An Arab Dinner Party

by Unknown

ONE hot day towards the close of April, when the air fairly danced between the red sun and the reflected glare of the sand, our dahabeeah, the Lohengrin, was drifting with the current down the Negadeh reach of the Nile, in Upper Egypt. On each shore a rampart of bleak desert hills reared their craggy fronts, pouring from their gorges deep wind-silted shoots of sand which here and there swept over the narrow river-margin of fertile field and date grove. Few were the villages that we passed, and those that could be seen nestled under their canopy of palms, as if seeking refuge from the fierce sun. Their dusty streets appeared untenanted save for the ever-wheeling flights of pigeons, and the inevitable dogs, and everything had shunned the track of the chariot of the Egyptian sun-god, Ra. Everything but the birds, which—glorying in the heat of the noontide—were abroad on their bright eastern wings in endless numbers by "field and flood." Indeed many of the mud-flats, left in mid-stream by the subsidence of the waters, seemed alive with the noise and movement of feathered habitants, chattering in a thousand different tones—pompous old pelicans snapping their absurd bills in contemptuous disapproval of some silly water-gull's proposition; tall storks and cranes spoiling their dignity of blue-plumed head and neck by standing on one leg with the superfluous one tucked carefully out of the way; surly vultures fanning their wings in the hot sun, and stretching their ugly heads in gorged laziness; ragged kites swooping amongst a motley crowd of ravens; quarreling hawks and eagles, fastidious siksaks, terns, and coots running backwards and forwards over the dry mud, and wondering at the calm of ducks and geese who preferred standing stationary in the shallows, whence they in their turn could quack scorn of the spasmodic energy of the terns and their frantic brethren.

But there is an ennui that comes of watching the slow shifting scenes of the banks while the dahabeeah drifts onward with the Nile's current—an ennui that the heat of an Egyptian April day rather heightens than lessens, wherefore I determined to go ashore for a ramble. Our destination for the evening was the small village, El Wasta, some few miles further to the north; so telling my friends that I would rejoin them there, and taking with me my boon companion in all such enterprises, a pretty-faced Syrian boy named Gomah, whose knowledge of a dozen French words and about half that number of English made him a serviceable interpreter with the Arabs, I rowed to the western shore. We chose for a landing-place one of those desert offshoots, and consequently had much tiring exercise trudging through the soft sand till the borders of the neighboring fields were reached. Here and there we passed a solitary palm or dwarfed cluster of sont-trees, and occasionally our steps would lead us by some dry-mud hollow, startling the repose of some white ibis, or the meditations of the ubiquitous gray-headed crow.

We had wandered thus by a long circuit inland when, emerging again on the river, we sighted a small village half-hidden amongst its tall palms, and too insignificant on the map of the world to bear the dignity of a name. Between us and its small cluster of huts was a field of tall clover, by the borders of which were playing about some young goats too intent on their gamboling to notice how closely they were being watched by the keen eyes of an eagle perched on a mound amongst the fodder. This bird I endeavored to stalk by performing the somewhat tiring feat of crawling through the tall clover with my gun under me, and, successfully getting within range, brought him toppling down from his high pinnacle. The subsequent results, however, were very unexpected. No sooner had I risen to my feet than all the village dogs set on me, and commenced howling in most atrocious unison, with the decided intention of resisting my unbidden presence in their domains. Happily these were soon silenced by a native woman passing at the moment, whose authority they were in nowise anxious to resent. One old yellow cur, however, dissatisfied perhaps with the peaceful turn things had taken, climbed one of the mud huts and from that stronghold of safety gave vent to most persistent growls.

Several of the men and boys now issued forth from the narrow lanes of the village, and, after the formalities of salutation had been interchanged, commenced examining my gun. They seemed greatly pleased with its appearance, but flatly refused to believe in its powers until convinced by actual experiment.

While we were thus chatting the shaykh of the village had joined us unperceived and now coming forward, with many salutations asked me to visit his house. This I readily assented to as well from a desire to talk with this gray-bearded old lion in his den, as from the necessities of Eastern courtesy.

So escorted by some of the Arabs carrying their long staves of wood or "nebuts," we passed on down the tortuous alleys of this animated dust-heap, by tumbling hut, and dusty square, by the village pond—half-dried with the summer heat, and from the margin of which two or three palms reared their feathered heads, until the party came to a standstill before a mud-hut, somewhat larger, perhaps, than its surrounding neighbors, but not a whit less simple or ruinous.

Mud-built, with a low door and two small windows, it had little to boast of grandeur, except a coat of whitewash which sadly needed renewing. Like its fellows it was crowned with many white and gray jars sunk into the muddy composition of the building, wherein a multitude of pigeons found habitation; while every nook and corner round about these earthen pigeon-homes was fitted with branches of sont or other wood to serve as perches for them. Over the doorway was let into the mud of the lintel the customary broken saucer to guard against and absorb the harmful intentions of those possessed of the "evil-eye," and having duly gazed thereon we were bidden to enter this unpretentious "home" of the village shaykh.

The bright glare of the sun streaming in through the empty doorway lent a sort of twilight to the interior of the hut sufficient to distinguish objects clearly by. It was a large room—that is large as things-Egyptian go—roofed with split palm logs intertwined with their leaves, and its floor, like the walls, bare mud save for the kind carpeting of sand which some windy day had carried thither. On two sides of the room a couple of earthen "divans" faced each other, and in the far corner was a large kulleh in which the grain provisions of the family were doubtless stored, but other furniture there was none. In the wall opposite the entrance, the dark shadow of another doorway showed in contrast against the brown surroundings, but whether it led into the intricacies of the shaykh's domestic household, or out into some village lane, was wrapped in the secrecy of its own gloom.

In the centre of this square swallow's nest sort of habitation the shaykh, myself, Gomah and some half-dozen elders of the village had seated ourselves on the floor in a circle, and the inevitable cigarettes and coffee were handed round. Over these we discussed, more or less satisfactorily considering the extremely limited linguistic powers possessed by myself, Gomah and the company, various topics until the dinner hour of our aged host arrived.

I had hoped to have escaped this ordeal, but the laws of courtesy forbade any retreat. Moreover I had some ambition to witness the ordinary dinner of an Arab household, and this taking "potluck" with a shaykh was a chance too excellent to be missed. The arrangements were admirably simple, and charmingly well fitted to the general convenience. In the centre of our circle an Arab boy first placed a three-legged-stool affair on which he proceeded to balance a large circular tray, big enough to hold dinner for twice the number of guests present. In the middle of this improvised table he next placed an enormous bowl of boiled beans—a veritable vegetable Goliath, steaming and of decidedly savory odor—which he then surrounded with sundry small saucers containing butter, sour milk, cream, carraway seeds, and an infinitude of a peculiar kind of brown bread, which is happily only to be found in the land of Pharaohs and Ptolemies. By the side of each person was placed a small kulleh of water, and now the feast was ready.

Though I had attended at something of the same sort before in Egypt I did not feel quite confident of the modus operandi to be followed here. Believing that possibly local customs might differ I concluded the wiser course would be to await events and see how my neighbors managed, so that I might adopt their method as my own. But alas! Arab politeness was too rigid to allow me to carry out my desire, and from the general delay it was evident that I was expected to lead off the revels.

Accordingly putting a bold face on my doubts I broke off a piece of the bread, dipped it first into the cream (for the excellent reason that that particular saucer was nearest) then into the milk and anything that came handy and—purposely forgetting that awful mountain of beans—tried to look happy while I overcame the difficulties of the unsavory morsel. Apparently my attempts at guessing the method in vogue were not wholly unsuccessful, or the manners of my fellow guests were too good to allow me to think otherwise, and with this debūt away all started at eating.

And how they did eat! To judge by the appetites being displayed around me, there had not been any food distributed in the village for many a long day. Into that fast diminishing mound of beans hands were plunging each moment, bread was being broken and dipped into all the smaller saucers seemingly indiscriminately, and water ever carried to the well-nigh choked lips.

In the midst of all this I saw, with much expectant horror, the shaykh arrange on a small piece of bread a choice (to him) assortment of beans, butter, cream, and all the strange ingredients of the meal. Too well I knew what that mistaken courtesy boded for me, and as its maker leant invitingly forward, I had perforce to allow the old dusky rascal to pop the undesirable morsel with all its hideous unpalatableness into my mouth. When I had duly recovered the effects of this moment, the tragedy had, of course, to be re-enacted on my own part. Calling into play therefore all my lost memories of how to feed a young blackbird, I concocted the counterpart of his admixture, and "catching his eye," I—well, reciprocated the compliment.

This incident seemed to end the first part of the entertainment and the despoiled fragments were now taken away to be replaced by a central pile of bread, adorned with similar small saucers, as before, containing milk in various stages of sourness, cream, carraway seeds, and honey. Here again was I expected to give the sign for beginning, and so taking a fragment of bread I dipped it bodily with all the contempt that comes of familiarity into the milk first, which loosened its already very flabby consistency and then into the honey in which it promptly broke off and stuck. This unlucky essay of mine proved too much for the mirthfulness of some of the party, but one burly neighbor, with a gentleness most foreign to his fierce aspect, undertook to show me how to overcome the difficulty. It was very simple and my fault was merely the ordinary one of reversing the order of things. First dipping the bread into the honey my kind instructor then dipped it into the milk and conveyed the result to his spacious mouth. Thus enlightened I did likewise and achieved success, and all set to work again at the edibles before them.

But this course was much less violent than the last, and soon disposed of. When it was over the boy, who had heretofore filled the part of food-bearer, came around to each guest in turn and poured over their hands water from a pitcher which he carried, holding a bowl underneath meanwhile, and presenting a cloth to each after such ablution. A not unnecessary service, for the absence of knives and forks at dinner may have the advantage of economy, and revert for authority to the primitive days of Eden, but when carried out it is fraught with much that is compromising to the fingers. Moreover Egyptian honey is no less sticky than that of other lands.

The dinner was now wound up with coffee and cigarettes—not the least pleasing part to me—and a hubbub of chatting. But as the evening shadows were already creeping amongst the palms outside, and El Wasta—my harbor of refuge for the night—was yet some distance off, I begged my kind host's permission to continue my way. His Arab courtesy, however, was not to be hindered even here, and he insisted upon accompanying me to the confines of his village fields, where with many pretty excuses for his years and duties he at last consented to bid me farewell.

He left me to the care of "two of his young men," as he called them, charging them to take me safely to El Wasta, the palms of which we could see far down the river standing out against the evening sky.

Of the many pleasant mental photographs which I have of travel, that simple dinner with my kind shaykh of the unknown village holds a prominent tablet to itself. I had asked him for his ancient and time-worn tobacco-pouch when bidding farewell, that I might have the excuse of giving him mine in exchange, which at least had the advantage to an Eastern eye of plenty of color and bright metal. A fellow traveller whose wanderings have since led him by my steps of that day, tells me he found the old shaykh still owning that poor gift of mine, and that he keeps strange talismans and Koranic-script in its recesses as an infallible preventive against the dangers of ophthalmia, and to guard against his pigeon homes blowing down.