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Oriental Stories April/May/June 1931

BIBI LOVE

By SOLON K. STEWART

The love of a British soldier for an Arab girla romantic story of the Mesopotamian campaign

QUALAT AL MUFTI on a summer afternoon in mid '17 was the quintessence of sun-baked desolation.

A few mud huts round which lay a scant two acres under cultivation, the water raised in goatskin bags from the muddy Diyalah, thirty feet below; a few straggly, dispirited date palms, in whose scant shade dozed a dozen tiny donkeys daubed with henna—this was what filled Jennet Carlton's vision as he stood considering whether to go up the river, or down. Pausing a moment, he dropped down the steep path to the water's edge.

The Diyalah runs through a deep channel, through the unproductive clay of Iraq. Along its edge is a narrow strip of beach which the Arabs used as a road, the bluff affording grateful shade from the blazing sun.

The swirl of the water, hurrying from the snow-dad Pusht-I-Koh down to the Tigris, made pleasant music in his ears. A vagrant current of air felt cool and pleasant as it touched the breast of his sopping shirt. So immersed was he in his reflections as he walked that it was only when he was face to face with her, a scant yard away, that he was aware of an Arab woman standing at the water's edge.

Being the walker, he gave the salutation, "Salaam alekum."

"Wa alekum es salaam, Sahib," came the smiling answer in deep, full-toned gutturals; and a moment later she added with a laugh, "Goo' night."

The bibi's laugh was that of the Occident, rather than the shrill, cacophonous falsetto of the women of Mesopotamia. It affected him like the notes of a melody long unheard. The stumbling accents of her "Goo' night," the first syllables of his own tongue heard on a woman's lips for months, filled him suddenly with the desire for female companionship.

Unslinging his rifle, he sat down crosslegged; the woman sitting on her heels a few feet away.

"You're rushing things, aren't you?" he asked laughingly. "It won't be night for hours, yet."

With a puzzled frown, but smiling lips, she signified that she did not understand—"Ma afthaham."

"No," returned Carlton, regarding her with a whimsical smile, "I don't suppose you do.

"Tachi Inglesi? No? Well, we'll speak Arabic, then."

It was more difficult than Hindustani, which he had learned to speak with barrack-room fluency in India. But he made her understand. And in queer, outlandish dialect, of which familiar words here and there enabled him to guess the rest, she told him she was from the hill country near Karind, and had made her way through the Turkish lines near Kizil Robat on her way to Bagdad.

In answer to his question, "Shismak?" she told him her name was "Maryam."

In the medium of the Mesopotamian bazars, the weird lingua franca whose component parts are English, Arabic, Urdu, with occasional words in French, soldier and hill woman talked of the interminable nothings of the East; their low-pitched, monotonously intoned conversation interspersed with the long silences of the desert—silences in which their jigaaras took on a vast importance as they watched the drifting smoke curl into nothingness as they puffed.

It was not till the noise of some one descending the bank broke a longer silence that he realized how long he had been talking with this beautiful, wonderfully fascinating Maryam. He asked the time of the Arab.

"Five!" he exclaimed, rising hastily when the man told him. "I'll be late for parade if I don't hurry. It's at a quarter past."

As he stood regarding her full-bodied, graceful, calm-faced beauty, almost without volition the words rose to his lips. He spoke them, hardly realizing their import, or how they would be received.

"Wayn baytak?" he asked; then wondered what she would say; for he knew that he should never ask an Arab woman where she lived.

She regarded him a moment with inscrutable eyes. Then bowing her head, and placing the back of her hand on her forehead, she answered in the poetic Arabic, "My home is in the heart of my master."

As he turned to go, he whispered, "Ashra"—at ten. And as he scrambled up the bluff, her voice came to him in the soft sibilant "Allah yusellemek"—God give you peace.

WHEN all in the tent were asleep, Carlton rose from his charpoi, drew on his boots, and made his way through the star-shot velvet shadow of Mesopotamian night, past the clustered Arab huts, and scrambled down to the water's edge.

She was waiting; the outlines of her lithesome figure vague and indistinct, merging into the shadow of the bluff.

The inheritance of untold unchanging generations of broad-hipped, high-breasted hill women was Maryam's: the know...

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