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 eyes.

"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 piety deserves."

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 things.


[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