V. HAREMS AND CEREMONIES
THE CROWD IN THE STREET
To occidental travellers the most vivid impression produced by a first contact with the Near East is the surprise of being in a country where the human element increases instead of diminishing the delight of the eye.
After all, then, the intimate harmony between nature and architecture and the human body that is revealed in Greek art was not an artist's counsel of perfection but an honest rendering of reality: there were, there still are, privileged scenes where the fall of a green-grocer's draperies or a milkman's cloak or a beggar's rags are part of the composition, distinctly related to it in line and colour, and where the natural unstudied attitudes of the human body are correspondingly harmonious, however humdrum the acts it is engaged in. The discovery, to the traveller returning from the East, robs the most romantic scenes of western Europe of half their charm: in the Piazza of San Marco, in the market-place of Siena, where at least the robes of the Procurators or the gay tights of Pinturicchio's striplings once justified man's presence among his works, one can see, at first, only the outrage inflicted on beauty by the "plentiful strutting manikins" of the modern world.
Moroccan crowds are always a feast to the eye. The instinct of skilful drapery, the sense of colour (subdued by custom, but breaking out in subtle glimpses under the universal ashy tints) make the humblest assemblage of donkey-men and water-carriers an ever-renewed delight. But it is only on rare occasions, and in the court ceremonies to which so few foreigners have had access, that the hidden sumptuousness of the native life is revealed. Even then, the term sumptuousness may seem ill-chosen, since the nomadic nature of African life persists in spite of palaces and chamberlains and all the elaborate ritual of the Makhzen, and the most pompous rites are likely to end in a dusty gallop of wild tribesmen, and the most princely processions to tail off in a string of half-naked urchins riding bareback on donkeys.
As in all Oriental countries, the contact between prince and beggar, vizier and serf is disconcertingly free and familiar, and one must see the highest court officials kissing the hem of the Sultan's robe, and hear authentic tales of slaves given by one merchant to another at the end of a convivial evening, to be reminded that nothing is as democratic in appearance as a society of which the whole structure hangs on the whim of one man.
In the verandah of the Residence of Rabat I stood looking out between posts festooned with gentian-blue ipomeas at the first shimmer of light on black cypresses and white tobacco-flowers, on the scattered roofs of the new town, and the plain stretching away to the Sultan's palace above the sea.
We had been told, late the night before, that the Sultan would allow Madame Lyautey, with the three ladies of her party, to be present at the great religious rite of the Aid-el-Kebir (the Sacrifice of the Sheep). The honour was an unprecedented one, a favour probably conceded only at the last moment: for as a rule no women are admitted to these ceremonies. It was an opportunity not to be missed, and all through the short stifling night I had lain awake wondering if I should be ready early enough. Presently the motors assembled, and we set out with the French officers in attendance on the Governor's wife.
The Sultan's palace, a large modern building on the familiar Arab lines, lies in a treeless and gardenless waste enclosed by high walls and close above the blue Atlantic. We motored past the gates, where the Sultan's Black Guard was drawn up, and out to the msalla,[A] a sort of common adjacent to all the Sultan's residences where public ceremonies are usually performed. The sun was already beating down on the great plain thronged with horsemen and with the native population of Rabat on mule-back and foot. Within an open space in the centre of the crowd a canvas palissade dyed with a bold black pattern surrounded the Sultan's tents. The Black Guard, in scarlet tunics and white and green turbans, were drawn up on the edge of the open space, keeping the spectators at a distance; but under the guidance of our companions we penetrated to the edge of the crowd.
[Footnote A: The msalla is used for the performance of religious ceremonies when the crowd is too great to be contained in the court of the mosque.]
The palissade was open on one side, and within it we could see moving about among the snowy-robed officials a group of men in straight narrow gowns of almond-green, peach-blossom, lilac and pink; they were the Sultan's musicians, whose coloured dresses always flower out conspicuously among the white draperies of all the other court attendants.
In the tent nearest the opening, against a background of embroidered hangings, a circle of majestic turbaned old men squatted placidly on Rabat rugs. Presently the circle broke up, there was an agitated coming and going, and some one said: "The Sultan has gone to the tent at the back of the enclosure to kill the sheep."