Letters of Travel

Egypt of the Magicians

IV - Up the River

Rudyard Kipling

ONCE upon a time there was a murderer who got off with a life-sentence. What impressed him most, when he had time to think, was the frank boredom of all who took part in the ritual.

“It was just like going to a doctor or a dentist,” he explained. “You come to ’em very full of your affairs, and then you discover that it’s only part of their daily work to them. I expect,” he added, “I should have found it the same if—er—I’d gone on to the finish.”

He would have. Break into any new Hell or Heaven and you will be met at its well-worn threshold by the bored experts in attendance.

For three weeks we sat on copiously chaired and carpeted decks, carefully isolated from everything that had anything to do with Egypt, under chaperonage of a properly orientalised dragoman. Twice or thrice daily, our steamer drew up at a mud-bank covered with donkeys. Saddles were hauled out of a hatch in our bows; the donkeys were dressed, dealt round like cards: we rode off through crops or desert, as the case might be, were introduced in ringing tones to a temple, and were then duly returned to our bridge and our Baedekers. For sheer comfort, not to say padded sloth, the life was unequalled, and since the bulk of our passengers were citizens of the United States—Egypt in winter ought to be admitted into the Union as a temporary territory—there was no lack of interest. They were overwhelmingly women, with here and there a placid nose-led husband or father, visibly suffering from congestion of information about his native city. I had the joy of seeing two such men meet. They turned their backs resolutely on the River, bit and lit cigars, and for one hour and a quarter ceased not to emit statistics of the industries, commerce, manufacture, transport, and journalism of their towns;—Los Angeles, let us say, and Rochester, N.Y. It sounded like a duel between two cash-registers.

One forgot, of course, that all the dreary figures were alive to them, and as Los Angeles spoke Rochester visualised. Next day I met an Englishman from the Soudan end of things, very full of a little-known railway which had been laid down in what had looked like raw desert, and therefore had turned out to be full of paying freight. He was in the full-tide of it when Los Angeles ranged alongside and cast anchor, fascinated by the mere roll of numbers.

“Haow’s that?” he cut in sharply at a pause.

He was told how, and went on to drain my friend dry concerning that railroad, out of sheer fraternal interest, as he explained, in “any darn’ thing that’s being made anywheres,”

“So you see,” my friend went on, “we shall be bringing Abyssinian cattle into Cairo.”

“On the hoof?” One quick glance at the Desert ranges.

“No, no! By rail and River. And after that we’re going to grow cotton between the Blue and the White Nile and knock spots out of the States.”

“Ha-ow’s that?”

“This way.” The speaker spread his first and second fingers fanwise under the big, interested beak. “That’s the Blue Nile. And that’s the White. There’s a difference of so many feet between ’em, an’ in that fork here, ’tween my fingers, we shall——”

I see. Irrigate on the strength of the little difference in the levels. How many acres?”

Again Los Angeles was told. He expanded like a frog in a shower. “An’ I thought,” he murmured, “Egypt was all mummies and the Bible! I used to know something about cotton. Now we’ll talk.”

All that day the two paced the deck with the absorbed insolence of lovers; and, lover-like, each would steal away and tell me what a splendid soul was his companion.

That was one type; but there were others—professional men who did not make or sell things—and these the hand of an all-exacting Democracy seemed to have run into one mould. They were not reticent, but no matter whence they hailed, their talk was as standardised as the fittings of a Pullman.

I hinted something of this to a woman aboard who was learned in their sermons of either language.

“I think,” she began, “that the staleness you complain of—”

“I never said ‘staleness,’” I protested.

“But you thought it. The staleness you noticed is due to our men being so largely educated by old women—old maids. Practically till he goes to College, and not always then, a boy can’t get away from them.”

“Then what happens?”

“The natural result. A man’s instinct is to teach a boy to think for himself. If a woman can’t make a boy think as she thinks, she sits down and cries. A man hasn’t any standards. He makes ’em. A woman’s the most standardised being in the world. She has to be. Now d’you see?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, our trouble in America is that we’re being school-marmed to death. You can see it in any paper you pick up. What were those men talking about just now?”

“Food adulteration, police-reform, and beautifying waste-lots in towns,” I replied promptly.

She threw up her hands. “I knew it!” she cried. “Our great National Policy of co-educational housekeeping! Ham-frills and pillow-shams. Did you ever know a man get a woman’s respect by parading around creation with a dish-clout pinned to his coat-tails?”

“But if his woman ord——told him to do it?” I suggested.

“Then she’d despise him the more for doing it. You needn’t laugh. You’re coming to the same sort of thing in England.”

I returned to the little gathering. A woman was talking to them as one accustomed to talk from birth. They listened with the rigid attention of men early trained to listen to, but not to talk with, women. She was, to put it mildly, the mother of all she-bores, but when she moved on, no man ventured to say as much.

“That’s what I mean by being school-marmed to death,” said my acquaintance wickedly. “Why, she bored ’em stiff; but they are so well brought up, they didn’t even know they were bored. Some day the American Man is going to revolt.”

“And what’ll the American Woman do?”

“She’ll sit and cry—and it’ll do her good.”

Later on, I met a woman from a certain Western State seeing God’s great, happy, inattentive world for the first time, and rather distressed that it was not like hers. She had always understood that the English were brutal to their wives—the papers of her State said so. (If you only knew the papers of her State!) But she had not noticed any scandalous treatment so far, and Englishwomen, whom she admitted she would never understand, seemed to enjoy a certain specious liberty and equality; while Englishmen were distinctly kind to girls in difficulties over their baggage and tickets on strange railways. Quite a nice people, she concluded, but without much sense of humour. One day, she showed me what looked like a fashion-paper print of a dress-stuff—a pretty oval medallion of stars on a striped grenadine background that somehow seemed familiar.

“How nice! What is it?” I asked.

“Our National Flag,” she replied.

“Indeed. But it doesn’t look quite——”

“No. This is a new design for arranging the stars so that they shall be easier to count and more decorative in effect. We’re going to take a vote on it in our State, where we have the franchise. I shall cast my vote when I get home.”

“Really! And how will you vote?”

“I’m just thinking that out.” She spread the picture on her knee and considered it, head to one side, as though it were indeed dress material.

All this while the land of Egypt marched solemnly beside us on either hand. The river being low, we saw it from the boat as one long plinth, twelve to twenty feet high of brownish, purplish mud, visibly upheld every hundred yards or so by glistening copper caryatides in the shape of naked men baling water up to the crops above. Behind that bright emerald line ran the fawn- or tiger-coloured background of desert, and a pale blue sky closed all. There was Egypt even as the Pharaohs, their engineers and architects, had seen it—land to cultivate, folk and cattle for the work, and outside that work no distraction nor allurement of any kind whatever, save when the dead were taken to their place beyond the limits of cultivation. When the banks grew lower, one looked across as much as two miles of green-stuff packed like a toy Noah’s-ark with people, camels, sheep, goats, oxen, buffaloes, and an occasional horse. The beasts stood as still, too, as the toys, because they were tethered or hobbled each to his own half-circle of clover, and moved forward when that was eaten. Only the very little kids were loose, and these played on the flat mud roofs like kittens.

No wonder “every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.” The dusty, naked-footed field-tracks are cut down to the last centimetre of grudged width; the main roads are lifted high on the flanks of the canals, unless the permanent-way of some light railroad can be pressed to do duty for them. The wheat, the pale ripened tufted sugar-cane, the millet, the barley, the onions, the fringed castor-oil bushes jostle each other for foothold, since the Desert will not give them room; and men chase the falling Nile inch by inch, each dawn, with new furrowed melon-beds on the still dripping mud-banks.

Administratively, such a land ought to be a joy. The people do not emigrate; all their resources are in plain sight; they are as accustomed as their cattle to being led about. All they desire, and it has been given them, is freedom from murder and mutilation, rape and robbery. The rest they can attend to in their silent palm-shaded villages where the pigeons coo and the little children play in the dust.

But Western civilisation is a devastating and a selfish game. Like the young woman from “our State,” it says in effect: “I am rich. I’ve nothing to do. I must do something. I shall take up social reform.”

Just now there is a little social reform in Egypt which is rather amusing. The Egyptian cultivator borrows money; as all farmers must. This land without hedge or wild-flower is his passion by age-long inheritance and suffering, by, in and for which he lives. He borrows to develop it and to buy more at from £30 to £200 per acre, the profit on which, when all is paid, works out at between £5 to £10 per acre. Formerly, he borrowed from the local money-lenders, mostly Greeks, at 30 per cent per annum and over. This rate is not excessive, so long as public opinion allows the borrower from time to time to slay the lender; but modern administration calls that riot and murder. Some years ago, therefore, there was established a State-guaranteed Bank which lent to the cultivators at eight per cent, and the cultivator zealously availed himself of that privilege. He did not default more than in reason, but being a farmer, he naturally did not pay up till threatened with being sold up. So he prospered and bought more land, which was his heart’s desire. This year—1913—the administration issued sudden orders that no man owning less than five acres could borrow on security of his land. The matter interested me directly, because I held five hundred pounds worth of shares in that State-guaranteed Bank, and more than half our clients were small men of less than five acres. So I made inquiries in quarters that seemed to possess information, and was told that the new law was precisely on all-fours with the Homestead Act or the United States and France, and the intentions of Divine Providence—or words to that effect.

“But,” I asked, “won’t this limitation of credit prevent the men with less than five acres from borrowing more to buy more land and getting on in the world?”

“Yes,” was the answer, “of course it will. That’s just what we want to prevent. Half these fellows ruin themselves trying to buy more land. We’ve got to protect them against themselves.”

That, alas! is the one enemy against which no law can protect any son of Adam; since the real reasons that make or break a man are too absurd or too obscene to be reached from outside. Then I cast about in other quarters to discover what the cultivator was going to do about it.

“Oh, him?” said one of my many informants. “He’s all right. There are about six ways of evading the Act that, I know of. The fellah probably knows another six. He has been trained to look after himself since the days of Rameses. He can forge land-transfers for one thing; borrow land enough to make his holding more than five acres for as long as it takes to register a loan; get money from his own women (yes, that’s one result of modern progress in this land!) or go back to his old friend the Greek at 30 per cent.”

“Then the Greek will sell him up, and that will be against the law, won’t it?” I said.

“Don’t you worry about the Greek. He can get through any law ever made if there’s five piastres on the other side of it.”

“Maybe; but was the Agricultural Bank selling the cultivators up too much?”

“Not in the least. The number of small holdings is on the increase, if anything. Most cultivators won’t pay a loan until you point a judgment-summons at their head. They think that shows they’re men of consequence. This swells the number of judgment-summonses issued, but it doesn’t mean a land-sale for each summons. Another fact is that in real life some men don’t get on as well as others. Either they don’t farm well enough, or they take to hashish, or go crazy about a girl and borrow money for her, or—er—something of that kind, and they are sold up. You may have noticed that.”

“I have. And meantime, what is the fellah doing?”

“Meantime, the fellah has misread the Act—as usual. He thinks it’s retrospective, and that he needn’t pay past debts. They may make trouble, but I fancy your Bank will keep quiet.”

“Keep quiet! With the bottom knocked out of two-thirds of its business and—and my five hundred pounds involved!”

“Is that your trouble? I don’t think your shares will rise in a hurry; but if you want some fun, go and talk to the French about it,”

This seemed as good a way as any of getting a little interest. The Frenchman that I went to spoke with a certain knowledge of finance and politics and the natural malice of a logical race against an illogical horde.

“Yes,” he said. “The idea of limiting credit under these circumstances is absurd. But that is not all. People are not frightened, business is not upset by one absurd idea, but by the possibilities of more,”

“Are there any more ideas, then, that are going to be tried on this country?”

“Two or three,” he replied placidly. “They are all generous; but they are all ridiculous. Egypt is not a place where one should promulgate ridiculous ideas.”

“But my shares—my shares!” I cried. “They have already dropped several points.”

“It is possible. They will drop more. Then they will rise.”

“Thank you. But why?”

“Because the idea is fundamentally absurd. That will never be admitted by your people, but there will be arrangements, accommodations, adjustments, till it is all the same as it used to be. It will be the concern of the Permanent Official—poor devil!—to pull it straight. It is always his concern. Meantime, prices will rise for all things.”


“Because the land is the chief security in Egypt. If a man cannot borrow on that security, the rates of interest will increase on whatever other security he offers. That will affect all work and wages and Government contracts.”

He put it so convincingly and with so many historical illustrations that I saw whole perspectives of the old energetic Pharaohs, masters of life and death along the River, checked in mid-career by cold-blooded accountants chanting that not even the Gods themselves can make two plus two more than four. And the vision ran down through the ages to one little earnest head on a Cook’s steamer, bent sideways over the vital problem of rearranging “our National Flag” so that it should be “easier to count the stars.”

For the thousandth time: Praised be Allah for the diversity of His creatures!

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