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THE GIFT OF 

HENRY W. SAGE 

1891 



Cornell University Library 
DT 250.D73 



Fountains in the sand : rambles among th 




3 1924 028 720 237 




The original of tliis bool< is in 
tine Cornell University Library. 

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FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 



FOUNTAINS 
IN THE SAND 

RAMBLES AMONG THE OASES OF TUNISIA 

By Norman Douglas 3 3 3 




First PuhlUhed igii 



CONTENTS 



I. EN ROUTE 

II. BY THE OUED BAIESH 

III. THE TERMID 

IV. STONES OF GAFSA 

V. SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG 

VI. AMUSEMENTS BY THE WAY 

VII. AT THE CAFE 

VIII. POST-PRANDIAL MEDITATIONS 

IX. SOME OF OUR GUESTS 

X. THE OASIS OF LEILA 

XI. A HAVEN OF REFUGE 

XII. THE MYSTERIOUS COUNT 

XIII. TO METLAOUI 

XIV. PHOSPHATES 

XV. THE SELDJA GORGE 

XVI. AT THE HEAD OF THE WATERS 

XVII. ROMAN OLIVE-CULTURE 

XVIII. THE WORK OF PHILIPPE THOMAS 

XIX. OVER GUIFLA TO TOZEUR 

XX. A WATERY LABYRINTH 

XXI. OLD TISOUROS 

XXII. THE DISMAL CHOTT 

XXIIL THE GARDENS OF NEFTA 

XXIV. NEFTA AND ITS FUTURE 



PAGE 

13 
24 

33 
42 
5° 
63 
72 
88 
95 

120 
127 
141 

150 
161 
169 

17s 
182 
191 

202 
213 
220 
230 
238 



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS 

FACING PAGE 

GAFSA AND JEBEL ORBATA 24 

ENTRANCE TO THE TERMID 34 

AT THE TERMID 40 

A STREET IN GAFSA 42 

HADRIAN'S INSCRIPTION 48 

THE LAST PALMS 52 

CAFE BY THE MULBERRY-TREE 56 

MY FRIEND SILENUS 64 

NATIVES OF GAFSA 96 

THE ROMAN WALL 112 

OLIVES IN THE OASIS 118 

TOZEUR AND ITS OASIS 192 

THE WATERS OF TOZEUR 204 

THE SHRINE ON THE CHOTT 226 

MARABOUT IN THE NEFTA GARDENS 232 

A BEGGAR 240 



Fountains in the Sand 



Chapter I 
EN ROUTE 

LIKELY enough, I would not have remained 
in Gafsa more than a couple of days. For 
J it was my intention to go from England 
straight down to the oases of the Djerid, 
Tozeur and Nefta, a corner of Tunisia left unex- 
plored during my last visit to that country — there, 
where the inland regions shelve down towards those 
mysterious depressions, the Chotts, dried-up oceans, 
they say, where in olden days the fleets of Atlantis 
rode at anchor. . . . 

But there fell into my hands, by the way, a volume 
that deals exclusively with Gafsa — Pierre Bor- 
dereau's " La Capsa ancienne : La Gafsa moderne " 
— and, glancing over its pages as the train wound 
southwards along sterile river-beds and across 
dusty highlands, I became interested in this place 

13 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

of Gafsa, which seems to have had such a long and 
eventful history. Even before arriving at the spot, 
I had come to the correct conclusion that it must 
be worth more than a two days' visit. 

The book opens thus : One must reach Gafsa by 
way of Sfax. Undoubtedly, this was the right thing 
to do ; all my fellow-travellers were agreed upon 
that point ; leaving Sfax by a night train, you arrive 
at Gafsa in the early hours of the following morning. 

One must reach Gafsa by way of Sfax. . . . 

But a fine spirit of northern independence 
prompted me to try an alternative route. The 
time-table marked a newly opened line of railway 
which runs directly inland from the port of Sousse ; 
the distance to Gafsa seemed shorter ; the country 
was no doubt new and interesting. There was the 
station of Feriana, for instance, celebrated for its 
Roman antiquities and well worth a visit ; I looked 
at the map and saw a broad road connecting this 
place with Gafsa ; visions of an evening ride across 
the desert arose before my delighted imagination ; 
instead of passing the night in an uncomfortable 
train, I should be already ensconced at a luxurious 
table d'hote, and so to bed. 

The gods willed otherwise. 

In pitch darkness, at the inhuman hour of 
5.55 a.m., the train crept out of Sousse : sixteen 

14 



EN ROUTE 

miles an hour is its prescribed pace. The weather 
grew sensibly colder as we rose into the uplands, 
a stricken region, tree-less and water-less, with 
gaunt brown hills receding into the background ; 
hy midday, when Sbeitla was reached, it was 
blowing a hurricane. I had hoped to wander, for 
half an hour or so, among the ruins of this old city 
of Suffetula, but the cold, apart from their distance 
from the station, rendered this impossible ; in 
order to reach the shed where luncheon was served, 
we were obliged to crawl backwards, crab-wise, to 
protect our faces from a storm which raised pebbles, 
the size of respectable peas, from the ground, and 
scattered them in a hail about us. I despair of giving 
any idea of that glacial blast : it was as if one stood, 
deprived of clothing, of skin and flesh — a jabbering 
anatomy — upon some drear Caucasian pinnacle. 
And I thought upon the gentle rains of London, 
from which I had fled to these sunny regions, 
I remembered the fogs, moist and warm and 
caressing : greatly is the English winter maligned ! 
Seeing that this part of Tunisia is covered with the 
forsaken cities of the Romans who were absurdly 
sensitive in the matter of heat and cold, one is 
driven to the conclusion that the climate must 
indeed have changed since their day. 

And my fellow-traveller, who had slept through- 

15 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

out the morning (we were the only two Europeans 
in the train), told me that this weather was nothing 
out of the common ; that at this season it blew in 
such fashion for weeks on end ; Sbeitla, to be sure, 
lay at a high point of the line, but the cold was no 
better at the present terminus, Henchir Souatir, 
whither he was bound on some business connected 
with the big phosphate company. On such occasions 
the natives barricade their doors and cower within 
over a warming-pan filled with the glowing embers 
of desert shrubs ; as for Europeans — a dog's life, he 
said ; in winter we are shrivelled to mummies, in 
summer roasted alive. 

I spoke of Feriana, and my projected evening 
ride across a few miles of desert. 

" Gafsa . . . Gafsa," he began, in dreamy 
fashion, as though I had proposed a trip to Lake 
Tchad. And then, emphatically : 

" Gafsa ? Why on earth didn't you go over 
Sfax ? " 

" Ah, everybody has been suggesting that route." 

" I can well believe it, Monsieur." 

In short, my plan was out of the question ; 
utterly out of the question. The road — a mere 
track — ^was over sixty kilometres in length and 
positively unsafe on a wintry night ; besides, the 
land lay 800 metres in height, and a traveller 

16 



EN ROUTE 

would be frozen to death. I must go as far as 
Majen, a few stations beyond Feriana ; sleep 
there in an Arab funduk (caravanserai), and thank 
my stars if I found any one willing to supply 
me with a beast for the journey onward next 
morning. There are practically no tourists along 
this line, he explained, and consequently no accom- 
modation for them ; the towns that one sees so 
beautifully marked on the map are railway stations — 
that and nothing more ; and as to the broad highways 
crossing the southern parts of Tunisia in various 
directions — well, they simply don't exist, voila / 

" That's not very consoling," I said, as we took 
our seats in the compartment again. "It begins 
well." 

And my meditations took on a sombre hue. I 
thought of a little overland trip I had once under- 
taken, in India, with the identical object of avoiding 
a long circuitous railway journey — from Udaipur 
to Mount Abu. I remembered those " few miles 
of desert." 

Decidedly, things were beginning well. 

" If you go to Gafsa," he resumed, " — if you 
really propose going to Gafsa, pray let me give you 
a card to a friend of mine, who lives there with his 
family and may be useful to you. No trouble, 
I assure you ! " 

B 17 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

He scribbled a few lines, addressed to " Monsieur 
Paul Dufresnoy, Engineer," for which I thanked 
him. " We all know each other in Africa," he said. 
" It's quite a small place — our Africa, I mean. 
You could squeeze the whole of it into the Place 
de la Concorde. . . . Nothing but minerals here- 
abouts," he went on. "They talk and dream of 
them, and sometimes their dreams come true. Did 
you observe the young proprietor of the restaurant 
at Sbeitla ? Well, a short time ago some Arabs 
brought him a handful of stones from the mountains ; 
he bought the site for two or three hundred francs, 
and a company has already offered him eight hundred 
thousand for the rights of exploitation. Zinc ! 
He is waiting tiU they offer a million." 

Majen. . . . 

A solitary station upon the wintry plain — three 
or four shivering Arabs swathed in rags — desolation 
all around — the sun setting in an angry cloud. 
It was a strong impression ; one realized, for the 
first time, one's distance from the life of civilized 
man. Night descended with the rush of a storm, 
and as the friendly train disappeared from my view, 
I seemed to have taken leave of everything human. 
This feeling was not lessened by my reception at 
the' funduk, whose native manager sternly refused 
to give me that separate sleeping-room which, 

l8 



EN ROUTE 

I had been assured, was awaiting me and which, 
as he truthfully informed me, was even then un- 
occupied. The prospect of passing the night with 
a crowd of Arabs was not pleasing. 

Amiability being unavailing, I tried bribery, but 
found him adamantine. 

I then produced a letter from the Resident of 
the Republic in Tunis, recommending me to all the 
bureaux indigenes of the country, my translation 
of it being confirmed and even improved upon, 
at the expense of veracity, by a spahi (native 
cavalryman) who happened to be present, and 
threatened the man with the torments of the 
damned if he failed to comply with the desires of 
his government. 

" The Resident," was the reply, " is plainly 
a fine fellow. But he is not the ponsechossi." 

" Ponsechossi. What's that ? " 

" This," he said, excavating from under a pile 
of miscellaneous rubbish a paper whereon was 
displayed the official stamp of the Fonts et Chaussies 
— the Department of Public Works for whose 
servants this choice apartment is — or rather ought 
to be — exclusively reserved : the rule is not always 
obeyed. 

" Bring me this " — tapping the document 
proudly — " and you have the room." 

19 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

" Could I at least find a horse in the morning — 
a mule — a donkey — a camel ? " 

" We shall see ! " And he slouched away. 

There was nothing to be done with the man. 
Your incorruptible Oriental is always disagreeable. 
Fortunately, he is rather uncommon. 

But the excellent spahi, whom my letter from 
head-quarters had considerably impressed, busied 
himself meanwhile on my behalf, and at seven in 
the morning a springless, open, two-wheeled Arab 
cart, drawn by a moth-eaten old mule, was ready 
for my conveyance to Gafsa. In this instrument of 
torture were spent the hours from 7.30 a.m. to 4.30 
p.m., memories of that ride being blurred by the 
physical discomfort endured. Over a vast plateau 
framed in distant mountains we were wending 
in the direction of a low gap which never came 
nearer ; the road itself was full of deep ruts that 
caused exquisite agony as we jolted into them ; the 
sun — a patch of dazzling light, cold and cheerless. 
At this hour, I reflected, the train from Sfax would 
already have set me down at Gafsa. 

Save for a few stunted thorns in the moister 
places, the whole land, so far as the eye could reach, 
was covered with halfa-grass — ^leagues upon leagues 
of this sad grey-green desert reed. We passed a few 
nomad families whose children were tearing out 

20 



EN ROUTE 

the wiry stuff — ^it is never cut in Tunisia — which 
is then loaded on camels and conveyed to the nearest 
depot on the railway line, and thence to the sea- 
board. They were burning it here and there, to 
keep themselves warm ; this is forbidden by law, 
but then — there is so much of it on these uplands, 
and the wind is so cold ! 

The last miles were easier travelling, as we had 
struck the track from Feriana on our left. Here, 
at an opening of the arid hills, where the road begins 
to descend in a broad, straight ribbon, there arose, 
suddenly, a distant glimpse of the oasis of Gafsa — 
a harmonious line of dark palm trees, with white 
houses and minarets in between. A familiar vision, 
and often described; yet one that never fails of 
its effect. A man may weary, after a while, of 
camels and bedouin maidens and all the picturesque 
paraphernalia of Arab life ; or at least they end in 
becoming so trite that his eyes cease to take note 
of them ; but there are two spectacles, ever new, 
elemental, that correspond to deeper impulses : 
this of palms in the waste — the miracle of water ; 
and that of fire — the sun. 

A low hill near the entrance of the town (it is 
marked Meda Hill on the map) had attracted my 
attention as promising a fine view. Thither, after 
settHng my concerns at the hotel, I swiftly bent 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

my steps ; it was too late ; the wintry sun had 
gone to rest. The oasis still lay visible, extended at 
my feet ; on the other side I detected, some three 
miles away, a white spot — a house, no doubt — 
standing by a dusky patch o£ palms that rose solitary 
out of the stones. Some subsidiary oasis, probably ; 
it looked an interesting place, all alone there, at the 
foot of those barren hills. 

And still I lingered, my only companion being 
a dirty brown dog, of the jackal type, who walked 
round me suspiciously and barked, or rather whined, 
without ceasing. At last I took up a stone, and he 
ran away. But the stone remained in my hand ; 
I glanced at it, and saw that it was an implement 
of worked flint. Here was a discovery ! Who were 
these carvers of stones, the aboriginals of Gafsa ? 
How lived they ? A prolonged and melodious 
whistle from the distant railway station served to 
remind me of the gulf of ages that separates these 
prehistoric men from the life of our day. 

But as if to efface without delay that consoling 
impression, my downward path led past a dark 
cavern before which was lighted a fire that threw 
gleams into its recesses ; there was a family crouching 
around it ; they lived in the hollow rock. A high- 
piled heap of bones near at hand suggested can- 
nibalistic practices. 

22 



EN ROUTE 

These, then, are the primitives of Gafsa. And 
for how long, I wonder, has this convenient shelter 
been inhabited ? From time immemorial, perhaps ; 
ever since the days of those others. And, after all, 
how little have they changed in the intervening 
thousands of years ! The wild-eyed young wench, 
with her dishevelled hair, ferocious bangle-orna- 
ments, tattooings, and nondescript blue rags open 
at the side and revealing charms well fitted to 
disquiet some robust savage — what has such a 
creature in common with the rest of us f Not even 
certain raptures, misdeemed primeval ; hardly 
more than what falls to man and beast alike. On 
my appearance, she rose up and eyed me unabashed ; 
then sank to the ground again, amid her naked and 
uncouth cubs ; the rock, she said, was warmer than 
the black tents ; they paid no rent ; for the rest, 
her man would return forthwith. And soon there 
was a clattering of stones, and a herd of goats 
scrambled up and vanished within the opening. 

The partner was neither pleased nor displeased 
at seeing me there ; every day he went to pasture 
his flock on the slopes of the opposite Jebel Guettor, 
returning at nightfall ; he tried to be civil but failed, 
for want of vocabulary. I gave him the salutation, 
and passed on in the gloaming. 



23 



Chapter II 

BT THE OUED BAIESH 

THIS collecting of flint implements grows 
upon one at Gafsa ; it is in the air. And 
I find that quite a number of persons 
have anticipated me in this amusement, 
and even written tomes upon the subject — it is ever 
thus, when one thinks to have made a scientific 
discovery. These stones are scattered all over the 
plain, and Monsieur Couillault has traced the site 
of several workshops — ateliers — of prehistoric 
weapons near Sidi Mansur, which lies within half 
a mile of Gafsa, whence he has extracted — or 
rather retrieved, for the flints merely lie upon the 
ground — quantities of instruments of every shape ; 
among them, some saws and a miniature spade. 

My collection of these relics, casually picked up 
here and there, already numbers two hundred pieces, 
and illustrates every period of those early ages — 
uncouth battle-axes amd spear-points ; fine needles, 
apparently used for sewing skins together ; the 

24 




Gafsa and Jebel Orbata 



BY THE OUED BAIESH 

so-called laurel-leaves, as thin as card-board ; knife- 
blades ; instruments for scraping beast-hides — 
aU of flint. What interests me most, are certain 
round throwing-stones ; a few are flat on both sides, 
but others, evidently the more popular shape, 
are flat below and rise to a cone above. Of these 
latter, I have a series of various sizes ; the largest are 
for men's hands, but there are smaller ones, not 
more than eleven centimetres round, for the use 
of children : one thinks of the fierce little hands that 
wielded them, these many thousand years ago. 
Even now the natives will throw by preference 
with a stone of this disk-like shape — the cone point- 
ing downwards. But, judging by the size of their 
implements, the hands of this prehistoric race can 
hardly have been as large as those of their modern 
descendants. 

Then, as now, Gafsa must have been an important 
site ; the number of these weapons is astonishing. 
Vast populations have drifted down the stream of 
time at this spot, leaving no name or mark behind 
them, save these relics fashioned, by the merest of 
chances, out of a practically imperishable material ; 
steel and copper would have rotted away long ago, 
and the stoutest palaces crumbled to dust under the 
teeth of the desert air. 

The bed of the Oued Baiesh, which flows past 

25 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

Gafsa and is nearly half a mile broad in some places, 
is rich in these worked flints which have been washed 
out of its steep banks by the floods. Walking here 
the other day with a miserable young Arab who, 
I verily believe, had attached himself to me out 
of sheer boredom (since he never asked for a sou), 
I observed, in the distance, a solitary individual, 
a European, pacing slowly along as though wrapped 
in meditation ; every now and then he bent down 
to the ground. 

" That's a French gentleman from Gafsa. He 
collects those stones of yours all day long." 

Another amateur, I thought. 

" But not like yourself," he went on. " He picks 
them up, bad and good, and when they don't look 
nice he works at them with iron things ; I've seen 
them ! He makes very pretty stones, much prettier 
than yours. Then he sends them away." 

" How do you know this ? " 

" I've looked in at his window." 

A modern " atelier " of flints — this was an 
amusing revelation. Maybe — ^who knows ? — ^half 
the museums of Europe are stocked with these 
superior products. 

Sages will be interested to learn that Professor 
Koken, of Tubingen, in a learned pamphlet, lays 
it down that these flints of Gafsa belong to the 

26 



BY THE OUED BAIESH 

Mesvinian, Strepyian, Prsechellean — to say nothing 
of the Mousterian, Aurignacian, Solutrean, Mag- 
dalenian, and other types. So be it. He further 
says, what is more intelligible to the uninitiated, 
that a bed of hard conglomerate which crops up 
at Gafsa on either side of the Oued Baiesh, has been 
raised in days of yore ; it was raised so slowly that the 
river found time to carve itself a bed through it 
during the process of elevation ; nevertheless, 
a certain class of these artificial implements, em- 
bedded since God knows when, already formed 
part of this natural conglomerate ere it began to 
uplift itself. This will give some idea of the abysm 
of time that lies between us and the skin-clad men 
that lived here in olden days. 

An abysm of time . . . 

But I remembered the cave-wench of the Meda 
Hill. And my companion to-day was of the same 
grade, a characteristic semi-nomad boy of the 
poorest class ; an orphan, of course (they are nearly 
all orphans), and quite abandoned. His whole 
vocabulary could not have exceeded one hundred 
and fifty words ; he had never heard of the Apostle 
of Allah or his sacred book ; he could only run, and 
throw stones, and endure, like a beast, those cease- 
less illnesses of which only death, an early death as 
a rule, is allowed to cure them. His clothing was 

27 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

an undershirt and the inevitable burnous, brown 
with dirt. 

" What have you done to-day ? " I asked him. 

" Nothing." 

" And yesterday ? " 

" Nothing. Why should I do anything ? " 

" Don't you ever wash ? " 

" I have nobody to wash me." 

Yet they appreciate the use of unguents. The 
other day a man accidentally poured a glassful of 
oil into the dusty street. Within a moment a 
crowd of boys were gathered around, dabbling 
their hands into it and then rubbing them on their 
hair ; those that possessed boots began by ornament- 
ing them, and thence conveyed the stuff to their 
heads — the ground was licked dry in a twinkling ; 
their faces glistened with the greasy mixture. 
" That's good," they said. 

Such, I daresay, were the pastimes of those pre- 
historic imps of the throwing - disks, and their 
clothing must have been much the same. 

For what is the burnous save a glorified aboriginal 
beast-skin f It has the same principle of con- 
struction ; the major part covers the human back 
and sides ; the beast's head forms the hood ; where 
the forefeet meet, the thing is tied together across 
the breast, leaving a large open slit below, and 

28 



BY THE OUED BAIESH 

a smaller one above, where the man's head 
emerges. 

The character of the race is summed up in that 
hopeless garment, which unfits the wearer for every 
pleasure and every duty of modern life. An article 
of everyday clothing which prevents a man from 
using his upper limbs, which swathes them up, like 
a silkworm in its cocoon — can anything more insane 
be imagined ? Wrapped therein for nearly all their 
lives, the whole race grows round-shouldered ; 
the gastric region, which ought to be protected 
in this climate of extremes, is exposed ; the heating 
of their heads, night and day, with its hood, cannot 
but injure their brains ; their hands become weak 
as those of women, with claw-like movements of the 
fingers and an inability to open the palm to the 
full. 

No wonder it takes ten Arabs to fight one negro ; 
no wonder their spiritual life is apathetic, unfruitful, 
since the digits that explore and design, following 
up the vagrant fancies of the imagination, are 
practically atrophied. You will see beggars who 
find it too troublesome, on cold days, to extricate 
their hands for the purpose of demanding alms ! 
Man has been described as a tool-making animal, 
but the burnous effectually counteracts that whole- 
some tendency ; it is a mummifying vesture, a 

39 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

step in the direction of fossilification. WiU the 
natives ever realize that the aboHtion of this sleeve- 
less and buttonless anachronism is one of the 
conditions of their betterment ? Have they made 
the burnous, or vice-versa ? No matter. They 
came together somehow, and suited one another. 

The burnous is the epitome of Arab inefficiency. 

They call it simple, but like other things that go 
by that name, it defeats it own objects of facilitating 
the common operations of life. It is amusing to 
watch them at their laundry-work. Unless a man 
stand still and upright, the end of this garment 
is continually slipping down from his shoulders ; 
one of the washerman's hands, therefore, is em- 
ployed in holding it in its place ; the other grasps 
a stick upon which he leans while stamping a war- 
dance with his feet upon the linen. This is only 
half the performance, for a friend, holding up his 
cloak with one hand, must bend over and ladle the 
necessary water upon the linen with the pther. 
Thus two men are requisitioned to wash a shirt — 
a hand of one, two feet of the other. No wonder 
they do not wash them often ; the undertaking, 
thanks to the burnous, is too complicated. 

Yet there is no denying that it adds charm to 
the landscape ; it is highly decorative ; its colour and 
shape and peculiar texture are as pleasing to the 

30 



BY THE OUED BAIESH 

beholder as must have been the toga of the old 
Romans (which, by the way, was a purely ceremonial 
covering, to be doffed during work : so Cincinnatus, 
when the senators found him at the plough, went 
in to dress in his toga ere receiving them). 

Stalking along on their thin bare shanks, their 
glittering eyes and hooked noses shaded within its 
hood, many adult Arabs assume a strangely bird-like 
appearance ; while the smooth-faced youths, peering 
from under its coquettish folds, remind one of third- 
rate actresses out for a spree. In motion, when 
some half-naked boy sits merrily upon a galloping 
stallion, his bare limbs and flying burnous take on 
the passionate grace of a panathenaic frieze ; it 
befits equally well the repose of old age, crouching 
at some street-corner in hieratic immobility. 

Yes, there is no denying that it looks artistic ; 
the burnous is picturesque, like many antediluvian 
things. And of course, where nothing better can 
be procured, it will protect you from the cold and 
the stinging rays of the sun. But if a European 
wants a chill in the liver or any other portion of 
the culinary or postprandial department, he need 
only wear one for a few days on end ; raise the 
hood, and you will have a headache in ten minutes. 

Nevertheless I have bought one, and am wearing 
it at this very moment. But not as the poorer 

31 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

Arabs do. Beneath it there is a suit of ordinary 
winter clothing, as well as two English ulsters — 
and this indoors. Perhaps this will give some idea 
of the cold of Gafsa. There is no heating these bare 
rooms with their icy walls and floorings : out of 
doors a blizzard is raging that would flay a rhino- 
ceros. And the wind of Gafsa has this peculiarity, 
that it is equally bitter from whichever point of 
the compass it blows. Let those who contemplate 
the supreme madness of coming to the sunny 
oasis at the present season of the year (January) 
bring not only Arctic vestment, eiderdowns, fur 
cloaks, carpets and foot-warmers, but also, and 
chiefly, efficient furnaces and fuel for them. 
For such things seem to be unknown hereabouts. 



32 



Chapter III 
THE TERMID 

THE chief attractions of Gafsa, beside the 
oasis, are the tall minaret with its pros- 
pect over the town and plantations, and 
the Kasbah or fortress, a Byzantine con- 
struction covering a large expanse of ground and 
rebuilt hj the French on theatrical lines, with 
bastions and crenellations and other warlike pomp ; 
thousands of blocks of Roman masonry have been 
wrought into its old walls, which are now smothered 
under a modern layer of plaster divided into square 
fields, to imitate solid stonework. It looks best in 
the moonlight, when this childish cardboard effect 
is toned down. 

One of the two hot springs of Gafsa is enclosed 
within this Kasbah, while the other rises near at 
hand and flows into the celebrated baths — the 
termid, as the natives, using the old Greek word, 
stiU call it. It is a large and deep stone basin, half 
full of warm water, in which small fishes, snakes 
C 33 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

and tortoises disport themselves ; the massive 
engirdling walls demonstrate its Roman origin. 
Thick mists hang over the termid in the early 
mornings, when the air is chilly, but later on it 
becomes a lively place, full o£ laughter and splash- 
ings. Here, for a sou, you may get the boys to jump 
down from the parapet and wallow among the 
muddy ooze at the bottom ; the liquid, though 
transparent, is not colourless, but rather of the 
blue-green tint of the aquamarine crystal ; it flows 
rapidly, and all impurities are carried away. 

There are always elderly folk idling about these 
premises, and youngsters with rods tempting the 
fish out of the water ; day after day the game goes 
on, the foolish creatures nibble at the bait and are 
drawn up on high ; their fellows see the beginning 
of the tragedy, but never the end, where, floundering 
in the street, the victims cover their silvery scales 
with a coating of dust and expire ignominiously, 
as unlike live fishes as if they came ready cooked out 
of the kitchen panes et frits. 

Above this basin is another one, that of the 
women ; and below it, at the foot of a lurid stairway, 
a suite of subterranean (Roman) chambers, a kind 
of Turkish bath for men, where the water hurries 
darkly through ; the place is reeking with a steamy 
heat, and objectionable beyond words ; it would 

34 




Entrance to the Tcrmid 



THE TERMID 

not be easy to describe, in the language of polite 
society, those features in which it is most repulsive 
to Europeans. 

How easily, as in former days, might now a health- 
giving wonder be created out of these waters of 
Gafsa, that well up in a river of warmth and purity, 
only to be hopelessly contaminated ! The French 
tried the experiment, but the natives objected, and 
they gave way : these are the spots on the sunny 
ideal of " pacific penetration." Any other nation- 
ality — ^while allowing the Arabs a fair share of the 
element — would simply have rebuilt this termid 
and put it to a decent use, in the name of cleanliness 
and civilization ; the natives acquiescing, as they 
always do when they recognize their masters. Or, 
if a display of force was considered inadvisable, 
why not try the suaviter in modo ? Had a couple 
of local saints been judiciously approached, the 
population would soon have discovered that the 
termid waters are injurious to health and only fit 
for unbelievers. What is the use of a marabout, 
if he cannot be bribed ? 

I am all for keeping up local colour, even when it 
entails, as it generally does, a certain percentage of 
local smells ; yet it seems a pity that such glorious 
hot springs, a gift of the gods in a climate like this, 
should be converted into a cloaca maxima, especially 

35 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

in Gafsa, which already boasts of a superfluity of 
open drains. 

But my friend the magistrate showed me a 
special bathing room which has lately been built 
for the use of Europeans. We tried the door and 
found it locked. 

Where was the key ? 

At the Fonts et Chaussees. 

Thither I went, and discovered an elderly official 
of ample proportions dozing in a trim apartment — 
the chief of the staff. Great was this gentleman's 
condescension ; he bade me be seated, opened his 
eyes wide, and enquired after my wants. 

The key f The key of the -piscine ? He regretted 
he could give me no information as to its where- 
abouts — no information whatever. He had never 
so much as seen the key in question ; perhaps it 
had been lost, perhaps it never existed. Several 
tourists, he added, had already come on the same 
quest as myself ; he also, on one occasion last year, 
thought he would Hke to take a bath, but — ^what 
would you f There was no key ! If I liked to bathe, 
I might go to the tank at the gardens of Sidi Ahmed 
Zarroung. 

I .gently insisted, pointing out that I did not 
carfe for a walk across the wind-swept desert only 
to dip myself into a pool of lukewarm and pesti- 

36 



THE TERMID 

lentially sulphureous water. But " the key " was 
evidently a sore subject. 

" There is no key, Monsieur " ; and he accom- 
panied the words with a portentous negative nod 
that blended the resigned solicitude of an old and 
trusted friend with the firmness of a Bismarck. 
This closed the discussion ; with expressions of 
undying gratitude, and a few remarks as to the 
palpable advantages to be derived from keeping 
a public bathing-room permanently locked, I left 
him to his well-earned slumbers. . . . 

It is hard to understand what the guide-books 
mean when they call the market of Gafsa " rich and 
well-appointed " : a five-pound note, I calculate, 
would buy the entire exhibition. The produce, 
though varied, is wretched ; but the scenery fine. 
Over a dusty level, strewn with wares, you look upon 
a stretch of waving palms, with the distant summit 
of Jebel Orbata shining in the deep blue sky. Here 
are a few butchers and open-air cooks who fry 
suspicious-looking bundles of animal intestines for 
the epicurean Arabs ; a little saddlery ; half a 
camel-load of corn ; a broken cart-wheel and rickety 
furniture put up to auction ; one or two halfa-mats 
of admirable workmanship ; grinding-stones ; musty 
pressed dates, onions, huge but insipid turnips and 

other green things, red peppers 

37 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

Those peppers ! An adult Arab will eat two 
pounds of them a day. I have seen native women 
devouring, alternately, a pepper, then a date, then 
another pepper, then another date, and so on, for 
half an hour. An infant at the breast, when tired 
of its natural nourishment, is often given one of 
these fiery abominations to suck, as an appetizer, 
or by way of change and amusement. Their 
corroding juices are responsible for half the stomach 
troubles of the race ; a milk diet would work wonders 
as a cure, if the people could be induced to do things 
by halves ; but they cannot ; it is " all peppers 
or all milk," and, the new diet disagreeing with 
them at first, they return to their peppers and a 
paiiiful disease. 

It is this lack of measure and reasonableness among 
them which accounts for what I believe to be a fact, 
namely, that there are more reclaimed drunkards 
among Arabs than among ourselves. They will break 
off the alcohol habit violently, and for ever. And 
this they do not out of principle, but from impulse 
or, as they prefer to call it, inspiration ; indeed, 
they regard our men of fixed principles as weaklings 
and cowards, who stiffen themselves by artificial 
rules because they cannot trust their judgments 
to deal with events as they arise — (the Arab regards 
terrestrial life as a chain of accidents) — cowards and 

38 



THE TERMID 

infidels, trying to forestall hy human devices the 
unascertainable decrees of Allah. 

Allah wills it ! That is why they patiently bear 
the extremes of hunger, and why, if fortune smiles, 
they gorge like Eskimos, like boa-constrictors. 

I have seen them so distended with food as to be 
literally incapable of moving. Only yesterday, there 
swept past these doors a bright procession, going 
half-trot to a lively chant of music : the funeral of 
a woman. I enquired of a passer-by the cause of 
her death. 

" She ate too much, and burst." 

During the summer months, in the fruit-growing 
districts, quite a number of children wiU " burst " 
in this fashion every day. 

Mektoub ! the parents then exclaim. It was 
written. 

And no doubt there is such a thing as a noble 
resignation ; to defy fate, even if one cannot rule 
it. Many of us northerners would be th& better 
for a little mektoub. But this doctrine of referring 
everything to the will of Allah takes away all stimulus 
to independent thought ; it makes for apathy, 
improvidence, and mental fossilification. A creed 
of everyday use which hampers a man's reasoning 
in the most ordinary matters of life — is it not like 
a garment that fetters his hands ? 

39 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

Mektoub is the inteUectiial humous of the 
Arabs. . . . 

There is some movement, at least, in this market ; 
often the familiar story-tellers, surrounded by a 
circle of charmed listeners ; sometimes, again, a 
group of Soudanese from Khordofan or Bournu, 
who parade a black he-goat, bedizened with gaudy 
rags because devoted to death ; they will slay him 
in due course at some shrine ; but not just now, 
because there is still money to be made out of his 
ludicrous appearance, with an incidental dance or 
song on their own part. Vaguely perturbing, these 
negro melodies and thrummings ; their reiteration 
of ■ monotony awakens tremulous echoes on the 
human diaphragm and stirs up hazy, primeval 
mischiefs. 

And this morning there arrived a blind singer, 
or bard; he was led by two boys, who accompanied 
his extemporaneous verses — one of them tapping 
with a pebble on an empty sardine-tin, while the 
other belaboured a beer-bottle with a rusty nail : 
both solemn as archangels ; there was also a pro- 
fessional accompanist, who screwed his mouth awry 
and blew sideways into a tail flute, his eyes half- 
closed in ecstatic rapture. Arab gravity never looks 
better than during inanely grotesque performances 
of this kind ; in such moments one cannot help 

40 




At the "rermid 



THE TERMID 

loving them, for these are the Uttle episodes that 
make H£e endurable. 

The music was not altogether original ; it re- 
minded me, with its mechanical punctuations, of 
a concerto by Paderewski which contains an exquisite 
movement between the piano and kettledrum — 
since the flute, which ought to have supported the 
voice, was apparently dumb, although the artist 
puffed out his cheeks as if his life depended upon it. 
Only after creeping quite close to the performers 
could I discern certain wailful breathings ; this 
brave instrument, all splotched with variegated 
colours, gave forth a succession of anguished and 
asthmatic whispers, the very phantom of a song, 
like the wind sighing through the branches of 
trees. 



4« 



Chapter IV 
STONES OF GAFSA 

THERE are interesting walks in the neigh- 
bourhood of Gafsa, but I can imagine 
nothing more curious than the town 
itself; a place of some five thousand 
inhabitants, about a thousand of whom are Jews, 
with a sprinkling of Italian tradespeople and French 
officials and soldiers. Beyond naming the streets 
and putting up a few lamps, the Government has 
left it in its Arab condition ; the roadways are; un- 
paved, hardly a single wall is plumb ; the houses, 
mostly one-storied, lean this way and that, and, 
being built of earthen-tinted sun-dried brick, have 
an air of crumbling to pieces before one's very eyes. 
A heavy and continuous shower would be the 
ruin of Gafsa ; the structures would melt away, 
like that triple wall of defence, erected in mediaeval 
times, of which not a vestige remains. Yet the dirt 
is not as remarkable as in many Eastern places, for 
every morning a band of minor offenders is marched 

42 




A Street in Gjfsa 



STONES OF GAFSA 

out of prison by an overseer to sweep the streets. 
Sometimes an upper room is built to overlook, if 
possible, the roadway ; it is supported on palm- 
rafters, forming a kind of tunnel underneath. 
Everywhere are immense blocks of chiselled stone 
worked into the ephemeral Arab clay as doorsteps 
or lintels, or lying about at random, or utilized as 
seats at the house entrance ; they date from Roman 
or earlier times — columns, too, some of them 
adorned with the lotus-pattern, the majority un- 
pretentious and solid. 

What do the natives think of these relics of past 
civilization ? Do they ever wonder whence they 
came or who made them ? " The stones are there," 
they will tell you. Yet the wiser among them will 
speak of Ruman ; they have heard of Ruman moneys 
and antiquities. 

Arabs have a saying that Gafsa was founded by 
Nimrod's armour-bearer ; but a more reasonable 
legend, preserved by Orosius and others, attributes 
its creation to Melkarth, the Libyan and Tyrian 
Hercules, hero of colonization. He surrounded it 
with a wall pierced by a hundred gates, whence its 
presumable name, Hecatompylos, the city of a hun- 
dred gates. The Egyptians ruled it ; then the 
Phoenicians, who called it Kafaz — the walled ; and 
after the destruction of Carthage it became the 

43 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

retreat and treasure-house of Numidian kings. 
Greeks, too, exercised a powerful influence on the 
place, and all these civilized peoples had prepared 
Gafsa to appreciate the beneficent rule of the 
Romans. 

Then came Vandals and Byzantines, who gradu- 
ally grew too weak to resist the floods of plundering 
Arab nomads ; the rich merchants fled, their 
palaces fell to ruins ; the town became a collection 
of mud huts inhabited by poor cultivators who 
lived in terror of the neighbouring Hammama tribe 
of true Arabs, that actually forbade them to walk 
beyond the limits of the Jebel Assalah — a couple 
of miles distant. So the French found them in 
1881. 

There are, however, a few decent houses, two- 
storied and spacious ; in one of them, I am told, 
lives the family of Monsieur Dufresnoy, to whom 
my fellow traveller at Sbeitla gave me a card. He 
is absent at the Metlaoui mines just now, and his 
wife and children in Paris. 

The cleansing of the streets by prisoners does not 
extend to the native houses and courtyards, which 
therefore survive in all their original, inconceivable 
squalor — squalor so uncompromising that it has 
long ago ceased to be picturesque. What glimpses 
into humble interiors, when native secretiveness 

44 



STONES OF GAFSA 

has not raised a rampart of earthen bricks at the 
inside of the entrance ! In the daytime it is Hke 
looking into vast, abandoned pigsties, fantastically 
encumbered with palm-logs, Roman building-blocks 
and rubbish-heaps which display the accumulated 
filth of generations — there is hardly a level yard of 
ground — rags and dust and decay ! Here they live, 
the poorer sort, and no wonder they have as little 
sense of home as the wild creatures of the waste. 
But at night, when the most villainous objects 
take on mysterious shapes and meanings, these 
courtyards become grand ; they assume an air of 
biblical desolation, as though the curse of Heaven 
had fallen upon the life they once witnessed ; and 
even as you look into them, something stirs on the 
ground : it is an Arab, sleeping uneasily in his 
burnous ; he has felt, rather than heard, your 
presence, and soon he unwinds his limbs and rises 
out of the dust, like a sheeted ghost. 

It is an uncanny gift of these folks to come before 
you when least expected ; to be ever-present, 
emerging, one might almost say, out of the earth. 
Go to the wildest corner of this thinly populated 
land, and you may be sure that there is an Arab, 
brooding among the rocks or in the sand, within a 
few yards of you. 

The stones are there. This is another feature 
45 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

which they have in common with the beasts of the 
earth : never to pause before the memorials of their 
own past. Goethe says that where men are silent, 
stones will speak. If ever they spoke, it is among 
these crumbling, composite walls of Gafsa. 

A Roman inscription of the age of Hadrian, 
which now forms the step of an Arab house, will 
arrest your glance and turn your thoughts awhile 
in the direction of this dim, romantic figure. How 
little we really know of the Imperial wanderer, 
whose journeyings may still be traced by the monu- 
ments that sprang up in his footsteps ! Never since 
the world began has there been a traveller in the 
grandiose style of Hadrian ; he perambulated his 
world like a god, crowned with a halo of bene- 
volence and omnipotence. 

And it occurs to me that there must be other 
relics of antiquity still buried under the soil of 
Gafsa, which is raised on a mound, hke an island, 
above the surrounding country ; particularly in the 
vicinity of the termid, which we may suppose to 
have lain near the centre of the old town. And 
where are the paving-stones ? The painstaking 
John Leo says that the streets of Gafsa are " broad 
and paved, like those of Naples or Florence." Have 
they been slowly submerged under the debris of 
Arabism, or taken up and worked into the masonry 

46 



STONES OF GAFSA 

of the Kasbah and other buildings ? Not one is 
left : so much is certain. 

I borrowed Sallust and tried to press some flavour 
out of his description of Marius' march to the cap- 
ture of Gafsa. It was a fine military performance, 
without a doubt ; he led his troops by unsuspected 
paths across the desert, fell upon the palace, sacked 
and burnt it, and divided the booty among his 
soldiers : all this without the loss of a single man. 
The natives needed a lesson, and they got it ; to this 
day the name of Marius is whispered among the black 
tents as that of some fabulous hero. But what 
interests me most is the style of SaUust himself. 
How ultra-modern this historian reads ! His outlook 
upon life, his choice of words, are the note of to- 
morrow; and when I compare with him certain 
writers of the Victorian epoch, I seem to be unrolling 
a papyrus from Pharaoh's tomb, or spelling out the 
elucubrations of some maudlin scribe of Prester John. 

The stones are there. And the quarries whence 
the Romans drew them have also been found, by 
Guerin ; they lie in the flanks of the Jebel Assalah, 
and are well worth a visit ; legions of bats — tirlils, 
the Arabs call them — ^hang in noisome clusters from 
the roof. 

Concerning these bats, the following story is told 
in Gafsa. 

47 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

Not long ago a rich Englishman came here. He 
used to go out in the evenings and shoot bats ; then 
he put them into bottles with spirits of wine — he was 
an amateur of bats. On the day of his departure from 
the place, he said to the polyglot Arab guide whom 
he had picked up somewhere on his wanderings : 

" You will rejoin me in Tunis in ten days. Bring 
me more bats — tirlils : comprenni ? — from this 
country. I will give you fifty centimes apiece." 

" Bon, Monsieur," said the guide, and took 
counsel with the folks of Gafsa, who, after certain 
reservations and stipulations, showed him the way 
into these quarries. 

On the day appointed he entered the rich tourist's 
hotel in Tunis,^ followed by ten porters, each 
carrying a large sack. 

" Hallo ! " said the Englishman, " what's all 
this ? " 

" Bats, Monsieur." 

" Eh ? How much ? " 

"Bats; tirlils, chauve-souris,'pifistrelli. . . .They 
will need much bottles. Six hundred tirlils in each 
sack ; ten sacks ; six thousand tirlils. Much bottles ! 
Three thousand francs. Monsieur. Shall I open 
him ? " 

The tourist cast a dismayed glance over the sacks, 
gently heaving with life. 

48 




Hadrian's Inscript 



ion 



STONES OF GAFSA 

" Look here," he said, " I'll give you fifty 
francs. . . ." 

The Arab was surprised and grieved. He thought 
he was giving a pleasure to Monsieur, who had asked 
for bats. He had been obliged to borrow money 
from his aged mother to help to pay the nine 
hundred francs which he had already disbursed 
for assistance in catching the tirlils ; he had risked 
his life ; there were the transport expenses, too : 
very heavy. He had travelled with many English- 
men and had always found them to be men of 
honour — men who kept their word. And in this 
case there were witnesses to the bargain, who would 
be ready, if necessary, to go into the French tribunals 
and testify to what they had heard. . . . 

" I see. Well, come to-morrow morning, but 
go away now, quick ! before I break your head. 
Take your damned tirlils to your damned funduk, 
and be off ! — clear out ! — comfrenni P " 

And he looked so very angry that the Arab, a 
prudent fellow, walked backwards out of the room, 
more surprised and grieved than ever. 

Thanks to the disinterested and strenuous exer- 
tions of a Jewish international lawyer, the affair 
was settled out of court after all — fifteen hundred 
francs, plus expenses of transport. 



49 



Chapter V 

SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG 

SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG— that is the 
name of the miniature oasis visible from 
the Meda Hill, at the foot of those barren 
slopes. It is a pleasant afternoon's walk 
from Gafsa. 

The intervening plain is encrusted with stones- 
stones great and small. Here and there are holes 
in the ground, where the natives have unearthed 
some desert shrub for the sake of its roots which, 
burnt as fuel, exhale a pungent odour of ammonia 
that almost suffocates you. Once the water-zone 
of Gafsa is passed, every trace of cultivation 
vanishes. And yet, to judge by the number of 
potsherds lying about, houses must have stood 
here in days of old. An Arab geographer of the 
eleventh century says that there are over two 
hundred flourishing villages in the neighbourhood 
of Gafsa ; and Edrisius, writing a century later, 
extols its prosperous suburbs and pleasure-houses. 
Where are they now ? 

so 



SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG 

One o£ these villages, surely, must have lain 
near this fountain of Sidi Ahmed Zarroung, 
which now irrigates a few palms and vegetables 
and then loses itself in the sand ; a second spring, 
sulphureous and medicinal, but destructive to 
plants, rises near at hand. This is the one which 
the gentleman of the Fonts et Chaussees recom- 
mended me for bathing purposes. 

But I saw no trace of ancient life here ; there 
is only a muddy pond, full of amorous frogs and 
tortoises, cold-blooded beasts, but fiery in their 
passions ; and a few Arabs that live in the large 
white house, or camp on the plain around. They 
told me that the descendants of the holy man 
who gave his name to the place are still alive, 
but they knew nothing of his history beyond this, 
that he was very pious indeed. 

If you do not mind a little scrambling, you 
can climb from here up to the last spur of the Jebel 
Guettor which overlooks the plain — ^it is crowned 
by a ruined building, once whitewashed, and 
easily visible from Gafsa. On its slopes I struck 
a vein of iron, another of those scientific discoveries, 
no doubt, like the flint implements, in which 
someone else wiU have anticipated me. And here 
I also found iron in a more civilized shape, a frag- 
ment of a shell — ^relic, perhaps, of the first French 

SI 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

expedition against Gafsa, or of some more recent 
artillery practice. 

From its summit one sees the configuration 
o£ the country as on a map ; the high Jebel Orbata, 
1 1 70 metres, now covered with snow, coming 
forward to meet you on the other side of the wide 
valley. From this point it is easy to realize, as 
did the commander of that French expedition, 
the significance of this speck of culture, its strategic 
value : Gafsa is a veritable key to the Sahara. I 
daresay the abundant water-supply of the town 
is due to these two chains of hills which almost 
touch each other and so force the water to rise 
from its underground bed. 

At this elevation you perceive that Gafsa is 
truly a hiU-oasis, bleak mountains rising up on all 
sides save the south. There, where the two highest 
ranges converge from east and west, where the 
broad waterway of the Oued Baiesh has in olden 
days, when it wandered with less capricious flow, 
carved itself a channel through the opening-^ 
there, at the very narrowest point — sits the oasis. 
A tangle of palms that sweep southward in a radiant 
trail of green, the crenellated walls of the Kasbah 
gleaming through the interstices of the foliage — 
the whole vision swathed in an orange-tawny frame 
of desolation, of things non-human. ... 

52 




Cm 



SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG 

I was tempted to think that the sunset view from 
the Meda eminence was the finest in the immediate 
neighbourhood of Gafsa. Not so ; that from the 
low hills behind Sidi Mansur, with the stony 
ridge of Jebel Assalah at your back, surpasses it 
in some respects. Through a gap you look towards 
the distant green plantations, with a shimmering 
level in the foreground ; on your other side lies 
the Oued Baiesh, crossed by the track to Kairouan, 
where strings of camels are for ever moving to and 
fro, laden with merchandise from the north or 
with desert products from the oases of Djerid 
and Souf. The dry bed of the torrent glows in 
hues of Isabel and cream, while its perpendicular 
mud-banks, on the further side, gleam like precipices 
of amber ; the soil at your feet is besprinkled with 
a profusion of fair and fragile flowerlets. 

Here stand, like sentinels at the end of all things 
living, the three or four last, lonely palms — they 
and their fellows lower down are fed by a silvery 
streamlet which is forced upwards, I suppose, 
by contact with Professor Koken's conglomerate ; 
above and below this oasis-region the river-bed 
is generally dry. It must be a wonderful sight, 
however, when the place is in flood — a deluge 
of liquid ooze careering madly southward towards 
the dismal Chotts amid the crashing of stones 

S3 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

and palm trees and the collapse of banks. For the 
Oued Baiesh can be angry at times ; in 1859 it 
submerged fifty hectares of the Gafsa gardens. 

Instead of returning by the main road from 
Sidi Mansur, one can bend a little to the right 
and so pass the military hospital, a large establish- 
ment which looks as if it could be converted into 
a barrack in case of need. This is as it should be. 
Gafsa is a rallying-point, and must be prepared 
for emergencies. Here, too, lie the cemeteries : 
the Jewish, fronting the main road, with a decent 
enclosure ; that of the Christians, framed in a wire 
fence and containing a few wooden crosses, imitation 
broken columns and tinsel wreaths ; Arab tombs, 
scattered over a large undefined tract of brown 
earth, and clustering thickly about some white- 
domed maraboutic monument, whose saintly relics 
are desirable companionship for the humbler 
dead. 

The bare ground here is littered with pottery 
and other fragments of ancient life testifying 
to its former populousness : flint implements, 
among the rest. Of the interval between the 
latest of these stone-age primevals and the first 
Egyptian invasion of Gafsa we know nothing ; 
they, the Egyptians, brought with them that 
plough which is figured in the hieroglyphics, 

54 



SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG 

and has not yet changed its shape. You may see 
the venerable instrument any day you like, being 
carried on a man's back to his work in the oasis. 

Athwart this region there runs an underground 
(excavated) stream of water, led from Sidi Mansur 
to nourish the Gafsa plantations. Through holes 
in the ground one looks down upon the element 
flowing mysteriously below ; figs and other trees 
are set in these hollows for the sake of the shade 
and moisture, and their crowns barely reach the 
level of the soil. This is no place to wander about 
at night — a false step in the darkness and a man 
would break his neck. There was talk, at one time, 
of leading this brook, which is sweet and non- 
mineral, into Gafsa for drinking purposes, but the 
native garden proprietors raised their inevitable 
howl of objections, and the project was aban- 
doned. 

If you ask a local white man as to the misdeeds 
of his administration, be sure he will mention 
the affair of the railway station which was built 
too far from the town, and this of the Sidi Mansur 
water. And who, you ask, was to blame for these 
follies ? Oh, the controlleur, as usual ; always the 
controlleur ! It is no sinecure being an official 
of this kind in Tunisia, with precise Government 
instructions in one pocket, and in the other his 

55 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

countrymen's contrary lamentations and suggestions, 
often reasonable enough. . . . 

Loaded down with a choice selection of Sidi 
Mansur flints, which are singular as having a white 
patina, I returned to Gafsa in the late afternoon 
and entered my favourite Arab cafe. Here, at 
all events, if you do not mind a little native es-prit 
de corps, you will be able to thaw your frozen limbs ; 
all the other rooms of Gafsa, public and private, 
are like ice-cellars. There are many of these coffee- 
houses in the town, and this is one of the least 
fashionable of them. Never a European darkens 
its door ; seldom even a native soldier ; it is not 
good enough for them ; they go to finer resorts. 

At its entrance there lie, conveniently arranged 
as seats, some old Roman blocks, overshadowed 
by a mulberry, now gaunt and bare. It must 
be delightful, in the spring-time, to sit under its 
shade and watch the street-life : the operations 
at the neighbouring dye-shop where gaudy cloths 
of blue and red are hanging out to dry, or, lower 
down, the movement at the wood-market — a 
large tract of " boulevard " encumbered with 
the impedimenta of nomadism. There Is a ceaseless 
unloading of fuel here ; bargains are struck about 
sheep and goats, the hapless quadruped, that 
refuses to accompany its new purchaser good- 

56 




Cafe by the Mulberry Tree 



SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG 

naturedly, being lifted up by the hind legs and 
made to walk in undignified fashion on the re- 
maining two. Fires gleam brightly, each one sur- 
rounded by a knot of camels couched in the dust, 
their noses converging towards the flame, while 
old desert hags, bent double with a life of hardship, 
bustle about the cooking-pots. There are brawls, 
too — ^Arabs seizing each other by the throat, 
raising sticks and uttering wild imprecations. . . . 
But within that windowless chamber, aU is 
peace. Eternal twilight reigns, and your eyes 
must become accustomed to the gloom ere you 
can perceive the cobwebby ceiling of palm-rafters, 
smoke-begrimed and upheld by two stone columns 
that glisten with the dirt of ages. Here is the 
hearth, overhung by a few ancient pots, where 
the server, his head enveloped in a greasy towel, 
officiates like some high priest at the altar. You 
may have milk, or the mixture known as coffee, 
or tea flavoured in Moroccan style with mint, 
or with cinnamon, or pepper. The water- vessels 
stew everlastingly upon a slow fire fed with the 
residue of pressed olives. Or, if too poor, you 
may take a drink of water out of the large clay 
tub that stands by the door. Often a beggar will 
step within for that purpose, and then the chubby 
serving-lad gives a scowl of displeasure and makes 

57 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

pretence to take away the cup ; but the mendicant 
will not be gainsaid — ^water is the gift of Allah ! 
And, if so please you, you may drink nothing at 
aU, but simply converse with 'your neighbour, 
or sit still and dream away the days, the weeks, 
the year, sleeping by night upon the floor. 

A few of the customers are playing at cards 
or sedately chatting ; others begin to prepare 
their favourite smoke of hashish. A board is called 
for and the hashish-powder spread out upon it. 
The operator chops it into still finer particles ♦ 
by means of a semicircular blade, deftly blowing 
away the dust — this brings out its strength. He 
is in no hurry ; it is a ceremony rather than a task. 
Slowly he separates the coarser from the finer 
grains, his fingers moving with loving deliberation 
over the smooth board. Then the cutting process 
is repeated once more, and yet again. Maybe he 
will now add a little of the Soufi stuff, to improve 
the taste. 

At last all is ready, and small pipes are extracted 
from the folds of the burnous and filled with half 
a thimbleful of the precious mixture. Two or 
three whiffs, deeply inhaled, stream out at mouth 
and nostrils ; then the pipe is swiftly passed on to 
a friend, who drains the last drop of smoke and 
knocks out the ashes. Not a word is spoken. 

58 



SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG 

Hand him your pipe, if you are wise, and let 
him fill it for you. This kif, they say, affects 
people differently; but I think that, as a general 
effect, you will discover a genial warmth stealing 
through your limbs, while the things of this world 
begin to reveal themselves in a more spiritual 
perspective. 

I thought of the sunset this afternoon, as 
viewed from Sidi Mansur. They are fine, these 
moments of conflagration, of mineral incandescence, 
when the sober limestone rocks take on the tints of 
molten copper, their convulsed strata standing 
out like the ribs of some agonized Prometheus, 
while the plain, where every little stone casts an 
inordinate shadow behind it, clothes itself in 
demure shades of pearl. Fine, and all too brief. 
For even before the descending sun has touched 
the rim of the world the colours fade away ; 
only overhead the play of blues and greens con- 
tinues — freezing, at last, to pale indigo. Fine, 
but somewhat trite ; a well-worn subject, these 
Oriental sunsets. Yet the man who can revel in 
such displays with a whole heart is to be envied 
of a taUsman against many iUs. I can conceive 
the subtlest and profoundest sage desiring nothing 
better than to retain, ever undiminished, a child- 
like capacity for these simple pleasures. . . . 

59 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

A spirit of immemorial eld pervades, this tavern. 
Silently the shrouded figures come and go. They 
have lighted the lamp yonder, and it glimmers 
through the haze like some distant star. 

And I remembered London at this sunset 
hour, a medley of tender grey-in-grey, save where 
a glory of many-coloured light hovers about 
some street-lantern, or where a carriage, splashing 
through the river of mud, leaves a momentary 
track of silver in its rear. There are the nights, 
of course, with their bustle and flare, but nights 
in a city are apt to grow wearisome ; they fall 
into two or three categories, whose novelty soon 
wears off. How different from the starlit ones 
of the south, each with its peculiar moods and 
aspirations ! 

Yet the Thames — odd how one's kif-ievenes 
always lead to running water — the Thames, I 
know, will atone for much. It is even more im- 
pressive at this season than in its summer clarity, 
and as I walk, in imagination, along that rolling 
flood flecked with patches of unwholesome iri- 
descence and crossed by steamers and barges 
that steer in ghostly fashion about the dusky 
waters, I marvel that so few of our poets have 
responded to its beauty and signification. They 
find it easier, doubtless, to warble a spring song or 

60 



SIDI AHMED ZARROUNG 

two. The fierce pulsations of industry, the shiftings 
of gold that make and mar human happiness — 
these are themes reserved for the bard of the 
future who shall strike, bravely, a new chord, 
extracting from the sombre facts of city life a 
throbbing, many-tinted romance, even as out of 
that foul coal-tar some, who know the secret, 
craftily distil most delicate perfumes and colours 
exquisite. The bard of the future . . . h'm ! Will 
he ever appear ? As an atavism, perhaps. Take 
away from modern poetry what appeals to primitive 
man — the jingle and pathetic fallacy — and the 
residue, if any, would be better expressed in prose. 

My neighbour, a sensible person, has ceased 
to take interest in the proceedings. Perched 
upright at first, his head drooping within the 
folds of his cloak, he has slowly succumbed ; he 
has kicked off his sandals, stretched himself out, 
and now slumbers. I, too, am beginning to feel 
weary, and no wonder. . • . 

Primitive man with those flints of his, that 
weigh me down at this moment. This stone- 
coUecting, far exemfle ! I wonder what induced 
me to take up such a hobby. The German Pro- 
fessor, as usual. Ah, Mr. Koken, Mr. Koken — 
those light words of yours have borne a heavy 
fruit. I possess four hundred implements now, 

6i 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

and they will double the weight of my luggage 
and ruin my starched shirts, especially those 
formidable " prsecheUean " skull-cleavers. And I 
know exactly what the customs officer at Marseilles 
will say, when he peeps into my bag : 

" Tiens, des cailloux ! Monsieur est botaniste ? " 
And then a crowd of people will assemble, 
to whom I must explain everything, with the 
result of being arrested for smuggling forbidden 
mining samples out of a colony and ending my 
days in some insanitary French prison. 



62 



Chapter VI 

AMUSEMENTS BT THE WAT 

MEANWHILE, to satiate myself with 
Gafsa impressions, I linger by the 
margin of the pool that lies below 
the fortress. Hither the camels are 
driven to slake their thirst, arriving sometimes in 
such crowds as almost to fill up the place. Don- 
keys and horses are scoured by half-naked lads ; 
in the clearer parts, a number of tattooed Be- 
douin girls are everlastingly washing their house- 
hold stuffs. Only on rare occasions is the liquid 
undisturbed, and then it shines with the steely- 
blue transparency of those diamonds that are a 
class by themselves, superior to " first-water " 
stones. At the slightest agitation all the ac- 
cumulated ooze and filth of generations — rags 
and decomposing frogs and things unmention- 
able — rise to the surface in turbid clouds. The 
element wells out hot, from under the neighbouring 
Kasbah, with a pestiferous mineral aroma. 

Hither comes, at fixed intervals, my friend 

63 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

Silenus, the water-carrier, on his philosophic don- 
key; nearly all Gafsa draws its supply of cooking 
and drinking water from this fetid and malodorous 
mere. 

A fine example of French inefficiency, this 
" abreuvoir." Two hundred francs would suffice 
to tap the liquid a few yards higher up, by means 
of a common cast-iron pipe, whence it would 
rush out, pure and undefiled, to fill in a few 
moments those multitudinous water-skins that 
are now laboriously furnished, by hand, out of 
the often tainted pool below. 

And of native inefficiency, likewise. Day after 
day, age after age, have these women done their 
laundry-work at this spot, and yet their clothing, 
for purposes of the work, is more hopelessly in- 
adequate than the burnous of the males. They 
will arrive wrapped up in twenty rags that are 
always falling ofi their backs and shoulders (they 
possess no baskets). One by one these articles 
are removed, soaped with one little hand, stamped 
upon by two little feet, and laid aside. Nothing 
remains, at last, but a single covering garment — 
a loose chemise full of artistic possibilities for the 
onlookers. It gives the poor girls endless trouble, 
for it is continually slipping off their bodies on 
one side or the other, and one hand is engaged, 

64 




M)" Friend Silenus 



AMUSEMENTS BY THE WAY 

all the time, in counteracting these mischievous 
movements. Standing as they do up to their 
knees in the water, it is tucked up high and of 
course tumbles down again every minute. At the 
end of their washing they are as wet as drenched 
poodles. 

No harm in this, in summer-time ; but with 
the thermometer below freezing-point they would 
suffer considerably were they not inured, like to 
other creatures of the desert, to every kind of 
discomfort. 

The chief mental exercise of the Arab, they 
say, consists in thinking how to reduce his work 
to a minimum. Now this being precisely my own 
ideal of life, and a most rational one, I would 
prefer to put it thus : that of many kinds of simpli- 
fication they practise only one — omission, which 
does not always pay. They are imaginative, 
but incredibly uninventive. How different from 
the wily Hindu or Chinaman, with his almost 
preternatural sagacity in small practical matters ! 
Scorn of theories is one of their chief race-charac- 
teristics, and that is why they end in becoming 
stoics — stoics, that is, as the beasts are, who suffer 
without knowing why. 

There was one of these girls in particular 
whom I noticed every day, and whom, at last, 
B 65 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

I compassionately supplied with a couple o£ safety- 
pins, after explaining their uses. She was decidedly 
ugly. But sometimes you may see others here, 
with neatly chiselled limbs and elfish eyes of a 
sultry, troubling charm into which, if sentimentally 
disposed, you can read an ocean of love ; these 
need not be supplied with safety-pins. An en- 
thusiastic Frenchman at Gabes actually married 
one of these sphynx-like creatures — a hazardous 
and quixotic experiment. As brides for a Hfetime 
(slaves) they cost from a hundred to six hundred 
francs apiece, and even more ; and you wiU do well 
to abonner yourself with the family beforehand, 
in order to be sure of obtaining a sound article, 
as with the Tartar girls in Russian Asia and else- 
where. As a general rule, those of the semi-nomads 
— the Gourbi people — cost more than those of the 
true wanderers. The price varies according to 
the season and a thousand other contingencies ; 
it rises, inevitably, in the neighbourhood of settled 
places, where employment of one kind (olive- 
picking, etc.) or another — chiefly of another — 
can be found for them. 

One of the prettiest I ever saw was offered 
me for three hundred francs. It was an uncommon 
bargain, due to a drought and certain family 
mishaps. These little wildhngs are troublesome 

66 



AMUSEMENTS BY THE WAY 

to carry about. They are less nimble and amiable 
than the boys, and often require more beating 
than a European has time to give them. You can 
always sell them again, of course ; and sometimes 
(into the towns) at a good profit. 

The Arab woman is the repository of all the 
accumulated nonsense of the race, and her in- 
fluence upon the young brood is retrogressive 
and malign. It matters little what happens in 
the desert where men and women are necessarily 
animals, but it does among the middle and upper 
native classes of the larger places. Here the French 
have established their so-called Arab-French schools, 
excellent institutions which are largely attended, 
and would produce far better results but for the 
halo of sanctity with which boys in every country — 
but particularly in half-civilized ones — are apt 
to invest the most flagrantly empty-headed of 
mothers. In Tunisia, as soon as the youngsters 
return home, these women quickly undo all the 
good work, by teaching them that what they have 
learnt at school is dangerous untruth, and that 
the Koran and native mode of life are the only 
sources of happiness. Then, to keep the son at 
home, the mother will hasten to catch a bride 
for him who shall be, if possible, more incompetent 
than herself, in order that she, the mother, may 

67 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

retain her ascendency over him. The father, 
meanwhile, shrugs his shoulders : Mektoub ! There 
is no fighting against such heroic perseverance on 
a woman's part ; besides, was he not brought up 
on the same lines ? 

The mischief is done, for Arabs relapse easily ; 
even native officers, who have served for years 
in the French army, will, on returning home, 
don the burnous, sit at street corners, and become 
more arabized than ever. So it comes about that, 
if the eyes of the former generation were entirely 
averse from French rule, the present one is Janus- 
faced — looking both ways. Some day, presumably, 
there will be a further adaptation, and their eyes, 
like those of certain flat-fish, wiU wander round 
and settle down definitely on the right side. . . . 

This is a favourite month for native weddings. 
There was one going on last night. I looked into 
the courtyard of a ruinous building which was 
crammed with spectators. The Aissouyiahs were 
performing, in honour of the occasion. 

These are the dervish fanatics whom every- 
one knows. They eat scorpions, glass, nails, and 
burning coals ; they cut themselves with knives and 
other instruments — impostors, for the most part. 

It is mere child's play to what you can see further 
East. 

68 



AMUSEMENTS BY THE WAY 

Yet, with the starry night overhead, and the 
flare of torches lighting up a seething mass of 
faces below, of bronzed limbs and bright-tinted 
rags dangling at every altitude from the palm 
rafters and decayed stairway, the scene was more 
weirdly fascinating than as one generally sees it 
— in mosques or in the open daylight. There 
were wild strains of music and song ; a wave of 
disquietude, clearly, was passing over the beholders. 
These performances, at such a time, may originally 
have taken place for purposes of nuptial excite- 
ment or stimulation ; but it requires rather an 
exotic mentality to be stimulated, otherwise than 
unpleasantly, by the spectacle of little boys writhing 
on the ground in simulated agony with a long iron 
skewer thrust through their cheeks. They catch 
them young ; and these scholars, or aspirants, 
are indubitably frauds and often worse than frauds. 
Mixed with them are a certain proportion of un- 
balanced, half-crazy individuals, who really work 
themselves into a frenzy and give the semblance 
of veracity to the entertainment. A judge of 
native physiognomy can generally tell the two types 
apart. There are also a few sensible men — butchers, 
porters, and the like — who do not mind a little 
pain for the sake of the profit. 

For the rest, the ceaseless mandarin-like head- 

69 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

wagglings and mutterings of the names of Allah 
would stupefy anyone's brain up to a point. It 
is not only Arabs who daze their understandings 
with godly ejaculations, oft repeated. The mara- 
bout leader, who is a kind of maitre de ballet, 
enfolds each performer in his arms and makes a 
few passes round him, or kisses him. The 
uninitiated then reel off in a trance of hypnotic 
joy; the others do the same, in more theatrical 
fashion. At the end of each one's trick he de- 
mesmerizes him once more, and perhaps touches 
the wound with his hands. He passes the skewer 
or sword between his lips as a disinfectant — a wise 
precaution. 

These lacerations heal quickly. I have spoken 
to men labouring in the fields on the day following 
such excesses, and found them ready to " work " 
again the same evening. 

It ended up with a beast-dance — two fine 
negroes, all but naked, depicting the amorous 
rages of panthers or some other cat-like feral. 
This was really good, of its kind ; and if, as regards 
the earlier part of the programme, it was still 
difficult to tell where religion ended and sensuality 
began (it sometimes is), there was no doubt about 
the last item, which was purely sadistic. Soon 
there issued the familiar trillings from the balcony, 

70 



AMUSEMENTS BY THE WAY 

and the firing-off of guns, to announce that the 
drama was terminated. 

It is we shrinkingly esthetic creatures who 
conjure up by a mere effort of the imagination 
what these blunt folks cannot conceive without 
gross visual stimulants. That is because they have 
not enjoyed our advantages ; they are not civilized. 
Among other things, they have not gone through 
a " reformation." Take a northern stock, sound 
in mind and body ; infuse into it a perverse dis- 
respect for the human frame and other anti- 
rational whimsies ; muddle the whole, once more, 
by a condiment of Hellenistic renaissance and add, 
as crowning flavour, puritan " conscience " and 
" sinfulness " — mix up, in a general way, good 
nourishment with ascetic principles — and you will 
attain to a capacity of luxuriance in certain matters 
that may well be the envy and despair of poor 
primitives like the Arabs. 

Extremes meet. Performances such as these 
are beyond good and evil. They are for the wholly 
savage or the wholly civilized. We complain 
considerably just now of the swamping of class 
distinctions in our lands, but a man of culture 
has a prerogative to which the biliously moral 
middle classes can never aspire : to be an Arab, 
when it suits him. 

71 



Chapter VII 

AT THE CAFE 

WHETHER it be due to the incessant 
cold and dry winds, that parch the 
more genial humours, or to some 
other cause, there is certainly a tone 
of exacerbation, at this moment, among the Euro- 
pean residents at Gafsa. I noticed it very clearly 
yesterday evening in the little French cafe — a 
soul-withering resort, furnished with a few cast- 
iron tables and uncomfortable chairs that repose 
on a flooring of chill cement tiles — where, in sheer 
desperation, two or three of us, muffled up to our 
ears, congregate before dinner to exchange gossip 
and imbibe the pre-prandial absinthe. 

I announced my intention of leaving shortly 
for Tozeur. 

" So you have not yet taken your fill of dirt 
and discomfort in Tunisia, Monsieur ? " asked 
one of the clients. He is a wizened old nondescript 
with satyr-Hke beard, a kind of Thersites, who is 
understood to have established, from the days of 

72 



AT THE CAFE 

Abdelkader and " for certain reasons," his head- 
quarters at Gafsa, where he sips absinthes past 
all computation, exercising his wit upon everybody 
and everything with a fluent and rather diverting 
pessimism. " You will probably perish on the 
road to Tozeur, in a sandstorm." 

" Ah, those sandstorms : they interest me. Have 
you ever been to Tozeur ? " 

" God forbid ! Gafsa is quite bad enough for 
me. Or you may be strangled by the Arabs ; 
such things occur every day. You smile ? Read 
the papers ! At some places, like Sfax, there are 
regular organized bands of assassins, the police 
being doubtless in their pay. Be sure to hold 
your revolver in readiness — better carry it in 
your jacket pocket, like this. . . . No revolver ! 
(To the company at large) He has no revolver ! 
In that case, don't dream of going out after sunset, 
here or anywhere else in this country. And read 
the papers." 

It was always " read the papers." 

I mentioned that I had walked home, at midnight 
on the previous evening, from the station. 

" Then don't do it again, if you value your life. 
Not long ago a lieutenant was attacked on that 
very road, and almost beaten to death. He managed 
to crawl back to barracks, and is now a wreck, 

73 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

incapacitated from further service. By a miracle 
he was able to identify one of his assailants. They 
gave him — ^what do you think ? — two years' im- 
prisonment ! Why not the Legion d'Honneur while 
we are about it ? Then there was the Italian — 
a respectable Italian, for a wonder — ^who went 
out for a walk and was never heard of again. The 
country was scoured for two months, but not so 
much as a button was ever found — not a button ! 
They had buried his body in the sand. That's 
their usual system, cheap and effective. And the 
guide-books say that Tunisia is as safe as the heart 
of France — ha, ha, ha ! I wonder how much 
they are paid for making that statement, and who 
pays it ? " 

" The hotel proprietors, with an occasional 
subsidy from the Government." This from a 
bloodthirsty young extremist in gaiters and riding- 
breeches, who had once been a colon, a farmer, 
but had given it up in disgust. " We cherish 
these savages," he went on, " as if they were our 
uncles and aunts ; everywhere, that is, save in 
those districts which are still under military rule. 
There you should see the natives stand up and 
salute you ! I am anti-military myself ; but 
I maintain that this salute should be kept up, as 
demonstrating the gulf that exists between our- 

74 



AT THE CAFE 

selves and them. But the moment you leave 
that zone the gulf is systematically bridged over, 
to make it more pleasant for the poor, misused 
Arab. Let me tell you vs^hat I think. I think that 
the Sicilians would have managed things better 
than we have done. And I also think that our 
controlleurs, they are not Frenchmen, but Arabs." 

" Foyons, voyons ! " said a clear voice from another 
table — a new-comer, apparently. " These are the 
criticisms to which we are exposed, because we 
introduce an enlightened and progressive policy." 

" Progressive policy be damned ! We have 
held Gafsa for the last thirty years, and what 
have we done to improve the place ? Nothing." 

" Pardon me ! We have planted twenty-seven 
pepper trees. Tunisia exists for needy people 
in search of work. If you can't make it pay, leave 
it alone. You have every facility for buying land, 
for importing this and that — why don't you settle 
down and make yourselves at home ? A colony, 
my friend, is not an orchid." 

" And as for those Sicilians," interposed the 
faun-like wooer of the Green Fairy, " I think 
you're all wrong. I admit that they are more 
flexible than we are, if you like to put it that way. 
They will do things that no Frenchman can do; 
they will establish themselves in places where 

75 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

no Frenchman could live ; they will eat things which 
no Frenchman could swallow ; they will oust the 
very Arabs out of the country in course of time, 
by sheer number of progeny and animal vitality. 
Oh, yes ; it's clear the Sicilians can lower their 
standard to any extent. But they can never raise 
it. They are the cancer of Tunisia. Wherever 
they go, they bring their filth, their mafia, roguery 
and corruption. Every Sicilian is a potential 
Arab, the difference between them being merely 
external ; the true African variety wears less 
clothes and keeps his house cleaner. I know 
them ! A race of sinister buffoons and cut-throats, 
incapable of any ennobling thought, whose highest 
virtues are other men's vices, whose only method 
of reasoning is the knife. . . . Don't accuse me. 
Messieurs, of prejudice, when I am trying to state 
the case impartially." 

You will often hear it put as baldly as that. 
The aUen inhabitants of Tunisia are well hated 
by a certain type of Frenchmen. The country 
has been compared to a wine-bottle that bears 
some high-flown label indicative of fine stuff 
within — the French administration — ^but is filled, 
unfortunately, with a poisonous mixture from 
round the corner, the Jews, Sicilians, Maltese, and 
Corsicans. 

76 



AT THE CAFE 

It is as difficult for a tourist to arrive at a just 
opinion on this subject as for the average French- 
man. The traveller will not find it easy to acquire 
the necessary first-hand data, while the other is 
warped by his congenital xenophobia. 

In 1900 there were 80,000 Italians, mostly 
Sicilians, in the Regency, as opposed to 20,000 
Frenchmen, one-half of whom were Government 
servants. This great predominance of a foreign 
stock scared some good folks, and a "Comite du 
peuplement fran9ais " was organized, to study ways 
and means of populating Tunisia with French 
citizens. 

If Sicilians could obtain grants of land under 
the same conditions as Frenchmen, large tracts, 
now waste, would be converted into gardens, 
to the profit of the exchequer. Is it worth while ? 
No, thinks the Government ; and with reason. 
French rule; in Northern Africa is a politico-moral 
experiment on a large scale, with what might be 
called an idealistic background, such as only a 
civiUzed nation can conceive. Italians might im- 
prove the land, but they could never improve 
the Arab ; they are themselves not sufficiently 
wise, or even well-intentioned. 

The Anti-Semitic agitation has died a natural 
death: you may curse the Jews, but you cannot 

77 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

crush them. - They make good citizens, and are 
for ever trying to gain more poHtical influence, 
which is surely to their credit, though it annoys 
a certain class in Tunis. As intermediaries between 
the Arab and the white man they are invaluable, 
their plasticity allowing them to ascend or descend 
in either direction, while their broad and active 
tolerance, fruit of bitter experience in the past, 
has honeycombed the land with freemasonry and 
scientific charity and liberalism. So far as I can 
see, their dirt does not detract from their astute- 
ness — perhaps it aids it, by removing one source 
of mental preoccupation, cleanliness. The old 
distinction between Livornese and Tunisian Jews 
is slowly becoming effaced. 

If there is one class of these immigrants whom 
the ordinary French employe hates more than 
another it is his own countrymen, the Corsicans. 
They have the gift of climbing into small but 
lucrative posts of administration, and there, once 
established, they sit fast like limpets, to the dismay 
of competing French office-seekers. Eject them ? 
You might as well propose to uproot Atlas or Ararat. 
Not only can they never be displaced, but from 
year to year, by every art, good or evil, they con- 
solidate their position. That done, they begin 
to send for their relations. One by one new Corsi- 

78 



AT THE CAFE 

cans arrive from over the sea, each forming a centre 
in his turn, where he sits tight, with a pertinacious 
sohdarity that borders on the superhuman. 

Cave-hunting savages at heart, and enemy to 
every man save their own blood relations, the 
Corsicans are the nightmare of the Arabs on account 
of their irreclaimable avarice and brutality. They 
would flay the native alive, if they dared, and sell 
his skin for boot-leather. They can play at being 
-plus arahes que les arabes, and then, if the game 
goes against them, they invoke their rights of French 
citizenship in the grand manner. The Frenchman 
knows it all ; he regrets that such creatures should 
be his own compatriots — regrets, maybe, that he 
is not possessed of the same primordial pushfulness 
and insensibility ; and shrugs his shoulders in 
civilized despair. 

As for the Maltese, they would be all very well 
if — if they were not British subjects. But such 
being the case, you never know ! It is disheartening 
to find such babble in the mouth of respectable 
officials and writers. 

I am well aware that there is a Sicilian injabula 
who is not "mafioso"; that the crude banditism 
which sits in every Corsican's bones has raised 
him to the elysium of martyrs and heroes and not, 
where he ought to have gone, to the gallows ; 

79 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

that the Maltese are not merely cantankerous 
and bigoted (Catholic) Arabs, but also sober, 
industrious, and economical. I have lived with 
all these races in their own countries and — apart 
from a fatal monkey-like apprehensibility which 
passes for intelligence but, as a matter of fact, 
precludes it — have found chiefly this to admire 
in them, that they are prolific and kind to their 
oflfspring. 

Small praise ? Not altogether. The same may 
apply to cats and dogs, but it does not always apply 
to civilized races of men. The Scotchman, for 
instance, can produce children, but is often unkind 
to them (Read the fafers f) ; the Frenchman is 
kind to children, but often cannot produce them. 
It would seem that chiefly in half-cultured people 
are these two qualities, twin roots of racial and 
domestic virtues, to be met with side by side. 

Whatever may be the cause of it — better food, 
a different legislation or climate, or contact with 
other nations — the suggestive fact remains, that 
the more objectionable idiosyncrasies of the Maltese, 
Corsicans and Sicilians become diluted on African 
soil. Can it be the mere change from an island 
to a continent ? There may be some truth in 
Bourget's " oppression des iles." Insulani semper 
?', says an old Latin proverb. . . , 



AT THE CAFE 

" Do you know," the gaitered young ex-farmer 
was saying — " do you know how many French 
colons there are in the whole regency ? Eight 
or nine hundred, drowned in an ocean of Arabs, 
who own the land. And that's what we call settling 
a country. The Americans knew better when they 
cleared out the redskins ! And how do the English 
manage in India ? Why, they shoot them — fiff- 
paf : it's done ! That's the way to colonize 
(looking approvingly at me) — supprimez Vindigene ! 
A nation cannot condescend to the idealistic ravings 
of an individual." 

I observed that I had never heard of that method 
being actually adopted in India. 

" You say that. Monsieur, because you fear it 
sounds a little drastic. But we are not in Paris 
or London just now ; we can say what we think. 
Or better still" (glowing with enthusiasm), "they 
tie them to the mouth of a big gun, and then — 
Boum . . . houpla ! ! Biftek a la tartare." 

" You are misinformed, my friend," said the 
voice from the other table. " That Indian cannon 
business was merely an administrative experi- 
ment." 

I looked at the speaker, who was smiling mirth- 
fully to himself. He was a fair-complexioned 
man of about forty-five, rather carefuUy dressed, 
F 8i 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

blue-eyed, with a short, weU-groomed beard — 
evidently an old acquaintance of the company. 

" It's aU right for you," the other retorted, 
" with your comfortable offices and your fat, 
ever-increasing salaries. You are not a harassed 
agriculturist, skulking in fear of his life, or a 
public servant, starving on four francs a day. 
Behold ! " he went on, extracting a newspaper 
out of his pocket, " behold the latest portrait of 
yourself and your colleagues — ^you have an air of 
revolting prosperity. And your whole biography, 
too, in black and white ; your wife, your children, 
your past career . . . what it is to be a capitaUst ! " 

" Tiens ! I never saw this. And printed in 
Paris a fortnight ago ! But it may be lying some- 
where about the house. I only returned at midday, 
you know. Not exactly a flattering Hkeness. . . ." 

The document was handed round. It was 
a French journal devoted to mining interests, 
and contained a long article dealing with the 
phosphate industry of Metlaoui, near Gafsa, with 
views of the works and portraits of its principal 
representatives. Beneath that of the speaker 
were printed the words — 

"Paul Dufresnoy, 

Ingenieur civil des mines," 
and some other titles. 

82 



AT THE CAFE 

An odd coincidence, this meeting, on the eve 
of my departure. 

I passed over to his table and mentioned that 
I possessed an introductory letter to him. 

" How ? And you are leaving to-morrow for 
the Djerid ? You are not coming to see me ? " 

I rephed that I would gladly give myself that 
pleasure. His family, he explained, was away 
just now, but if I could arrange to delay my de- 
parture for a little while he would accompany 
me as far as Metlaoui, which lies on the Tozeur 
route, and show me over the mines. He was to 
return to his work there in a week or so. The 
proposal was too tempting to be refused. 

We spoke of the spirit of irritation and dis- 
content that seemed rife among the Europeans 
in Gafsa. 

" Yes, the wind," he said ; " or perhaps Africa 
generally. I've often noticed that men, and women 
too, put on new faces and characters hereabouts. 
This contact with an inferior race upsets their 
nervous equilibrium. The lack of comfort and 
the need of abrupt action makes them discard 
gentleness and other external husks of civihzation. 
The mildest of us are liable to become brusque ; 
and harsh ones, brutal. Only the native remains 
resigned." 

83 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

Thereupon I propounded my hypothesis of 
the Mektoub or resignation doctrine : the intellectual 
burnous of the Arabs. 

The theory, he thought, was so good that there 
must be something wrong with it. His work 
brought him into daily contact with the natives, 
and, so far as he could judge, Mektoub was only 
one aspect of their general way of looking at things. 
It was bound up, for instance, with that idea of 
impenitence. Unlike ourselves, who approve of 
self-abasement, the Arab regards repentance as 
only fit for slaves. He does not hunt for his own 
sins ; he hunts for yours, and hits you on the 
head when he finds them. There was something 
in the notion, he thought, for surely remorse 
was rather a provincial sensation; it implies that 
a man has really done something wrong, or that 
he thinks he has ; in either case, what was there 
to boast of ? He had little time for studies, nowa- 
days, but it seemed to him that the trend of feeling 
was in the direction of Old Testamentary ideals. 
Men were growing tired of offering their other 
cheek to be smitten ; they found it degrading, 
as do the Arabs. Why not import some of these 
sterner conceptions into our morality, as we import 
their peppery curries and kouskous and pilaffs 
into our cuisine ? 

84 



AT THE CAFE 

He was inclined to say amiable things about the 
English race. The Anglo-Saxon, he thought, 
with his " constitutional non-morality," had come 
nearest to discovering a sensible working system 
of conduct — as a nation. It is his highest racial 
virtue to lead the Cosmic Life — to take all he can 
get, and ask for more. That is why every one, 
in his heart of hearts, envies and admires him. 
His chief defect, he thought, was a disdain of a 
knowledge of general principles, justifiable enough 
in the times of unsound teleological theorizings, 
but not nowadays, when we have at last set foot 
upon earth. 

" And what do you say," I asked, " to our 
so-called national hypocrisy ? " 

" Well, we others are apt to stand aside and 
marvel whether you have succeeded by reason of 
it, or in spite of it. Of course it annoys us beyond 
words ! But there is a form of it which is highly 
laudable : the Anglo-Saxon, it seems to me, often 
acts in apparently hypocritical fashion out of 
consideration for what he conceives to be the 
opinions of the majority. Profoundly self-respect- 
ing, he is equally careful not to impinge upon the 
feelings of others, however wrong-headed he may 
think them. In such cases, his hypocrisy is only 
a proof of civilization and genuine politeness. 

85 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

Hence also that shyness and reserve which I have 
often noticed in your countrymen — they are not 
signs of awkwardness or indecision, but of strength 
systematically controlled." 

" That is very gratifying. And what of our 
snobbishness ? " 

" The English snobbishness," he replied, " may 
not be beautiful, but its origins are sufficiently 
venerable to inspire respect. It testifies to long 
political stability ; it is rooted in Magna Charta. 
We foreigners, who upset our Governments and 
annihilate our aristocracies every ten years, will 
never attain that mellow stage. One may dislike 
it ; one dislikes the by-products of many excellent 
institutions. Your Government, for example, does 
extraordinarily little to foster art or literature 
or research. Taken by itself, that is an evil. But 
as a by-product of the EngHsh cult of the individual 
— of that avoidance of pestilential State interference 
in everything which is the curse of continental 
Europe — it may be gladly endured, if not ad- 
mired." 

He added : 

" When one lives out of Europe, Monsieur, 
one learns to know England better. To see things 
at their true perspective one must take up a stand 
at a proper distance from them. England only 

86 



AT THE CAFE 

begins to show its true proportions at a point 
where other lands cease to be visible. Austria, 
for instance, can only be examined on the spot. 
Once you have crossed the insignificant Mediter- 
ranean, this immense and fertile country, with its 
long history of rulers and battles, has already 
faded into air. Ca n^existe plus. Your Gladstone 
explained the phenomenon correctly : Austria has 
never done good to the world." 

I gathered that the Metlaoui phosphate company 
had modelled its principles on those of the " Anglo- 
Saxon." There is little "pestilential State inter- 
ference " in its management ; the board of directors 
takes all it can get, and asks for more. It is a paying 
concern, and consequently the shareholders admire 
it unreservedly — in the rest of mankind, this feeling 
is tinctured with a strong dose of envy. 



87 



Chapter VIII 

POST-PRANDIAL MEDITATIONS 

ONE dines early in Gafsa, and afterwards 
there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to 
do. Cafes become tedious with their 
card-games, cowboy politics and per- 
sistent allusions to " la femme," that protean 
fetich which dominates and saturates the Gallic 
mind, oozing out, so to speak, at every pore of 
their social and national life. They never seem 
to grow out of the Ewig-zveibliche stage. If only, 
like the Maltese, they would talk less and do more 
in certain respects, the "comite du peuplement" 
might close its doors. But such recklessness would 
ill comport with the ant-like hiving quality which 
paid back, within I forget how few years, the 
German war indemnity. 

After dinner, therefore, a short promenade about 
the streets and oasis, to court that illusive phantom, 
sleep, and to replenish the mind with new and 
peaceful images. I found a cloudless and relatively 
warm night. The wind had died down, and there 

88 



POST-PRANDIAL MEDITATIONS 

was a brilliant comet (the Johannesburg comet) in 
the sky. Knots of natives were gazing at it with 
disfavour : I listened, and heard one of them 
attributing the Franco-Tripolitan frontier incident 
to its baleful fires. " And there is more to come," 
he added, " unless it goes away." Townspeople, of 
course ; the cultivators are asleep long ago. 

Why don't you settle down and make yourselves 
at home ? With those words Dufresnoy had put 
his finger on the spot. The same idea must occur 
to every one who compares the French method of 
colonization with that pursued in English depen- 
dencies. Even our most ephemeral civil servants 
take pleasure in " settling down " ; they acquire 
local interests in golf, or native folklore, or butter- 
flies ; they manage to surround themselves with an 
atmosphere of home. Among the colons of Tunisia 
you may find a home establishment of the most 
comfortable type, but Government employes re- 
gard the Regency in the light of an exile ; they never 
try to make their life more endurable, as they easily 
could do, with a little co-operation. 

In Gafsa, for example, where the summer 
temperature is loo, no ice can be procured unless 
you drive to fetch it from the station settlement 
where the phosphate company has its servants ; 
if you want good vegetables, you must telegraph 

89 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

inland for them to Metlaoui, whither they are 
brought from the sea-coast, via Gafsa, for the con- 
sumption of the " company " ; fresh fish, which are 
caught in fabulous quantities at Sfax, and could 
be transported by every over-night train, are hardly 
ever visible in the Gafsa market. There is no 
chemist's shop in the place, not even the humblest 
drug-store, where you can procure a pennyworth 
of boric acid or court-plaster. So they live on, 
indulging all the time in a luxury of lamentation. 

There would be better shops in places like Gafsa 
if foreign commercial settlers were not discouraged 
from establishing themselves. French ones, needless 
to say, refuse to " settle." 

The hotels in the country places, too, would be 
better. At present they exist on a system of mono- 
polism and favouritism ; it is quite beyond the 
ambitions of their managers to collect a clientele ; 
most of these concerns are palpably run on the 
following principle : to keep the guest in such a 
state of chattering starvation, that he is ready to eat 
anything. How often have I yearned, in these 
" Grand Hotels " — they are all grand hotels — for the 
material comforts and the decent fare of some little 
wayside hostelry in Finland, or a rest-house in the 
jungle of Ceylon ! 

Why do French travellers not complain oftener ? 

90 



POST-PRANDIAL MEDITATIONS 

Well, the Frenchman is a patriotic creature 
and congenitally kind-hearted ; the proprietors of 
these establishments are country-people of his ; 
they are poor devils who have got stranded, somehow 
or other, in Tunisia ; one must have patience with 
them. Sometimes, however, your self-respecting 
Gaul is strained beyond the point of patriotic 
endurance by the concoctions of these Locustas 
and Borgias ; then he unsheathes that dagger-like 
Neanderthal manner which he carries about with him 
for rare occasions of self-defence ; and it warms the 
cockles of one's heart to hear how pertinently he 
discourses damnation to the cringing host. For 
we non-Frenchmen, be it understood, are all " des 
desequilibres " who demand toast, hot water and 
such-like exotics ; our complaints need not be taken 
seriously ; besides, foreigners are bound to pay in 
any case. But when a countryman begins to find 
fault there is not only a possibility that something, 
after all, may not be quite right with the cuisine or 
drainage, but even a chance that one or two items 
will be coldly struck off the reckoning. And that 
hurts ! 

They wiU tell you that there is nothing to be 
procured in the market ; but if you proceed to the 
spot, you will at least see succulent legs of mutton 
exposed for sale. The chef of the establishment, 

91 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

however, when making his morning purchases, 
passes by these with scorn, and betakes himself to a 
little booth whose table is strewn with dubious 
scraps of skin and bones, which have already been 
fingered and contemptuously thrown aside by fifty 
dirty Arabs (I speak as an eye-witness) ; he buys a 
few handfuls of these horrors for three or four sous, 
and forthwith — hey, presto ! — they are transformed 
into a "ragout a la bretonne" for the famished 
traveller, Tunisia is a sheep-rearing country — there 
are sixty thousand sheep in the controle of Gafsa 
alone — but you may live there a lifetime before 
seeing a leg of mutton at a country table d'hote. 
For all the " gigots " that ever appear at my host's 
entertainment, one might really think that the 
muttons of Africa were a peculiar species, a species 
without legs : crawling, maybe, on their beUies, 
like Nebuchadnezzar. 

"Je m'en f — de vot' bon-homme," said one of 
these gentlemen to me, referring to Baedeker, 
with whose sacred pages I had threatened him. 
" And as for the tourists, they'll come just the 
same." 

And so they do ! But they all end in discovering 
that even the worm will turn, when suffering from 
the torments of dyspepsia tunesina veridica sine qua 
non . . . 

92 



POST-PRANDIAL MEDITATIONS 

A good deal of amateurish talking is done, in 
Gafsa, in regard to the profits that would be gained 
were the oasis to be given over to Sicilian cultivators. 
Apart from the fact that the wealthy Kaid of 
Gafsa, who is the chief owner of it, would have 
something to say on the subject, these advantages 
would be limited to pruning the trees and grafting 
some of them ; introducing, possibly, a few more 
vegetables, and having the ground more parsi- 
moniously tended than at present. The magnesia 
in the water is hostile to the majority of delicate 
European growths. Something, no doubt, could 
be done in the way of improvement, but as a set-off 
to a visionary project of this kind, which is averse 
to the whole spirit of French rule in Tunisia, there 
would be a great rise in prices : Italians would form 
their inevitable ring. The extent of the gardens 
has almost doubled since 1880, without their help. 

As to the Arabs 

If the French looked to their prison system they 
would soon arrive at better results. For childish 
thefts and such-like trespasses, committed nearly 
always at the instigation of their parents, boys of 
ten and twelve are now locked up with hardened 
criminals, often for considerable periods : what is 
this but a State-aided manufacture of crime f Go 
to the prison of Sfax, and you will realize that there 

93 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

may be some reason for the absinthe-drinker's 
remark as to the " organized bands of assassins " at 
that place. I speak of what I have seen with my 
eyes. I found the prison of Souk-el-Arba, for 
instance, so tightly packed with men and young 
boys that there was not room for all of them to 
lie down at night, and such furious fights used to 
occur for the possession of places near the wall (the 
room was in pitch-darkness) that the warder was 
obliged to enter, every now and then, and restore 
order by beating those nearest the door about the 
head with a club. 

The Arab boy, they will tell you, is full of guile, 
and must be repressed. 

Granted, but 

A colony, furthermore, is not an orchid. 

Granted. 

Q.E.D. 



94 



Chapter IX 

SOME OF OUR GUESTS 

I SHALL be glad to leave for Metlaoui and 
the Djerid. Gafsa is losing its flavour; the 
novelty and pungency are gone. The same 
old faces, the same old bouts de conversation ; 
quickly, indeed, does one live oneself into a place 
and learn, or think to learn, all its little secrets. 

The hotel, too, has suddenly become an insuffer- 
able menagerie. Mysterious inspectors come and 
go, and commercial travellers of unappetizing looks 
and habits are far more frequent than formerly. 
But I shall regret the earth-convulsing laughter of 
the Greek doctor, who has latterly taken to putting 
in an appearance at meal-time. He is a gruff, jovial 
personage, and so huge in bulk that he can barely 
squeeze into the door of his little shop in the souk 
where he sits, surrounded by unguents and embroca- 
tions, to treat the natives for their multifarious dis- 
tempers. He is quite straightforward about the 
business. " You come to this country to spend 
money," he tells me, " but I— to make it." 

95 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

The profession is not aU plain sailing, however, 
for the French authorities raise every kind of 
obstacle in his path ; they tear his red advertise- 
ments down from the street walls and openly call 
him a quack. Were it not for the Greek Consul in 
Tunis, who happens to be an old friend of his, who 
knows how much longer they would allow him to 
practise in the land! 

I sometimes go to watch his operations, which, 
so far as I can judge, are fairly remunerative, thanks 
to Achmet the interpreter, one of whose many 
duties it is to inform himself confidentially of the 
financial status of prospective patients. For the 
richest sheikh will don tattered clothes when he 
visits the surgery, and would doubtless be taken for 
some poor labourer were it not for Achmet, who 
sees through the disguise and gives a discreet sign 
to ^sculapius, whose services, of course, must be 
prepaid ; it is money down before he wiU prescribe 
or give away a drop of medicine. 

I was much interested in one of his methods as 
exemplified on the person of a native youth who 
was led in the other day. He was an Aissouiyah 
dancer, and had evidently overdone his part in the 
heat of enthusiasm ; there were no less than forty- 
three sword-cuts across his middle. After receiving 
a handsome fee the doctor gave him some liniment 

96 




Natives of Gafsa 



SOME OF OUR GUESTS 

which caused exquisite pain : the patient writhed 
in agony. 

" That's good medicine," I heard Achmet tell- 
ing him, reassuringly ; " that's strong. See how it 
hurts ! " 

For a while he bore up bravely, but the pain 
growing worse instead of better, the doctor was at 
last persuaded, out of compassion and in return for 
a second fee, to give him something with a more 
soothing effect. 

But eye diseases are his speciality. His -piece de 
resistance is a Jewish tradesman whom he has lately 
supplied with an admirable glass eye — a thing almost 
unheard-of in these parts. This man and myself 
were sitting in the shop not long ago when a 
Moroccan happened to be passing who had known 
him in his one-eyed days ; the stranger gave him a 
sharp look and then walked swiftly away, apparently 
suspecting himself to be the victim of some absurd 
hallucination as regards the new eye. But he re- 
turned anon, to make sure of his mistake, I suppose ; 
while the Jew confronted him with a defiant glance 
of his two eyes. They stared at each other for some 
time in silence. At last the Moroccan enquired : 

" Are you the man who sold me that piece of 
cloth three weeks ago ? " 

" I am he." 

G 97 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

There was another long pause. Then : 
" That new eye : how came you by it ? " 
The Jew, a dreadful scoffer, pointed heavenwards 
with one finger. 

" A thing of God ! " he said. " A miracle has 
been vouchsafed me." 

But the man of Mequinez answered nothing. He 
gazed at him once more, and then, slowly bending 
down his head, folded his hands across his breast 
in prayer, and walked away. . . . 

Then there is the Polish Count, Count Pono- 
mareff, who arrived four days ago. He is past 
middle age, with a drooping moustache and large 
red nose ; a wistful and woebegone figure, but a 
brilliant conversationalist, when the mood is upon 
him. I have not taken very kindly to the man. 
Among other things, he disapproves of flint-collect- 
ing ; he asks, rather scornfully, " whether one can 
sell such stones." And yet, for some obscure 
reason, he has singled me out among the men as 
the object of his favourable notice, affecting rather 
a distant manner towards the rest of us ; the ladies, 
however, are charmed by his courtly graces. He 
wears profuse jewellery, to set off his title, no 
doubt. It is understood that he has held high 
Government posts, and is now only waiting for some 
letters before joining certain friends in a costly 

98 



SOME OF OUR GUESTS 

caravan expedition further south. Yet he seems 
poor — hopelessly poor. I surprised him, soon after 
his arrival, in a heated debate with the landlord on 
the subject of candles and cafe au lait. Then he 
enquired if the country was safe. 

" Not if you go out with a machine comme f«," 
touching the Count's gorgeous watch-chain. 

He knows, at least, how to handle his knife and 
fork, which is more than can be said of all the in- 
mates of this hostelry. A town-dweller, evidently ; 
he tells me he detests wild life of every kind and 
has come here only to obhge his friends ; he calls 
the Arabs " ignoble savages." 

Such, however, is not the opinion of another 

guest, my friend Monsieur M . One must be 

careful how one criticizes the habits of the natives 
in his presence ; not that he would be angry, for 
he is too gentle to feel wrath ; or become argumen- 
tative — he is too sure of his ground for that ; but 
he might be wounded on his most sensitive spot, 
and he would certainly think you — well, mis- 
informed. 

The motley crew of Gafsa have become his 
favourites ever since his arrival in the country two 
weeks ago, and he has a theory that it is a mistake 
to endeavour to learn their language — ^it only leads 
you astray, it spoils the " direct impression." 

99 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

He is a well-known French painter, whom some 
eye trouble has forced — only temporarily, let us 
hope — to abandon the brush. Despite his patri- 
archal beard, he is an impenitent romanticist of 
contagious youthfulness ; the entire universe lies so 
harmoniously disposed and in such roseate tints be- 
fore his mental vision, that no one save Madame 

M , a wise lady of the formal-yet-opulent type, 

whom Maupassant would have classed as "encore 
desirable," is able to drag him to earth again, with 
a few words of wholesome cynicism. 

Just for the fun of the thing, and to while away 
his hours of enforced idleness, he is collecting facts 
for a book to be entitled " Customs of the Arabs," 
as exemplified by the life of Gafsa. The idea came 
to him quite suddenly, after reading some descrip- 
tions which he considered sadly misleading. Cus- 
toms of the Arabs ! To tease him, I quote the 
authority of Bordereau, who says that there are 
practically no Arabs in Gafsa ; that the customs of 
this town are one thing and those of the Arabs 
another, unless he applies the word Arab to all the 
Mohammedan races of these parts. 

The objection is brushed aside ; one word is as 
good as another, rCest-ce fas ? 

I point out a genuine Arab who happens to be 
passing ; he has come down from the hills and is 

100 



SOME OF OUR GUESTS 

leading a camel loaded with halfa ; lie is gaunt and 
ill-clad, but walks with a fine swagger, and is evi- 
dently a valuable young person, to judge by his 
tattooings. 

" That ? That's only a young savage from the 
mountains. How are you to find out anything about 
him ? And I make a point, you know, o£ only re- 
cording what I see with my eyes. No theories for 
me ! I mean to see everything and to set it down ; 
to describe the Arabs as they are — as they really are, 
in all the circumstances of their daily lives. One 
must see everything." 

As a painter, I urge, he must have discovered how 
useful it is to restrict the field of vision now and 
then ; to be deliberately half blind. 

" Painting, Monsieur, is one thing, and writing 
another. It is one of the few advantages of growing 
old that things begin to fall, so to speak, into their 
proper places. When I go to my studio, I go for 
distraction ; art, it seems to me, is there to create 
moods, pleasurable or otherwise ; a painter must 
seize impressions. But I go to my library for in- 
formation ; the business of a writer is to collect 
and arrange facts ; a book, as I apprehend it, should 
be — a book. That is my quarrel with this Tunisian 
literature ; many of the things that have been ■ 
written about the country are not books at all ; 

lOI 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

while others are full o£ mistakes. Look at these two 
volumes, for instance ! Impressionistic realism, I 
suppose they would call it, scrawled down by an 
excitable female journalist who, I am sorry to say, 
has created quite a rage for European and American, 
lady tourists among these Arabs, to the great dis- 
credit of our civilization. Read them. Monsieur, as 
a warning example, and perhaps you will give me 
your Bordereau instead ; there may be something in 
it, after all." 

I gladly make the exchange, and regard the 
transaction in the light of an omen, an epoch. I 
have been craving for something different from the 
facts of Bordereau, who has been my companion 
all these days. A solid little piece of work, by the 
way, which often set me wondering whether our 
British pubHc would care to pay four shilHngs for 
a technical account of the chmate, history and 
natural products of some remote Egyptian oasis. 
But perhaps the cost of production has been de- 
frayed by some Government department. 

These two volumes by Isabelle Eberhardt — where 
have I heard that name before ? — look tempting. I 
promise myself some hours of pleasant reading. 

"And then, for downright misstatement," he 
continued, " look at this. Here is a Monsieur 
Kocher, who passes for an authority, and who, de- 

I02 



SOME OF OUR GUESTS 

scribing the Arab marriage customs, talks of the 
' brutalite du viol dans le marriage — un drame lugu- 
bre.' Now that comes of not examining things with 
one's own eyes. Since my arrival here I have already 
seen several Arab weddings and something of their 
married life, and I must say, candidly, that I find it 
full of romance. Say what you will, these Arabs are 
unconscious poets." 

"And. if you want still further information," I 
said, " ask the boy whom I saw blacking your boots 
this morning. He will describe to you the minutest 
details of his married life with surprising frankness. 
His father bought him a wife two weeks ago, under 
the condition, however, that his little brother is to 
be allowed to share in the joys of matrimony. That 
young savage from the mountains would blush, if 
Arabs ever could blush, to hear their revelations." 

" Oh, oh, oh ! You appal me ! But I would like 
to make personal enquiries into the matter ; that is, 
if I can make them understand me. It is my rule, 
you know." 

" Do, Monsieur ; question both the brothers, and 
write down their answers, the perusal of which will 
be a liberal education for our boys at home. Among 

other things, they say that whenever But here 

is Madame coming ! " 

" Never mind her ! She takes an interest in Arab 
103 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

institutions, as I do. . . . Only imagine, Amelie, 
our shoeblack is said to be actually married ; and 
so is his little brother, and they have one and the 
same bride ! Two husbands to one wife, or half a 
wife apiece — ^what do you think of that ? " 

" I think it's quite enough to begin with. Re- 
member, mon cher, they are only children." 



104 



Chapter X 

THE OASIS OF LEILA 

I RODE, for a farewell visit, to the small 
oasis of Leila, or Lalla, which lies a few miles 
beyond the railway station. It is one of 
several parasitic oases of Gafsa : a collection 
of mud-houses whose gardens are watered by a 
far-famed spring, the fountain of Leila. 

The water gushes out, tepid and unpleasant 
to the taste — but health-giving, they say, like 
so many unpleasant things — from under steep 
banks of clay through which the railway to Sfax 
has been cut. It is a sleepy hoUow of palms, a 
place to dream away one's cares. The picturesque 
but old-fashioned well at this spot has just been 
replaced by a modern trough of cement. I watched 
the work from beginning to end, ten or fifteen 
Arabs, supervised by a burly Sicilian mason, finishing 
the job in a few days. 

" These Saracens ! " — such was the overseer's 
constant lament — " these Saracens ! You don't 
know, dear sir, what fools they are." 

los 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

In never-ending procession of gaudy rags the 
village folk come to these waters, the boys mostly 
on horseback, the women afoot. Donkeys are 
loaded with the heavy black goat-skins of water ; 
there is laundry-work going on, and a good deal 
of straightforward love-making under the shade. 
These children of nature have a wild beauty of 
their own, and the^ young girls are frolicsome as 
gazelles and far less timid. They have none of the 
pseudo-bashfulness of the townsfolk. For the rest, 
only the dessus du fanier of womankind goes veiled 
hereabouts — a few portly dames of Gafsa, that is, 
who are none the worse, I suspect, for keeping 
their features hidden. Perhaps the good looks 
of these Leila people are a heritage from olden 
days, for this oasis is known to be a race islet, 
inhabited almost exclusively by men of the EUez 
stock — one of the three races that have chiefly 
contributed to the formation of the modern Gafsa 
type ; a conquering brood of European origin, 
smaU but shapely. 

But untold ages ere this the waters of Leila 
were already frequented by men of another kind, 
by the flint-artists. Among the relics of their 
occupation I picked up, here, an unusually fine 
implement of the " amygdaloid " shape. 

Not a soul in Gafsa, native or foreign, could 
1 06 



THE OASIS OF LEILA 

tell me who was the lady Leila that gave her name 
to this fountain. On the spot, however, I heard 
this tale : She was a young girl, madly enamoured 
of an Arab youth, but strictly guarded. Her 
married sister alone knew of their infatuation, 
and used to help her by keeping a look-out for 
him at the water-side ; and when he appeared, 
she would return home and sing to herself (as 
if it were a snatch of some old ditty) — Leila, 
Leila, your lover comes ! But the maiden under- 
stood, and swiftly, under pretence of fetching 
water, she would run to meet him at the well, 
and take her joy. The story has an air of 
probability ; such things are done every day, 
at every fountain throughout the land. This 
lingering at the well is one of the moments when 
their hard life is irradiated by a gleam of romance. 
An old man also gave me the following account : — 
Ages ago, he said, when Gafsa belonged to 
the Sultan of Trablus (Tripoli) there was sad 
misgovernment in the land. The taxes became 
quite unendurable, and the city was half emptied 
of its inhabitants, who fled this way and that, 
rather than submit to the extortions of the Sultan's 
officers. And among those who escaped in this 
fashion was a god-fearing widow and her children. 
Her name was Leila. She took up her abode 

107 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

near this fountain, which was then little frequented. 
Here she dwelt, doing good works whenever 
occasion offered. And here, at length, she was 
received into the mercy of Allah and entombed. 
The country-folk gave her name to the water, 
to perpetuate the memory of her pious life. . . . 

The depression beyond this fountain is celebrated 
as the resort of game, and yesterday a French 
gentleman of my acquaintance went there, provided 
with all the accoutrements of sport, not omitting 
a copious luncheon-basket — there might be snipe 
or partridges, or perhaps a hare, a gazelle, a leopard 
— who knows ? 

He returned in good time for dinner. 

" Voild ma chasse ! " he said, opening his bag. 
It contained a bundle of wild asparagus, for salad, 
and fourteen frogs, which he had killed with a 
rifle. 

" You can't get frogs as easily in my part of 
France," he told me. " If the sport were not 
forbidden for seven months out of the twelve, 
the species would long ago have become extinct." 

I enquired whether the close-season for frogs 
was officially set down, hke that of hares or wild- 
fowl. 

" Frogs," he explained, " are not considered 
game in the governmental sense of that word ; 

io8 



THE OASIS OF LEILA 

they fall into the category o£ fisheries which, 
as you know, comes under the jurisdiction of the 
respective prefects. Hence the close-time, though 
officially fixed, varies according to the different 
provinces. In my department, for example, it 
begins on the 15th of January. At Gafsa, if I 
may judge by certain indications, it would probably 
be arranged to commence still earlier." 

Far be it from me to decry the succulent hams 
of Rana esculenta (or rather ridibunda). I have been 
offered far more fearful wild-fowl nearer home — 
certain ornithological wrecks, I mean, that have been 
kept beyond the feather-adhering stage, and then 
reverently held before a fire, for two minutes, 
wrapped in a bag, lest the limbs should drop off. 

There is considerable talk at Gafsa of the wild 
mountain sheep, the Barbary mouflon. They 
say that as late as the early nineties it was no un- 
common thing to meet with flocks of over thirty 
grazing in the mountains. Although a special 
permit must now be obtained to be allowed to 
shoot them, their numbers have much diminished. 
But the accounts vary so wonderfully that one 
cannot form any idea of their frequency. Some 
talk of seventeen being shot in the course of two 
weeks' camping, others of three in a whole season. 
As a rule, they are not stalked, but driven, by an 

109 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

army o£ Arabs which the sheikh organizes for that 
purpose, towards certain openings in the hills 
where the sportsman takes up his stand. The 
desert lynx is sometimes met with, and hyenas, 
they say, occur as near to Gafsa as the Jebel Assalah. 
Arabs have told me that the fat of the hyena 
is used by native thieves and burglars to smear 
on their bodies when they go marauding. The 
dogs, they say, are so terrorized by the smell of 
it, so numbed with fear and loathing, that they 
have not the heart to bark. (Pliny records an ancient 
notion to the effect that dogs, on coming in contact 
with the hyena's shadow, lose their voice.) 

Here, at the Jebel Assalah, I encountered a 
jackal — a common beast, but far oftener heard 
than seen. While resting in a sunny hollow of 
rock, I heard a wild cry which came from a shepherd 
who was driving the jackal away from his goats. 
The discomfited brute trotted in my direction, 
and only caught sight of me at a few yards' distance. 
I never saw a jackal more surprised in my life. 
When a camel expires in the plain near some 
nomads' tents, they sometimes set a spring-trap 
for jackals near the carcase — they eat these beasts 
and sell their skin for a few francs ; the traps 
are craftily concealed underground, with a little 
brushwood thrown over them to aid the deception. 

no 



THE OASIS OF LEILA 

It is impossible to be aware of tkeir existence. But 
woe betide the wanderer who steps on them ! 
For the machine closes with the shock of an earth- 
quake, a perfect volcano of dust and iron teeth 
leaping into the air. Its force is such that the 
jackal's leg is often cut clean off, and he hops away 
on the remaining three. For this and other reasons, 
therefore, it is advisable not to approach too near 
a dead camel. 

The desert hare is shot or coursed with muzzled 
greyhounds, sloughis, who strike it down with their 
paws ; unmuzzled, they rend it to pieces. There 
are few of them in Gafsa just now, on account of 
the cold to which they are sensitive; although 
muffled in woollen garments they shiver pitifully. 
Of falconers, I have only met one riding to the 
chase. It was the Kaid of Gafsa, a wealthy man 
of incalculable political influence both here and 

in Tunis. It is even whispered But no ; one 

must not repeat all one hears. . . . 

With the proprietor's permission I went over 
a young plantation of trees and vegetables that 
has sprung up near the railway line, about half- 
way between Gafsa and Leila. Excavating to 
a depth of six metres at the foot of the bare 
Rogib hill, they encountered an apparently un- 
limited supply of water, and here, where formerly 

HI 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

nothing but a few scorched grasses and thorns 
could be seen, is now a luxuriant little oasis. More 
might be done with the place, but the owner 
seems to have lost interest in it ; the locusts, too, 
have been rather destructive of late. 

He had planted quantities of prickly pears, 
he said, but the Bedouins' cattle had devoured 
them. These are useful growths in Tunisia, 
requiring hardly any moisture and forming, when 
full-grown, impenetrable walls of spiky green. 
They also bring in a respectable revenue. In the 
district of Kairouan, for instance, many families 
draw their entire income from them. A few have 
been planted at Sidi Mansur and elsewhere near 
Gafsa, but they are unprotected and liable to be 
trodden down in their early years, or eaten. Barbed 
wire, herald of civilization, is almost unknown in 
these parts. 

Like most tradespeople, this proprietor was 
rather despondent about the future of Gafsa. 
There had certainly been some improvement 
within the last twenty yearc — slight, but steady; 
the building of the railway station so far outside 
the town he considered a disgraceful piece of 
jobbery, a crime which had permanently injured 
the prospects of the place. Merchants, he said, 
are entirely dependent on the state of the Metlaoui 

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The Roman Wall 



THE OASIS OF LEILA 

mines. If, like last year, these do well, then Gafsa 
also thrives. If there is a strike or over-production, 
as at this moment, Gafsa suffers. 

Tourists come to this town, he said, but they 
leave next day. Nothing is done to make their 
stay agreeable. 

The natives are not of a kind to take much 
interest in its welfare. Gafsa has gone through 
too many vicissitudes to be anything but a witches' 
cauldron of mixed races. Seldom one sees a hand- 
some or characteristic face. They have not the 
wild solemnity of the desert folk, nor yet the 
etiolated, gentle graces of the Tunisian citizen 
class ; much less the lily-like personal beauty of 
the blond Algerian Berbers. Apart from some men 
that possess, almost undiluted, the features of the 
savage Neanderthal brood that lived here in pre- 
historic times, the only pure race-type that survives 
is one of unquestionably Egyptian origin, one to 
which Monsieur Bordereau, in his book on Gafsa, 
has already referred. No wonder ; since Egyptian 
invasions of this region went on for centuries, 
culminating in the extended sea-dominion of 
Thotmes III at the end of the seventeenth cen- 
tury B.C. 

A bastard Greco-Latin was the language of the 
place up to the thirteenth century a.d. 
H 113 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

This confusion of blood has done one good 
thing for them — it has given them considerable 
tolerance in matters of religion. They are the 
least bigoted Orientals one could wish to meet. 
Only fifteen in a hundred, perhaps even less, 
perform the devotions prescribed by the Prophet. 
And it is part of their charming heterodoxy to be 
dog-eaters. They will catch and devour each 
other's dogs ; they even breed them for the market, 
though they dare not expose the meat publicly, 
any more than that of swine, which they eat with 
relish. But up to a few days ago they had never 
ventured to touch the dog of a foreigner. On 
Wednesday evening, however, a fox-terrier belonging 
to a French official was found in the street, dead, 
with its throat cut. A stream of blood was traced 
from that spot to the door of a native eating-shop, 
and enquiries from the neighbours elicited the 
fact that the cook of the establishment had caught 
the beast and cut its throat ; that the miserable 
creature, in its dying struggles, had escaped from 
his grasp and run in the direction of home, only 
to stagger by the roadside and expire from loss of 
blood. 

There was a wild excitement over this little 
episode. The dog of a Frenchman killed, for 
culinary purposes, by an Arab ; it was the comble 

114 



THE OASIS OF LEILA 

of temerity ! The owner of the animal, on hearing 
the news, buckled on his revolver and repaired 
to the shop with the avowed intention of shooting 
his man, whom the poUce, fortunately, had already 
conjured into some safe place of custody. If he 
is wise he will languish in prison for some days 
longer. 

Gafsa lies high, and I ask myself whether its 
fierce shiftings of heat and cold, its nocturnal 
radiation that splits the very rocks and renders 
life impossible for many plahts (outside the culti- 
vated zone, which equalizes these extremes) — 
whether all this has not had a nunjbing and stupe- 
fying influence on the character of the inhabitants. 
Would not a man, under such perennial vexations, 
end in bowing his head and letting things take 
their course ? I notice the climatic effect upon 
myself is a growing incapacity for mental effort. 
It is time to depart for the Djerid, where the sun, 
they say, still exhales a certain amount of warmth. 

Add to this, Arab frugality and the cheapness 
of native living throughout the country, which 
removes all stimulus to work. A middle-class 
citizen tells me that he has just returned from 
Tunis, where a lawsuit had kept him for two years. 
He went there with an overland caravan which 
cost next to nothing ; he slept in a zaouiah, 

115 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

where he also obtained a bath gratis ; he spent 
on his food four sous a day, neither more nor less, 
and by way of amusement took coffee with his 
friends or strolled down to the harbour to look 
at the ships. Six pounds in two years ! And 
natives in authority, who are generally the richest, 
pay nothing whatever for their nourishment. 
Like the Kaid of Gafsa, they simply requisition 
it in the market ; the sellers grumble, but conform 
to custom. 

How quickly their looks can improve is shown 
by those who join the army. In a few months 
they grow fat, cheerful, and bright-complexioned, 
thanks to the hygienic life and better food. As 
it is, I have noticed single individuals among the 
poorest classes who look remarkably well as com- 
pared with their fellows. " They drink milk," 
was the explanation given me. 

There is vitality enough among the young boys 
who play hockey — these ball games are non-Arabic, 
a relic of Berberism — and keep up the sport till 
late at night amid a good deal of ill-tempered 
fighting and puUing about. Their mothers' milk 
is still inside them ; they have not yet succumbed 
to the ridiculous diet, clothing, and life-habits 
of their elders. But soon manhood descends 
upon them like a cataclysm ; it tears them with 

ii6 



THE OASIS OF LEILA 

a frenzy which is anything but divine and there- 
after absorbs them, to the exclusion of every other 
interest. Hockey-sticks are thrown away. . . . 

That witchery of Orientalism, with its im- 
memorial customs, its wondrous hues of earth 
and sky — it exists, chiefly, for the delectation 
of hyperborean dreamers. The desert life and 
those many-tinted, mouldering cities have their 
charms, but the misery at intermediate places 
like Gafsa (and there are hundreds of them) 
is too great, too irremediable to be otherwise 
than an eyesore. They have not solved the problem 
of the simple life, these shivering, blear-eyed folk. 
Their daily routine is the height of discomfort ; 
they are always ailing in health, often from that 
disease of which they plaintively declare that 
" whoever has not had it, cannot enter the kingdom 
of Heaven," and which, unlike ourselves, they 
contract by their patriarchal habit of eating and 
drinking out of a common dish. They die like 
flies. Naturally enough ; for it is not too much 
to say, of the poorer classes, that they eat dirt, 
and that only once a day. A fresh shirt in the year 
is their whole tailor's bill ; two or three sous a day 
will feed them ; sunshine, and the stone floor of a 
mosque or cofiee-house by night, is all they ask 
for, and more than they sometimes get. 

117 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

An old Arab song contains words to this effect : 
" Kafsa is miserable ; its water is blood ; its air is 
poison ; you may live there a hundred years without 
making a friend." No doubt the plethoric Sicilian 
mason at the Leila fountain would thoroughly 
endorse this statement with his " Ah, signore — 
these Saracens ! " . . . But one learns to like the 
people none the less. They are merely depressed ; 
they are not deficient in mother-wit or kindliness ; 
a little good food would work wonders. 

The oasis people are milk-drinkers, and would 
be healthier than the townsmen but for the 
agues, fevers and troublesome " Gafsa boil " to 
which they are subject. 

I go to these plantations at night-time, after 
dinner, when the moon plays wonderful tricks 
of light and shadow with the over-arching foliage. 
The smooth sandy stretches at the outskirts of 
the gardens shine like water at rest, on which the 
leaves of an occasional sparse tuft of palms are 
etched with crystalline hardness of delineation. 

This untilled region is most artistic, the isolated 
clumps shooting up hke bamboos out of the bare 
soil. The whole grove is still wrapped in its wintry 
sleep, and one can look through the naked branches 
of the fruit trees into its furthest reaches. Only 
the palm leaves overhead and the ground at one's 

ii8 




Olives 111 the Oasis 



THE OASIS OF LEILA 

feet are green ; the middle spaces bleak and brown. 
But, do what he will, a man who has lived in the 
tropics becomes rather blase in the matter of palms. 

Besides, there are no flints to be found 
here. . . . 

Yet such is the abundance of water that these 
Gafsa gardens have a character different from 
most African plantations. They are more art- 
lessly furnished, with rough, park-like districts 
and a not unpleasing impression of riot and waste — 
waste in the midst of plenty. 

Then there is a charming Theocritean bit of 
country — the temperate region at the tail-end 
of the grove. Only olives grow here ; seventy- 
five thousand of them. Beside their silvery- 
grey trunks you may see herds of the small but 
brightly-tinted oxen reposing; the ground is 
pied with daisies and buttercups, oleanders border 
the streamlets, and the plaintive notes of the 
djouak, the pastoral reed of the nomads, resound 
from some hidden copse. 

There will be nothing of this kind, I fear, in the 
carefully-tended oases of the Djerid. 



119 



Chapter XI 

A HAVEN OF REFUGE 

THE cold being past all endurance and 
belief, I was tempted to fulfil my pro- 
mise and call upon Monsieur Dufresnoy. 
What kind of man was this that man- 
aged to survive it ? 

They led me to his house, which is one of the 
few two-storied buildings of the town and lies in a 
squalid street of mud-dwellings. Villainously dirty 
walls surround a massive entrance-gate studded with 
nails and bands of iron, intervolved in artful de- 
signs. No bell, no knocker, no door-handle ; only 
an impressive lock. At the sight of this doorway I 
paused — it was grim, claustral, almost menacing ; 
there was an air of enchantment about the mansion, 
as if once in a hundred years its forbidding portals 
might turn on their rusty hinges. 

Finally, I fled away altogether, in a kind of godly 
panic. 

M. Dufresnoy, on his way homewards, almost 
ran into me. I tried to explain the sensations his 



A HAVEN OF REFUGE 

domicile had aroused in my mind ; he laughed at 
first, and then admitted that he had often felt the 
same thing. The house was apt to look like that, 
he said, when his wife was away. 

The inside appearance, once that portal has been 
passed, is quite different, and I was glad to have 
an opportunity of seeing the place, as it is one of the 
surprises of Gafsa, one of the few remaining town- 
houses that date from better days, being built 
originally for some Turkish grandee or governor — 
for him, I daresay, who drove the god-fearing 
widow to the sylvan seclusion of Leila. You step 
through the gate into an open square patio, sur- 
rounded, on the sides not abutting on the street, 
by an arched passage that reposes on old Roman 
columns. This covered loggia, running round 
three fronts of the court, is the feature of the 
house : wonderful how a few arcades and pillars 
wiU impart an air of distinction and even luxury ! 
Almost nothing has been done to change the old 
appearance of this small but well-proportioned 
patio ; the walls have been freshly whitewashed, 
the original mud-flooring replaced by tiles, a bright 
flower-bed set in the centre — nothing more. 

The five or six lower rooms to which the loggia 
gives access must be delightfully cool in summer, but 
they are dark and chiUy at this season. Luckily, the 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

mansion possesses an upper story where the family- 
resides during the winter, in rooms that are actually 
floored with wood. From here, looking out of the 
windows, there is a wondrous view over a wilderness 
of decayed Arab dwellings upon the oasis beyond, 
and the distant purple mountains. 

There is an irresistible air of geniality about this 
home : can it be the house itself ? For a subtle 
influence, no doubt, penetrates to the heart of man 
from the mere form and disposition of inanimate 
things. I was prepared to be smothered in a pro- 
fusion of local effects ; of saddle-cloths, silk hangings, 
water-pipes, daggers and match-locks, dim nooks 
with divans, and those other decorations that 
suggest the glamour of the Orient to certain Western 
minds. Or again, I said to myself, this European 
wife will have imported certain tastes from over the 
sea ; the house will be replete with trifles carefuUy 
disposed in negligent fashion, silver photograph 
frames and flower vases reposing on diminutive 
tables, and such-like indications of what our novelists 
call the " tender but indefinable touches of a 
woman's hand." 

Nothing of the kind. The place is simply com- 
fortable : it appeals to one's sense of propriety. 
There are carpets and genuine arm-chairs — ^unique 
phenomena in this part of the world ; best of all. 



A HAVEN OF REFUGE 

fire-places wherein ample logs of olive-wood glimmer 
and glister aU day long. 

And so the last few days have passed. Mentally, 
too, I am thawing once more ; the hotel life and 
solitary walks of Gafsa had begun to affect me dis- 
agreeably. Such things are endurable and perhaps 
stimulating in youth and in the plenitude of health ; 
but there comes a period when one lives less in 
future dreamings than in the experiences of the 
past — unpleasant company, for the most part ; 
when one craves to see the faces and hear the 
opinions of rational fellow-creatures ; when one 
requires, in short, to be distracted. This is the age, 
too, at which a man begins to realize the significance 
of those once-despised material comforts. Tunisian 
hotels can only be inhabited by young hopefuls. 

The house contains a considerable library of 
local literature — mostly technical and dealing with 
Dufresnoy's Metlaoui district, but some of it 
intelligible to a simple traveller like myself. From 
certain books I have begun to make extracts con- 
cerning the places I am likely to visit : Metlaoui, 
the Djerid oases, and the Chott country. 

Dufresnoy is essentially a mining engineer. He 
evidently knows his business thoroughly ; he has 
been employed in various parts of the French 
dominions and likes the work ; all of which has not 

123 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

prevented him from becoming a man of the world 
and keeping his other intellectual pores open. 
There is nothing of the professional in his con- 
versation. He is rather undemonstrative, for a 
Frenchman. 

He told me an odd thing about the native rising 
in Thala in 1896, when a marabout preached death 
to all foreigners, with the result that several white 
men were murdered (it was a hastily collected band 
of Italian tradesmen who put down the insurrec- 
tion). They caught him, and in due time he died (?) 
in prison — they were probably afraid to execute 
him : perhaps he killed himself — and the odd thing 
is this : that although the necessary sum has been 
contributed for erecting a monument to these 
unhappy victims of native ferocity, yet the Franco- 
Tunisian authorities are averse to the plan, on the 
ground that such a public monument might offend 
Arab susceptibilities. This struck me as overdoing 
the " pacific penetration " policy ; and he thought 
so too, more especially as there is a commemorative 
stone to some preposterous native bigot at the very 
place. . . . 

I shall be sorry to leave Dufresnoy at Metlaoui. 
In him I often admire that fine trait of his race : 
the clarifying instinct. He possesses — with no 
pretension at knowledge beyond his mining sphere — 

124 



A HAVEN OF REFUGE 

an innate rigour of judgment in every matter of 
the mind ; he avoids crooked thinking by a process 
of ratiocination so swift and sure as to appear 
intuitive. Even as a true collector of antiques 
has quite a peculiar way of handling some rare 
snuff-box or Tanagra statuette and, though un- 
acquainted with that particular branch of art, yet 
straightway classes it correctly as to its merits, so, 
to him, an idea of whatever kind is an objet de vertu, 
to be appraised with unfailing accuracy. He is a 
connoisseur of abstractions. What the Goth carves 
out grotesquely after a painful labour of mental 
elimination, the right deposited, as residue, after 
a thousand wrongs — ^what the Latin smothers 
under a deluge of mere words : this your Frenchman 
of such a type will nimbly disentangle from all its 
unessentials ; he presents it to your inspection in 
reasonable and convincing shape — purified, clipped, 
pruned. What is this gift, this distinguishing mark ? 

Discipline of the mind, culminating in intellectual 
chastity — ^in what may be called a horror of perverse 
or futile reasoning. 

He mentioned, incidentally, the case of suicides 
among the natives to prove that the Mektoub 
doctrine is not wholly pernicious. Suicides were 
quite unusual, he said ; the Arabs do not seem to 
be able to fall in with the idea, preferring to bear 

125 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

the greatest evils rather than take an active part in 
the undoing of themselves. That was Mektoub : to 
bow the head, dumbly resisting. And were they not 
right ? Did not the great majority of European 
cases of suicide imply a neurotic condition — such 
as when men of business have suffered reverses on 
Exchange or lost some trivial appointment ? How 
easily things could be bridged over, or repaired, 
or even endured ! The most hopeless invalid could 
testify to the fact that some pleasure can still 
be extracted out of a maimed or crippled existence ; 
a man, however impoverished, might stiU live in 
dignified and fairly cheerful fashion. 

He thought that in the matter of suicides, as 
in that of remorse, we were too " spectacular and 
altruistic " ; that we lived in a rather unwholesome 
atmosphere of self-created and foolish ideas con- 
cerning honour and duty ; that the Mektoub 
practice of the Arabs pointed to an underlying 
primitive sanity which we would do well to foster 
within us. 



126 



Chapter XII 

THE MTSTERIOUS COUNT 

GAFSA, even Gafsa, has its enigmas. 
I climbed this afternoon to the summit 
of the Rogib hill, which lies near the 
railway station, on the further side of 
the Oued Baiesh. This, presumably, is the site 
where Marius halted for the last time before 
attacking the town ; and the spot was also interest- 
ing to me on account of its flint implements. . . . 
A sad and barren range of hills. There was no 
sunshine, for a scirocco-storm raised clouds of dust 
and obscured the sky ; the wind was bitterly cold. 
Finding it impossible to attune my phantasy to 
the picture of Marius and his soldiers, I descended 
once more. 

On the station turnpike I overtook a solitary 
foot-passenger, who plodded slowly along. It was 
the Polish Count. He had been absent from the 
hotel for several days, and now appeared to be in 
the gloomiest of humours. 
Where had he been ? 

127 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

For a promenade, he said. It was too dreary 
sitting indoors, all alone. He had left the hotel. 
The place was too noisy : the dogs barked inces- 
santly. He had taken rooms with a Jew, and 
arranged to have his meals at a small Italian 
trattoria. 

This was a half-truth, I felt sure. The dogs 
of Gafsa, no doubt, are past all endurance ; they 
are worse than in any Turkish village where they 
howl at least in unison, and so continuously through 
the night that one ceases to take note of them ; 
but the man's real reason for this change of domicile 
was probably another one. 

" You must find that much quieter," I said, " and 
cheaper as well. These hotels are rather preten- 
tious." 

" Pretentious and dear. Here I am, stranded in 
an unknown place, without friends ; remittances 
are due to me, and they never come " — ^he broke 
into the subject without reserve — " and it is 
hard, I assure you, to deprive oneself of things, of 
trifles, if you like to fcall them so, to which one is 
nevertheless accustomed and entitled, so to speak, 
by birthright. But I am talking to the winds, 
no doubt. You, Monsieur, are one of the fortunate 
ones ; you don't know — you don't know " 

" Yes I do," I replied, trying to think of something 
128 



THE MYSTERIOUS COUNT 

to say in the way of consolation. " I know quite 
well " 

" How do you know f " he interrupted. And 
next, with needless vehemence : " What do you 
know ? " 

I was surprised at his sudden change of tone. 
It was awkward, all this. I gave utterance to such 
commonplaces on the instability of human affairs 
as occurred to me, and ended up by offering, I hope 
with sufficient delicacy, to assist him to the small 
extent that lay in my power. 

" Ah ! " 

He seemed infinitely relieved by my words : he 
evidently expected some answer of quite another 
import. Turning his back to the wind, and pausing 
for a moment to adjust his clothing, he replied, 
with ambassadorial deliberation : 

" You may be certain. Monsieur, that I would not 
easily forget a kindness of this nature ; my lot in life 
has been far too unhappy to make me undervalue 
what you, a stranger, have just offered me. But I will 
decline : what are a few francs to me ? Pray don't 
think me ungrateful, however. You have caught me 
in an almost delirious moment, and your friendly 
words just now, when I felt myself so abandoned 
and in so critical a state of mind, with this dreadful 
desert wind moaning and everything, as it seems, 
I 129 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

hostile to me : your kind words, I say, touched me 
more deeply than I can express." (Here he wiped 
away a genuine tear.) " But my luck may yet turn, 
and then, be sure, I will make you forget all my 
childish querulousness." 

And he went on, almost gaily : 

" I never could keep money ! And the worst of 
it is, I hate work ; I was not brought up to it, 
and you will admit that I am too old to begin life 
anew. Yet I object on principle to so-called charity, 
being intelligent enough to know that there is 
only one kind of charity, and Justice is its name. 
But what is justice ? I suppose we aU possess some 
kind of natural rights, according to our stations ; 
justice, I take it, would consist in our being per- 
mitted to enjoy those rights. If this is correct, 
then — ah, Monsieur, the demoralizing effects of 
poverty, of non- justice, on a man like myself ; how 
it lowers your self-respect and makes you capable 
of actions that you would reprobate, in your right 
mind " 

" In your right mind ? Is a poor man, then, 
insane ? " 

" How can I make you understand ? Tell me, is 
not poverty a kind of madness, an obsession that 
haunts you night and day ? To puzzle, at every 
hour, how to meet this demand and how to shun 

130 



THE MYSTERIOUS COUNT 

that one ; to deny yourself the necessities of 
life, and your friends those poor little pleasures 
that you are yearning to bestow upon them — ^is it 
not a mental malady, a fever ; is it not damnation 
itself ? The thousand meannesses : how they 
degrade you ; how they suck away your strength, 
your ambition, your faith ! To see no openings 
before you, save ever darker gulfs of despair ! I 
cannot hope to make you conceive such a hell : 
one must have been there oneself. But note this, 
Monsieur : never judge an impoverished man by 
your own standards of right and wrong — never ! 
For the old-established meanings of things shift 
for him — they shift ; and his temptations become 
formidably subtle beyond belief. When rich, 
he says calmly Non; fa ne va pas. But to forego an 
advantage, when poor, is the same as if — ^let me see 
... as if one asked you to leave lying some fas- 
cinating flint in the desert waste." 

" That simile, surely, is all wrong. Count. 
Nobody can be injured by my flint-mania, 
whereas " 

" I know, I know ; I am not trying to excuse 
things ; I am only explaining how they happen. 
But how explain to others ? We always talk of 
putting ourselves in our neighbours' place ; idlest 
of phrases ! since we cannot possibly avoid bringing 

131 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

our personal apparatus to bear on their problems. 
There is a gulf between man and man. You wiU 
hardly believe that I used to take an interest — 
quite superficial, you know, but none the less real 
— in all those questions of the day that absorb the 
ordinary man of ease, in politics and art and what- 
not ; but nowadays all my interests are centred 
on one single point. On what point, do you think ? 
On keeping up the external appearance, and the 
manners, of well-being. I have no energy left for 
anything else ; and even this effort quite exhausts 
me. Art and politics ! What, in the name of 
heaven, do I care for art and politics, with the knife 
at my throat ? I only utilize these things ; yes, I 
utilize them for conversational purposes, in order 
to deceive others as to my true, incessant and miser- 
able preoccupations. Laughable, is it not ? Why 
don't you smile, Monsieur — ^you, who have never 
known the bitterness ? " 

We were crossing the broad Oued Baiesh, a 
stretch of yeUow sand and stones. To obviate 
damage by sudden floods, the French have covered 
this tract of the road with a coating of asphalt ; but 
the busy life here, the droves of camels and sheep, 
the Arab folk laughing over their laundry-work 
in the shallow streamlet that trickles through the 
waste— all these things were gone for the moment. 

132 



THE MYSTERIOUS COUNT 

But for the torn line of Gafsa palms that confronted 
us on the other side of the river-bed, we might have 
been in the veriest wilderness. Although the wind 
was lulled, petulant little pillars of sand still arose 
here and there among the boulders, and sank down 
again, as if exhausted ; the descending sun had 
emerged, a lurid disk, framed in a sulphureous halo 
that melted imperceptibly into the gold of the west. 

It was growing chillier than ever, and the Count, 
shivering with cold, drew his burnous more closely 
about him ; he had bought one for fifteen francs, 
probably in imitation of myself, or because I once 
jokingly called it " a garment for millionaires who 
need not use their hands." He liked to be taken for 
a millionaire. 

I looked at him awhile, wondering what thoughts 
were ruling the expression of his perplexed and 
sorrowful features, and then tried to turn the 
conversation into other channels. 

" Are there interesting people at your Italian 
restaurant ? " 

" Well, there is Hirsch, the young German : you 
know him ? " 

" The police commissaire was talking to me about 
his case yesterday." 

" Ha, was he ? Let me tell you that I have 
investigated it thoroughly, and find it most in- 

133 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

structive. This young f eUow is not yet twenty ; 
he ran away from home for no discoverable reason, 
then signed on a merchant vessel at Marseilles and, 
disliking the work, slipped out as soon as she touched 
port at Sfax, and climbed without a ticket into a 
night-train, thinking to reach Tunis. Instead of 
that, he woke up in the morning and found himself 
at Gafsa ! Here, you see, are all the elements of 
wrong-doing, and the authorities have learnt his 
history from his papers which they seized. As a 
German and a Jew, the French instinctively dislike 
him ; as a Jew and a foreigner — the Arabs ; he is 
objectionable to look at, duU of wit, and knows not 
a word of French or Arabic. But he is poor, and 
therefore — every one loads him with kindness." 

" And why not ? " I asked. 

" Why not, indeed ? Your friend the magistrate 
has given him some money out of his own pocket ; 
the restaurant proprietress refuses to be paid for 
his food, while another one, near the station, sends 
word to say that he can have a plate of soup there 
whenever he likes ; a young Arab boy — these Arabs 
are reaUy incomprehensible — gives him as many 
cups of tea or coffee as he can drink ; a Jewish 
lawyer has sent him some clothes ; a gentleman in 
your hotel a quantity of linen ; the Italian barber 
shaves him gratis ; a certain shopkeeper sends him 

134 



THE MYSTERIOUS COUNT 

a bottle of liqueur — o£ liqueur ! — every second day ; 
the commissaire has given him, free of charge, a 
decent unoccupied bedroom in the prison, where 
he can go in and out as he pleases ; best of all, the 
Fonts et Chaussees are now employing him at three 
francs a day — a princely income, they tell me — at 
some agricultural job : pure kindness, inasmuch 
as he has never handled a spade or pickaxe in his 
life. He can have a pleasant time in Gafsa ; he 
can marry an heiress if so disposed ; then, when the 
place begins to bore him, the German Consul in 
Tunis will repatriate him at his Government's 
expense. ' He's a poor devil,' they say. Why do I 
tell you all this ? Because — ^well — I am also poor — " 

Always harping on the old theme ! 

" The cases are not quite parallel, are they f " 

" No. He is young, and fit for work, whereas I am 
past the middle term of life. Old age — another 
horror ! Besides, I am a gentleman " 

" Exactly. We should be ashamed to shave you 
gratis." 

" I suppose you're right. Monsieur. I was only 
trying to explain — to explain myself — to myself, I 
mean. Pardon me if I speak too much of my 
wretched affairs. But I'll tell you what I think. 
To endure this revolting destitution a man must be 
an Arab. Now, I cannot pretend to be an Arab ; 

135 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

I would not adopt their ideals if I could. And yet, 
alas ! I am beginning to believe in predestination, 
as they do ; to believe that our faults and our virtues 
are distilled beforehand in the silent laboratory of 
the past. A sad creed, to think of men born to 
misfortune ; to be obliged to consider yourself — ^how 
do you say in English ? — a stefchild of nature. . . ." 

He was always a good talker, but it is impossible 
to describe the intensity of feeling in his speech 
to-day. He seemed to suffer from some imperious 
need of unburdening himself, even to a chance 
acquaintance like me ; long days of loneliness, 
maybe, had worked on his nerves and produced a 
kind of congestion. But in his words and voice 
I detected lapses into other moods, into some other 
state of being ; they gave me the impression as of 
two different individuals addressing me. The man 
did not ring true, altogether ; he was mentally 
disorganized, disharmonious ; those meretricious 
reasonings about justice, for example, struck me 
disagreeably. 

And I could not help contrasting his rambling 
emotionalism with the logic — ^the relentless, 
diamond-like justesse — of the mining engineer. He 
is the very antithesis of that pellucid and homo- 
geneous character. The sanguine temperament . . . 

What is a man of this type doing in Gafsa f 
136 



THE MYSTERIOUS COUNT 

Mystery ! 

The rest of us, the cynical Greek doctor, the 
artist-sage and lover of Arab institutions, myself 
(flint-maniac) — to say nothing of men like Dufresnoy 
— we all contrive to fit, after a fashion, into the place; 
we have a raison d'etre. But this composite, unadap- 
tive city-dweller : how incongruous a figure against 
that background of palms and barren mountains ! 

An enigmatical creature, and yet not wholly un- 
lovable ; he may be unsound or even unprincipled, 
he may be deficient in qualities that go to make 
men respected and satisfied with the world in general, 
but he possesses, I think, certain citizen-virtues 
unintelligible to the self-centred, rustic type of 
mind. He could be stirred to acts of unworldly 
enthusiasm ; he would share his last crust with some 
shipwrecked sailor, or shed his blood gaily for a 
generous idea. And he is plainly in hard case just 
now. 

A stef child of nature. . . . 

" You have a very good EngUsh accent, Count." 

" We were carefully brought up in languages. 
Not every one understands Polish, you know." 

" By the way, how does it come about that you, 
being a Pole, should have a Russian family name ? " 

The question seemed to astonish and perplex him. 
At last he said : 

137 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

" Oh, it's about the same thing, isn't it ? Nowa- 
days, I mean," he added, with grandiloquent pathos, 
" ever since the misfortunes of my unhappy 
country." 

At the entrance to the town we separated, 
and I watched for some time his bowed form as it 
crept along the wood-market in the direction of 
the Kairouan road. 

This is one of the figures that will persist in my 
mind very clear and pathetic, and I shall long 
remember those plaintive remarks about poverty 
that welled up, surely, from the bottom of his heart. 
How far, I wonder, is such a man the author of his 
own calamities, and how far have they made him ? 
Academic questionings, based on out-of-date philo- 
sophy ! Our vices, he said, are distilled for us before- 
hand in the dim laboratory of the past. His vice, 
evidently, is to hate work of every kind ; his 
faculties, therefore, never undergo the rhythmic 
joy of reaction, for he is too well nourished to live 
the vita minor of a starveling, to endure Arab 
acquiescence in non-production. 

" I am only trying to explain myself — to myself." 
Half-truth, I imagine. He is probably conscience- 
stricken, or at least dissatisfied with his conduct 
for one reason or another, and endeavouring to 
justify some base plan of action by re-stating ethics 

138 



THE MYSTERIOUS COUNT 

in terms of hunger ; a specious line of argument, 
since hunger is not the rule but the exception. 

And then I shall think of his red nose and watery 
little eyes, his absurd jewellery — a fine presence, 
none the less, when he puUs himself together ; 
there is about him an air of faded distinction that 
softly symbolizes the history of his adopted country. 

The Count ! 

Why a count ? Because all Poles are counts — 
those that are not princes. But why a Pole ? Well, 
perhaps from the convenience of vagueness, inas- 
much as there is something international about a 
Pole — international, and yet neither equivocal nor 
vulgar ; every one sympathizes with them, for they 
all possessed, once upon a time, vast estates whose 
loss is borne in cheerful resignation, and never so 
much as alluded to ; they know everybody, and 
everybody worth knowing is related to them, by 
marriage or otherwise, in this or some other century ; 
as men of the world, they are ready to talk upon 
any subject with tolerance, geniality and a pleas- 
ingly personal note that withers up the common- 
place, smoking, meanwhile, innumerable cigarettes 
out of mouthpieces which display a complex 
escutcheon contrived in gold and rubies upon the 
amber surface. Yes, his choice was good : Poles 
are gentlemen. But why caricature them ? And 

139 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

why, above all things, select an inappropriate 
Muscovite name ? That argues a lack of general 
intelligence and might easily spoil everything ; 
so true it is, as a legal friend once observed to me, 
that " it takes a wise man to handle a lie. A fool 
had better remain honest." 

What can be the meaning of this unlovely comedy? 
Some defalcation or forgery ? Likely enough. 
But I think he lacks the cleverness requisite for a 
habitual criminal. Perhaps he is only a poor 
survivor, drifting about in lonely and distracted 
fashion while waiting for the inevitable end. Others 
may solve the enigma, but not I ; for to-morrow 
we go to Metlaoui. 

Yet I know that long after the palms and minarets 
of Gafsa have faded into the blurred image of 
countless other palms and other minarets, I shall be 
able to call up the figure of this forlorn and am- 
biguous fellow-creature, standing on the asphalt of 
the river-crossing with his cheap burnous wrapped 
around him, sighing, shivering, and setting forth 
certain views concerning human life for which there 
is, after all, a good deal to be said. 



140 



Chapter XIII 
TO METLAOUI 

I SHOULD be sorry to say how long the train 
takes to crawl through the thirty odd kilo- 
metres that separate Gafsa from Metlaoui. 
My companion on the trip, M. Dufresnoy, 
tells me that the return journey is still slower, 
because the line runs mostly uphiU and the trucks, 
thirty or forty of them, are loaded with minerals. 
Fortunately, the car in which we travelled — each 
train has only a single passenger carriage — was 
comfortable, being built after the fashion of the 
Swiss " Aussichtswagen," with seats on the exterior 
platform whence one can admire the view. 

It gave me some idea of the goods traffic (phos- 
phates) along this line when he told me that during 
the past seven days 23,000 tons of mineral had been 
conveyed to the port of Sfax alone, to say nothing 
of those that had gone further on, to Sousse and 
Tunis. And not long ago, he said, the company 
had an unpleasant surprise : sixteen new engines of 
a powerful type, which they had ordered from 

141 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

Winterthur, were suddenly discovered to be liable 
to a duty of looo francs apiece as " imported 
articles." 

" We can afford it," he said. " Our five hundred- 
franc shares are standing at three thousand seven 
hundred francs." 

But he thought that a grave error had been 
committed in selecting the narrow metre gauge ; 
it was all very well for phosphate transport, 
but once the line over Feriana and the branch to 
Tozeur are completed, they would have to deal with 
other material, such as tourists, that require fast 
services. 

They had an accident last year. The couplings 
of a train, climbing uphill from Gafsa past the 
Leila oasis, suddenly broke, with the result that the 
rear portion rushed backwards again, careered 
through the Gafsa station and up the artificial 
incline which leads towards the Oued Baiesh, 
crossed the bridge, and thundered at a vertiginous 
pace into the desert beyond. As luck would have 
it, another train was just then approaching Gafsa. 
They collided with terrific force and, telescoping 
being out of the question since both were loaded 
with minerals, escaladed each other in Eiffel-tower 
fashion. Arab eye-witnesses say that the stoker 
of the up-train was thrown out by the impact and 

142 



TO METLAOUI 

flew across country " like a bird " for half a mile ; 
he alighted on his feet, and was found, after a week 
or so, wandering about the plain in a dazed con- 
dition. The driver was killed outright, and his 
widow draws a respectable pension from the 
company. 

Since then two engines are always employed to 
move the train up the few miles beyond Gafsa. 

The cream-tinted level is speckled with white 
incrustations and sombre tufts of desert herbs ; 
here and there, where the winter's rain lingers 
underground, are spots of brilliant green ; short- 
lived crops of corn, sown by the nomads. The 
hills to the right of the line are bare and torn into 
wild ravines ; lilac-hued patches, ever changing and 
fair to see, move among their warm complexities : 
cloud-shadows. Here, if anywhere, one learns that 
shadows are not always grey or black ; even those 
cast in moonlight have a certain ghostly coloration. 

It was a marvellously clear day, and not many 
miles before reaching our destination we looked 
back upon the downhill route traversed which, 
so far as one could see, might have been a dead level. 
At a distance of nearly twenty miles Gafsa was 
plainly visible — ^white buildings piercing a dusky 
line of palms — an hour's walk, it seemed. I observed 
in the brushwood a couple of bustards, their heads 

143 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

peering above the herbage. These birds are rather 
rare hereabouts, and shy of approach. Arabs say that 
the bustard is like the camel : once it begins to run, 
you never know when it will stop. They surround 
them therefore cautiously, and gradually close the 
circle to within shooting distance. 

Metlaoui is the name of two distinct villages 
which have been conjured out of the waste by the 
discovery of its phosphate deposits — the station 
village and, a mile or so further on, Metlaoui proper, 
with its big establishments for working the minerals. 

Here already, at the station settlement, there is 
more life than in Gafsa, though the surroundings 
are decidedly unpropitious — a waterless plain, with 
low hills in the foreground, phosphate-bearing, 
and wondrously tinted in rose and heliotrope. 
There are respectable stores here, very different 
from the shops of Gafsa. I entered a large Italian 
warehouse which contained an assortment of goods 
— clothing, jams, boots, writing-paper, sealing-wax, 
nails, agricultural implements, guns, bedding, 
mouse-traps, wire, seeds, tinned foods — and vainly 
endeavoured to think of some article which a colon 
might require and not find here. The only drawback 
is that there are no " colons " in the district. 

While waiting for a conveyance to take me to 
the industrial settlement, I strolled about and found 

144 



TO METLAOUI 

my way across a sad stretch of ground littered with 
tin cans, bottles, and other refuse, to a slight 
eminence whereon lay a cemetery. In this forlorn 
square are about twenty tombs, already crumbling 
to dust, although not one of those I saw was 
five years old. Humble victims for the most 
part — Italians in the prime of life who had come 
to these regions to gain a little money ; or little 
children, carried off by the harsh climate (yet the 
climate of this place is preferred to that of Gafsa). 
The enclosure is filling up with drift-sand ; the 
inscriptions on the tombs, often a mere charcoal 
scrawl of some unlettered friend or parent, is soon 
effaced by winds and rain. 

One is wholly unprepared for the appearance 
of Metlaoui proper. In ten years' time a viUage 
has sprung up here, partly of factories and smoky 
chimneys, but chiefly of trim bungalows, with white 
walls and red roofs, that are dotted over the uneven 
surface of the ground. The whole site is owned 
by the company, and inhabited by its officials and 
overseers. It has its own church, shops, schools, 
hospital, workmen's clubs, bakeries, and its air of 
neatness and well-being contrasts pleasingly with 
the forsaken landscape all around. 

The higher posts are reserved for Frenchmen, but 
among the lower grades you may find a number of 
K 145 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

other nationalities ; Spaniards and Sardinians — 
hardiest of white Mediterranean races — as well as 
some Italians, and not a few Greeks. The manual 
labour in the mines is performed by Africans. 

Not along ago nearly every drop of water for 
this settlement had to be conveyed from Gafsa 
on the backs of camels. But the company has now 
captured a spring at the head of the Seldja gorge, 
about eight miles distant, which brings a copious 
flow of water into the place. Thus they have been 
enabled to plant a great number of trees, but I 
wish they could be persuaded to adopt a little more 
variety in their choice of them. One grows tired 
of the eucalyptus, that doleful and dismal growth, 
and even of the eternal pepper trees, green as they 
are ; and the results, in a few years' time, would 
be far more charming if they would take the trouble 
to copy some of the Algerian municipalities in this 
respect, or — better still — obtain professional advice 
from the Agricultural Institute at Tunis, which 
could furnish them with a large list of ornamental 
timber and shrubs that would thrive equally well, 
and convert Metlaoui into a veritable garden city. 
The plants suffer at first from the strong winds, 
but they acclimatize themselves by degrees. . 

Remembering what had been told me of the 
unsuccessful attempt of the French to appropriate 

146 



TO METLAOUI 

the water springs of Sidi Mansur, near Gafsa, I 
asked Dufresnoy whether the Arabs had not eon- 
tested the action of his company at Seldja. 

" I should think so ! " he said. " They raised the 
devil. But we are not civil servants here, who must 
humour the caprices of half a dozen savages : the 
health of the settlement was dependent on our 
getting this water, and we took it, voild ! The 
great ambition of the company is to fix its people 
on the spot ; to make life here so pleasant for them 
that they don't want to leave." 

" You must find it difficult. The Arabs, I suspect, 
run back to the desert as soon as they have earned 
a few francs ; and as for the European tradesmen, 
no doubt they get rich quickly, and then return 
to their homes again as soon as possible." 

" That is exactly what the company manages to 
avoid. Let them prosper, we say ; but slowly. 
And we succeed." 

" How so ? " 

" By manipulating the rates of merchandise 
transport. The railway to Sfax belongs to us, and 
we can regulate prices as it suits us ; if we liked, 
we could choke off all trade. Ah, the company knows 
its business ! Of course, that makes us many enemies; 
they call it high-handedness and brutality — a concern 
like ours is bound to expose itself to such remarks — 

147 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

we call it common sense. If the railway were not 
ours, if we were not practically dictators of the 
country, those Americans, with their immense 
phosphate importation into Europe, would eat us 
up ; and then these local merchants would lose 
everything. That is the justification of our so- 
caUed tyranny. Are we to have nothing for our 
risks ? Look at this installation of machinery — aU 
built, too, with a view to future aggrandizement : 
does it strike you as a half-hearted speculation ? " 

Daring, on the contrary. Here are gargantuan 
sheds, capable of holding thirty thousand tons of 
mineral apiece ; furnaces, miniature volcanoes, for 
drying them artificially in winter -time, when the 
sun's heat is insufficient ; all around you a gehenna 
of mad industrial life, smoke and steam, a throbbing 
agglomeration of wheels and belts and pistons ; 
there are chains of buckets, filled with phosphates, 
wandering overhead in endless progression or 
disappearing sullenly into the bowels of the earth ; 
passionate electric motors ; mountains of coal and 
iron contrivances ; railway engines snorting and 
whistling, or bearing a load of minerals down from 
the hills to where an army of Arabs will tear them 
out of the cars to dry, amid clouds of tawny dust. 
One might we;ll grow crazy at the idea of the 
primary difficulties involved in grafting upon the 

148 



TO METLAOUI 

desert soil this ordered mechanical efflorescence, this 
frenzied blossoming of human activity. 

What is happening ? 

They are separating the crude phosphate from 
its natural impurities ; drying, pounding, and 
loading it upon trains for removal to the sea-board. 
That is all. 



149 



Chapter XIV 
PHOSPHATES 

ALIGHT railway leads up to the hills 
where the phosphates lie. Here you 
may see the fiends at work. A legion 
of wild-eyed, swart and nearly nude 
creatures are disembowelling the hoary mountain : 
visions such as this must have floated before Milton's 
eye when he drew his picture of Mammon, who, 
with his horde of demons, opened in the hill a 
spacious wound — 

Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands 
Rifled the bowels of our mother Earth 
For treasure better hid. . . . 

The workers are chiefly of three races : Tri- 
politan, Khabyle (Algerian), and Moroccan ; they live 
in separate clusters among the rocks, each with 
their peculiar national traits and mode of building ; 
there is hardly a woman among them all. 

Besides these tribes a certain proportion of 
Tunisian Arabs are employed, but they are too 
weak or timorous to relish underground work ; 

ISO 



PHOSPHATES 

a sprinkling of negroes, as well as some of the hill- 
folk from the district surrounding Metlaoui, who 
go by the quaint name of Boujaja. 

" Good fellows," said Dufresnoy. " They will 
slit your throat for a sou." 

The surface phosphates having already become 
exhausted, the mineral is now pursued into the dim 
recesses of the earth. Tunnels are excavated, whence 
smaller ones radiate in definite directions — all of 
them sustained by wooden beams ; the amount of 
material to be extracted from a given spot is 
scientifically fixed ; it is shattered by minute blasts 
of dynamite and, once the trolley cars have carried 
it away, the wooden supports are removed and these 
cavities filled up by the collapse of the roof. By 
this means accidents are forestalled such as that 
which took place some years ago when, owing to 
an oversight of some subordinate left in charge, 
an immense mass of mountain fell in, entombing 
about three hundred miners, whose bodies are not 
yet recovered. The ill-fated engineer who was 
legally responsible for the mishap was in Paris at 
the time ; he returned in all haste. After seeing the 
mischief, he tried to throw himself into an Arab 
well, and, baulked of this, lay down at night under 
a passing train and was decapitated. 

They showed me a map of this subterranean 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

world, variously tinted according to the regions 
already exploited and those yet virgin. It reminded 
me, with its regular streets and blocks, of some 
model city in the Far West. 

The underground workings here are about thirty 
kilometres in length. Beside these Metlaoui de- 
posits, the company has begun to attack those o£ 
Redeyeff, and will shortly open an assault upon the 
others at Ain Moulares, which lie near Henchir 
Souatir, the present terminus of the Feriana line. 
It employs six thousand men ; some of the mineral 
goes as far as Japan ; the output of last year 
amounted to over a million tons. 

One may well be interested in the discoverer 
of these phosphates, in the man who has revolu- 
tionized the trade of Tunisia. He is a veterinary 
surgeon in the French Army — ^Monsieur Philippe 
Thomas. 

His record is of the best. 

Born in 1843, he has taken part in twelve military 
campaigns, distinguishing himself particularly in 
the Franco-Prussian war. 

But, above aU, he is a savant. 

He has written valuable treatises on the diseases 
of domestic beasts, describing, among other things, 
a hitherto unobserved infectious malady of goats. 
He is the author of a number of memoirs on the 

152 



PHOSPHATES 

geology o£ Northern Africa, and has discovered 
no less than two hundred new species of fossil 
animals of that country ; he has made numerous 
contributions to our knowledge of its ethnology, 
prehistoric tombs, and flint implements. Many 
of these writings date from the seventies and earlier ; 
they have procured for him the membership of 
learned societies, as well as medals and decorations 
of aU kinds. 

A man of such distinction, one would think, 
coming to Tunisia in 1885 at the head of a scientific 
expedition sent by the Ministry of Public Instruc- 
tion, would be received according to his merits. 
It was far otherwise. Whether from distrust of 
his capacities or some other cause. Monsieur Cambon, 
the Resident, assumed towards him a most chiUing 
official manner, and the commanding military 
officer. General Boulanger, all but refused to grant 
the escort necessary for his expedition. In one of 
his papers he speaks of this reception as " several 
degrees below zero." 

Then, in the same year, appeared his sensational 
report of the discovery of phosphate deposits 
which he had traced over a long line of country ; 
realizing their commercial value, he insisted that 
they should be exploited " four le -plus grand bien 
de I' agriculture franfaise et algerienne" Never- 

153 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

theless, ten years passed ere a company could be 
formed, as financiers were diffident about the 
American competition and the risks of installation 
in a desert country. 

A tardy recognition of his services to the company 
took the form of a pecuniary grant, in 1904, of 
fifteen thousand francs — ^little enough, in all con- 
science, considering the millions he has gained for 
them. They further honoured him by changing 
the name of the station-settlement of Metlaoui 
into " Philippe-Thomas." 

" It's very economical," Dufresnoy observed. 

I am glad to think that another place of that 
name, the mining village, will continue to exist ; 
it would seem a pity to erase from the niap the 
tuneful word Metlaoui, which contains the five 
vowels in a remarkably small compass. . . . 

Dufresnoy tells me that those barren slopes 
where the mines lie, and where the different races 
now work together in apparent amity, were once 
the scene of a sanguinary primitive battle. There 
is a steep guUy at one point, a dry torrent ; the 
Khabyles lived on one side of it, the Tripolitans on 
the other, and between these two races there 
occurred, on a starlit night in May, 1905, an affray 
of unearthly ferocity. 

The Khabyles, prudent folk, many of whom had 

IS4 



PHOSPHATES 

served in the French Army, had long been laying 
in a store of warlike provisions ; their secret was 
well kept, although it was observed that piles of 
stones were being collected round their huts, and 
that a goodly quantity of dynamite and petroleum 
was missing from the stores ; some of them 
possessed guns and revolvers, the rest were armed 
with knives, daggers and savage mining gear. They 
chose a Sunday for the attack, well knowing that 
the Tripolitans, who are good-natured simpletons, 
would be least prepared to resist them on that day, 
and half of them in a state of jollification ; and they 
were so sagacious, that they actually induced a few 
drunken TripoUtans to insult them, before beginning 
the conflict. This, they knew, would be counted 
in their favour afterwards. 

Hardly was the night come when they advanced 
in battle array — the fighting contingent in front ; 
behind them the boys and older men, who kept 
them supplied with stones and weapons. A 
well-nourished volley of missiles greeted the 
Tripolitans, some of whom rushed to the fray, 
while others took refuge in their huts or with the 
Moroccans who lived in their own village near at 
hand. It was now quite dark, but at close quarters 
the stones began to take effect, and hardly was a 
man down, than five or six Khabyles ran out of the 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

ranks to finish him off with their knives ; others, 
meanwhile, went to the locked huts and fired them, 
or burst them open with dynamite. 

The explosions and lights began to attract atten- 
tion in Metlaoui ; the whole sky was aflame ; there 
were mysterious bursts of sound, too, and a chorus 
of wild howls. Something was evidently wrong, up 
there. 

A party of Europeans, accompanied by a small 
force of local police, went up to the mines to in- 
vestigate. They found themselves powerless ; 
" keep yourselves out of danger," they were told, 
" and let us settle our own affairs." The carnage 
was in full swing ; it was hell let loose. Not con- 
tent with killing, they mutilated each other's 
corpses, bit off noses, gouged out eyes, and thrust 
stones in the mouths of the dead ; burnt and hacked 
and slashed each other till sunrise ; no element of 
bestiality was lacking. The wounded crawled away 
to die in caves, or were carried to nomad camps. 
The number of the dead was never ascertained ; 
Dufresnoy says " about a hundred," which is prob- 
ably below the mark, as an eye-witness saw three 
railway trucks loaded with the slain. To this 
day they find mouldering human remains, relics 
of that battle, hidden away in crevices of the 
rocks. 

is6 



PHOSPHATES 

Although, once roused, the TripoUtans fought 
Hke demons, they were worsted — the others were 
too numerous. They had a brief moment of re- 
venge, however ; for during their retreat, on Mon- 
day morning, they encountered two young Khabyle 
boys who had been on absence and were now re- 
turning to work at the mines, bhssfully ignorant of 
what was going on. These unfortunate lads were 
literally torn to shreds. 

I confess that, as a spectacle, I should have pre- 
ferred that night's engagement to anything in 
modern warfare. It must have been a stupendous 
exhibition of the hete humaine. 

The Khabyles meditated nothing short of a total 
extirpation of the Tripolitan stock ; they sent to 
the mines of Redeyeff for auxiliaries of their nation, 
some of whom actually arrived in time for the 
slaughter ; the rest were intercepted on the hiU- 
paths "by the police of Gafsa, who had been tele- 
graphically summoned and despatched by special 
train. And soon afterwards, elated by success, the 
Khabyles fell foul of the Moroccans and sent word 
that they meant to fight them too for sheltering 
Tripolitan fugitives in their huts. The Moroccans 
were delighted at the prospect ; but the manage- 
ment got wind of the project in good time, which 
was just as well, for the Moroccans are not only the 

IS7 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

most orderly of the native settlers at the mines, but 
also by far the strongest and fiercest, and it might 
have fared ill with the Khabyles. The Tripolitan 
village has now been moved to another site — a cer- 
tain number of troops, too, are definitely stationed 
at Metlaoui. 

" As usual," said Dufresnoy, " we came in for the 
blame. They say that we did not allow the real 
authors, the Khabyles, to be punished, because they 
are French citizens, and all the rest of it. Don't 
believe a word of that. If it had been the Tripoli- 
tans, we would have acted just the same ; we 
cannot be bothered with decisions of civil courts, 
which would have satisfied nobody, besides de- 
priving us, probably, of a number of good workmen. 
There was a little outcry about this, too : that none 
of the wounded were treated in our hospital, but 
carried down to the nativ efunduk near the station. 
' The hospital,' said our director, ' is for those who 
are injured in the performance of their duty, and 
not for bloodthirsty savages.' That's sound — 
that's military. One cannot afford to be sentimental 
in this country." 

I asked what could possibly be the reason for such 
a ferocious outbreak of hostility. 

" Long-standing animosities of race," he said, 
" and, as determining cause, cherchez la jemme" 

158 



PHOSPHATES 

" But you said that there were no women on the 
place." 

" Eh bien, cherchez toujours. . . ." 

And then it also occurred to me that among the 
mass of local literature and newspaper files I had 
perused in his house there was not a single criticism 
of this aflfair. I thought it strange, I said. 

He smiled. 

" Local politics, my friend ! We are obliged to 
keep the Press well under control, you know. Don't 
compare Tunisian life with life in England ; there 
is no public opinion here, no idea of fair play. 
These papers, if they were not subventioned, would 
print abominations such as no English journalist 
could conceive ; they would alienate our best 
friends in the long run. The company must take 
account of things as they are, not as they should be 
— of Arab savagery, Franco-Tunisian malevolence ; 
of journalistic venality and public credulity. Who- 
ever is not for us is against us. That is why the 
only papers that dare to criticize our management 
are those which nobody reads ; those, to put it 
bluntly, which are not worth bribing. For the rest, 
there is not a writer in the whole country capable 
of grasping either our aims or our methods ; the 
poor fellows have not had the required education. 
They only want their mouths stopped." 

159 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

" That must be more convenient than libel suits ; 
and more economical as well." 

" Just so. Above all things, we are bound to 
consider the interests of our shareholders." 



X 



l6o 



Chapter XV 

THE SELDJA GORGE 

IT is good, after such visions o£ human in- 
firmity and of death, to ride over the plain 
to the Seldja gorge, an astonishing freak of 
nature. I vi^as twice within its towering 
walls of rock ; the first time on horseback, accom- 
panied by a young Tripolitan miner, and in the 
evening ; yesterday again, in the torrid noon, afoot, 
alone. 

You will do well, in every case, to ride as far as 
the bordj, or rest-house, that stands near the entrance 
of the cleft, since there are about four wearisome 
miles of level country to be traversed after leaving 
Metlaoui. On the first occasion the Tripolitan ran 
for this whole long stretch beside my horse, which 
trotted briskly ; he amused himself, none the less, 
in belabouring its hind-quarters with a club to make 
it go still faster, and I confess to being not scandal- 
ized, not inordinately scandalized, at this perform- 
ance. We grow hard among the implacable desert 
L i6i 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

stones. Besides, it was only a hired beast. Any- 
true lover of animals will understand. 

Skirting the foot of the hills that trend along, 
apparently closed, one suddenly encounters a broad 
stream-bed with a rivulet meandering down its 
centre ; this is the Seldja-water (arabice, Thelja). 
It issues out of a gateway, hitherto unrevealed ; and 
here you may turn aside from the plain and enter 
into the heart of the mountains, into a world of 
nightmare effects. This very portal is fantastic, 
theatrical ; it leads into an arena of riven rocks that 
might serve as council-chamber for a cloud of 
Ifrits, and is closed at the further end. There is a 
second gateway to be passed before you can enter 
the gorge itself. 

The track winds upwards — the whole length of 
the defile is about three miles — sometimes between 
walls of rock which are chiselled so smoothly by the 
gentle waters that one can hardly believe them to 
be of natural workmanship (and at these points, as 
a rule, your only path is the stream-bed itself) ; 
opening out again into wide amphitheatres, rose- 
tinted cirques of desolation, where masses of debris, 
slipped down from the heights, lie prone in 
Dantesque confusion. There are rock-doves and 
falcons fluttering about the sunny precipices ; cliff- 
swallows build precarious habitations against the 

162 



THE SELDJA GORGE 

roof of yawning caverns ; sandpipers and wagtails 
skim over the streamlet that glides in a smiling 
flood across reaches of yellow sand. The charm of 
water in the waste ! This Seldja-brook is a true 
child of the sun ; cold in the morning and evening 
hours, its restless little heart becomes tepid at mid- 
day with the glowing beams. 

Spiky reeds and tamarisks trip alongside, and the 
wild fig thrusts demoniac roots into the crevices ; 
here and there you may see a group of oleasters, 
descendants, maybe, of the now vanished Roman 
olive plantations in the plain, or a stunted palm 
that has shot up from the stone cast away by some 
passing caravan. For these Oueds are all highways 
dating from immemorial ages ; there is a ceaseless 
passage of man and animals along them. 

We passed numbers of camels, groaning and snort- 
ing among the slippery rocks, with the water 
splashing over their feet ; higher up, a large 
descending flock of sheep, over six hundred of them, 
completely blocked up the valley. They were being 
led to the plain below, where, thanks to the recent 
rains, a succulent but ephemeral crop of green had 
sprung up. Their owner was a fine Boujaja, some 
six and a half feet in height, accompanied by a 
sturdy brood of children : milk-drinkers. The 
upland pastures could wait, he said. Strange to 

163 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

think that two more showers a year might make 
settlers o£ these vagrants. 

It was among these rocks that Philippe Thomas 
first detected the traces o£ those phosphates that 
have made his name famous. Tissot, in 1878, 
already anticipated their discovery. 

In point of sheer grandeur, of convulsed strati- 
fication and cloven ravine, of terrorizing features, 
I have seen gorges far finer than this of Seldja. 
Yet it contains one stretch of superlative beauty — 
a short defile or canon, I mean, formed of two 
opposing precipices with a chasm of some thirty 
yards between them ; they wind and curve, parallel 
to one another, with such magisterial accuracy that 
one would think they had been designed with 
mighty compasses from on high, and then carved 
out, sagaciously, by some titanic blade. 

Here we halted ; it was time to turn back. There 
was an indentation in the rocks near at hand, fretted 
away by hungry floods of the past and overhung, 
now, with creepers and drooping fernery, concerning 
which my Tripolitan companion told me a long and 
complicated legend. This shadowy hollow, he 
explained, was the bridal couch, in olden days, 
of an earthly maiden and her demon-lover. He 
was a simple fellow, unfortunately, who knew the 
story too well to be able to tell it coherently. 

164 



THE SELDJA GORGE 

On my second visit, however, I pushed vigorously 
up the stream-bed in the heat of the morning, 
determined to reach the head o£ the waters. 
Gradually the aspect o£ the valley changes. It 
opens out ; the rocks melt away into bare white 
dunes, the country assuming the character of a table- 
land ; you begin to feel a sense of aloofness. 

There was blazing sunshine in these upper regions, 
but a fresh breeze ; this is the Ras el-Aioun, where 
the French have bridled some of the wild waters, 
thrusting them into a tube that carries them in a 
mad whirl to their settlement at Metlaoui. Here, 
too, they have planted a promising youthful oasis, 
a kind of nursery garden of poplars and cypresses 
and tamarisks and mimosas, in whose shade grow 
geraniums, mesembryanthemum and other flowers 
and creepers, as well as a host of vegetables of every 
kind. I soon discovered a recess in this delectable 
pleasaunce, and began my solemn preparations for 
luncheon. 

Out of the pool below there resounded a tuneful 
croaking of frogs : it spoke of many waters. . . . 

Presently an Italian workman or gardener with 
curly grey hair and moustache — the ubiquitous 
Italian — came up and began to talk, fer fare un 
fd' di comfania. He conversed delightfully, a smile 
playing about his kindly old face. He told me about 

i6s 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

the garden, about the French engineers, about 
himself, chiefly about himself, in limpid, child-like 
fashion. He had travelled far in the Old and New 
Worlds ; in him I recognized, once again, that 
simple mind of the wanderer or sailor who learns, 
as he goes along, to talk and think decently ; who, 
instead of gathering fresh encumbrances on life's 
journey, wisely discards even those he set out with. 

Seldja, he told me, used to be a dangerous place 
for Europeans to traverse ; many robberies and 
even murders had taken place there in times past ; 
the new regime, of course, had put an end to all 
that. But there were still two perils : the frightful 
flies that bred diseases and made the gorge almost 
impassable in the hot months (every one suffered 
from fevers), and the serpents. Ah, those maladette 
bestie di serfenti — they swarmed among the rocks : 
they were of every kind and size ; worst of all, 
the spleenful naja. He himself had killed one that 
measured two metres in length and was as thick 
as a man's arm. They don't wait till you can hit 
them, he said, but rush straight at you, swift as an 
arrow, upraised on their massive posterior coils, 
hissing like a steam-engine, and swelling out their 
throat with diabolical rage. 

This is the beast that figured in the competition 
between Aaron and Pharaoh's conjurers, and it 

1 66 



THE SELDJA GORGE 

remains the favourite of modern African snake- 
charmers, who catch it after first irritating it 
by means of a woollen cloth wherein the fangs are 
embedded and broken. It is also, no doubt, the 
dreaded species which Sallust describes as infesting 
the region of Gafsa. But Lucan goes a little too far 
in his account of Cato's expedition into these parts ; 
this veracious historian has inserted a few pages of 
sublime serpent nonsense, exquisite fooling. . . . 

Of all the deadly worms that breed in these 
wildernesses the most formidable, because the most 
sluggish, is the two-horned nocturnal cerastes, 
the " pretty worm of Nilus." No sensible person, 
nowadays, goes into the bled^ in summer-time 
unless armed with a phial of the antidote — Trousse 
Calmette or Trousse Legros — whose liquid is 
injected with a hypodermic syringe above and below 
the wound, and has saved many lives. 

" And the scorpions, Signore ! We have to tie 
cotton-wool round the legs of our beds so that 

^ This is one of the many Arabic words which admit of no 
clear translation, As opposed to a town, it means a Tillage or 
encampment ; as opposed to that, the open land, a plain, or par- 
ticular district. When colonists talk of " going into the bled," 
they mean their farms ; in newspaper language it signifies the 
country generally, inhabited or not — what we should call "the 
provinces " ; oftentimes, again, the barren desert or (more techni- 
cally) the soil. 

167 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

these infernal creatures cannot climb up while 
we are asleep ; they get entangled in it, ha, ha ! 
And that is why we all keep cats and hens, who eat 
them, you know, just like the Arabs do. And some- 
times it rains scorpions." 

I had heard that story before, from natives ; 
and it may well be founded on fact. The 
terrific gusts of desert wind overturn the stones 
under which the scorpions lie; the fragile beasts 
are exposed to the blast and, being relatively 
light, swept skyward across leagues of country 
with the flying sand. A similar explanation has 
been given for those old accounts of frog and fish 
rains. 

" Yes ; they drop from the clouds. During 
certain storms I have picked them off my clothes, 
three or four at a time. Rather a ticklish operation, 
sir." 

So we discussed the world in that umbrageous 
shelter, to the music of the frogs. He condescended 
to partake of a microscopic share of my meal, and 
thereafter left me, with some old-world compliment, 
to irrigate his thirsty lettuces. 



i68 



Chapter XVI 

AT THE HEAD OF THE WATERS 

I SAT alone, screened from the midday heat, 
drowsy and content. It was a pleasant 
resting - place, under that leafy arbour, 
through which only a few rays of light could 
filter, weaving arabesque designs that moved and 
melted on the floor as the wind stirred the foliage 
overhead. And a pleasant occupation, listening to 
those amiable amphibians in the mere below — 
they carried my thought back to other frog-concerts, 
dimly remembered, in some other lands — and gazing 
through the green network of branches upon that 
sun-scorched garden, where now a silvery thread 
of water began to attract my attention as it stole, 
coyly, among the flower-beds. 

The day is yet young, methought ; it is too hot 
to think of marching home at this hour. Now is 
the time, rather, for a pipe of kif — if only to demon- 
strate the difference that exists between man and the 
ape. For your monkey can be taught to eat and 
drink like a Christian ; he can even learn to smoke 

169 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

tobacco. But he cannot smoke kif : the stuff would 
choke him. 

Four pipes, reverentially inhaled ... it was 
almost too much, for a mere dilettante. 

But the mystery o£ the frogs, the when and where 
of it, was solved. Slowly and benignly the memories 
travelled back, building themselves into a vision 
so clear-cut and elaborate withal, that I might 
have been holding it, as one holds some engraving 
or miniature, in my hand. It was in the Rhine- 
woods, of course ; long years ago, in summer- 
time. But the frog-music here was not amiable 
at all ; never have I heard such angry batrachian 
vociferations. They came in a discontented and 
menacing chorus from ten thousand leathery 
throats, and almost drowned our converse as we 
crept along through the twilight of trees that shot 
up from the swampy earth. 

These Rhine-woods are like pathless tropical 
jungles : everything is so green and luxuriant ; 
and morning grew to midday while we threaded 
our way through the tangle of interlacing boughs 
and undergrowth. Yet we knew, all the time, 
that something else was in store for us, some joy, 
some surprise. And lo ! there was an opening in 
the forest, and we suddenly found ourselves stand- 
ing upon the summit of a high bank at whose foot 

170 



AT THE HEAD OF THE WATERS 

there rolled a sunlit and impetuous torrent. Too 
staid for the formation of ripples, too swift for 
calm content, the river seemed to boil up from below 
in a kind of frolicsome rage. A blissful sight. 

" Er spinnt," my companion was saying. 

In what obscure chamber of the brain had those 
words slumbered, closely folded, for thirty years ? 
It was indeed an authentic weaving of arabesque 
designs upon the even texture of the living liquid 
mass ; multitudinous rings and ovals and lozenges 
were cast up from the green depths as from a mighty 
over-bubbling cavildron ; some fiercely engulfed 
again, others torn hither and thither into new and 
pleasing shapes, fresh ones for ever emerging ; 
only a few contrived to linger unchanged, floating 
in sunny splendour down the face of the waters. 
A blissful sight ! The dark and mazy woodlands, 
now, were left far behind — the croaking of the frogs 
sounded strangely distant. We gazed in ecstasy 
upon that shining flood. . . . 

On my return journey down the Seldja gorge, 
that afternoon, I had a narrow escape. It struck 
me that it would be more agreeable, instead of 
once more following the windings of the brook, 
to proceed along the railway — a single line — that 
climbs down from Ras-el-Aioun to within a few 
hundred yards of the bordj, where my horse was 

171 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

waiting. It was easier walking ; it would also be 
shadier (in the tunnels) and, last • and chiefest, 
I would enjoy a change of scene by looking down 
into the valley instead of up at the cliffs. 

Plausible reasoning. 

This line is a pretty little piece of engineering ; 
there are bridges and steep embankments that 
afford fine views into the tortuous depths of the 
gorge ; there are tunnels, blasted into the rock 
without lining of masonry, deliciously cool and 
all too short — all too short save one, that seemed 
never-ending. It writhed about, too, in that dark 
mountain ; I saw no speck of light, either before 
or behind me ; the iron roadway was raised about 
a foot, on rough stones, above the narrow path 
that followed the jagged, irregular wall of rock 
along which I was groping and stumbling. Rather 
an awkward place, I thought, to meet a train 

And as if in that reflection had lain the potency 
of a spell, there came upon me, at that moment, 
from behind, a distinct blast of wind and a low 
rumbling sound. I pricked up my ears. There 
was no doubt about it : a train, still invisible, was 
gliding in good-natured fashion, with steam shut 
off, down the gradient. A considerable number of 
ideas, incongruous and quite beside the mark, 
passed through my mind ; but also this one — if I 

172 



AT THE HEAD OF THE WATERS 

ran, I should inevitably stumble against a sleeper 
or some projecting stone ; if I stumbled, I should 

lose my presence of mind, and then, perhaps ! 

Meanwhile, the noise grew louder, deafening ; 
already, in imagination, I felt the monster's hot 
breath upon me. 

Walking steadily, therefore, for a few more 
yards, I felt a little cavity in the rough-hewn wall 
of rock that appeared deeper than the others ; 
there I compressed myself, feeling flatter than a 
turbot, and absurdly resigned. It was the nick of 
time. The earth was trembhng under the mechani- 
cal horror ; it passed me, with a roar and rush of 
wind, by I know not how many inches ; there were 
flashes of light, a screeching of machinery, an acrid 
smell of mineral oils and heated metal. Then all 
was over again, save for a choking-fit produced by a 
deluge of bituminous coal. 

Just a little flutter. 

But outside that tunnel, in the sunshine, I sat 
down and indulged in certain musings. Suicide of 
an Englishman in Tunisia : that was it ; inasmuch 
as even they who know me well could hardly be 
brought to believe that such an act of abysmal 
foolishness, as this of not investigating on which 
side the safety-niches were, could be the result of 
accident. An ignoble, ridiculous death. 

173 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

It must have been a fit of temporary oblivious- 
ness, brought about hy the unaccustomed heat of 
the sun. 

Or possibly the kif. . . . 

It affects people differently. 

I must limit myself to three pipes, in future. 



174 



Chapter XVII 

ROMAN OLIVE-CULTURE 

NOW, on the former occasion, instead of 
descending into the bordj from the 
railway line, I rode with the Tripolitan 
once more out of the rock-portal into 
the plain, that glowed with the fugitive fires of 
sunset. It is a treeless waste, bereft of every sign 
of cultivation. 

And yet, if you look on your left hand as you 
issue from the gorge, you will perceive, at the very 
narrowest point, some fragments of ancient masonry 
adhering to the cliff ; they are all that remains of 
a Roman dam which blocked up the valley, regulated 
the supply of water flowing from above, and purified 
it from stones and sand. The inference is clear : 
the plain must have been cultivated in those days. 
Likely enough, it was covered, like many other 
parts of " Africa," with olives, that drew their life 
from this judiciously managed water-supply. 

The Oued Seldja to-day fulfils no such useful 
function. Once the rock-portal is passed, it un- 

175 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

learns all its sprightly grace and trickles discon- 
solately through the sands, expiring, at last, in th 
dreary Chott el Rharsa. 

Monsieur Bordereau thinks that the ancient 
" forest of Africa " was composed chiefly of oHve 
plantations, and proofs of the former abundance 
of these trees can be found in certain local names, 
such as Jebel Zitouna — the Mount of Olives — 
clinging to localities where not a tree is now visible ; 
there are also sporadic oleasters growing near many 
Roman ruins. Strong evidence ; and still stronger 
is this : that Roman oil-presses have actually been 
found, buried in the desert sand. Up to a short 
time ago the Arabs deliberately destroyed the olives, 
to avoid paying the tax on them ; the French have 
changed all this, and though I am not aware that 
they go so far as did the Romans, who encouraged 
tree-planting by exemption from imposts, yet they 
have inaugurated a severe regime ; one reads with 
satisfaction of exemplary penalties inflicted for 
illicit timber-cutting. 

It is good to remember, also, that whereas the 
Romans had five centuries of peace to bring Tunisia 
to its high pitch of prosperity, the French only 
began yesterday. And they have a harder task 
before them, for in the interval the Arabs have 
arrived in the country. It is they, with their roving 

176 



ROMAN OLIVE-CULTURE 

and pastoral habits, who have done the mischief, 
changing arable land into pasture, which grows ever 
poorer, and finally desert. The fertility of these 
regions may be said to have been annihilated by 
the goats of a nomad race, whose faith has made it 
improvident and mentally sterile.^ 

Yet it may be disputed whether the land was as 
thickly wooded under the Romans as some would 
have us believe. If so, how was it that after three 
centuries of their rule there should come a drought 
lasting for five years ? Wood brings water, and if 
things were so satisfactory, why did they penu- 
riously hive and distribute the element ? They 
described Africa as a " waterless land " ; Marius, 
when he made his forced march across country 
to surprise Gafsa, took in at one place a sufficient 
provision of water to last for three days. This, 
however, may be due to the fact that he purposely 

1 I have just re-perused Lapie's Civilizations Tuniiiennes. He 
says that "la ch&yre est le genie malfaisant de la Regence. . . . 
Plus que le despotisme, plus que le fatalisme, elle a ruine le pays : 
c'est la ch^vre, en efFet, qui d^boise et surtout qui s'oppose au 
reboisement, et I'on sait quelle influence a eue sur le regime des 
eaux et sur la fertilite du sol le d^boisement de la province 
d'Afrique." Apropos of this pasturing by nomad cattle, it is a 
singular fact that whereas a large proportion of desert plants 
of northern Tunisia are poisonous to camels and goats, here, in the 
south, nearly all of them are edible. 
M 177 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

kept to the desert lest, by following the main route, 
his designs should be made public. 

One thing strikes me as conclusive evidence that 
the " Africa " of olden days was a different country : 
they had no camels. These beasts were unknown 
there at the time of Julius Caesar, and only came 
into common usage towards the end of the fourth 
century. The Africa of to-day, without camels, 
would be almost uninhabitable. 

Some years ago, whilst staying among the magnifi- 
cent forests of Khroumiria, forests such as certainly 
never clothed these southern hiUs, I grew interested 
in this question of the old African water-supply. 
Comparing the accounts of classic authors with 
what has been written by modern students like 
Bourde, Carton and others, whose very names have 
faded from my memory, I remember coming to the 
conclusion — a very obvious one, no doubt — that 
supposing all the ruined Roman hydraulic con- 
trivances were now in working order, supposing 
them even to be furnished with such improve- 
ments as modern science could suggest, still the 
French would be unable to obtain, at the present 
moment, the agricultural results of the Romans. 
The positive diminution in the supply of liquid 
has been too great. Archaeologists, for instance, 
have discovered in the district of Gafsa alone 

178 



ROMAN OLIVE-CULTURE 

over a hundred Roman wells and reservoirs, of 
every shape and size ; but it would be sheer waste 
of money to re-activate many of these ancient works 
— there are wells which would remain dry from 
one year's end to another ; the watercourses, too, 
have shrunk or altogether expired. 

Quite apart from what the French have taken 
from it, this Seldja brook must have carried down 
a larger volume of water in those days, helped, as 
is very probable, by small tributary streamlets which 
have now ceased to flow. 

Old Arab authors say that one used to be able 
to walk from one end of North Africa to the other 
in the shade. Allowing for some exaggeration, 
this means that either the legendary African 
forest of the Romans continued to subsist, or that 
certain bare tracts covered themselves with timber 
in post-Roman periods of abandonment, before the 
Arabs and their goats had time — for it must have 
required time — to change the climate and aspect 
of the province. 

These woodlands, at all events, cannot have been 
all of olives. There is Sbeitla, for instance, the 
Roman city whose remains I was unable to visit 
owing to the Arctic blasts of wind ; viewed from 
the railway, its surroundings look so bleak and bare 
that nobody would believe they could ever have been 

179 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

timbered. Yet, concerning Sbeitla, we happen 
to possess the testimony of three independent 
older eye-witnesses, who visited the spot at different 
periods : first Shaw (about 1725), then Bruce, then 
the botanist Desfontaines. All three of them de- 
scribe the region as wooded. And, as if to clinch the 
matter, Leo Africanus, writing in I550,~says that 
the inhabitants of Gafsa and its district made their 
boots out of the skins of stags. (These are no doubt 
the fortassa deer, a few of which still linger in the 
country north of Feriana.) Stags can only live in 
timbered regions. If these forests were still in 
existence there would be a greater abundance of 
water ; the cold in winter would be less intense, 
and so would the summer heat, since forests are 
harmonizers of all climatic discords. 

Now these woodlands were not composed of 
olives, but for the most part of junipers and of 
Aleppo pines, a precious growth to which the French 
began to pay attention some five years ago. These 
bright and graceful trees flourish on the poorest 
soil and multiply rapidly ; they are valuable not 
only for their timber, but for their turpentine. 
You can buy, in the Gafsa market, a crude black 
tar made from this tree ; the Arabs use it for 
impregnating the linings of their water-skins, like 
the Greeks for their receptacles of rezzinato wine. 

180 



ROMAN OLIVE-CULTURE 

The only drawback to these pines is that their 
inflammable branches are always suggesting a 
display o£ extempore fireworks to the Arabs, who 
are the veriest pyromaniacs. 



I8l 



Chapter XVIII 

THE WORK OF PHILIPPE THOMAS 

THE old olive plantations are creeping 
back again into regions that have been 
deserted for centuries. They follow the 
railway lines ; and nothing is a fitter 
commentary on the medisevalism which deplores 
the building of railways into the desert than facts 
like that of the plain of Maknassy — a sterile tract 
up to a few years ago — which is now covered, for a 
distance of sixty kilometres, by olive groves. Why ? 
Because the line from Sfax to Gafsa happens to 
pass through it. 

The same will take place in due course along the 
Feriana and other southern lines, and thus one of 
the gravest problems that confront the Tunisian 
administration wiU be solved : the unstable nomads 
will fix themselves — they are already fixing them- 
selves — round these new agricultural centres. In 
1 890 there were still eight tents to every five houses 
in Tunisia, but this proportion is rapidly changing. 
And besides this, the railway, with its facility for the 

182 



THE WORK OF PHILIPPE THOMAS 

rapid conveyance of troops, has given security to 
regions formerly so dangerous that no settler, how- 
ever favourable the soil, would have dared to estab- 
lish his home there ; it has awakened the date indus- 
try and created halfa deposits all along the line. 

There is one of them at Gafsa station, for in- 
stance — relatively small ; and yet, in the season, 
two hundred camel-loads of this costly hay arrive 
there every day, to be dried, pressed and stored 
ready for transportation to the coast, whence it is 
shipped to Europe. In 1905 sixteen thousand six 
hundred tons of halfa were forwarded from the 
interior by the Sfax-Gafsa line alone ! 

And were it not for this railway the branch line 
to Tozeur would never have been contemplated ; 
the oases of Souf and Djerid and Nefzaoua, with 
their teeming populations, would have slumbered 
the sleep of ages in their burning desert sands. And 
to realize what a change it has wrought in the 
appearance of the ports of Sfax, Sousse and even 
Tunis, one must have known these places in the olden 
days. The company pays yearly half a million 
francs to the Government ; it contributes another 
yearly sum of 600,000 francs towards the harbour 
enlargement scheme of Sfax ; indeed, it may be 
said to have created the modern town of Sfax, 
its hotels, banks, restaurants, theatres. 

183 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

And what brought the railway ? 

The phosphates. But for their discovery no 
Utopian would have thought of constructing 
these lines just yet. An unlovely deposit of brown 
dust has worked a revolution upon the minds of 
men, upon the face of the country. It has even 
enriched the French vocabulary. 

" Your friend, is he an alfatier P " 

" No, sir ; he is a fhosfhatier." 

As I issued out of the rock-portal of the Seldja 
gorge and beheld that strip of masonry which told 
so plain a story, with the now barren plain at its 
foot, it struck me that this spot was pregnant with 
a romance beyond that of mere scenery. It was 
well, here, to pause awhile and contrast old and new 
notions of African prosperity. The Romans had 
the same difficulties to contend with as have the 
French : a harsh climate, and fickle and faithless 
natives who " cannot be bridled by threats or 
kindness." They had the same ambitions ; so 
Strabo tells us that they used every endeavour 
to make settlers of them and fix them to the soil, 
and " paid particular attention to Masanasses, 
King of Numidia, because it was he who formed the 
nomads of civil life and directed their attention to 
husbandry." 

Both administrations are necessarily based on 
184 



THE WORK OF PHILIPPE THOMAS 

military rule. And i£ the now uncultivated plain 
affronts our eye, there is already a set-ofi to this 
apparent superiority of the ancient regime in the 
new line of railway which, at great expense, has 
been made to climb up the sinuosities of the Seldja 
gorge itself. 

Whither wending ? 

To fetch more phosphates ! 

Here they lie, the quintessential relics of those 
little Eocene fishes and other sea beasts, if such they 
were, that swam and crawled about the waters many 
years ago — piled up on terraces so high that the mind 
grows dizzy at contemplating their multitudes, or 
the ages required to squeeze them into this priceless 
powder ; piled up for 500 miles along their old 
sea-beach — an arid inland chain of hills, nowadays, 
where hardly a blade of grass will grow ; sterile 
themselves, the cause of surpassing fertility else- 
where. These phosphates are something of a 
symbol : there are men and women fashioned after 
this model. 

I question whether the men of the Pax Romana 
could ever have reached the phosphate-extracting 
stage. They were not trending in that direction. 
Eyes were turning inwards, and the age of sober 
thinking was past and over for the time being, since 
the Orient began to infect the world with the 

185 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

mephitic vapours of self-consciousness. Truth was 
a drug in the market ; for twenty long centuries 
the Banu-Israel, with their ferocious contempt 
of craftsmanship and honest intellectual labour, 
were enabled to foul the stream of human en- 
deavour. It is gratifying to think how thoroughly 
the modern Jews have shaken off their ancient 
bigotry — a good refutation, by the way, of those 
scholars who still argue about the " immutability 
of race-characters." 

But those earlier and artless Galileans, methinks, 
must have been on the mental level of the Tripoli- 
tan savage running beside my horse : it needs no 
very cunning marabout to convince him that his 
little troubles will be set aright in a world hereafter, 
where he shall sit comfortably enthroned and listen 
to his enemies gnashing their teeth. For the poor 
in mind are like children in this, that they create 
realities to coincide with emotional states ; and for 
such as these, they say, is the kingdom of Heaven 
reserved. 

Nevertheless, though men sought the " inner 
light " and not phosphate deposits in those days, 
yet certain men of God, roaming about these same 
stony wildernesses, made discoveries in natural 
history no less surprising than that of Monsieur 
Philippe Thomas. Saint Anthony encountered a 

1 86 



THE WORK OF PHILIPPE THOMAS 

faun — ^half-man, half -goat ; he spoke to the creature 
and was charmed by its edifying discourse. You 
will object that Saint Anthony is known to have 
been a hallucinated nevropathe ; that the story, 
therefore, may not be true. So be it. 

But such a description can hardly be applied with 
decency to certain holier and wiser men, who saw 
with their own eyes things yet stranger. The great 
Augustin tells his congregation — it is in one of 
his sermons, I believe — that in these deserts there 
are men without heads, men who have one single 
eye placed in the cen^tre of their breasts. You may 
suggest that the saint was quoting from the heathen 
pages of Herodotus, the Father of Lies. Nothing 
of the kind. He is too conscientious to speak 
from hearsay of such marvellous matters ; he says 
that he personally went among these headless 
monocular folk ; he says that he spoke to them 
and lived with them ; that he made a study of their 
morals and social institutions, which, in this particu- 
lar sermon, he holds up as an example to his two- 
eyed Christian hearers. 

And Saint Augustin has the reputation of being a 
fairly truth-loving saint and doctor ecclesiee. 

No ; phosphate-hunting was assuredly out of 
the question under such conditions ; scientific 
curiosity and commercialism, parents of fair talk 

187 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

and fair dealing among men, retire discomfited 
when there are immortal souls to be saved. And 
soon enough they came, those Ages of Faith, of 
moral dyspepsia and perverse aspirations, when 
truth-seeking, useless under the Pax Romana, 
became much worse than useless — perilous, that is, 
to life and limb. So quickly do we forget past 
torments, that some of us continue to yearn for 
those picturesque days of burnings and thumb- 
screwings. 

Meanwhile, if truth is found useful for the 
moment, it is due to the humanizing work of those 
quiet investigators like Philippe Thomas — to the 
men who have armed their country for the heroic 
task of cleansing the Augean stables. 

Monsieur Dufresnoy had never met the phosphate 
discoverer, but another gentleman described him as 
follows : — 

" He is a simple fellow, and the devil for work. 
Married, and a good husband ; clear eyes ; spec- 
tacles, a short beard, rather stout, and not dark ; 
never so happy as when he is examining old bones 
and trash of that kind. A ban garpon, mind you. 
And yet — Lord ! what a simpleton. He could 
have become a millionaire if he had managed the 
thing properly. Too modest, perhaps — too un- 
worldly ; too foolish, or too proud : who can tell ? 



THE WORK OF PHILIPPE THOMAS 

You never know what is going on in the minds of 
these savants. He told them he was a veterinary 
surgeon, and not a man of business. Can you 
understand such an attitude ? " 

" I must think about it, Monsieur." 
And so I did, riding home that evening from the 
Seldja gorge — and next day too ; but, somehow or 
other, have not yet attained a mature opinion on 
the subject. It may be, however, that there is 
nothing to prevent a man from being simultaneously 
modest and proud — nothing, save the fact that we 
have not yet coined a word for an alloy of these 
particular ingredients. We have words, always 
either too few or too many ; words which are for 
ever emancipating themselves from our control 
and becoming masters instead of slaves, so that our 
ideas, which ought to be formed by independent 
cerebration, are half derived from mere verbal 
symbols, which become a kind of intellectual 
pepsine that weakens the strongest systems. So 
when we speak of a man being " proud," that miser- 
able expression is apt to engross and dominate us, 
conjuring up an image which excludes certain 
others : that of modesty, for instance. 

It comes to this, that if we wish to describe a 
man who does not seem to fit into any of the cate- 
gories permitted by ordinary words, we are driven 

189 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

to refer him to some exemplar recognized in legend 
or history — we talk of his being Epicurean, Vol- 
tairean, and so forth. 

Let us say, therefore, that Monsieur Thomas, 
like Pasteur, is of the Promethean type — a seeker 
after verity, a light-bringer. 

Postscript. — This is surely a land of coincidences. 
In a Tunisian paper of this very morning I read of 
the death, on the 13th of February, of Monsieur 
Thomas. It describes him as " one of the most 
perfect citizens of our poor humanity." He only 
lived a year to enjoy the annuity of six thousand 
francs which the Government of the Regency, with 
belated thoughtfulness, had granted him. 



190 



Chapter XIX 

OVER GUIFLA TO TOZEUR 

A MULE, a sturdy beast, was waiting to 
convey me from Metlaoui to Tozeur. 
Leaving my heavier baggage to follow 
with some camels, I rode into the dawn. 
Considerably less than half-way stands the rest- 
house of Guifla, kept by an Algerian with a pretty 
wife. Here I saw a few carved Roman stones which 
had been found, the man told me, in the neighbour- 
ing Oued Baghara. At Guifla, according to Valery 
Mayet, they killed an ostrich twenty years ago — 
a rara avis in these parts. 

There were numbers of engineers and workmen 
at this place, engaged in laying down the line of 
railway which will unite Tozeur to Metlaoui. It 
cannot help being a paying concern, I should think, 
to judge by the traffic that passed me in the course 
of this day, for I was hardly ever out of sight 
of a caravan. 

It was an ideal day for desert travelling — a grey, 
sunless sky, a gentle breeze. Another weary stretch 

191 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

brings one to El-Hamma, a small oasis fed by hot 
springs which the Romans long ago utilized, and 
where I had hoped to refresh myself with a Turkish 
bath. Alas ! the hammam is only a shallow tank 
covered with palm-thatching ; there were some 
twenty Arabs splashing about this establishment 
and soaping themselves and their boy-children — 
bathing was out of the question. Near at hand 
lies the women's bath, which is built on the same 
primitive lines. A pious legend runs to the effect 
that this water of El-Hamma used to be cold, but 
an Arab marabout was persuaded to spit into it 
and, lo ! it suddenly became hot and mineral. . . . 
As you approach Tozeur the landscape becomes 
more desert-like ; . mountains are left behind ; stones 
are rarer ; you wade in sand. One realizes how 
useless it would be to construct a good road in these 
parts, since every storm woxild drown it. And such 
storms are sometimes of great force ; there was a 
celebrated one in 1857 which lasted for seventy- two 
hours. It threw some of the riders of a French de- 
tachment off their horses, and finally obliged the 
whole company to stamp up and down for twenty- 
four hours in the twilight of raging sand for fear of 
being buried alive. It submerged several hundred 
palm trees of the Tozeur oasis up to their crowns 
(they are 60 to 100 feet high). 

192 



OVER GUIFLA TO TOZEUR 

Notwithstanding these difficulties, an enterprising 
Maltese runs a motor-car from Metlaoui to Tozeur 
and Nefta for all such persons as are prepared to 
pay his price, and I hear that the speculation has 
paid well. There were moments during my ride 
when I regretted not having come to some under- 
standing with him ; when I grew tired of the jolting 
mule, the rough track and an Arab saddle which 
keeps one's legs at an angle of 179 degrees. True, 
my conveyance had only cost four francs. . . . 

Straining my eyes at the water-shed beyond El- 
Hamma, whence one has the first view of Tozeur 
and its palm forest, I thought to detect, at an 
immeasurable distance, two minute dusky streaks, 
swimming in air — other oases, no doubt. They 
seemed to dangle, by some gossamer thread, from 
the grey vault of Heaven. 

This first view of the oasis of Tozeur, and the 
Chott Djerid beyond it, has often been praised. 
To me, arriving at the water-shed on a cloudy 
afternoon, that line of inky-black palm trees with 
its background of blanched sterility melting into a 
lowering, leaden-hued sky, conveyed a most uncanny 
impression : the prospect was absolutely familiar ! 
Yes, there was no doubt about it : I had seen the 
place before ; not in Africa, of course, but — some- 
where else. Where — where ? Suddenly I remem- 
N 193 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

bered : it was a northern landscape, a well-known 
forest of sombre firs, rising out of the wintry plain. 
The white, salty expanse, fiUing up the interstices 
between the palms, helped to complete the illusion ; 
it was powdered snow among the tree-tops. For a 
brief moment I was transported. . . . 

It was not long before I found a companion at 
Tozeur. He was an Arab from the Souf, region of 
sand ; dark-skinned, oval-faced, with straight eye- 
lashes, straight nose, and an infectious, lingering 
smile ; quite a worthless fellow ; he had picked up 
a few words of French slang, and never tired of 
exhibiting them. We rode out to the Chott to 
see the extraction of the salt, which is a Government 
monopoly ; the track leads past a famous lotus, a 
Methuselah among trees, whose shadow covers 
1 20 square metres of ground and whose branches are 
so long, so weary with age, that they bend down- 
ward and touch the earth with their elbows — to 
rest, as it were — and then rise up again, refreshed. 
These salines are about three miles from Tozeur 
and an uncommonly simple establishment ; they 
dig a ditch in the morass which promptly fills with 
water ; the liquid evaporates, leaving the salt, 
which impregnates it, to be piled up in heaps on 
dry land. Next, they stow the mineral in sacks and 
transport it to Tozeur on donkeys. It undergoes 

194 



OVER GUIFLA TO TOZEUR 

no preparation whatever, but is sold as it comes out 
of the Chott, agreeable to the palate though rather 
yellowish in colour. Needless to say the Govern- 
ment runs no risk of the supply failing ; there is 
salt, a swooning stretch of salt, as far as eye can 
reach. 

Once you have issued from the oasis in this 
direction it is all a level of dried-up mud, speckled 
with low shrubs and dangerous watery spots, where 
a man may slowly sink down and disappear for ever. 
A strange desert lily, purple and golden, starts 
leafless, like a tall orchid, out of the bitter waste ; 
camels eat its fat, bulbous, snowy-white root ; the 
Arabs call it tethuth. 

I saw some darker markings on the surface of the 
expanse which the workman at the salines declared 
to be the ruins of old buildings and quite inaccessible 
nowadays, but they may well have been small 
ridges of sand, magnified by mirage : those oasis- 
Arabs have rather indifferent eyesight. Plainly 
visible, however, was a line of palms about eight 
miles distant to the east ; it was one of a group of 
oases of Oudiane. I looked at it, wondering whether 
I should pass that way on my homeward journey. 

But my companion, with a languishing gesture, 
pointed in the other direction, towards his home. 

Tozeur, he thought, was all very well, and so 
195 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

were Oudiane and aU the rest of them, but Eloued 
was fairer by far. And only three days' journey ! 
Why not leave this country and go to the Souf, 
to Eloued, instead ? Sucre nom J I could return 
by way of Biskra if I liked. And if I paid him five 
francs for a camel he would accompany me the 
whole way, like a brother. The five francs, he 
explained, were only for camel-hire ; he did not 
want me to pay for his food ; he liked me for my 
company — it seems I reminded him, in a way, 
of the folks at Eloued. They must be charming 
people, and I was almost tempted to foUow his 
advice and make their acquaintance. 

Later on we went to what they call the Roman 
barrage of the main oasis river ; the large blocks 
of which it is composed are unquestionably antique, 
but they have been carried to this spot not by the 
ancients, but by Berber cultivators of long ago. 
Gazing upon these venerable stones we were led to 
talk of past times, of buried treasures and their 
wondrous lore. One of his uncles, he tells me, is 
versed in the black arts and an adept at raising 
hoards ; he learnt it from a Moroccan. But bad 
luck had dogged his footsteps lately. He discovered 
a treasure whose guardian jin offered to surrender 
it if he brought three things : a white goat, certain 
materials for fumigation, and " the book." It 

196 



OVER GUIFLA TO TOZEUR 

seemed a very simple request, but each time, un- 
fortunately, that he arrived at the enchanted spot, 
he found that, for some extraordinary reason, he had 
left at home one or the other of these three articles ; 
and when at last he managed to bring all three of 
them together, he accidentally — sale bete ! — said a 
pious " bismillah " at the critical moment, which 
of course spoilt everything. 

And here a wild craving came upon me : I wished 
to follow the winding of this brook and trace it to 
its source, which I judged to be not far distant. 
The companion smiled, as usual ; he was ready for 
anything ; but the undertaking proved to be rather 
arduous. We walked and climbed for long among 
the gardens, crawling under vines and thorny 
shrubs, wading tributary brooks and clambering 
up and down their steep earthen banks with a 
hundred dogs in full pursuit ; there was no possi- 
bility of orientation ; we doubled our tracks over 
and over again — it was like being imprisoned in 
the works of a clock. 

At last, and doubtless by the merest of accidents, 
we emerged from the true oasis of orderly fruit 
trees and vegetables ; the soil became sandy and 
uneven, with palms sprouting up in isolated clusters 
amid tamarisks and bristly reeds. The stream, 
meanwhile, continued to divide and subdivide 

197 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

into smaller rivulets. After a good deal of walking 
on this kind of ground, we finally reached the head 
of the waters — the eye, as the Arabs poetically 
call a fountain, alluding to its liquid purity, its 
genial play of light and movement. 

It trickles out under a tall incline of sand, and 
the crowns of the palms at this spot are not quite 
on a level with the desert overhead. Looking down 
from these sandy heights, I found that we had 
followed a tortuous river of green palms, that 
flowed through yellow sands into a distant lake of 
the same green — the oasis. 

But the companion had become quite silent. 
He was bewitched, apparently, by the rural charms 
of this place. At last he said : 

" If only I had brought some kij to smoke ! " 

Your Oriental, as a rule, becomes hungry at the 
sight of a fair landscape ; he manifests a sudden 
yearning for food. Not so these Souafa ; they must 
have their native kifon such occasions. They are aU, 
I am sorry to say, partakers of the pernicious drug. 

" You have forgotten your kif? " I asked. 
" Well, that was an oversight ! " 

And, to his astonishment, I fumbled in my 
pocket, produced the stuff and lit a pipe. I smoked 
on placidly, looking at him and wondering what 
his thoughts might be. 



OVER GUIFLA TO TOZEUR 

" An Inglis " — perhaps he was saying to himself — 
" one o£ those who joke and talk in such friendly 
fashion, and then, when it conies to a sou's worth 
of kif- — a single puff of his pipe. . . . ! Sacre 
cochon ! That is how they grow rich." 

Possibly he reasoned thus, but I fancy he reasoned 
not at all. There he sat, and kept his eyes fixed 
on the ground ; a European might have feigned 
interest in something else, or cheerful indifference, 
but this desert-child did none of these things. He 
simply sat and suffered dumbly : it was a blow 
of fate, to be borne like all the rest of them. A 
fine exemplar {edition mignonne) of the mektoub 
profession. It gave a dignity to the fellow. 

Presently I made him a gift of the whole appara- 
tus. He was quite speechless, at first, with surprise. 

The spot was well chosen for indulgence in the 
divine herb, bland quencher of doubts, begetter 
of blissful images ; impossible to conceive anything 
but a good genius residing amid these bubbling 
waters and gently stirring foliage. Everything was 
kindly and gracious, and yet 

" Yonder," he said, pointing dreamily with his 
pipe-stem to a place not far distant, " yonder they 
killed a man and a woman. They hacked them to 
little pieces." 

And he unfolded a tale of love and revenge. 
199 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

It was the usual intrigue ; with this peculiarity, 
that the woman was quite a poor creature, of 
blameless past, married and mother of children ; 
the man — ^though what we should call a " gentleman 
hy birth " — had long ago become a vagabond, a 
child of iniquity, an outcast from the coast-towns, 
whom some wave of misfortune had left stranded 
on this green island in the desert. Listening to the 
hazy and rather disconnected recital, I tried to 
piece the story together as it really happened ; to 
discover its logic, its necessity ; the arts by which 
this decayed citizen, proficient only in the lore of 
vice and scorned by the whole populace, had gained 
his end ; above all, how it came about that these 
two never wearied of their infatuation. Had he 
struck some latent and hideously defective chord 
in her motherly breast, that began to throb in 
response to his amorous complexities — was that 
their common bond ? 

Likely enough. 

But I would prefer to think otherwise. I would 
prefer to think that this woman's very simplicity, 
and this green dell, had worked a miracle ; purging 
and simplifying him, carrying him away from de- 
praved memories of middle life towards certain 
half-forgotten and holier ideals of youth that re- 
vived, at last, and took shape in the prime features 



OVER GUIFLA TO TOZEUR 

of this — as he may have called it — pastoral diver- 
sion ; making him cling to them stubbornly, even 
as we might promise ourselves to cling to some friend 
of past days, were he ever to return. . . . 

The idyll lasted for long, ere the awful retri- 
bution came — the element of insecurity acting, 
I suppose, as a cement. There is in most of us, Arabs 
or otherwise, a deep-seated sporting instinct (is 
that the right word ?) which the system of legalized 
unions was contrived to curb, but cannot ; if 
connubial life were a hazardous liaison there would 
be fewer divorces. 

A perverse and sordid romance, you will say. 

And yet it endured, like many of its kind. 



Chapter XX 

A WAT:ERY LABTRINrn 

TOZEUR is more than twice as large as 
Gaf sa, and the inhabitants are a healthier 
race, good-natured and docile, with much 
of the undiluted Berber blood still in 
their veins. The houses are also of better construc- 
tion, and not a few of them can boast of cool, 
vaulted chambers and an upper story. Unfortu- 
nately for the artistic effect, new French buildings 
are rising up here and there; it is inevitable — the 
place cannot be expected to stand still ; artists and 
dreamers must now go further afield. 

And the oasis is a forest of sumptuous splendour, 
wherein grow bananas (absent in Gafsa), together 
with every other kind of fruit and vegetable, but 
chiefly date-palms, that give the highest and most 
constant return. They cultivate seventy different 
varieties. There are half a million trees paying 
taxes — the common variety sixty centimes, the 
delicate amber-tinted and translucent deglat twice as 



A WATERY LABYRINTH 

much ; some trees produce more than fifty francs 
a year. But they require incessant care ; " palms 
must eat and drink," say the Arabs ; they drink, 
in the summer months, a hundred cubic metres of 
water apiece ! 

The export of these dates has been going on for 
centuries ; in 1068 the geographer Bekri wrote 
that almost every day a thousand camels, or even 
more, leave Tozeur loaded with dates, and the trade 
will become still livelier when they have finished 
building the railway which is to connect this place 
with the present terminus Metlaoui. Maybe the 
Egyptians introduced the tree into these regions : 
they cultivated dates as early as 3000 b.c. It is 
perhaps the earliest fruit of which we have clear 
record, save that old apple of 4004 B.C. which gave 
some trouble to Adam and Eve. 

In olden days they sold negro slaves here for two 
or three quintals of dates apiece. 

The irrigation of these palms is a hair-splitting 
business. Water-conduits, varying in size from a 
brook to the merest runlet, cross and recross each 
other on palm-stem aqueducts at different levels ; 
the properties are served with the precious element 
according to time. And inasmuch as the labourers 
have no clocks or watches, they have devised a com- 
plicated and apparently frivolous system of marking 

203 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

the hours ; the water is cut ofi from a certain pro- 
perty, for instance, when a certain shadow shall have 
attained the length of three footsteps of a man, 
and so forth ; the shadow varies according to the 
seasons, but, in the long run, everybody is satisfied. 
There is peace now under the palms ; the days 
are over when the lean and hungry desert folk, 
who cannot climb trees, used to ride hither and, 
pointing their guns at the terrified cultivators, 
make them clamber aloft and throw down a month's 
provision of dates. 

Arabs will teU you that there are 194 water 
springs at Tozeur ; they are ready to give you the 
names of every one of them, and several more ; 
these unite to form what might almost be called a 
river, which is then artificially divided into three 
rivulets — divided so neatly, says an old writer, that 
even some fragment of wood or other object 
drifting down the current is split up, perforce, into 
three equal parts, one for each of them ; these 
three, later on, are once more subdivided into seven 
smaller ones apiece — twenty-one in all ; and these, 
again, into a certain fixed number of almost micro- 
scopic brooklets. Allah is all-knowing ! To me, 
wandering for the first time in this region, the 
irrigation canals seemed to flow from every point of 
the compass. I teased my spirit with the imaginary 

204 




The Waters of Tozeur 



A WATERY LABYRINTH 

task of unperplexing the liquid maze, of draw- 
ing a map of this daedal network of intersecting 
waters. 

You can stroll in every direction along shady- 
paths in the oasis and never weary of its beauty. 
The tiUer-folk are a happy people — one can see 
from their faces that they have few cares ; those 
that are not at work under the trees may be seen 
splashing about the brooks or wending to market 
with donkeys that almost disappear under immense 
loads of green stuff ; they will greet you with a 
smile and a " Bon soir, Moussie ! " (It is always 
bon soir.) 

Seven little villages nestle under the palms ; 
here and there, too, you enter unexpectedly upon 
gem-like patches of waterless, shimmering sand — 
mock-Saharas, golden and topaz-tinted, set in a 
ring of laughing greenery ; there are kingfishers 
in arrowy flight or poised, like a flame of blue, over 
the still pools ; overhead, among the branches, a 
ceaseless cooing of turtle-doves. At this season, a 
Japanese profusion of white blossoms flutters in 
the breeze and strews the ground ; these peaches, 
apricots, plums and almonds are giants of their 
kind, and yet insignificant beside the towering 
trunks of the palms whose leaves shade them from 
the sunny rays ; the fruit trees, in their turn, 

201; 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

protect the humble corn and vegetables growing at 
their feet. 

During the Turkish period these oases were in 
danger of their lives ; the sand invaded them, 
choking up the waters and gradually entombing 
the plants. The nomads and their flocks and 
camels, pasturing at liberty round the cultivated 
tracts, had destroyed the scrub vegetation which 
hindered the flying desert sands from penetrating 
into the groves ; they had trampled to powder 
the soil at these spots, so that every breath of wind 
raised it heavenwards in a cloud. But the peril 
is averted now by the system of tabias or sand-dykes 
introduced some twenty years ago — introduced, 
I believe, in accordance with the suggestion of 
Monsieur Baraban, whose book on Tunisia drew 
attention, among other things, to this deplorable 
condition of the oases and the threatened loss to 
the exchequer. 

Now, if you look closely at this sand, you will 
see that it is full of minute crystalline particles, 
and that, in places where it lies undisturbed, these 
hard and jagged grains wedge themselves into the 
softer ones and form a coherent crust. It was 
observed that the wind cannot raise this crust, 
and the problem how to manufacture it in the 
neighbourhood of the oases was solved by enclosing 

206 



A WATERY LABYRINTH 

the near-lying tracts of half-desert within low 
niounds crowned by upright palm branches, and 
forbidding all access to man and beast. The flying 
plague heaps itself against the palisade and sub- 
merges it ; a new set of branches is then inserted, 
and so the structure grows higher and more effi- 
cacious every year. The soil within the enclosures, 
meanwhile, grows hard ; wild shrubs sprout up to 
help in the work, and though the crust yields, 
like thin ice, at the slightest pressure of the fingers, 
the end is accomplished. 

The protected districts are already assuming 
a different aspect from the true desert outside, 
which shifts with the breeze ; apart from their tufts 
of vegetation, the soil has become quite dark in 
colour. Only the most reckless of nocturnal nomads 
will dare to violate these hallowed precincts in 
search of firewood ; the citizens have already 
learned to regard them with reverential fear. At a 
long distance from the town I asked a small boy 
to climb over the palisade. 

" Not if you give me a packet of cigarettes ! " 
he said. " The brigadier " — in an awed whisper — 
" he sees everything." 

Hearing that protective works of a new kind are 
being carried on at this moment, I walked yesterday 
to the bare slopes that lead down to the water- 

207 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

springs. A hundred or more Arabs were engaged, 
under the supervision of a keen-eyed young French- 
man, in digging a miiltitude of curved concentric 
ditches across the hollow of the catchment area, 
intersected by diagonal ones here and there ; the 
general appearance of the work — the bright yellow 
of the newly excavated part set against the dark 
ground of the old — was as if some gigantic fishing- 
net had been carelessly thrown across the country. 
These little dykes were about two feet deep, and there 
must have been already some twenty miles of them. 
The overseer explained : 

" You see what happens. Our putting this tract 
under the tabia-system had prepared us an un- 
pleasant surprise. The rain formerly used to sink 
into the soft sand, but since the crust has formed, 
thanks to our efforts, it no longer sinks, but runs 
over the hard surface, pours in a flood down that 
steep incline at whose foot the fountains issue, 
and threatens to suffocate them with soil torn from 
its banks. The very life of the oasis was imperilled 
by our well-meant artifices. But now, with these 
little ditches, we hope to catch and tame the showers, 
and force them to wander about in these channels 
till they either sink into the earth or evaporate. 
Not a drop of liquid is to leave the catchment basin ; 
it is exactly the reverse of what we desire in Europe." 

2p8 



A WATERY LABYRINTH 

It struck me as a simple and efficient device. 

Midday came and the workers were paid oif, 
each of them receiving a slip of printed paper for 
the half-day's work ; the possession of four of these 
slips entitles them to exemption from the yearly 
tax of two francs forty centimes which they would 
otherwise pay : a good example of the " politique 
d'association." They trooped away gleefully, and 
I could not help remarking on their cheerful 
humour. 

" They are gentle as young girls," he said, 
" and far more tractable ; thievish, of course, and 
untruthful — but so are all children ! They attach 
themselves to me in a pathetic, dog-like fashion, 
without hope of preferment or any ulterior object. 
. . . Yes, they have established themselves in my 
heart, somehow or other ; perhaps because I am 
an orphan and rather lonely and susceptible. . . . 
I really love these poor Arabs, as a father might love 
them " 

" That stick of yours : it looks business-like. 
May I ask whether you ever chastise them ? " 

" Why not ? Would I not thrash my own chil- 
dren if they deserved it ? This work in Africa," 
he went on, " attracts and interests me. At home I 
lose my personality and become a sheep in a herd, 
but here, in the desert, I can create and leave a 
o 209 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

mark, which has always been my ambition. I think 
I could live in this country for ever. Can you under- 
stand such a feeling ? None of my colleagues can ; 
their minds are in France, and they complain of 
a colonial exile, as if Tunisia were the Devil's 
Island ; they call me an enthusiast, because I 
think well of this warm, palpitating soil in which I 
seem, I don't know how, to have struck deep roots." 

And he gazed lovingly over the sea of glossy 
palm-tops, down yonder, on our right. This, I 
thought, was a most unusual type of Frenchman ; 
and yet there was something in his language, or 
perhaps in his ideas, which was already familiar 
to me. 

" To be Sultan of Tozeur, for example — ^ha ! 
I would bend them to my wiU ; I would lead them 
to battle and give them laws ; I would have them 
about me as slaves and companions — they should 
sing to me and tell me stories while I go to sleep. 
This fair land seems like the realization of some old, 
dimly remembered dream of mine. How does it 
aU come about, I wonder ? " 

Sultan of Tozeur — that gave me the cue, and I 
hazarded the guess that he had inherited his tastes 
from certain old rovers and conquerors of the 
northern seaboard. 

" True," he said, " our family comes from Nor- 



A WATERY LABYRINTH 

mandy, though we have Hved in Paris for two 
generations. Now how on earth did you find that 
out ? " 

These are the men whom the Franco-Tunisian 
administration will do well to encourage as officials 
and settlers in the wilder parts. 



Chapter XXI 
OLD TISOUROS 

THERE is a daily recurring spectacle at 
Tozeur which enchanted me : the camp- 
ing ground at dawn. Here the caravans 
repose after their desert journeys ; hence 
they start, at every hour, in picturesque groups and 
movement. But whoever wishes for a rare impres- 
sion of Oriental life must go there before sunrise, 
and wait for the slow-coming dawn. It is all dark 
at first, but presently a sunny beam flashes through 
the distant palms, followed by another, and yet 
another — ^long shafts of yellow light travelling 
through the murk ; then you begin to perceive 
that the air is heavy with the smoke of extinguished 
camp-fires and suspended particles of dust ; the 
ground, heaving, gives birth to dusky shapes ; 
there are weird groans and gurglings of silhouetted 
apparitions ; and still you cannot clearly distinguish 
earth from air — it is as if one watched the creation 
of a new world out of Chaos. 

But even before the sun has topped the crowns 

212 



OLD TISOUROS 

of the palms, the element of mystery is elimi- 
nated ; the vision resolves itself into a common 
plain of sand, authentic camels and everyday Arabs 
moving about their business — another caravan, in 
short. . . . 

And at midday f 

Go, at that hour, to the thickest part of the 
grove ; then is the time ; it must be the prick of 
noon, for the slanting lights of morning and eve 
are quite another concern; only at noon can one 
appreciate the incomparable effects of palm-leaf 
shadows. The whole garden is permeated with 
light that streams down from some undiscoverable 
source, and its rigid trunks, painted in a warm, 
lustreless grey, are splashed with an infinity of 
keen lines of darker tint, since the sunshine, per- 
colating through myriads of sharp leaves, etches a 
filigree pattern upon all that lies below. You look 
into endless depths of forest, but there is no change 
in decorative design ; the identical sword-pattern 
is for ever repeated on the identical background, 
fading away, at last, in a silvery haze. 

Here are no quaint details to attract the eye ; 
no gorgeous colour-patterns or pleasing irregularities 
of form ; the frosted beauty of the scene appeals 
rather to the intelligence. Contrasted with the 
wanton blaze of green, the contorted trunks and 

213 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

labyrinthine shadow-meanderings of our woodlands, 
these palm groves, despite their frenzied exuberance, 
figure forth the idea of reserve and chastity ; an 
impression vv^hich is heightened by the ethereal 
striving of those branchless columns, by their 
joyous and effective rupture of the horizontal, so 
different from the careworn tread of our oaks and 
beeches. 

Later on, when the intervening vines and fruit 
trees are decked in leaves, the purity of this geo- 
metrical design will be impaired. . . . 

The origin of Tozeur is lost in the grey mists of 
antiquity, since a site like this must have been culti- 
vated from time immemorial ; the first classical 
writer to mention the town is Ptolemy, who calls 
it Tisouros ; on Peutinger's Tables it is marked 
" Thusuro." The modern settlement has wandered 
away from this ancient one which now slumbers 
— together, maybe, with its hoary Egyptian proto- 
type — under high-piled mounds whereon have 
arisen, since those days, a few mediaeval monuments 
and crumbling maraboutic shrines and houses of 
more modern date, patched together with antique 
building blocks and fragments of marble cornices : 
an island of sand and oblivion, lapped by soft- 
surging palms. 

They call it Bled-el-Adher nowadays, and this 
214 



OLD TISOUROS 

is the place to spend the evening. I was there 
yesterday, perhaps for the last time. 

It exhales a soporific, world-forgotten fragrance. 
There is no market here, no commercial or social 
life, save a few greybeards discussing memories 
on some doorstep ; the only mirthful note is a 
swarm of young boys playing hockey on the sand- 
heaps, amid furious yells and scrimmages. 

True hockey being out of the question on 
account of the deep sand, they have invented a 
variant, a simple affair : they arrange themselves 
roughly into two parties, and the ball is struck into 
the air with a palm branch from the one to the 
other ; there, where it alights, a general rush 
ensues to get hold of it, clouds of sand arising out 
of a maze of intertwining arms and legs. The 
lucky possessor is entitled to have the next stroke, 
and the precision and force of their hitting is re- 
markable ; they evidently do little else all day 
long. 

I noticed an element of good humour and fair 
play not prevalent among the Gafsa boys ; there 
was no peevish squabbling, and I only saw one 
fight which was a perfectly correct transaction — 
nobody interfering with the two combatants who 
hammered lustily at each other's faces, and at last 
separated, satisfied and streaming with blood. 

215 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

For some days past they had seen my interest in the 
game, and yesterday I observed that it was suddenly 
suspended ; a consultation was taking place, and 
presently one o£ the boys approached me and 
politely asked whether I would not care to join ; 
i£ so, I might have his club ; and he placed the 
weapon and ball in my hand. The proposition 
tempted me ; it is not every day that one is invited 
in such gentlemanly fashion to wallow on all fours 
with young Arabs. I made one or two strokes, 
not amiss, that called forth huge applause ; and then 
returned, rather regretfully, to my sand-heap, to 
meditate on my own misspent youth, a subject that 
very rarely troubles me. 

There is a taU, round building that stands within 
a hundred yards of where I sat ; they call it the 
" Roman " tower, and the foundation-stones, 
though not in situ, are probably of that period ; 
it was a Byzantine bell-tower, then a minaret, now 
a ruin. And here, confronting me, lie a few 
stones, that are all that remain of a pagan temple 
which became a Christian basilica and afterwards 
a mosque. In the fifth century Tisouros — this 
slumberous Bled-el-Adher — was a dependency of 
the Greek " Duke of Gafsa " (how strange it 
sounds !) ; Florentinus, its bishop, was executed 
by the king of the Vandals ; Christian churches 

216 



OLD TISOUROS 

survived, side by side with mosques, as late as the 
fourteenth century. There seems to have been no 
great religious intolerance in those days. 

They showed me a gold coin of the Emperor 
Gordian — the same who built the amphitheatre of 
El-Djem — which was found here, as well as some 
lamps and sculptured fragments of stone. Bruce 
speaks of cipoUino columns ; they are still to be 
seen, if you care to look for them, split up, since his 
time, to mend waUs and doorsteps. Tozeur must 
have looked well enough under the later Empire. 

And now, sand-heaps and a brood of young 
savages, shouting at their game. It is long since 
these people knew the meaning of refined things, 
although some of the houses, their fronts decorated 
with gracious designs in brickwork, testify to a not 
extinct artistic feeling — the citizens once enjoyed 
a reputation for delicacy and love of letters. There 
is nothing like systematic misgovernment for de- 
grading mankind, and I think it likely that the 
gradual fusion of the Arab and Berber races, so 
antagonistic in all their aspirations, may have 
helped to abrade the finer edges of both parent- 
stocks. But the native civilization was not remark- 
able at any time. 

The climate, and then their religion, has made 
them hard and incurious ; it is a land of uncompro- 

217 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

mising masculinity. The softer element — thanks 
to the Koran — ^has become non-existent, and you 
will look in vain for the creative-feminine, for those 
intermediate types of ambiguous, submerged sexu- 
ality, the constructive poets and dreamers, the men 
of imagination and women of will, that give to good 
society in the north its sweetness and chatoyance ; 
for those " sports " and eccentrics who, among our 
lower classes, are centrifugal — perpetually tending 
to diverge in this or that direction. The native 
is pre-eminently centripetal. His life is reduced 
to its simplest physiological expression ; that 
capacity of reflection, of forming suggestive and 
fruitful concepts, which lies at the bottom of every 
kind of progress or culture, has been sucked out of 
him by the sun and by Mahomet's teaching. 

A land of violence, remorseless and relentless ; 
the very beetles, so placid elsewhere, seem to have 
acquired a nervously virile temperament ; they 
scurry about the sand at my feet with an air of rage 
and determination. 

So I mused, while the game went on boisterously 
in the mellow light of sunset till, from some decaying 
minaret near by, there poured down a familiar 
long-drawn wail — the call to prayer. It was a 
golden hour among those mounds of sand, and I 
grew rather sad to think that I should never see 

218 



OLD TISOUROS 

the place again. How one longs to engrave certain 
memories upon the brain, to keep them untarnished 
and carry them about on one's journeyings, in all 
their freshness ! The happiest life, seen in per- 
spective, can hardly be better than a stringing 
together of such odd little moments. 



219 



Chapter XXII 

THE DISMAL CHOTT 

HEARING that there are few or no 
tourists in Nefta just now, I left 
Tozeur three days ago, an hour or so 
before sunrise. 

This region, the Djerid, is all sand ; an isthmus 
of sand thrust in between the two Chotts of Djerid 
and Rharsa ; the oases are scattered about the 
country, says some old writer, like the spots on a 
leopard's skin. . . . 

The air was keen, and I shivered on my mule, look- 
ing back often at the dark forest of Tozeur, where I 
had spent some happy days. 

After about five miles of comfortably wading 
through soft sand, I became aware of a ghostly 
radiance that hovered over the pallid expanse of 
the Chott. Abruptly, with the splendour of a 
meteor, the morning star shot up. Then the sun's 
disk rose, more sedately, at the exact spot where 
Lucifer had shown the way ; and climbing upwards, 
produced a spectacle for which I was not prepared. 



THE DISMAL CHOTT 

For as it left the horizon, a counterfeit sun began 
to unroll itself from the true, as one might detach 
a petal from a rose ; at first they clung together, but 
soon, with a wrench, parted company, and while 
the one soared aloft, the image remained below, 
weltering on the treacherous mere. For a short 
while the flaming phantasma lingered firm and orb- 
like, while the space between itself and reality grew 
to a hand's breadth; then slowly deliquesced. It 
gave a prolonged shiver and sank, convulsed, into 
the earth. 

Light was diffused ; the colour of daytime in- 
vaded the ground at our feet, flitting hke some 
arterial rill through the dun spaces. Wonderful, 
this magic touch of awakening ! It is the same 
swiftness of change as at sunset, when the desert 
folds itself to sleep, like some gorgeously palpitating 
flower, in the chill of nightfall ; or rather, to use 
a metaphor which has often occurred to me, it 
hardens its features, crystallizing them into a stony 
mask, even as some face, once friendly, grows 
strangely indifferent in death. 

My companion of this morning, who happened 
to be of a religious turn of mind, took the oppor- 
tunity to glide off his beast and, standing a little 
apart, with his arms thrown through the reins to 
prevent the mule from straying, recited the dawn- 

221 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

prayer. The noble gesticulations looked well on 
that bare sandy dune, in the face of the Chott. 

As for myself, I thought of the old god Triton, 
who dwelt in yonder foul lake and showed some 
kindness to Jason, long ago, when his ships were en- 
tangled in the ooze ; I thought of Tritogeneia, the 
savage, mud-born creature who, cast into the 
purifying crucible of Hellenic mythopoesis, emerged 
as bright-eyed Athene, mother of wisdom and 
domestic arts. The Amazon maidens of the country 
used to have combats in her honour with sticks and 
stones, and the fairest of them, decked in a 
panoply of Grecian armour, was conducted in a 
chariot about the lake. A fabled land ! Here, they 
say, Poseidon was born, and Gorgo and Perseus, 
Medusa and Pegasus and other comely and won- 
drous shapes that have become familiar to us 
through Greek lore. 

These folks of Atlantis " saw no dreams," but 
they studied astronomy and navigation ; their 
priests may well have been those Druids whose 
temple-structures, the senams and cromlechs, have 
wandered from the Tripolitan frontier as far as the 
chilly coasts of Brittany, and Salisbury Plain, and 
Ultima Thule. And every day, as the sun passed 
over their heads, they saluted him not as the Giver 
of Life or Lord of Earth, but cursed him with im- 

222 



THE DISMAL CHOTT 

precations long and loathsome, for his scorching 
fires. 

Shaw, I believe, was the first to identify the 
Chotts with Lake Triton. 

There were islands in this sea ; the sacred isle of 
Phla, for instance, which the Spartans were com- 
manded by an oracle to colonize, and whereon stood 
a temple to Aphrodite. There are islands to this 
day, great and small ; one of them is called Faraoun 
— evidently an Egyptian name, for Egyptian in- 
fluence was felt early in these regions ; at Faraoun 
grows a peculiar kind of date which, we are told, 
an Egyptian army had left there. The waters of 
the pool touched Nefta, whose Kadi gave Tissot a 
description of a buried vessel which, from its shape, 
could be nothing but a " galere antique " — it was 
dismembered for fuel, and metal nails were found 
in its framework. 

Movers is probably correct in seeking at Nefta 
the Biblical Naphtuhim of the generation of Noah : 
an Egyptian document speaks of it as the " land of 
Napit." Arabs have another theory of its origin. 
According to a chronicle preserved in the Nefta 
mosque, the founder of the town was Kostel, son 
of Sem, son of Noah ; he called it Nefta because it 
was here that water boiled, for the first time, after 
the Deluge. The Romans called it Nepte, but, in 

223 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

confirmation of this old story, I observe that the 
Arabs of to-day invariably pronounce Nefta as 
Nafta. It is quite likely, too, that the name 
Hecatompylos, the city of a hundred gates, which 
has been applied to Gafsa, is a misreading for Heca- 
tompolis, the land of those hundred cities which, 
they say, studded the shores of this great lake. 

For it was a lake, or series of lakes, and nothing 
else ; geological evidence is opposed to the supposi- 
tion that the Chott country was ever a gulf of the 
Mediterranean within historical times — it was merely 
a chain of inland waters. And another surprising 
discovery has been made of late, namely, that these 
depressions lie at different levels and have, each of 
them, its own system of alimentation. This fact 
came to light between 1872 and 1883, when a 
number of studies were undertaken with a view to 
the restoration of this ancient Libyan Sea. Men 
of middle years will still remember the excitement 
produced by this scheme which originated with 
Tissot, though another name will for, ever be asso- 
ciated with it, that of Roudaire, a man of science 
dominated by an obsession, who clung to this pro- 
ject with the blind faith of a martyr, his enthusiasm 
growing keener in proportion as the plan was proved 
to be futile, fantastic, fatuous. True, the great 
Lesseps had taken his part. 

224 



THE DISMAL CHOTT 

Desolation reigns on this morass o£ salt, where the 
life of man and beast, and even of plants and stones, 
faints away in mortal agony. Unnumbered multi- 
tudes of living creatures have sunk into its per- 
fidious abysses. " A caravan of ours," says an Arab 
author, " had to cross the Chott one day ; it was 
composed of a thousand baggage camels. Un- 
fortunately one of the beasts strayed from the path, 
and all the others followed it. Nothing in the 
world could be swifter than the manner in which 
the crust yielded and engulphed them ; then it 
became like what it was before, as if the thousand 
baggage camels had never existed." Yet it is 
traversed in several directions, and if you strain 
your eyes from these heights you can detect certain 
dusky lines that crawl in serpentine movement across 
the melancholy waste — caravan tracks to the south. 

Unlike the living ocean, this withered one never 
smiles : it wears a hostile face. There is a charm, 
none the less — a charm that appeals to complex 
modern minds — in that picture of eternal, irre- 
mediable sterility. Its hue is ever-changing, as the 
light falls upon it ; the plain, too, shifts up and 
down with mirage play, climbing sometimes into 
the horizon, or again sharply defined against it ; 
often it resembles a milky river flowing between 
banks of mud. The surface is rarely lustrous, but 

P 225 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

of a velvety texture, like a banded agate, mouse- 
colour or liver-tinted, with paler streaks in between, 
o£ the dead whiteness of a sheet of paper ; now and 
again there flash up livid coruscations that glister 
awhile like enamel or burnished steel, and then fade 
away. These are the fields of virgin salt which, 
when you cross them, are bright as purest Alpine 
snow, and may blind you temporarily with their 
dazzling glare. Viewed from these uplands, however, 
the ordered procession of horizontal bars stretching 
into infinity, their subdued coloration, fills the mind 
with a wave of deep peace. 

Walking from Nefta to the Chott, you will reach, 
on the burning plain, a maraboutic shrine that 
might serve as an asylum for some conscience- 
stricken, malaria-proof penitent. They go well to- 
gether, maraboutism and the Chott — two factors 
that make for barrenness in man and nature. 

And Nefta is full of such shrines. Another one, 
for example, has been built into the very heart of 
the rustUng palm forest ; the water glides under its 
walls wherein sits the aged impostor who, unlike his 
amiable colleague at Tozeur, is too holy even to 
speak to unbelievers (you are permitted to gaze 
upon him through a grated window). Yet another 
one is the humble Sidi Murzouk, the negroes' sanctu- 
ary, among the sand-hills on the middle heights. 

226 









O 



n 




THE DISMAL CHOTT 

These are three representative types o£ a hundred, 
at least. 

It is hard to say why the French foster these Arab 
maraboutic tendencies as opposed to the saner 
ideals of the Berber stock ; perhaps they think it 
politic to arabize the older race in this and a few 
other particulars, though it signifies, almost in- 
variably, a retrograde movement of civilization. 

Of these pious folk the paradox is true that the 
best are the worst ; those, that is, who do not ex- 
pose themselves to ridicule or adverse criticism, 
whose good intentions are self-evident, who carry 
out to the letter the apostolic injunction of clothing 
the naked, feeding the hungry, and succouring the 
distressed. It is they who pander to all the worst 
qualities of the Arabs, improvident and incorrigible 
loafers, besides affording an asylum to every criminal; 
their zaouiahs, like our own mediaeval convents, are 
often enough mere menageries of deformed minds 
and bodies. As for the much-vaunted calm to 
be found within their walls, it is there, to be sure, 
together with certain other things — there and no- 
where else, since the frantic religious passions, of 
which such monastic institutions are offshoots, have 
made peaceable living outside their walls an im- 
possibility. 

In a land where no one reads or writes or thinks 

227 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

or reasons, where dirt and insanity are regarded as 
marks o£ divine favour, how easy it is to acquire a 
reputation for hoHness — (oral tradition alone can 
make a saint) — to turn the god-habit of your feUow- 
creatures into a profitable source of revenue : as easy 
as it was in Europe, in the days when we cherished 
such knaves and neurotic dreamers. Some of them 
are simple epileptics, verminous and importunate ; 
others, shrewd worldly rogues who, having run away 
from home after a fit of discontent or homicide, 
cruise vaguely about Islamism for half a lifetime, 
and at last return, bearded venerables, to be stared 
at by their kinsfolk as portents, heaven-sent, be- 
cause they have freighted themselves with a cargo 
of fond maxims such as " The World is Illusion : all 
Flesh is Vanity," and similar gnomic balderdash, the 
wisdom of the unlettered. 

No wonder they despise what they call the world. 
For the real world, the cosmos of rational thought 
and action, has never existed for them. At Tangier, 
Mecca, Jerusalem or Timbuctu, they have sat 
eternally in the same coffee-houses or mosques, and 
listened eternally to the same theological chatter- 
ings ; which accounts for a certain " family like- 
ness " between all of these mentally starved crea- 
tures, who are nevertheless favoured of Allah so 
far as bodily comforts are concerned, inasmuch 

228 



THE DISMAL CHOTT 

as (if they play their cards correctly) money, wives, 
and lands pour down upon them till, in old age, 
they become so fuddled with homage and holy 
mumblings that they themselves cannot exactly 
remember whether they are humbugs or not : this, 
I take it, must be the culminating point, the dernier 
mot, of maraboutic enlightenment. 

And beside these ten thousand impromptu saints 
that spring up daily out of the fertile soil of Arab 
imagination and poverty, every one of the descen- 
dants of Mahomet's daughter is a marabout, and 
aU their children, male and female, in stscula 
seeculorum. 

God alone, who numbers the stars, can keep count 
of their legions. 



229 



Chapter XXIII 

THE GARDENS OF NEFTA 

A PERSON unacquainted with tropical 
vegetation would be amazed at the 
prodigality of the oasis of Nefta ; in 
point of exuberance it is as superior to 
Tozeur as that to Gafsa. But the cathedral-like 
gravity of Tozeur is lacking ; there is too nauch riot 
and opulence, too many voluptuous festoons and 
spears and spirals, a certain craving, so to speak, 
after the purely ornate : if Tozeur represents the 
decorative style of Louis Quatorze, this is assuredly 
Louis Seize. One great drawback is that the thick 
undergrowth often obstructs the view ; and another, 
that you cannot walk about in all directions, as at 
Tozeur, because there is too much running water — 
perhaps one should say too few paths and bridges. 
For the last two days a sand-storm of unusual 
violence has been raging. On the ridges above the 
town one can hardly stand on one's feet ; the grains 
fly upwards, over the crest of the hill, in blinding 
showers, mighty squadrons of them careering across 

230 



THE GARDENS OF NEFTA 

the plain below. The landscape is involved in a 
dim, roseate twilight. But occasionally there comes 
a sickly radiance from behind the curtain of cloud 
that glimmers lustreless, like an incandescent lamp 
seen through a fog : it is the sun shining brightly 
in the pure regions of the upper air. 

Here, under the trees, the wind is scarce felt, 
though you can perceive it by the fretful clashing 
of the palm branches overhead. And despite the 
storm there is a strange hush in the air, the hush of 
things to come, a sense of uneasiness ; spring is 
upon us, buds are unfolding and waters draw up 
forcefully from a soil which seems to heave under 
one's very feet. It is a moment of throbbing in- 
tensity. 

And the scirocco moans to these pangs of elemental 
gestation which man, the creature of earth, still 
darkly feels within him. 

The ground is cultivated with mathematical 
parsimoniousness and divided into squares which 
made me think of the Roman agrimensores. But 
concerning this point, a civilized old native told me 
the following legend. Long ago, he said, these 
oases were wild jungles, and the few human crea- 
tures who lived near them little better than beasts. 
Then came a wise man who cut up and ploughed 
the watery district of Gafsa, Tozeur and Nefta ; 

231 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

he planted trees and all the other growths useful to 
mankind ; he divided the land into patches, led 
the water through them, and apportioned them 
among certain families — in short, he gave these 
oases their present shape, and did his work so well 
that up to this day no one has been able to suggest 
any improvements or to quarrel with his arrange- 
ment. The story interested me ; it may be a variant 
of the old Hercules myth — it shows how much the 
Arabs, with their veneration for past heroes and 
prophets, and their sterile distrust in the possibility 
of any kind of progress, wiU believe.^ 

Yet the deglat palms which grow here in great 
abundance — the finest in the world — with their 
lower leaves pendent, sere and yellow ; the figs, 
lemons, apricots and pomegranates clustering in 
savage meshes of unpruned boughs among which 
the vine, likewise unkempt, writhes and clambers 

* It shows, also, that one cannot be too careful what one writes. 
I will take this little credit to myself, that, unconvinced of my own 
explanation, I made further enquiries and learned that — allowing 
for the inevitable exaggeration — the man actually existed ! His 
name was Ibn Shabbath ; he was a kind of engineer-topographer 
who lived about the thirteenth century ; he wrote a commentary, 
in three volumes, on some well-known Arabic geographical poem — 
a commentary which exists only in a few manuscript copies, one of 
which is preserved at the Grand Mosque in Tunis, and another, I 
am told, in the library of Monsieur de Fleury. 

232 




Marabout in the Nefta Gardens 



THE GARDENS OF NEFTA 

liana-fashion, in crazy convolutions — all these things 
conspire to give to certain parts of the oasis, not- 
withstanding its high cultivation, a bearded, pri- 
meval look. The palms, particularly the young ones, 
are assiduously tended and groomed by half-naked 
gardeners who labour in the moist earth by relays, 
day and night. 

What nights of brooding stillness in summer, 
under the palms, when those leaves hang motionless 
in the steaming vapour as though carved out of 
bronze, while the surrounding desert exhales the 
fiery emanations of noontide, often 135 degrees in 
the shade. For the heat of Nefta is hellish. One 
might think that the inhabitants, whom Bertholon 
holds to be descendants, somewhat remote, of the 
old marrow-sucking, grandmother-devouring Nean- 
derthal folk, would have become placid by this time ; 
that aU harshness must have been boiled out of 
them. Far from it ! The faces that one sees are 
less friendly than those at Tozeur, and they were 
noted, in former days, for their vehemence in 
religious matters. I am sorry to hear it, but not 
surprised. The arts and other fair flowerings of the 
human mind may succumb to fierce climates, but 
theological zeal is one of those things which no 
extremes of temperature can subdue ; it thrives 
equally well at the Poles or Equator, like that 

233 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

" Brown or Hanoverian rat " which Charles Water- 
ton — a glorious old zealot himself — so cordially 
detested. 

There are eight Europeans here, and thirteen 
thousand natives : I should not care to be in Nefta 
on the day when the Senoussi are to realize their 
long-deferred hopes. All the same, it is a relief 
not to hear the eternal gossip of employes or to see 
the soldiers loitering at street corners, like dressed- 
up chimpanzees. The better class of natives are 
sometimes of an astonishing immaculate cleanliness 
from head to foot ; they are often remarkably 
handsome. The traveller Temple was struck, at 
Nefta, with the beauty of its " desart nymphs, 
whose eyes are all fire and brilliancy," and he might 
have said the same of the boys. 

But I observe a defect in the eyes of all Arabs, 
namely, that they seem to be unable to utilize them 
as a means of conveying thoughts ; they have no 
eye language, even among each other, and must 
express by words or by some gesture what other 
people can make clear with a glance. The best- 
looking youth or maiden has eyes which, beautiful 
as they are, might be those of a stuffed cow for all 
the expression they emit. They cannot even 
wink. 

From the rising ground at the back of Nefta you 
234 



THE GARDENS OF NEFTA 

look down into a circular vale of immoderate plant- 
luxuriance, a never-ending delight of the eye ; the 
French call it by the appropriate name of " la 
corbeille." Here the springs issue — 152 of them — 
from under steep walls of sand ; they form glad 
pools of blue and green that mirror the foliage with 
impeccable truthfulness and then, after coursing in 
distracted filaments about the " corbeiUe," join 
their waters and speed downhiU towards the oasis, 
a narrow belt of trees running along either side. 
This marvellous palm-embroidered rift sunders 
Nefta, seated on the arid sand-hills overhead, into 
two distinct towns or settlements. The eye follows 
the stream as far as the low-lying plantations and 
into the Chott beyond, resting at last upon the 
violet haze of its mysterious southern shores. 

Visible from here are also certain mounds at the 
eastern extremity of the oasis, near the Chott ; they 
are marked on the map as " ruins of Zafrana." 
What this Zafrana was, or how it comes to have a 
name resembling that of a small Sicilian village, I 
cannot teU ; thither, at all events, I bent my steps, 
having heard that ancient coins, as well as lamps, 
had been found here. So far as I can make out 
there is only pottery on this site, and none of it pre- 
Mohammedan ; if a city ever stood here it has been 
completely entombed, or torn into shreds by the 

23s 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

wind, the flying sands, and the heat. Nefta itself, 
built of soft loam, would crumble away in briefest 
time if left unrepaired. The acute Guerin was not 
more successful than myself at Zafrana, nor was 
Maltzan. 

This being the most exposed corner of the oasis, 
the tabias have grown to a fine size ; I climbed over 
the inner one, which must be ten yards high and at 
least twenty in breadth. From its summit one per- 
ceives distant forms of ruinous buildings rising up 
in the Tozeur direction, on the slope which inclines 
to the Chott. Was this, perhaps, Zafrana ? 

No. Riding up to them, I found they were 
merely turret-like eminences of hard bluish clay, 
the carapace of the desert, which the wind has 
carved into quaint semblances of human dwellings. 
In the evening light they catch the last rays of the 
sun and shine like diaphanous spectres upon the 
darkened ground, but at sunrise, when the yellow 
sands sparkle with light, they tower up grim and 
menacing : a mournful, ghoul-haunted region, like 
those veritable townships of the past, Dougga, 
Timgad and the rest of them, standing all forlorn 
in their African desolation. 

Whoever has visited such sites will understand the 
impression they conveyed to men of simpler ages. 
He will reahze how they must have inflamed the 

236 



THE GARDENS OF NEFTA 

phantasy of those wandering mediaeval Arabs who 
could make no distinction, in this respect, between 
the works of man and those of nature, nor bring 
themselves to believe that such titanic structures 
were reared by human hands or for any human pur- 
pose — ^were otherwise than an illusion, or a natural 
incongruity. That amphitheatre of El-Djem, for 
example, visible for leagues in the solitude around — 
what more apt to become a true mountain of 
wondrous shape, the haunt of some Ifrit im- 
prisoned in its cup or soaring thence, a pillar of 
cloud, into the zenith ? 

These are the ruins whose report was carried to 
Bagdhad by those early caravan traders, and there 
woven into the flowery tapestries of the " Arabian 
Nights " — nightmare cities, rising like an enchant- 
ment out of the desert sand ; bereft of the voices 
and footsteps of men, but teeming with hoarded 
treasure and graven images of gods that gaze down, 
inscrutable and sternly resplendent, upon the wan- 
derer who, stumbling fearfully through a labyrinth 
of silent halls, suddenly encounters, in demon- 
guarded chamber, some ensorceUed maiden, frozen 
to stone. 



237 



Chapter XXIV 

NEFTA AND ITS FUTURE 

THERE are cities in the East where, from 
ramparts that support fairy-like palaces 
— complicated assemblages of courts and 
plashing fountains and cool chambers 
through which the breeze wanders in an artificial 
twilight of marble screens pierced so craftily, one 
might think them a flowing drapery of lace-work — 
where, from such wizard creations of Oriental 
pomp, you glance down and behold, stretched at 
your feet, a burning waste of sand. A fine incentive 
to the luxurious imagination of a tyrant, this con- 
trast, that has all the glamour of a dream. . . . 

But such abrupt transitions are not the rule. 
Midway between the pulsating town-life and the 
desert there lies, mostly, a sinister extra-mural 
region, a region of gaping walls and potsherds, 
where the asphodel shoot up to monstrous tufts 
and the fallacious colocynth, the wild melon, 
scatters its globes of bitter gold. For it is in the 
nature of Orientals that their habitations should 

238 



NEFTA AND ITS FUTURE 

surround themselves with a girdle' of corrupting 
things, gruesome and yet fascinating : a Browning 
might have grown enamoured of its macabre spell. 

No European cares to linger about these pre- 
cincts after dusk ; here lie the dead, in thick-strewn 
graves ; here the jackal roams at night — it thrusts 
its pointed snout through the ephemeral masonry 
of townsmen's tombs or scratches downward within 
the ring of stones that mark some poor bedouin's 
corpse, to take toll of the carrion horrors beneath ; 
so you may find many graves rifled. And if you 
come by day you will probably see, crouching 
among the ruins, certain old men, pariahs, animated 
lumps of dirt and rags. They are so uncouth and 
unclean, so utterly non-human, that one wonders 
whether they are really of the sons of Adam, and 
not rather goblins, or possibly some freak, some ill- 
natured jest on the part of the vegetable or mineral 
kingdoms. Day after day they come and burrow 
for orts among the dust-heaps, or brood motionless 
in the sunshine, or trace cabalistic signs with their 
fingers in the sand — the future, they tell you, can 
be unriddled out of its cascade-like movements. 

It is one of the complaints of sentimentalists that 
thfe French are abolishing these picturesque Arab 
cemeteries in Tunisia ; combining firmness with a 
great deal of tact, they insidiously appropriate these 

239 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

sanctified premises and deck them with timber as 
a solace for coming generations. Let them go ! 
The undiluted Orient is still wide enough ; and no 
one will appreciate the metamorphosis more than 
the native citizens themselves, who love, above all 
things, to play about and idle in the shade of trees ; 
perhaps, in the course of time, they will realize that 
not only Allah, but also man, is able to plant and 
take care of them. Your Arab often has a love of 
nature which is none the worse for being wholly 
unconscious. 

At Nefta there is no impure region, properly so 
called. The searching sunbeams and the winds are 
inimical to all the lush concomitants of decay ; the 
sand also plays its part ; so every dead dog, and 
every dead camel, arrests the flying grains and is 
straightway interred — transformed into a hillock, 
trivial but sanitary. 

There are tombs, of course, tombs galore ; but 
what strikes one most are the numerous shrines 
erected to saints alive or dead, of which I have 
already spoken. 

You will do well to visit the Christian cemetery. 
It lies on an eminence above the town and is almost 
buried under deep waves of sand, which have risen 
to the summit of the surrounding walls and drowned 
the three graves, all but their tall stones that 

240 







A Beggar 



NEFTA AND ITS FUTURE 

emerge above the flood. One of them is that of a 
controlleur of the district who died at his post while 
combating a cholera epidemic — there may be more 
of them, for aught I know, submerged beneath the 
drift. 

It is surely in the interests of French prestige to 
pay a few francs for the cleansing of such a place 
in a land where, as conquerors, they live on a 
pedestal and are to assert their superiority in every 
way. It will be long ere Arabs can appreciate 
French art and science, but they understand visible 
trifles of this kind, and, conversing with them, I 
have found that, like many simple-minded people, 
they are disposed to contrast unfavourably their 
own burial-grounds with our trim method of 
sepulture, which assures to the defunct a few more 
years of apparent respect, while flattering the 
vanity of the living. To a sensitive Christian this 
cemetery of Nefta must be a sad and a scandalous 
sight ; no humble nomad's tomb on the bleak hill- 
side is more neglected than these memorials to his 
fellow-believers who have died, far from their 
homes, under the flaming sun of Africa. 

From this point you can see the tail-end of the 
oasis. It lies in the Zafrana region, and is the worst 
nourished. This, I suppose, is inevitable ; the gar- 
dens must be continually moving — moving away 
Q 241 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

from the Chott towards their vital sources, which 
now lie under a respectable precipice o£ sand. It 
is hard to believe that the present site of the foun- 
tains is what one might call the natural, aboriginal 
one. I imagine that the cultivators, in the course 
of ages, must have tracked the element and followed 
it up, as a terrier will pursue a rabbit in its burrow, 
planting trees in proportion as they laid bare its 
once subterranean bed. Thus, the supply of liquid 
being constant, the oasis is impelled to wander in 
the direction of its springs ; the more you add to 
the head, the shorter grows the tail. In pre- 
historic days, maybe, the water gushed out some- 
where near the Chott ; the charming depression 
of the " corbeille " is perhaps the work of human 
hands. 

The same has struck me at Tozeur, which also 
marches horizontally away from its termination. 
An exquisite corbeille could be manufactured here ; 
all the elements are present ; it only requires a few 
thousand years of labour. And what are they, in a 
land like this ? 

And the oases are undergoing another and more 
curious progression — downwards. Strange to think 
that, while towns and villages rise higher every year, 
these gardens are slowly descending into the depths ; 
they are already far below the circumambient 

242 



NEFTA AND ITS FUTURE 

desert, though not so deeply sunk as the verdant, 
crater-like depressions o£ some parts of Africa. 
For it stands to reason that as the stream-beds be- 
come excavated more and more — and this is what 
has brought them to their present position — the 
groves must irrevocably follow suit, since water 
escapes at the lowest level, while trees cannot be 
suspended in air. Supposing the system of dams, 
which now force the liquid to keep to a certain 
plane, fell into disuse, how would it end ? 

The imagination of an Edgar Poe might picture 
these Nefta gardens as the reverse of those of 
Semiramis — sunk, that is, further into the profun- 
dities of the earth than the already existing Sahara 
plantations — ^with this difference, that here, to 
obviate infiltration from the ooze of the Chott, 
sturdy walls must enclose them. Ages pass, and 
still the groves descend, while the defences grow so 
stout and high that, viewed from above, the palms 
down there, in that deep funnel, look like puny 
vegetables, and men like ants. And still they de- 
scend. . . . One day the pale population engaged 
in tilling this shadowy paradise will be horrified to 
perceive, in their encircling bulwarks, rents and 
crevices that ooze forth ominous jets of mud. The 
damage is hastily repaired, but the cracks appear 
once more, and, widening imperceptibly at first, 

243 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

soon burst asunder and admit, from every side, a 
wrinkled flood of slime which closes with sullen 
murmur over the site of the drowned oasis. 

Or if the wells dried up ? One of those geo- 
logical displacements that have taken place in past 
times would suffice to wipe out the memory of this 
town — the palms would wither, the clay-built 
houses melt into the earth whence they arose. 

Meanwhile, perched on the last wave of an ocean 
of shining sand, Nefta sits in immemorial contem- 
plation of the desert and vividly green oasis which 
flows, like a grand and luminous river, into the very 
heart of its flat dwellings. There is a note of pas- 
sionate solemnity about the place. All too soon, I 
fear, the railway to Tozeur will have done its work ; 
dusty boulevards, white bungalows, eucalyptus trees 
and bureaux de monofoles will profane its strangely 
wonderful beauty, its virginal monotone of golden 
grey. Nefta will become a neurasthenic demi- 
mondaine, like Biskra. 

Such, at least, is the prognosis. 

But one is apt to forget on how precarious a 
tenure these gardens are held, with the hungry 
desert gnawing ceaselessly at their outskirts ; for 
the desert is hungry and yet patient ; it has de- 
voured sundry oases by simply waiting till man is 
preoccupied with other matters. And how rare 

244 



NEFTA AND ITS FUTURE 

they are, these specks of green, these fountains in 
the sand — rare as the smiles in a Hfetime of woe ! 
Beyond and all around lies a grave and ungra- 
cious land, the land of the lawless, fanatical wan- 
derers. 

Those Romans and heathen Berbers, tillers of the 
soil, had remained in contact with phenomena ; 
unconcerned, relatively speaking, with the affairs 
of the next world, they attained a passable degree 
of civilization in this one. But your pastoral Arab 
scorns a knowledge of general mundane principles. 
His life is a series of disconnected happenings which 
must be enjoyed or endured ; he is incapable of 
reading aright the past or present, because he asks 
himself why P instead of how ? Whoever despises 
the investigation of secondary causes is a menace to 
his fellow-creatures. 

Face to face with infinities, man disencumbers 
himself. Those abysmal desert-silences, those spaces 
of scintillating rock and sand-dune over which the 
eye roams and vainly seeks a point of repose, quicken 
his animal perception ; he stands alone and must 
think for himself — and so far good. But while dis- 
carding much that seems inconsiderable before such 
wide and splendid horizons, this nomad loads him- 
self with the incubus of dream-states ; while stand- 
ing alone, he grows into a ferocious brigand. Poets 
Q 2 245 



FOUNTAINS IN THE SAND 

call him romantic, but politicians are puzzled what 
to do with a being who to a senile mysticism joins 
the peevish destructivetiess of a child. 

It is an almost universal fallacy to blame the 
desert for this state of affairs ; to insinuate, for 
example, that even as it disintegrates the moun- 
tains into sand, so it decomposes the intellectual 
fabric of mankind, his synthesizing faculty, into its 
primordial elements of ecstasy and emotionalism. 
This is merely reaction : the desert's revenge. For 
we now know a little something of the condition of 
old Arabia and Africa in the days ere these ardent 
shepherds appeared on the scene, with their crude 
and chaotic monotheism. The desert has not made 
the Arab, any more than it made the Berber. It 
would be considerably nearer the truth to reverse 
the proposition : to say that the evils which now 
afflict Northern Africa, its physical abandonment, 
its social and economical decay, are the work of that 
ideal Arab, the man of Mecca. Mahomet is the 
desert-maker. 



246 



INDEX 

Ain Moulares, 152 
Aissouiyah, 68, 96 

Bagdhad, 237 

Bekri, geographer, 203 

Bertholon, 233 

Biskra, 196, 244 

Bled-el-Adher, see Tozeur 

Bordereau, Pierre, 13, 102, 113, 176 

Boulanger, General, 153 

Boujaja, 151, 163 

Bournu, 40 

Bruce, James, 180 

Cambon, M., 153 

Carthage, 43 

Chotts, the, 13, 53, 123, 224-6, 23s, 242-5 

— el Rharsa, 176, 220 

— Djerid, 193-5, 220 
Couillault, M., 24 

Desfontaines, 180 

Djerid, the, 13, 53, 95, 115, 119, 123, 183, 220 

247 



INDEX 

Dougga, 236 

Dufresnoy, M. Paul, 18, 44, 82-7, 89, 120-6, 141, 158-60, 



Eberhardt, Isabelle, 102 
Edrisius, 50 
El Djem, 217, 237 
El Hamma, 192-3 
Eloued, 196 



Faraoun, 223 

Feriana, 14, 16, 17, 21, 152, 180, 182 

Florentinus, Bishop, 216 



Gafsa, 13-147, 157, 167, 178, 180,182,183, 202,215,216, 

224, 230-1 
— MedaHill, 21, 27, 50, 53 
Gordian, Emperor, 217 
Guerin, 236 
Guifla, 191 



Henchir Souatir, 16, 152 



Jebel Assalah, 44, 47, 53, no 
Jebel Guettor, 23, 51 
Jebel Orbata, 37, 52 
Jebel Zitouna, 176 

248 



INDEX 



Kairouan, 53, 112 

Khroumiria, 178 

Kocher, M., 102 

Koken, Professor, 26, 53, 61 



Leila (Lalla), 105-8, 1 11, 118, 121 
Leo, John, 46 
Lesseps, Ferdinand de, 224 
Lucan, 167 



Majen, 17, 18 

Maknassy, 182 

Maltzan, 236 

Mayet, Valery, 191 

Melkarth, 43 

Metlaoui, 82, 83, 90, 95, 123-4, 140-54, 156-8, i6i, 165, 191, 

193. 203 
Mount Abu, 17 
Movers, 223 



Nefta, 13, 193, 220, 223, 224, 226, 230-44 
Nefzaoua, 183 



Orosius, 43 
Oudiane, 195-6 
Oued Baghara, 191 

Oued Baiesh, 24, 27, 52-4, 127, 132, 142 

249 



INDEX 



Phla, 223 
Ptolemy, 214 



Ras-el-Aioun, 165, 171 
Redeyeff, 152, 157 
Rogib (hill), III, 127 
Roudaire, 224 



Sallust, 47, 167 

Sbeitla, 15, 18, 44, 179, 180 

Seldja, gorge, 146, 147, 161-74, 184, 185, 189 

— water, 162, 175, 179 

Sfax, 14, 16, 20, 73, 90, 93, 105, 134, 141, 147, 182, 183 

Shaw, Thomas, 180, 223 

Sidi Ahmed Zarroung, 36, 50-6 

Sidi Mansur, 24, 53-6, 59, 112, 147 

Sidi Murzouk, 226 

Souf, 53, 183, 194, 196, 198 

Souk-el-Arba, 94 

Sousse, 14, 141, 183 

SufFetula, 15 



Temple, 234 

Thala, 124 

Thomas, M. Philippe, 152-4, 164, 186, 188-90 

Timgad, 236 

Tissot, James, 164, 223, 224 

250 



INDEX 

Tozeur (Tisouros), 13, 72, 73, 83, 191-220, 224, 230, 231, 

233.236, 242, 244 
Triton, lake, 223 
Tunis, 78, 134, 141, 183 



Udaipur, 17 

Zafrana, 235, 236, 241 



W. BRENDON AND SON, LTD., PRINTERS, PLYMOUTH 



Booty Awaited Advancing Russian Forces 










A column of trucks taken by the Keds near Degtevo, north of Mi)lerovo 

The New York Times, passed by Russian censor 




<?> 



FRENCH LINE YIELDS 
IN CE NTRAL TU NISIJS 

Continued From Page One 



level and had swept far beyoi| 
their targets by the time that the 
bombs burst. Fighting is still co^ 
tinuing in this area, with ligh 
bombers and fighters again hair, 
mering the German forces. ii 

Effort to Protect Rommel * 
The sharp German attack repre 
sents another effort to secure th 
flank of General Field Marshal Er 
win Rommel's army in the Maretl 
Line by winning high ground ti 
the north and west and keeping th 
Allied army off balance through ; 
series of limited offensives. 



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