domingo, 11 de marzo de 2012


"By my Prophet!" said he, "am I a pig or a dog, that I should eat when the Sitt was fasting?"
It was at Esneh, by the way, that that hitherto undiscovered curiousity, an ancient Egyptian coin, was offered to me for sale. The finder was digging for nitre, and turned it up at an immense depth below the mounds on the outskirts of the town. He volunteered to show the precise spot, and told his artless tale with childlike simplicity. Unfortunately, however, for the authenticity of this remarkable relic, it bore, together with the familiar profile of George IV, a superscription of its modest value, which was precisely one farthing. On another occasion, when we were making our long stay at Luxor, a coloured glass button of honest Birmingham make was brought to the boat by a fellâh who swore that he had himself found it upon a mummy in the Tombs of the Queens at Kûrnet Murraee. The same man came to my tent one day when I was sketching, bringing with him a string of more than doubtful scarabs – all veritable "anteekahs," of course, and all backed up with undeniable pedigrees.
"La, la (no, no), – bring me no more anteekahs," I said, gravely. "They are old and worn out, and cost much money. Have you no imitation scarabs, new and serviceable, that one might wear without the fear of breaking them?"
"These are imitations, O Sitt!" was the ready answer.
"But you told me a moment ago they were genuine anteekahs."
"That was because I thought the Sitt wanted to buy anteekahs," he said, quite shamelessly.
"See now," I said, "if you are capable of selling me new things for old, how can I be sure that you would not sell me old things for new?"
To this he replied by declaring that he had made the scarabs himself. Then, fearing I should not believe him, he pulled a scrap of coarse paper from his bosom, borrowed one of my pencils, and drew an asp, an ibis, and some other common hieroglyphic forms, with tolerable dexterity.
"Now you believe?" he asked, triumphantly.
"I see that you can make birds and snakes," I replied ; "but that neither proves that you can cut scarabs, nor that these scarabs are new."
"Nay, Sitt," he protested, "I made them with these hands. I made them but the other day. By Allah! they cannot be newer."
Here Talhamy interposed.
"In that case," he said, "they are too new, and will crack before a month is over. The Sitt would do better to buy some that are well seasoned."
Our honest Fellâh touched his brow and breast.
"Now in strict truth, O Dragoman!" he said, with an air of the most engaging candour, "these scarabs were made at the time of the inundation. They are new ; but not too new. They are thoroughly seasoned. If they crack, you shall denounce me to the governor, and I will eat stick for them!"
Now it has always seemed to me that the most curious feature in this little scene was the extraordinary simplicity of the Arab. With all his cunning, with all his disposition to cheat, he suffered himself to be turned inside-out as unsuspiciously as a baby. It never occurred to him that his untruthfulness was being put to the test, or that he was committing himself more and more deeply with every word he uttered. The fact is, however, that the Fellâh is half a savage. Notwithstanding his mendacity – (and it must be owned that he is the most brilliant liar under heaven) – he remains a singularly transparent piece of humanity, easily amused, easily deceived, easily angered, easily pacified. He steals a little, cheats a little, lies a great deal ; but on the other hand he is patient, hospitable, affectionate, trustful. He suspects no malice, and bears none. He commits no great crimes. He is incapable of revenge. In short, his good points outnumber his bad ones ; and what man or nation need hope for a much better character?
To generalise in this way may seem like presumption on the part of a passing stranger ; yet it is more excusable as regards Egypt than it would be of any other equally accessible country. In Europe, and indeed in most parts of the East, one sees too little of the people to be able to form an opinion about them ; but it is not so on the Nile. Cut off from hotels, from railways, from Europeanised cities, you are brought into continual intercourse with natives. The sick who come to you for medicines, the country gentlemen and government officials who visit you on board your boat and entertain you on shore, your guides, your donkey-boys, the very dealers who live by cheating you, furnish endless studies of character, and teach you more of Egyptian life than all the books of Nile-travel that ever were written.
Then your crew, part Arab, part Nubian, are a little world in themselves. One man was born a slave, and will carry the dealer's brand-marks to his grave. Another has two children in Miss Whateley's school at Cairo. A third is just married, and has left his young wife sick at home. She may be dead by the time he gets back, and he will hear no news of her meanwhile. So with them all. Each has his simple story – a story in which the local oppressor, the dreaded conscription, and the still more dreaded corvée, form the leading incidents. The poor fellows are ready enough to pour out their hopes, their wrongs, their sorrows. Through sympathy with these, one comes to know the men ; and through the men, the nation. For the life of the Beled repeats itself with but little variation wherever the Nile flows and the Khedive rules. The characters are the same ; the incidents are the same. It is only the mise en scène which varies.
And thus it comes to pass that the mere traveller who spends but half-a-year on the Nile may, if he takes an interest in Egypt and the Egyptians, learn more of both in that short time than would be possible in a country less singularly narrowed in all ways – politically, socially, geographically.
And this reminds me that the traveller on the Nile really sees the whole land of Egypt. Going from point to point in other countries, one follows a thin line of road, railway, or river, leaving wide tracts unexplored on either side ; but there are few places in Middle or Upper Egypt, and none at all in Nubia, where one may not, from any moderate height, survey the entire face of the country from desert to desert. It is well to do this frequently. It helps one, as nothing else can help one, to an understanding of the wonderful mountain waste through which the Nile has been scooping its way for uncounted cycles. And it enables one to realise what a mere slip of alluvial deposit is this famous land which is "the gift of the river."
A dull grey morning, a faint and fitful breeze, carried us slowly on our way from Esneh to Edfû. The new bread – a heavy boat-load when brought on board – lay in a huge heap at the end of the upper deck. It took four men one whole day to cut it up. Their incessant gabble drove us nearly distracted.
"Uskût, Khaleefeh! Uskût, Ali!" (Silence, Khaleefeh! Silence, Ali!) Talhamy would say from time to time. "You are not on your own deck. The Howadji can neither read nor write for the clatter of your tongues."
And then, for about a minute and a half, they would be quiet.
But you could as easily keep a monkey from chattering as an Arab. Our men talked incessantly ; and their talk was always about money. Listen to them when we might, such words as "Khámsa gurûsh" (five piastres), "nûs riyâl" (half-a-dollar), "ethneen shilling" (two shillings), were perpetually coming to the surface. We never could understand how it was that money, which played so small a part in their lives, should play so large a part in their conversation.
It was about midday when we passed El Kab, the ancient Eileithyias. A rocky valley narrowing inland ; a Sheykh's tomb on the mountain-ridge above ; a few clumps of date-palms ; some remains of what looked like a long crude-brick wall running at right angles to the river ; and an isolated mass of hollowed limestone rock left standing apparently in the midst of an exhausted quarry, were all we saw of El Kab as the dahabeeyah glided by.
And now, as the languid afternoon wears on, the propylons of Edfû loom out of the misty distance. We have been looking for them long enough before they come in sight – calculating every mile of the way ; every minute of the daylight. The breeze, such as it was, has dropped now. The river stretches away before us, smooth and oily as a pond. Nine of the men are tracking. Will they pull us to Edfû in time to see the Temple before nightfall?
Reïs Hassan looks doubtful ; but takes refuge as usual in "Inshallah!" (God willing). Talhamy talks of landing a sailor to run forward and order donkeys. Meanwhile the Philæ creeps lazily on ; the sun declines unseen behind a filmy veil ; and those two shadowy towers, rising higher and ever higher on the horizon, look grey, and ghostly, and far distant still.
Suddenly the trackers stop, look back, shout to those on board, and begin drawing the boat to shore. Reïs Hassan points joyously to a white streak breaking across the smooth surface of the river about half-a-mile behind. The Fostât's sailors are already swarming aloft – the Bagstones' trackers are making for home – our own men are preparing to fling in the rope and jump on board as the Philæ nears the bank.
For the capricious wind, that always springs up when we don't want it, is coming!
And now the Fostât, being hindmost, flings out her big sail and catches the first puff ; the Bagstones' turn comes next ; the Philæ shakes her wings free, and shoots ahead ; and in fewer minutes than it takes to tell, we are all three scudding along before a glorious breeze.
The great towers that showed so far away half-an-hour ago are now close at hand. There are palm-woods about their feet, and clustered huts, from the midst of which they tower up against the murky sky magnificently. Soon they are passed and left behind, and the grey twilight takes them, and we see no more. Then night comes on, cold and starless ; yet not too dark for going as fast as wind and canvas will carry us.

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