Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Day 112 of 240

Both sorts took the same direction in example, one vociferously, the other by implication. Each assumed the Englishman a chosen being, inimitable, and the copying him blasphemous or impertinent. In this conceit they urged on people the next best thing. God had not given it them to be English; a duty remained to be good of their type. Consequently we admired native custom; studied the language; wrote books about its architecture, folklore, and dying industries. Then one day, we woke up to find this chthonic spirit turned political, and shook our heads with sorrow over its ungrateful nationalism–truly the fine flower of our innocent efforts.

The French, though they started with a similar doctrine of the Frenchman as the perfection of mankind (dogma amongst them, not secret instinct), went on, contrarily, to encourage their subjects to imitate them; since, even if they could never attain the true level, yet their virtue would be greater as they approached it. We looked upon imitation as a parody; they as a compliment.

Next day, in the early heat, we were near Guweira, comfortably crossing the sanded plain of restful pink with its grey-green undergrowth, when there came a droning through the air. Quickly we drove the camels off the open road into the bush-speckled ground, where their irregular colouring would not be marked by the enemy airmen; for the loads of blasting gelatine, my favourite and most powerful explosive, and the many ammonal-filled shells of the Stokes’ gun would be ill neighbours in a bombing raid. We waited there, soberly, in the saddle while our camels grazed the little which was worth eating in the scrub, until the aeroplane had circled twice about the rock of Guweira in front of us, and planted three loud bombs.

We collected our caravan again on the path and paced gently into camp. Guweira was thronged with life, and a mart for the Howeitat of both hills and highlands. As far as the eye reached the plain was softly moving with herded camels, whose multitude drained the near water-holes each morning before dawn, so that late risers must travel many miles to drink.

This was little matter, for the Arabs had nothing to do but wait for the morning aeroplane; and after its passing, nothing but talk to kill time till night was full enough for sleep. The talk and leisure were too plentiful and had revived old jealousies. Auda was ambitious to take advantage of our dependence on his help to assort the tribes. He drew the bulk-wages for the Howeitat; and, by the money, sought to compel the smaller free-sections to his leadership.

They resented it, and were threatening either to retire into their hills or to re-open touch with the Turks. Feisal sent up Sherif Mastur as mediator. The thousands of Howeitat, in hundreds of sections, were uncompromising, hard-headed, greedy land-lawyers. To hold them content without angering Auda was task delicate enough for the most fastidious mind. Also, it was one hundred and ten degrees in the shade, and the shade was a surge of flies.

The three southern clans on whom we had been counting for our raid were among the dissidents. Mastur spoke to them, the chiefs of the Abu Tayi spoke, we all spoke, without effect. It seemed as though our plans were to break down at the start.

One day, going along before noon under the rock, Mastur met me with news that the southerners were mounting to desert our camp and movement. Full of vexation, I swung round into Auda’s tent. He sat on its sand-floor, feeding on boiled bread with his latest wife, a jolly girl, whose brown skin was blue with the indigo dye from her new smock. When I suddenly burst in, the little woman whisked away through the back-flap like a rabbit. To gain ground with him, I began to jeer at the old man for being so old and yet so foolish like the rest of his race, who regarded our comic reproductive processes not as an unhygienic pleasure, but as a main business of life.

Auda retorted with his desire for heirs. I asked if he had found life good enough to thank his haphazard parents for bringing him into it? or selfishly to confer the doubtful gift upon an unborn spirit?

He maintained himself. ‘Indeed, I am Auda,’ said he, firmly, ‘and you know Auda. My father (to whom God be merciful) was master, greater than Auda; and he would praise my grandfather. The world is greater as we go back.’ ‘But, Auda, we say honour our sons and daughters, the heirs of our accumulated worth, fulfillers of our broken wisdom. With each generation the earth is older, mankind more removed from its childhood . . .’

The old thing, not to-day to be teased, looked at me through his narrowed eyes with a benign humour, and pointed to Abu Tayi, his son, out on the plain before us trying a new camel, banging it on the neck with his stick in vain effort to make it pace like a thoroughbred. ‘O world’s imp,’ said he, ‘if God please he has inherited my worth, but thank God not yet my strength; and if I find fault with him I will redden his tail. No doubt you are very wise.’ The upshot of our talk was that I should go off to a clean spot, to wait events. We hired twenty camels to carry the explosives; and the morrow, two hours after the aeroplane, was fixed for our start.

The aeroplane was the quaint regulator of public business in the Guweira camp. The Arabs, up as ever before dawn, waited for it: Mastur set a slave on the crag’s peak to sound the first warning. When its constant hour drew near the Arabs would saunter, chatting in parade of carelessness, towards the rock. Arrived beneath it, each man climbed to the ledge he favoured. After Mastur would climb the bevy of his slaves, with his coffee on the brazier, and his carpet. In a shaded nook he and Auda would sit and talk till the little shiver of excitement tightened up and down the crowded ledges when first was heard the song of the engine over the pass of Shtar.

Everyone pressed back against the wall and waited stilly while the enemy circled vainly above the strange spectacle of this crimson rock banded with thousands of gaily-dressed Arabs, nesting like ibises in every cranny of its face. The aeroplane dropped three bombs, or four bombs, or five bombs, according to the day of the week. Their bursts of dense smoke sat on the sage-green plain compactly like cream-puffs; writhing for minutes in the windless air before they slowly spread and faded. Though we knew there was no menace in it, yet we could not but catch our breath when the sharp-growing cry of the falling bombs came through the loud engine overhead.

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