CHAPTER III. The Arabs' exodus-Reception by Abou Sinn-Arabs dressing the hair-Toilet of an Arab woman-The plague of lice-Wives among the Arabs-The Old Testament confirmed
IT was the season of rejoicing. Everybody appeared in good humor. The distended udders of thousands of camels were an assurance of plenty. The burning sun that for nine months had scorched the earth was veiled by passing clouds. The cattle that had panted for water, and whose food was withered straw, were filled with juicy fodder. The camels that had subsisted upon the dried and leafless twigs and branches, now feasted upon the succulent tops of the mimosas. Throngs of women and children mounted upon camels, protected by the peculiar gaudy saddle-hood, ornamented with cowrie- shells, accompanied the march. Thousands of sheep and goats, driven by Arab boys, were straggling in all directions. Baggage-camels, heavily laden with the quaint household goods, blocked up the way. The fine bronzed figures of Arabs, with sword and shield, and white topes, or plaids, guided their milk-white dromedaries through the confused throng with the usual placid dignity of their race, simply passing by with the usual greeting, "Salaam aleikum" (Peace be with you).
It was the Exodus; all were hurrying toward the promised land - "the land flowing with milk and honey", where men and beasts would be secure, not only from the fevers of the south, but from that deadly enemy to camels and cattle, the fly. This terrible insect drove all before it.
If all were right in migrating to the north, it was a logical conclusion that we were wrong in going to the south during the rainy season; however, we now heard from the Arabs that we were within a couple of hours' march from the camp of the great Sheik Achmet Abou Sinn, to whom I had a letter of introduction. At the expiration of about that time we halted, and pitched the tents among some shady mimosas, while I sent Mahomet to Abou Sinn with the letter, and my firman.
I was busily engaged in making sundry necessary arrangements in the tent when Mahomet returned and announced the arrival of the great sheik in person. He was attended by several of his principal people, and as he approached through the bright green mimosas, mounted upon a beautiful snow-white hygeen, I was exceedingly struck with his venerable and dignified appearance. Upon near arrival I went forward to meet him and to assist him from his camel; but his animal knelt immediately at his command, and he dismounted with the ease and agility of a man of twenty.
He was the most magnificent specimen of an Arab that I have ever seen. Although upward of eighty years of age, he was as erect as a lance, and did not appear more than between fifty and sixty. He was of herculean stature, about six feet three inches high, with immensely broad shoulders and chest, a remarkably arched nose, eyes like an eagle's, beneath large, shaggy, but perfectly white eyebrows. A snow-white beard of great thickness descended below the middle of his breast. He wore a large white turban and a white cashmere abbai, or long robe, from the throat to the ankles. As a desert patriarch he was superb - the very perfection of all that the imagination could paint, if we should personify Abraham at the head of his people. This grand old Arab with the greatest politeness insisted upon our immediately accompanying him to his camp, as he could not allow us to remain in his country as strangers. He would hear of no excuses, but at once gave orders to Mahomet to have the baggage repacked and the tents removed, while we were requested to mount two superb white hygeens, with saddle-cloths of blue Persian sheepskins, that he had immediately accoutered when he heard from Mahomet of our miserable camels. The tent was struck, and we joined our venerable host with a line of wild and splendidly-mounted attendants, who followed us toward the sheik's encampment.
Among the retinue of the aged sheik whom we now accompanied, were ten of his sons, some of whom appeared to be quite as old as their father. We had ridden about two miles when we were suddenly met by a crowd of mounted men, armed with the usual swords and shields; many were on horses, others upon hygeens, and all drew up in lines parallel with our approach. These were Abou Sinn's people, who had assembled to give us the honorary welcome as guests of their chief. This etiquette of the Arabs consists in galloping singly at full speed across the line of advance, the rider flourishing the sword over his head, and at the same moment reining up his horse upon its haunches so as to bring it to a sudden halt. This having been performed by about a hundred riders upon both horses and hygeens, they fell into line behind our party, and, thus escorted, we shortly arrived at the Arab encampment. In all countries the warmth of a public welcome appears to be exhibited by noise. The whole neighborhood had congregated to meet us; crowds of women raised the wild, shrill cry that is sounded alike for joy or sorrow; drums were beat; men dashed about with drawn swords and engaged in mimic fight, and in the midst of din and confusion we halted and dismounted. With peculiar grace of manner the old sheik assisted my wife to dismount, and led her to an open shed arranged with angareps (stretchers) covered with Persian carpets and cushions, so as to form a divan. Sherbet, pipes, and coffee were shortly handed to us, and Mahomet, as dragoman, translated the customary interchange of compliments; the sheik assured us that our unexpected arrival among them was "like the blessing of a new moon", the depth of which expression no one can understand who has not experienced life in the desert, where the first faint crescent is greeted with such enthusiasm.
Abou Sinn had arranged to move northward on the following day; we therefore agreed to pass one day in his camp, and to leave the next morning for Sofi, on the Atbara, about seventy-eight miles distant.