The Long Riders' Guild

The End of the Journey


by Louisa Jebb


There was nothing in Louisa Jebb’s comfortable Victorian youth to indicate she would one day take to the saddle and pen one of the most eloquent equestrian travel books ever written.

Yet in the early years of the 20th century, Jebb set out with a female companion to cross the Turkish Empire on horseback. To say they were unprepared to become Long Riders would be an understatement. Neither of them could speak the local language. Furthermore, both wore cumbersome full-length skirts and rode side-saddles. They were, in a word, enthusiastic amateurs who believed courage and common sense would see them through.

Remarkably, it did.

Having hired a picturesque guide and reliable horses, they set out to explore the secret corners of the Sultan’s empire. What they discovered were guarded harems and regal Pashas, fabled rivers and a desert world of intense beauty. If Jebb rode into Turkey expecting to find adventure, she found it. Yet she discovered something else – nomadic freedom. It is her personal observations about this subject that set “By Desert Ways to Baghdad and Damascus” apart from other equestrian travel books. “In the untravelled parts of the East you reign supreme, there is no need to go about securely chained to a gold watch. Ignore Time, and he is your servant,” she observed wisely.

Sadly, revolution and death soon swept across this fabled land, wiping away the kingdom of the Turkish Caliphs and laying the foundations for the grief which enshrouds this unhappy part of the world today.

Few books contain as many great abiding truths as this one does.

Last night we were dirty, isolated, and free;  to-night we are clean, sociable, and trammelled.  Last night the setting sun’s final message written in flaming signs of gold was burnt into us, and the starry heights carried our thoughts heavenward and made them free as themselves.  To-night the sunset passed all unheeded and we gaze, as we retire from the busy rush of the trivial day, at a never-ending, twisting, twirling pattern on the four walls that imprison us, oppressed by the confining ceiling of our room in the Damascus Palace Hotel.

We are no longer princesses whose hands and feet are kissed, whose word is law, sharing the simple hospitality of proud and dignified wayfarers in desert kingdoms.  Our word is law according to the depth of our purses, our hands and feet are kissed according to the height of our floor in the hotel.  We are no longer in a land where men and women are judged by their capacities for being men and women:  the cost of our raiment apportions our rank.

We are now no longer amongst people to whom we say what we mean and are silent when we have nothing to say.  We are in surroundings where to say what you mean is an offence, where silence is not understood and looked upon askance as an uncanny visitor.  The less we have to say, the more we make an effort to say it;  and the more we have to say, the greater the effort to suppress it.

Everything seems unreal or unnecessary, everything is dressed up.

All these people moving about, sitting still, in a hurry, catching trains, eating long dinners, dressing themselves, looking at each other dressed – what does it all mean?  Was all this going on when we were in that other world which we have just left, that great silent world where everything was itself and big, and not confused by accessories?  Was all this din and bustle going on?  It is strange that we should have had no inkling of it, for it seems of so much importance to all these people, idle with a great restlessness;  it seems essential to them.

It is hard, too, to realise that that other world still exists out there in the dis­tance, and that it would be quite possible to reach it by merely riding out on a camel.  Can it indeed be true that the same sun which lights all these moving streets, these buyers and sellers, these catchers of trains, is lighting the desert out there as imperturbably as it lit us, journeying on after it day after day in the silent places;  did it see all these people from its inaccessible height, and, sharing its gifts equally with them and with us, give us no hint of what it was looking down upon?  It showed then no more favour to us than to these dwellers in towns, and yet was it not more to us?  Were we not more conscious of its innumerable gifts;  and did we not receive more from it as a result of our greater appreciation?  No bars of windows, no roofy outlines, no sleepy oblivion hid the glory of its first appearance for us.  As far as its rays could range, so far, and further, could we see.  Not a pale silver thread or wiry line of gold, or faint reflection of its glowing colours on the opposite horizon, was lost to our vision;  and, as we rode through the chilly morning air, were we not conscious of every separate ray of warmth as it grew and grew until we were bathed in its delicious heat, and all day it served as our sole guide, indicating direction in boundless space and hour in limitless time.  No finger-posts, no winding up of clocks;  only this sun with its fixed and unalterable decrees.

The sun, then, we share, although apparently in divers degrees.  But was not the moon more for us alone?  For they can shut it out from their lives altogether.  It, too, looked down upon this city, but not on the noise and chaos of it.  As far as it was concerned all the bustlers were dead, buried away in their roofed houses behind their shuttered windows.  The silence of night is the moon’s heritage, and it exercises its autocratic sway to the full;  it admits no disturbing rush or un­seemly hurry beneath its gaze.  What do they know of you, who pull down blinds and light up the gas and dwell in curtained rooms?  Accident may cause a benigh­ted traveller to look at you with a passing sense of rest, a casual tossing sleeper may be half conscious of your charm, the weary toiler at the end of a long day may momentarily bless your soothing light, and in so far as they take hold of you they make themselves akin with us out there.

But you are not a part of them, as you are a part of us;  you do not enter into the very heart of their existence and carry their minds up, night after night, to the realms where you live serene and calm, making us forget the saddle rubs, the parching thirst, the driven sand, the fire that would not light, the kettle that would not boil – all the little near things, the things which matter so much in the day, and which you remind us do not matter at night.

But here they matter so much more at night, all shut up with us inside these confining walls – inside these muslin curtains.  The darkness and the enclosed space make them assume exaggerated dimensions;  all the little trivialities in the room accentuate their importance.  We see them cropping up again and again in that blue flower on the wall paper, or running round and run the red coils on the dado.  We raise our eyes to heaven and encounter the fixed, inane smile of a painted lady with a wand, seated in a wreath of flowers.  We shut our eyes, deter­mined to forget her, but a terrible fascination makes us peep again and again, and always that same inane smile;  and when at last the kindly shades of night hide it altogether in darkness, we are still conscious of her only, smiling away there, looking at us while we cannot see her.  And all the time outside the steadfast moon and the stars eternally twinkling are telling the same tale that they told out in that other world, but we have shut them out and will not listen to their silent teaching.

In vain the Prophet of the Desert has said:

“And we have adorned the lower heaven with lamps and set them to pelt the devils with . . .  we touched the heavens, and found them filled with a mighty guard and shooting stars, and we did sit in certain seats thereof to listen;  but who so of us listens now finds a shooting star for him on guard.”

Emblems of all the great abiding truths have been set up on high, where, one would have thought, every poor, striving mortal could not fail to see them;  vast­ness and distance is displayed as a rest to those wearied with the smallness and nearness of things;  solidity and eternity are there to comfort the grievers over passing men and disappointed hopes;  the kindly darkness which hides us inter­mittently from our fellows is pierced with points of guiding light.

And yet we do not habitually, and as a matter of course, accept these gifts for which no price is asked;  we go blundering on, intensifying the grim blackness of night by shutting ourselves up with it, surrounded with all the small things of earth, and this when we might forget them by reason of their very smallness in the vast distances of the vaulted heavens.  It almost seems as though we would deliberately wish to hide from ourselves and each other the few simple sufficient laws of existence, for in this as in other things we not only avoid the truth but appear ashamed of it, and dress it up in every possibly accessory of human invention.

We dress everything up – our bodies, our minds, our food.  I look down this long table d’hôte,[1] and what do I see?  I see a crowd of people dressed up, exchanging dressed up commonplaces, eating dressed-up food.

I feel that nothing is real.

But this unreality is so real that I ask:

“Have, then, the unrealities, the non-essentials of existence become the realities, and have we, emerging from a world where only the essentials of exis­tence concerned us, given them an undue importance?  Coming out of a state of primitive civilisation, are we unable to appreciate the true meaning of our sur­roundings?  These people wear the burdens of fashion so lightly, they talk these complicated nothings so simply, they toil so contentedly discontented through these endless disguised dishes:  what is it behind it all that our minds cannot grasp?”

I look again:  I talk to them and they answer me;  I eat another dressed-up dish.  Here I feel a weary heart, there I touch a bored mind;  now one gets a flash of intellect, now a gleam of soul, all alike so carefully wrapped up, and yet with a longing to be out.  Why this unnatural dread of truth and simplicity?  I am getting positively affected by it.  I sit here amongst these smart people in my travelling clothes, and I confess to a new strange sense of discomfort in consequence.  I feel ashamed of my old clothes. 

Opposite to me is a lady with a kindly face and a comfortable look about her;  her mauve dress gives a pleasing sense of colour, but as she moves two beaded flaps keep jumping about, which detracts from the sense of repose suggested by her comfortable look;  when she leans back an array of stitched beads catches on the carved projection of the chair, and she has to be disengaged by the waiter.  Her sleeves drooping gracefully from the elbow require elaborate gymnastics to prevent them dipping into her plate as she eats, and twice they caught in the pepper-pot and overturned its contents on the floor.  But she bore it all with a pleasant apologetic smile which called out my admiration for such a display of schooled temper under these trying circumstances.

Then, with an unconscious transition of thought, I found myself comparing her to the Arab woman who brought the bowl of youart off which we supped last night.  I recalled how I envied her the dignified carriage of her free unfettered form, the natural grace of her untrammelled manners.  I recalled the simple graceful folds of her clinging single garment, so much a part of herself that she was quite unconscious of it, and I compare this lady trying to adapt herself to the elaborate creation in which she is enthralled.  Long custom prevents her from realising how her form and movements are rendered artificial and ungraceful.  As the Chinese lady, unconscious of her deformity in feet, would resent or wonder at our pity for her enslaved by the idea of a barbarous custom, so would my neigh­bour resent or wonder should I feel pity for her at this moment, equally a slave to a Western idea.

I glanced at my battered old coat and was pervaded with a sense of remorse at having been ashamed of it.

Here, in the middle of this bewildering appearance of unreality, it was telling me of so many solid facts.  How often had it not covered the aching pangs of hunger, and the satisfied sense of that hunger appeased;  it had felt the thumping of my heart stirred by danger, or hastened by exhilarating motion;  it had known the long-drawn breaths of quiet enjoyment at a peaceful scene.

That tear was made on the rocks the day we climbed to the “written stone” at the top of the Boulghar Mountains, and I mended it one long quiet evening by the Euphrates.

I lost this button the night we scrambled up to the castle at Palmyra, my little friend Maydi pulled me up to a rock by it and it broke.

That burn mark was made by Mahmet, who dropped the live charcoal with which I was lighting my cigarette in the sheikh’s hut at Harran.

All this and more is what my coat says to me . . .   I am no longer ashamed of it.  I feel sure if the kind lady opposite realised all this she would not regard me as an outcast, for there is something very honest about the coat.

But I had got no further away from the feeling of unreality.  I tried to recall what it had felt like to live in civilisation, but all I could remember was how dif­ficult it had been to disentangle ourselves from it.  While we were still in it, we had not known what we should want outside it.  But, once outside, all these diffi­culties had disappeared:  everything at once seemed to happen naturally;  we missed nothing of the things we had left behind.

And as it had been difficult while we were still in it to get disentangled from it, so now we were experiencing a difficulty in entering it again – a difficulty in once more taking up and using the things we had discarded for a time.  It was as if we had never used them, so strange did they seem, and so little did we under­stand their meaning.  Entering it differed, moreover, in this way from our ent­rance into the new life outside it;  once in it nothing seemed to happen naturally.  This was the more disconcerting since civilisation was not altogether a new world to us, in the sense that the other had been.  We had spent many long years in it, and yet on returning we found it all strange and incomprehensible.

*   *   *   *   *   *

We rose and left the table.  Hassan joined us at the door, and we all sat down on a red plush settee.  Waiters hurried past us with trays of coffee and stronger drinks;  ladies in bright colours rustled about the passage, and in the corners men in evening dress lounged and smoked.

Hassan stroked the settee gingerly.

“It is very soft,” he said, “but the sand was better.”

Then he looked round and paused.

“What are all these people doing?” he asked irritably;  “why can’t they sit down and be quiet?  There is no quiet here;  the sand was better.”

Earlier in the day he had been pleased with the bright colours and the sense of movement, but now they seemed to vex him.

“Why do they keep on looking at us?” he went on;  “is it because you are great Pashas?”

“No,” I answered, “they have no idea that we are great Pashas.”

“My countrymen in the desert looked at you because you were strangers from another country and they had not seen women like you before;  but these are your own countrymen:  why do they stare at you?”

“It is because we are not dressed like them,” I said;  “we have not got our beautiful clothes yet;  when these come they will no longer look at us.”

“But can they not see that you are travelling?” he said.  “The people of my country, the Valis and the Kaimakams who prepared feasts for us, knew that you also had beautiful clothes in your own country.”

“Yes, but our travelling clothes are not quite the same as those worn by our countrymen here,” I explained, “so they do not understand us.”

“But why,” persisted Hassan, “should that cause them not to understand you?”

“We all do alike in our country,” I explained;  “if one person wears no pockets and big sleeves, then we all do the same.”

“Who is this person then?” said Hassan;  “he must be a very great Pasha.”

“We none of us know who he is,” I said;  “in fact, he is not any one particular person;  it is more like a sort of jinn who spreads about an unwritten law.”

Hassan looked perplexed.

“And are there no written words,” he said, “to tell you the meaning of this law?”

“Yes,” I said;  “the people in our land who have the most money write out the meaning of the law.”

“And if you do not follow the law, what then?”

“Your fellow-creatures are rather afraid of you;  they do not ask you to their feasts, neither do they give you places of command, however capable you may be.”

“Is it this jinn that makes your men wear the hard black hats and the tight black clothes?”

I nodded assent.

“And it is not only our clothes,” I added;  “the jinn says we may not think differently from other people, or if we do, we must hide it.”

“Is it a sin that your country has committed that it is thus condemned,” he went on, “or is the jinn an evil spirit under whose curse it lies?”

“We do not know,” I said.  “There are some of the younger men who are trying to discover;  they do not do as the jinn says, and so they do not live happily amongst others;  many of them live apart, and we call them cranks and are afraid of them.”

“Are they wicked men, then?”

“No, they are good men as a rule, but in our country we do not understand the people who do not do what others do.”

“But if you all do the same,” said Hassan, “how can you progress?  We in the East have not changed our customs, so we do not progress.  Do you never change then either, you in the West?”

“We change very slowly,” I answered, “because we tend to the thought that if a thing has always been, then it is good.”

“Amān, amān,” said Hassan.

* * * * * * * * * *

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[1] Editor’s note:  A communal table for all the guests at a hotel or restaurant.

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