Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, May 25, 2021


 "The Drums of Kairwan" by The Marquess Curzon of Kedleston (exerpted from Tales of Travel, 1923; reprinted in Twenty and Three Stories by Twenty and Three Authors, edited by Ernest Rhys and Catherine Amy Dawson-Scott, 1924)

Not really a short story but a purported description of a religious rite viewed by the author in a mosque in what is now Northest Tunisia.  It is not stated in this exerpt, but I believe the mosque is The Great Mosque -- a major destination for Islamic pilgrims (seven trips here equals on hadj to Mecca); the author dates the mosque back to Roman Empire times, but The Grand Mosque was erected several centuries later.  Whether the author was faithful in his recounting of his experience, or whether it was viewed through a biased Westerner's eyes, I can't say.

George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 -1925) was the 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston and had a string of official honors (KG, GCSI, GCIE, PC, FBA) attached to his name.  He was a ;prominent Conservative statesman in England, serving as Viceroy of India (1899-1905), Leader of the House of Lords during World War I, and Foreign Secretary from 1919-1924.  Curzon was once expected to become Prime Minister but was thwarted by a few Conservatives and the post went to Stanley Baldwin.

Anyway, he enters the mosque, where there are ten or twelve muscians seated cross-legged in a circle in the center of the floor, with the chief or sheik (Curzon uses both words) on a stool at the head of the circle.  The only instruments used are an earthen drum and several tambours. There is a group of singers (or chorus) taking up the rest of the orchestra.  There are about a hundred men (no wlmen allowed) seated motionless on the main floor.  Throughout the tale, Curzon calls the rite a "play" and the participants "actors."  This indicates his (and, in general, the British) condescending approach to Islam, as well as to the native population.

The drums begin "droning" and the singers begin "a plaintive and quavering wail...always pitiful, peircing and inexpressively sad."  The singers began rocking to and fro.  More people entered the mosque and the building was full.  Four or five Arabs by the front of the building "began a lurching, swaying motion," which soon progressed to "keeping time with the music in convulsive jerks and  leaps and undulations."  One by one the spectators joined in until at least forty human figures were rocking back and forth in "grim and ungraceful unison;" those who remained seated were also rocking back and forth, with one child who "swung his little head this way and that with a fury that threatened to separate it from his body."

The frenzy increased.  These writhing and contorted objects were no longer human beings, but savage animals, caged beasts howling madlyin the delirium of hunger or of pain.  they growled like bears, they barked like jackals, roared like lions, they laughed like hyeanas, and ever and anon from the seething rank there rose a diabollic shriek, like the scream of a dying horse, or the yell of a tortured fiend."

One man, stripped to the waist, was given a sword by the shiek and commenced to slash himself savagely across his stomach.  Welts appeared, but no blood.  Soon others began "some novel and  horrible rite of self-mutilation.  One man began to shove a sharply pointed stick into his body; another cam up to him with a mallet and drove the stick until it protruded from his rear shoulder.  Another was given a plate of huge broken pieces of glass, wich others shoved down his throat.  A boyu swallowed a snake.  Several chomped down hard on prickly pear leaves, whose thorns pierced their tongues and cheeks as they swallowed them.  For more than an hour this horror continued without relief.  At this ;point, Curzon was told that the mokaddam (or head man) wished him to leave.

"Perhaps yet further and more revolting orgies were celebrated after I left," including the sawllowing of of live coals and the entire group of worshippers descending an a live sheep and rending it pieces and devoured raw by "these unatural banqueters."


Methinks Curzon misinterpreted/imagined/fabricated much of which he saw, much of which seemed to be statements of faith -- just a different faith than good old Church of England.  I wonder what he would have thought of the snake handling religions of the Appalachians or other seemingly extreme faiths?

"The Drums of Kairwan" is a short but telling piece, only a few pages long.  It's an intersting read if only for its biased view common at the turn of the last century.  

Twenty and Three Stories by Twenty and Three Authors is available to read online.  Also included in the anthology are stories by Edith Wharton, Thomas Burke, Robert Hichens, W. B. Yeats, Lemuel De Bra, Elinor Mordaunt, A. W. Mason, Cutliffe Hyne, Edwin Pugh, R. Ellis Roberts, John Masefield, Louis Golding, Arthur Lynch, A. Conan Doyle,  Algernon Blackwoord, Ward Muir, Morley Roberts, H De Vere Stackpoole, T. F. Powys, W. W. Jacobs, Walter de la Mare, and W. Somerset Maugham -- a volume worth reading in full.  Curzon's Tales of Travel is also available to read online and includes the full chapter "The Drums of Kiwan," rather than just the exerpt.

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