Item 153 - Circular letter by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

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Circular letter by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence


  • [2–13 Dec. 1904] (Creation)

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11 sheets

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Continues her account of her visit to Egypt.



7th Letter.

Dec. 2nd.

Just as we thought that at last we had got a good wind, it was blowing half a gale from the N. west, just as we were merrily making for Minieh, we reach a bend in the river turning west, & the very strength of the wind now stops us, making it impossible for the men to tow the boat against stream.

This is indeed a test of patience. If we were the true children of the desert we should be content with all the winds, for are they not all fulfilling the will of Allah? But we have been 9 days without news of any kind—& all our letters are waiting at Minieh, full 20 miles away. Ali must go & get them—he must walk to the nearest railway station, take train to Minieh, & back down the river, meeting us, where & how—Allah knows. It depends on the wind. Ali says “Ready”—& goes. It is noon. The wind does not change. Were we but one mile further up, all would be well. We amuse ourselves very pleasantly—inspect a native village—gather a little group of children who are just on the verge of terror—at any quick movement they run. Enani tells us stories, plays his flute, sings, & recites Bedouin songs & poetry—and night falls. About midnight we are awakened by a pandemonium—a perfect orgy of noise—men shrieking, dogs barking, donkeys braying, camels groaning: the whole could only be compared to a summer Saturday night in a London slum, like Somerstown. Only there, have I ever heard the raving, the excitement, the horrible sound suggestive of men as wild beasts. We open our windows & look out. The stars are shedding in the quiet river narrow pathways of light. On the bank side in front of our boat & behind it are moored some 20 or 30 big barges, driven to anchorage as we have been. The men are shouting to each other, & to the “village guards” who ‘keep watch’ on the bank. The village at a little distance behind seems full of excitement: the dogs are barking themselves hoarse in every semitone of the natural scale. But nobody seems the worse for it. We conclude it is all right & eventually succeed in getting to sleep.

The next morning Enani explains that it is often like that during the month of Ramadan. The people sleep during the day—& feast all night. Excitement is only normal. Nothing can be done, without noise & shouting & gesture. One morning I was awakened by cries & trampling of feet. It was the ferry boat. The men & women rushed towards it as though they were flying from a burning city, cows & donkeys were tumbled in—half the animal in the boat, with its legs in the river—pushing, hauling, expostulating—yet the ferry plies every day backwards & forwards between the two banks.

Dec 3rd.

We are up before sunrise—& breakfast before 7 o’Clock. Ali has not come. It is a still morning & the men tow us out of this unlucky reach, & no sooner are we well out of it, than the wind of yesterday springs up again, & soon we [are] going gaily. About noon—just 24 hours after he left us, we see Ali again. He is signalling from a barge that is coming down with the stream. Just at this moment we are going at such a pace that it is impossible to stop soon enough. The rowing boat is put off—the Dahabeah is anchored—& it is very nearly an hour, before the arrival of Ali with his bag of letters. Faithful Ali—his eyes shining with triumph & pleasure. He passed the night on the river bank with his head on our bag of letters, & watching, he had forgotten to eat. “But what does it matter?”, he says. He is only too happy to have kept everything safe & to be with us again! And we are happy to have Ali back—he makes the party complete again, just as a big dog one is very fond of makes the family circle complete & adds a sense of companionship & security. The fact that he neither speaks nor understands one word of English, makes the comparison more complete. Letters & a good wind are the events of this day, which glides away as a bead glides down the string to make a chain.

Dec 4th

Glorious morning—warm, blue, absolutely serene, absolutely still. Not a breath of wind. We have passed Minieh now. The river stretches out into a wide expanse with flat sand islands, the home of pelicans & wild duck. The high sand banks & hills beyond glow warm in the morning sun. After a walk on the bank, full of those little pictures & incidents that make the interest & pleasure of this leisurely life, the men pull us slowly upstream. The day dreams on—gleaming blue. It is like living in the heart of a great jewel. Blissful content is our portion. There is nothing to wish for except wind—wind to blow us up to Beni Hassan—where the rock tombs are. There are conditions of atmosphere, when it is almost impossible to wish for anything.
We astonish & petrify Enani this evening, by telling him that the earth is round—that the sun does not travel in the sky. We are able to make him admit that the world may be round—though he evidently does not really believe it—but that the sun does not go behind the desert to sleep & come back again in the morning—that is quite inconceivable. They may tell one so in the schools—but who has been up in heaven to see?

Dec 6th {1}

The rock tombs of Beni Hassan are but 3 miles away, & as the wind comes from the South again—we resolve to improve the shining hour. So Ali is sent off for donkeys. They arrive—without saddle however except for a piece of goat skin tied on with rope, and with a necklace of string for bridle. We are not to be baulked by small difficulties, we negociate the donkeys & gallop off, happy as kings. We have a grand time, lots of fun, & come “home” in a wonderful sunset glow, all the rocks & sand like the heart of a bright furnace. Tea is ready & after our violent exercise! it is well to sit still & contemplate the sunset. Could our friends have seen us, urging our willing little beasts with the orthodox wild cry ah-ha! ah-ha! I fear Marie & I don’t take much stock in dead men, bones, coffins & tombs! Hetty is shocked & disappointed. They are interesting enough to see once—the river, the sky, the hills, the people possess a changing & never ending charm.

Dec 6th

This is one of our most picturesque days.

We awake with the dawn, and from our cabin windows we see that the village is awake too. Cows have been brought to the bank, & are being milked for us—while the shekh of the village and the guards squat in a line along the sand, Enani in the midst, gorgeously attired & holding forth in his grand style, giving emphasis to his story with dramatic play of the hands. After breakfast we leave the Bolbol for a walk along the river, first arranging that the boat is to be towed along after us. The Shekh rises, gives us his greeting, and proceeds with us. He is very tall & dignified & has a magnificient† walk. We practise our very insufficient arabic and presently we sit down for a rest and coax the Shekh to tell us a story. He is very shy & wants a lot of coaxing & a lot of teasing, but presently yields. By this time others have joined our group & we are all very happy & amused & have forgotten all about wind & weather—when suddenly Ali breaks out into a chant of thanksgiving, in which the others join their voices. The wind comes. Allah be praised. The Bolbol is seen rounding the bend in full sail. We are escorted back, jump on board. The shekh refuses to see the small gift that I have in my hand to give him, but grandly bows & offers his hand in farewell—& away we go.

Enani is a bit disconsolate, & just a wee bit inclined to be sulky—he doesnt quite like our having such a good time without him—he says it makes him “feel jealous in his stomach”. He is resplendent today, with a circle of big amber prayer-beads for which I quite thoughtlessly express admiration. Immediately it is laid in my hands. “It is yours”. “oh no, no no, Enani. I shall never look at anything again if you say that”. “It is the custom of the Bedouins”, he replies—“we never keep anything for our own, if anyone says “I like that”. “If it were my horse or my house it would be the same.” If you want to give me a great pleasure you will say no more.” {2}

After the mornings walk, it is delicious to be on deck & watch the changing scenes & changing lights—& wonder where we shall sleep tonight. “Are we going far today Enani?” “As the Lord wills”, he says, “it is written down.”

There was once a great man; he saw in a dream, 7 lean buffaloes; he knew that he should have 7 bad years—that everything he tried to do would fail, that everything would go wrong. So he made up his mind to leave his country, not to return until the 7 years were over. He left his house with one mule, & all his treasure for the journey, was placed in a sack upon the mule’s back. He came to the ferry—the sailors were pulling the mule on the boat by a chain, when the chain broke, the mule fell into the water & was carried away by the current. The sailors would have taken a rowing boat, would have tried to save the mule, but the man said, “No use, leave it, I have seen that it has to be.” The night comes on, & the man now without money begs hospitality of a good shekh, who take[s] him in & gives him protection. Next morning, the camel, the cow & the horse of the shekh are dead. He wanders on, sometimes finding work, but always bringing bad luck to his master—till the years are past. Then he sets out to return to his country. But now everybody wants him to come & be their servant. Presently he comes to the house of the shekh who gave him protection before. He takes him in again, not knowing him to be the same man, & next morning his camel, his horse & his cow have all got babies. Now he comes again to the river, stooping to wash his hands in the water they become entangled in hair, he pulls the hair, & draws up a chain, the chain draws up his sack of money lost 7 years before, & thus comes the arabic proverb. “When it goes, it breaks the chain, when it comes, it comes by a hair.” If success, riches, happiness, honour are not for you, nothing will get them or keep them, if they are in the Lord’s mind for you, then they will all come, you can sit still & wait. It is all written down, says Enani. Nothing can alter it. You have just to wait, till some day the luck comes back.

Dec 7.

The last day of Ramadam†. “All† hamdu l’Allah” (Allah be praised). No longer shall we watch our men getting thinner & thinner—no longer shall we feel ashamed of our own joy when luncheon is served! It is our hottest day—the salamanders are darting about in the sand. We make about 10 miles & stop when the wind stops—at the setting of the sun. We wanted to get to a town in time for the celebration of the Feast of Beiram {3}, but it is written down otherwise. We moor near a pretty village about a mile S of Tel-el-Marna {4}, on the opposite bank of the river.

Enani draws out a little programme of what we shall be able to do in the morning. I recognize it, as a very delicate & diplomatic way of telling me that I must not expect the men to tow or to punt on the morrow.

Dec 8th

It is still dark. There is a terrific clamour on the Bank. What can it be! Surely the Feast cannot have begun already! We look out. Yes, a crowd has assembled already, & in the dim light, a long stream of people can be seen gathering. All is intense excitement, shouting, gesticulation. Already ferry boats are ready to take the people. Where are they all going, the women with large baskets on their head[s]—the men, the children? Going over to the Arab Cemetery the other side, to feast. It is every moment getting lighter, the figures become more distinct—our boat is the centre of the scene. We feel as though we were in the boxes at a theatre. The ferry boats cannot all come quite to the bank, & women with their babies are carried by two men, & here & there a sturdy St Christopher takes up three children in his arms & wades waist high through the water. After our breakfast Enani asks if we would like to go across to the Cemetery & see the people. Ali is sent before to fetch donkeys & have them waiting. We set off. At the Cemetery we are autom[at]ically surrounded by a body-guard of about 20 young men with long sticks: quite a necessary precaution as no sooner are we on the ground among the mud monuments & tombs & the crowds of people than a rush is made & we become the great event of the day. We feel like a circus, crowds of eager, curious, excited faces encircle us, & way has to be cleared by the long sticks of our men, who lay about with a will—thwack—thwack go the sticks, as we desire a space cleared to take a photograph. Nobody minds—it is great fun, quite a mutual entertainment. Our ears are so deafened with the noise, that when at last we get back to our donkeys, there is a sense of the cessation of all things. We are mounted & are away to Tel el Marna, followed by our guards running on foot—this time they are with us presumably entirely for their own pleasure, as with our own men & the donkey men we are quite sufficiently escorted. When we come to the Palace of Tel-el-Marna—of course we have left our monument tickets in the boat. What does it matter. The tickets are in the boat, the official can come back to the boat presently & see them! Meanwhile we are going in to see the palace. All right! Marble floors, with beautiful water reed & lotus design, flying birds, & swimming fish are very wonderful—the colour still beautiful. We have a lovely ride back through palace gardens. Just as Marie is enjoying a good gallop, her donkey boy in excess of zeal, to reassure her by showing that he is there, gives her a touch that upsets her balance & knocks off her eye glasses. Her vehement cries of “Stop”, are understood as a[n] appeal for more gallop, & it is some minutes before a halt is called & a long & futile search is made. Everything becomes covered up so quickly in the sand. In a moment a great crowd is gathered—excitement gathers every moment. At last we are glad enough to get out of it, & back to our little rowing boat. And there are the flags streaming in the wind which is well behind us. We are welcomed back to the Bolbol—it is the work of a few minutes to hoist the sails & we are off once more, after an eventful, exciting & exuberant morning.

An hour or two later, as we are sailing smartly, cries are heard on the opposite bank—& a man is seen running. He shouts, that the lady’s glasses are found. The Bolbol is anchored, the boat put out, & a reward for the finder given, & “al hamdu l’Allah”, here are the glasses safe & sound & not a penny the worse! Who is most glad? It would be hard to tell. The eyes of Ali, & of Enani shine with pleasure & joy: everybody is in the best of spirits.

Presently the men begin taking in the sails. What is that for? Is not the wind just what we wanted? Oh yes, but in this cliff of Aboo Fedah—there lives an “affrete” who is always up to mischief—it is better to be on the safe side & carry no sail. We object so strongly to giving in to the affrete, that a compromise is made & we carry one sail. We pass a bevy of eagles—10 or twelve of them, hovering round some carrion floating down the river.

The wind sleeps at sunset & we halt at a charming place—a beautiful palm garden. We make plans for taking some lovely photographs on the morrow. While we are having our walk, the men decorate the boat with Japanese lanterns & palm leaves: it is all perfectly fascinating. We think of the traveller who is now already on the way to us—& wish him Bon Voyage. Could wishes effect the impossible he would be coming tonight & this Feast day should be a double Festival. Tonight we see the new moon—we shall watch it to the perfect round from our tents beside the Temple at Karnak; it will fade as we journey through the desert & there will be renewed again.

Dec 9th

It is not written down, that we are to take our photographs in the Palm garden. At dawn, we are sailing away from the lovely spot, the rocks are steep & rugged—we have presently to negociate long & difficult reaches, curves that need a good deal of clever steering—we see flocks of white plovers, & ibises. After dark we anchor about 5 miles N of Assiut.

Dec. 10.

Early the next morning Ali is sent off to Assiut for the letters. A lazy wind moves us very slowly, sometimes we only just hold our own with the current. It is nearly 3 o’clock before we get to Assiut. But we get our letters about noon—& are content. We are very disappointed in the bazaars of Assiut, after Cairo! We come back from the noise & the bustle at sunset to the boat—& in the evening a dancing girl comes on board to entertain the sailors. The performance is very decorous, some of the movements are extremely graceful—the girl is covered to the feet in a red loose robe, with a black veil over her head & face—her hands & arms are small & beautiful—covered with bracelets. We have a little talk with her. She has a very charming voice, soft & musical. Everybody seems satisfied with this very simple little entertainment.


A few alterations have been made to the punctuation of the original.

{1} The date should be the 5th.

{2} Perhaps this passage should be punctuated as follows: “we never keep anything for our own, if anyone says ‘I like that’. If it were my horse or my house it would be the same. If you want to give me a great pleasure you will say no more.”

{3} i.e. Lesser Bairam, lasting three days.

{4} Tel-el-Amarna.

† Sic.

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