V. HAREMS AND CEREMONIES
My hostesses received me with the utmost amiability, we seated ourselves in the oriel facing the view, and the interchange of questions and compliments began.
Had I any children? (They asked it all at once.)
"In Islam" (one of the ladies ventured) "a woman without children is considered the most unhappy being in the world."
I replied that in the western world also childless women were pitied. (The brother-in-law smiled incredulously.)
Knowing that European fashions are of absorbing interest to the harem I next enquired: "What do these ladies think of our stiff tailor-dresses? Don't they find them excessively ugly?"
"Yes, they do;" (it was again the brother-in-law who replied.) "But they suppose that in your own homes you dress less badly."
"And have they never any desire to travel, or to visit the Bazaars, as the Turkish ladies do?"
"No, indeed. They are too busy to give such matters a thought. In our country women of the highest class occupy themselves with their household and their children, and the rest of their time is devoted to needlework." (At this statement I gave the brother-in-law a smile as incredulous as his own.)
All this time the fair-haired interpretess had not been allowed by the vigilant guardian of the harem to utter a word.
I turned to her with a question.
"So your mother is French, Mademoiselle?"
"From what part of France did she come?"
A bewildered pause. Finally, "I don't know . . . from Switzerland, I think," brought out this shining example of the Higher Education. In spite of Algerian "advantages" the poor girl could speak only a few words of her mother's tongue. She had kept the European features and complexion, but her soul was the soul of Islam. The harem had placed its powerful imprint upon her, and she looked at me with the same remote and passive eyes as the daughters of the house.
After struggling for a while longer with a conversation which the watchful brother-in-law continued to direct as he pleased, I felt my own lips stiffening into the resigned smile of the harem, and it was a relief when at last their guardian drove the pale flock away, and the handsome old gentleman who owned them reappeared on the scene, bringing back my friends, and followed by slaves and tea.
What thoughts, what speculations, one wonders, go on under the narrow veiled brows of the little creatures destined to the high honour of marriage or concubinage in Moroccan palaces?
Some are brought down from mountains and cedar forests, from the free life of the tents where the nomad women go unveiled. Others come from harems in the turreted cities beyond the Atlas, where blue palm-groves beat all night against the stars and date-caravans journey across the desert from Timbuctoo. Some, born and bred in an airy palace among pomegranate gardens and white terraces, pass thence to one of the feudal fortresses near the snows, where for half the year the great chiefs of the south live in their clan, among fighting men and falconers and packs of sloughis. And still others grow up in a stifling Mellah, trip unveiled on its blue terraces overlooking the gardens of the great, and, seen one day at sunset by a fat vizier or his pale young master, are acquired for a handsome sum and transferred to the painted sepulchre of the harem.
Worst of all must be the fate of those who go from tents and cedar forests, or from some sea-blown garden above Rabat, into one of the houses of Old Fez. They are well-nigh impenetrable, these palaces of Elbali; the Fazi dignitaries do not welcome the visits of strange women. On the rare occasions when they are received, a member of the family (one of the sons, or a brother-in-law who has "studied in Algeria") usually acts as interpreter; and perhaps it is as well that no one from the outer world should come to remind these listless creatures that somewhere the gulls dance on the Atlantic and the wind murmurs through olive-yards and clatters the metallic fronds of palm-groves.