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Travail in an Arab Land
By Samuel Romanelli, Yedida K. Stillman, Norman A. Stillman
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1989 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Due to the turns of my fortune and the contrivances of the times in which I lived, I happened to be in Gibraltar's citadel heading toward Italy, my native land. Surely many designs are in a man's mind, but it is what the Lord devises that will be accomplished.
This fortress, now under the rule of Great Britain, stands at the foot of a high mountain at the extremity of Europe. It has nothing to do with anyone by land or by sea, except for its provisions which arrive by ship. It is only an observation post guarding the mouth of the narrow strait that divides the two Pillars of Hercules. It should not surprise you, therefore, that I was anxiously preoccupied in my thoughts of getting out of this closed-in place. Where was I to go? Via Spain overland? No one comes in or goes out that way. Besides, how could a Jew dare to pass through there without renouncing his faith? You know that it is not in a person's power to really change a religion that he has suckled with his mother's milk any more than it is within his power to change his birth. Were I to disguise myself and pretend to be someone else, my life would be hanging precariously against the possibility that I might be recognized. Finding a ship to leave by sea was rare. This last difficulty weighed heavily upon me. How was I to go? If I were to keep on like this until a ship arrived, even if it would be ready to sail the following morning, the money in my purse would be exhausted by then.
Into my perplexed and dejected mind a chance thought suddenly flashed with a ray of hope. Hope! The imagined good, a support for the humbled spirit, a crutch for the downtrodden heart. A person drowning in the roaring seas will grasp at anything that comes to hand, and he who is pursued by Fate will place his trust even in a spider's web.
One of the respected merchants of the place hearing me bemoaning my ill luck, called me aside and asked if I would be willing to go to Barbary with him. In my haste, I replied that I would go. "Very well," he replied, "but take care not to reveal my secret, for you know how fierce is the merchants' jealousy. Know that I am going to the Sultan of Morocco to plead for his permission to settle in the city of Larache and from there engage in overseas trade in wool and wax. If I obtain the permission, you can be steward of my house. If I do not succeed, you will have lost nothing."
I was pulled by the cords of hope and by his assurance that he was an honest man. I had been enticed. He went and obtained an exit document (passport) for himself and his servant from the city registrar. I got a letter for myself which a Genoese sea captain who was friendly with me requested on my behalf. We had planned it this way, lest the secret become known to all.
One day a sailing vessel arrived heading for Tetuan. The merchant paid its passage. We boarded and set sail. We passed the fortresses of San Roque and San Felipe and the town of Algeciras which stand one next to the other facing Gibraltar. We cut through the waters of the strait, whose current is swift at the sides, and within four hours we were between the mountains on our way to Africa.
We reached the river that leads to the city, but did not come to the city itself because the Sultan had commanded sometime before that no Christian or Jew should enter wearing Christian attire on account of an incident that had taken place. The consuls of the European monarchies who had been stationed there to look after their nations' merchants, had to leave and go to Tangier. The only exception was the French Consul who, at the Sultan's direction, went to Rabat. In their stead, they left behind Jewish deputies in Tetuan. They were four in number—one for France, one for Spain and Portugal, one for England, Sweden, and Denmark, and one for Venice, Genoa, and Ragusa.
After receiving a permit from the Arab coast guards, we came ashore to take lodging in a house that lay 2000 cubits outside the town at a place called Martil. We spent three days there.
Were it not for the fact that Barbary's geography defends it with steep cliffs along the seashore enclosing the points of entry and providing natural guard posts, I have no doubt that 100,000 brave soldiers skilled in European warfare would in a short while capture all the provinces of Morocco from one end to the other, if they could find some way to penetrate it and space wide enough to maneuver. It was because of this geographical factor that the proud forces of Don Sebastian, the Duke of Braganca, were ensnared in a trap at the Battle of El Qsar in 1577.
We found an English merchant at the lodge who had come to buy high quality horses and mules which abound in that country. As a matter of fact, the horses are not fit for anything other than riding since there are no carriages to pull in the country. Furthermore, since they graze in the pasture all day long, eating and drinking their fill of the fat of the land, work is difficult for them, and they are not very good for labor—just like the natives.
The merchant brought his own bed and tent with him as is the custom of all travelers in Morocco, because there is not an inn or a bed to be found wherever you go. The following morning, a Jew from Tetuan came to us to be our guide and interpreter, for in this town, as in Tangier, Larache, El Qsar, Arzila, and throughout the Rif region, there are many descendents of the Jews who fled Spain. On the third day, we set out on our way with a guard of six Arab warriors mounted on horseback to protect us from the highway bandits who lie in wait to murder any passersby in foreign dress. We went behind the city wall until we reached a paved road.
Now when I say "paved," you should not imagine that their roads are like ours—running straight, comfortable for traveling, and in good repair. Nature's handiwork is gloriously manifest throughout the Maghreb, whereas all the human hands are weak. Nobody lifts a stone or removes an obstacle.
As we proceeded on our journey, I considered how I might get to know the people and their speech so that I might win their favor as I followed on at their easy pace. For I did not know how the matter would turn out. With the Jew, I debated points in the Torah, and I was able to incline the hearts of both Jews and Gentiles toward me in a kindly way.
The sun was at midday when we sat down to break bread in green pastures under the shade of some trees of the field by a brook whose water flowed gently with a plaintive grace. The interpreter spread a blanket on the grass and set out a feast for us of food from his own house which was quite sufficient to refresh us. The foreigners became Jews (so-to-speak) during the meal, since it was kosher food and there was plenty to drink—a flagon of eau de vie which the Jew had sealed with his personal signet and with a twisted cord.
Those who slander us with lies and say that the table of God's people is defiled were the very ones who joined us to eat our victuals and drink our beverages. What a contrast to the man Daniel and his companions who refused to defile themselves with the King's delicacies and with the wine he drank, choosing instead pulse to eat and water to drink. The Ishmaelites, however, took their bread alone since they are not allowed to eat with either Hebrews or foreigners, as it is an abomination for them. Afterwards, they loaded up the mules and we traveled on.
At dusk as the evening shadows lengthened, before it became dark and we might stumble on the dark mountains, we pitched our tents on a plain shaded by hilly crests. The merchant and the interpreter went inside the tent together, while I stayed outside with the servant, for he said it cannot be "as with the servant, so with his master." The drivers of the mules tethered their feet to a stake in the ground as is their custom, because just as there are no inns for travelers, so there are no pens for sheep, no stalls for cattle, no stables for horses. Everyone lies down to sleep in their tents or under the canopy of heaven.
As soon as the eyelids of dawn began to part and the expanse of space stripped off their covers of darkness, we got up each one from his place. I raised my eyes and saw the stars in their orbits. And behold, they were surrendering the sparks of their brilliance and retreating before the dawn. As I looked at them, I said in jest that perhaps even as I peek at the faces of these entities, their inhabitants are likewise gazing at my planet. The servant, who was a simpleton, mocked me thinking that I was insulting the cosmos of the Living God. The merchant, however, confirmed what I said, and he too laughed at the servant's gullibility.
While we were speaking the Gentiles got up and said that we should set out because everything was ready. Each man mounted his mule, and we pushed on. When it was time to eat, we chose—as we had done the day before—the splendid setting of mountain and plain to set our table. After having rested there a while, we continued on our way. Arriving at a great rock, there appeared before our eyes the city of Tangier rising above the shore, standing out among the sand dunes that encircle it up to its very entrance. There were crowds of Arabs spread over the open country who had come to buy grain, bread, and other foodstuffs, for it was market day. They looked to us like a herd of camels or a flock of goats. But we could not lose time staring at them, and so we passed on to the city.
No one can describe our amazement when we arrived there! Our eyes beheld an exotic tumult. There were blacksmiths and farriers on all sides. They looked like torches wrapped in the filthy web of their beard, the sweat of their brow dripping onto their chest, naked to the middle of their buttocks, their legs uncovered, and their feet bare. They were doing their work in caves or right out on the roadway. I thought that I was in the depths of the underworld. We were taken to the home of a Jew (since no one could stay in an Arab house), and the baggage was brought after us. And so we found some repose after all of the hardship of that we had experienced along the way.
When night blanketed the earth, we still did not know what we were going to do. Suddenly, the noise of a crowd of merrymakers reached our ears. The servant who had been playing a lute asked: "What is the noise of this crowd in my ears? Do I hear the sound of drums?" The people of the house responded that their neighbors were inviting them to a wedding celebration and that if we should wish to see it, it would bring back the joy to our faces. Then without even waiting for our reply, they led us there.
There were young girls performing. One was holding a kettle full of whitewash in one hand, and in her other hand some tattered rags. She dipped these in the whitewash and made designs on the floor and on the doors of the entranceway, like David when he altered his manner at the court of Achish. One girl with her head bowed to her shoulder and a scarf in both hands—one raised over the shoulder, the other down against her belly—was turning slowly with a loose hand motion. I thought she was insane, but they informed me that this was how they dance in their cities. All this was amidst young women beating clay drums that resembled a bottle open on top and closed with a skin on the bottom, or like the drums used on the comedy stage in the story of Axur. However, any resemblance between this and music was purely coincidental. Could any person control himself and not break out laughing at such a sight?
But then man is vanity. The children of man are a fallacy on the face of the earth. Just as the practices of the North Africans seem strange to our eyes, so our practices seem strange to theirs. The truth is that all is vanity. We scoff at a child when we know his crying is for some immaterial reason, and the heavenly hosts above laugh at us because we are like infants until the time we become old and gray.
The following morning we went out to see the town, which is one of the Pillars of Hercules. It had been under Portuguese rule until 1661, at which time they gave it over to the people of England. When the latter too saw that the expense of administering it was greater than the benefit, they razed and abandoned it.
Now I shall turn to describing for you the house and its contents. This house was built of pebble chips and thick, hollow plaster. The bare whiteness over all its surface strained the eyes of the onlooker. The plan of the house is a square built around a courtyard. On each of the four sides is a long, narrow room. Most of the doors of the court and the living quarters are closed from the inside without any key—just a wooden bar, one end of which leans on the ground while the other is propped against the closed door.
There are no real windows, but only two or three holes the size of a brick on the doorway of each room. These are not for light since they are too small for the sun's rays, they are just a passage for air.
The bed is spread on boards quite high from the ground. This platform is set into the wall beams. Under it, they store household utensils. From the rafter to the edge of the bed, or even past the bed down to the floor, hangs a red silk or white linen curtain. Sometimes the poor keep this curtain drawn to cover up the absence of a bed. The bed described here is the one used by a husband and wife. The young boys and girls are simply wrapped in a mantle in which they sleep.
Small mirrors hang on the walls, as well as glass lamps that are lit on the Sabbath eve. Their table looks like a stool, and there are no chairs, for they sit on the floor like the Arabs. They place a pot of porridge on a washstand or a clay oven. The ceilings and the floors of the rooms and the courtyard are plastered over with mortar like a wall. The walls of the house are covered with a mat of soft reed up to the standing height of a man. No graven image may be seen on the walls. In their view, however, this is so as not to turn to false gods. In my view, however, this is either because they are simpletons, or because they are neither able nor willing to bend their shoulders to bear the yoke of the sciences. Under no account will you see the image of a female nude, the likeness of a male organ, figures with bare buttocks, or any human nudity.
Their roofs have parapets and are connected to one another in such a fashion that by way of the rooftops, one can go from house to house and courtyard to courtyard. The entranceway to the court is small and low so that even dwarfs would have to bow down their head like a bullrush in order to pass. Near the entranceway of the courtyard are the privies stinking with excrement. Most of the houses have only one story, but a few have two or three. On the uppermost floor a balcony runs along the courtyard.
This then was the layout of the house in which we were staying. Nearly all the houses were of this plan. Only the homes of the Christian consuls were laid out in the manner of European houses. The homes of the poor were filled throughout with filth and excrement, whereas the dwellings of the leading citizens, though without elegance, seemed to me to be worthy of admiration.
The shops are like holes in the wall, like the caves I saw when I arrived. They were raised half a man's height above the ground level so that a man sitting on the floor inside them can reach whatever he wants just by stretching his arm without having to stand up, as these shops are not even big enough to hold two people. The door of the shop is locked with a wooden key. In these "caves" every type of ware is sold. The smallest group of merchants are those dealing in textiles. A larger number sell spices, and the large majority are vendors of foodstuffs. Just one look at the latter was enough to churn my innards. Roast meat, oil, soap, butter, olives, and all kinds of comestibles—everything goes into one of the straw pans of the scale and is handled with their fingers and is passed from the seller's hand to the buyer's. The balance weights are stones from the market. Arab tailors are only able to make their own style of clothing, while Jews make their own clothes, and some of them also make Christian-style garments. Arabs make shoes for both themselves and the Jews. The latter make their style shoes as well as footwear for Christians.
On Sunday, the merchant, accompanied by his servant and the interpreter, journeyed to Larache to discuss his business with the brother of the Genoese Consul, Francesco Chiappe, who resides there and has close connections with the royal house. He left me in Tangier to look after his capital and goods. My meals were taken care of daily by the master of the house until the merchant's return.
Excerpted from Travail in an Arab Land by Samuel Romanelli, Yedida K. Stillman, Norman A. Stillman. Copyright © 1989 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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