Gemila, the Child of the Desert
IT is almost sunset; and Abdel Hassan has come out to the door of his tent to enjoy the breeze, which is growing cooler after the day's terrible heat. The round, red sun hangs low over the sand; it will be gone in five minutes more. The tent-door is turned away from the sun, and Abdel Hassan sees only the rosy glow of its light on the hills in the distance which looked so purple all day. He sits very still, and his earnest eyes are fixed on those distant hills. He does not move or speak when the tent-door is again pushed aside, and his two children, Alee and Gemila, come out with their little mats and seat themselves also on the sand. You see the dear children in the picture. How glad they are of the long, cool shadows, and the tall, feathery palms! how pleasant to hear the camels drink, and to drink themselves at the deep well, when they have carried some fresh water in a cup to their silent father! He only sends up blue circles of smoke from his long pipe as he sits there, cross-legged, on a mat of rich carpet. He never sat in a chair, and, indeed, never saw one in his life. His chairs are mats; and his house is, as you have heard, a tent.
Do you know what a tent is?
I always liked tents, and thought I should enjoy living in one; and when I was a little girl, on many a stormy day when we couldn't go to school, I played with my sisters at living in tents. We would take a small clothes-horse and tip it down upon its sides, half open; then, covering it with shawls, we crept in, and were happy enough for the rest of the afternoon. I tell you this, that you may also play tents some day, if you haven't already.
The tent of Gemila's father is, however, quite different from ours. Two or three long poles hold it up, and over them hangs a cloth made of goat's-hair, or sometimes sheepskins, which are thick enough to keep out either heat or cold. The ends of the cloth are fastened down by pegs driven into the sand, or the strong wind coming might blow the tent away. The tent-cloth pushes back like a curtain for the door. Inside, a white cloth stretched across divides this strange house into two rooms; one is for the men, the other for the women and children. In the tent there is no furniture like ours; nothing but mats, and low cushions called divans; not even a table from which to eat, nor a bed to sleep upon. But the mats and the shawls are very gorgeous and costly, and we are very proud when we can buy any like them for our parlors. And, by the way, I must tell you that these people have been asleep all through the heat of the day,—the time when you would have been coming home from school, eating your dinner, and going back to school again. They closed the tent-door to keep out the terrible blaze of the sun, stretched themselves on the mats, and slept until just now, when the night-wind began to come.
Now they can sit outside the tent and enjoy the evening, and the mother brings out dates and little hard cakes of bread, with plenty of butter made from goat's milk. The tall, dark servant-woman, with loose blue cotton dress and bare feet, milks a camel, and they all take their supper, or dinner perhaps I had better call it. They have no plates, nor do they sit together to eat. The father eats by himself: when he has finished, the mother and children take the dates and bread which he leaves. We could teach them better manners, we think; but they could teach us to be hospitable and courteous, and more polite to strangers than we are.
When all is finished, you see there are no dishes to be washed and put away.
The stars have come out; and from the great arch of the sky they look down on the broad sands, the lonely rocks, the palm-trees, and the tents. Oh, they are so bright, so steady, and so silent, in that great, lonely place, where no noise is heard! no sounds of people or of birds or animals, excepting the sleepy groaning of a camel, or the low song that little Alee is singing to his sister, as they lie upon their backs on the sand, and watch the slow, grand movement of the stars that are always journeying towards the west.
Night is very beautiful in the desert; for this is the desert, where Abdel Hassan the Arab lives. His country is that part of our round ball where the yellow sands stretch farther than eye can see, and there are no wide rivers, no thick forests, and no snow-covered hills. The day is too bright and too hot: but the night he loves; it is his friend.
He falls asleep at last out under the stars, and, since he has been
sleeping so long in the daytime, can well afford to be awake very
early in the morning: so, while the stars still shine, and there is
only one little yellow line of light in the east, he calls his
wife, children, and servants, and in a few minutes all is bustle and
Now, it would be a very bad thing for us, if some day all the water in our wells and springs and ponds should dry up, and all the grass on our pleasant pastures and hills should wither away.
What should we do? Should we have to pack all our clothes, our books, our furniture and food, and move away to some other place where there were both water and grass, and then build new houses? Oh, how much trouble it would give us! No doubt the children would think it great fun; but as they grew older they would have no pleasant home to remember, with all that makes "sweet home" so dear.
And now you will see how much better it is for Gemila's father than if he lived in a house. In a very few minutes the tent is taken down; the tent-poles are tied together, the covering is rolled up with the pegs and strings which fastened it, and it is all ready to put up again whenever they choose to stop. As there is no furniture to carry, the mats and cushions only are to be rolled together and tied; and now Achmet, the old servant, brings a tall yellow camel.
Did you ever see a camel? I hope you have some time seen a living one in a menagerie; but, if you haven't, perhaps you have seen a picture of the awkward-looking animal with a great hump upon his back, a long neck, and head thrust forward. A boy told me the other day, that, when the camel had been long without food, he ate his hump: he meant that the flesh and fat of the hump helped to nourish him when he had no food.
Achmet speaks to the camel, and he immediately kneels upon the sand, while the man loads him with the tent-poles and covering; after which he gets up, moves on a little way, to make room for another to come up, kneel, and be loaded with mats, cushions, and bags of dates.
Then comes a third; and while he kneels, another servant comes from the spring, bringing a great bag made of camel's-skin, and filled with water. Two of these bags are hung upon the camel, one on each side. This is the water for all these people to drink for four days, while they travel through a sandy, rocky country, where there are no springs or wells. I am afraid the water will not taste very fresh after it has been kept so long in leather bags; but they have nothing else to carry it in, and, besides, they are used to it, and don't mind the taste.
Here are smaller bags, made of goat's-skin, and filled with milk; and when all these things are arranged, which is soon done, they are ready to start, although it is still long before sunrise. The camels have been drinking at the spring, and have left only a little muddy water, like that in our street-gutters; but the goats must have this, or none at all.
And now Abdel Hassan springs upon his beautiful black horse, that has such slender legs and swift feet, and places himself at the head of this long troop of men and women, camels and goats. The women are riding upon the camels, and so are the children; while the servants and camel-drivers walk barefooted over the yellow sand.
It would seem very strange to you to be perched up so high on a camel's back, but Gemila is quite accustomed to it. When she was very little, her mother often hung a basket beside her on the camel, and carried her baby in it: but now she is a great girl, full six years old; and when the camel kneels, and her mother takes her place, the child can spring on in front, with one hand upon the camel's rough hump, and ride safely and pleasantly hour after hour. Good, patient camels! God has fitted them exactly to be of the utmost help to the people in that desert country. Gemila for this often blesses and thanks Him whom she calls Allah.
All this morning they ride,—first in the bright starlight; but soon the stars become faint and dim in the stronger rosy light that is spreading over the whole sky, and suddenly the little girl sees stretching far before her the long shadow of the camels, and she knows that the sun is up, for we never see shadows when the sun is not up, unless it is by candlelight or moonlight. The shadows stretch out very far before them, for the sun is behind. When you are out walking very early in the morning, with the sun behind you, see how the shadow of even such a little girl as you will reach across the whole street; and you can imagine that such great creatures as camels would make even much longer shadows.
Gemila watches them, and sees, too, how the white patches of sand flush in the morning light; and she looks back where far behind are the tops of their palm-trees, like great tufted fans, standing dark against the yellow sky.
She is not sorry to leave that old home. She has had many homes already, young as she is, and will have many more as long as she lives. The whole desert is her home; it is very wide and large, and sometimes she lives in one part, sometimes in another.
As the sun gets higher, it begins to grow very hot. The father arranges the folds of his great white turban, a shawl with many folds, twisted round his head to keep off the oppressive heat. The servants put on their white fringed handkerchiefs, falling over the head and down upon the neck, and held in place by a little cord tied round the head. It is not like a bonnet or hat, but one of the very best things to protect the desert travellers from the sun. The children, too, cover their heads in the same way, and Gemila no longer looks out to see what is passing: the sun is too bright; it would hurt her eyes and make her head ache. She shuts her eyes and falls half asleep, sitting there high upon the camel's back. But, if she could look out, there would be nothing to see but what she has seen many and many times before,—great plains of sand or pebbles, and sometimes high, bare rocks; not a tree to be seen, and far off against the sky, the low purple hills.
They move on in the heat, and are all silent. It is almost noon now; and Abdel Hassan stops, leaps from his horse, and strikes his spear into the ground. The camel-drivers stop, the camels stop and kneel, Gemila and Alee and their mother dismount. The servants build up again the tent which they took down in the morning; and, after drinking water from the leathern bags, the family are soon under its shelter, asleep on their mats, while the camels and servants have crept into the shadow of some rocks and lain down in the sand. The beautiful black horse is in the tent with his master; he is treated like a child, petted and fed by all the family, caressed and kissed by the children. Here they rest until the heat of the day has past; but before sunset they have eaten their dates and bread, loaded again the camels, and are moving, with the beautiful black horse and his rider at the head.
They ride until the stars are out, and after, but stop for a few hours' rest in the night, to begin the next day as they began this. Gemila still rides upon the camel, and I can easily understand that she prays to Allah with a full heart under the shining stars so clear and far, and that at the call to prayer in the early dawn her pretty little veiled head is bent in true love and worship. But I must tell you what she sees soon after sunrise on this second morning. Across the sand, a long way before them, something with very long legs is running, almost flying. She knows well what it is, for she has often seen them before; and she calls to one of the servants, "See, there is the ostrich!" and she claps her hands with delight.
The ostrich is a great bird, with very long legs and small wings; and as legs are to run with, and wings to fly with, of course he can run better than he can fly. But he spreads his short wings while running, and they are like little sails, and help him along quite wonderfully, so that he runs much faster than any horse can.
Although he runs so swiftly, he is sometimes caught in a very odd way. I will tell you how.
He is a large bird, but he is a very silly one, and, when he is tired of running, he will hide his head in the sand, thinking that because he can see no one he can't be seen himself. Then the swift-footed Arab horses can overtake him; and the men can get his beautiful feathers, which you must have often seen, for ladies wear them in their bonnets.
All this about the ostrich. Don't forget it, my little girl: some time you may see one, and will be glad that you know what kind of a fellow he is.
The ostrich which Gemila sees is too far away to be caught; besides, it will not be best to turn aside from the track which is leading them to a new spring. But one of the men trots forward on his camel, looking to this side and to that as he rides; and at last our little girl, who is watching, sees his camel kneel, and sees him jump off and stoop in the sand. When they reach the place, they find a sort of great nest, hollowed a little in the sand, and in it are great eggs, almost as big as your head. The mother ostrich has left them there. She is not like other mother-birds, that sit upon the eggs to keep them warm; but she leaves them in the hot sand, and the sun keeps them warm, and by and by the little ostriches will begin to chip the shell, and creep out into the great world.
The ostrich eggs are good to eat. You eat your one egg for breakfast, but one of these big eggs will make breakfast for the whole family. And that is why Gemila clapped her hands when she saw the ostrich: she thought the men would find the nest, and have fresh eggs for a day or two.
This day passes like the last: they meet no one, not a single man or woman; and they move steadily on towards the sunset. In the morning again they are up and away under the starlight; and this day is a happy one for the children, and, indeed, for all.
The morning star is yet shining, low, large, and bright, when our watchful little girl's dark eyes can see a row of black dots on the sand,—so small you might think them nothing but flies; but Gemila knows better. They only look small because they are far away; they are really men and camels, and horses too, as she will soon see when they come nearer. A whole troop of them; as many as a hundred camels, loaded with great packages of cloths and shawls for turbans, carpets and rich spices, and the beautiful red and green morocco, of which, when I was a little girl, we sometimes had shoes made, but we see it oftener now on the covers of books.
All these things belong to the Sheik Hassein. He has been to the great cities to buy them, and now he is carrying them across the desert to sell again. He himself rides at the head of his company on a magnificent brown horse; and his dress is so grand and gay that it shines in the morning light quite splendidly. A great shawl with golden fringes is twisted about his head for a turban; and he wears, instead of a coat, a tunic broadly striped with crimson and yellow, while a loose flowing scarlet robe falls from his shoulders. His face is dark, and his eyes keen and bright; only a little of his straight black hair hangs below the fringes of his turban; but his beard is long and dark, and he really looks very magnificent sitting upon his fine horse, in the full morning sunlight.
Abdel Hassan rides forward to meet him, and the children from behind watch with great delight.
Abdel Hassan takes the hand of the sheik, presses it to his lips and forehead, and says, "Peace be with you."
Do you see how different this is from the hand-shakings and "How-do-you-do's" of the gentlemen whom we know? Many grand compliments are offered from one to another, and they are very polite and respectful. Our manners would seem very poor beside theirs.
Then follows a long talk, and the smoking of pipes, while the servants make coffee, and serve it in little cups.
Hassein tells Abdel Hassan of the wells of fresh water which he left but one day's journey behind him, and he tells of the rich cities he has visited. Abdel Hassan gives him dates and salt in exchange for cloth for a turban, and a brown cotton dress for his little daughter.
It is not often that one meets men in the desert, and this day will long be remembered by the children.
The next night, before sunset, they can see the green feathery tops of the palm-trees before them. The palms have no branches, but only great clusters of fern-like leaves at the top of the tree, under which grow the sweet dates.
Near those palm-trees will be Gemila's home for a little while, for here they will find grass and a spring. The camels smell the water, and begin to trot fast; the goats leap along over the sand, and the barefooted men hasten to keep up with them.
In an hour more the tent is pitched under the palm-trees, and all have refreshed themselves with the cool, clear water.
And now I must tell you that the camels have had nothing to drink since they left the old home. The camel has a deep bag below his throat, which he fills with water enough to last four or five days; so he can travel in the desert as long as that, and sometimes longer, without drinking again. Yet I believe the camels are as glad as the children to come to the fresh spring.
Gemila thinks so at night, as she stands under the starlight, patting her good camel Simel, and kissing his great lips.
The black goats, with long silky ears, are already cropping the grass. The father sits again at the tent-door, and smokes his long pipe; the children bury their bare feet in the sand, and heap it into little mounds about them; while the mother is bringing out the dates and the bread and butter.
It is an easy thing for them to move: they are already at home again. But although they have so few cares, we do not wish ourselves in their place, for we love the home of our childhood, "be it ever so humble," better than roaming like an exile.
But all the time I haven't told you how Gemila looks, nor what clothes she wears. Her face is dark; she has a little straight nose, full lips, and dark, earnest eyes; her dark hair will be braided when it is long enough. On her arms and her ankles are gilded bracelets and anklets, and she wears a brown cotton dress loosely hanging halfway to the bare, slender ankles. On her head the white fringed handkerchief, of which I told you, hangs like a little veil. Her face is pleasant, and when she smiles her white teeth shine between her parted lips.
She is the child of the desert, and she loves her desert home.
I think she would hardly be happy to live in a house, eat from a table, and sleep in a little bed like yours. She would grow restless and weary if she should live so long and so quietly in one place.