Eothen: Traces of Travel in the East - A. W. Kinglake

The Black Tents

[Illustration] from Eothen - Travel in the East by A. W. Kinglake

My steps were reluctantly turned towards the north. I had ridden some way, and still it seemed that all life was fenced and barred out from the desolate ground over which I was journeying. On the west there flowed the impassable Jordan, on the east stood an endless range of barren mountains, and on the south lay that desert sea that knew not the plashing of an oar; greatly therefore was I surprised when suddenly there broke upon my ear the long, ludicrous, persevering bray of a donkey. I was riding at this time some few hundred yards ahead of all my party except the Nazarene (who by a wise instinct kept closer to me than to Dthemetri), and I instantly went forward in the direction of the sound, for I fancied that where there were donkeys, there too most surely would be men. The ground on all sides of me seemed thoroughly void and lifeless, but at last I got down into a hollow, and presently a sudden turn brought me within thirty yards of an Arab encampment. The low black tents which I had so long lusted to see were right before me, and they were all teeming with live Arabs—men, women, and children.

I wished to have let my party behind know where I was, but I recollected that they would be able to trace me by the prints of my horse's hoofs in the sand, and having to do with Asiatics, I felt the danger of the slightest movement which might be looked upon as a sign of irresolution. Therefore, without looking behind me, without looking to the right or to the left, I rode straight up towards the foremost tent. Before this was strewed a semicircular fence of dead boughs, through which there was an opening opposite to the front of the tent. As I advanced, some twenty or thirty of the most uncouth-looking fellows imaginable came forward to meet me. In their appearance they showed nothing of the Bedouin blood; they were of many colours, from dingy brown to jet black, and some of these last had much of the negro look about them. They were tall, powerful fellows, but awfully ugly. They wore nothing but the Arab shirts, confined at the waist by leathern belts.

I advanced to the gap left in the fence, and at once alighted from my horse. The chief greeted me after his fashion by alternately touching first my hand and then his own forehead, as if he were conveying the virtue of the touch like a spark of electricity. Presently I found myself seated upon a sheepskin, which was spread for me under the sacred shade of Arabian canvas. The tent was of a long, narrow, oblong form, and contained a quantity of men, women, and children so closely huddled together, that there was scarcely one of them who was not in actual contact with his neighbour. The moment I had taken my seat the chief repeated his salutations in the most enthusiastic manner, and then the people having gathered densely about me, got hold of my unresisting hand and passed it round like a claret jug for the benefit of every body. The women soon brought me a wooden bowl full of buttermilk, and welcome indeed came the gift to my hungry and thirsty soul.

After some time my party, as I had expected, came up, and when poor Dthemetri saw me on my sheepskin, "the life and soul" of this ragamuffin party, he was so astounded, that he even failed to check his cry of horror; he plainly thought that now, at last, the Lord had delivered me (interpreter and all) into the hands of the lowest Philistines.

Mysseri carried a tobacco-pouch slung at his belt, and as soon as its contents were known the whole population of the tent began begging like spaniels for bits of the beloved weed. I concluded from the abject manner of these people that they could not possibly be thoroughbred Bedouins, and I saw, too, that they must be in the very last stage of misery, for poor indeed is the man in these climes who cannot command a pipeful of tobacco. I began to think that I had fallen amongst thorough savages, and it seemed likely enough that they would gain their very first knowledge of civilisation by ravishing and studying the contents of my dearest portmanteaus, but still my impression was that they would hardly venture upon such an attempt. I observed, indeed, that they did not offer me the bread and salt which I had understood to be the pledges of peace amongst wandering tribes, but I fancied that they refrained from this act of hospitality, not in consequence of any hostile determination, but in order that the notion of robbing me might remain for the present an "open question." I afterwards found that the poor fellows had no bread to offer. They were literally "out at grass." It is true that they had a scanty supply of milk from goats, but they were living almost entirely upon certain grass stems, which were just in season at that time of the year. These, if not highly nourishing, are pleasant enough to the taste, and their acid juices come gratefully to thirsty lips.