Edith Wharton

Harems and Ceremonies

I

THE CROWD IN THE STREET

To occidental travelers the most vivid impression produced by a first contact with the Near East is the surprise of being in a country where the human element increases instead of diminishing the delight of the eye.

After all, then, the intimate harmony between nature and architecture and the human body that is revealed in Greek art was not an artist’s counsel of perfection but an honest rendering of reality: there were, there still are, privileged scenes where the fall of a green-grocer’s draperies or a milkman’s cloak or a beggar’s rags are part of the composition, distinctly related to it in line and color, and where the natural unstudied attitudes of the human body are correspondingly harmonious, however hum-drum the acts it is engaged in. The discovery, to the traveler returning from the East, robs the most romantic scenes of western Europe of half their charm: in the Piazza of San Marco, in the market-place of Siena, where at least the robes of the Procurators or the gay tights of Pinturicchio’s striplings once justified man’s presence among his works, one can see, at first, only the outrage inflicted on beauty by the “plentiful strutting manikins” of the modern world.

Moroccan crowds are always a feast to the eye. The instinct of skillful drapery, the sense of color (subdued by custom, but breaking out in subtle glimpses under the universal ashy tints) make the humblest assemblage of donkey-men and water-carriers an ever-renewed delight. But it is only on rare occasions, and in the court ceremonies to which so few foreigners have had access, that the hidden sumptuousness of the native life is revealed. Even then, the term sumptuousness may seem ill-chosen, since the nomadic nature of African life persists in spite of palaces and chamberlains and all the elaborate ritual of the Makhzen, and the most pompous rites are likely to end in a dusty gallop of wild tribesmen, and the most princely processions to tail off in a string of half-naked urchins riding bareback on donkeys.

As in all Oriental countries, the contact between prince and beggar, vizier and serf is disconcertingly free and familiar, and one must see the highest court officials kissing the hem of the Sultan’s robe, and hear authentic tales of slaves given by one merchant to another at the end of a convivial evening, to be reminded that nothing is as democratic in appearance as a society of which the whole structure hangs on the whim of one man.

II

AÏD-EL-KEBIR

In the verandah of the Residence of Rabat I stood looking out between posts festooned with gentian-blue ipomeas at the first shimmer of light on black cypresses and white tobacco-flowers, on the scattered roofs of the new town, and the plain stretching away to the Sultan’s palace above the sea.

We had been told, late the night before, that the Sultan would allow Madame Lyautey, with the three ladies of her party, to be present at the great religious rite of the Aïd-el-Kebir (the Sacrifice of the Sheep). The honor was an unprecedented one, a favor probably conceded only at the last moment: for as a rule no women are admitted to these ceremonies. It was an opportunity not to be missed; and all through the short stifling night I had lain awake wondering if I should be ready early enough. Presently the motors assembled, and we set out with the French officers in attendance on the Governor’s wife.

The Sultan’s palace, a large modern building on the familiar Arab lines, lies in a treeless and gardenless waste enclosed by high walls and close above the blue Atlantic. We motored past the gates, where the Sultan’s Black Guard was drawn up, and out to the msalla, a sort of common adjacent to all the Sultan’s residences where public ceremonies are usually performed. The sun was already beating down on the great plain thronged with horsemen and with the native population of Rabat on mule-back and foot. Within an open space in the center of the crowd a canvas palisade dyed with a bold black pattern surrounded the Sultan’s tents. The Black Guard, in scarlet tunics and white and green turbans, were drawn up on the edge of the open space, keeping the spectators at a distance; but under the guidance of our companions we penetrated to the edge of the crowd.

The palisade was open on one side, and within it we could see moving about among the snowy-robed officials a group of men in straight narrow gowns of almond-green, peach-blossom, lilac and pink; they were the Sultan’s musicians, whose colored dresses always flower out conspicuously among the white draperies of all the other court attendants.

In the tent nearest the opening, against a background of embroidered hangings, a circle of majestic turbaned old men squatted placidly on Rabat rugs. Presently the circle broke up, there was an agitated coming and going, and someone said: “The Sultan has gone to the tent at the back of the enclosure to kill the sheep.”

A sense of the impending solemnity ran through the crowd. The mysterious rumor which is the Voice of the Bazaar rose about us like the wind in a palm-oasis; the Black Guard fired a salute from an adjoining hillock; the clouds of red dust flung up by wheeling horsemen thickened and then parted, and a white-robed rider sprang out from the tent of the Sacrifice with something red and dripping across his saddle-bow, and galloped away toward Rabat through the shouting. A little shiver ran over the group of occidental spectators, who knew that the dripping red thing was a sheep with its throat so skillfully slit that, if the omen were favorable, it would live on through the long race to Rabat and gasp out its agonized life on the tiles of the Mosque.

The Sacrifice of the Sheep, one of the four great Moslem rites, is simply the annual propitiatory offering made by every Mahometan head of a family, and by the Sultan as such. It is based not on a Koranic injunction, but on the “Souna” or record of the Prophet’s “custom” or usages, which forms an authoritative precedent in Moslem ritual. So far goes the Moslem exegesis. In reality, of course, the Moslem blood-sacrifice comes, by way of the Semitic ritual, from far beyond and behind it; and the belief that the Sultan’s prosperity for the coming year depends on the animal’s protracted agony seems to relate the ceremony to the dark magic so deeply rooted in the mysterious tribes peopling North Africa long ages before the first Phoenician prows had rounded its coast.

Between the Black Guard and the tents, five or six horses were being led up and down by muscular grooms in snowy tunics. They were handsome animals, as Moroccan horses go, and each of a different color; and on the bay horse was a red saddle embroidered in gold, on the piebald a saddle of peach-color and silver, on the chestnut, grass-green encrusted with seed-pearls, on the white mare purple housings, and orange velvet on the grey. The Sultan’s band had struck up a shrill hammering and twanging, the salute of the Black Guard continued at intervals, and the caparisoned steeds began to rear and snort and drag back from the cruel Arab bits with their exquisite niello incrustations. Someone whispered that these were His Majesty’s horses—and that it was never known till he appeared which one he would mount.

Presently the crowd about the tents thickened, and when it divided again there emerged from it a grey horse bearing a motionless figure swathed in blinding white. Marching at the horse’s bridle, lean brown grooms in white tunics rhythmically waved long strips of white linen to keep off the flies from the Imperial Presence; and beside the motionless rider, in a line with his horse’s flank, rode the Imperial Parasol-bearer, who held above the sovereign’s head a great sunshade of bright green velvet. Slowly the grey horse advanced a few yards before the tent; behind rode the court dignitaries, followed by the musicians, who looked, in their bright scant caftans, like the slender music-making angels of a Florentine fresco.

The Sultan, pausing beneath his velvet dome, waited to receive the homage of the assembled tribes. An official, riding forward, drew bridle and called out a name. Instantly there came storming across the plain a wild cavalcade of tribesmen, with rifles slung across their shoulders, pistols and cutlasses in their belts, and twists of camel’s-hair bound about their turbans. Within a few feet of the Sultan they drew in, their leader uttered a cry and sprang forward, bending to the saddle-bow, and with a great shout the tribe galloped by, each man bowed over his horse’s neck as he flew past the hieratic figure on the grey horse.

Again and again this ceremony was repeated, the Sultan advancing a few feet as each new group thundered toward him. There were more than ten thousand horsemen and chieftains from the Atlas and the wilderness, and as the ceremony continued the dust-clouds grew denser and more fiery-golden, till at last the forward-surging lines showed through them like blurred images in a tarnished mirror.

As the Sultan advanced we followed, abreast of him and facing the oncoming squadrons. The contrast between his motionless figure and the wild waves of cavalry beating against it typified the strange soul of Islam, with its impetuosity forever culminating in impassiveness. The sun hung high, a brazen ball in a white sky, darting down metallic shafts on the dust-enveloped plain and the serene white figure under its umbrella. The fat man with a soft round beard-fringed face, wrapped in spirals of pure white, one plump handon his embroidered bridle, his yellow-slippered feet thrust heel-down in big velvet-lined stirrups, became, through sheer immobility, a symbol, a mystery, a God. The human flux beat against him, dissolved, ebbed away, another spear-crested wave swept up behind it and dissolved in turn; and he sat on, hour after hour, under the white-hot sky, unconscious of the heat, the dust, the tumult, embodying to the wild factious precipitate hordes a long tradition of serene aloofness.

III

THE IMPERIAL MIRADOR

As the last riders galloped up to do homage we were summoned to our motors and driven rapidly to the palace. The Sultan had sent word to Mme. Lyautey that the ladies of the Imperial harem would entertain her and her guests while his Majesty received the Resident General, and we had to hasten back in order not to miss the next act of the spectacle.

We walked across a long court lined with the Black Guard, passed under a gateway, and were met by a shabbily dressed negress. Traversing a hot dazzle of polychrome tiles we reached another archway guarded by the chief eunuch, a towering black with the enameled eyes of a basalt bust. The eunuch delivered us to other negresses, and we entered a labyrinth of inner passages and patios, all murmuring and dripping with water. Passing down long corridors where slaves in dim greyish garments flattened themselves against the walls, we caught glimpses of great dark rooms, laundries, pantries, bakeries, kitchens, where savory things were brewing and stewing, and where more negresses, abandoning their pots and pans, came to peep at us from the threshold. In one corner, on a bench against a wall hung with matting, grey parrots in tall cages were being fed by a slave.

A narrow staircase mounted to a landing where a princess out of an Arab fairy-tale awaited us. Stepping softly on her embroidered slippers she led us to the next landing, where another golden-slippered being smiled out on us, a little girl this one, blushing and dimpling under a jeweled diadem and pearl-woven braids. On a third landing a third damsel appeared, and encircled by the three graces we mounted to the tall mirador in the central tower from which we were to look down at the coming ceremony. One by one, our little guides, kicking off their golden shoes, which a slave laid neatly outside the door, led us on soft bare feet into the upper chamber of the harem.

It was a large room, enclosed on all sides by a balcony glazed with panes of brightly-colored glass. On a gaudy modern Rabat carpet stood gilt armchairs of florid design and a table bearing a commercial bronze of the “art goods” variety. Divans with muslin-covered cushions were ranged against the walls and down an adjoining gallery-like apartment which was otherwise furnished only with clocks. The passion for clocks and other mechanical contrivances is common to all unmechanical races, and every chief’s palace in North Africa contains a collection of time-pieces which might be called striking if so many had not ceased to go. But those in the Sultan’s harem of Rabat are remarkable for the fact that, while designed on current European models, they are proportioned in size to the Imperial dignity, so that a Dutch “grandfather” becomes a wardrobe, and the box-clock of the European mantelpiece a cupboard that has to be set on the floor. At the end of this avenue of time-pieces a European double-bed with a bright silk quilt covered with Nottingham lace stood majestically on a carpeted platform.

But for the enchanting glimpses of sea and plain through the lattices of the gallery, the apartment of the Sultan’s ladies falls far short of occidental ideas of elegance. But there was hardly time to think of this, for the door of the mirador was always opening to let in another fairy-tale figure, till at last we were surrounded by a dozen houris, laughing, babbling, taking us by the hand, and putting shy questions while they looked at us with caressing eyes. They were all (our interpretess whispered) the Sultan’s “favorites,” round-faced apricot-tinted girls in their teens, with high cheek-bones, full red lips, surprised brown eyes between curved-up Asiatic lids, and little brown hands fluttering out like birds from their brocaded sleeves.

In honor of the ceremony, and of Mme. Lyautey’s visit, they had put on their finest clothes, and their freedom of movement was somewhat hampered by their narrow sumptuous gowns, with over-draperies of gold and silver brocade and pale rosy gauze held in by corset-like sashes of gold tissue of Fez, and the heavy silken cords that looped their voluminous sleeves. Above their foreheads the hair was shaven like that of an Italian fourteenth-century beauty, and only a black line as narrow as a penciled eyebrow showed through the twist of gauze fastened by a jeweled clasp above the real eye-brows. Over the forehead-jewel rose the complicated structure of the head-dress. Ropes of black wool were plaited through the hair, forming, at the back, a double loop that stood out above the nape like the twin handles of a vase, the upper veiled in airy shot gauzes and fastened with jeweled bands and ornaments. On each side of the red cheeks other braids were looped over the ears hung with broad earrings of filigree set with rough pearls and emeralds, or gold hoops and pendants of coral; and an unexpected tulle ruff, like that of a Watteau shepherdess, framed the round chin above a torrent of necklaces, necklaces of amber, coral, baroque pearls, hung with mysterious barbaric amulets and fetiches. As the young things moved about us on soft hennaed feet the light played on shifting gleams of gold and silver, blue and violet and apple-green, all harmonized and bemisted by clouds of pink and sky-blue; and through the changing group capered a little black picaninny in a caftan of silver-shot purple with a sash of raspberry red.

But presently there was a flutter in the aviary. A fresh pair of babouches clicked on the landing, and a young girl, less brilliantly dressed and less brilliant of face than the others, came in on bare painted feet. Her movements were shy and hesitating, her large lips pale, her eye-brows less vividly dark, her head less jeweled. But all the little humming-birds gathered about her with respectful rustlings as she advanced toward us leaning on one of the young girls, and holding out her ringed hand to Mme. Lyautey’s curtsey. It was the young Princess, the Sultan’s legitimate daughter. She examined us with sad eyes, spoke a few compliments through the interpretess, and seated herself in silence, letting the others sparkle and chatter.

Conversation with the shy Princess was flagging when one of the favorites beckoned us to the balcony. We were told we might push open the painted panes a few inches, but as we did so the butterfly group drew back lest they should be seen looking out on the forbidden world.

Salutes were crashing out again from the direction of the msalla: puffs of smoke floated over the slopes like thistle-down. Farther off, a pall of red vapor veiled the gallop of the last horsemen wheeling away toward Rabat. The vapor subsided, and moving out of it we discerned a slow procession. First rode a detachment of the Black Guard, mounted on black horses, and, comically fierce in their British scarlet and Meccan green, a uniform invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century by a retired English army officer. After the Guard came the standard-bearers and the great dignitaries, then the Sultan, still aloof, immovable, as if rapt in the contemplation of his mystic office. More court officials followed, then the bright-gowned musicians on foot, then a confused irrepressible crowd of pilgrims, beggars, saints, mountebanks, and the other small folk of the Bazaar, ending in a line of boys jamming their naked heels into the ribs of world-weary donkeys.

The Sultan rode into the court below us, and Vizier and chamberlains, snowy-white against the scarlet line of the Guards, hurried forward to kiss his draperies, his shoes, his stirrup. Descending from his velvet saddle, still entranced, he paced across the tiles between a double line of white servitors bowing to the ground. White pigeons circled over him like petals loosed from a great orchard, and he disappeared with his retinue under the shadowy arcade of the audience chamber at the back of the court.

At this point one of the favorites called us in from the mirador. The door had just opened to admit an elderly woman preceded by a respectful group of girls. From the newcomer’s round ruddy face, her short round body, the round hands emerging from her round wrists, an inexplicable majesty emanated; and though she too was less richly arrayed than the favorites she carried her head-dress of striped gauze like a crown.

This impressive old lady was the Sultan’s mother. As she held out her plump wrinkled hand to Mme. Lyautey and spoke a few words through the interpretess one felt that at last a painted window of the mirador had been broken, and a thought let into the vacuum of the harem. What thought, it would have taken deep insight into the processes of the Arab mind to discover; but its honesty was manifest in the old Empress’s voice and smile. Here at last was a woman beyond the trivial dissimulations, the childish cunning, the idle cruelties of the harem. It was not a surprise to be told that she was her son’s most trusted adviser, and the chief authority in the palace. If such a woman deceived and intrigued it would be for great purposes and for ends she believed in: the depth of her soul had air and daylight in it, and she would never willingly shut them out.

The Empress Mother chatted for a while with Mme. Lyautey, asking about the Resident General’s health, enquiring for news of the war, and saying, with an emotion perceptible even through the unintelligible words: “All is well with Morocco as long as all is well with France.” Then she withdrew, and we were summoned again to the mirador.

This time it was to see a company of officers in brilliant uniforms advancing at a trot across the plain from Rabat. At sight of the figure that headed them, so slim, erect and young on his splendid chestnut, with a pale blue tunic barred by the wide orange ribbon of the Cherifian Order, salutes pealed forth again from the slope above the palace and the Black Guard presented arms. A moment later General Lyautey and his staff were riding in at the gates below us. On the threshold of the inner court they dismounted, and moving to the other side of our balcony we followed the next stage of the ceremony. The Sultan was still seated in the audience chamber. The court officials still stood drawn up in a snow-white line against the snow-white walls. The great dignitaries advanced across the tiles to greet the General; then they fell aside, and he went forward alone, followed at a little distance by his staff. A third of the way across the court he paused, in accordance with the Moroccan court ceremonial, and bowed in the direction of the arcaded room; a few steps farther he bowed again, and a third time on the threshold of the room. Then French uniforms and Moroccan draperies closed in about him, and all vanished into the shadows of the audience hall.

Our audience too seemed to be over. We had exhausted the limited small talk of the harem, had learned from the young beauties that, though they were forbidden to look on at the ceremony, the dancers and singers would come to entertain them presently, and had begun to take leave when a negress hurried in to say that his Majesty begged Mme. Lyautey and her friends to await his arrival. This was the crowning incident of our visit, and I wondered with what Byzantine ritual the Anointed One fresh from the exercise of his priestly functions would be received among his women.

The door opened, and without any announcement or other preliminary flourish a fat man with a pleasant face, his djellabah stretched over a portly front, walked in holding a little boy by the hand. Such was his Majesty the Sultan Moulay Youssef, despoiled of sacramental burnouses and turban, and shuffling along on bare yellow-slippered feet with the gait of a stout elderly gentleman who has taken off his boots in the passage preparatory to a domestic evening.

The little Prince, one of his two legitimate sons, was dressed with equal simplicity, for silken garments are worn in Morocco only by musicians,boy-dancers and other hermaphrodite fry. With his ceremonial raiment the Sultan had put off his air of superhuman majesty, and the expression of his round pale face corresponded with the plainness of his dress. The favorites fluttered about him, respectful but by no means awestruck, and the youngest began to play with the little Prince. We could well believe the report that his was the happiest harem in Morocco, as well as the only one into which a breath of the outer world ever came.

Moulay Youssef greeted Mme. Lyautey with friendly simplicity, made the proper speeches to her companions, and then, with the air of the business-man who has forgotten to give an order before leaving his office, he walked up to a corner of the room, and while the flower-maidens ruffled about him, and through the windows we saw the last participants in the mystic rites galloping away toward the crenellated walls of Rabat, his Majesty the Priest and Emperor of the Faithful unhooked a small instrument from the wall and applied his sacred lips to the telephone.

IV

IN OLD RABAT

Before General Lyautey came to Morocco Rabat had been subjected to the indignity of European “improvements,” and one must traverse boulevards scored with tram-lines, and pass between hotel-terraces and cafés and cinema-palaces, to reach the surviving nucleus of the once beautiful native town. Then, at the turn of a commonplace street, one comes upon it suddenly. The shops and cafés cease, the jingle of trams and the trumpeting of motor-horns die out, and here, all at once, are silence and solitude, and the dignified reticence of the windowless Arab house-fronts.

We were bound for the house of a high government official, a Moroccan dignitary of the old school, who had invited us to tea, and added a message to the effect that the ladies of his household would be happy to receive me.

The house we sought was some distance down the quietest of white-walled streets. Our companion knocked at a low green door, and we were admitted to a passage into which a wooden stairway descended. A brother-in-law of our host was waiting for us: in his wake we mounted the ladder-like stairs and entered a long room with a florid French carpet and a set of gilt furniture to match. There were no fretted walls, no painted cedar doors, no fountains rustling in unseen courts: the house was squeezed in between others, and such traces of old ornament as it may have possessed had vanished.

But presently we saw why its inhabitants were indifferent to such details. Our host, a handsome white-bearded old man, welcomed us in the doorway; then he led us to a raised oriel window at one end of the room, and seated us in the gilt armchairs face to face with one of the most beautiful views in Morocco.

Below us lay the white and blue terrace-roofs of the native town, with palms and minarets shooting up between them, or the shadows of a vine-trellis patterning a quiet lane. Beyond, the Atlantic sparkled, breaking into foam at the mouth of the Bou-Regreg and under the towering ramparts of the Kasbah of the Oudayas. To the right, the ruins of the great Mosque rose from their plateau over the river; and, on the farther side of the troubled flood, old Salé, white and wicked, lay like a jewel in its gardens. With such a scene beneath their eyes, the inhabitants of the house could hardly feel its lack of architectural interest.

After exchanging the usual compliments, and giving us time to enjoy the view, our host withdrew, taking with him the men of our party. A moment later he reappeared with a rosy fair-haired girl, dressed in Arab costume, but evidently of European birth. The brother-in-law explained that this young woman, who had “studied in Algeria,” and whose mother was French, was the intimate friend of the ladies of the household, and would act as interpreter. Our host then again left us, joining the men visitors in another room, and the door opened to admit his wife and daughters-in-law.

The mistress of the house was a handsome Algerian with sad expressive eyes: the younger women were pale, fat and amiable. They all wore sober dresses, in keeping with the simplicity of the house, and but for the vacuity of their faces the group might have been that of a Professor’s family in an English or American University town, decently costumed for an Arabian Nights’ pageant in the college grounds. I was never more vividly reminded of the fact that human nature, from one pole to the other, falls naturally into certain categories, and that Respectability wears the same face in an Oriental harem as in England or America.

My hostesses received me with the utmost amiability, we seated ourselves in the oriel facing the view, and the interchange of questions and compliments began.

Had I any children? (They asked it all at once.)

Alas, no.

“In Islam” (one of the ladies ventured) “a woman without children is considered the most unhappy being in the world.”

I replied that in the western world also childless women were pitied. (The brother-in-law smiled incredulously.)

Knowing that European fashions are of absorbing interest to the harem I next enquired:

“What do these ladies think of our stiff tailor-dresses? Don’t they find them excessively ugly?”

“Yes, they do;” (it was again the brother-in-law who replied.) “But they suppose that in your own homes you dress less badly.”

“And have they never any desire to travel, or to visit the Bazaars, as the Turkish ladies do?”

“No, indeed. They are too busy to give such matters a thought. In our country women of the highest class occupy themselves with their household and their children, and the rest of their time is devoted to needlework.” (At this statement I gave the brother-in-law a smile as incredulous as his own.)

All this time the fair-haired interpretess had not been allowed by the vigilant guardian of the harem to utter a word.

I turned to her with a question.

“So your mother is French, Mademoiselle?”

“Oui, Madame.”

“From what part of France did she come?”

A bewildered pause. Finally: “I don’t know … from Switzerland, I think,” brought out this shining example of the Higher Education. In spite of Algerian “advantages” the poor girl could speak only a few words of her mother’s tongue. She had kept the European features and complexion, but her soul was the soul of Islam. The harem had placed its powerful imprint upon her, and she looked at me with the same remote and passive eyes as the daughters of the house.

After struggling for a while longer with a conversation which the watchful brother-in-law continued to direct as he pleased. I felt my own lips stiffening into the resigned smile of the harem, and it was a relief when at last their guardian drove the pale flock away, and the handsome old gentleman who owned them reappeared on the scene, bringing back my friends, and followed by slaves and tea.

V

IN FEZ

What thoughts, what speculations, one wonders, go on under the narrow veiled brows of the little creatures destined to the high honor of marriage or concubinage in Moroccan palaces?

Some are brought down from mountains and cedar forests, from the free life of the tents where the nomad women go unveiled. Others come from harems in the turreted cities beyond the Atlas, where blue palm-groves beat all night against the stars and date-caravans journey across the desert from Timbuctoo. Some, born and bred in an airy palace among pomegranate gardens and white terraces, pass thence to one of the feudal fortresses near the snows, where for half the year the great chiefs of the south live in their clan, among fighting men and falconers and packs of sloughis. And still others grow up in a stifling Mellah, trip unveiled on its blue terraces overlooking the gardens of the great, and, seen one day at sunset by a fat vizier or his pale young master, are acquired for a handsome sum and transferred to the painted sepulcher of the harem.

Worst of all must be the fate of those who go from tents and cedar forests, or from some sea-blown garden above Rabat, into one of the houses of Old Fez. They are well-nigh impenetrable, these palaces of Elbali: the Fazi dignitaries do not welcome the visits of strange women. On the rare occasions when they are received, a member of the family (one of the sons, or a brother-in-law who has “studied in Algeria”) usually acts as interpreter; and perhaps it is as well that no one from the outer world should come to remind these listless creatures that somewhere the gulls dance on the Atlantic and the wind murmurs through olive-yards and clatters the metallic fronds of palm-groves.

We had been invited, one day, to visit the harem of one of the chief dignitaries of the Makhzen at Fez, and these thoughts came to me as I sat among the pale women in their moldering prison. The descent through the steep tunneled streets gave one the sense of being lowered into the shaft of a mine. At each step the strip of sky grew narrower, and was more often obscured by the low vaulted passages into which we plunged. The noises of the Bazaar had died out, and only the sound of fountains behind garden walls and the clatter of our mules’ hoofs on the stones went with us. Then fountains and gardens ceased also, the towering masonry closed in, and we entered an almost subterranean labyrinth which sun and air never reach. At length our mules turned into a cul-de-sac blocked by a high building. On the right was another building, one of those blind mysterious house-fronts of Fez that seem like a fragment of its ancient fortifications. Clients and servants lounged on the stone benches built into the wall; it was evidently the house of an important person. A charming youth with intelligent eyes waited on the threshold to receive us: he was one of the sons of the house, the one who had “studied in Algeria” and knew how to talk to visitors. We followed him into a small arcaded patio hemmed in by the high walls of the house. On the right was the usual long room with archways giving on the court. Our host, a patriarchal personage, draped in fat as in a toga, came toward us, a mountain of majestic muslins, his eyes sparkling in a swarthy silver-bearded face. He seated us on divans and lowered his voluminous person to a heap of cushions on the step leading into the court; and the son who had studied in Algeria instructed a negress to prepare the tea.

Across the patio was another arcade closely hung with unbleached cotton. From behind it came the sound of chatter, and now and then a bare brown child in a scant shirt would escape, and be hurriedly pulled back with soft explosions of laughter, while a black woman came out to readjust the curtains.

There were three of these negresses, splendid bronze creatures, wearing white djellabahs over bright-colored caftans, striped scarves knotted about their large hips, and gauze turbans on their crinkled hair. Their wrists clinked with heavy silver bracelets, and big circular earrings danced in their purple ear-lobes. A languor lay on all the other inmates of the household, on the servants and hangers-on squatting in the shade under the arcade, on our monumental host and his smiling son; but the three negresses, vibrating with activity, rushed continually from the curtained chamber to the kitchen, and from the kitchen to the master’s reception-room, bearing on their pinky-blue palms trays of Britannia metal with tall glasses and fresh bunches of mint, shouting orders to dozing menials, and calling to each other from opposite ends of the court; and finally the stoutest of the three, disappearing from view, reappeared suddenly on a pale green balcony overhead, where, profiled against a square of blue sky, she leaned over in a Veronese attitude and screamed down to the others like an excited parrot.

In spite of their febrile activity and tropical bird-shrieks, we waited in vain for tea; and after a while our host suggested to his son that I might like to visit the ladies of the household. As I had expected, the young man led me across the patio, lifted the cotton hanging and introduced me into an apartment exactly like the one we had just left. Divans covered with striped mattress-ticking stood against the white walls, and on them sat seven or eight passive-looking women over whom a number of pale children scrambled.

The eldest of the group, and evidently the mistress of the house, was an Algerian lady, probably of about fifty, with a sad and delicately-modelled face; the others were daughters, daughters-in-law and concubines. The latter word evokes to occidental ears images of sensual seduction which the Moroccan harem seldom realizes. All the ladies of this dignified official household wore the same look of somewhat melancholy respectability. In their stuffy curtained apartment they were like cellar-grown flowers, pale, heavy, fuller but frailer than the garden sort. Their dresses, rich but sober, the veils and diadems put on in honor of my visit, had a dignified dowdiness in odd contrast to the frivolity of the Imperial harem. But what chiefly struck me was the apathy of the younger women. I asked them if they had a garden, and they shook their heads wistfully, saying that there were no gardens in Old Fez. The roof was therefore their only escape: a roof overlooking acres and acres of other roofs, and closed in by the naked fortified mountains which stand about Fez like prison-walls.

After a brief exchange of compliments silence fell. Conversing through interpreters is a benumbing process, and there are few points of contact between the open-air occidental mind and beings imprisoned in a conception of sexual and domestic life based on slave-service and incessant espionage. These languid women on their muslin cushions toil not, neither do they spin. The Moroccan lady knows little of cooking, needlework or any household arts. When her child is ill she can only hang it with amulets and wail over it; the great lady of the Fazi palace is as ignorant of hygiene as the peasant-woman of the bled. And all these colorless eventless lives depend on the favor of one fat tyrannical man, bloated with good living and authority, himself almost as inert and sedentary as his women, and accustomed to impose his whims on them ever since he ran about the same patio as a little short-smocked boy.

The redeeming point in this stagnant domesticity is the tenderness of the parents for their children, and western writers have laid so much stress on this that one would suppose children could be loved only by inert and ignorant parents. It is in fact charming to see the heavy eyes of the Moroccan father light up when a brown grasshopper baby jumps on his knee, and the unfeigned tenderness with which the childless women of the harem caress the babies of their happier rivals. But the sentimentalist moved by this display of family feeling would do well to consider the lives of these much-petted children. Ignorance, unhealthiness and a precocious sexual initiation prevail in all classes. Education consists in learning by heart endless passages of the Koran, and amusement in assisting at spectacles that would be unintelligible to western children, but that the pleasantries of the harem make perfectly comprehensible to Moroccan infancy. At eight or nine the little girls are married, at twelve the son of the house is “given his first negress”; and thereafter, in the rich and leisured class, both sexes live till old age in an atmosphere of sensuality without seduction.

The young son of the house led me back across the court, where the negresses were still shrieking and scurrying, and passing to and fro like a stage-procession with the vain paraphernalia of a tea that never came. Our host still smiled from his cushions, resigned to Oriental delays. To distract the impatient westerners, a servant unhooked from the wall the cage of a gently-cooing dove. It was brought to us, still cooing, and looked at me with the same resigned and vacant eyes as the ladies I had just left. As it was being restored to its hook the slaves lolling about the entrance scattered respectfully at the approach of a handsome man of about thirty, with delicate features and a black beard. Crossing the court, he stooped to kiss the shoulder of our host, who introduced him as his eldest son, the husband of one or two of the little pale wives with whom I had been exchanging platitudes.

From the increasing agitation of the negresses it became evident that the ceremony of tea-making had been postponed till his arrival. A metal tray bearing a Britannia samovar and tea-pot was placed on the tiles of the court, and squatting beside it the newcomer gravely proceeded to infuse the mint. Suddenly the cotton hangings fluttered again, and a tiny child in the scantest of smocks rushed out and scampered across the court. Our venerable host, stretching out rapturous arms, caught the fugitive to his bosom, where the little boy lay like a squirrel, watching us with great sidelong eyes. He was the last-born of the patriarch, and the youngest brother of the majestic bearded gentleman engaged in tea-making. While he was still in his father’s arms two more sons appeared: charming almond-eyed schoolboys returning from their Koran-class, escorted by their slaves. All the sons greeted each other affectionately, and caressed with almost feminine tenderness the dancing baby so lately added to their ranks; and finally, to crown this scene of domestic intimacy, the three negresses, their gigantic effort at last accomplished, passed about glasses of steaming mint and trays of gazelles’ horns and white sugar-cakes.

VI

IN MARRAKECH

The farther one travels from the Mediterranean and Europe the closer the curtains of the women’s quarters are drawn. The only harem in which we were allowed an interpreter was that of the Sultan himself; in the private harems of Fez and Rabat a French-speaking relative transmitted (or professed to transmit) our remarks; in Marrakech, the great nobleman and dignitary who kindly invited me to visit his household was deaf to our hint that the presence of a lady from one of the French government schools might facilitate our intercourse.

When we drove up to his palace, one of the stateliest in Marrakech, the street was thronged with clansmen and clients. Dignified merchants in white muslin, whose grooms held white mules saddled with rose-colored velvet, warriors from the Atlas wearing the corkscrew ringlets which are a sign of military prowess, Jewish traders in black gabardines, leather-gartered peasant-women with chickens and cheese, and beggars rolling their blind eyes or exposing their fly-plastered sores, were gathered in Oriental promiscuity about the great man’s door; while under the archway stood a group of youths and warlike-looking older men who were evidently of his own clan.

The Caïd’s chamberlain, a middle-aged man of dignified appearance, advanced to meet us between bowing clients and tradesmen. He led us through cool passages lined with the intricate mosaic-work of Fez, past beggars who sat on stone benches whining out their blessings, and pale Fazi craftsmen laying a floor of delicate tiles. The Caïd is a lover of old Arab architecture. His splendid house, which is not yet finished, has been planned and decorated on the lines of the old Imperial palaces, and when a few years of sun and rain and Oriental neglect have worked their way on its cedar-wood and gilding and ivory stucco it will have the same faded loveliness as the fairy palaces of Fez.

In a garden where fountains splashed and roses climbed among cypresses, the Caïd himself awaited us. This great fighter and loyal friend of France is a magnificent eagle-beaked man, brown, lean and sinewy, with vigilant eyes looking out under his carefully draped muslin turban, and negroid lips half-hidden by a close black beard.

Tea was prepared in the familiar setting; a long arcaded room with painted ceiling and richly stuccoed walls. All around were ranged the usual mattresses covered with striped ticking and piled with muslin cushions. A bedstead of brass, imitating a Louis XVI cane bed, and adorned with brass garlands and bows, throned on the usual platform; and the only other ornaments were a few clocks and bunches of wax flowers under glass. Like all Orientals, this hero of the Atlas, who spends half his life with his fighting clansmen in a medieval stronghold among the snows, and the other half rolling in a 60 HP motor over smooth French roads, seems unaware of any degrees of beauty or appropriateness in objects of European design, and places against the exquisite mosaics and traceries of his Fazi craftsmen the tawdriest bric-à-brac of the cheap department-store.

While tea was being served I noticed a tiny negress, not more than six or seven years old, who stood motionless in the embrasure of an archway. Like most of the Moroccan slaves, even in the greatest households, she was shabbily, almost raggedly, dressed. A dirty gandourah of striped muslin covered her faded caftan, and a cheap kerchief was wound above her grave and precocious little face. With preternatural vigilance she watched each movement of the Caïd, who never spoke to her, looked at her, or made her the slightest perceptible sign, but whose least wish she instantly divined, refilling his tea-cup, passing the plates of sweets, or removing our empty glasses, in obedience to some secret telegraphy on which her whole being hung.

The Caïd is a great man. He and his famous elder brother, holding the southern marches of Morocco against alien enemies and internal rebellion, played a preponderant part in the defense of the French colonies in North Africa during the long struggle of the war. Enlightened, cultivated, a friend of the arts, a scholar and diplomatist, he seems, unlike many Orientals, to have selected the best in assimilating European influences. Yet when I looked at the tiny creature watching him with those anxious joyless eyes I felt once more the abyss that slavery and the seraglio put between the most Europeanized Mahometan and the western conception of life. The Caïd’s little black slaves are well-known in Morocco, and behind the sad child leaning in the archway stood all the shadowy evils of the social system that hangs like a millstone about the neck of Islam.

Presently a handsome tattered negress came across the garden to invite me to the harem. Captain de S. and his wife, who had accompanied me, were old friends of the Chief’s, and it was owing to this that the jealously-guarded doors of the women’s quarters were opened to Mme. de S. and myself. We followed the negress to a marble-paved court where pigeons fluttered and strutted about the central fountain. From under a trellised arcade hung with linen curtains several ladies came forward. They greeted my companion with exclamations of delight; then they led us into the usual commonplace room with divans and whitewashed walls. Even in the most sumptuous Moroccan palaces little care seems to be expended on the fittings of the women’s quarters: unless, indeed, the room in which visitors are received corresponds with a boarding-school “parlor,” and the personal touch is reserved for the private apartments.

The ladies who greeted us were more richly dressed than any I had seen except the Sultan’s favorites; but their faces were more distinguished, more European in outline, than those of the round-cheeked beauties of Rabat. My companions had told me that the Caïd’s harem was recruited from Georgia, and that the ladies receiving us had been brought up in the relative freedom of life in Constantinople; and it was easy to read in their wistfully smiling eyes memories of a life unknown to the passive daughters of Morocco.

They appeared to make no secret of their regrets, for presently one of them, with a smile, called my attention to some faded photographs hanging over the divan. They represented groups of plump provincial-looking young women in dowdy European ball-dresses; and it required an effort of the imagination to believe that the lovely creatures in velvet caftans, with delicately tattooed temples under complicated head-dresses, and hennaed feet crossed on muslin cushions, were the same as the beaming frumps in the photographs. But to the sumptuously-clad exiles these faded photographs and ugly dresses represented freedom, happiness, and all they had forfeited when fate (probably in the shape of an opulent Hebrew couple “travelling with their daughters”) carried them from the Bosphorus to the Atlas.

As in the other harems I had visited, perfect equality seemed to prevail between the ladies, and while they chatted with Mme. de S. whose few words of Arabic had loosed their tongues, I tried to guess which was the favorite, or at least the first in rank. My choice wavered between the pretty pale creature with a ferronnière across her temples and a tea-rose caftan veiled in blue gauze, and the nut-brown beauty in red velvet hung with pearls whose languid attitudes and long-lidded eyes were so like the Keepsake portraits of Byron’s Haïdee. Or was it perhaps the third, less pretty but more vivid and animated, who sat behind the tea-tray, and mimicked so expressively a soldier shouldering his rifle, and another falling dead, in her effort to ask us “when the dreadful war would be over”? Perhaps … unless, indeed, it were the handsome octoroon, slightly older than the others, but even more richly dressed, so free and noble in her movements, and treated by the others with such friendly deference.

I was struck by the fact that among them all there was not a child; it was the first harem without babies that I had seen in that prolific land. Presently one of the ladies asked Mme. de S. about her children; in reply, she enquired for the Caïd’s little boy, the son of his wife who had died. The ladies’ faces lit up wistfully, a slave was given an order, and presently a large-eyed ghost of a child was brought into the room.

Instantly all the bracelet-laden arms were held out to the dead woman’s son; and as I watched the weak little body hung with amulets and the heavy head covered with thin curls pressed against a brocaded bosom, I was reminded of one of the coral-hung child-Christs of Crivelli, standing livid and waxen on the knee of a splendidly dressed Madonna.

The poor baby on whom such hopes and ambitions hung stared at us with a solemn unamused gaze. Would all his pretty mothers, his eyes seemed to ask, succeed in bringing him to maturity in spite of the parched summers of the south and the stifling existence of the harem? It was evident that no precaution had been neglected to protect him from maleficent influences and the danger that walks by night, for his frail neck and wrists were hung with innumerable charms: Koranic verses, Sudanese incantations, and images of forgotten idols in amber and coral and horn and ambergris. Perhaps they will ward off the powers of evil, and let him grow up to shoulder the burden of the great Caïds of the south.

(1920)

MLA Citation

Wharton, Edith. “Harems and Ceremonies.” 1920. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Mar 2015. 19 Sep 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/wharton/harems_and_ceremonies/>.

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