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CHAPTER III SIRENS OF THE SANDS
ZORAH-BEN-ABDALLAH was a perilously pretty girl, judged by any standard that you please. She was unveiled—a strange thing for an Eastern woman—and the clearness of her café-au-lait complexion was emphasised by carmine lips and by blue-black hair, bewilderingly becoiffed and bewitchingly bejewelled; her eyes Scherazade would have envied. She was leaning from the window of a second-class compartment in the ramshackle train which plies between Constantine and Biskra and was quite openly admiring the very tight light-blue tunic and the very loose scarlet riding-breeches of my companion, a young officer of chasseurs d'Afrique who was rejoining his regiment at El-Kantara.

“She's a handsome girl,” said I.

“Not for an Ouled-Na?l,” said he, adjusting his monocle and staring at her critically, very much as though he were appraising a horse. “An Ouled-Na?l's face is her fortune, you know, and in the Ziban, where they come from, she wouldn't get a second look.”

“She would get several second looks on Broadway,” said I, taking another one myself. “I once travelled twelve thousand miles to see some women not half as pretty.”

That is why I went to the Ziban, that strange and almost unknown zone of oasis-dotted steppes in southernmost Algeria. Hemmed in between the Atlas Mountains and the Great Sahara, it forms the real Algerian hinterland, a region vastly different in people, manners, and customs from either the desert or the littoral. Here, in this fertile borderland, where the red tarbooshes and baggy trousers of the French outposts are the sole signs of civilisation, is the home of the Ouled-Na?ls, that curious race, neither Arab, Berber, nor Moor, the beauty of whose dusky, daring daughters is a staple topic of conversation in every harem and native coffee-house between the Pyramids and the Pillars of Hercules.

Rather than that you should be scandalised later on, it would be well for you to understand in the beginning that the women of the Ouled-Na?l are, so far as morality is concerned, as easy as an old shoe. It comes as something of a shock, after seeing these petite and pretty and indescribably picturesque women on their native heath, or rather on their native sands, to learn that from earliest childhood they are trained for a life of indifferent virtue very much as a horse is trained for the show-ring. But it is one of those conditions of African life which must be accepted by the traveller, just as he accepts as a matter of course the heat and the insects and the dirt.

Breaking home ties almost before they have entered their teens, they make their way to Biskra, to Constantine, and to Algiers, yes, and to Tripoli on the east and to Tangier on the west, dancing in the native [Pg 58] coffee-houses or in the harems of the rich and not infrequently earning considerable sums thereby. The Ouled-Na?l promptly converts all of her earnings that she can spare into gold, linking these gold pieces together into a sort of breastplate, not at all unlike that jingling, glittering affair which Mary Garden wears in her portrayal of Salome. When this golden garment becomes long enough to reach from her slender, supple neck to her still more supple waist, the Ouled-Na?l retires from business, returns to the tents of her people in the edge of the Great Sands, hides her pretty face behind the veil common to all respectable Moslem women, and, setting her daintily slippered feet on the straight and narrow path of virtue, leads a strictly moral life ever after.
Ouled-Na?l dancing-girls. “Petite, piquant, and indescribably picturesque.”
Women of the “Great Tents.” The wife and daughter of a nomad sheikh of the Algerian Sahara.
SOME SIRENS OF THE SANDS.

The peculiar dances of the Ouled-Na?ls demand many years of arduous and constant practice. A girl is scarcely out of her cradle before, under the tutelage of her mother, who has herself been a danseuse in her time, she begins the inconceivably severe course of gymnastics and muscle training which is the foundation of their strange and suggestive dances. From infancy until, scarcely in her teens, she bids farewell to the tent life of the desert and sets out to make her fortune in the cities along the African littoral, she is as carefully groomed and trained as a colt entered at the county fair. Morning, noon, and night, day after day, year after year, the muscles of her chest, her back, her hips, and her abdomen are developed and trained and suppled until they will respond to her wishes as readily as [Pg 59] her slender, henna-stained fingers. Her lustrous, blue-black hair is brushed and combed and oiled and brushed again; she is taught to play the hautboy, the zither, and the flute and to sing the weird and plaintive songs the Arab loves; to make the thick, black native coffee and with inimitable dexterity to roll a cigarette. By the time she is thirteen she is ready to make her début in the dance-hall of some Algerian town, whence, after three or four or possibly five years of a life of indifferent virtue, she returns, a-clank with gold pieces, to the tented village from which she came, to marry some sheikh or camel-dealer and to bear him children, who, if they are boys, will don the white turban and scarlet burnoose of the Spahis and serve in the armies of France, or, if they are girls, will live the life of their mother all over again. It will be seen, therefore, that the profession is an hereditary one, which all the women of the tribe pursue without incurring, so far as I could learn, a hint of scandal or a trace of shame. It is a queer business, and one to which no other country, so far as I am aware, offers a parallel, for whereas the geishas of Japan, the nautches of India, and the odalisques of Turkey are but classes, the Ouled-Na?ls are a race, as distinct in features, language, and customs as the Bedouin, the Nubian, or the Jew.

That the men of the Ouled-Na?l (which, by the way, is pronounced as though the last syllable were spelled “Nile”) look upon the lives led by their sisters, daughters, and sweethearts with much the same toleration and approval that an up-State farmer shows for the [Pg 60] village maid who goes to the city to earn a living as a waitress, a stenographer, or a shop-girl, is proved by a little incident which Mr. S. H. Leeder, the English author-traveller, tells of having once witnessed on the station-platform at Biskra. A tall young tribesman of the Ouled-Na?l, the son of a sheikh of some importance, was leaving Biskra, to which town he had been paying a short visit with his mother. He was taking back with him one of his countrywomen, a dancing-girl named Kadra, who had been a resident in the Rue Sainte, as Biskra's Tenderloin is known, for two or three years, and was quite celebrated for her beauty, with the intention of marrying her. Here was this girl, after such an amazing episode in her career, quietly dressed, veiled to the eyes, and carefully chaperoned by the prospective bridegroom's mother, returning to assume a position of rank and consideration among her own people, while several of her late companions, tears of sorrow at the parting pouring down their unveiled and painted faces, clung to and caressed her with every sign of childlike affection. And such marriages, I have been assured by French officials, are not the exception but the rule in the Ziban. Never was the truth brought home to me more sharply that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” than in the land of the Ouled-Na?ls, where, unlike our own, it is never too late to mend; not even for a woman.

Barring the two who appeared in the production of “The Garden of Allah,” the only genuine Ouled-Na?ls ever seen in the United States were those who, [Pg 61] owing to the enterprise of some far-seeing showman, were responsible for introducing that orgy of suggestiveness known as the danse du ventre to the American public at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, a dance which, thanks to numerous but unskilled imitators, French, Egyptian, and Syrian, spread from ocean to ocean under the vulgar but descriptive nickname of “the houchee-kouchee.” As a matter of fact, the danse du ventre, as seen in the questionable resorts of our own country, has about as much in common with the real dance of the desert people, as performed on a silken carpet spread before the tent of some nomad sheikh, as the so-called “Spanish fandango” of the vaudeville stage has with the inimitably beautiful and difficult dances to be seen at Se?or Otero's dancing-academy in Seville. The dance of the Ouled-Na?ls is the very essence of Oriental depravity. It is the dance of the pasha's harem; it is the dance of those native cafés which the European tourists are always so eager to visit; it is the dance which every little girl of the tribe is taught—long years before she knows its meaning.

Depraved though they are, the Ouled-Na?ls never depart in their dress from that which would be considered perfectly proper and respectable even by Mr. Anthony Comstock. The painters of every country seem to have taken a peculiar delight in depicting Arab dancing-girls as conspicuously shy of clothing, but, picturesqueness aside, the décolleté gown of an American woman would embarrass and shock these daughters of the sands as much as it would all Moslems, for though [Pg 62] they may be somewhat lacking in morals they are never lacking in clothes. The women of the Ouled-Na?l are considerably below the medium height and, owing to the peculiar fashion in which their gaudy-hued tarlatan skirts are bunched out around the waist and are shortened to display their trim ankles and massive silver anklets, they appear even smaller than they really are. Their hands and feet are small and wonderfully perfect—if one is able to overlook the nails stained crimson with henna; arched eyebrows meet over eyes as big and lustrous and melting as those of a gazelle; while their wonderful blue-black hair, plaited into ropes and heavily bejewelled—whether the “jewels” are genuine or not is no great matter—is brought down over the ears in the fashion which made Cléo de Mérode famous.

But the really distinguishing feature of the Ouled-Na?l's costume is her jewelry. She has so much of it, in fact, that there is no gold to be had in Algeria. Ask for napoleons instead of paper money at your bank in Algiers and you will meet with a prompt

“Impossible, m'sieur.”

“But why is it impossible?” you ask.

“Because we have no gold, m'sieur,” is the polite response.

“Where is it, then?” you inquire, scenting a robbery or an anticipated run on the bank.

“On the Ouled-Na?ls, m'sieur,” the cashier courteously replies.

And he speaks the literal truth. Every centime that a dancing-girl can beg, borrow, or earn goes toward [Pg 63] the purchase of massive silver jewelry, anklets, bracelets, and the like, and these in turn are exchanged for gold pieces—whether French napoleons, English sovereigns, or Turkish liras she is not at all particular—which, linked together in that golden armour of which I have already spoken, envelops her lithe young body from neck to hips. When her portable wealth has attained to such dimensions it is usually the sign for the Ouled-Na?l to retire from business, going to her desert husband with her dowry about her neck.

When it is remembered that the native quarters of these towns in the edge of the Sahara are frequented by savage desert tribesmen who know little and care less about civilisation and the law, is it to be wondered at that time and time again these unprotected girls are done to death in the little rooms up the steep, dark stairs for the sake of the gold which they display so lavishly as part of their allurements? During my stay in one of these Algerian towns an Arab, stealthily coming up behind an Ouled-Na?l as she was returning one night from the dance-hall through the narrow, deserted streets, drove a knife between her shoulders and, snatching the little fortune which hung about her neck, fled with it into the desert. But the arm of the French law is very long, reaching even across the sand wastes of the Great Sahara, and months later, when he thought all search for him had been abandoned, the fugitive felt its grasp as he sat, cross-legged, in the distant bazaars of Wadai. After that came the trial and the guillotine, for in Algeria, as in the other lands which they have conquered, [Pg 64] the French have taught the natives by such grim object-lessons that punishment follows swift on the heels of crime.

Now, if that same crime had been committed fifty miles to the eastward, across the Tunisian frontier, the murderer would, in all likelihood, have gotten off with thirteen months in jail—that is, if he was caught at all. For, though the regency of Tunisia is French in pretty much everything but name, it has been deemed wise to maintain the fiction of Tunisian independence by permitting the Bey a good deal of latitude so far as the punishment of his own subjects is concerned, his ideas of justice (la justice du Bey it is called, in contra-distinction to la justice fran?aise, which is a very different sort of justice indeed) usually working out in a fashion truly Oriental. In Tunisia all death sentences must be confirmed by the Bey in person, the condemned man being brought before him as he sits on his gilt-and-velvet throne in the great white palace of the Bardo. In the presence of the sovereign the murderer is suddenly brought face to face with the members of his victim's family, for such things are always done dramatically in the East. The Bey then inquires of the family if they insist on the execution of the murderer, or if they are willing to accept the blood-money, as it is called, a sum equivalent to one hundred and forty dollars, which in theory is paid by the murderer to the relatives of his victims as a sort of indemnity if he is allowed to escape with his life. If, however, he does not possess so large a sum, as is frequently the case, [Pg 65] the Bey makes it up out of his private purse. Nine times out of ten, if the victim was a woman, the blood-money is promptly accepted—and praise be to Allah for getting it!—for in Africa women are plenty but gold is scarce. In case the blood-money is accepted the murderer's sentence is commuted to imprisonment for twelve months and twenty-seven days, though just why the odd twenty-seven I have never been able to learn. But it may have been that it was an only son, or a husband, or a chieftain of importance who was murdered, and in such cases the relatives invariably demand the extreme penalty of the law.

“Do you insist on his blood?” inquires the Bey, a portly and easy-going Oriental who has a marked aversion to taking life, even in the case of murderers.

“We do, your Highness,” replies the spokesman of the family, salaaming until his tarboosh-tassel sweeps the floor.

“Be it so,” says the Bey, shrugging his shoulders. “I call upon you to bear witness that I am innocent of his death. May Allah the Compassionate have mercy upon him! Turn him toward the gate of the Bardo,” which last is the local euphemism for “Take him out and hang him.” Five minutes later the wretch is adorning a gallows which has been set up in the palace gardens.

Due north from the land of the Ouled-Na?ls, and hemmed in by the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas, is the Grand Kabylia, a wild, strange region, peopled by many but known to few. Whence the Kabyles came [Pg 66] nobody knows, though their fair complexions, red hair, and blue eyes lead the ethnologists to suppose that they are a branch of that equally white and equally mysterious Berber race who occupy the Moroccan ranges of the Atlas. Thirteen hundred years ago they came to North Africa from out of the East, bringing with them a civilisation and a culture and institutions distinctively their own. Retreating into their mountain fastnesses before that Arab invasion which spread the faith of the Prophet over all North Africa, they have dwelt there ever since, the French, who conquered them in the middle of the last century only after heavy losses, having wisely refrained from interference in their tribal laws or customs, which remain, therefore, almost unmodified.

Though the Kabyles, of all the Moslem races, treat their women with the greatest respect, neither imprisoning them in harems nor hiding them beneath veils and swaddling-clothes, they share with the mountaineers of the Caucasus the somewhat dubious distinction of selling their daughters to the highest bidder. Between the Circassians and the Kabyles there is, however, a distinction with a difference, for, whereas the former sell their daughters in cold blood and take not the slightest interest in what becomes of them thereafter, the Kabyle parent expects, even if he does not always insist, that the man who purchases his daughter shall marry her. A fine, upstanding Kabyle maiden of fifteen or thereabouts, with the lines of a thoroughbred, the profile of a cameo, and a skin the colour of a bronze statue, will fetch her parents anywhere from eighty to three hundred [Pg 67] dollars, at least so I was told at Tizi-Ouzou, the chef-lieu of the district, and the man who told me assured me very earnestly that, the crops having been bad, a girl could be bought very cheaply, and begged me to think it over.

Though the Mauresques of Algeria, the Jewesses of Tunisia, and the fair-skinned beauties of Circassia combine a voluptuous figure with an altogether exceptional beauty of complexion and features, the women of Kabylia, with their flashing teeth, their sparkling eyes, their full red lips, their lithe, slender bodies, and their haughty, insolent manners, suggest a civilisation older and more sensuous, and entirely alien to our own. The humblest peasant girl, grinding the family flour between the upper and the nether stones in the doorway of a mud hovel, possesses so marked a distinction of feature and figure and bearing that it is not difficult to believe that Cleopatra or Helen of Troy might well have come from this same race.

The approach of a Kabyle woman is heralded in two ways: first, by a strong-scented perfume, which, like the celebrated parfum du Bey of Tunis, is composed of the blended scents of a score or more different kinds of blossoms, the odour changing from carnation to rose, to heliotrope, to violet, and so on every few minutes (no, I didn't believe it either, until I tried it); and, secondly, by the clink and jingle of the bracelets, anklets, necklaces, and bijoux of gold, silver, turquoise, and coral with which they are loaded down, and which sound, when they move, like an approaching four-in-hand. [Pg 68] Good specimens of this Kabyle jewelry are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, by the way, and bring high prices in the shops of Tunis and Algiers, being eagerly sought after by collectors.

Personally, I am quite unable to picture an admirer making love to one of these insolent-eyed beauties, for they are headstrong and hot of temper, and if the gentleman happened to say the wrong thing he would very probably find the yataghan, which every Kabyle maiden carries, planted neatly between his shoulders. They seem to be fond of cold steel, do these Kabyles, for at the conclusion of a wedding ceremony the bridegroom, walking backward, holds before him an unsheathed dagger and the bride, following him, keeps the point of it between her teeth. Another wedding custom of Kabylia, no less strange, consists of the partial martyrdom of the bride, who, clad in her marriage finery, stands for an entire morning with her back to a stone pillar in the village square, her eyes closed, her arms close at her sides, and her only foothold the column's narrow base, the cynosure of hundreds of curious eyes. Despite the stern stuff of which the Kabyle women are made, it is small wonder that the bride usually faints before this peculiarly harrowing ordeal is over.

As far removed from these half-savage women of Ouled-Na?l and of Kabylia as a Philadelphia Quakeress is from a Cheyenne squaw are those poor prisoner women of whose pale, half-hidden faces the visitor to the North African coast towns sometimes gets a glimpse at the barred window of a harem, or meets at nightfall [Pg 69] hastening home from their sole diversion, the weekly excursion to the cemetery. You can see them for yourself any Friday afternoon if you will loiter without the whitewashed gateway to the cemetery of Bou-Kabrin, on the hill above Algiers, for they believe that on that day—the Moslem Sabbath—the spirits of the dead re-visit the earth, and hence their weekly pilgrimage to the cemetery to keep them company. When the sun begins to sink behind the Atlas these white-veiled pyramids of femininity reluctantly begin to make their way back through the narrow, winding lanes of the native city, disappearing one by one through doors which will not open for them until another Friday has rolled around. Picture such a life, my friends: six days a week encloistered behind jealously guarded doors and on the seventh taking an outing in the cemetery!

That many of these Mauresque women of the coast towns are very beautiful—just as many others are exceedingly ugly—there is but little doubt, though they are so sheeted, shrouded, veiled, and draped from prying masculine eyes that a man may know of their beauty only by hearsay. I imagine that the dress of the Mauresque woman was specially designed to baffle masculine curiosity, for if Aphrodite herself were enveloped in a white linen sheet from head to waist, and in enormous and ridiculous pantaloons from waist to ankle, she could go where she pleased without being troubled by admirers. Not only is a Mauresque woman never permitted to see a man—or rather, the man is not permitted to see her, for despite all precautions she sometimes [Pg 70] manages to catch glimpses of people through the lattices of her harem windows—but she may not receive a visit from her father or brother without her husband's permission. When she is ill enough to require the services of a physician—and she has to be very ill indeed before one is summoned—incredibly elaborate are the preparations. All the women of her household are ranged about the bed, while her servants hide her under the bedclothes almost to the point of suffocation. If her pulse has to be felt a servant covers her hand and arm so carefully that only an inch or so of her wrist is visible. If she has hurt her shoulder, or back, or leg, a hole is made in the bedclothes so that the doctor may just be able to see the injured place, and nothing more. Should he have the hardihood to insist on looking at her tongue, the precautions are still more elaborate, the attendants covering the patient's face with their hands and just leaving room between their fingers so that her tongue may be stuck out. I know a French physician in Tunis who told me that he was once called to attend the favourite wife of a wealthy Arab merchant, and that while he was conducting the examination the lady's husband stood behind him with the muzzle of a revolver pressed into the small of his back.
JEWISH WOMEN IN THE CEMETERY OF TUNIS.
“They believe that the spirits of the dead revisit the earth, and hence the weekly pilgrimage to the cemetery to keep them company.”

Always over the head of the Arab woman hangs the shadow of divorce. Nowhere in the world does the law so facilitate the separation of man and wife. If a man grows weary of his wife's looks, of her temper, or of her dress; if he wishes to replace her with another; or if [Pg 71] he is tired of married life and does not wish a wife at all, he has but scant difficulty in getting rid of her, for in North Africa a divorce can be had in fifteen minutes at a total cost of a dollar and twenty cents. In theory, either husband or wife may divorce the other by a simple formality, without assigning any reason whatever. As a matter of fact, however, actual divorce by the man is rare, the Moslem husband usually preferring to get rid of his wife by a process called repudiation, which bears with great injustice and cruelty on the woman. If he tires of her for any reason, or merely wishes to replace her, he drives her away with the words “Woman, get thee hence; take thy goods and go.” In this case, although the husband is free to remarry, the woman is not and can only obtain a legal release by returning to the man the money which he paid for her. The woman may apply to the courts for divorce without her husband's consent only if she is able to prove that he ill-treats or beats her without sufficient reason, if he refuses her food, clothes, or lodging, or if she discovers a previous wooing on her husband's part, all previous betrothals, or even offers of marriage, whether the other lady refused or accepted him, being considered ground for divorce.

The next time you happen to be in Tunis don't fail to pay a visit to the divorce court. It is the most Haroun-al-Raschidic institution this side of Samarkand. A great hall of justice, vaulted and floored with marble and strewn with Eastern carpets, forms the setting, while husbands in turbans and lawyers in tarbooshes, [Pg 72] white-veiled women and green-robed, gray-bearded judges complete a scene which might have been taken straight from the Arabian Nights. The women, closely veiled and hooded, and herded like so many cattle within an iron grill, take no part in the proceedings which so intimately affect their futures, their interests being left in the hands of a voluble and gesticulative avocat. On either side of the hall is a series of alcoves, and in each alcove, seated cross-legged on a many-cushioned divan, is a gold-turbaned and green-robed cadi. To him the husband states his case, the wife putting in her defence—if she has any—through her lawyer and rarely appearing in person. The judge considers the facts in silence, gravely stroking his long, gray beard, and then delivers his decision—in nine cases out of ten, so I was told, in favour of the husband. Should either party be dissatisfied, he or she can take an appeal by the simple process of walking across the room and laying the case before one of the judges sitting on the other side, whose decision is final. A case, even if appealed, is generally disposed of in less than an hour and at a total cost of six francs, which goes to show that the record for quick-and-easy divorces is not held by Reno.

It is characteristic of the Moslem view-point that infidelity on the part of the husband is no cause for divorce whatsoever, while infidelity on the part of the wife, owing to the strict surveillance under which Moslem women are kept and the prison-like houses in which they are confined, occurs so rarely as to be scarcely [Pg 73] worth mentioning. Should a Moslem woman so far succeed in evading the vigilance of her jailers as to enter into a liaison with a man, instead of a divorce trial there would be two funerals. To put his wife and her paramour out of the way without detection is a matter of no great difficulty for an Arab husband, for if any one disappears in a Mohammedan country the harem system renders a search extremely difficult, if not, indeed, wholly out of the question. In fact, it has happened very frequently, especially in such populous centres as Tangier, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Cairo, that a man has enticed his rival into his house, either keeping him a prisoner for life or slowly killing him by torture. Though the French authorities are perfectly well aware of such occurrences, neither they in Algeria and Tunisia nor the English in Egypt feel themselves strongly enough intrenched to risk the outburst of fanaticism which would inevitably ensue should they violate the privacy of a harem.

I am perfectly aware of the fact that it has become the fashion among those travellers who confine their investigations of African life to the lanes about Mustapha Supérieur, to the souks of Tunis, and to the alleys back of the Mousky, to pooh-pooh the idea that slavery still exists in North Africa. As a matter of fact, however—though this the European officials will, for reasons of policy, stoutly deny—slavery not only exists sub rosa in Algeria and Tunisia and in Egypt, but slave markets are still openly maintained in the inland towns of Morocco and Tripolitania, the French and Italian [Pg 74] occupations notwithstanding. When a wealthy Moslem wants slaves nowadays he does not send traders to Circassia or raiders to Uganda, but he applies to one of the well-known dealers in Tetuan, or Tripoli, or Trebizond, a marriage contract is drawn up, and all the ceremonies of legal wedlock are gone through by proxy. By resorting to these fictitious marriages and similar subterfuges, the owner of a harem may procure as many slaves, white, brown, or black, as he wishes, and once they are within the walls of his house, no one can possibly interfere to release them, for, the police being under no conditions permitted to violate the privacy of a harem, there is obviously no safeguard for the liberty, or even the lives, of its inmates. As a result of this system, a constant stream of female slaves—fair-haired beauties from Georgia and Circassia, brown-skinned Arab girls from the borders of the Sahara, and negresses from Equatoria—trickles into the North African coast towns by various roundabout channels, and, though the European officials are perfectly well aware of this condition of things, they are powerless to end it. The women thus obtained, though nominally wives, are in reality slaves, for they are bought for money, they are not consulted about their sale, they cannot go away if they are discontented, and their very lives are at the disposal of their masters. If that is not slavery, I don't know what is.

In those cases where the European authorities have ventured to meddle with native customs, particularly those concerning a husband's treatment of his wife, the [Pg 75] interference frequently has had curious results. A wealthy Arab from the interior of Oran, starting on a journey to the capital of that province, bade the wife whom he adored an affectionate good-bye. Returning several days before he was expected, he seized the smiling woman, who rushed to greet him, tied her hands, and dragging her into the street gave her a furious beating in the presence of the astounded neighbours. No, she had not been unfaithful to him, he said, between the blows, nor had she been unkind. He not only was not tired of her, so he assured the onlookers, but she was a veritable jewel of a wife. Finally, when his arm grew tired and he stopped to take breath, he explained that, passing through a street in Oran, he had seen a crowd following a man who was being dragged along by two gendarmes. Upon inquiry he learned that he was being taken to prison for having beaten his wife. Therefore he had ridden home at top speed, without even waiting to complete his business, so that he might prove to himself, to his wife, and to his neighbours that he, at least, was still master in his own house and could beat his wife when he chose.

And here is another incident which illustrates the fashion in which the French administrators in Algeria deal with those ticklish questions which involve Arab domestic relations. A farmer and his wife were travelling through the interior; he was on a donkey and she, of course, on foot. Along came an Arab sheikh on horseback and offered the woman a lift. She accepted, and presently, growing confidential, admitted that she was [Pg 76] unhappily married and detested her husband. Her companion proposing an elopement, she readily agreed. Accordingly, when they came to a by-road, this Lochinvar of the desert put spurs to his horse and galloped off with the lady across his saddle-bow, paying no heed to the shouts and protestations of the husband toiling along in the dust behind. Though he succeeded in tracing the runaway couple to the sheikh's village, the husband quickly found that plans had been made against his coming, for the villagers asserted to a man that they had known the eloping pair for years as man and wife and that the real husband was nothing but an impudent impostor. Unable to regain his wife, he then appealed to the French authorities of the district, who were at first at somewhat of a loss how to act in the circumstances, for the Europeans in North Africa are always sitting on top of a powder barrel and a hasty or ill-considered action may result in blowing them higher than Gilderoy's kite. Finally, an inspiration came to the juge d'instruction before whom the matter had been brought. Placing the dogs of the real husband in one room, and those of the pretended husband in another, he confronted the woman with them both. Now, Arab dogs are notoriously faithful to the members of their own households and equally unfriendly toward all strangers, so that though her own dogs fawned upon her and attempted to lick her hand, those of the sheikh snarled at sight of her and showed every sign of distrust. The judge promptly ordered her to be returned to her lawful husband—who, I fancy, punished her in [Pg 77] true Arab fashion—and had the village placarded with a notice in Arabic which read: “The testimony of one dog is more to be believed than that of a townful of Arabs.” To appreciate how much more effective than any amount of fines or imprisonment this notice proved, one must remember that the deadliest insult an Arab can give another is to call him a dog.

Perhaps it is because they live so far from the contaminating influence of civilisation, or what stands for civilisation in North Africa, that the lives of those women who dwell beneath the black camel's-hair tents of the Sahara are far freer and happier than those led by their urban cousins. Which reminds me of a little procession that I once met while riding through southern Algeria. It consisted of an Arab, his wife, and a donkey. The man strode in front, his rifle over his shoulder. Then came the donkey, bearing nothing heavier than its harness. In the rear trudged the wife, carrying the plough. Though the Arab women may, and probably do, till the fields yoked beside a camel, a donkey, or an ox, their faces are unveiled and they are permitted free intercourse with the men of their tribe. Even among the nomad desert folk, however, women are regarded with indifference and contempt, the Arabs saying of a boy “It is a benediction,” but of a girl “It is a malediction.” With the Arabs a woman is primarily regarded as a servant, and long before a daughter of the “Great Tents” has entered her teens she has been taught how to cut and fit a burnoose, to sew a tent cover, and to make a couscous, that peculiar dish of [Pg 78] half-ground barley, raisins, honey, hard-boiled eggs, and mangled fowl, stewed with a gravy in a sealed vessel, of which the Arabs are so fond. By the time she is ten her parents have probably received and accepted an offer for her hand—and praise Allah for ridding them of her!—and by the time she is twelve she is married and a mother. When a match has been decided upon—and it is by no means an uncommon thing for an unborn child to become conditionally engaged—several days of haggling as to the price which is to be paid for her ensue, the bridegroom eventually getting her at a cost of several camels, cattle, or goats, her value being based upon her looks and the position of her parents. On the day of the wedding the bride—on whose unveiled face, remember, the bridegroom has never laid eyes—concealed within a swaying camel-litter which looks for all the world like a young balloon, preceded by a band and accompanied by all her relatives, is taken with much ceremony to her new home. When the long-drawn-out marriage feast is over, the hideous racket of the flutes and tom-toms ceases and the wedding guests depart. Alone in her tent, the bride awaits her husband, who will see her face for the first time. Seating himself by her side, her husband makes her take off, one by one, her necklaces, her rings, and her anklets, so that, unadorned, she may be estimated at her true worth. If, thus stripped of her finery, she is not up to his expectations, the man may even at this late hour declare the marriage off and send the girl back to her parents. Should he be satisfied with his latest [Pg 79] acquisition—for it is more than likely that he already has three or four other wives—he produces a club, which he places on the floor beside her, a custom whose significance requires no explanation. An Arab husband does not confine himself to a stick in regulating his domestic affairs, however, for only a few months ago the French authorities of Oran divested a desert sheikh of the burnoose of authority because, in a fit of jealous rage, he had cut off his wife's nose.

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