Egypt of the Magicians II

A Return to the East

by Rudyard Kipling

THE East is a much larger slice of the world than Europeans care to admit. Some say it begins at St. Gothard, where the smells of two continents meet and fight all through that terrible restaurant-car dinner in the tunnel. Others have found it at Venice on warm April mornings. But the East is wherever one sees the lateen sail—that shark’s fin of a rig which for hundreds of years has dogged all white bathers round the Mediterranean. There is still a suggestion of menace, a hint of piracy, in the blood whenever the lateen goes by, fishing or fruiting or coasting.

“This is not my ancestral trade,” she whispers to the accomplice sea. “If everybody had their rights I should be doing something quite different; for my father, he was the Junk, and my mother, she was the Dhow, and between the two of ’em they made Asia.” Then she tacks, disorderly but deadly quick, and shuffles past the unimaginative steam-packet with her hat over one eye and a knife, as it were, up her baggy sleeves.

Even the stone-boats at Port Said, busied on jetty extensions, show their untamed descent beneath their loaded clumsiness. They are all children of the camel-nosed dhow, who is the mother of mischief; but it was very good to meet them again in raw sunshine, unchanged in any rope and patch.

Old Port Said had disappeared beneath acres of new buildings where one could walk at leisure without being turned back by soldiers.

Two or three landmarks remained; two or three were reported as still in existence, and one Face showed itself after many years—ravaged but respectable—rigidly respectable.

“Yes,” said the Face, “I have been here all the time. But I have made money, and when I die I am going home to be buried.”

“Why not go home before you are buried, O Face?”

“Because I have lived here so long. Home is only good to be buried in.”

“And what do you do, nowadays?”

“Nothing now. I live on my rentes—my income.”

Think of it! To live icily in a perpetual cinematograph show of excited, uneasy travellers; to watch huge steamers, sliding in and out all day and all night like railway trucks, unknowing and unsought by a single soul aboard; to talk five or six tongues indifferently, but to have no country—no interest in any earth except one reservation in a Continental cemetery.

It was a cold evening after heavy rain and the half-flooded streets reeked. But we undefeated tourists ran about in droves and saw all that could be seen before train-time. We missed, most of us, the Canal Company’s garden, which happens to mark a certain dreadful and exact division between East and West.

Up to that point—it is a fringe of palms, stiff against the sky—the impetus of home memories and the echo of home interests carry the young man along very comfortably on his first journey. But at Suez one must face things. People, generally the most sympathetic, leave the boat there; the older men who are going on have discovered each other and begun to talk shop; no newspapers come aboard, only clipped Reuter telegrams; the world seems cruelly large and self-absorbed. One goes for a walk and finds this little bit of kept ground, with comfortable garden-gated houses on either side of the path. Then one begins to wonder—in the twilight, for choice—when one will see those palms again from the other side. Then the black hour of homesickness, vain regrets, foolish promises, and weak despair shuts down with the smell of strange earth and the cadence of strange tongues.

Cross-roads and halting-places in the desert are always favoured by djinns and afrits. The young man will find them waiting for him in the Canal Company’s garden at Port Said.

On the other hand, if he is fortunate enough to have won the East by inheritance, as there are families who served her for five or six generations, he will meet no ghouls in that garden, but a free and a friendly and an ample welcome from good spirits of the East that awaits him. The voices of the gardeners and the watchmen will be as the greetings of his father’s servants in his father’s house; the evening smells and the sight of the hibiscus and poinsettia will unlock his tongue in words and sentences that he thought he had clean forgotten, and he will go back to the ship (I have seen) as a prince entering on his kingdom.

There was a man in our company—a young Englishman—who had just been granted his heart’s desire in the shape of some raw district south of everything southerly in the Sudan, where, on two-thirds of a member of Parliament’s wage, under conditions of life that would horrify a self-respecting operative, he will see perhaps some dozen white men in a year, and will certainly pick up two sorts of fever. He had been moved to work very hard for this billet by the representations of a friend in the same service, who said that it was a “rather decent sort of service,” and he was all of a heat to reach Khartum, report for duty, and fall to. If he is lucky, he may get a district where the people are so virtuous that they do not know how to wear any clothes at all, and so ignorant that they have never yet come across strong drink.

The train that took us to Cairo was own sister in looks and fittings to any South African train—for which I loved her—but she was a trial to some citizens of the United States, who, being used to the Pullman, did not understand the side-corridored, solid-compartment idea. The trouble with a standardised democracy seems to be that, once they break loose from their standards, they have no props. People are not left behind and luggage is rarely mislaid on the railroads of the older world. There is an ordained ritual for the handling of all things, to which if a man will only conform and keep quiet, he and his will be attended to with the rest. The people that I watched would not believe this. They charged about futilely and wasted themselves in trying to get ahead of their neighbours.

Here is a fragment from the restaurant-car: “Look at here! Me and some friends of mine are going to dine at this table. We don’t want to be separated and—”

“You ’ave your number for the service, sar?”

“Number? What number? We want to dine here, I tell you.”

“You shall get your number, sar, for the first service?”

“Haow’s that? Where in thunder do we get the numbers, anyway?”

“I will give you the number, sar, at the time—for places at the first service.”

“Yes, but we want to dine together here—right now.

“The service is not yet ready, sar.”

And so on—and so on; with marchings and counter-marchings, and every word nervously italicised. In the end they dined precisely where there was room for them in that new world which they had strayed into.

On one side our windows looked out on darkness of the waste; on the other at the black Canal, all spaced with monstrous headlights of the night-running steamers. Then came towns, lighted with electricity, governed by mixed commissions, and dealing in cotton. Such a town, for instance, as Zagazig, last seen by a very small boy who was lifted out of a railway-carriage and set down beneath a whitewashed wall under naked stars in an illimitable emptiness because, they told him, the train was on fire. Childlike, this did not worry him. What stuck in his sleepy mind was the absurd name of the place and his father’s prophecy that when he grew up he would “come that way in a big steamer.”

So all his life, the word “Zagazig” carried memories of a brick shed, the flicker of an oil-lamp’s floating wick, a sky full of eyes, and an engine coughing in a desert at the world’s end; which memories returned in a restaurant-car jolting through what seemed to be miles of brilliantly lighted streets and factories. No one at the table had even turned his head for the battlefields of Kassassin and Tel-el-Kebir. After all, why should they? That work is done, and children are getting ready to be born who will say: “I can remember Gondokoro (or El-Obeid or some undreamed of Clapham Junction, Abyssinia-way) before a single factory was started—before the overhead traffic began. Yes, when there was a fever—actually fever—in the city itself!”

The gap is no greater than that between to-day’s and t’other day’s Zagazig—between the horsed vans of the Overland Route in Lieutenant Waghorn’s time and the shining motor that flashed us to our Cairo hotel through what looked like the suburbs of Marseilles or Rome.

Always keep a new city till morning, “In the daytime,” as it is written in the Perspicuous Book,1 “thou hast long occupation,” Our window gave on to the river, but before one moved toward it one heard the thrilling squeal of the kites—those same thievish companions of the road who, at that hour, were watching every Englishman’s breakfast in every compound and camp from Cairo to Calcutta.

Voices rose from below—unintelligible words in maddeningly familiar accents. A black boy in one blue garment climbed, using his toes as fingers, the tipped mainyard of a Nile boat and framed himself in the window. Then, because he felt happy, he sang, all among the wheeling kites. And beneath our balcony rolled very Nile Himself, golden in sunshine, wrinkled under strong breezes, with a crowd of creaking cargo-boats waiting for a bridge to be opened.

On the cut-stone quay above, a line of cab drivers—a ticca-gharri stand, nothing less—lolled and chaffed and tinkered with their harnesses in every beautiful attitude of the ungirt East. All the ground about was spotted with chewed sugarcane—first sign of the hot weather all the world over.

Troops with startlingly pink faces (one would not have noticed this yesterday) rolled over the girder bridge between churning motors and bubbling camels, and the whole long-coated loose-sleeved Moslem world was awake and about its business, as befits sensible people who pray at dawn.

I made haste to cross the bridge and to hear the palms in the wind on the far side. They sang as nobly as though they had been true coconuts, and the thrust of the north wind behind them was almost as open-handed as the thrust of the Trades. Then came a funeral—the sheeted corpse on the shallow cot, the brisk-pacing bearers (if he was good, the sooner he is buried the sooner in heaven; if bad, bury him swiftly for the sake of the household—either way, as the Prophet says, do not let the mourners go too long weeping and hungry)—the women behind, tossing their arms and lamenting, and men and boys chanting low and high.

They might have come forth from the Taksali Gate in the city of Lahore on just such a cold weather morning as this, on their way to the Mohammedan burial-grounds by the river. And the veiled countrywomen, shuffling side by side, elbow pressed to hip, and eloquent right hand pivoting round, palm uppermost, to give value to each shrill phrase, might have been the wives of so many Punjabi cultivators but that they wore another type of bangle and slipper. A knotty-kneed youth sitting high on a donkey, both amuleted against the evil eye, chewed three purplish-feet of sugar-cane, which made one envious as well as voluptuously homesick, though the sugar-cane of Egypt is not to be compared with that of Bombay.

Hans Breitmann writes somewhere:

Oh, if you live in Leyden town
You’ll meet, if troot be told,
Der forms of all der freunds dot tied
When du werst six years old.

And they were all there under the chanting palms—saices, orderlies, pedlars, water-carriers, street-cleaners, chicken-sellers and the slate-coloured buffalo with the china-blue eyes being talked to by a little girl with the big stick. Behind the hedges of well-kept gardens squatted the brown gardener, making trenches indifferently with a hoe or a toe, and under the municipal lamp-post lounged the bronze policeman—a touch of Arab about mouth and lean nostril—quite unconcerned with a ferocious row between two donkey-men. They were fighting across the body of a Nubian who had chosen to sleep in that place. Presently, one of them stepped back on the sleeper’s stomach. The Nubian grunted, elbowed himself up, rolled his eyes, and pronounced a few utterly dispassionate words. The warriors stopped, settled their headgear, and went away as quickly as the Nubian went to sleep again. This was life, the real, unpolluted stuff—worth a desert-full of mummies. And right through the middle of it—hooting and kicking up the Nile—passed a Cook’s steamer all ready to take tourists to Assuan. From the Nubian’s point of view she, and not himself, was the wonder—as great as the Swiss-controlled, Swiss-staffed hotel behind her, whose lift, maybe, the Nubian helped to run. Marids, and afrits, guardians of hidden gold, who choke or crush the rash seeker; encounters with the long-buried dead in a Cairo back-alley; undreamed-of promotions, and suddenly lit loves are the stuff of any respectable person’s daily life; but the white man from across the water, arriving in hundreds with his unveiled womenfolk, who builds himself flying-rooms and talks along wires, who flees up and down the river, mad to sit upon camels and asses, constrained to throw down silver from both hands—at once a child and a warlock—this thing must come to the Nubian sheer out of the Thousand and One Nights. At any rate, the Nubian was perfectly sane. Having eaten, he slept in God’s own sunlight, and I left him, to visit the fortunate and guarded and desirable city of Cairo, to whose people, male and female, Allah has given subtlety in abundance. Their jesters are known to have surpassed in refinement the jesters of Damascus, as did their twelve police captains the hardiest and most corrupt of Bagdad in the tolerant days of Harun-al-Raschid; while their old women, not to mention their young wives, could deceive the Father of Lies himself. Delhi is a great place—most bazaar storytellers in India make their villain hail from there; but when the agony and intrigue are piled highest and the tale halts till the very last breathless sprinkle of cowries has ceased to fall on his mat, why then, with wagging head and hooked forefinger, the storyteller goes on:

But there was a man from Cairo, an Egyptian of the Egyptians, who”—and all the crowd knows that a bit of real metropolitan devilry is coming.