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Modern History Sourcebook:
Edmondo de Amicis:
One Day in Morocco, c. 1870

WE made an early start for Zeggota, inspired by the thought that on that day we should behold the mountains of Fez in the distance. There was an autumnal freshness in the air, and a light mist obscured the surrounding country. A crowd of Arabs wrapped in their cloaks formed two wings at the entrance to the camp. The soldiers of the escort were huddled together in a close chilly group behind us, and the children of the neighboring duars gazed out with sleepy eyes from behind the tents and hedges. Erelong, however, all this changed, the sun came out, spectators crowded around us, the horsemen scattered in all directions, the air resounded with shouts and the rapid reports of firearms, and everything became suddenly bright, animated, full of life and color, while the autumnal cold was succeeded, as is always the case in that climate, by the burning heat of summer. Among my notes of that morning I find one which says laconically: "Grasshoppers, sample of Selam's eloquence." I remember, in fact, to have noticed a field some distance off that seemed to be in motion, an effect produced by an enormous number of green grasshoppers coming towards us in leaps. Selam, who happened to be riding beside me just then, gave me an admirably picturesque description of the incursions of those terrible insects, which I remember word for word; but how can I possibly render the effect of his gestures, his expression and the tones of his voice, which really told more than the words themselves. "It is frightful, Signor; they come from over there," pointing to the south, "like a black cloud; the noise is heard from afar. They come, they come, and at their head their sultan, the Sultan Jeraad, who leads them on; they cover the roads, the fields, houses, dears, forests. The cloud grows; larger and larger, on, on, on, gnawing and consuming; over rivers, over ditches, over walls, through fire; the grass is destroyed, the flowers, the leaves, the fruit, the grain, the bark of the trees; on and on, no one can stop them, not flaming tribes, not the Sultan with his army, not all the people of Morocco assembled together. Heaps of dead grasshoppers. Forward go the living. Do ten die? A hundred are born. Do a hundred die? A thousand are born. Such sights at Tangier! streets covered, gardens covered, seashore covered, sea covered, everything green, everything in motion; living, dead, decayed, offensive; a plague, a pestilence, a curse from God!"

And this is really so. The fetid odor arising from myriads of dead grasshoppers sometimes produces a contagious form of fever; and, to cite one instance, the terrible plague which in 1799 fairly depopulated both the towns and country of Bombay broke out just after one of their visitations. When the advance guard of the invading army appears the Arabs go forward to meet it, in parties of four or five hundred, with sticks, clubs, and firebrands, but only succeed in forcing the enemy to deviate somewhat from its course; and it occasionally happens that when one tribe drives them back thus from their own into the district of a neighboring tribe, the grasshopper war is converted into a civil war. The only thing that frees the country from this curse is a favorable wind; this blows them into the sea, where they drown and are swept up on the beach for days afterwards in great heaps. When the favorable wind still delays, the only possible consolation left the inhabitants is to eat their enemies; this they do before they have laid their eggs, boiling them and adding a seasoning of salt, pepper, and vinegar. They taste a little like seacrabs, and as many as four hundred can be eaten in a single day.

About two miles from camp we overtook that part of the caravan which was bearing Victor Emmanuel's presents to Fez. White camels were harnessed together, two by two, in tandem fashion, by long poles attached to either side of the saddle, from which swung the cases; they were in charge of some Arabs on foot and some mounted soldiers, and at their head was a wagon drawn by two oxen, the only wagon we had seen in Morocco! It had been especially made at El Araish upon the model, I should say, of the first vehicle that ever appeared on the earth's surface; squat, heavy, ill-formed, with wheels composed of solid blocks of wood, and the most curious and absurd-looking harness that could possibly be imagined. But to the inhabitants of the duars, most of whom had in all probability never seen a wheeled vehicle before, it was a marvel. They ran to behold it from all directions, pointed it out to each other, followed behind and walked in front of it with visible excitement. Even our mules, unaccustomed to the sight of such objects, showed great reluctance to pass it, some planting themselves stubbornly on their fore feet and others wheeling completely around. Selam himself regarded it with a certain complacency, as though saying, "That was made in our country"; and this was excusable, seeing that in all Morocco there are very likely no more wagons than pianos, which, if the estimate of a French consul is correct, would reduce the number to about a dozen. There seems, indeed, to be a certain antipathy to vehicles of every kind. The Tangier authorities, for example, forbade Prince Frederick, of Hesse-Darrnstadt, when he was there in 1839, to ride out in a carriage. The Prince wrote to the Sultan offering to have the principal streets paved at his own expense, provided the permission refused by the authorities were granted him. "I will grant it most willingly," replied the Sultan, "but upon one condition---that the carriage shall have no wheels, since as Protector of the Faithful I cannot permit my subjects to be exposed to the risk of being run over by a Christian." Whereupon the Prince, to turn the whole thing into ridicule, took him at his word, and there are people in Tangier now who remember seeing him going about the town in a carriage without wheels, suspended between two mules!

At last we reached that blessed hill for which for three days past the caravan had been looking with such longing impatience. After making a tedious ascent we passed through a narrow gorge called in Arabic, Ben Tinca, which we were obliged to take single file, and came out above a charming valley, flowery and solitary, into which the caravan descended in festive style, filling the air with shouts and burst of song. At the foot of the valley we came upon another body of soldiers belonging to the military colonies, come to relieve the first. There were a hundred of them, very old and very young, dark, long-haired, some of them mounted on enormous horses with housings of unusual splendor. Their kaid, Abou ben-Gileli, was a sturdy old man of severe aspect and curt manner, of whom, and of his soldiers, one might have said as Don Abbondio did of the anonymous leader and the assassins: "I can well understand that to control such faces as these nothing less is needed than such a face as that." Without so much as a glance at the fields of ripening wheat and barley that lined the road on either side, the soldiers urged their horses forward, and scattering in all directions on a full gallop, began the powder play, five and ten firing at a time into the air, wheeling to left and right, turning about in their saddles in every conceivable manner, and yelling all the while like demons. One of them whirled his gun around with such rapidity that it could hardly be seen; another, as he flew by, shouted in a tremendous voice, "Here comes the thunderbolt!" a third, whose horse had swerved a in little, came within a hair's breadth of landing in our midst and throwing us all to the ground with our heels in the air. At a certain point the ambassador and captain, accompanied by Hamed-ben-Kasen and a few soldiers, separated from the rest of the caravan and went off to make the ascent of a mountain a few miles away, while we continued our route. A few minutes later an incident occurred which I am not likely ever to forget.

A half-naked Arab boy, about sixteen or eighteen years old, came towards us, driving two recalcitrant oxen, by the aid of a heavy stick. The kaid, Abou-ben Gileli, stopped his horse and called him. We learned afterwards that the oxen were to have been attached to the wagon which we had passed not long before, and that they were several hours behind time. The unfortunate boy approached trembling, and stood before the kaid, who put some question to him I did not understand.

The lad stammered a reply and went white as death. "Fifty lashes," said the kaid curtly, turning to his men. Three powerful fellows at once leaped from their horses, and the poor wretch without waiting for them to lay hold of him, without uttering a single word, or so much as raising his eyes to the countenance of his judge, threw himself flat on his face, as the custom is, with arms and legs extended. All of this had transpired in an instant; but the stick had not been lifted in the air before the commander and some of the others, dashing into the midst of the group, had made the kaid understand that they could not think of permitting such a brutal punishment to be inflicted. Abou-ben-Gileli inclined his head and the boy arose, pale, with convulsed features, gazing alternately at his deliverers and the kaid with an expression of mingled fear and astonishment. "Go," said the interpreter, "you are free." "Ah!" he cried with an intonation that cannot be conveyed, and quick as lightning, disappeared. We proceeded on our way, but I must say that, although I have seen a man killed, I have never experienced such feelings of profound horror as when I beheld that half-naked boy stretched out on the ground to receive his fifty lashes; and after the horror of the thing my blood began to boil, and I denounced the kaid, the sultan, Morocco and its inhumanity in the most violent terms. It is, however, undoubtedly better to wait for second thoughts. "But how about ourselves?" I presently reflected. "How many years is it since we abolished whipping? And how many since it was abolished in Austria? and in Prussia? and throughout the rest of Europe?" These thoughts had the effect of somewhat curbing my righteous indignation, and I was left with only a strong feeling of bitterness. If any one cares to know how whipping is conducted in Morocco, suffice it to say that when the operation is completed it sometimes happens that the victim is carried to the cemetery.

During the remainder of the ride to Zeggota the caravan passed over a succession of hills and valleys, the road running between fields of wheat and barley and bright green pasture, bordered with aloes, Indian figs, wild olives, dwarf oaks, ivy, strawberry trees, myrtles, and flowering shrubs. Not a tent was in sight, not a living soul to be seen. The country was as luxuriant, silent, and deserted as an enchanted garden. Once on reaching the top of a certain hill we descried the blue summits of the Fez Mountains, which, however, immediately disappeared again as though they had merely raised their heads a moment to see us pass. In the hottest part of the day we arrived at Zeggota. This was one of the most exquisite spots we saw throughout the entire trip. The camp was pitched on the mountain-side, in a great rocky cavity, shaped like an amphitheater, and worn by the successive passage back and forth of man and beast into innumerable paths, one above the other, whose more or less regular lines had the effect of graduated seats, and as a matter of fact these tiers were at that very moment crowded with Arabs, who sat on the ground in semicircles, like spectators in some actual amphitheater. Below us lay a wide, basin-shaped plain, whose cultivated fields made it look like a huge checker-board, with squares of green, yellow, white, red, and purple silk and velvet. Looking through field-glasses we could see on the more distant hills here a row of tents, there a kubba half-hidden among the aloes; in one place a camel, beyond it an Arab lying on the ground, a herd of cattle, a group of women; sluggish, infrequent signs of life, that made one feel more forcibly than their entire absence would have done the profound peacefulness of the scene. Above all this loveliness a white, blazing, blinding sky, forcing one to bow his head and half-close his eyes.

But it is not so much the beauties of nature that make Zeggota an undying memory with me as a certain experiment I made there with kiff.

Kiff, let me say for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with it, is the leaf of a sort of hemp called hashish, celebrated throughout the East for its narcotic qualities. It is much used in Morocco, and it may generally be taken for granted that those Arabs and Moors, so frequently to be seen in the towns, gazing at the passers-by with dull, unseeing eyes, or dragging themselves along like persons stunned by a blow on the head, are victims of this pernicious plant. Most people smoke the kiff, mixed with a little tobacco, in tiny clay pipes, or it may be eaten in a form of confectionery, called madjun, made of butter, honey, nuts, musk, and cloves. The effects are very peculiar. Dr. Miguerez, who had tried it, had often told me of his experiences, recounting, among other things, how he was seized with an irresistible desire to laugh, and how he seemed to be lifted off the ground, so that in passing through a doorway, about twice his own height, he had bent his head for fear of striking it against the lintel. All of this so aroused my curiosity that I several times begged him to give me a little piece of madjun, just enough to make me see and feel some of these curious things without absolutely losing control of myself. The worthy doctor at first excused himself, saying that it would be better to make the experiment at Fez, where we would be more conveniently situated, but on my persisting he at length, a little unwillingly, handed me at Zeggota a plate on which lay the much-desired sweetmeat. We were seated at table: if I mistake not, both Ussi and Biseo took a little at the same time, but of its effect on them I have no recollection. The madjun was like a bit of paste, violet-colored and smelling like pomatum. For about half an hour, from the soup, that is, to the fruit, I felt nothing at all, and began to chaff the doctor about his fears, but he only smiled and said, "Wait, wait." And sure enough, as the fruit was put on the table the first symptoms of intoxication did begin to manifest themselves. At first they took the form of great hilarity and rapid talking; then I began to laugh heartily at everything I or anyone else said; every word that was uttered seemed to me the most exquisite witticism. I laughed at the servants, at the looks of my companions, at my chair as it tilted over, at the designs on the china, at the shapes of certain bottles, at the color of the cheese I was eating, until all at once, becoming conscious that I no longer had command of myself, I endeavored to think of something serious in order to regain my self-control. Remembering the boy who was to have been whipped that morning, I felt the greatest interest in him. I would have liked to take him back with me to Italy, to have him educated, to give him a career. I loved him like a son. And the kaid, Abou-ben-Gileli, poor old man. Kaid-Abou-ben Gileli? Why, I loved him too, like a father. And the soldiers of the escort! They were all good fellows, ready to defend us, to risk their lives in our behalf. I loved them like brothers. And then the Algerians! I loved them as well. "Why not?" I thought. They are of the same race as the Moroccans, and after all, what race is that? Are we not all brothers, made after one pattern? We should love one another. I love people, and I am happy, and I threw one arm around the doctor's neck, whereupon he burst out laughing. From this cheerful mood I fell all at once into a state of profound melancholy. All the people whom I had ever offended rose up before me. I recalled every pang I had caused those who loved me; was oppressed by feelings of remorse and unavailing regret; voices seemed to whisper in my ear in accents of affectionate reproach. I repented, begged for pardon; furtively brushed away the great tear which I felt trembling in the corner of one eye. Then a succession of strange, disconnected memories began to course wildly through my brain; long-forgotten friends of my childhood; certain words of a dialect I had not spoken for twenty years; women's faces; my old regiment; William the Silent; Paris; the editor Barbera; a beaver hat that I had worn as a child; the Acropolis at Athens; my bill at an inn in Seville; a thousand queer fancies. I have a vague recollection of seeing the company look at me smilingly. From time to time I would close my eyes and reopen them without knowing whether I had been asleep or no, whether minutes or hours had elapsed in the interval. Then a clear idea came into my head at last, and I began to speak.

"Once," I said, "I went to..." Where was it I went? Who went? It had all escaped me. Thoughts sparkled for an instant and expired like fireflies---crowded, mixed, confused. At one moment I saw Ussi with his head elongated, like the reflection in a bad mirror; the vice-consul with a face two feet wide; and the others tapered off, swelled out, contorted, like extravagant caricatures, making grimaces at me that were inexpressibly comic; and I laughed and wagged my head, and dozed, and thought that they were all crazy; that we were in another world; that nothing I saw was real; that I was not very well; that I did not know where I was; that it was getting strangely dark and silent---When I came to myself I was lying on my own bed in our tent, with the doctor seated beside me, holding a lighted candle and regarding me attentively. "There," said he, smiling, "it is over, but this must be the first and last time."


Source:

From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. III: Egypt, Africa, and Arabia, pp. 323-333.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998
halsall@fordham.edu