee.'
"So the Hakim seated himself on the carpet
made ready, while Awasha stood before him,
still fondling the shining square of silk.
" 'Speak, 5 he ordered.
"And crouching on the ground she spoke in
" 'The men of this bait are poor creatures. I
am but a woman, yet I drive them like cattle.'
" 'I see that thou hast driven them from the
village. Answer me, why is there not a man
to be found here to-day?'
"'They have gone to do my bidding,' said
" 'So thou hast already said ; what is thy bid
ding?' But Awasha remained silent, fearing to
" 'Tell me,' the Hakim ordered sternly.
" 'If I tell, shall I have thy protection?'
" 'Thou art protected/ he said.
" 'Have I hadh <wa bakhtword of honour
that I come to no hurt?'
176 THE MARSH ARAB
" 'Yes, hadh <wa bakht!
u 'They have gone to steal, 5 at length confessed
" 'Then,' said the Hakim, 'it was they who
stole the poles ?'
"Awasha nodded, adding, 'Have I not thy
word of honour?'
"For a time there was silence in the house.
The woman sat watching the face of the all-
powerful Hakim, whose wrath she had braved ;
but what she saw emboldened her spirit, for
presently she drew nearer him, saying in a voice
soft and caressing,
" 'Hakim, I say to the men of this bait, "Rob,"
and they rob; I say, "Steal not," and they do not
steaL And if to every child I bring forth thine
Excellency wilt give a dillaf, such as this one'
she held up the chafiya 'then I will say, "Steal
"At this the Hakim laughed; but he promised
what she asked.
"Twice a son was born to her, and each time
she received from him the birth-gift of silk.
But for the third child there was no dilla', for
he had gone.
"W 'Allah, the folly of women!" concluded
Haji Rikkan in a tone of disgust, throwing up
THE FLAG OF 'ABBAS 177
his hands. "That her children might be hon
oured above the children of others, she sacrificed
all that her tribe might have gained by theft.
That was silk dearly bought, yet she thought the
price worth while."
Evidently the bargain had satisfied Awasha;
it must have been even more satisfactory to the
Political Officer. But I wondered if the three
little urchins, bedecked in the gay stripes of his
scarf, were as unpopular with their naked little
contemporaries as was Joseph of old in his
coat of many colours!
Haji Rikkan went on to tell me of Miskail,
an old marshman who, though he had been
passed over as headman of the Bait Yasin be
cause of his straying wits, was none the less em
ployed by the Political Officer in his campaign
against the raiders.
"A grown man with a full white beard/' said
the Haji, "he yet preferred to choose young chil
dren as his companions. All day he would play
with them, and never was he seen without a troop
of careless urchins at his heels. Some waggish
spirit, seeing him thus at the head of his troop,
had dubbed him the Bimbashi the Major
and by this name he was known throughout the
178 THE MARSH ARAB
"Now it chanced that the Bimbashi had heard
of the good government of the English, and of
the present which the Hakim had made and
promised yearly to Awasha ; and in his wander
ing mind he conceived a plan at which the Bait
Yasin, when they heard it, laughed in scorn,
thinking it but another of his wayward notions.
Nevertheless he contrived to have speech with
" 'I told him/ he said to the village on his
return, 'what do these boys from sunrise to sun
set, aye, and even during the night no less? Are
they not ever in mischief, learning to be thieves
even as their fathers are? And while they play,
the raiders of river boats creep silently through
the reeds, and lie in wait by the water's edge.
Only by setting a good watch, I said, can thine
Excellency prevent this; and what eyes are
keener than the eyes of youth? I can place at
thy service a hundred pairs of sharp eyes eyes,
too, that since they first opened on the world
have been accustomed to gaze at reeds and rushes
and glinting water/ "
In the end the Bimbashi's arguments pre
vailed, and he returned to his village triumphant,
a bag of tobacco in his hand. And his boast
proved to be no idle one. The small boys of
THE FLAG OF 'ABBAS 179
the marshes flocked to his banner; in a body,
naked as the day they were born, they would
run behind the Bimbashi up and down the
stretch of river which they had been set to guard,
chanting a war-cry in their high treble voices.
"We have seen the mashkuf of Shabib the thief!"
they would cry over and over again in unison,
or "What does Mardi
Among the bardi?"
With their proximity thus publicly announced,
what wonder that would-be thieves kept clear
of the reach between Hamdan and Gurmat
Sometimes the Political Officer's launch would
appear on the river. Then the youthful watch
men would keep pace with it along the bank,
shouting, "We are the eyes of the high Wali 1"
At their head would run Miskail, his cloak fly
ing behind him, the kafiya which should have
been on his head brandished aloft as though it
had been a mace or double-headed axe, while
his deep voice set the refrain for his band of
When voices died away and footsteps lagged
for it is hard work to keep pace with a launch
the Bimbashi would turn on his little follow
ers, waving his arms in a frenzy, stamping his
ite THE MARSH ARAB
feet in time to the song, and shouting it still more
loudly. Thus encouraged, the shrill voices
would once more take up the chant, and the thin
brown legs make heroic efforts to keep up with
their indefatigable leader.
Sometimes so the Haji told me the launch
would be stopped, and proudly reporting that
no thefts had taken place in his reach of the
river, Miskail would receive the congratulations
of the Political Officer. At first he was elated,
even inordinately proud ; but as time passed he
began to be doubtful. It was impossible, he
seemed to think, that he could be a success in
life at last; might it not be that thefts were tak
ing place of which he did not hear? But his
puzzled old brain was not to fret long over the
problem. One evening, in the gathering dusk,
the crew of an up-going boat mistook his patrol
of watchers for a marauding band, and opened
fire. Miskail was killed, shot through the head,
and his "battalion" dispersed, never to come
As time went by the river raids diminished,
slowly but surely, and at length ceased. Haji
Rikkan admitted that the efforts of the local
Political Officers did something towards the at
tainment of this end, but he was not prepared
THE FLAG OF 'ABBAS 181
to concede that it was entirely due to them; this,
in fact, he hotly denied. No, to a supernatural
agency must the success of the British policy be
chiefly attributed; the credit was undoubtedly
due to 'Abbas, Father of the Hot Head, who,
though only great-nephew of the Prophet, seems
to hold a higher place in the hagiology of the
Ma' dan than Mohammad himself.
In the course of one of the war-time exploits
of the marshmen, a young man named Musa was
wounded. Preferring the familiar river to the
unknown terrors of captivity, he jumped from
the ship he had boarded, but found himself un
able to swim. A British soldier, seeing his
plight, dived in and rescued him. Musa was
taken to the Civil Hospital at 'Amara, where
he made a good recovery; but his tribe, think
ing that he was only being saved for a hanging,
sent his mother to intercede for his life with the
This was the same official of whose craft and
subtlety Haji Rikkan had so high an opinion;
and he did not fail to live up to his reputation
by making full use of this small pawn. Back
went the wailing old marshwoman to her tribe
with his ultimatum: the lad's life should be
spared and he should be sent back to his village
i8a THE MARSH ARAB
unscathed, as soon as the headmen had sworn
a solemn oath, by the Flag of 'Abbas, to raid
The tribesmen, gathered in conclave, hesi
tated. They were being asked to take the most
binding of all oaths. 'Abbas, son of 'Ali, the
Prophet's son-in-law and nephew, by a Bedouin
woman, he who according to tradition lost both
arms and finally his life in an endeavour to
fetch water for Husain's hapless band on the
fatal day of Karbala, is known among the tribes
as AWl Ras al Harr, the Father of the Hot
Head, and is famed for the swiftness of his
vengeance. An oath sworn by 'Abbas is one the
marsh Arab fears to break, lest some dire calam
ity should fall speedily on himself or on his
The Bait Naggar agreed at length to take the
oath. It must have been their uneasy con
sciences which made them suspect a trap in the
Hakim's proposal to meet them at the edge of
the marsh. Swear they would, since a valued
life was at stake; but leave the shelter of the
marshes never. Messages were sent in, and in
the end it was decided that a mashhuf with two
men of the tribe should be sent to the edge of
THE FLAG OF 'ABBAS 183
the marsh, where the Hakim, with Haji Rik-
kan in attendance, was ready to meet them.
"Knowing the Bait Naggar as I did," said
Haji Rikkan, "I was prepared to find them
fail in their promise. But when we reached the
appointed place, there we found the old man
7 Ali with his cousin Hasan, awaiting us.
"It was a day of strong and bitter wind. Even
in the shelter of the narrowest channels the wind
found us, and drove the mashhuf into the reeds ;
and when we came out into the open spaces, the
waves were whipped up by the gale until they
beat against the sides of our boat, spraying us
with water. For an hour we battled against it ;
then 'Ali, who was an old man and feeble, stayed
in the lee of a high clump of shabab, that he
might rest awhile. And as we waited Hasan,
who feared naught, began to hold converse with
" 'These tribes, O Hakim, deserve a heavy
punishment for bringing thee into the marshes
on so inclement a day.'
" 'True indeed,' swore the Hakim, with an
" 'Many times have I told them,' went on
Hasan, 'of the power and greatness of the British
Government, and -have foretold the punishment
THE MARSH ARAB
which would surely come upon them; but they
would not listen to my words. Verily, these
madmen who persist in robbery and theft, when
they might betake themselves to a life of peace
under the protection of the Great Government,
resemble in stupidity the buffaloes among which
they live. 5
" 'Ali was not best pleased with these words
of his young cousin, and though not yet rested
took up his pole to begin once more the battle
with the wind. Thus Hasan had no more time
for speech with the Hakim, until we reached
the village of the Bait Naggar. On the largest
ishan was the house of Khasib, chief headman
of the tribe, and in it were gathered all the elders.
"When the Hakim was seated, Khasib
W Allah, father of cunning was he! began to
address the tribesmen. Clearly, often repeating
his words that the slowest-witted might under
stand, he explained the reason of the Hakim's
coming: they must swear by the Flag of 'Abbas
that they would steal no more, and in return the
boy Musa would be handed back to the tribe.
"Now this is the manner of tying the Flag
of 'Abbas. Khasib rose to his feet, and clear
ing a space in the midst of the hut, called for
one to bring a gusba. Hastily a long reed was
THE FLAG OF 'ABBAS 185
brought, and from this he broke off a piece the
length of a man's body. Laying it on the ground,
he said in loud tones,
" 'This is the sword of 'Abbas, of Abu'l Ras
al Harr! Then, looking round on those present
and seeing one wearing a garment of white stuff,
he cried, * 'Ubaid son of Machaif ad, bring hither
"The man obeyed, laying the garment down
beside the reed.
"Then Khasib cried, 'This is the flag of Al
lah, of Mohammad his Prophet, and of 'Ali,
and its avenger is 'Abbas. This flag is on me,
on my eyes and on my life, on my brothers and
on my kindred. Nothing is concealed nor hid
den, and its avenger is 'Abbas.' With these
words he tied a corner of the disdaha round the
"In turn stepped forward the other three head
men, each in his turn to tie a knot, saying aloud
as he did so, 'I tie this flag on me, on my broth
ers and on my kindred.'
"Thus was the most binding of all oaths sworn,
and all should have been satisfied ; yet still the
headmen lingered uneasily beside the knots they
had tied. Then they began to murmur that it
was no light matter thus to swear on behalf of
i86 THE MARSH ARAB
a whole bait; if the bolder spirits held not their
hands from stealing, 'Abbas would revenge him
self not on them, but on the headmen who had
sworn the oath. Let these others, then, swear
also! Let them tie the flag on their own heads,
that the minds of the headmen might be at rest
"But the thieves feared to come forward in
the presence of the Hakim, until at last the aged
Khasib began to call their names aloud. Then
they saw that concealment was no longer possi
ble, and albeit unwillingly they began to tie
the knot each on his own behalf.
"The name of one man, Sulman bin Daud,
was called many times, yet would he not enter
the house. 'I have an only son,' he said, 'I
fear the vengeance of 'Abbas/
" 'Steal no more, and thy son will be safe,'
urged the headmen ; but Sulman still held back,
until at length, persuaded by the rest, he rushed
into the hut among a group of noted thieves who,
emboldened by their numbers, determined to
swear together. And, by Allah Be He exalted !
there in their midst was the young Hasan,
who on our journey of the morning had vaunted
his righteousness to the Hakim!
i "When all had sworn, the Hakim gave to
Khasib, in whose house the Flag of 'Abbas had
THE FLAG OF 'ABBAS 187
been tied, the customary chiswa or gift of cloth
ing. Then he entered his mashhuf, and we left
for the river; and as we left, the Hakim said:
" 'In sh* Allah, they will steal no more.'
" Tlease God/ I replied, though with but
faint hope, for the Bait Naggar was known to
me of old. And I was right, for no sooner was
the boy Musa restored to them than they re
turned to their thievish ways. 'An oath forced
upon us by an unbeliever is not binding/ they
said. But 'Abbas thought otherwise.
"For the Bait Naggar was at blood-feud with
the Bait Yasin, and within a few days of the
Hakim's visit the truce between them ceased,
nor would they renew it, for their blood was
hot. And when they attacked, they knew not
that the Bait Yasin, after the manner of the
English soldiers, had dug ditches for the pro
tection of their bodies. Thus the Bait Naggar
suffered heavily, losing twelve lives ; and of these
twelve, four I swear it by Allah and by the
life of thy head ! f our were the same four head
men who had tied the Flag. 'Abbas, Father
of the Hot Head, had taken his revenge.
. "When this became known to the marsh
tribes, they knew that 'Abbas was angry, and
would no longer look favourably on the robbing
i88 THE MARSH ARAB
of river boats. And from that day the raids
With this supernatural assistance, then, the
work of the local political officers was achieved,
and Haji Rikkan's services as marsh guide were
no longer in such constant demand. He cast
round for a new occupation, and by making the
most of his "political" services managed to se
cure from the Local Purchase Officer one of the
many contracts for supplying eggs and chickens
to the military hospitals at 'Amara. Travelling
from village to village with a small stock of such
luxuries as sugar, matches, and oil, he bartered
them to the simple marsh-people, whose wildest
dreams would not have guessed the profits made
by him on their tough and skinny fowls.
With the end of the War the Haji's contract
also came to an end, and he became the mere
peddling grocer I first knew. Many a time
he mourned aloud over the difference between
the pitiful present and those days of harvest.
"In those times/' he would say, "the British
poured out gold as a man pours grain out of a
sack. Where are those days, and where are
these? Then there was money for all, and no
man lacked for aught. But the English went
back to their own country and though they took
THE FLAG OF 'ABBA& 189
not their gold with them, it has all followed
after them. In all 'Iraq now, from the east to
the west, there is no money. Even the govern
ment itself is penniless, and takes from us what
little we have left W'Allahi, I am alive for
this reason only, that I am too poor to pay for
, So lamented Haji Rikkan, who in that golden
age of contractors had begun to realize his
dreams of wealth. His profits were enormous,
and were much enhanced by a stratagem of
which he was inordinately proud though it was
still a grievance that in guile he had been easily
outstripped by a Jewish competitor*
The Haji's chickens were sold by weight, the
English sergeant fixing an average price by the
weight of the first dozen taken at random from
the cage of date-sticks in which they were
brought in. Haji Rikkan, observing this un
varying procedure, scoured the marshes high and
low for the largest fowls he could find, and these
he put in the first cage offered to the sergeant.
By being careful always to produce more chick
ens than were required, he always had two or
three cages to take back, and a little inconspic
uous juggling ensured that one of these contained
his prize birds. Each week the same plump
190 THE MARSH ARAB
fowls were weighed, and accepted as fair rep
resentatives of their scraggy companions; and
each week the Haji's profits were gratifyingly
Nevertheless, even after the lapse of ten years
Haji Rikkan could not forgive Yusif the Jew for
having profited by a trick which, if unoriginal,
was financially more successful than his own.
"I will tell thee, one thing he did. Couldst
thou make a man pay one rupee ten annas for
a hugga of water, when a great river ran past
his house, when the country round was one wide
marsh, nay, when he had but to turn a handle,
and water would gush from an iron pipe? Yet
this is what Yusif did. He was the contractor
for meat, driving in sheep and cows to the camp.
And before he brought them to the sergeant to
be weighed, he would keep them for two days
without water, or for three days if the weather
were not hot; then he would take them to the
river and let them drink their fill. And for
the great quantity of water in their bellies he
was paid at the rate of one rupee ten annas the
hugga! Allah the All-Powerful, that such
things could be I Any Turkish soldier would
have seen through the trick, but not so the Eng
lishman. Now which serves his government the
THE FLAG OF 'ABBAS 191
better, the Turk who haggles all day over the
price, and having bought cheap, charges a
higher sum in his books ; or the English soldier
who makes for himself nothing, but pays a high
price in money not his own?"
Those distant times, which to Hajl Rikkan
and his kind were not grim days of war but
halcyon days of gain, came to an end all too
soon. The ships which, loaded with men and
stores, had forged slowly upstream, to return
hastily for another cargo, now bore their heavy
loads downstream, and returned empty. Rap
idly their numbers dwindled, until the little chil
dren in the riverside villages ran to the bank
to gaze at the monster boats which to their
seniors of a few years had been so common a
sight that hardly a head was raised to watch their
passing. The trains ceased to run, and it was
not long before the "iron road" was torn up
and taken away. The white tents of the mili
tary posts were struck, and the barbed-wire en
tanglements, erected not so much for protection
against enemy attacks as to secure immunity,
rarely gained, from Arab marauders, were
pulled down or abandoned. No longer were the
Narrows lit up by electric light; even the tall
poles were carried away. The buildings of the
i 9 2 THE MARSH ARAB
river control stations were put up to auction, and
the neat gardens so carefully tended by the old
naval ratings who manned them were swiftly
obliterated by the fast-growing camel-thorn. In
a few short months the region known to Haji
Rikkan showed not a trace of the British Occu
pation. Of all the power and might of an in
vading Empire no sign remained, save on the
right bank of the Tigris between Kassara and
Mantaris, where, too heavy to be broken up and
carried off by the marsh Arabs, lay the rusted
iron plates of the Turkish gunboat Marmoris,
sunk after the battle of Qurna by the guns of
H.M. Sloop Clio.
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION
ALLAH loose me from this woman!" mut
tered Haji Rikkan angrily, for he was con
vinced that his wife made unlawful and
surreptitious raids upon his stock in trade, in
consequence of which we were now on our way
to Musa'ida, one of the little towns in the rice
country, there to replenish his depleted wares.
This was an errand far less to the Haji's liking
than a profitable day's bartering among the
Mafdan; but as we left the marsh and came to
the great rice-fields which fringe its edge, his ill-
humour began to evaporate, and he became once
more his cheerful, loquacious self,
We passed slowly up one of the "tails" of the
Chahala canal, which every year at flood time
carries a load of rich silt to the rice-lands on
either side, and leaving the narrow distributary
comes out into the broad channel of the 'AdiL
Here the current was strong, and paddling be
came hard work; at a word from Bahalul the
194 THE MARSH ARAB
brothers leapt out on the bank with a coll of
rope, looped themselves together so quickly that
the birkash lost almost no way at all, and began
to tow her at a steady, swinging pace. Haji Rik-
kan left his place in the "belly" of the boat, took
up a paddle, and sat down in the stern to steer.
On each side of the river the cultivators, knee-
deep in brown oozy mud, were busy. Strings
of women passed to and fro, carrying on their
heads baskets of young green rice-shoots, to be
planted one by one by their menfolk in the new
ly-prepared silt beds. The rice-fields stretched
for miles on either hand. Occasionally we passed
a small garden of date palms, the trees heavily
hung with their bunches of green fruit. A large
danak, low in the water, sailed slowly past with
a load of chattering women and children, on
their way perhaps to visit the shrine of some
local saint In the infrequent villages, with their
reed huts rounded like the haystacks of southern
Cornwall, only women were to be seen, for all
the men were at work among the rice. The
bright colours of their dresses scarlet is the
favourite showed up the good looks and grace
ful carriage which are so marked among the
Albu Mohammad women ; their large dark eyes
and rounded features were over-hung by a heavy
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 195
fringe of hair, and silver anklets drew attention
to their neat and shapely bare feet. Most of the
house-walls were patterned with round flat dung-
cakes, to be used as fuel when dried by the sun.
Great piles of yellow rice-straw were carelessly
stacked in open spaces here and there; a soft blur
of brown and dun-colour meant cattle resting
in the shade of a hut; the moored mashhufs were
black against the sparkling water. In every vil
lage the fierce, shaggy dogs would run snarling
and barking at the heels of Bahalul and Jahalul
as we passed their masters 7 huts, until the end
of their self-appointed beat was reached, or else
would shrink whimpering away from the up
raised reed with which some naked urchin
As with lazy skill Haji Rikkan guided his
boat on her way, he struck up a droning song,
of which the words by very frequency of repe
tition at length became intelligible to me.
"Two gowns has she, and yet a third of red ;
So sheer are they that through
Their folds I yet can see her waist's tattooed
Broad band of blue.
"Ah 1 were her father friendly to my suit,
I'd hasten to her side ;
Gladly I'd sweep her hearth, nor think abased
My manly pride."
ig6 THE MARSH ARAB
He caught my eye upon him, smiled broadly and
self-consciously, and took me into his confidence.
"I sing of one that is a pearl indeed," he said.
"I bear witness by Allah that she is a pearl, a
hourL Her cheeks are like young melons, her
mouth is a jewelled ring, no bigger; her teeth
are sugar. Are not her eyes, ma sh? Allah! as
big as eggs? And as for her breasts, they are
like two Persian apples!"
Somewhat surprised at this outburst for that
the Haji was not yet too old to fall in love had
never occurred to me I said nothing.
"Dear as my house 1" he called encouragingly
to his nephews on the bank ; and they obediently
bent their backs to the rope, and broke into a
jog-trot which sent our boat surging through
"To-night," went on the Haji, turning to me,"
"we shall reach the house of 'Ulaiwi bin Jasim 3
father of Riyasa whom I desire. WAllahi, to
day our journeying is fortunate!"
I agreed, for to me all care-free, indolent days
spent in the Haji's birkash were fortunate.
"But as for thee," he added, with the thought
ful friendliness which never failed, "I shall not
neglect thee when I hasten to her house. No,
thee I will lead first to the dwelling of Makia,
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 197
the woman shaikh whose lands we are even now
entering that same Makia who led the Albu
Mohammad when the Bani Lam were broken
at Safaiha. She shall give thee hospitality to
night Ach! the Omnipotent! " he broke off
to exclaim, as the boat, its guidance forgotten as
he talked, bumped violently into the bank.
The birkash once more under way, Haji Rik-
kan fell silent I thought his expression un
usually gloomy, especially after the rhapsodies
of a few minutes earlier.
"What ails? 5 * I asked.
The Haji was glad to unburden his mind.
"It is not hidden from thee," he said, "that her
cousin has the first right to take a woman in
marriage. Even though she love another, he
may take her by force ; aye, and even if he de
sires not to wed her, he may forbid another's
taking her. And if another man, greatly desir
ing her, weds the woman regardless of her
cousin, then by our law the cousin has the right
to kill that man. Now Riyasa, whom I love,
has a cousin that desires to wed her. Shall I
then take her, and perhaps be slain? Can she
comfort me in my grave?
"I know not whether she desires me; yet why
should she not? My beard is no longer grey,
198 THE MARSH ARAB
but black with henna and wasma : for two krans
spent I am become a young man. Yet I fear
to take her without the consent of her cousin.
Since last thou didst honour us, Hadaiyat Ef-
fendi of 'Amara, whom thou knowest well, has
died a sudden death. If one so great as he can
be killed for a woman, what of a peddler of the
Ma' dan? If thou hast not yet heard the story,
I will tell thee how he died."
I remembered Hadaiyat Effendi well. Like
others who had enjoyed his feasts and his shoot
ing parties, I had subscribed to the general opin
ion that our lavish and genial host was a
sportsman and good fellow; but as soon as he
was dead and tongues might wag without dan
ger, a different story was told. Usurer, task
master, and oppressor, wine-bibbing companion
of infidels these are hard names, but they were
freely applied to the effendi by the very towns
people who had been proud to be called his
friends; and still more odious titles were used
by the tillers of his fields.
Hadaiyat Effendi was one of the few big pri
vate land-owners in the district. Rumour had
it that his father had been merely a dishonest
clerk in the Land Registry, who in Turkish
times had succeeded in granting himself the
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 199
large tract of land which had made his son rich
and powerful. He lived neither in tent nor in
reed hut, but in a large brick-built house on the
bank of the Tigris.
The news that Hadaiyat Effendi had been
murdered reached the town, the Haji told me,
at dawn one summer morning. Eagerly it was
discussed in market and coffee-shop, and by the
river bank where the shrill- voiced women filled
their water-pots. Then more details began to
be passed from mouth to mouth: not only was
the effendi dead, but the bodies of a woman and
another man had also been found. The town
was agog with excitement ; the rumoured death-
roll grew hourly longer ; and not until the next
day did the true story become known.
About midnight, the watchmen had heard a
sudden scream from the room in which Hadaiyat
Effendi was sleeping with the young wife newly
added to his haritn "a foal among she-camels,"
said Haji Rikkan. They rushed in, to find their
master dying on the ground. Some mounted,
and set off in hot pursuit of the murderer, the
hoofs of whose horse could be heard drumming
in the distance. After a long chase in the dark
ness they came up with the galloping horse,
only to find it riderless. As they returned to
200 THE MARSH ARAB
the house, just after dawn, they were hailed by a
group of cultivators gathered in excited discus
sion round two motionless figures the dead
body of a woman, and the limp unconscious form
of a young man.
The woman's body was at once carried to the
house, for the returning servants recognized it
as that of Fitna, Hadaiyat' s fifteen-year-old wife,
bride of a few days. The wounded man was
carried in to the town hospital, but not before
he had been identified as 'Ali bin Guhait, a mem
ber of a sheep-owning tribe, and first cousin to
This relationship explained the murder of
Hadaiyat EffendL In defiance of tribal cus
tom he had married Fitna, knowing that by right
of cousinship she belonged to 'Ali bin Guhait;
and 'Ali, accepting the obligations of his tribal
code, had killed the man who had thus brushed
aside the social custom of centuries. What re
mained unexplained was the murder of the girl.
There was ample testimony that she had mar
ried Hadaiyat unwillingly ; moreover, tribal cus
tom in such cases attributes no blame to the
woman, who is but bestowed, unconsulted, by
her father. 'Ali's act seemed to be the wanton
cruelty of a jealous lover.
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 201
The truth was heard only by the English doc
tor, and by Majid the hospital attendant, from
whose lips Haji Rikkan had the story. It
seemed that the murderer, a young shepherd
about twenty years of age, had begged the doc
tor to let him die in the open, not within the
confinement of four walls ; and the doctor had
assented. 'Ali was carried out into the open
fields to spend his last few hours under the sky,
Majid being left in charge.
All day 'Ali bin Guhait lay silent as though
asleep, until at sunset the doctor came out to
see him. Then he roused from his torpor, and
lifting himself on his elbow gathered together
all his forces for a passionate indictment of the
man who had caused his death. In stern and
measured words he made his protest
"The rich man has flocks beyond count, and
he does not know the number of his horses. He
eats his fill of flesh every day, and clothes his
body in silk raiment. The arms and feet of his
wives are loaded with ornaments of gold, his
tents are filled with servants. He knows neither
hunger nor thirst, he has shelter from the winter
winds and from the sun of summer. All his
desires he has, yet lacks one thing in that he
has no compassion. He cares not that the poor
202 THE MARSH ARAB
man is robbed of his grain and of his cattle, nor
pities him when his all is taken from him.
"For a man to lose his harvested corn is a
matter of no account; to be robbed of his sheep
is a small thing; but to be bereft of the wife who
is his birth-right that Is a great matter, to be
requited only by death, Now he is dead, and
I also shall die before the sun sets ; and to-night
the rich man and the poor man shall be equal,
for the jackals shall be scratching at both our
Haji Rikkan paused, that this picture of man's
ultimate equality might impress itself upon my
mind. He had been speaking slowly, like a
prophet of old denouncing the unrighteous ; now
he continued in the low and hurried tones of one
who pleads his cause, of one who must speak
while there is yet time. By such means did this
untaught rhetorician give life and colour to his
" 'Listen/ said 'AH, 'and tell me if this is
justice. It Is the law of our fathers that a man's
first cousin is his to take to wife, and none shall
gainsay him. Now Fitna, daughter of Sagban,
was my cousin, and my claim to her was twofold,
by right and because she loved me even as I
loved her. One day I heard that Sagban had
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 203
betrothed her to Hadaiyat Effendi. And when
I went to him, he said, "May Allah blind me if
I wish my daughter to wed this manl But the
rains have failed, the crops are withered up,
and I am deep in debt to Hadaiyat, as are all
his cultivators. He has been pressing me to pay,
and now he threatens to beat me, to burn my
house and seize my cattle and my horse, unless
I give him Fitna for his wife. The sum I owe
is greater far than the value of my horse and
the cattle which draw my plough. What could
I do but say, Take my daughter?"
" 'And I said to Sagban, "I have a rifle
mounted with silver, a fleet mare, and a score of
sheep. I will join these to thy horse and oxen,
that thou mayst pay the eff endi." He agreed, and
we went together to the market; but the drought
had caused many others to sell their beasts, and
there was no price, so that the sum we brought
back was not enough. None the less I took it to
Hadaiyat, offering to work in his fields without
payment until the full amount was earned; but
he would not agree. And though I told him that
the woman was mine by right, and though I
warned him that if he wedded her he should
surely die, he took my bride to wife.' "
The Haji paused, and there was a subtle
204 THE MARSH ARAB
change in his voice when he again took up the
" 'Among all his servants passing to and fro,'
said 'AH, C I found it easy to slip into his court
yard at dusk, and there was no warning bark
when at midnight I made my way into the house
and drove my dagger deep into his heart so
deep that I could not draw it out. Quickly I
fled to where I had left my father's mare, and
as I ran a figure followed me that, turning, I
saw to be my cousin Fitna. So I mounted with
her behind me, and we galloped out towards
the desert; but a bullet struck me, and I fell to
the ground. And as I lay there, Fitna came and
lay in my arms, and all night I kissed her lips
and her eyes and her slender neck.
" 'Then as the darkness began to lighten I
felt my cousin trembling in my arms. But when
I said, "Take my cloak and wrap it round thee
the wind is ever chill at dawn," she answered,
"Nay, I tremble not for cold, but because I fear
" * "Art also wounded unto death, even as I
am?" I asked.
" ' "Not wounded," she replied, "but when the
sun rises I shall be found, and because I have
lain all this night with thee I shall be killed.
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 205
Nay, whither should I flee? I know that there
is no escape, and I must die. But if I died at
thy hands, death would be easy."
" < "How can I kill thee, I who love thee?" I
asked. But she answered, "Wouldst rather then
that I died in anguish at the hands of those who
hate me? Ah, kill me now, and death will come
as easily as sleep to the weary."
" ( And I said, "I have no weapon," whereupon
she seized my hand and passionately kissed it,
and laid it to her soft throat,' she kissed the
palm of his hand and laid it to her throat," Haji
Rikkan repeated hoarsely, making me realize
how compelling had been the girl's appeal for
"For a space," he concluded, " J Ali bin Gu-
hait lay silent and without motion, as though al
ready dead. Then suddenly he raised himself,
and with a great voice crying out, 'There is no
justice for the poor man, but I have avenged
the injustice,' he died."
Such was the tragic story, the remembrance
of which caused Haji Rikkan to look back from
the fresh plough of matrimony, to which he had
barely yet put his hand. His Riyasa also had
a first cousin. Was a woman worth the adding
206 THE MARSH ARAB
of yet another to the many feuds to which he
or his tribe was already a party? Was discre
tion perhaps the better part of love? Paddle in
hand, he sat deeply pondering the question.
We reached the outskirts of Makia's village,
at which we were to sleep that night
"Bismillah in the name of Allah!" cried
the hospitable villagers as they recognized Haji
"The blessing of Allah," he flung back as we
passed, and called to an acquaintance to warn
Makia of our arrival.
We found her waiting on the river bank, sur
rounded by a crowd of followers. Greeting us
gravely and with perfect ease, she led the way
to her madhif, where tea and coffee were quickly
brought. This woman shaikh, far from seeking
the seclusion which by all the standards of her
class is the right and proper protection of her
sex, ruled her people and managed her affairs
in unabashed publicity. As she sat opposite me
in the madhif, consuming cigarette after cigar
ette in swift succession, it was clear even in the
smoky gloom that she did not hold the allegiance
of her tribe by reason of her beauty; she had
only one eye, and must have been nearing sixty,
by which time an Arab woman has long ceased
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 207
to consider her appearance. Nevertheless, her
features were clear-cut and shrewd, and though
her ample draperies were far from clean, her
bearing marked her out as one accustomed to
Her first abrupt words, after the conventional
greetings, made me think my welcome not a very
"I dislike the English/' she said in her harsh,
"Why?" I asked.
"Before they came I had thirteen slaves.
Eleven ran away to the English, and I could
not get them back* Is that not reason enough?
But," she added unexpectedly, "perhaps those
who have been seared with hot irons should not
be blamed for flight!"
1 watched Makia as she gave her orders,
shouting curt instructions to this servant and
that. Her mullah entered, whispered a few
words in her ear, and received a quickly-mut
tered string of directions. A tribesman came
hastily in, kissed her hand, and burst into a pas
sionate complaint of ill-treatment, only to be
waved away with an impatient shrug and shake
of the head ; another received a few abrupt words
which sent him away calling down blessings on
208 THE MARSH ARAB
her head. She behaved exactly as I had seen
a score of shaikhs behave, and only her flowing
black garments and swathed head-dress betrayed
the fact that she was a woman.
"I also like the English," she began again,
as abruptly as before. "Not because they are
generous: generosity is easy for the rich; not
because they are just: I would have the weak
grow brave, and protect themselves. No, I like
the English because they are powerful stronger
than the Arabs, and the Turks, and all the
nations of the earth,"
This seemed more friendly; but Makia re
lapsed again into a long silence, which she broke
by asking if I would care to see her new di<wa-
nlya. This was a building of burnt brick a
matter of some pride in a village of reed huts
standing apart from the family quarters, and
only used for the entertainment of guests. Ris
ing to her feet, Makia led the way out of the
madhif, her dress trailing in the dust behind her.
The room into which she proudly conducted
me boasted an unique scheme of decoration.
High up round the walls ran a narrow shelf, on
which were crowded together hundreds of pieces
of crockery, European in pattern, and hideous
in design. Soup tureens, cups and saucers, plates
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 209
and bowls, vegetable dishes these were Makia's
objets d'art. Below the shelf hung numbers of
pictures, all highly coloured and some upside
down : a portrait of Lord Roberts faced another
of the Sultan, a glaring English 'Guardian An
gel' was side by side with a group of the Turkish
Parliament in session. Queen Victoria was
foiled by an Arab print, devoid of perspective
or proportion, showing the power of 'AH over
But Makia's greatest treasures were evidently
in the next room. Here, on low broad shelves
running round the wall, were stacks of silk-
covered mattresses ; beyond them the shelves held
numbers of brightly-coloured pillows, hard and
bolster-shaped, and across the end of the room
were piled heavy silken padded quilts, each
made in two colours, selected seemingly on the
principle that they must either clash violently
or contrast completely. All these possessions,
the glory of Makia's establishment, were care
fully folded, and most methodically arranged in
order of merit: a pile of perfectly new and
bright ones followed by a pile slightly worn,
down to the oldest and shabbiest, which were
meant presumably for the use of the servants of
THE MARSH ARAB
So Makia had a feminine side after all! She
waited eagerly for my praise of the number and
richness of her cushions, though pretending
"It would be a dishonour," she said, "if I
could not provide every guest, whether rich or
poor, with rest for his head and covering for
It was twilight by the time this inspection
was finished, and we returned to the madhif
to await the evening meal. As the leaping
flames lit up Makia's wrinkled face, I wondered
if she had any other womanly feelings beside
the housewife's pride she had just displayed
whether there had ever been a touch of romance
in the life of this sallow, harsh-voiced, one-eyed
ruler of a wild tribe,
"Eh <w' Allah, I was beautiful once," she said,
answering my thoughts, with a chuckle of sat
isfaction at my guilty start. "The daughter of
Baddai was desired by many, but above all by
Abu Risha, the great Abu Risha. He loved me
for my beauty only," she added proudly, "for
I could bring him nothing. My father was his
enemy, and his tribe was angry that he should
even wish to wed me.
"My father planned to give me in marriage
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 211
to Shaikh Kharraj, thus securing his help and
friendship against Abu Risha. But I would
none of it, though he threatened me with death.
He was a hard ruler; men say I resemble him
now." She laughed grimly.
"But one night his anger was fierce against
me, and I feared that he would carry out his
threat. So I did what no maiden should do:
I summoned four of my negresses, I bade them
get ready a mashhuf, and in the dead of night I
slipped away from my father's village, and fled
to my lover.
"I was wedded to Abu Risha the next morn
ing. His tribesmen were hot with anger against
him, though they hid their rage under much
laughter at the boatload of women fleeing
through the night They could not forgive Abu
Risha, who had set at naught the blood-feud be
tween his tribe and mine, and they wished to
kill him. But he was a great man, feared by all,
and none could be found to undertake the deed.
"So those of his own people who hated him
called other tribes to their help, and finally seven
tribes agreed together to unite in killing him,
that none might be alone responsible. They sent
each a little powder, and each a little lead for
the bullet, for they feared my vengeance and
212 THE MARSH ARAB
the vengeance of those who were still loyal to
"And at length, when he went to Al Dargan
to collect his dues, while he was resting in the
guest-house his enemies shot and killed him;
one man held the rifle, and six others held the
arm that pulled the trigger, that seven tribes
might act together in the deed. They thought
that none could avenge the dead on seven
"But he is avenged?" I asked.
"Aye, surely," replied Makia, her face hard
and set in the firelight.
I ventured another question. "How?"
There was silence. Then the old woman's
face slowly relaxed, and tears rolled down her
"Ah, Abu Risha," she wept, "thou art still
unavenged. I have lied, for thou art still un
avenged. Yet all that a weak woman could do,
I have done."
Then the indomitable spirit which maintained
her hold over three or four hundred turbulent
tribesmen reasserted itself.
"What folly," she said in her deep voice, "to
weep for a dead husband! I might weep all
day and all night, for six husbands have I had
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 213
since then. And may Allah show them mercy,"
she added under her breath, "for, by the
Prophet, I did not!"
A retainer now entered with a large round mat
of woven palm fronds, which he laid on the
floor. On this the evening meal was spread,
Makia eating with the rest. Haji Rikkan, who
entered the madhif after we had begun to eat,
was peremptorily bidden to share the meal.
Makia's biting, ribald tongue was truly for
midable. She seemed to know the private af
fairs of everyone, and to take pleasure in
making them public property. The Haji now
became her butt of the moment, and she did
not spare his feelings. She commented with
sarcasm on the disparity of age between himself
and his Riyasa, exposed the subterfuge of the
dyed beard ("to lessen the bridal price by two
lirasl") and finally, to the delight of her audi
ence, imitated the wretched Haji's melting tones
as he called upon his beloved, one tender diminu
tive following another "Riyasa Ruwaisa O
Haji Rikkan took this rough chaffing in good
part, but for the rest of the evening he sat silent
and thoughtful. It was evident that he was still
torn in two. If he were to be believed, Riyasa
314 THE MARSH ARAB
who may not have possessed all the charms
attributed to her by her elderly lover was not
unwilling to marry him ; but fear of the conse
quences held him back. Daring was not the
HajFs strong point He was a genial and
friendly soul, a kind host whose acute business
instincts never interfered with his generosity.
Courage of a kind he had, for his long journeys
about the marsh often brought him into touch
with tribes with which his own was at feud ; but
to provoke an enemy in cold blood was another
matter. He could not make up his mind.
It was natural that our talk that night should
have touched on the position held by women
in my country. Makia's respect for us as a na
tion suffered a severe blow when she learned
that the men were too miserly to pay the price
of a woman, but got their wives for nothing.
The question of votes for women, in a country
where to the men elections meant little or noth
ing, failed to interest her. She was shocked at
the lack of seclusion enjoined upon English
women of the upper classes, and when the in
consistency of this attitude with her own
unbridled liberty was pointed out to her, ended
the discussion abruptly with the curt remark,
"I am Makia!"
IN FAVOUR OF DISCRETION 215
Our talk later brought up a recent pronounce
ment of a local mumin or divine. A woman
had asked him whether, in order to enter Para
dise with her husband, she might pray as men
"It is not unlawful," he had replied "But
of what avail? Paradise is full of gazelle-eyed
houris, among whom thy husband may choose
as many as he wilL Is it then likely that he will
turn from their embraces to those of a wrinkled
old hag? No, better not to waste time in pray
ing, but to work and serve thy husband here,
where thou canst enjoy his good favour; in Para
dise thou wouldst take but small pleasure in see
ing him in the arms of others I"
"Patience is of Allah, O Haji," said Makia,
with a wicked twinkle in her one eye, on the con
clusion of this ruling. A general laugh at Haji
Rikkan's expense followed her sally.
"By Allah and the Prophet' s head," he said,
turning to me, who had missed the significance
of Makia's remark. "By my beard which will
soon be grey again I will have patience. Then
shall I have my choice of all the houris in Para
dise; and they, the praise to Allah! have no
Haji Rikkan had chosen in favour of discre
tion, and I heard no more of the fair Riyasa.
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH
THE bells of the two mules laden with Haji
r Rikkan's packs jingled musically in our
rear, as he and I jogged on our way towards the
Duwairij marsh. We had left the riverain cul
tivation in the early morning, and the sun was
hot on the bare ground of the desert when we
heard behind us a party of horsemen, who were
rapidly overtaking us as they came on at a steady
canter. Coming up with our little cavalcade,
they drew rein to exchange greetings. The
leader of the party proved to be Mullah Yunis,
an old acquaintance of mine, who with a few
tribesmen was returning to his master's tents
from a mission of importance.
His master Saihud, a boy at the most fourteen
years old, had on the death of his famous father
been unanimously acclaimed as shaikh by the
tribes, a choice which the government, with more
than its usual imagination, had confirmed. But
within a year the boy had found the handling
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 217
of his turbulent tribesmen no easy task. Two
headmen in particular had of late become openly
estranged, and in his difficulty the young shaikh
had sent a letter begging the advice of his un
cle, Shaikh Majid. Majid's answer was con
tained in the letter with which Mullah Yunis
had been entrusted.
We rode together for some miles, discussing
the interplay of tribal politics. When we came
to the parting of our ways, the mullah laughed
at my visiting the marshes when the wide desert
and the foothills, at this time of the year cov
ered with flowers and deep in grass, held out an
alternative so much more attractive. In his mas
ter's home, he offered us the hospitality of the
shaikh's madhif, pitched near the hills where
good water not the brackish water of the Tyb
and Duwairij was abundant.
A sojourn of several years in the Mesopota-
mian plains made the prospect of a visit to the
foot-hills of the Persian border indeed an at
tractive one, and Mullah Yunis, seeing this,
pressed his invitation more warmly than before.
But I was pledged to Haji Rikkan, and unwill
ing to upset his plans.
"Aye," he said in answer to my question, "I
would gladly visit Shaikh Saihud, for never in
2i8 THE MARSH ARAB
all my days have I set foot upon a hill.
He was interrupted by one of the mullah's
party. "B'lllah alaik! Thou a haji, and never
hast set foot upon a hill?"
"May thy dwelling be destroyed 1" said Haji
Rikkan testily. "Never have I set foot upon
those hills before us, such were my words. Dost
turn thusward at the hour of prayer, O ignorant?
By my life," he added with vehemence, "I will
indeed set foot upon those very hills!"
Thus, through a slip of the tongue, the Haji
agreed to the suggestion of Mullah Yunis. The
two mules were sent on to the Duwairij marsh,
there to await his coming, while he and I turned
our faces to the distant, beckoning hills. Be
tween them and us lay miles of open desert, bar
ren and featureless, devoid of any vegetation
but the withered grey-green scrub which seemed
to enhance rather than diminish the general im
pression of aridity. Yet the needy Bedouin
knows how to distinguish the many varieties of
this one product of the desert, and to put each
to its proper use: tahama and righul are the
favourite fodder of the camel; ishshar contains
a medicinal juice; arta provides aromatic de
licious-smelling firewood ; dougub has seed-pods
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 219
which may be used as human food ; shanan has
saponaceous qualities; dubaij and haitan give
good grazing for the sheep. The desert, indeed,
knows how to provide for her own.
All that afternoon we rode, sometimes at a
gentle, ambling canter, more often at the fast
walk beloved of Arabs. From time to time we
found ourselves heading for a stretch of blue
water familiar and homelike sight to Haji Rik-
kan; but the water always receded as we ap
proached, or disappeared altogether from sight;
for in 'Iraq, mirage is not the traveller's fe
vered dream of palm-trees shading a bubbling
spring, but simply the illusion of a vast expanse
of shallow water, in which the distant flocks or
caravans appear to be wading knee-deep. Hour
after hour we rode, until we sighted on the hill
side ahead a group of black dots, like a herd
of grazing goats, which slowly resolved them
selves into the tents of Shaikh Saihud and his
section of the Bani Lam.
"To their bosoms, to their bosoms !" cried some
of the younger men, spurring their horses for
ward at a gallop towards the tents which held
their womenfolk. The rest of us, following more
sedately, dismounted at the great madhif.
The tent in which the shaikh holds audience
220 THE MARSH ARAB
is to his people a tangible centre of their tribal
life. The shaikh may die or be supplanted, but
his successor sits in the same madhif. Here mat
ters of tribal policy are debated ; here the head
men and wiseacres of the tribe sit round the low
fire, eternally sipping their strong, bitter coffee;
here the shaikh dispenses justice and receives his
Twice a year among the Bani Lam the madhif
is set up with ceremony. At the change of
season the brown tent of sheep's wool, which
provides cool shelter in the hot weather, is re
placed by one of black goats' hair, warm against
the biting wind and snug against the rains of
winter. Each autumn and spring the word goes
round the tribe : "on such a day the shaikh sews
the madhif; and the vassal headmen ride in
to the tribal headquarters. The occasion is a
formal one; as the men sew the long strips of
woven wool or hair together, the shaikh cries
out, "Allah save us from the tyranny of the Op
pressors 1" x As the headmen take the tent poles
and lift them aloft, they cry, "In the name of
Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate!''
The lord of this madhif and master of its great
flocks was the boy sitting opposite to me a true
1 The government.
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 221
son of the desert, his birth and breeding stamped
on every finely cut feature. Clear dark eyes,
lips fresh with a scornful curve, the glow of
health under an olive skin it was a face full of
promise for the making of a great man such as
his father had been. The boy's dress was sim
ple and unpretentious: a white robe and short
white coat, thin black y aba with the usual red
and gold embroidery at the shoulders; only
round his neck was a narrow collar of embossed
gold, set in front with a large turquoise.
Round Saihud sat the elders of his tribe,
grave-faced, bearded men wrapped in their dark
cloaks. The result of the mullah's embassy was
being debated. Shaikh Majid's letter, read
aloud to the gathering in the tent, advised the
young shaikh to go in person to visit his re
calcitrant headmen; but morose looks and
dubious voices showed that the advice was by no
means welcome. Saihud himself, with the im
petuosity of youth, was all for going. He him
self would settle the matter: was he not shaikh?
But the old men in the madhif, one after an
other stating his objections between long pauses
for silent deliberation, evidently feared to bring
the quarrel to a head. Let the shaikh delay,
procrastinate, await a move from 'Aufi and 'Asi.
222 THE MARSH ARAB
Saihud carried his point. He would go, and
on the morrow; but no voice supported him.
Perhaps a feeling of isolation made him wel
come his mullah's suggestion that I should ac
company him ; and it was decided that we should
set off at dawn.
The band of horsemen, scattered over the hill
side in the first rays of the morning sun, was
a picturesque company. The graceful little
mares, wide of nostril and narrow of flank, were
fresh and mettlesome, and the men some sev
enty in number rode with the careless ease of
the desert Arab. Their 'abas floated behind
them in the breeze; many carried rifles slung
over their shoulders; or wore curved knives in
their belts; many rode with bare feet in the
wide, heavy stirrups; and all the dark faces bore
the stamp of a hard, vigorous life lived in the
At the head of the party rode Saihud, mounted
on a pretty blue roan. The boy's high peaked
saddle was hung with blue and gold embroid
ery, his stirrups were studded with blue stones,
and his reins were of soft scarlet leather.
We crossed several ridges, some of sand, some
of red sand-stone. Beyond them the country
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 223
opened out in a rolling grassy downland, studded
with prickly thorn-bushes, and crossed here and
there by small, clear, pebbly streams. The grass
was thick with flowers, miniatures of the English
down-flowers daisies, trefoil, blue bird's-eye,
scarlet poppies, and scabious. Only once during
the sunny morning did we stop for a few min
utes, when the shepherds of a little hillside vil
lage turned out to greet their young shaikh.
"The Bani Lam," said Haji Rikkan, reining
his horse nearer to mine, "are Arabs 1" By the
emphasis of the last word he conferred on them
the highest praise in his power to bestow.
"Let me tell a true story," he went on, "a tale
not of the ancient days, but one which happened
when I was a grown man. Sa'da, daughter of
Musa al Madhkur, was a beautiful woman, and
Ghadhban of the Bait 'Abdul 'Ali took her in
marriage, though forbidden by her cousins the
Bait Jandil, her closer kinsfolk. For this the
Bait Jandil and the Bait 'Abdul 'Ali fought to
gether, and Sulman al Jandil was killed ; where
upon the Bait 'Abdul 'Ali fled to Persia, taking
refuge with 'Ali Quli Khan, where they thought
to be safe. But Shaikh Banayan, brother of
Sa'da, who sided with the Bait Jandil in this
matter, attacked them with five hundred horse-
224 THE MARSH ARAB
men, and in the battle five of the sons of Ghadh-
ban were killed.
"After the fight the five young men were laid
outside their father's tent He entered; and
those who waited without heard him kiss SaMa,
saying, What are five sons to me, so long as I
"Ma sh'Allah!" exclaimed Haji Rikkan,
striking the pommel of his saddle enthusias
tically, "Such men are the Bani Lam!
"Nevertheless the Bait 'Abdul 'Ali were
forced to flee to Huwaiza; there they stayed for
eighteen years, and there Ghadhban died. At
last, broken in spirit and stricken with poverty,
they made dakhala to Ibn Mizban, begging him
to intercede on their behalf; they were ready to
give twenty women and more, and with them
swords of silver and of gold, if but they might
return to their lands. Ibn Mizban went to Fal-
aya, head of the Bait Jandil, who called together
his brothers and his uncles, and asked them to
pardon the Bait 'Abdul 'Ali. But they would
not, for they said, The blood of our brother
Sulman was shed by them, and for this there is
"Then Falaya al Jandil spilt upon the ground
a bowl of water.
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 325
" 'Gather,' he said to them, 'the water that is
" 'We are not able/ said they.
" 'Nor are ye able to gather again the blood
of Sulman who is slain. What is past, is past.
Will ye not pardon them?'
"And seeing how he entreated, they forgave
them ; nor would they take any fasl, but allowed
them to return to their lands. Than the Bani
Lam," concluded Haji Rikkan, "there are none
more generous, but none" he dropped his voice
"more proud ; and to-day we shall see what we
As the afternoon wore on, a slight haze
smudged the horizon.
" 'Aufi and 'Asi," said one of Saihud's retain
ers ; and he was right, for the cloud of dust was
soon seen to be caused by a large body of horse
men. "'Aufi and 'Asi!" ran from mouth to
mouth. The crisis was at hand; all realized
how much depended on the result of this meet
ing. Could their young shaikh retain the al
legiance of his vassals, or, losing it, would he
lose also his shaikhship?
As the party approached, the horsemen spread
out in a long single line across the plain. The
two headmen were offering the traditional form
226 THE MARSH ARAB
of reception to a person of rank. It was a good
augury, and the number of horsemen left noth
ing to be desired. A few outriders, as the band
drew nearer, galloped in front of the line, cross
ing and recrossing its length, firing their rifles
into the air, and performing a series of curves
and evolutions which exhibited at once their own
horsemanship and the grace and agility of their
Saihud's followers quickly formed up in a
similar line, and the two parties approached at
a foot pace. When they were about fifty yards
apart, both lines came to a halt, and the two
headmen, dismounting, came forward on foot.
Some of our party went to meet them, also on
foot; but the young shaikh remained proudly
seated on his mare. The headmen waited a mo
ment in silence; then, exchanging an angry
glance, turned back abruptly to their horses.
An uncomfortable hush fell over both parties
as 'Aufi and 'Asi mounted. No one stirred, un
til the shaikh, his face white with rage, drove
the sharp points of his stirrup-irons into his
"Can there be peace," cried his clear, angry
young voice, "when they have not even said the
'Peace upon you 5 ?" And he led his men for-
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 227
ward, the line of 'AufPs followers breaking to
let them pass.
The failure of the two headmen to greet or pay
homage to their shaikh, and the boy's resent
ment, could not pass unnoticed by the tribes
men. Constraint and uneasiness were in the air
as we rode on; the laughter and gaiety of the
morning were gone.
I found myself riding near the headmen, and
tried by a cautious question or two to find out
the cause of the quarrel.
"We are become as nothing in his eyes," was
all that the austere and stern-featured 'Aufi
would vouchsafe; but 7 Asi was more communi
"Are the old men, the trusted companions of
'Abdul Karim his father, to be thrust aside and
neglected, while the place of honour is given
to youths? Have the grown men ceased to give
good counsel, that no heed is paid to their words?
In defeat as in victory we fought for his father,
but Saihud remembers it not; our brothers and
our uncles shed their blood freely for his house,
but this boy forgets it. W'Allahi, we who should
be the poles of his madhif are now no more than
the wooden skewers joining together the woven
strips of hair."
228 THE MARSH ARAB
J Aufi,.tall and spare, a dignified figure in
spotlessly clean garments, rode on as though
he had not heard his companion's words, his
expression of cold set anger unaltered. The two
men were probably about the same age, but the
dyed and clipped beard of 'Aufi made him
appear much younger than *Asi with his
weather-beaten face and full grey beard. But
though 'Aufi might possess the commanding
personality, the imposing appearance of a leader
of men, 'Asi's was the golden tongue, the ready
eloquence which would persuade them to follow
where his brother headmen led. He took up
now the tale of their grievance.
"Did not we to-day men with grey hairs, and
the burden of years upon us come forward on
foot to meet him? And what of the shaikh
did he descend from his mare to receive us?
Never, never thus were we treated even by his
proud father; never were we, headmen of the
most famous of all the tribes of the Bani Lam,
thus dishonoured before the eyes of our people!"
A few more minutes' ride brought us to the
encampment, and we were led to 'Aufi's tent.
It seemed dark, gloomy and empty, for our com
panions, finding perhaps the constrained atmos-
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 229
phere little to their liking, had scattered to the
hospitality of the other tents.
Saihud sat on a strip of carpet at one end of
the tent, with myself and a few of his following.
At the other end sat 'Aufi and 'Asi, the one stern
and implacable, the other plucking anxiously
at his ragged beard. They were neglecting even
the most perfunctory courtesies of hospitality,
and with every moment of studied neglect the
breach between them and the young shaikh grew
wider. The air was tense ; it seemed that at any
moment an angry challenge would be flung, to
be as vehemently accepted.
But Saihud had one friend in this hostile tent
The coffee-man, his powerful brew now pre
pared to his satisfaction, came towards us, in one
hand a blackened, long-beaked coffee-pot, in the
other three small round cups. He handed
coffee in turn to all of us ; then, with the easy
but respectful familiarity which is so marked a
feature of the tribal democracy of the desert,
he squatted before the shaikh. Affection and
respect were in his voice as he began to talk in
low tones, an undercurrent of earnestness was in
the light, unexaggerated flattery of his words.
With considerable audacity (I learned after-
230 THE MARSH ARAB
wards that the old man was the husband of
Saihud's foster-mother, and held a privileged
position) he began to explain the headmen's
point of view to the boy as his own people had
probably never allowed him to see it for inter
tribal and inter-family intrigue is the curse of
the tribal life of the country. He spoke of their
services to Saihud's father, of their wounded
dignity at finding their counsel unheeded and
themselves forgotten ; but the shaikh brushed all
this aside; it was to-day's affront to his own
dignity which held chief place in his mind.
The coffee-man was not repulsed. Had
Saihud's own bearing been faultless? In his
pride he had waited for two old men to come
meekly and kiss his stirrup ; well the coffee-man
knew how the great 'Abdul Karim would have
acted in such a case.
Saihud leaned forward eagerly, and the
speaker made good use of the advantage he had
gained. Every now and again pouring out
coffee to cover his long and unusual stay before
his master's guests, he began to tell stories of the
boy's father, of the courtesy which had enhanced
rather than diminished his renown, of the gen
erosity which had always marked his dealings
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 231
with others. The old man*s quiet voice flowed
on and on in the soothing half-light of the tent;
but his stories could not go on for ever, and at
last with a muttered "T 'Allah!" he rose to his
feet and returned to his smouldering fire.
Saihud sat on in silence, his face a mask of
youthful impassivity. It was evident that the
words of the coffee-man had made an impres
sion, but like all Arabs he took his time over
his deliberations. At length he rose abruptly,
and with impetuous strides crossed the tent floor
to the headmen, who rose mechanically at his
"My uncles " said Saihud, his proud head
bending to kiss the hand, first of 'Aufi and then
The dark looks of the old men vanished in
a moment "My son, my son," said the stern
'Aufi, kissing him on both cheeks; while 'Asi,
speechless for once, bent to the boy's feet
From behind the screen which divided the
men's from the women's quarters came a shrill
high-pitched cry of relief and joy, the tremolo
call by which the Arab woman greets good news.
It was taken up from tent to tent ; men came out
at the sound and stood in groups about the en-
THE MARSH ARAB
campment; suddenly one of them lifted up hii
voice in a loud chant
"The Cause of Weeping 2 came nigh to us,
Now it has departed hence!"
A hundred voices took up the words^ flocking
round the leader ; the hoarse, monotonous refrain
rose and fell, and the men began to lift and
stamp their feet to its rhythm. Arms waved,
rifles were brandished and fired into the air.
More and more joined in, and soon a compact,
swaying body of men was "making hosa/' mov
ing in ecstatic unison backwards and forwards
as they stamped and shouted in the strange, im
memorial tribal dance of the Arabs.
Peace between the shaikh and his vassal head
men having been thus restored, Saihud be
thought him of his duties as host, which, he
seemed to think, the preoccupations of a ruler
had caused him to neglect. I wished to visit
the hills, did I not? He himself would show
them to me; that instant messengers should re
turn to his camp for tents, camels, and food, and
we should pitch our camp on the very borders
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 233
He was as good as his word. We camped
the next night on the bank of the river Tyb, in
sight of the distant majesty of the Persian moun
tains, snow-capped giants rising one behind the
other until their gleaming summits were lost in
the clouds. Immediately in front of our tents,
apparently only a few miles away, rose a jagged
line of bright red sandstone peaks, through a
break in which the river wound its sinuous way
towards us first a streak of silver, then blue,
then a deep still green as it silently rounded the
promontory on which our camp was pitched.
And facing us, on the highest of the red peaks,
shone a small white pillar, the boundary mark
between Iran and 'Iraq. On the next day we
were to ride across the frontier into Persia.
The air was sharp with a breath from the far-
off snow when we set off at dawn, the horses as
eager as their riders for a gallop over the grassy
downland. As the last man swung himself into
the saddle we were off, a score of us in a body,
with four young foals stretching themselves in
the effort to keep up with their dams.
There is no music like the drumming of hoofs
on good firm earth, no air like that of wide
downs before the heat-haze has come to shut off
the horizon, before the sky has lost the tender
234 THE MARSH ARAB
pink clouds of early morning. As we raced
along, the music of thundering hoofs had its
accompaniment of creaking leather, jingling bit
and chain, the knocking of rifles against high-
peaked saddles, the rattle of swords. When at
last horses and men had had enough of that
splendid gallop, we had almost reached the
ridge which had been a shadowy blur when we
set off. Ahead we could see a break in the hills,
where a dried-up channel marked what in the
time of the rains would be a rushing torrent.
Up the river bed we turned, following its wind
ings for some little distance on firm sand, then
on hard slippery rocks on which the horses' feet
rang, waking a thousand echoes from the rocks
above, while the air grew chill as the gorge
heightened and narrowed, shutting out the sun
light and all but a slender strip of sky.
We climbed for an hour, until horses were
streaming and men parched. The Arabs began
to talk of a well at the top of the pass, famous
for water of an unparalleled sweetness. We
reached it; but where was the well of clear
cold water which I had been imagining? Ex
perience might have taught me to expect no
more than we found a shallow hole in the
ground containing a few inches of muddy water,
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 235
in which stood a muleteer scooping up water for
his beasts. He was dressed in baggy black
trousers and felt skull-cap, first sign that we had
crossed the arbitrary frontier fixed in 1914 by
the four powers of Russia, Persia, Turkey and
Great Britain arbitrary because it cut through
the heart of the Bani Lam country, leaving part
of that great tribal confederation in Iran, and
part in 'Iraq.
This was the top of the pass, and we began to
descend on the other side slowly and carefully,
for here there was no river bed to show the path.
We had almost reached the plain when, round
ing a high projecting bluff, we came suddenly
upon a handful of brown tents, the dwellings of
some of Saihud's scattered tribesmen.
The older men hastened forward as usual to
greet their shaikh, but some excitement beyond
that caused by his unexpected arrival was evi
dent in their gestures. Crowding round Saihud's
mare, they barely went through the form of kiss
ing his hand before they burst into eager speech,
anxiously asking whether on our way we had
met 'Alwan and Challub. There were cries of
exasperation when the shepherds learned that we
had come by a different route from that taken
by their two headmen, who had set out in the
236 THE MARSH ARAB
early morning on learning that Saihud was en
camped in the neighbourhood.
The tale of their grievance was shouted at us
by a dozen excited voices. From the torrent of
rapid guttural speech I gathered with difficulty
that four hundred sheep had been driven off by
'Ali Quli Khan, a son of the Wali of the Pusht-
i-Kuh. Details of time and place were lost in
the general hubbub.
The shepherds, gathered in a gesticulating
group round their young shaikh, implored his
help to avenge the outrage. Some urged him
to collect a band of his following, some pleaded
their former services, some suggested forms of
revenge, but all were of one mind in volunteer
ing to follow and attack the raiders if but given
" 'Ali Quli Khan may his grave be defiled !
says that these lands are Persian lands,"
shouted one, making himself heard above the
rest by sheer vocal power. "But we say that
from the time of our grandfathers, aye, and the
grandfathers of our grandfathers, they have been
the lands of the Bani Lam."
"What is it to us," another cried, "if four or
forty nations divide our land, saying that this
side of the pillars goes to the Turk, and that to
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 23?
the Persian? Has It not been ours from the time
"Look," said a black-bearded shepherd, point
ing to a line of low, fantastically-shaped hills,
"yonder lie the Graves of the Heroes, the first
of our tribe, who died in securing for us their
descendants this grazing land which now the
"WAllahi, even to-day no Persian dares to
settle here without our favour. Our fathers won
the land by the sword, and, by Allah and my
honour, by the sword we can hold itl"
"Gently, gently," broke in an old man, who
seemed to command the respect of the wilder
members of the tribe, for they fell silent and
made way for him as he came to Saihud's
stirrup and spoke in milder tones of protest.
"O protected of Allah, our men sit outside the
tents, spinning wool even as the women, while
our youths milk the few poor sheep left us by the
marauding Lurs. Far otherwise did they live, a
few short years ago; but now the government
has forbidden us to fight with the tribes across
the border, and because we are weaker than the
government we obey. Yet surely this govern
ment is just as well as strong? Let it defend our
flocks, or let it recover what has been stolen ; and
238 THE MARSH ARAB
if it cannot do this, let it give us leave to follow
these thieving Lurs, and settle the affair our
selves. Are we to be robbed, and fold our hands ;
are we to be plundered, and not recover what
There was a murmur of assent, followed by
silence as the tribesmen eagerly waited for their
shaikh's decision. One could not but sympathize
with these rough, eloquent shepherds, whose
obstinate pride made them continue to graze
their flocks in territory which technically was no
longer theirs; but the real burden lay on the
youthful shoulders of Saihud, whose decision
was to be final. Though undisputed ruler of a
large and powerful tribe, he was yet the servant
of the government, and knew far better than the
shepherds that its order against border fighting
must be obeyed. He looked longingly in the
direction in which the raiders had driven off
their booty; his hand tightened on the rein, and
his eyes shone with excitement I expected,
almost hoped, that he would give the word to
follow; but as the boy drew himself up more
erect than before in the saddle, his words were
not those of headstrong youth.
"I will speak with 'Alwan and Challub," he
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 239
A look of grievous disappointment showed
itself on the faces of the tribesmen. The light
died out of eager eyes, and the group broke up
in silence ; but there was no murmuring against
the decision, no effort to reopen the case.
We turned in our tracks, and began to climb
the hillside once more ; but the zest had gone out
of our ride. As we went I reflected on the diffi
cult position of the shaikh of to-day. If he
obeys the government, his tribes are likely to
desert him for a bolder, more defiant leader ; if
he prefers the support of his people to the
approval of government, he courts deposition.
One cannot but wonder how far the shaikhs of
the future will succeed in maintaining their pre
carious position. Will the tradition-bound tribes
at length acquiesce in the government's policy
of tying them down to the land, or will they
assert to the end their freedom to wander over
the face of the desert, as they have done from
We reached our camp, to find 'Alwan and
Challub patiently awaiting the return of Saihud.
They lost no time in relating the story, and
while they talked I clambered down the cliff
to the river's edge with Haji Rikkan, who had
spent the day in camp ; for even his tough skin
240 THE MARSH ARAB
had not withstood the unwonted exercise of the
last three days. There we fished with improvised
rod and line, until the gathering darkness drove
us back to the tents, where we found a silent,
depressed little group sitting round the embers.
To Shaikh Saihud had fallen the difficult task
of proving that the pen was mightier than the
sword, that a visit to the Mutasarrif in 'Amara,
who would write to the authorities in Baghdad,
who in their turn would write to those in
Teheran, was a better way to recover the stolen
sheep than a swift pursuit of the fleeing robbers.
But his heart was not in his own argument.
"By Allah, if it were not for the English,"
he concluded, "our sheep, and as many more
besides to wipe out the insult, would be in our
hands before to-morrow's night!"
"Eh Vlttah? assented Shaikh 'Alwan, "it is
not the Arab government, but the English whom
we fear. Many years it is since I saw an English
man," continued the deep, husky voice of the
headman, who, lacking the usual rhetoric of the
Arabs, made up for its loss by the vehemence
of his gestures. "I will tell thee," he went on,
turning to me, "of the first I saw. During the
war, on the day that the tribes under Sabri Beg
and Mohammad Pasha Daghistani burnt the
THE BURDEN OF THE SHAIKH 241
muhailas at the village of Shaikh Sa'd, Shaikh
Chittab al Sa'id attacked a launch, a telegraph
launch. He sank it, and captured an English
man, whom he sent to Sabri Beg, the Turkish
commandant of the tribes. With Sabri Beg
were many shaikhs and headmen of the Bani
Lam and the Rabi'a, and I among them. What
had we heard of the English, save of Cowley
and his ship the Majidiya? Now we should see
an Englishman. Would he have four eyes or
two, two mouths or one? He came. All red
and white he was, his head up so and his arms
swinging thus though he was wounded in the
arm, and again by a bullet which entered his
side and came out at his chest. Three thousand
of us stared at him, our mouths agape thus.
"Now with Sabri Beg was one who had run
away from the Russians, and through him the
Turk spoke with the Englishman.
" 'How many troops has thy general?' he
asked. And the Englishman threw back his
head and laughed aloud thus ha! ha! though
he was wounded in the arm, and again by a
bullet which went in at his side and came out
at his chest.
" 'Ask him why he laughs,' said Sabri Beg to
242 THE MARSH ARAB
" 'I laugh to find myself among such savages, 7
replied the Englishman. 'I am wounded here
and here, yet am I asked questions when I should
be sent to hospital.'
"Then Sabri Beg in anger drew the dagger,
saying, 'Answer my question, or die!'
"But the Englishman mark it, he was
wounded in the arm, and again by a bullet
which entered at his side and came out at his
chest threw back his head again, laughing
loudly as before, thus ha! ha! ha!
" 'Why does he laugh?' again asked Sabri, for
he was puzzled.
" *I laugh,' said the Englishman, 'to find my
self among men so ignorant. Is not the road to
England a six months' journey? And how can
one man count the troops on that long road?'
"Then Sabri Beg sheathed his dagger, and
hiding his beard in his hand left the tent.
But we, having seen what we had seen, went
back to our flocks, and fought no more against
the English," *
1 According to Shaikh 'Alwan, this unnamed Englishman
was captured two days before the first battle of KLut, i.e.
Sept. 26th, 1915. If he is still alive, he may be interested
to learn of the impression made upon the tribes by his de
fiance of Sabri Beg.
GHALIB THE EXILE
TURNING our backs on the hills, we set
off the next morning Into the desert-
Shaikh Saihud, with the courtesy of the Arab
host, had insisted on accompanying us on the
first stage of our journey, as far as the edge of
the marsh formed by the waters of the Tyb and
Duwairij rivers. There we should part, Haji
Rikkan to earn his precarious livelihood by the
infinitesimal profits of his bartering, I to 'Amara
to pick up the boat for Baghdad, Saihud to re
turn to his encampment at the foot of the hills.
We had not ridden long before the sun rose
in threatening splendour, auguring a hot day;
and our forebodings were confirmed when a
burning, blistering wind arose. The heat was
exceptional for so early in the year, and soon
both man and beast had reason to regret that
we had brought so little water with us on our
long day's journey. Before us and behind lay
great blue lakes; but the mirage did but mock
244 THE MARSH ARAB
our thirst It was not until nearly evening that
we sighted a wide stretch of water that, unlike
those which had hovered before our eyes during
the whole of that long waterless march, did not
vanish as we approached. The tired horses
raised their heads, the men gave inarticulate
grunts of satisfaction as they quickened their
pace over the last few hundred yards of parched
earth. Then desert met marsh, with startling
suddenness, in a ripple of small waves on ribbed
sand golden in the light of sunset Miles of clear
blue water lay ahead, broken in the distance by
a line of reeds, black against the orange sky.
Miles of water! The men, dismounting,
hastened to the edge, and clearing with a
sweep of the hand the foam and flotsam which
had gathered on the surface, each tossed up
water into his mouth until his thirst was
quenched. The horses, following, tasted with
fastidious distrust, then drank eagerly.
Without waste of time one of the shaikh's
men took down his nail-studded box from the
laden mule which carried it, and began to make
tea. Two were despatched to gather fodder for
the horses, another two to collect fuel. The rest
squatted round the samavar while the tea-maker
handed round small glasses of the heavily
GHALIB THE EXILE 245
sweetened tea which is magical in its power to
"O shaikh," said one of the fuel-gatherers,
returning, "I have found hoof-marks of buf
faloes, but lately made,"
"Good!" cried Saihud. "Hither Zaid, hither
Khadhaiyir. Go search for these marshmen.
They will have milk, or fresh fish, perchance,
for the sahib. Hasten 1"
From far away across the grey stretches of
the desert came a musical, long-drawn cry. It
drew nearer ; the light was now too dim for the
baggage-camels to be seen in the distance, but
the clear, monotonous "Lon hawa, Ion ha<wa" of
the Badawi herdsman grew louder and louder.
Suddenly they loomed up out of the half-light,
a line of five or six abreast, looking huge,
monstrous in the deepening gloom. Quickly the
Arabs gathered round them. The camels knelt
in grumbling obedience, the heavy loads were
toppled off, and the tired beasts, each with one
fore-leg bent upwards and firmly tied above the
knee so that wandering far afield was impossible,
went hobbling off into the darkness to find
what grazing they could.
Now the low hair tent was quickly erected,
and before it a fire was kindled with the scrub
246 THE MARSH ARAB
of the desert. Round the fire the Arabs squatted,
smoking in silence. A few yards apart, his shoes
of scarlet leather placed beside the folded 'aba
which served as prayer-mat, their young shaikh
swayed and rose and knelt again as he pattered
half aloud the evening prayer.
A warning shout went up from one of the
group round the fire, to be answered by Zaid
and Khadhaiyir, whose dim and shadowy forms
now returned into the circle of light. Behind
them came a third, carrying on his back a
bundle tied up in an 'aba. Throwing it open,
he let fall to the ground a dozen large fish, which
gleamed and shimmered as a freshly flung arm
ful of scrub flamed high on the fire. To split
them open, roughly clean, and toss them on some
glowing embers scraped from the fire, was the
work of a few moments, and the meal was ready.
As we ate I noticed that Haji Rikkan was com
ing in for some good-natured chaff.
"What, eat no fish? Dost not like the flavour,
after mutton for so many days?' 7 said one,
another adding, "The shaikh will wonder if thou
eatest not of what he has provided."
This last was obviously meant for Saihud to
hear, and he did his equally obvious duty by
asking why the Haji would eat no fish.
GHALIB THE EXILE 247
"It is a long story," he said with a gratified
laugh. "If these wind-bags will let us finish the
meal in peace, I will tell it afterwards."
Supper ended, we drew in more closely round
the camp-fire, and Haji Rikkan began his tale.
"Many years ago, when I was a beardless
youth, I set out with my cousins Zunaiyid and
Mohammad *Ali to take a boat-load of pome
granates to Khafajiya, a three days' journey
across the marsh* It chanced that on the second
night we slept at the village of the Bani Salih,
whose shaikh gave us food and shelter. But we
were hungry youths, and he was not over-gener
ous, so that the food set before us was quickly
eaten, and still our hunger was unappeased. And
Mohammad 'Ali in disgust struck the empty
"Now among us such an action, though un
seemly, is not a grave matter; but by the Bani
Salih it is counted the greatest of insults, as
setting at naught their hospitality. Before many
minutes had passed a servant came from their
shaikh, bidding us eat with him that night; and
we had no choice, for we saw that he had set
armed men upon our mashhuf.
"When we entered the guest-house, we saw
prepared for us a great dish of forty fishes yes,
248 THE MARSH ARAB
forty, no less, I swear by Allah I surrounded by
baskets of bread. The shaikh of the Bani Salih
was there, and by his side lay his naked sword."
Haji Rikkan paused impressively, and sipped
at the cup of coffee offered him.
"For this was the custom of the Bani Salih:
that if any man struck the empty platter, thus
slighting their hospitality, he should be bidden
to another meal, and if he failed to eat all the
food provided for him, should be slain by the
I looked doubtfully at Haji Rikkan's wrinkled
face, trying to see from the expression of his
deep-set eyes whether this was to be taken seri
ously. But his neighbour, seeing my look,
hastened to confirm his words.
"It is true, Sahib," he said. "The same custom
still exists among the Albu Rashid, and men say
that once in the days of Na'ma one who struck
the platter was bidden by the shaikh to eat with
him that night, and found before him a great
pile of rice. The shaikh's servant said to his
master, 'Shall I bring thy sword?' He answered,
c Nay, bring it not This rice is my sword/ And
his words were true, for that Arab ate all the
rice, and going down to the river to drink there,
fell down dead. And yet another " The
GHALIB THE EXILE 249
speaker caught the baleful glare of Haji
Rikkan's eye upon him, and lapsed into silence.
"What befell thee and thy cousins, O Haji?"
"We ate the forty fishes and all the bread*
And while we ate the shaikh bade his servants
bring in another forty, and fill the baskets again
with bread. This too we ate, but to our dismay
khubz tabug was set before us, fresh cooked and
very filling. So I whispered to my companions,
bidding them eat slowly as though exhausted;
and this we did, until those who watched us grew
careless, and went to tell the shaikh that we
should soon have eaten to our limit. Then very
quickly we devoured what was left, and seizing
the dishes and baskets we rushed to the river and
threw them in before they could be replenished.
Thus we escaped with our lives, for we ate all
that was set before us,"
"Nay, nay, that is not the end of the tale,"
cried one of the men round the fire.
"I tell only true tales to the Sahib," replied
Haji Rikkan with dignity.
"No matter, finish the story," insisted the man,
to whom it was evidently no new one.
"As thou wilt; the rest is soon told. To show
these people of the Bani Salih that our hunger
250 THE MARSH ARAB
was not yet sated, we went down all three to our
mashhuf, and there ate, each of us, a score of the
pomegranates which we were taking for sale."
While we were all laughing at this veracious
ending, there came a faint hail across the dark
"Haji Rikkan, is he with you? the Haji, the
"Ee, ee" shouted the old man. It was the
the voice of his muleteer, and once again I mar
velled at the way in which such meetings, casu
ally arranged, were infallibly achieved when the
great distances, the scanty population, and the
lack of time-pieces seemed to conspire to make
any such rendezvous impossible.
The hail was repeated as the boat drew
nearer, lest we should fire on the silently ap
proaching craft. Haji Rikkan rose, bade us
after the Arab fashion a curt farewell, and
vanished into the night
Anywhere, and at any time, a wood fire is
delightful; but on a chilly night in the open
spaces of the desert it is perfect. The flames
rose and fell, the shadows flickered, the pungent
smoke of the aromatic brushwood smote our
eyes and assailed our nostrils. Shaikh Saihud
broke the silence.
GHALIB THE EXILE 251
"Did the marshman also go, he who brought
"Nay, I am here," came a voice from beyond
the fire. "But no marshman am I."
"Art not of the Ma' dan?" asked the shaikh in
"Nay, by Allah, I am not of these marsh-
dwellers. By thy head, no I Though I have
grown old with long living in the swamps, yet
I and my fathers before tne first opened eyes on
the wide deserts. Of the true Arab stock am I,
of the Bani Sabah, of the Koraish, of the tribe
of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and give
him peace 1"
The unseen speaker paused, but no one spoke.
Then, in response to the silent invitation, he
began his story, speaking slowly in the long-
drawn-out drawl of the desert.
"It was the will of Allah that I, Hantush,
should serve the shaikh of my tribe as his body-
servant Lord of great flocks was he. In peace
and freedom we roamed the desert, moving our
houses of hair as we followed the sheep where
grazing was to be found. But there came a time
when Allah willed otherwise. In that night of
blood and vengeance, when all was lost, I led
my lord away. Across the desert we fled, we
252 THE MARSH ARAB
galloped into the night, we escaped from death.
The shaikh bore with him, clasped in his arms
as he rode, all that was left alive of those dear
to him a girl child, daughter of but one year.
As for me, I had gathered together what gold
and jewels I might. Our flight was long and far,
and when at last we reached these marshes the
wide waters seemed as a haven, and the reeds
as sheltering walls.
"Here, then, we stayed, none knowing whether
we lived or died. Shaikh Ghalib ere long was
feared by the buffalo-keepers, and honoured in
the marsh village as he had been in the desert;
but the heart was gone out of him. All he cared
for in life was to watch the daughter that was
left to him, to see her young beauty blossoming
like the desert after rain, to rejoice as she grew
straight and tall as the reeds of the marsh.
"The summers came and went. As a man tells
the hours by a watch, so did I count the years
by the growth of Sadiqa; and when she was
approaching womanhood I knew we had been
exiles for nigh a score. I saw that as with the
years she grew in comeliness, the heart of my
lord grew more content; he ceased to sigh for,
the hair tents and the open spacious desert,
ceased to finger his rifle and mutter of revenge.
GHALIB THE EXILE 253
He found happiness in her beauty, and often
would he murmur ' Allah karlm God is boun
tiful/ as he watched the maiden husking rice,
or washing it at the water's edge.
"But as for me, my heart was uneasy. To
me it seemed that her growing up to woman
hood was like a small and slender flame that runs
along the ground, unregarded until it reaches a
reed house, when lol all is flames, and beating
of breasts, and tearing of hair. For among the
marsh women Sadiqa was like a fleet gazelle
among a herd of buffaloes, and already the
young men of the village were bandying her
name among them. Presumptuous jackals 1 A
clap of the hands, and they would have shrunk
cringing away; but Ghalib scorned to notice
them. Yet my heart leapt and was like to die
with fear when I heard that she was desired by
Haddam bin Mahawis.
"He should have been desert-born! A man,
a very pasha of a man was Haddam strong,
bold, venturesome and valorous, and good to
look upon withal. He belonged not to the tribe
with which we dwelt, but to a neighbour tribe,
yet kin to ours. Much loved was this youth, and
more feared, for his hot head and ready hand
were famed throughout the marsh. Yet over-
254 THE MARSH ARAB
weening was his pride indeed, who dared to hope
for the daughter of my lord as wife. No Arab
of less than noble blood would claim the daugh
ter of a shaikhly house ; yet this base-born marsh-
man, whose sire and dam were buffaloes, himself
unworthy to be the bearer of her shoes, thought
to take her. Eh VIllah f the very heart retched
at the thought."
Hantush spat, and paused to roll a cigarette.
One of the tribesmen, rising, flung on to the
dying fire a bundle of brushwood. The crack
ling flames threw a fitful, ruddy light on the
dark faces gathered round ; occasionally a dart
ing flame revealed the outer ring of horses and
crouching camels, and seemed to give an added
blackness to the dark desert beyond. Behind the
deep shadow which was the tent, scattered pin
points of light glimmered on the water, where
the marshmen, each with a torch in his boat to
attract his prey, were spearing fish.
"Aye, in those days my mind was troubled."
Hantush took up his tale. "And with reason,
for one night, when the men of the village were
gathered to drink coffee in my master's house,
a shot was heard.
" Who, who is there?' cried some, and
'Friend?' cried others.
GHALIB THE EXILE 255
" It is I, Haddam,' a voice answered from the
" 'Have a care, 5 shouted one of the headmen.
'Our weapons are loaded. What seekest thou?'
" 'My bride 1 I have come to speak with her
" 'Who is the maiden? 5 several voices asked.
" 'Ho, ho! Who is she?' cried Haddam. 'Is
more than one jewel to be found among your
filth? Does more than one flower blossom on
" 'He has come to ask for Sadiqa,* the whisper
ran from mouth to mouth.
"My master stood like a man of wood blind,
deaf, and dumb. Then he turned, seized a rifle
from one near him, and fired it towards the
mocking voice. To that shot the echo was a
scream of pain, abruptly ending. Then fell a
great stillness upon the night such a silence
that we became aware of the whispering of the
rushes, and the small lapping of the water on
the island mud. It was broken by the sound of
a man crashing through the reeds, and then the
voice of Haddam was raised in a loud cry.
" 'My cousin, alas, alas, my cousin I The
mercy of Allah upon him! I, Haddam, vow
vengeance on his slayer; his blood shall be
256 THE MARSH ARAB
requited/ The reeds crashed again, and the
voice came nearer.
" 'Hearken, ye dogs of the Albu Fahad.
Offer me no fasl of women : I desire none other
woman than one. But blood-money will I take,
and this night. My comrades surround your
village, and the throat of every living thing, man
or beast, shall be slit if by the setting of the moon
the blood-price of Mohammad be not paid.
Seventy red liras is my demand, and thus shall
I enforce it' and a bullet splashed water in
our faces as we stood staring into the darkness.
"The headmen stopped not to discuss the
matter. 'Agreed, agreed, 5 they cried, and began
to hasten from hut to hut, demanding from each
household its share. So every man brought
forth money from his secret store, each wran
gling bitterly over the amount as he paid. From
time to time the elders entered the headman's
house, bearing kerchiefs in which they had col
lected coins of gold, and copper, and silver. And
when the sum was nearly reached, one Balasim
called across the water.
" We swear by Allah, aye, by 'AH himself,
the Lord of the Faithful, that though we have
searched every house, no more than fifty liras
can we find/
GHALIB THE EXILE 257
" 'Seventy,' cried Haddam answering, 'seven
ty, or we fire.'
"'Seventy, seventy/ those cowards replied.
'They are ready. Come and fetch them. 3
"But Haddam swore out of the darkness,
'Brother of Bashal Would you thus entrap and
slay me? Ye yourselves shall bring them; nay,
and he laughed aloud c the women who will
attend my bride shall bring them.'
"So in fearful haste a boat was brought, and
such beldams as stood by were driven into it
Frightened and wailing, they paddled slowly off
into the night, while we waited waited, it
seemed, so long that we started when the voice
of Haddam rose once again in mocking tones.
" 'Listen, O brave ones,' it said, and for the
second time that death-cry broke upon the silent
marsh. 'Ho, ho, my dead cousin! Bury him
well when ye find him! Praise be to the All-
Powerful that ye have furnished me with a
dowry; I shall come again for my bride and
next time, not alone l y
"The morning dawned, but the daily tasks of
the Albu Fahad were not begun. The buffaloes
were not led off to graze, and the women stood
outside the houses in chattering groups, until
they were driven within by the men to prepare
258 THE MARSH ARAB
the morning meal. In every dwelling could be
heard murmurs and mutterings as men talked of
the night's doings ; every tongue was ready with
curses, every heart full of anger. For what more
galling than that one man's cunning should de
ceive a whole village, what more bitter than that
one man's guile should extort from them that
gold which these miserly marsh-dwellers hold
dearer than life? By each one of the Albu
Fahad, that handful of krans had been more
cherished than the life of his neighbour.
"What wonder that they murmured? But as
I listened, I found that not Haddam alone was
the object of their curses. Many, it seemed,
held my master the cause of their misfortune;
and as the morning wore on their words gained
weight among the villagers, and grew in bitter
ness. Shaikh Ghalib, not their own craven
cowardice, was the author of all their troubles.
Greed and fear strove with the respect of years,
and at noon the elders of the tribe, with shame
on their faces, came to my lord's house.
"He guessed their errand, but made them wel
come, bidding me prepare coffee. Then the
" Tor many years have we lived at peace with
our neighbours; but now there is risen a cause
GHALIB THE EXILE 259
of dissension among us. Allah has ordained that
male shall strive with male to possess the female,
yet it is a sore thing for us to see our young men
at enmity one with another; and worse, a danger
to the tribe itself, when strangers from without
contend with them. Thou knowest, O Shaikh,
that we are a weak people living among power
ful neighbours, that we are few and they many.
Willingly would we continue to harbour thee
and thine, and give thee refuge, had we the
power; but our strength is as water before the
might of others. For thy safety and ours, it is
better that thou seek the protection of a stronger
tribe. True, we shall mourn at thy departing,
but our grief will find consolation in the knowl
edge of thy greater safety.'
"Anger burned within me when I heard the
rest assent in low voices to these shameful words.
'Better that he leave us. Aye, the truth is in
thy hand, O Mutlag. We are indeed weak, let
him take the girl to a stronger tribe.'
"But Ghalib, cutting short the growling of
these curs, spoke proudly. 'The words I must
say are a disgrace to my tongue, but among a
people without shame such words become easy.
Nigh a score of years ago I came to this accursed
marsh, seeking no man's protection, but making
260 THE MARSH ARAB
my dwelling apart, alone. It chanced that a
plague had smitten your buffaloes, so that ye
were in despair; so when I of my desert knowl
edge taught you how to cure them, did ye not
beseech me to move my house and dwell among
ye? This I did, and since that day ye have
besought my help in times of stress, in disputes
you have begged my intervention. In difficulty
when did I withhold advice? In distress when
did I refuse help? And among yourselves, and
among buffalo-keepers like yourselves, you
boasted, 'In our village dwells a man of the
shaikhly house of the Bani Sabah, of the
Koraish, of the very tribe of the Prophet: thus
are we become nobler than our fellows.'
" 'Yet now, now that your neighbour is no
longer rich, but poor ; now that he is old before
his time with much sorrow; now that his house
hold has become a source of contention among
you ; now that he seems to need help and protec
tion as once he gave it let us be rid of him, ye
say. Dogs and sons of dogs! I and mine are of
the true Arab stock. We seek no man's protec
tion. To us, death is preferable to loss of honour.
Know this then: where my house has stood a
score of years, there stay I and mine. If our
GHALIB THE EXILE 261
presence brings you danger, the marsh is wide.
Seek ye new homes.*
"Silence held all men. Then spoke Ruwaidhi
son of Mahdi a blind man, yet none the less
wise in council, and his words ever heeded in
" 'Spare us, O Ghalib, these bitter words.
What need for thee or us to move hence, when
the matter of our dispute is one easy to settle?
When the fruit is ripe, Allah ordains that it fall.
When a maid becomes a woman, it is his will
that a mate be found for her. Wouldst defy this
decree of the Almighty, and bring punishment
upon thyself and on thy daughter? If it be that
thou canst not find a husband for her from
among thine own people, then let her become
wife to one of our youths ; for our tribes are not
lacking in men brave of heart and strong of arm*
Are not my words wise words, my uncles?'
"But my master answered in anger, ( My
daughter marry one of ye? By the life of Allah
and of Mohammad and of *Ali, never!'
"Thereupon the elders of the village rose, and
left him. And as they went, I heard one say to
another, *On his own head be it.'
"That day my master called me, saying, 'We
have not yet given our share of the money paid
262 THE MARSH ARAB
over to Haddam. No man shall say that
Ghalib's poverty was such that he failed to pay
his share. Go, Hantush, borrow the mashhuf
of our neighbour Burghash, and put in it the
reed mats woven by thee and by Sadiqa. We
will take them to the river, there thou shalt sell
"So I bade Sadiqa carry to the water's edge
the mats which we had stacked beside the house,
while I sought out Burghash and asked of him
the loan of his craft. And when the mats were
piled in the belly of the boat, and all was ready,
the shaikh came from his house to join us. I sat
in the stern with my paddle, and in the bow
stood Sadiqa with her pole; for the maid was
strong and supple, and skilful in water-craft as
the marsh girls among whom she dwelt.
"Soon we left the open water, and passed
down the narrow ways, shaded on either side by
high reeds. My lord, as was his wont, sat in
silence, gazing on the beauty of his daughter;
and I too gazed, for though I have seen many
women, and some beautiful, not one have mine
eyes lighted on that could compare with her
shadow. Aye, <w* Allah <wa Vlllah, the tongue
is too short to describe the loveliness of my
mistress. As she drove her pole deep in the
GHALIB THE EXILE 263
water, her body bent like a tall palm-tree sway
ing in the wind ; her hair was black and smoothly
braided, her skin like the bloom on apricots, her
eyes fitly set, dark as night yet bright as the stars.
"All was peace as we threaded the marsh, all
silence save when a bird took wing, startled at
our approach. The soft wind bore on its breath
nothing but the whispering of the reeds, until
after a long space our ears caught a sound we
knew well the noise made by a man cutting
reeds. Now though Allah made all men of one
clay, he made them not all in the same mould ;
and ye of the desert perhaps know not that no
two sons of Adam cut reeds in the same fashion.
Thus it is that the marsh-dwellers, though they
cannot see for the thickness of the reeds, know
well by the sound he makes who it is that cutteth,
and whether he be friend or foe. So we ceased
from our paddling, and sat still that we might
"We heard the rustle of the swaying reeds as
the unseen one gathered them in his arm, the
crash as with one mighty stamp of his foot he
bent them to the ground, then the swift slash
with which his sickle severed them from their
roots. Only a strong man could cut reeds with
such speed and sureness, only one had that sweep
264 THE MARSH ARAB
of arm. Not one of us but knew who was near :
it was Haddam of the Albu Dagar, he whose
mere name had held our village spell-bound
with fear the night before.
"As we looked one at the other, the voice of
Ghalib broke the silence.
" 'Back, back/ he cried hoarsely. 'Back to the
"Astonishment held me voiceless, motionless.
Well might the base-born marshmen tremble
and flee from the unseen presence of such as
Haddam ; but was not one Arab a match for any
ten of them? Sadiqa, flushing red, spoke my
" 'My father! We will not go back with our
purpose unaccomplished. Our mats are not yet
sold. Why this haste, this seeming fear? The
cutter of reeds is yet distant from us, nor does
any channel lead into this channel. If the
prudence of age speaks, O father, are we not
"Ghalib took no heed of her words.
" 'A curse upon thee, Son of a dogP cried he,
seizing the paddle from my hand. 'Dost dare
to tarry when I bid thee return?' and with one
thrust he turned the prow of the mashhuf to
wards the way we had come.
GHALIB THE EXILE 265
U I took the paddle and fell to work. Was
I not his servant? But Sadiqa's pole lay idle,
and she sat in brooding anger in the bow, no
word for me nor for her father crossing her lips.
Shame lay heavy upon her, as upon me, by
reason of our turning back.
"So to me, as I thought with uneasy heart on
the night and the day that were past, the figure
of this Haddam loomed large like that of some
evil jinn which threatened the safety of those
beloved by me. And as I looked at my master
my fears grew heavier. Broken and bent he
seemed, a man old in his prime, a man on whom
the evil ones had cast a spell, so that in every
hour he aged a year.
"We reached the village, and with not so
much as a glance at her father the maiden left
the boat and sought her house. But Ghalib,
looking up mournfully at me as he sat in the
stern, said, 'Didst see, Hantush?'
" 'See? I saw naught. I did but hear Haddam
" 'I asked not what thou heardst Didst see
" 'Nothing, my uncle,' I replied.
" 'Dolt and dullard!' cried my lord in anger.
266 THE MARSH ARAB
*Thou seest naught, yet we are undone. Undone,
aye ? and worse. Woe to me and my house, woe P
"To answer availed nothing. With no reply
I began to take the mats from the mashhuf,
meaning to stack them again in the lee of the
house ; but he stopped me.
" 'Owl ! To-morrow we take the mats to the -
river to-morrow at dawn. Aye, and to-morrow
also this contention shall cease, for by Allah's
truth, the key of the door of escape is in my
hand' and he strode away.
"When I had secured the boat, I followed.
All was silent in the house. No sound came
from behind the women's screen, no sound was
heard where the shaikh sat without movement.
But as I hastened to kindle a fire that I might
make coffee for him, I saw what in these many
weary years of exile I had never seen. And my
breast was straitened as the tears rolled down his
cheeks, so that I smote my eyes and cursed them,
that in that hour when Fate had stricken him
they had been blind, not seeing what his had
The rhythmic rise and fall of the speaker's
voice, and the unhesitating march of his story,
showed that the tale was one which, like some
saga of old, had been many times told and had
GHALIB THE EXILE 267
lost nothing in the telling. By many a camp-
fire, to many a silent, crouching circle, must
this tragic history have been unfolded em
broidered, perhaps, and improved with each
repetition, yet preserving always that living and
authentic spirit of Arab life, in which lay its
"The night passed," Hantush continued after
a pause, "and with the first dim light before the
sunrising I went down to the boat. There
already was Sadiqa.
" 'Eight krans shall we bring back as the price
of these mats, perhaps ten, O Hantush/ she said.
" 'In sh? Allah, ten/ I replied, but only to
please her; for I feared that for these mats of
ill-omen we should never obtain a price. My
lord joined us then, and in the grey dawning
we left the village. Once more we watched
Sadiqa swaying to each strong thrust of her pole;
and the sun, rising above the high reeds, saluted
"Thus we went, until we came to a place
where our water-channel became two branches.
Now the speediest way to the river lay by the
right-hand channel, that same one which we had
taken yesterday yesteryear it seemed to me
and whence, on hearing the sound of one cutting
268 THE MARSH ARAB
reeds, we had returned incontinent to our vil
lage. The left-hand channel led also to the
river, but by a way so long and devious that it
was little used.
"Now my lord broke the silence, saying, 'To
the left, to the left I would pass by the ishan
of Umm Furukh.'
"Sadiqa's face grew dark. Though, with the
shame of yesterday still sharp in her mind, she
spoke no word, she thought her father chose the
longer way through fear of Haddam. But my
heart knew that it was ordained by Fate that
we should take the way which led to Umm
Furukh. I swung the boat's prow across, and
swiftly we passed down the left-hand waterway.
Who can fight against Fate?
"Howbeit, no man desires to hasten on his
doom. As the time passed, my strokes grew
dull and feeble, so that we moved but slowly,
hindered also by the weeds which here grew
thick on the face of the water. We made no
speed, yet my master called not to us to hasten;
so that by reason of the long and devious way
I knew that he did not in truth desire to reach
the river that the selling of mats was but a
guile to deceive us. Foreboding lay heavy on
me. The rolled -up mats took on the form of
GHALIB THE EXILE 269
corpses which I was taking for burial, and the
sound of the reeds was like mourners weeping
for their dead. W Allah, that day's journey has
seared my heart as if with hot iron!
"At last the reeds gave way to open water,
and there in the midst of the clearing stood the
ishan of Umm Furukh. So small it was and so
solitary that no man dwelt there; instead, the
tribes buried their dead upon it And as we
approached, my master said, 'Bank in.'
U I turned the boat to the ishan. When we
reached the land's edge, Shaikh Ghalib stepped
from the boat, and taking his daughter's hand
led her up the shore. Then, turning to me, he*
" 'Leave not the place where thou art, until
I come again.'
" 'Upon my eyes,' I replied.
"The two walked hand in hand to the top of
the mound, and going down the other side were
lost to my sight So short was the distance, so
still the air, that all their speech came clearly
back to me ; and when, after a long silence, the
words of my mistress reached my ear, I knew
for what purpose he had beguiled her to this
lonely place, and bowed my head before the
inscrutable will of Allah.
270 THE MARSH ARAB
" Why is thy manner so strange, O Father? 5
she asked, and fear was in her voice. Why so
stern and silent? O, let us hasten from this place
of graves, for I am afraid.'
" ' 'Tis thy guilt which makes thee fear,' he
answered harshly. 'If a woman betray the
honour of her house, what is the penalty? Ac
cording to the law of our fathers, is it not death?'
" 'Ah, say it not,' the child wept.
" 'And, in our tribe, if a woman of the shaikhly
house mates, ay, does but desire to mate with a
man of lesser birth, does she not break the
honour of her tribe?'
" 'So thou hast often told me, my father/
" Thou knowest, then, why I have brought
" 'Ah, no!' she cried then. 'Thou couldst not
slay me; me thy joy, the comforter of thy lonely
days, the solace of thine exile ! Thou couldst not
live without me. Ah, see, I stroke thy beard.
Am I not thy daughter, only flesh of thy flesh?'
"Had she been thrice guilty, my heart had
melted at her pleading. How then when I
knew she could never have debased herself?
But my lord answered nothing.
" 'Oh, a curse upon the elders of the tribe !'
cried the girl. 'They have perplexed thy mind
GHALIB THE EXILE 271
with their foolish words, their evil speech has
taken away thine understanding. Think, think
of thy grief when I am dead, the bitterness that
will fill thy heart when thou sayest, "She was
innocent, yet I believed their tattling tongues,
and this right hand has taken her life," O my
father, how canst credit their lying jealous
" 'Not all the gossiping tongues of all the
world/ cried my lord, 'could smirch thee in my
sight; but alas! my own eyes would I were
blind ! have given me proof. When we heard
from our boat that cutter of reeds at work, these
eyes watched thine, and saw in them such a light
as only shines when a woman loves. 3
" 'Foolish one/ said Sadiqa, 'often hast thou
likened my eyes to pools of clear water ; what
thou sawest was but the sun shining in those
'"Ah, would to Allah that I were foolish!'
cried Ghalib with a great cry, harsh like the
drawing of a sword from a rusty scabbard. 'Am
I to be deceived in that look, I who, because it
shined for me in a woman's eyes a score of years
ago, have lived since in this accursed marsh, far
from tribe and house? Here every day has been
a month, and every month a year, and I am old
272 THE MARSH ARAB
before my time. Can I forget, who have drunk
the dregs of shame and eaten my fill of bitter
ness? Too well I know, when such a love
flames between a woman and a man, naught can
keep one from other save one thing only
" 'Nay, spare me, spare me, sheathe the cruel
blade,' I heard her waiL Then with a great
voice she cried aloud, c Ah, to me, to me,
Haddam, O Haddaml'
"My blood turned to water within me when
I heard that shameful avowal, yet none the less
with held breath did I strain my ears for a
succouring shout. None came. Only the taunt
ing echo, 'Haddam, O Haddam/ came faintly
back to me on the still air. Then came a sobbing
cry, and I knew that that which had been
decreed from the beginning had come to pass.
"Long I waited in the boat as my lord had
bidden me, long I sat weeping alone, until the
sun went to its westering, the shadows grew long,
the air chill and dark. And when a cold breeze
from the north blew suddenly, I thought that all
the jinns and tantals of the marsh were falling
upon me, and in the grip of a great fear I
seized my paddle, and fled back to the tribe.
"Next morning, when the sun was up, I came
GHALIB THE EXILE 273
with companions to the ishan. As we drew near
the shore a man rose up, but It was not the figure
of my lord. Haddam towered above us, his body
naked and covered with mud, and with blood
where he had gashed himself. His hair was
matted, and his eyes were full of fire, and we
knew not the voice which cried, 'Begone! I,
I alone will bury my dead. 5 "
The plangent voice of the story-teller ceased
abruptly. No more distant torches gleamed
from the marsh, and the young moon, setting
In a bank of cloud, left only the dying embers
of the camp-fire for light. The rattle of a horse's
chain, the grumble of a restless camel, alone
broke the stillness, until a deep voice from the
circle of listeners, low-toned, set the seal of
desert approval on Hantush's tale of violence.
"Aye, 'twas well done," It said. And the rest,
bred in the same stern creed, gave guttural
A7TER the greeting/' began the Haji's brief
missive, written for him by the village
scribe, "If no messenger awaits you in Qala't
Salih, go to Turaba by way of Umm Subaita.
If he whom I send is there, the tribe will have
carried, and he will show your Honour our sum
mer place. And may you live I"
No messenger having met me at Qala't Salih,
I pushed on to Turaba, and it was not until we
were well into the marshes that I heard that the
Haji and his tribe had moved to their summer
quarters. This was disappointing. In the old
days, journeys with Haji Rikkan had been fre
quent and easy to arrange, but of late I had
found it increasingly difficult to get away; and
now through the failure of his messenger I was
to lose a whole day or rather should have done
had it not been for the good-nature of my two
hired boatmen, who volunteered to travel all
night while we returned on our tracks. This was
THE CHAINS 275
pleasant enough for me, who during the warm
night could sleep where I lay in the mashhuf,
but less so for the men who towed, paddled and
poled the boat through the long hours of dark
Thus it happened that in the cool slanting
sunlight of early morning we came upon the
group we sought of low huts clustered on the
narrow spit of land between the brown flood
waters of the Tigris and the limpid blue stream
which issued from the marshes. Across the
river stood the mud fort once commanded by
Haji Rikkan, now flying the 'Iraq flag and
manned by a smart detachment of police. Few
of the villagers were astir, but long before we
reached the shelving bank Bahalul sighted our
mashhuf f and ran down to meet us. His only
greeting was the familiar flash of white teeth,
but his wordless welcome had now, as always,
more reality than the oft-repeated, flowery
phrases of JahaluL
The elder twin led me to his uncle's house.
He did not warn me that I should find the Haji
deep in grief. His kafiya, so seldom removed,
was cast on the ground beside him, and a beam
of sunlight, striking through a worn patch in the
roof, shone on his bald head. With one hand he
276 THE MARSH ARAB
picked up the dry dust from the floor and poured
it on his head, with the other mournfully beat
Seeing me ? he rose hastily, put on his kafiya,
and gave me the warm and friendly welcome
which I had grown to expect. He must hear
all the news I had brought, and all that had be
fallen during the many months since we had
met; but whenever the conversation came round
to a journey in the marshes in his birkash, I
noticed that a new subject was hastily broached*
When the matter could no longer be evaded,
the Haji spoke out.
"I beg, I beg, ask me not to come with thee
this day. Bahalul and Jahalul will take thee
wheresoever thou dost desire to go,"
I was now to learn the reason for Haji
"To-day they come to take away Latifa."
I remembered Latifa well, a dark-eyed girl
about twelve years old, the joy of her father's
old age. It is not uncommon among the Arabs
to find one daughter much petted by the father;
and to Haji Rikkan this was the only grown
child left. By his present wife he had two small
sons who still played in happy nakedness in and
out of the water; but the children of his earlier
THE CHAINS 277
marriages had all, except Latifa, died or been
killed in battle.
To lose a daughter in marriage, even the
favourite of old age, is no uncommon experience,
and hardly seemed to justify the HajPs excessive
grief ; but his next words explained it.
"She is a fasl woman. They will be hard
with her, she will cry out and none will comfort
her; against her will she must become a wife,
and her father will not be there to protect her."
This was the bitter truth. All the rancour
of the enemies of her tribe is too often visited
upon the innocent /W-woman, and that this
should be so is usually taken as a matter of
course. Rarely as in the Haji's case, where the
beloved daughter of his old age was in question
does a stricken heart break the conventions of
generations, and cry out against a barbarous cus
tom. Only once had 1 ever seen any feeling
betrayed on this question. As we sat at the eve
ning gathering in the guest-house of Shaikh
Falih, a great booming voice had broken into
our quiet talk on fasl customs.
"It is a disgrace, a blot upon the Arabs," cried
a venerable old headman, "that our women
should thus be constrained against their will."
Silence followed, and with eager apprehensive
278 THE MARSH ARAB
eyes he looked round the assembly to see if but
one other would raise his voice in support of
this heresy; but the rest, with stern and unrelent
ing faces, remained unmoved. Who were they
to call in question the customs of their fathers?
Jahalul, entering with his usual cheerful face,
dispelled the gloom of the Haji's hut. He was
the possessor of a new mashhuf, in which our
day's journey must be made. It was already
moored at the water's edge, and after duly ad
miring its clean, graceful lines I got in. The
twin brothers, wading knee-deep in the clear
water, pushed off and leapt lightly aboard.
"No gun?" asked Bahalul.
I shook my head. After so many months'
absence I did not want to shoot. I wanted to
pick up the threads of my old intimacy with
the marsh to spend a long day in renewing the
old impressions of its solitary beauty. I wanted
to glide down the narrow hidden water-channels,
to cross the wide, wind-swept blue lakes, and to
hear once jtnore the ceaseless whisper of the
reeds, that low murmur which is at once so
familiar and so friendly, until suddenly, almost
against one's will, one hears in its gentle and
serene voice a note of warning, a suggestion of
lurking danger, a hint of tragedy.
THE CHAINS 279
Bahalul, poling with effortless strength, broke
in upon my thoughts*
"As thou wilt"
"The order is thy order," he answered.
"To the Chains," I suggested.
"Upon my head be it," replied the laconic
Bahalul; but I could tell from the way in which
he braced his shoulders, and flung a brief word
to his brother, that we were in for a long day,
My suggestion was a random one. I had
heard, in the old days, vague references to the
"Chains" ; what chains, and why they were there,
no questioning had ever been able to elicit. But
whatever they were, I knew that they were in
the heart of the marsh, and to the heart of the
marsh I wanted to go that day.
The sun rose higher, deepening the blue water
and the changing greens and browns of the sway
ing reeds. In silence we went swiftly on silence
hardly stirred by the small soughing wind, by the
dip of the untiring paddles, by the murmurous
voices in the rushes. On this sunny morning the
tiny marsh flowers were at their loveliest, gleam
ing like jewels on the surface of the water, or
half hiding their delicate pinks and yellows in
the shadow of the reeds* Bird voices sounded
280 THE MARSH ARAB
sharply. Occasionally we surprised a flock of
"water-chickens," which with agitated paddling
of their little black feet would flee to safety, the
cranes and dignified herons following more
slowly. Now the narrow channel broadened
into a deep still pool, now to a wide and spar
kling sheet of wind-stirred ripples. In places
the water was hidden by weeds so thick and
matted that Bahalul and Jahalul could hardly
force a way through ; in others it was clear and
still, unfathomably deep below the powdery
layer of pollen on the surface.
In front, the friendly reeds seemed to open of
themselves to provide a way for us ; behind, they
closed their ranks in dark and threatening
masses against the sky, as though prepared to
oppose our return. The scream of an unseen
bird might echo across the stillness, or a startled
beating of wings die away as suddenly as it had
arisen; then once more silence held the marsh.
Here the reeds were taller: old, thick, and tower
ing masses, so far from any marsh settlements
that they had never been disturbed by man
seeking material for hut-building, for buffalo
fodder, or for mats. The solitude was intense
more intense than that of the desert. There
countless tracks reveal the presence of man or
THE CHAINS 281
beast, but here the flowering weeds close up
again, leaving no trace. Only very rarely did
we come across a few reeds twisted together and
bent a landmark or wordless message from a
marshman to his fellows, seeming only to
intensify the lonely silence of the wilderness.
When at last we came upon a settlement of
marsh-dwellers, It was a village so small, so
remote from the river, that at first sight of
us the men seized their rifles and leapt in among
the reeds, from the shelter of which they could
best defend their homes. The women, on the
contrary, stared at us as placidly as their own
buffaloes, hardly troubling to suspend their
household tasks of husking rice, washing clothes,
and scouring cooking-pots* The scene was gay
with colour, good, hard, and primitive; yellow
huts against a background of green, buffaloes
and pitched mashhufs like black silhouettes in
the foreground, splashes of orange and scarlet
as the women moved to and fro, It was a typical
marsh scene, and reaching for my camera, I told
Bahalul to land me on the largest island.
The ground on which I stepped was covered
with broken pottery, some unglazed, some a
bright sky-blue. Fragments of all shapes and
sizes lay jumbled together, with here and there
282 THE MARSH ARAB
a flat square brick inscribed with cuneiform
symbols. A little higher on the sloping ground
lay a crumbled mass of masonry, with hints of
columns, the whole covered with a rich dark-
green glazing. All these fragments, uninterest
ing and unintelligible to the people who dwelt
among them, were indications of a rich field for
I had taken several photographs of the village
when a mashhuf grounded on the bank behind
me. I turned, to see an old woman helped out
and half carried up the bank by the boatman,
who led her to Bahalul. After a few moments
they came towards me, and I saw from the care
with which they guided her footsteps that the
woman was blind. She was bent and shrivelled
with age; incredibly old she seemed as she
hobbled painfully over the shard-strewn ground,
her dirty garments sweeping unkempt behind
hen Unlike the withered brown faces of the
other village beldams, hers was pale, putty-
coloured. So expressionless were her features,
so colourless her eyes and lips, that the face
seemed like one from which all life had long
since ebbed, leaving an empty mask.
"Here is the Sahib/' said Bahalul. "Speak,
THE CHAINS 283
O mother of many, and give him what thou hast
The old woman took a step or two forward,
stretched out a lean and bony hand, and
fumbling for my arm, felt earnestly up and
down my sleeve.
"Is he indeed a farangi?" she asked tremu
lously. A dozen interested bystanders assured
her that I was.
"Take this, then, Effendim," she said, and
held out a flat packet wrapped in cloth that
might once have been white. "This was his
command, that I should give it to a farangi,
to another of his own kind. Now, the praise to
Allah, I have obeyed him. Take it, and may
Allah guard thee, may the All-powerful (His
Name be blest and exalted) lengthen thy
She turned, still feebly calling down blessings
on my head, and was led slowly away.
With some difficulty I untied the tightly
drawn knots, and opened the package. Inside
was an old book, calf -bound; at some time or
another it had suffered from damp, or might
even have been dropped in the water, for the
binding was split and warped, the pages swollen
and discoloured. I opened it, and turned to the
284 THE MARSH ARAB
fly-leaf ; but whatever had been written there was
now undecipherable. The next page, compara
tively undamaged, was a coloured frontispiece:
"The Author in his Travelling Costume." The
cheerful blue of his voluminous coat and the
red of his baggy trousers had come off on the
opposite page, which announced the book a a
"Personal Narrative of Travels in Babylonia,
Assyria, Media and Scythia, in the year 1824,
by Major the Hon. George Keppel, F.S.A."
So far so good. But how had this volume
fallen into the hands of an old crone of the
marshes, and why was it so highly valued by the
unknown owner that he had bidden her hand
it "to another of his own kind"? Touched with
curiosity, I turned the pages, and tried to open
the no small number which had stuck together.
Many were illegible ; some had passages marked
in the margin with a faded greenish ink; others
were lavishly underlined.
The word "Bussorah" caught my eye, "The
abundance of water," I read, "besides irrigating
the gardens, which it does effectually, might also
be the means of keeping the town clean, were
there not in the inhabitants an innate love of
filth. Bussorah is the dirtiest town in the
Turkish dominions. The streets, which are
THE CHAINS 285
narrow and irregular, are almost insupportable
from the stench. Some houses are built of kiln-
burnt bricks, but the greater number are of mud.
From these project several long spouts made of
the body of the date-tree, which convey filth of
every description into the streets, so that a pas
senger is in frequent danger of an Edinburgh
salutation, without the friendly caution of
Gardez loo." Fortunately, Basra has since
mended its ways.
A few pages later came a description of a
journey up the Tigris, most of it heavily marked
in the margin. "The Arab boatmen were as
hardy and muscular-looking fellows as ever I
saw. One loose brown shirt, of the coarseness
of sack-cloth, was the only covering of the latter.
This, when labour required it, was thrown aside,
and discovered forms most admirably adapted
to their laborious avocations ; indeed, any of the
boatmen would have made an excellent model
for a Hercules ; and one in particular, with un
combed hair and shaggy beard, struck us all with
the resemblance he bore to statues of that deity."
Again, "Several women, accompanied by a host
of children, brought milk, butter, and eggs for
sale, and followed the boat for some time. The
behaviour of these females formed a striking
286 THE MARSH ARAB
contrast with the manners of the Indian women,
and still more of the veiled dames of Bussorah.
They came to our boats with the frankness of
innocence, and there was a freedom in their
manners, bordering perhaps on the masculine;
nevertheless their fine features and well-turned
limbs produced a tout ensemble of beauty, not
to be surpassed perhaps in the brilliant assem
blies of civilized life. True it is, their com
plexions were of a gipsy brown ; but, even on this
point, there may be some who see 'a Helen's
beauty in a brow of Egypt.' "
It seemed that the unknown traveller had
simply marked those passages which he had
verified from his own experience; of himself
they told nothing. I turned from page to page,
hoping to find some clue in the faded green
marks. A keenly interested observer he must
have been, and evidently of religious leanings,
for the Biblical allusions were frequently
emphasized. Here was a string of references
to the building and destruction of Babylon, all
underlined. "Let us make bricks, and burn them
thoroughly. And they had bricks for stone, and
slime for mortar." "The broad walls of Babylon
shall be utterly broken," Was he a missionary,
zealous for the conversion of the godless
THE CHAINS 287
, or merely Interested in comparing the
life of the Bible with life as it was lived in the
East in his day? As I turned over the stiff and
discoloured pages, I was struck, as he had been,
with the accuracy of the Hon. George Keppel's
notes, and the exactness with which they still
tally with the habits of the people; and I sub
scribed heartily to his underlining of a descrip
tion of a marshman's meal : "After crossing his
legs and adjusting his robes with true Arab
gravity, he proceeded to business by baring his
arm to the elbow ; he then grasped a handful of
rice, sopped it in all the saucers, and moulded
it into the shape, and I had almost said the con
sistency, of a tennis ball. Large as it was, this
palatable bolus found its way down his throat,
with the aid of a huge lump of butter, with
which it was accompanied,"
The sun was growing hot, though I had not
noticed it until a grey-bearded marshman, whose
air of authority seemed to imply that he was the
headman of this isolated village, came up, and
with a hospitable "Bismillaht" invited me to
his house. I slipped the book with its unsolved
mystery into my pocket, and walked with him
across the island. Stooping under the low arch
of the doorway, we entered the rough hut, to
288 THE MARSH ARAB
find ourselves in what seemed total darkness
after the bright glare outside. The hut, when
my eyes grew accustomed to the softened light,
was plain and bare like that of every marshman,
headman or no. A fire was quickly kindled by
the simple expedient of carrying from a neigh
bour's hearth a handful of lighted reeds, which
lit up the deep copper colouring of the once
yellow roof, bronzed now with the smoke of
many hospitable fires. An old Arab with a lame
leg began to busy himself among the coffee-pots ;
he threw a handful of beans into a sort of primi
tive frying-pan, shaking them over the fire and
stirring, to keep them continually moving, with
a rusty bayonet which was probably a relic of
the War. The roasting was slow and thorough.
We sat waiting, in the unembarrassed silence to
which Europeans grow accustomed with diffi
culty. At length the beans were tipped into a
shallow mortar, and the unhurried coffee-maker
began to pound them, making a musical and
rhythmic jingle as the brass pestle struck the
mortar. From time to time the hut was darkened
as the doorway was blocked by the entrance of
a neighbour, attracted by the tinkling invitation.
With a muttered "Salam 'alaikum" they would
squat down in the increasing circle, only break-
THE CHAINS 289
ing the silence by an occasional "F 'Allah"
uttered in such heartfelt tones as would suggest
that the cry to God was extracted from them by
mortal agony. Through the chinks in the rush
walls came small sounds of whispering and
tittering, as the village children satisfied their
infant curiosity about the unusual visitor.
The marshman's hearth did not boast the
whole series of coffee-pots which one sees in a
shaikh's madhif. My host possessed only two,
a large one of which the curving beaked spout
was broken off short, and a small one black with
age. In the first were kept the daily leavings,
so that each fresh brew was made not with water
but with coffee ; the small one was reserved for
the freshly-made drink, strong, black, bitter and
pungent as the Arabs love it, whether in desert
The long wait had given me time for further
speculation about the old woman and her book.
Idly, as I sat cross-legged on the one carpet
owned by the headman, I turned over the faded
pages, reading here a few words of description,
here a scriptural quotation underlined. By
chance I turned to the blank pages at the end
and started, for they were covered with close,
clear, sloping handwriting, still legible except
290 THE MARSH ARAB
where here and there a smudge of water had
obliterated a few lines. The first words which
met my eyes were startling enough.
"As I shall now within a few hours meet my
Maker (for it is clear that these savages will
not be long in making an end of me) I propose
to set down some account of my adventures,
thinking that it may by good fortune fall into
I stopped reading in pure astonishment. The
words seemed unreal, fantastic, melodramatic
even. Yet as I looked at the precise and angular
writing with its old-fashioned s's, as I remem
bered the earnestness of the marshwoman, and
the strange care with which she had treasured
the book, my scepticism died away. I read on
"I find myself strangely resigned to my fate,
and, relying on God's mercy, have no fear of the
hereafter. Fear I have only of the manner of
my death, for which the preparations recall too
painfully the stake and faggot, by which so many
martyrs of our faith passed to Eternal Rest
These lines are written as much to provide oc
cupation for my mind, as in the perhaps too
confiding hope that they may by some means
THE CHAINS 291
reach him whose name is inscribed upon the
I turned back, remembering as I did so
that whatever had been written there was
"I thank God that I, being unwedded, leave
no dependants to mourn or otherwise suffer by
rny death, which the following circumstances,
together with the roving disposition against
which I was so often . . . (here a few lines
were obliterated by a smudge of water) . , .
while making a friendly visit to a tribe subject
to the Sheik of the Montefeik, I was surprised
by an unaccustomed noise outside the hut. A
number of the tribe, bursting in with shouts and
hideous yells, seized upon me with every sign
of hatred (where before had been friendship
and mutual interest) and, snatching my pistols
and cartouche-box, stript me naked, and cast me,
bound hand and foot, into one of their naphtha-
coated craft. Here they have brought me by
countless mazy windings into the heart, as I
think, of the Great Swamp. I offered much
Buxis 1 for my release, but they seemed intent
upon my life.
"All day they ran in circles, screaming as
1 Backsheesh ?
THE MARSH ARAB
if possessed with demons. They brandished
in the air their swords and lances, those that
had any their musquets and matchlocks.
Their bodies were nude, their faces dreadful
with passion, their hair thick and matted.
r6 Tpvx.Qfj.cL 7re7rtAo?jL^J>op.
Again I could make nothing of the next
few lines, but the story continued : " . . . night
also was made hideous by their cries and by the
beating of tam-tams, nor could I have slept if I
would, since my body was devoured by swarms
of musquitoes, and my skin sore and burning
as though it had been flayed by its unwonted
exposure to the fierce sun of these parts. Though
thankful to be at least alone, I lay in misery on
the hard earth, parched with thirst until this
was allayed by the girl Haleema, who stole in
towards dawn, bringing water and some bread
of the kind that Sarah made for the three
Angels. Once again she . . ."
I tried to turn over, but the leaves had stuck
together, and though I separated them with the
greatest care I could read little of the next two
pages. Here and there a few words stood out,
tantalisingly clear: "jet-black hair in shining
braids, eyes lustrous and . . . youthful elegance
and symm . . . but an innocent child . . . was
THE CHAINS 293
due to arrive in the frigate Allig . . ssorah,
where the English factory ... in the godowns
of Hamid Khan . . . thousand piastres . . .
their additional demands to our Indian friends
in cash. And indeed it is certain. . . ."
What was certain? I was never to know, for
on the next page only one broken sentence re
mained to end the story: ". . . and seven bales
are lying at Abooshehr in the Gulf."
That was all ; but I had ceased to be incredu
lous. The ring of truth was in the last words of
this Englishman who had faced his end so
calmly, and had spent his last moments in think
ing of his friends and settling his affairs. But
the story was incomplete. What could have been
the reason of so sudden, so apparently unpre
meditated an attack by marshmen whom he had
thought his friends? I decided to see the old
woman again; she might be able to fill in the
gaps in the story. Remembering her garrulous
blessings, I thought she would probably not be
unwilling to tell me what she could ; and turning
to one of my neighbours in the hut, I asked who
"Halima the Blind," he replied, "<w* Allah,
she Is long in years."
Halima the Blind I The unknown writer had
294 THE MARSH ARAB
spoken of "the girl Haleema." Could this
withered old hag be the girl whose beauty he
had praised so highly? I remembered the very-
phrases of his description. "Lustrous eyes, jet-
black hair in shining braids" and now, "by
Allah, she is long in years," the man had said.
I called Jahalul, and told him to take me to the
island to which Halima the Blind had returned.
As we slid between the low mounds on
which the huts were built, I thought of my
fellow-countryman paying his "friendly visit"
to just such another village. The confiding
buffalo calves, snuffing with soft moist nostrils
as the boat brushed by them ; the groups of men
splitting reeds for weaving mats; the slender
pitched mashhufs crossing slowly from island to
island the scene can hardly have been different
on that calamitous morning, perhaps nearly a
hundred years ago. And for sounds, the merry
voices of children, the lowing of buffaloes, the
hum of a majrasha husking rice, all drowning
that warning, voiceless rustle of the reeds, to
which he was deaf, but which I, with the strange
story fresh in my mind, heard more clearly than
The boat grounded. Jahalul jumped out, and
ran up the bank to one of the huts. He seemed
THE CHAINS 295
to have some difficulty in inducing the woman
to see me again, for I could hear his persuasive
tones and her fretful objections. At last she came
stumbling out, and I went up to meet her. We
stood together outside her doorway, her blind
old face raised half fearfully to mine.
"From whom this book?" I asked.
"His name? I know it not." Her voice was
thin, dull, and weary, and she answered listlessly.
"What dost know of him?"
"Naught, save that he was friendly with my
tribe, and my tribe with him."
I fancied that she spoke with more life in
her worn-out tones, and tried another question.
"How did he die?"
"Die!" she said. "He did not die. It was
I who suffered worse than death. Waili, <waili,
for my eyes! The tantals left their homes that
day " she broke off, staring at me with her
"Speak," I urged.
"Effendirn," she began, speaking more clearly
as memory woke her dull old brain from its
torpor, "I will tell thee all I know. Afterwards
trouble me not, for what am I to thee, or thou
to me? I have done his bidding, I have given
what he gave me to another of his own kind.
Now I am old and blind; yet I will tell all I
296 THE MARSH ARAB
can." She squatted on the ground, and 1 fol
"Be it known unto thine honour that near to
Abu Saghair lies another smaller ishan which
has no name. On it no man ever builds his house
nor buries his dead, for it is the home of the
tantals. There those evil ones dwell, never go
ing forth from the island save on windless days,
for they fear that in a time of blowing wind
they will not be able to return. But that day
a hundred years ago it is ; nay, by the son of
Abu Talib, more than a hundred, for I am very
old that was a day without wind, hot and heavy
and still. And the tantals left their home, and
entered into the men of my tribe, taking posses
sion of their bodies so that they knew no longer
what they did. On that same day it chanced
that he of whom we speak had come among us,
as often he did, to talk and drink coffee in the
house of my uncle. And the wrath and fierce
anger of those evil ones fell upon the stranger;
they burst in upon him, and carried him off
to their dwelling in the marsh.
"At night they made hosa, for so is the lust
for blood quickened and made more fierce ; and
they purposed to put him to death in the early
morning. So they piled up rushes, and dragging
him from the hut in which he lay naked and
THE CHAINS 397
defenceless, they tied him to the mast of a danak,
and thrust him into the midst Then they put
fire to the heap. But I would not that he should
die, and under cover of the smoke I crept in and
cut his bonds, bidding him hide among the reeds
until their frenzy should be past. And in order
that the tantals might be satisfied, I stayed be
hind to scream. But suddenly ah! suddenly
a great red flame leapt out upon me, seizing my
clothes and my hair, so that my screams were
no longer feigned. I fled from the place, and
plunged into the water. But I could see noth
ing; I was blind, blind. O 'AH, the suffering
of that day "
The old woman's monotonous voice had be
come a wail, and she beat her head with her
feeble arms. The strange story, corroborated
as it was by the witness of the book, was evi
dently true. But what of her explanation of the
marshmen's sudden frenzy of rage against the
foreigner? Could one accept it as a nineteenth
century case of actual possession by evil spirits,
or was she speaking figuratively? I had often
heard the people speak of tantals, the mad jinns
feared and dreaded by every marsh Arab. A
powerful shaikh of my acquaintance had ad
mitted to me, in lowered tones, that he had heard
their laughter. But I had never come across a
298 THE MARSH ARAB
case of possession such as those recorded in the
"Waili, <waili" wept Halima the Blind.
"Such is the lot of women. I gave my eyes for
him, yet he came not again. Long have I
waited, but in vain ; and now I am old, old and
blind . . . " Her voice died away.
I ventured another question or two, but she
sat in unheeding silence, reliving, perhaps, what
may have been the romance and the tragedy of
"He came not again," This, then, was the
end of the story. The owner of the book had
escaped the dreadful death prepared for him.
Grateful for his deliverance, ignorant of its
price, he had perhaps fled to safety. Or might
it be that, escaping from one death, he had found
another in the endless mazes of the marsh? I
should never know ; the book and the old woman
had told all they could, and the marsh would
not give up its secret.
Halima, waking from her trance, rose and
turned listlessly away to her hut As she passed
me, without a glance, I caught an almost inaudi
"Go, and may Allah protect thee in thy
it a prayer, hardly formulated in her
THE CHAINS 299
dim old mind, that the fate of the unknown
traveller might not overtake me also? Unsus
picious, unafraid and confident, trusting in the
friendship of the simple marshfolk, he too had
wandered in the wilderness of reeds, alone of
his kind. And suddenly he had found himself
in conflict with forces of primitive passion which
neither he nor they could stem.
With the book still in my hand I walked back
to the mashhuf.
"To the Chains?" asked Jahalul.
I glanced up at the sun, now past its zenith.
"No," I said with a shiver, "to the river."
The Haji, when once more we disembarked
at his village, was seated in the lee of his hut,
surrounded by his rusty tins. He was intent,
it seemed, on some primitive form of stock-tak
ing, but the reckoning was evidently not a satis
factory one, for on seeing me he called
impatiently to his wife to put away the tins,
while he made room for me beside him.
"Allah grant there soon be another war 1" he
said, "for in these days there is no money in all
the land. During the war men said with truth,
'with the gold they have spent the English might
dam the Tigris in flood' ; but now all are poor,
all is dearer. An effendi who once could be
300 THE MARSH ARAB
bribed with ten krans now asks twenty, saying,
'because of the English the risk is greater.' Of
what avail is this twofold government? Has any
good ever come of a mongrel?'' Haji Rikkan
spat contemptuously, but he waited none the less
for an answer.
"A mule often serves better than horse or don
key," I said.
"True, true," he muttered, sinking back on
his heels despondently. "I speak the foolish
words of age. All men can see that the world
has changed. In the time of the Turks murder
was done willingly for a majidi; now, a man
bearing on his head a basket of gold may walk
from Basra to Baghdad, and none molest him.
Of old, the shaikhs rebelled against the govern
ment; now they put its order to their foreheads,
and obey. How otherwise, when the aeroplanes
of the English fill the sky? By Allah," con
cluded Haji Rikkan, "the English are a mighty
race, but they are no longer just"
I could not let this accusation pass unchal
lenged, and the Haji with some heat made out
"If an Englishman plucked out his two eyes,
a man of the tribes would still prefer him to a
townsman of his own race. It irks us less, far
less, to obey the unjust order of an Englishman
THE CHAINS 301
than the just order of an Arab mamur. Yet, in
spite of this, the English prefer the people of the
"Listen to my words ! Should a mamur visit
us (and his pay no more than two hundred
rupees a month) his going and his coming, his
comfort they are those of the High Commis
sioner. A policeman will demand a bed, even
if the house-owner go without; and if we say nay
he will tear off his badge, saying on his return,
'See how the tribes have mishandled me!' and
we are punished. The English are powerful; if
they would, they could prevent these things ; yet
when we would kill the townsmen for their pre
sumption, we are forbidden. W'Allah <wa
b'lllah, daily such things happen to us, yet the
English turn the eye ; and if we do but prepare
to slay those who use us thus, both their eyes are
full upon us. Is this justice?"
It was the age-old feud between tribesman and
townsman, as rampant here in the marshes as
elsewhere in 'Iraq. When I thought of the small
band of Englishmen still in the country, daily
accused in the towns of favouring the tribes at
the expense of the townspeople, I laughed aloud
at their surprise if they could hear the Haji's
indictment. Haji Rikkan laughed too, and, his
temper cooling down after his outburst, added :
302 THE MARSH ARAB
"A strange justice ! but that of the Turks was
still stranger. Have I told thee the story of the
Qadhi and the four partridges? No? Listen,
and I will tell it thee.
"A certain Mustafa, by trade a kababchi, was
fanning his meat in the market when one came to
him bringing four partridges, and said, 'Roast
these for me, and here is the price.'
"No sooner had he begun to cook them than
the Qadhi came by, and seeing the partridges
greatly desired to eat them.
" 'My son/ he said to Mustafa, 'sell me the
"He answered, 'They belong to such an one,
and I have taken from him the price of their
"But the Qadhi would not be denied, and be
cause he was a great man and to be feared, Mus
tafa agreed to take them to his house.
"And when he brought them, he asked of the
Qadhi, 'When the owner comes for them, what
shall I say?'
" 'Say, "Flown away." '
"So when the owner came to fetch the par
tridges, that kababchi said, 'Flown away.'
"'From the grid?' exclaimed the owner, and
he began to beat Mustafa and drag him to the
THE CHAINS 303
"Mustafa broke from him and ran away. And
as he ran there stood in his way a water-car
rier's donkey. He tried to push it aside, but it
yielded not, and thus losing his footing he was
on the point of falling. To save himself he
clutched the donkey's tail, and it came off in
"He ran on, at his heels the owner of the
partridges and the water-carrier. Coming to
an inn on the outskirts of the town, the kababchi
entered, and ran on to the roof. They followed,
and to save himself he sprang from the roof
into the courtyard ; and he alighted on the keeper
of the inn, and killed him. Whereupon the inn
keeper's brother rushed to the door and closed
it: thus they caught Mustafa and haled him for
judgment to the Qadhi that same Qadhi
within whose stomach were the four partridges.
"The owner said, C I had four partridges, and
I paid this kababchi for cooking them and for
the cost of 'the fire. And when I came to fetch
them, he said " Flown away." '
"To which the Qadhi replied, 'Is Allah all-
"This the owner of the partridges dare not
deny, lest he be called an infidel and kept in
prison for five years ; so he replied, 'All-power
304 THE MARSH ARAB
" Then is he able to cause thy partridges to
fly away. Why dost trouble this man?' And he
fined him five majidts.
"Then the brother of the dead inn-keeper
made his complaint, saying that Mustafa had
killed his brother by jumping on him from the
" 'According to the law,' said the Qadhi, 'if
a man steals, his right hand must be cut off; if
he kills, his life must be taken. Jump thou then
from the roof on to this kababchi, and kill him. 7
u And the brother replied, 'Allah lengthen thy
years 1 If I do this, I myself am like to be killed.
I withdraw my complaint.' The Qadhi there
upon fined him five majidis,
"Then turning to the water-carrier, who held
the tail of his donkey in his hand, he asked,
'What is thy complaint?'
"And he, seeing that from the others a fine
had been taken, replied, TaithI Oath! I am but
one of the listeners,' and he fanning himself
with the tail of the donkey as he spake I
"I ask pardon of Allah," concluded Haji Rik*
kan, "for I speak too much. My tongue has no
bone in it, and wags as it will. Has not each
stick its own smoke?" And he relapsed into one
of his long silences.
THE BURNING OF THE BAIT HATIM
THE story of the burning of the Bait Hatim
came to me from two sources. 'Osman
Beg, the Police Commandant, told me his ver
sion as he lay in a narrow hospital bed, his usu
ally smiling round face pinched with pain and
disappointment; and Saiyid 'Ajil told his sitting
in his reed hut, his long, nervous fingers pluck
ing continually at his beard in his distress at the
recollection of the tragic events of that night
In a Muslim country the descendants of the
Prophet are to be found everywhere. No place
is too remote for them, no solitude too distant;
in the heart of the desert or in the midst of the
marsh an isolated family of Saiyids may often
be found, a self-contained little community
rarely visited by outsiders, but known and re
spected for miles around because of the sanctity
of their descent. Of such a family, established
for generations on a remote ishan in the marshes,
Saiyid 'Ajil was the head.
306 THE MARSH ARAB
Haji Rikkan, himself paddling the birkash
which carried his wares, arrived one evening at
Umm Kosaj to trade with Saiyid 'Ajil and his
family. His welcome at that isolated spot was
a warm one, and he accepted the Saiyid's offer of
hospitality for the night. The warm spring
dusk fell over the marsh; voices of men and
beasts ceased to echo across the water; at last
even the croaking of the frogs was hushed, and
silence held the ishan.
Suddenly the sleepers in the reed huts were
awakened by a startled challenge from the watch
man. A voice answered from the darkness. "It
is I, 'Osman Beg. I seek Saiyid 'Ajil. The
Peace to you!"
"And to you," answered several sleepy voices,
satisfied by the reassuring salutation.
Saiyid 'Ajil hastened to the water's edge, sur
prise and curiosity overcoming fear in his mind.
What could the Commandant of Police want
with him at this unusual hour? His surprise
was even greater when he saw, silently slipping
one after the other out of the blackness of the
night into the light of the torch held above his
head, a seemingly endless procession of mash-
hufs. The flickering light, catching the stars
on their caps and the brass badges on their khaki
THE BURNING OF THE BAIT HATIM 307
uniforms, showed him that some of the boats car
ried policemen; in the others were tribesmen
whom he did not know. All seemed dead tired.
Silently the boats ran up the beach, and the men
splashed ashore through the shallow water, to
be hospitably received in the houses of the vil
lagers, who were already brewing tea and cof
Saiyid 'Ajil turned to find 'Osman Beg at
his elbow, and with him Jasim, shaikh of the
rice-lands lying many miles to the north. The
tribesmen, then, were his. The old man led his
guests to his own house, and there, the formal
ities of hospitality having been observed, learned
the reason of this strange nocturnal visit.
The Saiyid had heard, as had all the marsh-
dwellers, of the evil doings of a certain band
of outlaws, who had lately become more daring
than before in their defiance of the law. A long
series of unpunished crimes had now culmi
nated in the murder of an important shaikh, and
the government had determined to catch and
make an example of the gang. The leader, one
Bandar a Rahaij, was known to have taken
refuge with his kinsmen the Bait Hatim, in
whose retreat in the heart of the marsh he doubt-
308 THE MARSH ARAB
less thought himself safe from justice. But he
had reckoned without 'Osman Beg.
The Police Commandant of 'Amara was a
zealous official, who felt that his abilities had
gone too long unrecognized. Now his chance
had come. If he could bring the murderer to
book, promotion even fame might be his.
He laid his plans carefully and in secret, and
as he sat that night in Saiyid 'Ajil's hut it seemed
to him that success was surely within his grasp.
Well might the Bait Hatim think themselves
secure. Bitter experience had taught 'Osman
Beg that, with the mysterious swiftness with
which news travels in the east, warning of a
government raid invariably reached an erring
tribe in time for it to elude attack by moving
swiftly away to another island in the unmapped
depths of the marsh. When danger threatened,
they could always post their vigilant sentries on
every channel leading from the river; and the
birds would fly almost before the net was spread.
'Osman Beg set to work to evolve a new plan
of campaign. What peccant tribe would be
prepared against a commander who, instead of
attacking from the river, made a two-day d6tour
through the marsh, ending up with a night
journey which would bring his force across their
THE BURNING OF THE BAIT HATIM 309
only channel of retreat? If such a move could
be kept secret, success was certain.
With cunning strategy the Police Com
mandant made very public preparations for an
expedition. Every one in the town, and many
outside it, knew that 'Osman Beg was taking
thirty policemen the utmost his small command
could spare into the marshes. Maps had been
studied, guides engaged, mashhufs borrowed
from the rice shaikhs. It was common knowl
edge that he had been instructed to furnish an
escort for a party of surveyors who were inspect
ing the Turco-Persian boundary laid down in
1914. Early one morning a long line of boats
set off down the Chahala, mark flags, ranging
rods, and other survey gear much in evidence.
'Osman Beg was evidently in no hurry, for
he and his force halted at the village of Shaikh
Jasim and accepted his hospitality for the mid
day meal. As the piles of rice were rapidly dis
appearing, a horseman was seen to draw rein on
the opposite bank of the river. He had a mes
sage for the Police Commandant, he shouted;
and a boat was sent to bring him across. All in
the shaikh's madhif knew that the pink envelope
contained a telegram, and all eyes were on 'Os
man Beg as he opened it
3io THE MARSH ARAB
The news was unpleasant, it was clear. The
cheerful countenance of the Commandant grew
clouded as he read; he cursed the messenger,
and fell into a moody silence. At length he
asked the shaikh to grant him a private inter
Shaikh Jasim, sending ahead a servant to warn
his womenfolk of the approach of a stranger,
led 'Osman Beg into the wide enclosure of which
the four towers and high mud walls screened his
women's quarters. They entered a small ill-lit
room, and here, seating himself on one of the
high wooden benches which ran round the walls,
'Osman explained his predicament. The sur
vey party towards which he was making his way
reported an unfriendly reception from the tribes
on the frontier, and asked for the immediate
despatch of a larger force than he had at his
command. Unwilling to delay, yet fearing to
proceed with so small a force, the Police Com
mandant was reluctantly compelled to ask
Shaikh Jasim for a hundred of his tribesmen
as a supplement to his own inadequate numbers.
The request was not one which pleased the
shaikh. He was a timorous young man who,
not having become shaikh until after the Brit
ish occupation of 'Amara, had no legacy of a
THE BURNING OF THE BAIT HATIM 311
warlike and independent past To send a hun
dred men off on a martial expedition into the
heart of the marshes, against a foe of whose
strength he knew nothing, was not at all to his
liking ; and what was worse, it seemed incumbent
on him to offer to lead his own tribesmen.
Jasim's dilemma was acute: an hundred men
were not enough to protect his own sacred per
son ; he must offend Government by refusing, or
take double that number.
'Osman Beg left the shaikh's fort wreathed
in smiles. The telegram the bogus telegram
which he had written out with his own hand
and ordered to be sent after him had been
more successful than he had hoped. No sus
picion had been raised, and his force was now
more than adequate for his purpose. The re
mainder of the day was passed in collecting
boats, and in bringing in from the outlying vil
lages the men employed to maintain order in the
Early next morning 'Osman Beg's command
left the rice-fields, steering south-east to make
Abu Gusba, a large island halfway across the
marsh and at that time uninhabited. Here the
night was to be spent, a day's paddling on the
morrow bringing them to the survey party.
THE MARSH ARAB
But when shortly before sunset the weary boat
men reached Abu Gusba, they found that their
rest was to be a short one. 'Osman Beg, draw
ing the shaikh aside, revealed in a few words
the real object of the expedition. There was
no survey party to protect; there was no hostility
across the frontier: but the Bait Hatim was to be
surrounded and punished, and Bandar al Rahaij
captured, dead or alive. This was why he had
wanted reinforcements, and why the party was
now to make a forced march, travelling all night;
for only by using the darkness to cover his ap
proach could he avoid sending ahead a warning
of his coming by every reed-cutter or buffalo-
herd whom they chanced upon.
At this point the blood of some warrior an
cestor stirred in the sluggish veins of Shaikh
Jasim. He began to show a lively instead of
a lukewarm interest in 'Osman's plans. How,
he asked, did the Police Commandant propose
to guide his force through the treacherous marsh
waterways in the darkness of the night; how,
when the attack took place in the half-light of
early dawn, would the policemen distinguish
his tribesmen from the marsh Arabs they were
'Osman Beg pointed out "One-fisted Shuman,"
well-known in the marshes as a prince of buffalo-
THE BURNING OF THE BAIT HATIM 313
stealers. As the life as well as the livelihood of
Shuman had for years depended on the rapidity
with which he made his way about the water
ways by night, the shaikh professed himself satis
fied with 'Osman's choice of a guide. To pre
vent his tribesmen from being mistaken for the
enemy, the mark flags brought for the fictitious
survey party were to be distributed among them.
Shaikh Jasim, satisfied, ordered his men to the
Their fatigue forgotten in the excitement of
a promised fight, the men paddled silently off
in the wake of the leading boat, which carried
'Osman Beg and One-fisted Shuman. They were
bound first for Saiyid 'Ajil's village, Umm
Kosaj, only twenty minutes' paddling from their
objective. The long line of mashhufs slipped
between the high reeds of the water-channels,
while slowly the setting sun robbed the marsh
of its rich colour, leaving it ashen and grey like
the face of a dying man. Night fell, and still
the boats glided on in the soft velvety darkness
through which it appeared impossible that even
so skilled a guide as Shuman could find his way.
Now and then there was a check, and it seemed
that the leader was at fault; sometimes those be
hind felt certain that the channel had been
missed, for the mashhuf-mQn had to leap into
3H THE MARSH ARAB
the water and push their boats by force through
the dense masses of reeds. But still the line of
boats pressed on, one following the other through
the impenetrable darkness by sound alone the
soft splash, splash of the tireless paddles.
Crouched in the bow of the leading mashhuf,
motionless as the curved prow above his head,
sat One-fisted Shuman, from time to time hiss
ing out his directions. At length, two hours be
fore dawn and an hour before the time allotted
on 'Osman Beg's schedule, he turned to the
"Umm Kosaj," he whispered hoarsely. And
'Osman, peering ahead, saw across the open space
of water a darker smudge on the darkness, which
he knew to be the huts of Saiyid 'Ajil.
In the smoke-filled hut 'Osman Beg's story
was heard with breathless attention. The Com
mandant was proud of the feat he had just ac
complished, and with reason. He had planned
deeply and secretly, and now success was within
his grasp. Warmed by the Saiyid's tea and
pleased with his hospitable welcome, he threw
secrecy to the winds. The difficult part of his
task was over, he was within a few minutes of
his objective; his men might have a short rest,
and then the Bait Hatim was his easy prey.
Before the breaking of the false dawn, 'Os-
THE BURNING OF THE BAIT HATIM 315
man Beg led his men away to cut off the Bait
Hatim's only line of retreat, and to surround
their village. Saiyid 'Ajil, watching the depart
ing mashhufs, turned to his son as the last of the
long line disappeared from sight.
"When they return," he said, "they will be
hungry. Let each house bake bread, let every
housewife prepare a meal. And buy coffee, tea,
and sugar in readiness. Haji Rikkan's coming
was indeed fortunate.' 7
"The Haji is gone," said his son.
"Aye, an hour since." And Saiyid Muhsin
told his father how, while 'Osman Beg was still
deep in talk, Haji Rikkan had slipped silently
out and, unobserved, had gone to the water's
edge, where the young man, following, had
found him walking up and down beside his
moored boat. "I am old, I am afraid," he could
hear him muttering.
"Why afraid?" asked Saiyid Muhsin, com
ing up beside him.
The Haji started. "Why afraid?" he re
peated, "Because of the coming of 'Osman Beg
and his police I am afraid. And have I not
reason? Soon, when they have drunk their tea
and refreshed themselves, they will come down
to their boats; and finding mine here, one will
316 THE MARSH ARAB
say, 'Give me of thy tobacco,' another will de
mand dates, another sweet-meats. And at the
time of paying, where will be the price? for
to take without payment is ever their habit If
thou wouldst not see me robbed of my all, I pray
thee hold this sentry in talk while I make my
escape, and Allah give thee the reward."
Saiyid Muhsin, yielding to the Haji's urgency,
had engaged the attention of the sentry posted
by 'Osman Beg. Out of the corner of his eye
he saw Haji Rikkan wade silently into the water,
and saw the birkash begin to move as gently and
cautiously it was pushed from below. Almost
imperceptibly it glided away, and was swallowed
up in the darkness.
Saiyid 'Ajil was still shaking his head du
biously over his son's story, when the sound of
a single shot rang out across the silent marsh,
It was followed by a roar of musketry ; the quiet
was shattered by the bark of rifles and the angry
buzzing of spent bullets over the Saiyid's vil
lage. Men and women ran from their huts and
stood in apprehensive groups. For a flash the
darkness was rent, only to close up again more
densely than before, as first one Verey light and
then another soared into the sky. Then, as
abruptly as it had begun, the noise of musketry
THE BURNING OF THE BAIT HATIM 317
ceased; a desultory shot or two followed; and
silence again covered the marsh.
Saiyid 'Ajil and his people waited, straining
their ears for some sound which would indicate
how their neighbours of the Bait Hatim had
fared. It was clear that they had not given
up without a struggle the man who had fled to
them for protection; but no sound came to in
dicate which way the battle had turned. No
call nor cry was heard ; only the sad sighing of
the reeds was borne across the water by the dying
night wind ; no mashhuf came out of the shadows
At last a faint glow could be seen in the west
ern sky. It brightened and grew red as the
watchers on Umm Kosaj gazed, and as it broad
ened they knew that the village of the Bait
Hatim was on fire. 'Osman Beg, then, had been
rewarded for his careful planning ; the enemies
of the government had been punished. As the
day broke, the fierce light of the fire grew less ;
with the rising of an angry sun the glow of the
flames died away, and only a thick, tall pillar of
smoke lifted its black column high and straight
into the air, telling all who saw it that the houses
of the Bait Hatim were still burning. But from
the village itself there was no sound.
Suddenly a slim black shape shot out from
3i8 THE MARSH ARAB
the green wall of reeds which faced Umm
Kosaj. It was a mashhuf, poled rapidly by two
policemen, and in it sat 'Osman Beg. His face
was white and drawn, a rough bandage was tied
round his leg. The boat drew near, and the old
Saiyid, unable any longer to restrain his curios
ity, called across the water,
"Allah rip their bellies ! They had warning
of our coming," replied 'Osman Beg bitterly.
"Gently, gently," he went on as the Saiyid's men
helped him from the boat. "Eh b'lllah, how I
have wearied myself in this affair, and all to no
avail! By Allah and the Koran, I am indeed
unfortunate! Of all my force only I am
wounded, and for all our efforts they have
Seated in the open doorway of the Saiyid's
house, a cushion supporting the leg which he
insisted was only slightly hurt, 'Osman Beg told
his hosts what had occurred.
"Where the reeds were thickest, and when
we had yet to reach the only channel by which
they might escape, there they opposed us. We
pressed hard, but they did not yield. Then I
outflanked them; but too late, for their purpose
was achieved. We captured two mashhufs;
they were filled with women, whom we beat.
THE BURNING OF THE BAIT HATIM 319
learning then that the whole Bait had escaped
to safety, and with them had taken their house
hold goods. True, we burnt their village, but
what are a few empty reed houses to these marsh-
A boat, slowly poled by two tribesmen, neared
the ishan as he spoke, and 'Osman Beg in his
anxiety for news limped to the shore to meet it.
"We have found one of the Bait Hatim, and
have brought his body," said the men.
"Where was he lying?"
"Near the place where they first opposed us."
"No prisoners?" asked 'Osman Beg hope
"They still search."
From the group of villagers which had gath
ered round the boat came the sound of a woman's
weeping. "Y'umma, y'umma!" she wailed. "O
wretched, O luckless 1 He went "
"Be silent 1" ordered Saiyid 'Ajil, but in too
peremptory a tone.
"Is he of thy people?" asked 'Osman Beg
"But he is known to thee?" persisted 'Osman.
"Aye, known to us all," said the old Saiyid.
"It is Haji Rikkan, the peddler, who came but
yesterday to barter with us, and in the night fled
320 THE MARSH ARAB
from this place for fear lest he should be robbed
of his wares."
"But why thither?" asked 'Osman Beg.
"Why to the Bait Hatim? Tell me, what are
they to him?"
Saiyid 'Ajil could prevaricate no longer.
"The Bait Hatim are of his blood," he said.
In the silence which followed, 'Osman Beg,
limping forward, gazed down at the lifeless
body stretched in the mashhuf. It was this old
man, then, who had carried warning to the Bait
Hatim, who had brought to naught his deep-laid
plans and robbed him of the rewards which
might have been his. This frail and worn body,
its quenched eyes staring steadfastly into the sun,
had housed a spirit swift to respond, even at the
cost of life itself, to the call of tribal loyalty.
"It is ever the unregarded stone which breaks
a man's head," muttered 'Osman, bitterness giv
ing way to fatalism in the face of heroic death.
"His kinsmen are safe : let them be grateful,"
said Saiyid 'Ajil, "and may Allah, the Com
passionate, show him mercy!"
"Aye," assented 'Osman Beg, "on him the
A list of the commoner foreign words used in the text.
'Aba the Arab's voluminous outer garment.
Bait house; section of a tribe.
Beg title of honour in Turkey and some other parts of the
Bimbashi the Major.
Birkhash type of one of the larger boats used by the
Chafiya see kafiya.
Challabtya small craft used in the marshes for hunting,
Chiswa present of clothing.
Dakhala the right of a fugitive to claim protection from
another, even at the cost of the latter's life.
Danak type of native boat.
Disdasha a garment.
Fasl agreement to compensate.
Gusba- a long reed.
Hadh wet bctkht word of honour.
fJaji Mohammedan who has made the journey to Mecca.
Hakim political officer.
Hosa type of celebration in which the Arabs indulge.
Hoshiya soldiers or police of one of the shaikhs.
Ishan mound in the marshes upon which a village or a
hut is built.
322 THE MARSH ARAB
Jinn supernatural being or spirit.
Kafiya the turban out of which the Arab makes his head
Kran a silver coin ; the monetary unit of Persia, equivalent
to about eight cents.
Ma' dan Marsh Arab.
Madhif guest-hall; among the Bani Lam a hair tent,
among the Albu Mohammed a reed tent.
Majarsha implement for husking rice.
Mardi high pole-like reed of the marshes.
Mashhuf crescent-shaped small boats used by the Marsh
Mashhuf 'chi a boatman.
Misha spade with six-foot handle.
Mudir Governor of Turkish village.
Mullah clerk or secretary.
Mumins professional men of the Mohammedan religion.
Nafar a private soldier.
Padishah title in Persia of the shah or king,
Pasha Turkish officer of high rank.
Radd al madhalim indulgences.
Sahib American, Englishman, or European as spoken of or
to by the natives.
Saiyid professional man of the Mohammedan religion.
Shabad stout pliable reed from which the marshman makes
the framework of his hut.
Shittal rice rice sown in one place and then transplanted
Tail Bardi telegraph of the reeds ; rumour- - .
Tantal an evil spirit.
Torrada a type of native boat.
Yuzbashi captain of the local gendarmerie.