An Arab Fisherman, by Albert Edwards
from The Barbary Coast
This morning I reached the rocks before the dawn had begun to break. It
was too dark to fish; but I crept out to the very edge of the ledge, and
sat down beside a great boulder to wait for the light. I lit my pipe and
smoked impatiently. It seemed as though the dawn came up out of the
water itself; long before I could notice any increase of light the waves
began to change color from the dark, oily olive tint of night to a
lighter green, and gradually, just as it began to dawn, to their daytime
blue. A long trailing cloud, which stretched clean across the sky like
an exaggerated Milky Way, suddenly caught fire at its eastern end.
Rapidly the red flame along ran its entire length to the other horizon.
Then countless unexpected shadows woke up on the rocks about me, weird,
undefined shapes, which became clear-cut only when the rim of the sun
came up over Cap Rouge.
But a swish in the water beside me, as the first fish rose, recalled me
to the business in hand. I opened my little tin tackle-box, put the rod
together, and just as I was tying on the flies I was disturbed by human
voices. I said several things I shouldn't have, and looked up over my
rock to motion back the intruders. For a moment I thought I was back in
Old Greece, the Old Greece where early morning fishers were often
interrupted by the sea-nymphs. But a second glance reassured me—it was
only an Arab and his wife hunting crabs.
Their method was typical. He was a sombre old chap, with long, scanty
white beard, a soiled burnous, [Footnote: Burnous: a cloak-like garment
with a hood, worn by the Arabs.] and thin, scrawny brown legs. He sat
stolidly on a dry rock, a basket under his feet, and—this was the
typical part—watched his wife work. I did not blame him for watching.
It was a pretty sight. She was a supple young Mauresque, [Footnote:
Mauresque: Moorish (girl).] slim and graceful as the water-nymph for
whom I had first mistaken her. She had laid aside her outer cloak-like
garment, and was clad only in a light cotton tunic. It was very simple
affair—two small holes for her arms, a bigger one for her head, and a
still bigger one at the bottom to get in by. I could make one myself. It
was bound about her waist with a heavy dark red woollen sash, the ends
of which, hanging down at her side, were adorned with a most amazing
collection of colored strings, bright yellow, startling orange, pale
blue, and flaming crimson. It sounds discordant, and I must admit that,
as it hangs now in my room, it almost makes my head ache. But out there
on the red, wet rocks it was toned down by the faint morning light, and
mingled charmingly with the greens on the bank and the far-reaching blue
of the sea. In her hand was a spear—a stick sharpened in a fire.
If the old gentleman took it sedately and placidly, it was just the
reverse with her. She was fairly running over with the joy of life. She
would crawl about deftly until she saw a crab, then she would make a
long detour to get it between her and the sun, so that her shadow should
not frighten it. When she got within striking distance, she would wave
her hand at her husband, as though she thought he could increase the
intensity of his silence. With a graceful, dextrous thrust she would
stab her game, and, gathering up her scant skirts, she would dash into
the water after it. The moment she got her hand on it she would let out
a delighted little scream of glee, and go bounding over the rocks to
exhibit it to her lord and master. I wanted to wring his scrawny old
neck for not being more enthusiastic about it. But he never once lost
his blase manner. He would look at the crab a moment critically, then
lift up his foot and let her put it in the basket. Not a word would he
say. But off she would go again with undimmed ardor. It was a sight for
the gods. And for half an hour I forgot all about my fishing-rod.
At last their basket was full, and the old man got up and began to come
my way. She picked up her mantle and the basket and followed him. They
saw me at the same moment. She gave a startled little squeal and started
to retreat; but the old man grunted "Roumi," so she stopped.
"Roumi," being translated, means "Infidel." It was as though he had
said, "Don't get excited; it is only a dog." If I had been a Mussulman,
she would have run screaming to the woods, and would have had to do—I
don't know what penance—because I had seen her face unveiled. But I was
only an infidel dog and didn't count. The old man made the "Sign of
Peace," and the two sat down beside me.
I didn't return his salute. I had never felt so entirely, so shamefully
insulted in my life. I have always read a deep contempt for me in the
eyes of the Mussulmans I have met. The Arab boy who cleans my boots and
cares for "Citron," my mare, looks down on me from a perfectly
unspeakable height of superiority. The men do not matter, but to be
insulted so by a woman, a very pretty woman, made my hair crinkle! I had
heard that the Mohammedan women do not veil before the infidels. But I
had never realized the overpowering weight of the insult before. She
would have been utterly confused if an Arab had seen her face. She sat
there before me, almost within reach of my hand, in a thin, short, very
short, tunic, which was wet, and she never turned a hair. I was a
"Roumi," not a man, a dog. That was all there was to it. I felt that
unless I could shake her composure I would explode. I tried to convince
her I was a man by staring at her. I might just as well have tried to
embarrass the statue of Venus de Milo!
"Bonjour," [Footnote: Bonjour: "good day."] the old man said. He had
probably learned French working for a colonist; or perhaps he had served
in the Spahis [Footnote: Spahis: Algerian cavalrymen serving in the
French army.] when he was younger. I was too mad to return his greeting.
"Fishing?" he asked.
Such insane questions, when the answer is so evident, generally
infuriate me; and I probably would have told him I was skating if I had
not been afraid he would get mad and walk off with his wife, and I had
not yet given up hope of embarrassing her.
"Yes," I replied. "And you?"
"I've been crab-fishing," he said solemnly, and he showed me his basket.
"I'm a good fisher," he added.
I looked at his wife, but she did not seem to see anything funny in his
choice of pronouns. I tied another fly on my leader.
"No good," he said. "Use crab meat. Fish don't like feathers."
I made a couple of casts without making a strike. "No good!" he kept
repeating. He began to get on my nerves. At last I had better luck and
landed a beautiful three-pounder. I dangled it triumphantly before his
"No good," he said stolidly. "Use crab meat. Fish don't like feathers."
Then I had a run of luck. Almost every cast I got a rise, and soon I had
a nice string of eight, all from two to five pounds. I noticed that all
the strikes had been on the same fly, so I stopped for a minute to
change the other two flies to this variety. I thought that if I should
have the luck to raise two at once—as sometimes happens—I might
convince him. When I opened the box to get the new flies, both of them
came close to look in. In one compartment were some bare hooks on which
I had not yet built flies. The old man pounced on them at once.
"There!" he cried. "These are good. Use these with crab meat and you
will catch fish!"
I sat back in dumb amazement. Once upon a time, way back in the dimness
before history, this chap's ancestors had begun to fish off these rocks
with a bent wire and a piece of crab meat. Century after century they
had sat there unchanging. Sat there all day long, and had been lucky to
catch half as many fish as I had done in fifteen minutes. And glaring
ocular demonstration did not shake his faith in the methods of his
ancestors. I began to understand the hopeless discouragement with which
my host talks of the "Native Question." The Arabs are starving off
because the French have stolen their land. But the fact remains that
most of the natives have more land than the colonists. An Arab will
starve to death on a piece of land which will support two French
families, simply because the Arabs do not know—and will not learn—how
to intensify their culture. Somehow—nobody knows just how—the Romans,
during the long centuries of their occupation, succeeded in teaching
them to put an iron point on the end of the crooked stick with which
they scratch the earth. It is the last thing they have learned.
The Arabs employed by my host are good workmen. They seem perfectly
intelligent; six days a week they yoke his stout oxen before a great
American plow, turn his soil, scatter his fertilizer, after the harvest
help him sort out the best grain for the next sowing, and so forth; but
the seventh day of the week they hitch their wives beside an ass, and
tickle the soil with their iron-pointed stick. "Why should we put on
fertilizer?" they ask. "Allah, the Just, will give us the harvest our
My speculations about the fate of the race were interrupted by the voice
of the young woman. Her eye had been caught by a gaudy red-feathered
trolling-spoon and its polished brass disk. She pointed to it, and said
something in Arabic. The old man shook his head.
"No good" he repeated his deadly refrain.
"Use these. Crab meat. You will catch fish. Fish don't like feathers."
But I'd lost interest in fishing. I realized that if I pulled up Jonah's
whale it would not convince the old man. So I started to put up my
[Footnote: Note the use of color. What things in the scene should you
like to see for yourself? Is the humor of the story one of situation or
character? Was the old Arab vain or only stupid? Is his attitude toward
the author a typically Eastern one? Do you know Kipling's ballad, "The
East and the West"?]
Louise de la Ramee