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AN ARAB'S REVENGE
A true Story
BY EDWARD HENRY VIZETELLY
I HAD been in Algeria for some months, and during one of my somewhat frequent visits to Algiers I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with a Moor. I may even say that to a certain extent I had conquered his confidence, which, for a European, was no very easy matter. His name was Sid-Hadj-Abdallah. The first time I met him was at a Moorish café, and some days afterwards I saw him seated in his shop, on the square of Si-Mohammed-elScheriff, in the Mussulman quarter of the town. I often passed that way, and whenever we met we naturally saluted each other, until at length the mere cold nod or wave of the hand, or the few commonplace words of greeting which we were in the habit of exchanging, gradually developed into a kind of friendship. I never by any chance returned to Algiers from a journey in the interior without paying him a visit, and at times I would pass an hour or two with him of an afternoon engaged in conversation. We had both travelled a great deal, and while Sid-Abdallah would talk to me of the East and Algeria, concerning which I was anxious to learn all I could, I, for my part, would relate my travels in Europe. When I say that I had to a certain extent conquered the Moor's confidence, I should explain that he was merely as friendly with me as he was ever likely to be with a European. He never mentioned a word concerning his house or family. He only spoke about his public life, such as the condition of his ancestors, his travels in the interior and in the East, his business, and such-like. I knew from other people that he was tolerably well off, and that he had had three wives, only one of whom was living. He resided in a house not far from his shop, but he had never asked me to go there, and had never even pointed it out to me.
One day while I was seated in his bazaar talking, smoking cigarettes, and sipping coffee, he took down a small wooden box from a shelf, and opening it, proceeded to show me its contents. There was an old watch, some valuable jewelry, and several parchments covered with very beautiful Arab writing, and illuminated in the margins with blue and gold; some of them, too, had large seals in the corners. Abdallah was telling me how he was descended from a family of Marabouts, and how these documents were his patents of nobility. The one-o'clock prayer had just been announced from the minaret of the neighbouring mosque, and a number of Moorish
THIRD SERIES, VOL. V. F.S. VOL. XXV.
women were descending from the upper part of the town on their way to the baths, followed by negresses carrying large bundles of linen upon their heads. All of a sudden a woman, quite alone, unaccompanied either by a servant or a child, as is usual in Algiers, stopped before the shop and leant against the doorway.
'Salem' (I salute thee), she said in a very soft melodious voice, but which was somewhat indistinct on account of the muslin which covered her face from the eyes downwards.
Abdallah saw her without raising his head, heard her greeting, replied by a very gruff Salem,' and continued turning over his parchments.
'Ouach enta?' (How art thou ?) continued the voice in a tone which, although slightly firmer, was still very soft.
'Very well,' answered Abdallah abruptly, in just such a manner as he would have said 'Go about your business.'
After one or two other questions, however, he was obliged to put his papers on one side; stretching out his hand towards the box, he slowly arranged the precious documents, and then, raising his head, looked straight at the woman. An almost imperceptible blush passed over his careworn countenance, and for the first time since I had known him, his usually dull eyes were lighted up with something resembling the fire of youth. The conversation commenced in a very animated manner, although it was generally carried on in a low tone. It was quite impossible for me, with my imperfect knowledge of Arabic, to gather anything from it. I could only distinguish the often-repeated word 'Amar,' and judging from the gestures of Abdallah, it seemed as if he was refusing to comply with the woman's request. Sometimes he would take his beard in both hands and shake his head, at others he would place the back of his right hand under his chin and draw it away again with that emphatic gesture by which the Arabs accompany their 'La, la' (no). Nevertheless, the woman strove to attain her object without appearing in the least degree discouraged at Abdallah's repeated refusals. She asked, begged, prayed, and menaced in turn, with such a volubility of phrases, and such a soft accent, that her passionate language would have been irresistible to any one but old Abdallah.. What fascinated me more than anything was the musical voice of this pleading woman. She softened the harshest sounds of her language, and, whether she desired it or not, her most irritable sayings were enveloped, as it were, in a kind of melody. Even when she burst out in a passion, and when her voice rose to the intonations of anger, she never by any chance gave utterance to a false note. I sat listening in ecstasy. What was the age and condition of this woman, I asked myself? Apart from a miracle there was art, and a great deal of art, in her language; I therefore estimated that she was more than eighteen. By her figure, which was completely masked from
head to foot, I could tell nothing. She was enveloped in white, and all that one could see of her body was a wrist and hand, the former being delicately tatooed with blue marks and ornamented with a double gold bracelet, while the latter looked soft and small, and seemed to belong to an idle woman who was more than usually careful of her person.
The interview terminated without any result. The woman selected a small red-leather pouch and a pair of embroidered slippers from the shop, placed them beneath her haïk, without asking the price, readjusted her veils, and saluted Sid-Abdallah by a sign of the head. Without thinking what I was doing I bowed slightly and said Good-day' in Arabic. 'Au revoir,' she answered with the purest French accent. At the same moment I caught sight of her eyes, which were directed towards me. It would be difficult to say what they expressed; but I felt that the look was piercing, for it came and went like a flash of lightning.
Do you know that woman ?' I asked Sid-Abdallah, when she had left us.
He was quite calm again, and merely answered, 'No.'
Does she live in Algiers ?'
'I don't know.'
'What was she asking you?'
The question was too direct. The old man hesitated; then, as is generally the case when Mussulmans are embarrassed for an answer, he replied by a proverb. At the same time he rose, put on his shoes, and left me, as was his custom, to go to say his prayers.
I knew Abdallah sufficiently well to be aware that any farther allusion to the subject would annoy him, and I therefore determined to say nothing more about it.
I returned to the shop the next day at a little before one, with the firm resolution of being discreet, no matter what might happen. We had hardly been talking for five minutes when a woman, followed by a negress in a red haïk, which is quite an unusual sight in Algiers, appeared at the top of the street. I saw her stop in the shadow of one of the low arched doorways to readjust her veil, so that her servant preceded her instead of following her. Her costume was irreproachably white, but I was somewhat surprised to see that she wore neither stockings nor the long baggy muslin breeches which Moorish women generally put on when they go out. She had two massive gold rings round her somewhat thin ankles, and her naked feet were encased in black-morocco shoes slashed with red. She came towards us, striking the gold rings together at every step, with her body perfectly erect and her hands hidden beneath her white drapery. As she passed in front of the shop I noticed that her almond-shaped eyes were looking at me sideways, and the movement of the muslin stretched across her lips showed me clearly enough
that she was laughing. It was my Moorish woman of the previous day. Something more than the smile and the sidelong glance seemed to tell me that it was she. My first thought was to follow her, but I restrained myself, for I would not for the world have done anything to offend my old friend. She turned the corner of the street; for a few seconds I heard the jingling of the gold rings in the distance, then it suddenly died away, and we continued our conversation in the most natural manner imaginable. I noticed, however, that Sid-Abdallah did not leave me that afternoon to go to the mosque; indeed, our gossip seemed to have interested him so much, that he forgot all about his prayers.
I remained more than two hours with him after the Moorish woman had passed. When I rose to leave he looked at me in a very strange manner, and pressed my hand with a familiarity quite unusual to him; then laying stress upon each word, he said,
'Sidi, you are very young; I speak to you as a man who knows a great many things-beware of the Kabyle.'
I returned home musing. I did not so much think of the danger I was incurring, although danger there undoubtedly was, as SidAbdallah had thought it necessary to warn me. I was pondering on the phrase which he had made use of, and which was open to various constructions. Was the woman a Kabyle, or was this merely an injurious term which Abdallah used to qualify her? He thoroughly hated Kabyles and Jews; and with him 'K'baïl-benK'baïl,' or Kabyle son of a Kabyle, was equivalent to 'dog son of a dog. The most injurious phrase I had ever heard him make use of when speaking of a person whom he despised was 'K'baïl-benK'baïl.' 'If,' thought I, he used the word in that sense, I know what to think of the woman; but if, on the other hand, she is merely a Kabyle, I can see no crime in her having been born in the mountains; and that would also excuse her for having forgotten to put on stockings when she went to the baths.'
The above events occurred about the middle of November, and shortly afterwards I left Algiers for the interior. Towards the end of February I was at Blidah, some thirty miles from Algiers, in company with a Frenchman of the name of Vertbois. We had met some time previous in the Sahara; I was following a caravan bound for Onargla, but which I intended leaving at the second oasis. One evening, just as we were getting to the end of the days of March, Vertbois joined us, and as I had the least baggage of any one, it was decided that he should share my tent. We parted company on the next day, but we met each other again several months afterwards in the plain of the Mitidja. Vertbois was quite a character. He would set out alone, on excursions of several hundred miles into the interior of the country, without giving a thought to the danger connected with the journey; for being a thorough master of Arabic,