THE OASIS OF SIWA IN 1947-8, BY ROBIN MAUGHAM
The following account of the institutionalised Greek love practised in the Egyptian Siwa oasis by the English author Robert “Robin” Cecil Romer Maugham (1916-81), 2nd Viscount Maugham, who went there to witness it for himself in the winter of 1947-8, and later wrote about it in his second autobiography, Search For Nirvana, (London, 1975), “the story of my own search for happiness”, from which the following extracts are taken.
Stories from his schooldays involving Greek love, told by Maugham in his earlier autobiography, Escape From the Shadows, are presented elsewhere on this website as Taming Mr. Rudge and Robin Maugham at Eton. His account of Dieter, a Viennese boy on the game, 1932-6 is also from Search For Nirvana.
Search for Nirvana
After returning from serving in the Second World War …
… I felt young, ardent and vigorous.
I had developed an intense interest in the Arab lands; from time to time I would take on assignments as a journalist in the Middle East in order to escape from the prison which my existence in London seemed to have become. … I was now thirty-one. I felt I wanted to discover my own nirvana before I grew too old.
It was while I was staying in Alexandria with my friend and benefactor, Eric Duke, to whom my novel The Servant is dedicated, that I heard of a place which might offer a chance of nirvana to me. It was an oasis in the Libyan Desert, politically part of Egypt, and lay about three hundred and fifty miles west southwest of Cairo across a vast stretch of desert. In those days it was very hard to reach. Siwa’s very remoteness had helped preserve customs which had survived from the days of Herodotus—and before. One of its more unusual customs was the marriage of a man to a boy.
Now, I have already quoted Freya Stark’s review of the short book I eventually wrote about Siwa. I must now quote a few more lines from it.
The article in the Observer was headed, RETICENT TRAVELLER. “It is strange, when one thinks of it, how we hesitate over sodomy . . . when contemplating the history of Egypt,” Freya Stark had commented. “The fact is we would like Robin Maugham to let himself go a little more.” (My italics)
However, my family and their friends were still alive. What Harold Nicolson called “the nursery governess” who he maintained peered disapprovingly over the shoulder of every English writer of a certain class, was still overlooking mine. I could not help feeling reticent.
But in the last few years my whole life has altered, and I can now fill in the parts of the text which the “nursery governess” suppressed. I can fill in all the gaps. Moreover, I can also use portions of the text of my book which is very little known.
As I moved around Egypt, I began to hear fascinating stories about Siwa. Not only was it very beautiful, but homosexuality was considered as normal as heterosexuality. In 1926, for instance, it seemed that an English official had expressed a desire to visit the oasis. Accordingly the Egyptian Minister for the Interior had mounted an impressive expedition to ensure the English official’s safety across the sea of sand. They then set forth. After an arduous journey they had reached “the town”—as the Egyptians called the village—and had found all the inhabitants happily celebrating a wedding.
“What an auspicious moment to arrive,” had declared the conventional official.
“Most charming,” the Egyptian official had agreed.
They approached closer. The bridal procession came to a halt. They were introduced to the bridegroom and the bride. It was then that the full horror of the spectacle struck them. The bridegroom was a man of forty and the bride was a boy of fifteen.
Indignantly the expedition returned to Cairo. Promptly the finest preacher who could be spared from the mosque was sent out to convert the Siwans from their vile habits.
A few years later another expedition was mounted to visit this distant oasis. Once again they arrived with the same Egyptian Minister of the Interior. And once again a marriage was in progress. But this time the procession was still more magnificent than previously, and the bridal couple was carried under a canopy covered with a golden cloth. Yet again the procession came to a halt. Once more the expedition was introduced to the bridegroom and the bride. This time the expedition discovered that the bridegroom was none other than the Imam himself and his bride was a boy of fourteen.
I knew that my young Egyptian friends sometimes exaggerated, and these stories seemed to be too good to be true. But I was so fascinated by what they told me that I decided to take the trouble to look up the authorities.
“The feast of marrying a boy was celebrated with great pomp, and the money paid for a boy sometimes amounted to fifteen pounds—while the money paid for a woman was a little over a pound—besides the clothes which do not exceed two or three pounds for this abnormal marriage,” says Steindorff in his Amonsoase.
“Their passions are easily roused . . .” says T. B. Hohler in his Report on the Oasis of Siwa, published in 1900, “and the morals of either sex are said to overstep all limits of decency.”
Even in modern days I am amused to read that “. . . even in the twentieth century its local customs were still thriving including homosexuality to the point of an all male marriage.”
Though it would mean obtaining endless permits from Egyptian officials, I determined to go to Siwa. A friend of Eric Dukes, Dimitri Papadimos, known to his friends as “Taki”, of about my own age, who had been in the Greek air force during the war, was longing to photograph Siwa. The photographs which illustrate this section were all taken by him. So we met and made plans to go there together that very winter. The problems of transport were overcome and through the help of a kind Egyptian colonel we were lent a -cwt truck and a driver.
I now went to the English Library to look up Siwa in the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Dictionary of National Biography. The oasis is some six miles long by some four or five miles wide. The population is nearly four thousand. The inhabitants are of Libyan (Berber) stock and have a language of their own. The town is built on two rocks and resembles a fortress. The oasis owes its distinction to the oracle temple of Ammon. The Oracle of Siwa was one of the five great oracles of the ancient world.
Now describing his own arrival in Siwa with Papadimos …
The town is built on a rock and surrounded by bright palmgroves which rise out of the vast expanse of desert like an emerald set in a wooden box. Our truck moved slowly along dusty streets, flanked by dun-coloured houses built one above the other on the rock-side. White-robed men and swarthy ragged children stared at us curiously.
The empty rest-house which the Mamur, the Governor of Siwa, had told us we could stay in was perched on a hill one kilometre away from the town. It was kept by a young Siwan called Ahmed to whom we gave money to buy us food for supper—eggs, flat bread, a tiny chicken, dates, olives and sweet lemons, our daily meal while we were in Siwa. Then we stepped out into the clear, cold night and walked along a track until ahead of us, pale grey in the moonlight, we saw tiers of mud-houses, rising like battlements above a fortress, and lofty minarets tapering into the deep-blue Libyan night. There was silence. No lights showed through the tight-shuttered windows, as if the place were deliberately secretive. The narrow, unlit streets were empty. Inside the town it was very dark. Suddenly we heard a choking sob, then a man’s laugh.
The next morning the Mamur showed us the town.
“All the habits of the Siwans today,” he said, “come from what happened in the past. The old town, as you can see, is built on a rock. The Siwans who were quite rich from their dates and olives were so afraid of raids from the Bedouin tribes in the surrounding desert that when the population increased, and the rock became crowded, they built one house on top of the other. A father would build a storey on top of his house for his son; when he got married, his son would build another for his son and his wives, and so on. The houses, just as today, were made of mud mixed with salt, which hardens to the firmness of cement, until it rains which fortunately is very seldom. They use palm trunks for beams, and you can see them projecting from the ends of the houses.”
Gradually, we learned, the town became like a giant hive, with each cell joined by a steep, dark passage. In this confusion of lanes and black tunnels, unmarried men caused trouble in the harems, so there was a rule that no unmarried men might remain inside the walls of the town after sunset. The unmarried men were called “zaggalas”. (It is a Berber word meaning “bachelor”; the Siwans are the remnant of an old Berber race now intermixed with the blood of light-skinned Arabs and the blood of jet-black slaves brought by the caravans.) The zaggalas slept at night in roughly thatched shelters outside the walls, and they were responsible for the defence of Siwa. If raiders approached, they sounded the alarm and went out to attack the enemy. The zaggalas were fierce and abandoned. At night they would lie in their shelter singing wild songs and drinking lubki which is got from the heart of a palm-tree. As soon as a boy reached puberty, he was sent out to join them. “And he soon became like the rest,” said the Mamur.
We now understood the habits of the Siwans. For if the zaggalas, “fierce and abandoned”, spent their nights “singing wild songs and drinking lubki” with boys who had just reached puberty the result would seem inevitable. But not quite—as we discovered when we learned their unwritten law. If a zaggala fell in love with a young boy and wanted to marry him, by their law he had to warn the boy who, if he did not fancy the zaggala, would run away into the palm-groves. The zaggala would run after him in pursuit. If the zaggala caught up with the boy and seized him, then he could make love to him there and then and later take him back to his shelter outside the town walls. If by the following night the boy had been so overwhelmed by the charms of the zaggala that he wanted to stay with him, then he would remain with him in the zaggala’s shelter during the night that followed without making any attempt to escape from his embraces. Eventually they would get married.
“But they also marry girls—sometimes as young as nine or ten. But the marriage is seldom consummated the first night,” the doctor told us. “This is a good psychological rule. If I remove my wife’s virginity the first night, I teach her that marriage is only the bed. And if I am ill or away on travel, she will seek the bed elsewhere. But if I flatter her and am sweet to her and teach myself to love her, she will know that marriage is not only that. But I wonder how the Siwans have found out this psychological rule. Some men do not consummate the marriage for days, some for months. But, of course, the man sleeps with the girl in his arms during this time. And on occasion he may get excited and penetrate her, and then if the girl is very small she may die of an internal hæmorrhage. But death is taken very lightly by the Siwans. And they change wives frequently. I know one girl here of twenty-five who has been divorced nineteen times, the poor thing. But she seems quite happy.”
The following day we were shown round the market by a merchant who came to Siwa only during the date season. He was a lean, hawk-nosed man with sallow skin, furtive eyes and a jovial manner. He showed us the large date market of Siwa in a wide, open square surrounded by a wall. Groups of ragged children squatted by the mounds of dates spread across the market, sorting them into different qualities. The poorer sort are crushed into a solid mass and eaten by the Siwans or sold to the Bedouin. The finer kind are put carefully into baskets or tins and sent by lorry to Cairo.
Siwan dates are exceptionally rich in sugar, and provide the main source of wealth and nutriment in the oasis. The rule in the market is “you can eat as many dates as you like for nothing, but you may not take any away”. The dates were warm and sticky and delicious.
“They even give the dates to their animals,” the merchant said. “Siwa is so rich in dates. And rich in olives too. But they have little modern machinery and still press out the olive-oil by hand. They cling to their customs. They will not alter them. They refuse to change any of their habits. For this reason the men still make love to boys. And their women are badly neglected. The other thing is a habit they have got from their ancestors, like smoking. They will kill each other for a boy. Never for a woman. But now the marriage to a boy is illegal. Yet it still persists.”
I walked away into the gardens in the outlying oasis of Zeitoun and found a dozen zaggalas digging out an irrigation trench. They used hoes, as large as spades, and they picked out the earth and threw it on the bank with a single movement. A pale, thin man strained his hoe into the earth with a shuddering groan, as if each thrust tore out his entrails. I was glad when they stopped for a rest. The variety of racial stock in the oasis was illustrated by these men as they lay sprawling on the rich ground, smoking homemade pipes. They were light-skinned Berbers with wide mouths, hawk-nosed Arabs, dark-eyed smiling Sudanese, lean Egyptians, blubber-lipped Negroes. They were all friendly. Their wages were a few piastres a day, eked out to them in rations and small cash payments.
“They give us money in little bits,” their leader, a hairy Negro, said. “If they gave us a lump sum, we would not return to work until it was spent. We’d sing and drink.”
“And why should we work except for money?” cried his friend, a young dark boy called Sayed who lay beside him. “And why do we need money except for tobacco and tea and sugar? We make our own drink.”
“What about a wife?” I asked.
Sayed’s eyes glittered beneath their long lashes as they turned towards his friend.
“A good wife costs you ten pounds or more,” he said. “But for fifteen piastres you can have a girl for a short time.” Sayed touched the Negro’s cheek. “That is—if you want one,” he added.
Towards sunset that afternoon, I returned to the rest-house which was still empty except for Taki and me. Taki was still taking photographs, so I was alone. The door to the room which belonged to Ahmed, the caretaker, was half open. I looked in because I wanted to make sure that Ahmed had bought us fresh fruit and eggs for our supper. Ahmed was in bed with a boy of about fourteen. The boy was stretched face downwards, his face buried in the pillow. Ahmed was straddling him.
I was extremely surprised and a little shocked. For Ahmed had married a twelve-year-old girl only a week previously. He had insisted on taking Taki and me to his house to see his bride on the day after the marriage.
Ahmed’s house was a two-storeyed mud cottage supported by thick palm trunks which jutted out into the street. Ahmed had hung the jaw-bone of a donkey on one of the projections to keep away the evil eye. We entered a small low-ceilinged room on the upper storey. It was carpeted with gay striped rugs and gazelle skins strewn with patchwork cushions. Two little windows were placed low on the wall so that a person could see out of them as he reclined on the floor. Three brightly painted marriage chests were the only furniture in the light blue room; these contained the women’s clothes and jewellery. We were introduced to Ahmed’s parents. His mother was fifty years old. Her worn, sallow face was alive with humour, and she moved her tiny hands with a wonderful grace. Each time she rose to show us one of the necklaces or ear-rings (of which she was very proud) her wizened husband gazed up at her with love in his eyes. We heard some shuffling and giggling outside, and Ahmed came in leading his young sister Hanouma who stared at us coyly. We wondered when we would be allowed to meet Mabrouka, his latest wife. “She is ever so small,” Ahmed would say with a blush, “and I have only had her for a week. She is not used to me yet.” At last he decided to let us see her, and he took us to a tiny court-yard where Mabrouka was waiting. She was a shy little creature with enormous eyes deepened by kohl and a broad mouth set sulkily beneath a fleshy snub nose. She looked bewildered and hurt, like a trapped animal in a cage.
“I paid ten whole pounds for her,” Ahmed had told us proudly.
But here was Ahmed making love to a boy. I turned to go. At that moment Ahmed heard me and looked round. He smiled at me in greeting and then, when he saw that I was gazing at the slenderness of the boy, his expression became at once amused and lascivious.
“Auz el walad?” he sniggered. “Would you like to have the boy?”
As Ahmed spoke, the boy raised his head from the grubby pillow and turned to examine me. For an instant there was silence. As usual, my desire was in conflict both with my silly romantic notions and my sense of a decision which must essentially be sordid. Then, in his turn, the boy gave me a wide smile which showed his gleaming teeth. While Ahmed still straddled him the boy’s smile remained set—without a muscle of his face moving. It was as if I were staring at an erotic postcard. Then his lips moved and from between them his tongue protruded and slid wetly from one side of his mouth to the other, while his eyes expressed a furtive though definite invitation. Almost imperceptibly he nodded his head. Next, as if to show me his attractions, he began to writhe between Ahmed’s thighs.
“Would you like him?” Ahmed asked hoarsely.
Suddenly I remembered Dieter’s words: “It means no more than a piss before going to bed."
“Would you like him?” Ahmed repeated.
“Indeed I would,” I answered, trying to speak lightly. Then a lie which would spare the boy’s feelings came into my head. “But the fact is I’ve a young friend visiting me later.”
Ahmed grinned. “As long as you’re happy, ya sidi,” he murmured and leaned down and kissed the boy’s neck.
I am divided in two by Siwa. My Western half is worried that springs which could turn the desert into fertile grounds are wasted. He begins to calculate the cost of transporting labourers from the Nile Valley, the difficulty of building a new village for them (the aloof Siwans would have no truck with foreigners), the type of irrigation needed, and the capital required. He is irritated by the laziness and ignorance of the Siwans, by their obstinate refusal to change their habits, by their acceptance of pain, by their dirt and diseases. He is appalled by the brutal way in which the Siwan men seem to use their girls and boys. He is shocked by the almost universal lack of gentleness or shame.
But lurking behind him is the other half, an alien Eastern person, who watches the Siwans lolling in the sun, waiting until their money is finished, idling until they are forced to work, and sympathises with them. This person dreads the rectangular brick factories for the dates that civilisation may bring, the splutter of pumps for straining oil from olives, the blowing horn of the foreman’s car, the wailing of bazaar music on the radio, the struggle for existence, the strain for advancement, the grasping of money. He is afraid of the petrol-stations and policemen. He is ardent and lawless. If the choice is between freedom and comfort, he prefers freedom. He does not want Siwa to be exploited, because he knows it would bring clerks and supervision and controls. He prefers to see the palms nodding serenely over the rough careless men and the light fading behind the dun-coloured village until the deep Libyan night seals the village in silence.
My Eastern half is in agreement with the author of the book I have been reading. “We Westerners,” the author maintains, “are fearful of being reduced to acknowledge that the labour, the thought, the agitation which have place among us, often augment not the happiness of the individual, and are of doubtful utility to the collective body. . . . Impatience, activity, and sanguine hope, are habits of a European. . . . The habits of the Oriental, on the contrary, are indolence, gravity, patience. His ideas are few in number. . . . They are, however, generally correct.”
Thus writes W. G. Browne—the first European to reach Siwa since Roman times. He visited the oasis in 1792.
* * *
One evening Taki and I were in the living-room of the rest-house, eating our supper of boiled eggs and fruit, when the pye-dogs began barking outside. Then we heard voices in the kitchen. Presently Ahmed came into the living-room.
“A young Senussi soldier from the Libyan army has just arrived,” Ahmed announced. “He got lost on a patrol. He has been wandering in the desert for two days. He saw the light of this house far away and he made straight for it. He is very tired. May he stay here in the rest-house?”
“Of course,” we replied.
“I have given him water to drink, for he was very thirsty. But I have finished my meal,” Ahmed continued. “And I must go home to my new wife. So may the soldier join you to eat? And can he sleep in the spare room?”
“Certainly,” we answered.
Ahmed left, and presently returned with the soldier and some more food.
“This is Salem,” he said. “I’m afraid that like me he speaks no English.”
The soldier salaamed and smiled at us nervously. He had washed away the sand from his hands and face, but his calico tunic was coated with sand. He was surprisingly young—and extremely attractive, with his smooth oval face and large brown eyes fringed by long, curling lashes. Ahmed brought up a chair for him.
“Welcome,” we said in Arabic. “Tfaddal. Please sit down.”
“Mammoon giddan,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
His voice had a slight huskiness which I have often noticed among Bedouin.
We offered him wine and a cigarette, but, as we had expected, he refused. The Senussi form a strict Moslem sect. The Senussi Bedouin will neither smoke nor drink. However, we were glad to see that as soon as his shyness at meeting us had left him, Salem began to eat hungrily. Meanwhile Taki and I carried on a banal conversation in our halting Arabic, and once, when Salem was not looking, Taki gave me a wink, for Taki had sensed intuitively that I was fascinated by the young soldier. After we had finished our meal, we made coffee.
“I am quite exhausted,” Taki said presently. “So I shall retire to bed. Good night to you both.” He took a paraffin lamp from a side-table and walked up the stairs to his bedroom. At that moment I turned and saw that the soldier was looking at me.
Then he smiled, but the smile was wholly unlike the sensual leer of the boy whom Ahmed had offered to me. Salem’s smile was without any guile or sensuality; it was an open smile of friendship and affection. It was also completely innocent.
“I am grateful to you for your hospitality,” he said solemnly.
“Afwan,” I answered. “It was our pleasure.”
“I was foolish to get lost,” Salem announced. “Of course, I could have found my directions by the stars, but the sky was overcast.”
“Had you no compass?”
Salem smiled. “I once had a compass, but I lost it.”
“Have a little more to eat?”
“No, thank you. I am full, praise be to Allah,” Salem said. “And now,” he added, “I would like to wash myself before I go to bed, for I have not washed all over for three days.”
“I will show you to your bedroom,” I told him. “And I’ll show you the bathroom. The shower works, but I’m afraid the water is cold.”
Salem grinned. “I am used to cold water,” he said.
I gave him a lamp, took another lamp for myself, and led the way up the stairs. The spare room was separated from mine by the bathroom. I made sure that there were enough blankets on Salem’s bed, for winter nights in the Western Desert can be very cold. I showed him how the shower worked; I said good night to him, and went to my room. Though I was a little weary, I was too excited to sleep. I put the lamp on a table by my bed, and in order to distract myself from the thought of the boy washing himself under the shower next door, and in order to try to find relief from my desire, I took up at random one of the books I had brought with me to read on the journey. It was Urne-Burial by Sir Thomas Browne.
“A great part of Antiquity contented their hopes of subsistency with a transmigration of their souls,” I read. “A good way to continue their memories, while having the advantage of plural successions, they could not but act something remarkable in such variety of beings, and enjoying the fame of their past selves, make accumulations of glory unto their last durations. Others rather than be lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing, were content to recede into the common being, and make one particle of the publick soul of all things, which was no more than to return into their unknown and divine Original again.”
Suddenly the door which led to the bathroom opened, and Salem appeared and stood there motionless. He was naked except for a towel wound round his waist. His body was lithe yet wiry and beautifully formed. He looked very young. His tawny skin seemed to glow in the light of the lamp he was carrying.
“I saw from under the door that your lamp was still shining,” he said in his soft, husky voice. “So I knew you were still awake.”
I was silent, for I could think of nothing to say.
“I hope I haven’t disturbed you,” Salem muttered.
“Not at all,” I answered. “Why don’t you come in?”
“If I do not disturb you, then I will come in for a moment,” Salem said with a shy smile. “Before I ate food and took my shower I was tired. Now my tiredness has gone.”
Salem came into the room, closing the door behind him, and put down his lamp on a table. He sat down on a decrepit wicker chair. He was silent. I tried to make conversation.
“How old are you, Salem?” I asked.
“Sixteen or seventeen,” he replied. “I am not sure.”
“What made you become a soldier?”
“There was a drought. My tribe became very poor. There were too many mouths to feed. In the army there is always food.”
“How long have you been in the army?”
“Do you enjoy the life?”
“Sometimes. But I miss the people of my tribe and my friends.”
“Surely you have made friends in the army?”
Salem stared down at the floor. He frowned. “Sometimes a man has tried to make friends with me,” he said. “But I did not like him.”
“Have you a girl in your tribe you are fond of?”
“When I have no money, how can I afford to buy a wife?”
“Have you been to Tripoli?”
“What about the girls you can find there?”
“But one of those girls will go with any man for a night if she is paid. Besides, they say that some of them have disease.”
“Then what do you do when you feel desire?”
Salem smiled. “You are a man, so you must know,” he answered. Then he looked up at me. “How old are you?” he asked.
“That is a good age—thirty-one.”
“Because by then your mind has learned something about life, yet your body is still young.”
“But surely you must have learned quite a lot about life?”
“We Arabs have a proverb which says ‘Addounia sammounn essoumou el insanu tadrigian’. The world is a poison which poisons the soul of man gradually. I am not yet poisoned. Nor are you, I think. But in many ways I am still a child. I know little about the world. What is worse, I still have the fears of a child.
“What fears?” I asked.
Salem gazed at me with his large eyes. “I am afraid to be alone,” he told me. “These last days when I was alone and lost in the desert I was so frightened I thought I was going mad. I was very much afraid.
“So would most of us be,” I answered.
“Perhaps,” Salem said. “But I have another fear which is so childish you will laugh at me.”
“I won’t laugh, I promise you.”
“Why do you think I came into this room?”
“Because I am afraid to sleep alone in a room,” Salem said, his head bent towards the ground.
For an instant I thought that Salem might be making a discreet preparation for an “advance” to have sex. But then he looked up at me, and his dark eyes were as always completely innocent. What he next said subdued my excitement.
“I looked at the other room and I knew I could never sleep alone there,” Salem told me. “You see, in our tribe the unmarried men and boys sleep in a tent together. In the army we sleep in barracks. So I am used to hearing the sound of men breathing or stirring in their sleep. I have never slept alone in a room. And now you may laugh at me. But it is the truth all the same.”
I tried to conceal my disappointment; I tried to make my voice sound sympathetic yet casual when I spoke the only words which it was now possible to say.
“There’s room in this bed,” I said.
Salem smiled at me in gratitude. “I sleep very quietly,” he stated. “I mean, I do not snore or move about.”
“Don’t worry,” I answered as I made room for him in the bed. “You must be cold.”
“Thanks,” Salem said. Then he rose from the chair, blew out his lamp which was on a table beside him, crossed the room, and got into the part of the bed that was now empty. He lay on his back with his hands folded above the blankets. He was motionless.
“Shall we say ‘good night’?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “Leiltak saida. Sleep well.”
“Thanks,” Salem repeated.
There was silence. Salem did not stir. I wondered if I should put out the lamp which was still alight. But I knew that I could not sleep; I wanted to read for a while to calm my desire. I looked at Salem. His eyes were closed; he was breathing steadily. I turned back to Urne-Burial.
“Egyptian ingenuity was more unsatisfied, contriving their bodies in sweet consistencies, to attend the return of their souls,” I read. “But all was vanity, feeding the winde, and folly. The Egyptian Mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummies is become merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsoms.
“In vain do individuals hope for immortality, or any patent from oblivion, in preservations below the Moon.”
The words were very beautiful and moving. They should have swung my thoughts away from the bed in which I was lying. But I was still intensely aware of the boy who was only a few inches away from me. He was lying completely still as if he too had been “contrived in sweet consistencies”. I looked at him in the light of the lamp. His lips were a little parted which gave his smooth face a childish expression. The blanket covered only the lower half of his body; the skin was stretched tight over his broad shoulders and hairless chest. Then I began to examine him more closely. Salem had told me that he slept quietly and never moved in bed, but though his chest rose and fell as he breathed, I began to wonder at the stillness of his body. Suddenly I understood the reason for it. His quietness was not the result of sleep; it was an act of conscious will, for though his eyes were closed Salem was awake. For a while I hesitated. Then I could endure the doubt of my hope no longer. I stretched out my hand and put it on Salem’s shoulder. His skin was very warm. He did not move. Perhaps I only imagined that I saw his eyelids flicker for an instant. I kept my hand on his shoulder for a while, then, as if by no deliberate act of my own, my hand slid down to feel the smoothness of his chest. At that moment his whole body seemed to give a start, and at the same instant he turned swiftly, and his arms clasped me and pressed my body against him, while his lips slid across my face until they came to my mouth.
Long after my energy was exhausted, Salem continued with his love-making. It was as if he had learned to make love but had never practised the art he had acquired, so that the fountain of his desire had been pent up under the ground and now that it was released flowed endlessly. Towards dawn he went to sleep with his head on my chest and his arms still holding me.
When we came down into the living-room that morning Taki had already had breakfast and left, for he liked to take his photographs in the early morning light. Ahmed brought us coffee and toast and leered at us knowingly. But Salem gave no sign that he had noticed the leer; he was smiling at me happily across the table and talking so fast that I had to ask him to speak more slowly, for I could not understand his Arabic.
“You must learn Arabic, and you must come and live with me in my tribe,” Salem told me.
“You must learn English, and come and live with me in London,” I answered.
We had reached that stage in the intoxication of a new love during which the difficult problems of the real world vanished, and all plans seem both possible and wonderful. As we walked round the oasis that morning a part of me was uneasily aware of this fact, but I managed to disregard it. For though we may never attain a permanent state of nirvana in our lives, at a moment when an opportunity for a temporary period of nirvana presents itself we can enjoy it completely only by forgetting the past and ignoring the future and living each minute in contemplation of the joy of the present.
I took Salem to see the ruins of the Temple of the Oracle of Jupiter Ammon. Then we went to bathe in the warm waters of Ain el Hammam where a spring spurts up from the earth and forms a round pool which irrigates the groves of date-palms. As I watched Salem’s lean body frisking in the sunshine I knew that I could not wait for nightfall before I made love to him again. I could not wait for that mixture of fierceness so strangely combined with tenderness.
We spoke little at lunch in the rest-house. Suddenly our eyes met and we smiled contentedly, for at that moment we were both aware that our thought was the same. Presently, in silence, we climbed the stairs that led to my bedroom.
Three days passed in a trance of happiness. But during the fourth day I noticed at times—if only for a few seconds—that the happiness glowing on Salem’s face would vanish. At the same instant he would lower his long curling lashes as if to shut out some vision that confronted him. Then I realised that for a moment the future had pierced through the protective dome of contentment that covered his present nirvana.
An hour before sunset that day Salem suggested that we should visit once again the oasis of Zeitoun. For a while we walked quietly admiring the beauty of the place. Tall palms and giant olive trees flourished their branches over sugar-cane, pomegranates and sweet lemons. The spring wells up in a pool of gleaming water and reflects the delicate fronds of the palms which surround it like a group of bathers. Green stalactites of weeds wave slowly in the pool. Then Salem spoke.
“You know that I must go back,” he said. “They may send out a patrol to find me. And if they discover I have stayed here with you for several days without making any effort to return or to get a message through to our head-quarters, I would be horribly punished.”
“There must be something we can do,” I replied. But even as I spoke, I was aware that my words were futile.
“What can we do?” Salem asked in his husky voice. “Let us admit the truth to ourselves. Even if I could get away from the army, you would never be happy for long living in our goatskin tents. Even if I could reach London, I could never live for long in a town, for I am still a Bedouin.
I was silent. The dome protecting our nirvana had been shattered.
“Another thing,” Salem added. “I could not bear to say goodbye to you. So one day you will find I have gone. But you must remember that I shall always remember you. And I shall pray to Allah for your happiness.”
When we are deeply moved our words—the actual words we use—are very banal. It is the expression of our face and the grief in our voice that convey our feelings, so I will not attempt to repeat—even inaccurately—the words I then said to Salem. The only sense I made was to tell him I would give him my spare compass.
As usual that evening Salem had his shower and came into my room with a towel round his waist which he hung neatly on the wicker chair and got into bed with me. That night his passion was fiercer than it had ever been. And later, when it was all finished and he thought I was asleep, he ran his hands over my body from my head to my feet as if he were blind and could not see me by the faint light of the lamp that had been turned down low. Then he gave a long sigh. For a while he lay still. Presently he blew out the lamp. Soon I went to sleep.
In the morning he had gone.
Ahmed told me that he had taken provisions for his journey from the kitchen.
* * *
Taki had taken all the photographs he wanted; he had to return to Cairo for another assignment. I decided I would return with him—at least for a while—for I needed to clear my mind before I made any decisions for the future.
On our last night in Siwa a fantasia took place in the little hall of the rest-house. Two dozen zaggalas appeared towards ten in the evening. They entered in a compact mass, as if controlled by one communal spirit, and sat in a close circle round the hall—little smooth-cheeked boys, stocky Berbers with shaved scalps, gigantic Negroes, all of them workers from the groves. They had been drinking the fomented palm juice called lubki, and their eyes were wild as they began to dance, moving slowly round a large Negro who sat on the floor playing on a rough wooden flute, never pausing for breath. At first, their deliberate, jerky steps as each followed the other round the circle seemed ridiculous. Then they began to sing stridently, the half-broken voices of the adolescents mingling with the strong bass of the Negroes. I wrote down the tune thus:
The words of each refrain were in their own Siwan language.
“This one is about love,” Ahmed whispered to me later. “This is what they are singing: ‘My love is like a flaming torch, and sometimes I take him to my breast’.”
Leathery, black, naked feet, deeply scarred by the palm fronds, slapped the floor to the rhythm of two drums, one bass, one tenor. The dancers moved, following their leader, in a small circle round the musicians, now swaying and bowing, now crouching and springing up into the air, now shuffling one foot after the other, now bending and twirling. Suddenly a dancer would grab the man ahead, and they would be clasped together for a moment in a sexual embrace before returning to their place in the ring. Then the music stopped abruptly, and the sweating men and boys fell limply to the floor. During this pause the Negro with huge limbs who appeared to be their leader took a double reed flute which he played while the others listened casually.
I watched the tough lean zaggalas sprawling together against the wall. They were utterly relaxed, I noticed; there was no tension in their bodies at that moment. But on their faces was an expression which at first I found hard to decipher. Later in the evening I understood the reason for it. They were devoid of any feeling of guilt, the cross of Western civilisation; and therefore they were free from our worst worry. They were careless.
We may at times protest against the doctrine that all pleasure is sinful. We may believe that the teachings of Christ suggest loving kindness rather than unrelieved guilt. But the drops of propaganda for the sinfulness of pleasure which were spilt over us by teachers and pastors in our youth have left a scar that throbs. The pure well of our pleasure in life has been poisoned. Guilt, the Church’s secret weapon, stealthily attacks each person in the West; and it is a force which, by sapping the strength of the individual, has weakened our resistance to domination by the State. We feel that it must surely be wrong for us to be happy by ourselves, therefore we settle down with a sigh to being corporately gloomy. Pursuit of happiness is abandoned.
The drums began throbbing; the dancers stirred, rose languidly and formed into a circle, one behind the other. The drums’ beat grew more insistent. Then with a shout the men burst into their chant.
Over and over again the same four words echoed around the room, “Oh power of God, oh power of God”. The drums beat louder and quicker, and the men sang with all the power of their lungs. In the field of work their faces had been stolid. Now they were alight with passion. As they moved faster, their gestures became larger and more intense, as if speed increased their desire for expression. “Ya Haoul il lah. Ya Haoul il lah.” The circle of their dance and the four words had a hypnotic effect; the original meaning was forgotten. The syllables had become an incantation.
Round and round the circle men pranced and leaped and swayed. The beats of the drums were quiet at the beginning of each phrase, and then, as the tempo grew faster, they would swell into loud thuds, until, when the climax of din and speed had been reached, the beats would grow soft, as if exhausted by their orgasm; but soon clamour would rise and swell again.
Tearing off their clothes, dancers flung themselves into wilder movements. A boy would break away to perform a frantic solo belly-dance until pulled back into the jerking circle by his friend. A gaunt Berber seized the pipes; the tune continued, and the great Negro, released from his toil, plunged into the ring in an ecstasy of strength. Sweat trickled down his hard black limbs. Men’s bodies as well as their eyes soon revealed rising passions. They quivered with the intensity of their excitement. And then the last strip of cloth was dropped or was torn from their loins. They were rigid in their exaltation; their organs like their muscles were extremely well-developed.
“Ya Haoul il lah. Ya Haoul il lah.” The chant was bellowed now, as if it were a protest against all restrictions, against the need to work and the need to live in bonds of flesh and the need to grow old and die. It was a plea for release from human bondage. The zaggalas were pouring their virility into the dance as a libation to freedom. Tomorrow might be painful, but tonight they could experience the culmination of joy.
But for all the excitement and elation that I enjoyed as I watched their last orgasms, I realised that even if I married the most beautiful boy among that frenzied group and even if I lived in an ecstasy of union for a while, I knew that my Western self would still be weakened by my sense of guilt. As yet I was strong enough neither in mind nor in custom to endure the East for any length of time. I must return, for a while at least, to my existence in “Western civilisation”, to my own form of bondage.
 Robin Lane Fox: Alexander the Great: Allen Lane, London: 1973. [author’s note]
If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to email@example.com, mentioning in the subject line either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.