Page:EB1911 - Volume 02.djvu/300

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
285
ARABS

Christians. In the later pre-Islamitic times spirits, or jinns, as they were called, of which each tribe or family had its own, were worshipped, and there was but a vague idea of a Supreme Being. Images of the jinns to the number of 360, one for each day of the lunar year, were collected in the temple at Mecca, the chief seat of their worship. That worship was of a sanguinary nature. Human sacrifice was fairly frequent. Under the guise of religion female infanticide was a common practice. At Mecca the great object of worship was a plain black stone, and to it pilgrimages were made from every part of Arabia. This stone was so sacred to the Arabs that even Mahomet dared not dispense with it, and it remains the central object of sanctity in the Ka’ba to-day. The temples of the Sabaeans and the Minaeans were built east of their cities, a fact suggesting sun-worship, yet this is not believed to have been the cult of the Minaeans. Common to both was the worship of Attar, the male Ashtoreth.

With the appearance of Mahomet the Arabs took anew a place in the world’s history.

Physically the Arabs are one of the strongest and noblest races of the world. Baron de Larrey, surgeon-general to Napoleon on his expedition to Egypt and Syria, writes: “Their physical structure is in all respects Physique. more perfect than that of Europeans; their organs of sense exquisitely acute, their size above the average of men in general, their figure robust and elegant, their colour brown; their intelligence proportionate to their physical perfection and without doubt superior, other things being equal, to that of other nations.” The typical Arab face is of an oval form, lean-featured; the eyes a brilliant black, deep-set under bushy eyebrows; nose aquiline, forehead straight but not high. In body the Arab is muscular and long-limbed, but lean. Deformed individuals or dwarfs are rare among Arabs; nor, except leprosy, which is common, does any disease seem to be hereditary among them. They often suffer from ophthalmia, though not in the virulent Egyptian form. They are scrupulously clean in their persons, and take special care of their teeth, which are generally white and even. Simple and abstemious in their habits, they often reach an extreme yet healthy old age; nor is it common among them for the faculties of the mind to give way sooner than those of the body.

Thus, physically, they yield to few races, if any, of mankind; mentally, they surpass most, and are only kept back in the march of progress by the remarkable defect of organizing power and incapacity for combined action. Character. Lax and imperfect as are their forms of government, it is with impatience that even these are borne; of the four caliphs who alone reigned—if reign theirs could be called—in Arabia proper, three died a violent death; and of the Wahhābi princes, the most genuine representatives in later times of pure Arab rule, almost all have met the same fate. The Arab face, which is not unkindly, but never smiling, expresses that dignity and gravity which are typical of the race. While the Arab is always polite, good-natured, manly and brave, he is also revengeful, cruel, untruthful and superstitious. Of the Arab nature Burckhardt (other authorities, e.g. Barth and Rohlfs, are far less complimentary) wrote: “The Arab displays his manly character when he defends his guest at the peril of his own life, and submits to the reverses of fortune, to disappointment and distress, with the most patient resignation. He is distinguished from a Turk by the virtues of pity and gratitude. The Turk is cruel, the Arab of a more kind temper; he pities and supports the wretched, and never forgets the generosity shown to him even by an enemy.” The Arab will lie and cheat and swear false oaths, but once his word is pledged he may be trusted to the last. There are some oaths such as Wallah (by Allah) which mean nothing, but such an oath as the threefold one with wa, bi and ta as particles of swearing the meanest thief will not break. In temper, or at least in the manifestation of it, the Arab is studiously calm; and he rarely so much as raises his voice in a dispute. But this outward tranquillity covers feelings alike keen and permanent; and the remembrance of a rash jest or injurious word, uttered years before, leads only too often to that blood-revenge which is a sacred duty everywhere in Arabia.

There exist, however, marked tribal or almost semi-national diversities of character among the Arabs. Thus, the inhabitants of Hejaz are noted for courtesy and blamed for fickleness; those of Nejd are distinguished by their stern tenacity and dignity of deportment; the nations of Yemen are gentle and pliant, but revengeful; those of Hasa and Oman cheerful and fond of sport, though at the same time turbulent and unsteady. Anything approaching to a game is rare in Nejd, and in the Hejaz religion and the yearly occurrence of the pilgrim ceremonies almost exclude all public diversions; but in Yemen the well-known game of the “jerīd,” or palm-stick, with dances and music is not rare. In Oman such amusements are still more frequent. Again in Yemen and Oman, coffee-houses, where people resort for conversation, and where public recitals, songs and other amusements are indulged in, stand open all day; while nothing of the sort is tolerated in Nejd. So too the ceremonies of circumcision or marriage are occasions of gaiety and pastime on the coast, but not in the central provinces.

An Arab town, or even village, except it be the merest hamlet, is invariably walled round; but seldom is a stronger material than dried earth used; the walls are occasionally flanked by towers of like construction. A dry ditch Manners and customs. often surrounds the whole. The streets are irregular and seldom parallel. The Arab, indeed, lacks an eye for the straight. The Arab carpenter cannot form a right angle; an Arab servant cannot place a cloth square on a table. The Ka’ba at Mecca has none of its sides or angles equal. The houses are of one or two storeys, rarely of three, with flat mud roofs, little windows and no external ornament. If the town be large, the expansion of one or two streets becomes a market-place, where are ranged a few shops of eatables, drugs, coffee, cottons or other goods. Many of these shops are kept by women. The chief mosque is always near the market-place; so is also the governor’s residence, which, except in size and in being more or less fortified Arab fashion, does not differ from a private house. Drainage is unthought of; but the extreme dryness of the air obviates the inconvenience and disease that under other skies could not fail to ensue, and which in the damper climates of the coast make themselves seriously felt. But the streets are roughly swept every day, each householder taking care of the roadway that lies before his own door. Whitewash and colour are occasionally used in Yemen, Hejaz and Oman; elsewhere a light ochre tint, the colour of the sun-dried bricks, predominates, and gives an Arab town the appearance at a distance of a large dust-heap in the centre of the bright green ring of gardens and palm-groves. Baked bricks are unknown in Arabia, and stone buildings are rare, especially in Nejd. Palm branches and the like, woven in wattles, form the dwellings, of the poorer classes in the southern districts. Many Arab towns possess watch-towers, like huge round factory chimneys in appearance, built of sun-dried bricks, and varying in height from 50 to 100 ft. or even more. Indeed, two of these constructions at the town of Birkat-el-Mauj, in Oman, are said to be each of 170 ft. in height, and that of Nezwah, in the same province, is reckoned at 140; but these are of stone.

The principal feature in the interior of an Arab house is the “kahwah” or coffee-room. It is a large apartment spread with mats, and sometimes furnished with carpets and a few cushions. At one end is a small furnace or fireplace for preparing coffee. In this room the men congregate; here guests are received, and even lodged; women rarely enter it, except at times when strangers are unlikely to be present. Some of these apartments are very spacious and supported by pillars; one wall is usually built transversely to the compass direction of the Ka’ba; it serves to facilitate the performance of prayer by those who may happen to be in the kahwah at the appointed times. The other rooms are ordinarily small.

The Arabs are proverbially hospitable. A stranger’s arrival is often the occasion of an amicable dispute among the wealthier inhabitants as to who shall have the privilege of receiving him.