Item 152 - Circular letter by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

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Circular letter by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence


  • 27-30 Nov. 1904 (Creation)

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3½ single sheets

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Continues her account of her visit to Egypt.



6th Letter.

Nov. 27.

The men towing & wading, sometimes having to swim—until suddenly the North wind springs up & wafts us to Beni Sueff. Here the stores are to be replenished—& the crew are to buy a sheep for themselves & some tobacco & presently they will have a feast. They have not tasted meat since they left Cairo: their frugal fare consisting of soaked black bread & lentils. All are in great spirits. Marketing has to be done quickly as the North wind is blowing now & we do not want to lose our chance of getting on. So Ali & Muhammed are left to be our guard, while the others do the business. Beni Suef is a squalid town—the people seem very poor & everything is very dirty. We are followed by a great crowd, mostly children, & feel like a trio of Pied Pipers. Presently a lad who has been walking with us all the way opens a conversation in English. “Do not be angry”, he says. “Do not be angry with the Children.” We assure him that on the contrary we are amused & pleased—another boy joins the conversation. They have learnt English in the school—& from that moment we have a delighted escort—indeed, such naive expressions of open appreciation would be embarrassing if not so amusing. “The first moment I saw your face,” said the smaller boy to Marie, “my heart was moved.” “I have never spoken to an English lady before, I have followed the English always, but I did not speak to them & they did not speak to me. It is a great joy to speak to such a good lady as you!” They wrote their names down & gave them to us, begging for ours in exchange & the big boy took an old coin out of his clothes & begged us to have it as a remembrance & we must promise never never to forget him, as he would never never forget this day. And, said the little boy to Marie, “if I come to London when I am a man I shall go all over the country till I find you!” We gave them some English coins & parted at the boat-side. “Mursi” is waiting to welcome us, with tea ready—we are received back like long-lost children. It is amusing to think of all our packets of tea & Nestle’s milk & arrowroot & bovril etc that we brought out with us. We have only to ask for the Moon to have half a dozen men climbing the sky to get it. I verily believe that if Enani, or Mursi or Ali were to see us making tea, they would be as surprised as we should be to see a baby warming the milk for its own bottle. Anything we want, at any minute is there at once, if we call Ya Enani! Ya Ali! or Ya Mursi!

Soon Enani & the men are seen striding along with their big basket & parcels, & in five minutes more we are off. But the wind already begins to sleep— {1} & soon after dark we moor for the night—and the evening is spent in telling stories & in watching the Fantasia, which the men make for us. They are very much pleased when I take the tom tom & beat it for them to dance.

Nov. 28th

A walk after breakfast & then the start. A good day’s journey—for we have the wind all day. Now the sun sets & we we† steer right into the cloudless glory. Two stars are burning in the burning sky. The days are like a necklace of opals which I saw in the bazaar at Cairo—each opal separated by a white sapp[h]ire from the next. The days are opals & the nights are the white sapphires—& this day has held the heart of fire. The light fades—it is time for Enani to bring his flute & play to us. Hetty is touching her Spanish guitar with the soft sweet tones so suited to this world, where a piano would seem an absurdity, almost an outrage. {1} The night falls softly. Presently we are listening to a most dramatic & exciting story told by Enani. After dinner tonight, Marie reads an arabic story which she has carefully written out. It is received with enthusiasm. It is perfect arabic! Dark eyes shine with pride & delight. Afterwards Enani has his first lesson in writing English.

Nov. 29.

Awake with the dawn. A little walk before breakfast. We come across an encampment—a happy family—donkeys, sheep, goats, dogs. If I had my camera! The words are scarcely said before feet are flying over the sand back to the boat. The camera is brought—the picture is taken. “Kulu mabsut” (“Everybody happy!”)

My whole morning is spent writing out the story of Big Claws & Little Claws in arabic—to read to the men tonight. This night there is a sunset of passionate peace, glowing into passionate intensity. Water & wind quiet—the world a deep blue well of peace, a purple well of peace, the palm trees along the edge of the Eastern bank reflected in the water. Then the purple glows in the west—& becomes a fire, wonderful beyond words. {1} The wind has dropped again & the men are punting with long poles. Suddenly there comes just a breath—the men throw down their poles & begin to sing & to dance—caper in a circle—it is a sort of incantation to keep the wind. This is such a land of rites & incantations & prayers. This morning I woke before the dawn—there was a great stillness. Just one dark barge was gliding silently downstream, & silhoutted against the Eastern sky was a tall cloaked figure, bowing down his head repeatedly & standing in prayer. Wherever they are the men pray—telling their beads—kneeling & touching the ground with their forehead. Just now Ali was fishing on the shore & the Nubian boy was carrying the pail—& when there was a minute or two to wait he just knelt down & said his prayers.

Tonight Enani has another lesson in reading & writing & is very proud of himself.

Nov. 30.

A great gale of wind! Unluckily from the wrong quarter—dead South. We are moored to a great stretch of desolate sand—white & wintry. The wind becomes a sandstorm—everything is blotted out: the sun when it shows at all, is a ghastly sulphur: we might be in the middle of a London fog.

Everything is full of sand. The wind continues dead against us, till sunset, when it drops & we walk over the waste into the sunset. There is some peculiar excitement in the sand, the look of it, the feel of it under the feet. One wants to leap rather than walk, there is [a] sense of glorious freedom. Can we give up this new glorious freedom at the end of a few weeks. Why not forget everything & stay here for ever? The spirit of the river shall say. So Ali Suefi, Hetty’s faithful one of old times, who is fishing from the bank, casts in his net. If a big fish comes back with the net, we stay. We hold our breath in suspense. The net is flung out, forms a magic circle over the water, it drops & is drawn back with care—& lo & behold! a big fish is in its meshes—the only big fish caught that evening!

We come back to the deck, the dark & the stars. Lying on the divans on deck, tucked up warm in our big shawls, we summon Enani & his flute. Looking up into the clear sky, there enters into me a spirit of glad & eager adventure untouched by any afterthought. Danger, Death, even a violent death could be welcomed in a mood like this! One would go forth to the “adventure wild & new” of a new life in the unknown, with an exulting heart. The universe in all light—all God.

Surely that is one of the gifts of the desert—Courage.


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

{1} The ink changes at this point.

† Sic.

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      This description was created by A. C. Green in 2020.




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