Imágenes de páginas
[blocks in formation]

OFFICIAL duty sent me not long ago to visit a small town on one of the lower reaches of the Tigris. I was not sorry to exchange the close atmosphere of the capital for the fresher air of the country, to leave behind for a brief space the noises and smells of modern Baghdad. The city may be, doubtless is, a cleaner place than it was a decade ago, but the reforming hand of civilisation has not made it more beautiful. Empty kerosene tins have replaced the graceful watering-pots of the women, rusty sheets of corrugated iron the painted woodwork of the houses which lean across the narrow streets; and dilapidated Ford cars are rapidly ousting the gaily-caparisoned horses, which one still sees, unsuperseded, in the districts.

I made the journey downstream in a paddle-steamer belonging to the "Bait Lynch.'


Old as she was, and almost worn out after her forty years of struggle against the strong current, she was spotlessly clean, as Tigris boats are only clean when a British skipper commands them. As we waited in the wide sunlit river, with its few lazy balams and its gleaming white gulls swaying on the ripples, I asked the captain when he meant to leave Basrah on his return journey. He must have forgotten the perhaps apocryphal tale of the skipper in the early days of Tigris navigation, who, having shocked Muslim opinion by omitting to qualify his rigid programme with the pious proviso "in sha Allah-God willing," was duly punished for his presumption by the burning of his ship. The present captain, who sinned in the same way in answering my question, met with a lighter retribution in the shape of


boiler trouble. This, which detained him at Basrah and prevented him from keeping his word, had the secondary result of giving me time to revisit the marsh country of Southern Iraq, and incidentally to alight on one of its halfrevealed tragedies.

about the river he was silent. It seemed as though the monotony of that tame voyage, so often repeated, had obliterated in his mind, as in the minds of all his fellows, any other features that it might once have had for him.

For, despite the dulness of its banks, the river is full of interest-that river which has seen so many armies crossing in pomp and splendour, or returning in flight, panicstricken and broken. Almost every reach has its associa

The bridge of boats swung slowly open, and we passed through on the broad olivegreen bosom of the Tigris. Baghdad, with its rickety verandahs sagging dangerously over the water, its crumbling brick houses hiding their de- tions. From the deck we had crepitude under a coat of gaudy yellow paint, drifted past us and was left behind, and we glided on between green gardens in which the palm groves' deep gloom was splashed with brightness by the early blossom of peach and apricot. Here a blindfold horse was turning a Persian water - wheel, here rhythmic puffs of smoke floated upwards from the more modern mechanical pump. Under the perfect sky of a spring day in Iraq we swung down the river, its winding curves apparently unending before us. Only the ship's meals, presided over by the skipper, broke the monotony of the long day. The captain of a Tigris steam-boat may be warmed to enthusiasm on many and various subjects, but in my experience the great river, in travelling up and down which he has often spent years of his life, is never one of them. Our skipper talked of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, but

just seen on one bank the group of low mounds which are the old canal banks of the Nahr Malka, down which Julian the Apostate brought his fleet of eleven hundred vessels from the Euphrates to the Tigris, only to be burnt subsequently at his own order -a Cortez-like gesture which might have won the world's applause, if Julian's expedition had not ended in failure and his own death. This canal was re-excavated by the British Administration almost on its old alignment, and under its new name of Yusifiyah now irrigates many thousands of acres up till then barren. On the other bank we could see Ctesiphon, the winter capital of the Sassanian kings-the city before which a force of sixty thousand Roman soldiers retired, thinking it impregnable, but which fell only a couple of centuries later to the wild Bedouin forces of Islam under Sa'd. So rich was the treasure that every com

mon soldier received the equiva- along, flinging its doubtless lent of £500. The noble arch uncomplaining occupants into of the hall, which every travel- the hood at every bump on the ler up the Tigris has described, uneven track. gives in its splendid isolation as poignant an impression of departed glory as many another ruin of greater extent or even greater antiquity.

The boat swept on down the sinuous river, with scarcely a sound to break the noon stillness, save the cry of the leadsman as from his perch in the bows he thrust his bending pole into the water swirling past. For miles one would see no tree of any sort, then perhaps only a few date-palms. Of cultivation there was hardly a sign, for such crops as there were lay farther inland, out of sight from the river. The one growing thing seemed to be camel-thorn, which flourished on all sides, its spiky bare twigs violet in the sunshine. Here and there a group of women, cutting and piling it into bundles to sell as firewood, showed that an encampment was near; then would come a cluster of black goat hair tents, a row of karids with their dun-coloured oxen drawing up the dripping skins of water, a a group of grazing camels, or a neatly-stacked pile of liquorice roots destined for America, there (it is said) to be used in the manufacture of tobacco. Again the empty desert on both sides; but here the road ran parallel to the river, and on it-strange incongruous intruder from another world-a Ford car raced

Later in the day we passed a few mud hovels, where in the time of the Abbasid Caliphs a flourishing town had stood, with its toll-bar across the river, and its great Christian monastery known as the "Convent of the Loop." Now the broad curve of the Tigris was empty, lifeless; we saw no boat nor craft of any kind for mile upon mile, until, a little above Kut, we came upon half a dozen loaded mahailas moored for the night against the bank, their slender graceful masts cutting sharply across the orange sky of sunset; under the light and flimsy straw matting which sheltered the weary tow-men, more than one had a fire leaping merrily.

In quickly-gathering darkness we reached the shadowy gardens and half-lit coffee houses of Kut-al-Amara-scene of what desperate, obstinate hope, what unwilling despair, what tardy rehabilitation! The little town has returned to its former inconspicuousness; but the blue-tiled minaret of its mosque is only just repaired of the battering it sustained from an unlucky British shell. Kut is the ancient Madharayah, and stands near the junction of the great Nahrwan canal, with the Tigris. Another link with the past is the site farther down-stream of the causeway which carried the old caravan route across the Tigris towards

[ocr errors]

Susa- "Shushan the Palace of the Old Testament. Arab legend, half-forgotten now, has another story of the causeway's origin: the mound on the left bank, still known as Filaifilah, was so called from a lady of surpassing beauty, whose lover, Surut, gave his name to the opposite mound. Every night, Leander-like, he would swim across the river to visit his lady; and she, wishful to spare him that not unformidable journey (if he kept it up through the spring floods), had the causeway built for him.

At Kut our only other passenger left the ship, a sleek Italian. From the guarded cross-examination with which he favoured me, I gathered that his mission was to find out the whereabouts of the abandoned war material and ammunition dumps on the battlefields round Kut, with a view to exporting the scrap to Italy.

Early next morning we reached another little riverside town, surrounded by its groves of date and orange trees. The mud houses looked in the glaring sunlight as if they were made of white stone. We did not land to destroy the illusion, though we banked in to pick up the mail, and were greeted with effusion by the local representative of the Government. Occidental influence on the Arab is usually disastrous as regards appearance : this mudir, with his unshaven chin and travesty of European dress, was not

an imposing nor a dignified figure; yet it is undeniable that most of these lower-grade officials are surprisingly apt at getting the best out of the rough-and-ready methods of Oriental administration. I had known Khalil Effendi of old, when he was the mamur of an out-of-the-way little station rarely visited by any one. In spite of this isolation, his books were most meticulously kept in the finest Arabic script. At a word of praise his glum face would light up, and he would fall to discussing, with all the fervour of an enthusiast, the Science of Writing; and in order that his children might remain in a town to enjoy the advantages of that education by which the Arab effendi sets such pathetic store, he preferred to remain alone in the tiny station, in which he and a handful of policemen were the only inhabitants, doing his own cooking and fetching all his needs from the nearest suq, thirty miles away.

During the long journey from Baghdad we had only encountered one British official, an Administrative Inspector, who enjoyed the doubtful measure of popularity accorded to his kind. Welcomed by the Arab officials when he shares. an unacceptable responsibility, regarded with impatient distrust when he restrains them from hasty and ill-considered action; welcomed by the shaikhs when he intervenes between them and their stronger brethren, execrated when the

intervention is between them of scarlet, all but the black and their oppressed tribesmen faded to drab by the fierce -an Administrative Inspector and politically neutral sun. leads a thankless though not unamusing life.

At length, rounding the last bend of legion, we sighted the little town in which I was to carry out my inspection. On the large square building which had been Army Headquarters under the Union Jack when first I saw it, the new flag of Iraq flapped bravely-green, white, and black, with triangle

My work finished, I learned from the Company's agent of the boiler trouble which delayed the return journey of the ship, and gave me a clear three days with nothing to do. I decided to accept the hospitality offered by Shaikh Rahaige, and to spend as much time as I could in the marsh country, which in the old days I had known so well.

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]


muscular form and flashing teeth, and sent a friendly thought after him into the shades. Thedour-looking young Arab, a nephew, who had taken his place in the bow of Bahalool's mashhuf, seemed a poor substitute for the elder twin. "No gun" said Bahalool, as we pushed off.

I shook my head. After so many years' absence I did not want to shoot. I wanted to pick up the threads of my old intimacy with the Marsh-to spend a long day in renewing the old impressions of its solitary beauty. I wanted to glide down the narrow hidden waterchannels, to cross the wide, wind-swept, blue lakes, and to hear once more the ceaseless whisper of the reeds, that low murmur which is at once so familiar and so friendly, until suddenly, almost against one's will, one hears in its gentle and serene voice a note of warning,

« AnteriorContinuar »