Oriental Encounters Palestine and Syria, 1894-6

Oriental Encounters
Palestine and Syria, 1894-6

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INTRODUCTION

Early in the year 1894 I was a candidate for one of two vacancies in the Consular Service for Turkey, Persia, and the Levant, but failed to gain the necessary place in the competitive examination. I was in despair. All my hopes for months had been turned towards sunny countries and old civilisations, away from the drab monotone of London fog, which seemed a nightmare when the prospect of escape eluded me. I was eighteen years old, and, having failed in one or two adventures, I thought myself an all-round failure, and was much depressed. I dreamed of Eastern sunshine, palm trees, camels, desert sand, as of a Paradise which I had lost by my shortcomings. What was my rapture when my mother one fine day suggested that it might be good for me to travel in the East, because my longing for it seemed to indicate a natural instinct, with which she herself, possessing Eastern memories, was in full sympathy!

I fancy there was some idea at the time that if I learnt the languages and studied life upon the spot I might eventually find some backstairs way into the service of the Foreign Office; but that idea, though cherished by my elders as some excuse for the expenses of my expedition, had never, from the first, appealed to me; and from the moment when I got to Egypt, my first destination, it lost whatever lustre it had had at home. For then the European ceased to interest me, appearing somehow inappropriate and false in those surroundings. At first I tried to overcome this feeling or perception which, while I lived with English people, seemed unlawful. All my education until then had tended to impose on me the cult of the thing done habitually upon a certain plane of our society. To seek to mix on an equality with Orientals, of whatever breeding, was one of those things which were never done, nor even contemplated, by the kind of person who had always been my model.

My sneaking wish to know the natives of the country intimately, like other unconventional desires I had at times experienced, might have remained a sneaking wish until this day, but for an accident which freed me for a time from English supervision. My people had provided me with introductions to several influential English residents in Syria, among others to a family of good position in Jerusalem; and it was understood that, on arrival in that country, I should go directly to that family for information and advice. But, as it chanced, on board the ship which took me to Port Said from Naples I met a man who knew those people intimately—had been, indeed, for years an inmate of their house—and he assumed the office of my mentor. I stayed in Cairo, merely because he did, for some weeks, and went with him on the same boat to Jaffa. He, for some unknown reason—I suspect insanity—did not want me in Jerusalem just then; and, when we landed, spun me a strange yarn of how the people I had thought to visit were exceedingly eccentric and uncertain in their moods; and how it would be best for me to stop in Jaffa until he sent me word that I was sure of welcome....