Morocco – The Damsel With The Lute

AS the peaceful days of our captivity wear on, amid quaint scenes and strange quiet beauty, we gradually fall into the Eastern way of life and come to enjoy the calm desuetude which is the ideal of the older world. The calm of the orient is not the dull placidity of Holland in repose, or the inane, vacuous torpor of the American Sunday mood, with its conscious virtue in acquiring merit by imposed leisure; but rather the calm of beatitude, the acceptance of peace as the normal state of soul, to which occasional activity comes as a regrettable divagation. The orient adores monotony as the west does variety. It enjoys hearing the same music, the same poems, delights in the same perfumes, the same colours, the same designs. Its art consists in infinite beautiful repetitions, and its poetry in subtle variations on age-old themes. The changeful interruption of western life does not appeal to the east, and practical western “improvements” in living are vaguely wondered at rather than desired. A wealthy native may take a fancy to own a kerosene lamp, or an extravagant prince may buy an automobile ; these things are romantically beautiful and remote to them. This is their appeal rather than the thought of useful innovation.

In writing of southern Morocco as “the orient” I am speaking of the temper of its civilisation, for although geographically it is the “Land of the Setting Sun,” in spirit it has more oriental conservatism than Asia Minor or India. Then too, I am describing southern Morocco as I see it at the present moment. There are other forces in oriental hearts besides this love of monotony and the joy of calm. The fanaticism of religion, or blind loyalty to some grasping lord, may suddenly change this peaceful region, where life itself seems all but arrested, into a land torn by wild guerilla warfare and brutal pillage. Of this side of Morocco one may read in the narratives of French observers during the period of conquest, which in some regions is not yet over, or has not yet begun. But the unprogressive life of little effort and the dreaming quiet of these long afternoons represent the ideal of the Moor, the oriental attitude to existence.

The Arab gentleman, or the Berber caïd, finds his recreation in the contemplation of quiet waters in shady gardens, or in long conversations among friends eating together and drinking innocuous drinks, or in watching slow sensuous dancing and hearing monotonously enervating music.

One afternoon, our host and jailor the calipha, the Slave of the Compassionate, invites us to one of these entertainments at his own kasba, a mile or so away from the old castle of his brother the caïd, where we are living. With the delightful vagueness of this world in which time has no significance, we are asked to come some time in the afternoon. At about half past three we arrive at the kasba, which, with its impressively solid towers and walls suggestive of barbaric strength rather than of comfortable living, rises in the middle of the bare brown plain. We wait long in a dark high-built entrance way, as crude and bare as a peasant’s hut ; and then are conducted into the palace itself, a marked contrast, newly built of fired brick, and cleanly plastered everywhere. We pass through dazzling white spacious courtyards, through narrow passages and stairways and suites of darkened chambers, that give an impression of whiteness, silence, and emptiness. Everywhere our bare feet sink into soft carpets of gorgeous dye, resplendent as Keats’s tiger-moth, carpets from the mountains, from the Souss, from Marrakesh and Rabat, and one a hideous German machine-made thing, doubt-less a gift from a political agent. (Coals to Newcastle, and poor quality at that!)

In one long room, where besides the rich carpets there is a great piece of silk embroidery on the wall, we pass an amusing group of five very black damsels in comically voluminous garments, some in vivid magenta and some in bright saffron, caught up in the middle with huge girdles. “They are black but comely, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.” They wear their hair in long braids and have big plugs of silver in one ear, and their names are five sweet symphonies, Leila, Tahra, Aïcha, Hyzyya, and Kadijah j ah.

The reception room has a table and two European chairs, I fancy the only ones in the Souss, but we prefer to sit on cushions and play with our feet as the Moors do. Aïcha with solemn, scared face serves us with coffee, and the other ebony hand-maidens stand in the door and roll the whites of their eyes. My costume is much admired, straw-coloured pajamas, the gift of the Red Cross in Macedonia and a grey dressing gown bought in Bucharest. The major-domo asks me if this is the national dress of the “Meriki.” Presently the Slave of the Compassionate arrives. As is usual in Moorish social affairs, nothing happens at first. We sit quietly together scarcely exchanging a word, waiting for the refreshments. In due time, Leila, Tahra, Aïcha, Hyzyya, and Kadijah bring in three dishes, one after another roast mutton with a rich tomato sauce, chicken baked with olive oil and smothered with raisins and onions, and a peppery mutton stew, and then fragrant mint tea. The chauffeur, who is with us, is a great favourite with the calipha; he is really the court jester. His huge appetite is a theme always good. The seneschal of the palace, who sits at the left of the serene calipha, picks out handfuls of specially hot peppers disguised in gravy and offers them to the always hungry chauffeur. The resulting explosion of the voluble young Frenchman immoderately delights the Slave of the Compassionate.

As we while away another hour over grapes and tea, Leila, Tahra, Aicha, Hyzyya, and Kadijah ceremoniously carry in a huge German phonograph with a megaphone like a gigantic pink morning-glory. We listen to innumerable records of Arab music—band selections from Cairo, singers from Tunis, Casablanca, and Tangier. But oriental music on a phonograph has no more charm than a collection of dried wild flowers. It must be interpreted by flashing eyes, gestures full of meaning, and bodies swaying in rhythmic dance. We ask if there are no troops of the famous Shelluh singers and dancers in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately there are none about at present, but there is a boy, the calipha tells us, one of the hundred hangers-on of the palace, who aspires to be a troubadour.

The boy is sent for. He is a ragged little chap with a pleasing face and a shy manner. He is rather frightened at the honour come suddenly upon him, but after a moment’s meditation and a few taps on the square tambourine he has brought along, he begins to chant the proverbial sayings of Sidi Hammou. Sidi Hammou is a half legendary figure to whom most of the proverbial wisdom and the satirical songs of the Souss are attributed. He seems to have been a troubadour born here at Aoulouz in the sixteenth century. The songs are in a sort of rhythmic prose. The boy begins with a set formula and chants the pieces, filling in the pauses with a roulade on the square tambourine.

After the singing we must eat again, a kouskous this time, without which no meal is complete. Now the eating of kouskous requires a special technique which I never acquired. A handful of the moist white grains must be rolled into a neat golf ball with the right hand (to touch food with the left hand is very bad manners) and then by a deft twist of the thumb it is rolled into one’s mouth. As the balls I roll always explode just as I get them to my mouth, I have to be fed by some kind neighbour. When we have eaten a rarely flavoured, exotic melon, the refreshments are over, and we are to drive through the domain of the caïd in the wonderful automobile.

We leave the hall to the five ebony handmaidens in magenta and saffron and go down to the outer court. ‘ Here fifty of the calipha’s retainers surround him and kiss his shoulder as a token of fealty. This in time of peace seems to be their only duty.

They pass the hours lounging about the court or riding aimlessly over the plain, graceful and picturesquely indolent, but not very smart in their everyday costumes. The automobile road is a casual affair, merely a cleared track through rough stubble fields where the loose stone has been scraped off. We bump and sway along for a half hour over a brown dry country always the same. Everywhere we meet groups of peasants returning from the threshing floors, and here and there a village or a fortified kasba; the men greet their chieftain with shouts and uplifted right hands. At one of the floors we stop and sit on a mat before a brush hut and eat once more. The food is the same kind that we have been gorging all the afternoon, but we must make a pretence of continuing to enjoy it. We drive back through magnificent sunset scenes of “Orange and azure deepening into gold,” and say farewell to our courteous host at the gate of his kasba.

The next day we felt that we were sufficiently in favour with the Slave of the Compassionate to attempt to take our leave, and push on through the Souss. In the afternoon, we had the mules packed and everything ready for departure. We distributed liberal fabor to the major-domo, the slaves, the cook, the water-boys, and the pickaninnies, to every member of the palace household who put in appearance at the news of our leaving. And then we sent a messenger to the calipha’s kasba to announce our intention and to ask permission to make our adieux. After waiting several hours, the messenger returned with orders that we were not to leave. The calipha would come to see us. After another hour, he came, gracious, smiling, and exquisitely polite, but quite firm. We could not go. No news had come as yet from Taroudant. Monsieur Lapandéry swore by his ancestors, and we unpacked the mules.

In the early evening we had tea in the caïd’s garden, and talked long of politics, of trade and development. We gathered that the Souss is morally subdued and reconciled to the inevitable extension of the Protectorate. The great Glaoui and the Goundafi have cast in their lot on the side of the French, and the vassal tribesmen bow to the will of their lords and the decree of Allah. This talk was facilitated by the presence of a visiting sheik who spoke Arabic and translated for the calipha, when our imperfect knowledge of Shelluh made it necessary. The twilight deepened over the garden as we talked; the two Berbers occasionally whispered confidences among themselves; and Monsieur Lapandéry twirled his moustaches and gesticulated in his animated way. And meantime little Kbira played about on the rich carpet, toying with the great key of our apartments, large enough to secure the treasure of the Sultan, but she had one ear open to the conversation, and now came to her father’s rescue with a -translation, and now administered sharp cuffs to Lulu the hound for trespassing on the sacred precincts of the carpet. And in the midst of all this political talk, an old servant behind us obeyed the inevitable muezzin’s call and said his prayer.

We were, of course, much disappointed that our attempt to escape from our luxurious captivity had failed, but when Allah sends a misfortune, he may, if it please him, follow it by a great happiness. Praise be to the Most Merciful!

Now it came to pass that night that our party settled down to sleep earlier than usual, Monsieur Lapandéry and Kbira on the cushions in their apartment, with the curtain down to keep out too much night air; old Si Lhassen and his grandson, in the storeroom with their heads on the bag of silver douros; and I on my silk mattress outside in our little court. The moonlight flooded everything with the whiteness of hoar-frost, and made gleaming metallic ripples in the little spattering fountain, and shone strangely on the talismanic hand of Fatima that formed one huge iron hinge of the mysterious door from behind which we had heard the careless laughter of women. My bed was in the shadowed angle of the wall protected from the brilliant white moonlight, and I lay listening to the perfect silence, waiting for the monotonous tinkle of the fountain to put me to sleep.

Then the lock of the mysterious door grated, the door opened, and a lovely young girl with a two-stringed lute in one hand and a felt prayer-cushion in the other, appeared. She gives a swift glance around, walks to the fountain and sits partly in the shadow of an almond tree, with her exquisite profile turned toward me, and one little bare foot peeping out from her dark-hued caftan into the moonlight. No, she cannot be a vision, or she should be playing a dulcimer and singing of Mount Abora. But she plays a two-stringed lute called a rhab, a very fiat toned, strange-sounding instrument, out of which she makes music as plaintive as the cry of a tired child and as monotonous as the plash of the fountain. She should be described by an Arab, not by an occidental, and, in fact, she was described by a poet fourteen hundred years ago in the Arabian desert:

When the Pleiades shone in the heavens, Glorious as a belt sown with precious stones, I came to her. With her day garments laid aside She was clad only in a light robe. She waited for me behind the curtain of her tent.

She is like a pure pearl, The shell of which hath a delicate cloudy whiteness, A pearl nourished by kindly waters in the deep seas. She turns aside; She shows me the profile of a lovely cheek, She looks in my eyes, And her eyes show the softness of the antelope of Wadjra Watching over her fawn. Her neck has the grace of that of a white gazelle, But the gazelle’s neck is not covered with jewels like hers. Her long hair, glossy black, falls gracefully over her shoulders, Thick as a palm branch laden with dates.

In the morning her bed is perfumed with musk. She sleeps long after the rising of the sun, For she does not need to wear the dress and the girdle Of those who labor. The radiance of her brow scatters the shadows of night, Even as a torch lighted by a hermit in his cave. Time calms the wild desires of most lovers, But nothing, O my Love, shall make my heart forget The passion it feels for thee !

The adorable little damsel goes on strumming her melancholy lute slowly, very slowly, always looking at the moonlit ripples in the tiny basin. Then in a soft, scarcely audible voice she sings a homesick little tune that I cannot understand, but it is full of yearning and tears, of longing for some far-away oasis, or for her first lover, perhaps a dark lithe-bodied Mauretainian garbed in blue. She stops singing and sits motionless, gazing long and silently at the fountain. The only way I can explain her being here is that the news of our intended departure was spread all through the pal-ace, but the reversal of our plans by the calipha was not known in the women’s quarters. And her master, the caïd, is still away from home. In any case, here she is, and I am broad awake and not dreaming.

A faint stir of night air breathes over the court ; an almond leaf flutters down and floats like a little boat in the basin of the fountain. My elbow is cramped, but I am afraid to stir lest she should know I am here and run frightened away. She remains motionless with her chin resting in her little henna-stained hand. And then I am afraid she may go away and not know that I am here ! I wish to speak to her, but how shall I begin? “Hail, foreign wonder?” or, “Most sure the goddess on whom these airs attend?” No, neither Milton nor Shakespeare ever had just this situation to manage. Finally, I begin simply with, “Good-evening, ma chérie!” in the gentlest Arabic my Nazarene tongue can use. She starts suddenly like an animal surprised in the woods, is about to run, and then hesitates, staring wide-eyed at my corner sheltered from the moonlight. And I think of the old poet’s phrase about the antelope of Wadjra. Now verily, there is no might and there is no majesty save in Allah, the glorious, the great ! For of all the greetings I might have chosen this was the one to make her hesitate, for it turned out that her name was Aziza (“Sweetheart”) , the same as that of my lady mule, and out of sheer curiosity she did not immediately run away.

But the conversation so auspiciously begun stops here, for, beyond a few words she does not understand Arabic. I try some polite Shelluh phrases, but we do not get on, for not only is my pronunciation none of the best, but her dialect does not sound like that I have heard around us here. She makes me understand that she comes from a far country, from a tribe who live under the tent, far beyond the ancient oasis of Tafilalet, down in the unknown Sahara. I try to remember a few phrases from Arabic love songs,

It is not in the midst of the tribe to which thou belongest That thou dost really dwell; Thy true lodging is in thy lover’s heart.

Of course she does not understand the words, but I think she guesses what they mean.

Whenever I meet thee, E’en though it be the middle of the night, Then I think I see the radiant dawn !

And still she listens, but does not say a word.

I only look at the stars of heaven Because they remind me of thine eyes!

For a long time we gaze at each other without speaking. Then I ask Aziza, with a sign and smile if I may go and sit beside her. She violently shakes her head and the silver bangles in her jewelled ears tinkle musically. I disregard her refusal and sit beside her in the shadow of the little almond tree. Another leaf flutters down and floats in the fountain, and we both watch it silently for a long time. Then she looks up into my face and smiles. “Bow, arrow, and sword are all in her glance.”

And I take her little henna-stained hand in mine.

Suddenly the perfect silence of the night was startled by the long drawn howl of a dog far off somewhere, baying at the moon, a strangely mournful sound, unpleasantly breaking in on the idyllic mood. Aziza looked frightened and withdrew her little hand from mine. Then came a low growl from behind the curtained doorway at my back, and Lulli the hound thrust out his head and began a long terrifying ululation, partly in surprise at seeing Aziza, and partly in answer to this fellow far off across the plain. Aziza’s noiseless bare feet quickly disappeared through the mysterious door-way, and the key cruelly grated in the lock.

Monsieur Lapandéry, now aroused, thrust his head out from the curtain and made sharp remarks to Luln, who was still continuing to howl.

“Ah, Monsieur,” he asked in surprise, “what are you doing up so late?”

“Nothing,” I replied, “just dreaming in the moonlight.”