After exchanging the usual compliments, and giving us time to enjoy the view, our host withdrew, taking with him the men of our party. A moment later he reappeared with a rosy fair-haired girl, dressed in Arab costume, but evidently of European birth. The brother-in-law explained that this young woman, who had “studied in Algeria,” and whose mother was French, was the intimate friend of the ladies of the household, and would act as interpreter. Our host then again left us, joining the men visitors in another room, and the door opened to admit his wife and daughters-in-law.
The mistress of the house was a handsome Algerian with sad expressive eyes, the younger women were pale, fat and amiable. They all wore sober dresses, in keeping with the simplicity of the house, and but for the vacuity of their faces the group might have been that of a Professor’s family in an English or American University town, decently costumed for an Arabian Nights’ pageant in the college grounds. I was never more vividly reminded of the fact that human nature, from one pole to the other, falls naturally into certain categories, and that Respectability wears the same face in an Oriental harem as in England or America.
My hostesses received me with the utmost amiability, we seated ourselves in the oriel facing the view, and the interchange of questions and compliments began.
Had I any children? (They asked it all at once.)
“In Islam” (one of the ladies ventured) “a woman without children is considered the most unhappy being in the world.”
I replied that in the western world also childless
women were pitied.
(The brother-in-law smiled incredulously.)
Knowing that European fashions are of absorbing interest to the harem I next enquired: “What do these ladies think of our stiff tailor-dresses? Don’t they find them excessively ugly?”
“Yes, they do;” (it was again the brother-in-law who replied.) “But they suppose that in your own homes you dress less badly.”
“And have they never any desire to travel, or to visit the Bazaars, as the Turkish ladies do?”
“No, indeed. They are too busy to give such matters a thought. In our country women of the highest class occupy themselves with their household and their children, and the rest of their time is devoted to needlework.” (At this statement I gave the brother-in-law a smile as incredulous as his own.)
All this time the fair-haired interpretess had not been allowed by the vigilant guardian of the harem to utter a word.
I turned to her with a question.
“So your mother is French, Mademoiselle?”
“From what part of France did she come?”
A bewildered pause. Finally, “I don’t know . . . from Switzerland, I think,” brought out this shining example of the Higher Education. In spite of Algerian “advantages” the poor girl could speak only a few words of her mother’s tongue. She had kept the European features and complexion, but her soul was the soul of Islam. The harem had placed its powerful imprint upon her, and she looked at me with the same remote and passive eyes as the daughters of the house.