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Arabian Cousin

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“WHAT is that?” asked Hamid, who was awakened in the morning by the sound of a voice shouting, “Great is Allah!” He and Rashid were sleeping on the roof of the house, as city Arabs often do in the hot weather.

“That is the ‘Muezzin,’” replied Rashid. “Come to the parapet and you can see him.”

Rashid pointed to a tall, slender tower not far away. Near the top was a small balcony, on which a man was standing. He calls out these words every day at sunrise and sunset to remind the people that they must not forget to say their prayers. In a monotonous singsong voice he calls: “Great is Allah! there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet.” When the people hear this cry, they rise and say their prayers, always looking toward Mecca, the Holy City.

Hamid could see five of these long needle-like towers or minarets, and a great green dome, rising above the tree-tops not far away.

“That is the great Mosque,” said Rashid; “and we are going there to-day because —” but he got no further, for just at that moment a dozen or more pigeons came flying about him, fluttering their wings on his face and perching on his shoulders.

“Oh, what pretty birds! How tame they are!” said Hamid, stroking the smooth wings of one of the white doves.

“They are my pets,” said Rashid. “They come every morning to be fed. Let us give them their breakfasts.” Leading the way to the storeroom on the ground floor, he filled a basket with grain which he took from one of the great bags which were always stored there. Then they scattered the grain all about the courtyard in the centre of the house, to the great delight of the pigeons.


The little Bedouins were eager to see the city; and, of course, the first place that Rashid showed his friends was the great Mosque, as their church was called.

It was the same where Hamid had seen the “Muezzin” in the tower. This Mosque is very sacred to the Arabs, and they visit it at every opportunity, because it is the tomb of the great Arab Prophet Mohammed. When they reached the Mosque, they left their slippers outside, and, after saying a prayer or two, Rashid showed Hamid and Fatimah around the great building.

After this they walked down the long street that led from the Mosque to the great City Gate. Here were gathered all the shops. Such funny little shops! Nothing but little rickety wooden booths thatched with palm‑leaves, and very dingy and dirty. However, they contained many wonderful and curious things. The children marvelled at them all. There were great strings and bunches of pink, red, and white coral that is found on the rocks in the Red Sea, and there were ornaments and jewelry made of mother-of-pearl; as well as many kinds of strange weapons, whose handles were inlaid with pieces of this same glittering shell.

“Just look at that lamp,” said Hamid, “made from an ostrich’s egg,” as he stopped before one of the booths where the shells of the eggs of these big birds had been mounted in brass and silver and made into hanging-lamps, pipe-bowls, and vases.

Fatimah was very happy. She had found a booth where she could buy a pretty rose-coloured veil to replace the one she had lost in the desert.

In the shadow of the big City Gate a number of children were sitting weaving baskets and mats of palm-leaves.

“How easily she does it,” said Fatimah, as they stood watching one of the little girls plait the long strips of dry leaves into a pretty basket.

By the time our little party had walked up and down the long line of shops many times, they were quite ready to go home and rest in the balcony of the “majlis,” or parlour of the house. The children soon found that this balcony was a very cosy nook in which to sit because it hung out over the street, so that they might easily see everything which went on in the big, lively square.

The “majlis” itself, which extended back into the house, was a great big, bare room with a divan of cushions around the walls and a large rug covering the floor in the centre. There was no furniture except a low table in the middle, on which were the hubble-bubble pipes and a brass tray which held the coffeepot and cups. High up on the wall hung some swords and guns well out of the reach of the little folks.

Some days later Hamid was kneeling in the “majlis balcony and peeping out through the carved wooden lattice which enclosed the balcony on the street side, while Fatimah stood behind him looking over his shoulder. Suddenly Rashid put his head in at the door and exclaimed: “I have been looking everywhere for thee.”

Just come and look out on the square, Rashid; it is full of people and camels and horses, and tents are being put up all over it,” called out Hamid.

“It is the big caravan that comes from Damascus. They are the pilgrims on their way to the Holy City,” said Rashid, joining them on the balcony. “I was looking everywhere for thee to tell thee of it. Father says there are many thousands of the pilgrims.”

Such a bustle and scurrying about and noise as there was in the big square. Tents were being put up like magic, camels were being unloaded, and horses and donkeys and dromedaries were stamping around, and little children were tearing about everywhere and getting in the way, — for many of the pilgrims take their families with them.

“There are the tents of the Pacha, the chief of the caravan,” said Rashid, pointing to the big green tents with gold crescents on their tops. The Pacha’s tents occupied the chief place right in the middle of the square.

“The Pacha rides in a splendid litter swung between two beautiful horses, and those must be his dromedaries yonder with the rich trappings,” said Rashid, who could explain all this to his little companions, because each year he had seen the caravan arrive and depart, always with the same magnificence and splendour.

It is the religious duty of all good Mohammedans, as the followers of the Great Prophet are called, to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca, the capital city of Arabia, called the “Holy City.”

For this reason every year great caravans from far and near journey across Arabia carrying thousands of pilgrims to Mecca.

“See! see! I do believe there is Nawara,” cried Fatimah, “there, just by the big tent.”

“Yes, it is she,” said Hamid, “and there is the old merchant, too.”

With one accord the three children ran down into the square, dodging under camels and around tents, until at last they got to where Nawara was standing. The little girl was so astonished to see her friends of the desert that for a moment she could say nothing. Then she threw her arms around Fatimah, crying out how glad she was to see her again.


“But, Nawara, what are you doing here?” asked Fatimah.

“Grandfather is going to make the pilgrimage to the Holy City, and we are going with the caravan because it is safer,” said Nawara, in her little wise way. “Then, too, grandfather will be able to sell his wares to the pilgrims.”

The old merchant now joined them and was as pleased to see them again as was his little granddaughter. He had already put on the special dress that pilgrims wear, of white cloth with red stripes, and carried a big rosary of beads at his belt. When he told them that the caravan would stay there until the next day at evening, the children said that Nawara must stay with them until all was ready for the departure. So Nawara went to the great house with Fatimah. Later the old merchant came, too, and Rashid’s mother gave them a nice supper. They all sat around a big tray filled with good things to eat, while Nawara told the children of all that had happened to her since they had parted in the desert.

All the next day the young folks waited for the sound of the cannon, which was to be the signal for the caravan to start. Every few minutes one or the other of the boys would rush into the house, saying that the gun had gone off and the camels were going; but it proved each time a false alarm, and Fatimah had just told Nawara to make up her mind to stay another night when the old merchant’s servant came rushing in to say that the head of the caravan had already started and was just then passing out the great gate. So once more Nawara had to part from her kind little friends.

The children ran up on top of the house, and for a long time they could see the big caravan winding over the hills and through the plantations of palm-trees.

“Father, can’t we go out to the palm groves to-day to see the men gather the dates? Many of the children of the city are going,” begged Rashid.

“Yes,” said Rashid’s father. “I have no doubt but that all you young folks will be fighting together in no time, and there will be more stones gathered than dates. Remember what happened last week.” So saying, the Sharif sat back on the divan and took another pull at his long pipe.

Rashid hung his head and tried to look sorry; but his eye twinkled when he thought of the wild scrimmage with sticks and stones that had taken place between the boys of the town and the boys outside the walls. He had fought on the side of the city boys; and, of course, Hamid, though he was of the desert himself, sided with him. There was always great jealousy between these two clans of boys, and they were all the time carrying war into each other’s territory; but, after all, not much damage was done on either side beyond some bruised heads and a few broken sticks.

“Thou hast become quite a fighter since thy life in the ‘Black Tents,’” said his father; “but if Ali will go along to keep thee from getting into mischief, thou mayst go with thy little friends.” Ali said that he would go, and they ran to saddle their ponies.

“How am I to go?” asked Fatimah.

“Oh, thou canst ride with me,” said Hamid, like the good brother that he was; and Ali put her up on Zuleika behind Hamid. Away they trotted out of the great gate toward the large groves of palm-trees which surround Medina.

The road was lively with parties of children who, like themselves, were going to the palm groves; for it was the season when the Bedouin farmers cut down the great bunches of dates, and every one, especially the children, made a regular picnic of it. All the children of the city, apparently, were hurrying along, some on horseback and many more on foot, all bent on having a good time.

Just behind our young people came some children riding on donkeys, trying their best to make their little donkeys keep up with the desert ponies of the boys.

Hamid looked back at them and sang out:

“The riding of a horse is an honour to the rider
And joyful is his face;
But the mule is a dishonour
And the donkey a disgrace.”

Then Rashid began to laugh. This made the little donkey boys very angry. Off they jumped from their donkeys, and were picking up stones to throw at Rashid and his friends, while Ali threatened them with his stick.

“No wonder father sent me with you to look after you,” said Ali, shaking his finger at Hamid and Rashid as they rode on laughing, “if you are bound to get into mischief as early in the day as this.”

“But all the same no Bedouin boy would ride a donkey or a mule for anything,” said Hamid.

“That is quite true among you desert people,” said Ali; “but these town and farmer folk don’t care on what they ride so long as they do not have to walk.”

Now they had come to a large grove of palm-trees, and near one of the trees was a man standing with a rope in his hand.

“Let us stop here,” said Ali, calling out to Rashid; “there is a man going to climb up to the top of a tree now.”

The children jumped quickly off their horses and joined the group of people under the trees watching the man.

He had tied one end of the rope around his waist and had passed it around the slim trunk of the tree, attaching the other end also to his waist. With this rope holding him well up against the tree-trunk, he began to climb by holding on to the rough bark wherever he could get a hold for as much as one of his toes, at the same time bracing himself against the strong rope which held him.

“I should not like to do that,” said Rashid.

“I wonder that he does not get giddy and fall,” said Fatimah.

But the man went up easily, though he had a long way to climb. Like most date-palms, the tree was very tall, and the leaves and fruit all grew together on the very tip-top of the great stem or trunk. It was, as Hamid said, “just like the bunch of feathers on the end of his spear.”

When the man finally did reach the bunch of dates, it was quite a job to cut through the big stem, which was nearly as large around as his arm.

“Isn’t that a big bunch?” said Hamid, as the man lowered the great golden-coloured dates to the ground.

“Yes,” said Rashid, “but look, there must be some larger bunches still, for some are tied up to keep them from breaking off their stems.”

The women and children were collecting the gathered dates and packing them in skins and boxes and baskets to be sent away to the markets; but the dried dates that we so often eat are left much longer on the trees to ripen and grow sugary.

“Oh, Hamid, thou and Fatimah must have a ‘necklace of sham to wear! All the children have them!” said Rashid, who had been exploring the garden and had come running quickly back. “There is a woman making them now.”

The woman was threading dates on a string and then dipping them into boiling water so that they would keep their pretty golden colour. Then she put them aside in the sun to dry.

Rashid bargained with the woman for three of the necklaces at once.

“It brings one good luck to wear a necklace of the dates of Medina,” said the woman as she hung the strings of dates around the children’s necks; “and thou must not eat them as this naughty one here has just done.” She frowned at her own little girl, who stood by sobbing because her mother had just given her a box on the ear for eating half of her new necklace.

The children had a jolly time helping to pick the dates and pack them, though likely there was more play than work. And they all ate so many dates it was a wonder that they were not ill.

At sundown they rode back to the town, chaffing and laughing with everybody they met along the road. When they got home, hot and tired, Rashid’s mother gave them a lovely drink made of the juice of fresh pomegranates, cooled in the snowy ice which was brought down to the city each night from the neighbouring mountains.

“Do you know why the letter ‘O’ is on every date stone?” asked Rashid that evening as he and Hamid were sitting in the courtyard playing checkers with date stones, while Fatimah sat watching the progress of the game. They often occupied themselves thus in the cool of the evening after supper.

“I have never seen the ‘O,’ where is it?” asked Hamid, carefully looking at a date stone as if he was only seeing one for the first time.

“There it is,” said Rashid, who showed him a tiny round ring on one side of the date stone. “It is said that when our great Prophet first ate of the fruit of the date-palm, he exclaimed: ‘Oh! what a fine fruit!’  Ever since the letter ‘O’ has been found on every date stone.”

Hamid and Fatimah began looking closely at every date stone they could find; and, sure enough, on every one of them there was a tiny letter “O.” You will always find it there, too, if you look for it.

But the young people did not always play. In the early mornings and cool evenings Rashid and Hamid went to school in one corner of the great Mosque. Here the pupils sat in rows on mats, or lounged about on the floor. Before each pupil was a little wooden stand, on which lay a big book from which they shouted out their lessons in a loud voice. They made such a noise that one wonders how they could learn anything at all.

The other children called Hamid the little “Sheik and often they would forget all about lessons while they listened to his stories about the great desert. Meantime Fatimah was learning how to make many nice new dishes in the big kitchen at home, or she sat with her mother in the women’s part of the house, learning how to sew like little city girls.

But, in spite of these happy days spent by the desert folk with the “People of the Walls,” the little Bedouins began to long for the great wide desert and its life of freedom. Soon the end of their visit came; one day the little caravan could be seen making its way homeward to their own country far beyond the plain which came up to the city walls.

The first news that Hamid sent Rashid after he got home to the “Black Tents was about the robber chief. His band had paid a ransom for him and he had been given his liberty, after he had promised solemnly not to attempt to rob or kill again. You must know that a promise made in the “Black Tents” is never broken.

The interchange of visits between Hamid and Rashid occurred regularly each year. Rashid learned of the ways of the dwellers in the “Black Tents;” and gained in health and strength until even Hamid was not his superior in hunting or the rougher games of the plains. Hamid, on the other hand, learned of the life in the Great City, and profited much from the loving companionship of his little friend among the “People of the Walls.” Fatimah, too, shared in the happy visits and grew to be called “the beautiful daughter of the Sheik, wise with the wisdom of both desert and city.”


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