Here to return to
“THEY come, father, they come; I see a cloud of dust just over the hills,” cried young Hamid, galloping up on his fiery little pony to where his father sat proudly on his horse, with a number of the men of his tribe around him. Al-Abukar, Hamid’s father, was a grave, dignified Bedouin Arab, with a flowing beard and a long white cloak completely covering him. In his right hand he held a long lance or spear.
“Nay, nay,” said Al-Abukar, shading his eyes with his hand, as he looked out across the desert, “‘tis only the sand caught up in a swirl of the wind. Be not impatient, my son,” he continued, “thou wilt tire both thyself and the little mare if thou dashest needlessly about, and neither of you will be able to greet thy little friend with the proper spirit.”
Hamid and Zuleika, the little pony, both tossed their heads at the idea of such a thing; and no wonder! for Hamid belonged to the Beni-Harb, one of the best and bravest of the Bedouin tribes. As for Zuleika, she had come from the Nijd Desert, where the finest Arabian horses are bred, and it was said she was a descendant of the famous horse of Saladin, the great Arab ruler of olden times.
The pony’s coat was rough and shaggy, and not smooth and glossy as we like to see; but Hamid could soon show you all her good points. The small head, with its thin pointed ears, wide nostrils, and large eyes, and the proud arch of her neck and the network of muscles on her wiry legs all showed that she was an Arabian horse of the bluest blood.
Hamid and his father had ridden out into the desert to meet little Rashid, a young friend of theirs who lived in the city of Medina. Rashid had been ill, and it was not easy to get well in the hot, narrow, ill-smelling streets of an Arabian city; so his father was bringing him to stay some months with Hamid, that he might live in a tent and breathe the dry, pure air of the desert, drink plenty of camel’s milk, and thus become well and strong.
“The People of the Walls,” as the Arabs of the desert call the folk who live in the towns, often send their children to live for awhile in the “Black Tents” in the desert, that they may grow up strong and healthy and become hardy and brave like the Bedouins themselves. The Bedouins, the real desert Arabs, are among the bravest and most courageous people in all the world. The “Black Tents,” the habitations of the Bedouins, are so called because they are made of a material very sombre and dark in colour.
“Could we not ride farther out to meet our friends?” asked Hamid, for both he and Zuleika were becoming more and more restless.
“I fear we should miss them, for I know not whether they will come over the ridge or by the road up the valley,” said his father.
Just at this moment one of the Bedouins called out: “Do I not see the dust from the camels’ feet over yonder?”
“Ah, it is truly they; haste and we will give them welcome.” So saying, Al-Abukar spurred his horse forward, and Hamid and his pony were not far behind. Together they flew like the wind over the sand and rocks.
As they came in sight of their friends, they shouted out their names, at the same time throwing their lances into the air and catching them again, and firing off their guns in real circus fashion.
You would think that all this would frighten one’s friends to death, but this is only the polite Bedouin way of welcoming any one.
The camels of the caravan which was bringing the people from Medina came to a halt and everybody dismounted, and loud and warm were the greetings between friends.
Hamid and Rashid clapped the palms of their right hands together, and then touched foreheads and put their arms around each other’s necks. This is the real Arab form of greeting a friend. They are more affectionate than any of the other Eastern nations, and show their joy and happiness with much emotion when meeting friends or relatives.
All now formed one group and rode along together until they came in sight of a grove of palm-trees in the midst of which was Hamid’s home, a great brown tent made of cloth of camel’s hair, and held to the ground by ropes tightly pegged down so that the strong winds of the desert might not overturn it. All around were the tents of other Bedouins, relatives and friends of Al-Abukar, belonging to the same tribe.
As our party reached the tents, the men and children left behind came forward to welcome them with shouts and more gun-firing.
“Prepare the guest-rice at once,” called out Al-Abukar, as he pulled aside the curtains of the tent for his friends to enter. Here was Zubaydah, Hamid’s mother, ready to welcome them, and she had the black servant bring a large bowl of water so that they could wash off the dust of travel.
After this all sat around on rugs, and Rashid was made to lie down on a pile of cushions, for he was very tired after his long journey. Fatimah, Hamid’s little sister, now brought the guests rose-water with which to bathe their fingers and faces once more, and bowls of water, sweetened with the juice of pomegranates, to drink.
“In the name of Allah, the Merciful! “exclaimed every one, as each took a drink from the bowl; and, after they had finished, “Praise be to Allah! “
“Pleasure and health to thee,” said Al-Abukar, politely, as he put his great hubble-bubble pipe before his friend, first taking a puff at it himself.
Meanwhile Hamid was busy pounding coffee, which had been freshly roasted, into a powder, with a mortar and pestle. This is always the occupation of the oldest son when guests are about, the father taking it upon himself to make the coffee afterwards. The Arabs are great coffee-drinkers, and it is from Arabia that the finest mocha comes. It gets its name from a town in the southern part of Arabia.
Al-Abukar made the coffee in a great brass urn, mixing the ground coffee with sweet-smelling herbs. As soon as it was ready for drinking, he himself took the first cup, after which tiny brass cups were filled and passed around to the guests. He did not fill the cups quite full; for that, for some reason, would be a great insult to his guests. Moreover, the cups were so tiny that they held hardly more than the cups of a doll’s tea-service would hold. Each emptied his cup twice of the delicious coffee without milk or sugar; but not for anything would Al-Abukar have offered them a third, for that would be deemed a hint that he wished his guests to leave.
Now all the relatives and friends from the other tents came in to call, and sat around smoking and drinking still more coffee, and listening to the gossip of the city and country.
The Bedouins are very hospitable, look upon a guest and his rights as sacred, and are ever ready to avenge a wrong against him. A Bedouin will entertain any one who calls at his tent; and, while you are his guest, you will be protected to the utmost power of your host, and treated quite as one of the family. At the same time a stranger is only expected to stay three days; but, when he leaves, his host simply passes him on to another friend or relative, where he may stay another three days. He is welcomed thus by as many of the tribe as he wishes to visit. All very delightful this, you will think; and, if you ever wish to visit your little Arabian cousins, you will always be sure of a warm welcome.
A Bedouin will never harm any one after he has once eaten with him. They call this “eating salt” together; and there are some tribes that expect every stranger they come across to eat with them in order that eternal peace may be assured.
Just now there was a smell of good cooking coming from that part of the tent which was curtained off for the women, and where Zubaydah and the black servants were making all sorts of dishes for the visitors. One of the servants having ground the wheat for the bread between two great stones, it was mixed with milk and bean flour and made into round, flat, thin cakes. Then it was baked in a queer kind of an oven shaped like a big jar with a wide mouth.
Besides these hot cakes, there was to be the “guest-rice,” all swimming in melted butter. There was goat’s meat, too, of which the Arabs are very fond; but which we would think a little strong to eat often. Curds made of camel’s milk were a special feature, and many kinds of soft white cheeses, as well as dates, grapes, and pomegranates.
All these things were put on a great brass tray, which was placed on a low table in the centre of the tent. Every one sat closely around the table, and all said “Bismillah” before eating, which is the Mohammedan way of saying grace.
Al-Abukar helped himself first; and then put a choice bit into his friend’s mouth. Then every one began to dip into the dishes with their fingers, because there were no knives or forks or separate plates. They all ate with a good appetite, for there is nothing like the desert air to give one a good appetite.
Zubaydah waited on the guests herself, and afterwards ate with the children, who meantime had been simply looking on.
After the meal was over, they all sat around in a cool corner of the tent, the men smoking their great pipes again. Hamid could not keep his eyes off the beautiful sword and the brace of fine pistols with their red cords, which belonged to his father’s friend. They were the most beautiful things he had ever seen, he thought.
Hamid had not a bit of the shyness which Eastern children usually have, for the Arab children are taught from their earliest days always to be independent; and their elders talk with them and encourage them to ask questions. This is a part of their education.
So Hamid was told all about Medina and the doings of the great city; and his father’s friend took off his great sword that Hamid might fasten it at his own waist.
“Some day I shall have a sword just like that,” said Hamid, as he handed it back, after having marched around the tent with it dragging on the ground behind him. Rashid lay on the soft cushions and laughed, still too tired to get up and rush about as Hamid was doing.
Rashid’s father, the Sharif, had brought a gift of a beautiful chased dagger of Damascus steel for Al-Abukar.
“It is indeed a beautiful weapon,” said Hamid’s father, feeling its polished blade with careful fingers. No gift could possibly please an Arab more than a good weapon, and he thanked his friend from the city again and again.
“Here is also a toy from the bazaar that I have brought thy son,” said the Sharif. “See,” he continued, “it is a toy camel with a strange device inside its body by which it moves its head and legs. ‘Tis one of those strange mechanical toys that are the work of infidels in a foreign land, but all the same none the less wonderful for that.” (The Mohammedans call all the people of other faiths infidels.)
“Nay, one needs no toys from the town,” said Hamid, proudly. “We play with live camels and horses and chase the wild beasts across the desert.”
We would think it very rude indeed of a little boy to speak thus; but instead of scolding Hamid, they praised him; and the Sharif said, smilingly, “Truly thou art one of the ‘sons of fight.’” That is what the word Beni-Harb, the name of their tribe, means in the Arabic language.
This is the true Arab spirit; and children are taught to scorn childish things so that they may the sooner become hardy and brave in any kind of danger. It is really very funny to see the little boys act and talk as if they were already grown men like their fathers; and they would much rather play with swords and pistols any day than with toys.
“Indeed thou art a little fighting hawk. May Allah grant that the sweet wind of the desert put strength into the limbs of my son,” continued Al-Abukar’s guest, looking sorrowfully at little Rashid’s pale cheeks as he lay on his cushions.
“He is a little better already,” said Zubaydah, kindly, as she gave little Fatimah a censer of burning musk to swing before her guests, that they might enjoy the smell of sweet perfumes after the meal.
“I will show you my falcons if you are not too tired,” said Hamid, anxious to amuse his little friend.
“Oh, indeed I am not tired. Where are they?” cried Rashid, jumping up and forgetting all about his long ride.
Hamid led his little guest out among the great palm-trees and past a great many tents to a sort of mud hut thatched with palm leaves.
“How are the birds to-day?” asked Hamid of a man who was sitting in front of the hut, while two fine greyhounds lay beside him. “I have brought a little friend with me who will hunt with the falcons some day.”
“May it be soon,” said the thin, wiry Bedouin, rising and drawing the curtain of the hut. “The old ones are impatient to be flung to the wind, and I would teach the young ones something more.”
This man was Awad, the old falconer, the man who trains falcons, who was only too proud to show off his household of fine birds. These hawk-like birds, called falcons, are great hunters of small game; and can be trained to hunt for their masters, just as one can train a dog. The falcon drops down on its prey from above, in a swift, straight line, and buries its sharp claws in its back, often killing it before its master comes up.
Hamid showed Rashid how he could make his two handsome falcons come and sit on his wrist and obey him. He could throw them off into the air and they would come back to him when he whistled.
“Some day when thou art stronger, we will go out with the falcons,” said Hamid, as he put the birds back on their perch.
When they left the hut, they saw Fatimah running toward them, a dear little gazelle bounding along by her side.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” said Fatimah, as Rashid stroked the gazelle’s dainty head. “I think falcons are cruel because they chase these pretty creatures. My little pet was caught by the falcons; and, when father brought her home, I begged him to give her to me for a playmate. Now, more than ever, I do not like to have the falcons chase these dear, gentle little animals.” Then she put her arms around the gazelle’s neck and hugged it.
When the children went back to the tent, they found that the older folk had had their siesta, or midday sleep, and were now sitting in front of the tent.
Zubaydah had the supper-tray brought out to the children; and, when they had again eaten, while the men were sitting around smoking their perfumed water-pipes, the full moon came up over the ridge and made it almost as light as day; for the moonlight of the desert seems brighter than moonlight anywhere else because the air is so clear.
Now they all began to tell stories and recite poetry, of which the Arabs are very fond. The Arab loves to hear and to tell stories about the great deeds of their people in the past, and to recite beautiful poems in praise of the glories of many years ago.
Finally Fatimah brought out her lute, a queer little instrument with only one string, which did not make much music. But the song was very pretty, and Fatimah sang it very sweetly:
“Oh, take these purple robes away,
After the song, Rashid and Hamid rolled themselves up in warm blankets in a corner of the big tent and were soon asleep. So ended Rashid’s first day in the “Black Tents.”