The women who from time to time descend to the river, to draw water also, but in their case in the vases of potters’ clay which they carry—this fetching and carrying of the life-giving water is the one primordial occupation in this Egypt, which has no rain, nor any living spring, and subsists only by its river—these women walk and posture with an inimitable grace, draped in black veils, which even the poorest allow to trail behind them, like the train of a court dress. In this bright land, with its rose-coloured distances, it is strange to see them, all so sombrely clothed, spots of mourning, as it were, in the gay fields and the flaring desert. Machine-like creatures, all untaught, they yet possess by instinct, as did once the daughters of Hellas, a sense of nobility in attitude and carriage. None of the women of Europe could wear these coarse black stuffs with such a majestic harmony, and none surely could so raise their bare arms to place on their heads the heavy jars filled with Nile water, and then, departing, carry themselves so proudly, so upright and resilient under their burden.
The muslin tunics which they wear are invariably black like the veils, set off perhaps with some red embroidery or silver spangles. They are unfastened across the chest, and, by a narrow opening which descends to the girdle, disclose the amber-coloured flesh, the median swell of bosoms of pale bronze, which, during their ephemeral youth at least, are of a perfect contour. The faces, it is true, when they are not hidden from you by a fold of the veil, are generally disappointing. The rude labours, the early maternity and lactations, soon age and wither them. But if by chance you see a young woman she is usually an apparition of beauty, at once vigorous and slender.
As for the fellah babies, who abound in great numbers and follow, half naked their mammas or their big sisters, they would for the most part be adorable little creatures, were it not for the dirtiness which in this country is a thing almost prescribed by tradition. Round their eyelids and their moist lips are glued little clusters of Egyptian flies, which are considered here to be beneficial to the children, and the latter have no thought of driving them away, so resigned are they become, by force of heredity, to whatever annoyance they thereby suffer. Another example indeed of the passivity which their fathers show when brought face to face with the invading foreigners!
Passivity and meek endurance seem to be the characteristics of this inoffensive people, so graceful in their rags, so mysterious in their age-old immobility, and so ready to accept with an equal indifference whatever yoke may come. Poor, beautiful people, with muscles that never grow tired! Whose men in olden times moved the great stones of the temples, and knew no burden that was too heavy; whose women, with their slender, pale-tawny arms and delicate small hands, surpass by far in strength the burliest of our peasants!