Domini and Androvsky rode towards Amara at a foot’s pace, looking towards its distant towers. A quivering silence lay around them, yet already they seemed to hear the cries of the voices of a great multitude, to be aware of the movement of thronging crowds of men. This was the first Sahara city they had drawn near to, and their minds were full of memories of the stories of Batouch, told to them by the camp fire at night in the uninhabited places which, till now, had been their home: stories of the wealthy date merchants who trafficked here and dwelt in Oriental palaces, poor in aspect as seen from the dark and narrow streets, or zgags, in which they were situated, but within full of the splendours of Eastern luxury; of the Jew moneylenders who lived apart in their own quarter, rapacious as wolves, hoarding their gains, and practising the rites of their ancient and—according to the Arabs—detestable religion; of the marabouts, or sacred men, revered by the Mohammedans, who rode on white horses through the public ways, followed by adoring fanatics who sought to touch their garments and amulets, and demanded importunately miraculous blessings at their hands—the hedgehog’s foot to protect their women in the peril of childbirth; the scroll, covered with verses of the Koran and enclosed in a sheaf of leather, that banishes ill dreams at night and stays the uncertain feet of the sleep-walker; the camel’s skull that brings fruit to the palm trees; the red coral that stops the flow of blood from a knife-wound—of the dancing-girls glittering in an armour of golden pieces, their heads tied with purple and red and yellow handkerchiefs of silk, crowned with great bars of solid gold and tufted with ostrich feathers; of the dwarfs and jugglers who by night perform in the marketplace, contending for custom with the sorceresses who tell the fates from shells gathered by mirage seas; with the snake-charmers—who are immune from the poison of serpents and the acrobats who come from far-off Persia and Arabia to spread their carpets in the shadow of the Agha’s dwelling and delight the eyes of negro and Kabyle, of Soudanese and Touareg with their feats of strength; of the haschish smokers who, assembled by night in an underground house whose ceiling and walls were black as ebony, gave themselves up to day-dreams of shifting glory, in which the things of earth and the joys and passions of men reappeared, but transformed by the magic influence of the drug, made monstrous or fairylike, intensified or turned to voluptuous languors, through which the Ouled Nail floated like a syren, promising ecstasies unknown even in Baghdad, where the pale Circassian lifts her lustrous eyes, in which the palms were heavy with dates of solid gold, and the streams were gliding silver.
Often they had smiled over Batouch’s opulent descriptions of the marvels of Ain-Amara, which they suspected to be very far away from the reality, and yet, nevertheless, when they saw the minarets soaring above the sands to the brassy heaven, it seemed to them both as if, perhaps, they might be true. The place looked intensely barbaric. The approach to it was grandiose.