A Celebration of Women Writers

"Moorish Women As I Found Them." by Mrs. Amelia Louisa Howard.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 463-468.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 463] 

MOORISH WOMEN AS I FOUND THEM.

By MRS. A. L. HOWARD.

MRS. AMELIA L. HOWARD.
The traveler who goes to Tangiers in Morocco comes from Cadiz or Gibraltar. While it is a trip of but a few hours, yet it seems like stepping backward, like closing a modern history to pick up a romance, like passing from Gibbon or Macaulay to the Arabian Nights.

Tangiers at one time belonged to Portugal and formed a part of the dower given to Catharine of Braganza when she married Charles II., King of England. The English built a long stone pier, at the end of which vessels could anchor in safety. In after years they found the possession an expensive one, without any great advantages, so Tangiers was ceded to the Emperor of Morocco, and the first step of the Morocco potentate was to destroy the pier, and so compel all ships to anchor in the offing, about a mile from the shore. Before leaving the steamer the Arabian Nights Entertainment begins. Boats manned by native boatmen in picturesque costumes swarm around and fight for passengers, knock each other down with their oars, toss each other overboard, screech, yell, gesticulate, in fact, carry on as if demented; it is pandemonium let loose. The travelers finally make terms and are stowed in the boats with their luggage. The transit is made in a few minutes, and the boat reaches a stone landing. Here the free fight begins anew with fresh vigor and different combatants. One is very sure that it is a mistaken idea that Morgiana scalded the forty thieves to death; they are all here, forty times forty in number, and as much alive as in the days of Ali Baba. They wade out into the water to their waists, they snatch satchels and valises in spite of all efforts to retain them, gesticulating and talking and demanding "backsheesh." The boatmen beat them off with their oars, and after a struggle and much shouting, the passengers are landed, the luggage is recovered under a shower of abuse in Arabic, with a droll intermingling of English oaths (learned from British sailors), is passed through the custom house with little difficulty, and we find ourselves within the gates of Tangiers, walking toward the hotel–walking, for there is but one carriage, and that belongs to the Cheriff, who is married to an English woman. How he can use it with any comfort or safety on the roughly paved, steep, stony streets of Tangiers I can not imagine. The Cheriff's wife came out from England as a governess and married her husband with the promise that she was to be the only wife. She bore him two sons. When the boys were eight and ten years old the father proposed to take another wife. The English wife imme- [Page 464]  diately made arrangements for a separation, and took charge of the education of her children. She is bringing them up as Mohammedans, as their lot is cast in Tangiers, and is giving them every advantage of an European education, joined with the learning of the Arabs. She is to be seen very often on horseback in and about Tangiers.

The first good look one has at the women is in the market place. There is a market for vegetables and one for grain, and outside of these a wide plain, where, amid horses, donkeys, camels, snake charmers, etc., crowds of natives wander about or squat down in groups. Of course the women met here are of the lower classes, those of the higher rarely walking abroad, save to go to the bath, and then are muffled from head to feet. The general costume of the multitude is made of coarse cotton cloth, white or unbleached being most common. Yellow is sometimes seen, but I do not remember seeing any vivid colors; the men reserve the bright colors for their own use. The dress consists of drawers, loose, but not flowing, scarcely perceptible beneath the long, cloak-like garment, lapped in front and bound with a girdle of folds of the same material, the girdle being used as a pocket. Over the whole is a mantle, sheet-like in form, that is wrapped about until the person is completely disguised. One edge comes down over the forehead to the eyes, and the other is brought across the lower part of the face up to the bridge of the nose, leaving only the eyes exposed. The lowest as well as the highest drapes herself thus, of course in finer or coarser material, according to the rank and wealth, but even the most abandoned affect the disguise. A favorite material for the drapery among the lower classes is the soft bathing sheet we use. The little girls use large bathing towels, and gravely imitate their elders in concealing their faces and form. The women seemed to be buying and selling and gossiping in the market, just as our own women do. Sometimes they forget themselves and let the drapery drop from their faces, but as soon as they notice a man looking their way, they draw it up around them again. The young women are quite pretty, some light brunettes and others as dark as negroes. The old women are hideous–veritable hags. There is much disease among them, and so little medical care that they are great sufferers. Male physicians are not allowed to attend them, and skilled female physicians are not yet sufficiently numerous to do much good. There is an American Presbyterian mission established in Tangiers. The American women missionaries are generally doctors. They learn Arabic quickly, and give their medical services to introduce Christianity.

Near the Kaaba, or pasha's palace, is another palace, where the pasha's ladies reside. I thought at first that this was the pasha's harem, but found it was a palace where relatives of the pasha, "his sisters, his cousins and his aunts" reside, the young ones until husbands were found for them, the old ones until their death. The pasha (governor of the town under the emperor), quite a young man, who had succeeded his father, had but one wife, to whom he was devotedly attached. His home was a beautiful country seat near the town where his wife and children resided, he himself coming into the Kaaba for the transaction of business, remaining one or several days at a time.

The pasha's ladies I saw were three or four quite pretty young ones and one very old one, the widow of a former pasha. Of course in the house they wore no drapery. They seemed gay and amiable girls, delighted to see strangers and to show their house. The rooms were built around a marble paved court and contained no furniture but a brass bed and cushions around the wall or scattered on the floor. Some had no beds, but little round tables about six inches high, to hold work or a cup of tea or coffee, as the occupants sat upon the floor. All the floors were covered with rugs. Here and there around the court were light tables, bearing sweets, which they offered us. They showed us their costumes, consisting of three or more long coat-like garments over several skirts. These skirts and coats, all nearly of the same length, were of thin, soft material, a kind of muslin, of different delicate colors with gold and silver interwoven, and were worn one over the other until all blended and formed an airy drapery. They were lapped in front and bound at the waist with a wide sash of soft silk, the folds of [Page 465]  which were used as pockets for handkerchiefs, flat pincushions, scissors and sewing materials. They wore no corset and their drawers did not show beneath the dress, and their bare feet were thrust into babouches of leather embroidered in gold and silver. Babouches are slippers, the fore part only used; the back part is mashed flat to the sole by the heel. Their hair was twisted up carelessly and bound with bands of tinsel and beads, with fresh flowers stuck here and there. They are very fond of fresh flowers, and have them about in quantities. One was seated on the floor, sorting out a large bunch which had just been brought in, and she seemed to be in an ecstacy of delight over the roses. Tangiers is a paradise of flowers. We met at the palace two young American ladies, doctors or medical students, from the Presbyterian mission, and through them we carried on our conversation. They told us of the great suffering among the women from the utter neglect of good medical attendance. They came to the palace to see particularly the widow of the old pasha, who was a very great sufferer. She was always glad to receive them, and hearing from them that our party was in the palace, she sent for us to pay her a visit. They told us she was a very good woman, and had been a beauty, but we could see no vestige remaining. She was a perfect wreck.

The house was a two-story one, as are most of the houses in Tangiers. Some of the second stories had windows on the street, and the women seemed as free to look from them as we were at the gentlemen of our party, who were awaiting us in the street below, but they did not appear to care to look. I suppose they would have felt obliged to muffle their faces, as this is apparently a matter of self-respect with them. There, then, within four walls these women passed their lives, sewing, embroidering, or idling their days away amid sweets and flowers. I saw not a sign of a book. I was very anxious to see the inside of an ordinary Moorish house, and through the American consul I was enabled to do so. We were taken by a Moorish employe of the consulate to see several interiors. They were all alike in a general way, made of stone and stucco, with horse-shoe arches, two stories, the rooms around a court open to the sky, the lower story without windows, very little wood used about them, no doors but the heavy one at the entrance, and portières everywhere. All were furnished alike, but more or less richly, the bed of brass or iron at one end of the room, the walls covered with hangings of silk or cloth, the floor with marble or earthen tiles, no chairs, wardrobes or tables, only divans or cushions against the wall, where ladies sat doing nothing but fanning themselves. They received us politely everywhere, bidding us welcome, and smiling as if gratified at our visit. At last we came to the house of a Moorish merchant, who had been warned of our coming, as our guide was a friend of his. We were in the midst of the Ramadan week or feast, corresponding to the Christian Easter, coming at the end of forty day's rigorous fast, like the Christian Lent. Everybody was in holiday attire. We had been astonished to notice that our male guide was allowed to enter everywhere, to see the ladies face to face without veils. I judge by this that the veil or drapery stands in the same light as our bonnets or hats.

At the merchant's house we were received at the door by the host and led to a room (our guide with us), where we found his young wife, seated on a low divan running around the room. He was about fifty years of age and very dark. She was young and fair, and his only wife. I found that although Mohammedans, at least the Moors, are permitted several wives, they usually have but one, and make good and careful husbands. The lady was a lovely woman, a light brunette, with magnificent eyes and rounded limbs. She was dressed most elaborately in splendid material, and received us courteously and gracefully–indeed, her whole bearing bore the stamp of highest breeding. No grand duchess, reared amid the ceremonials of a court, could have been a grander, statelier lady. Her style of dress was the same as that of the pasha's ladies, but of thinner muslins and silks, gold embroidered and woven. She wore large jeweled ear-rings, and necklaces reaching from the throat to the waist, formed of string after string of gold beads, jewel set, and pearls. On the bare arms, coming from wide flowing sleeves, were several bracelets. On her head she wore a circlet of [Page 466]  gold and muslin tissue, twisted with gold beads and fastened in place with jeweled pins. She had four children, the youngest a pretty little girl about two years old. Among the Moors girl children are not much valued, but as her three elder children were fine boys, the little girl seemed a pet of both father and mother.

The boys were dressed in long robes of embroidered muslin over colored silks, with sashes of silk about their waists. They told me with a great deal of pride that the material of their dress was French. They looked not unlike altar boys in a Catholic Church. At their side, hung by silver chains, were antique wrought silver boxes, supposed to carry prayers or bits of the Koran, but the boys had nothing as yet in theirs. They were admirably behaved children, neither shy nor forward, trying to talk to us and make us understand the use of the different parts of their dress. They wore a red fez with a long blue tassel on their heads, and plain red or yellow babouches. When we came in, my two companions, younger women than I, were invited to a seat upon the divan, the host gave me a chair and took one himself, and also gave one to our guide. There seemed nothing unusual in the lady meeting her husband's friends unveiled. She conversed with the guide just as we would with a male friend. The nurse brought in the baby girl, who cried at the sight of strangers, and stretched out her arms crying, "Mamma, mamma." The mother took her for a moment, when the father relieved her, coaxing the child, cooing to it, telling it to come to "Baba" and be a good girl." She nestled down in his arms and soon became quiet, when the nurse carried her away.

Our conversation was carried on through the guide by means of the little Spanish he understood, and also by signs. I made him compliment the lady on having done her duty to her husband in bearing him three fine boys. She and her husband both smiled and nodded pleasantly. There was, as usual, no furniture in the room save a very handsome brass bed at one end, draped with embroidered muslin curtains; the walls were hung with gold embroidered satin panel hangings. After a short visit we made a motion to leave, but our host insisted on our staying longer. A very handsomely hand-wrought brass vase or bottle was brought, with a corresponding saucer or basin. Our host directed me by signs to hold out my hands, and he poured over them orange-flower perfumed water, giving me a fine damask napkin to dry them; then he passed on to my companions, doing the same for them. A servant relieved him of the vase and basin and handed him a pierced brass vase standing in a brazier saucer. These pieces were marvels of delicate workmanship in brass. From the holes in the vase came forth a cloud of odoriferous smoke. I was in deep mourning at the time, and wore, thrown back over my bonnet, a long black veil, he gathered the veil around the vase so as if to confine the smoke, and bade me bend low over it; after thoroughly fumigating me he passed on to the others.

This ceremony over, a very handsome tea-service of beaten silver was brought in with a silver box of lump sugar. The spirit lamp was lighted under the silver tea-kettle, and while the water boiled the lady proceeded to put some tea and sugar in to the tea-pot then she poured on the boiling water and tasted the mixture. It was all done quietly and naturally, without a shade of embarrassment or self-consciousness. Here was a woman brought up her whole life within the four walls of her own house, rarely seeing an outsider, with all the self-possession, all the grace and dignity of the proudest duchess of Mayfair or Belgravia. I was invited to take a seat beside her on the cushion, where a space had been left for me by the boys. They were four, six and eight years old, and had taken complete charge of my younger friends, entertaining them to the best of their ability. The seat afforded me was evidently the seat of honor, and though I had my doubts about my being able to rise without great difficulty from so low a seat, I accepted it as a matter of course. Two immense round brass trays were brought in and deposited on the floor before us. One contained fine little baccarat glass tumblers and a set of royal Worcester cups and saucers, and the other a pile of cakes, a kind of thick cookey about the size of our after-dinner coffee saucer, in the center of which different kinds of fruits had been baked. The tea was served [Page 467]  in the cups and glasses without milk or spoons. It was very sweet and thick from the quantity of sugar in it. We drank a glass or two and nibbled at the cake for politeness, for we did not find any of it good. The little boys behaved like gentlemen, handing the tea to the ladies. The eldest asked for nothing, but the little four-year-old evidently wanted a cake, and in spite of his elder brother's reasoning and expostulation, insisted on asking for it, but did it in a manly way, without whining or crying or worrying his mother. She gave it to him with a word or two of reproof, and he ate it silently, as if ashamed of his behavior. How different from many American children we all have seen. Soon after our 5 o'clock tea we bade our hosts adieu, delighted with our visit. They insisted on our taking away with us a number of the cakes.

I had read a great deal about the women of the east meeting at the baths as at a club room, and I was very anxious to see them, indeed, to take a bath with them. I was told I would not be allowed to enter a bath in Tangiers, so I had to wait until I reached Algiers. The dress of the Algerine differs somewhat from that of the Tangerine, the conspicuous difference being in the drawers or trousers, those in Algiers being very large, loose and baggy. A woman walks or rather waddles about with a balloon of some thick white material on each leg. Her upper dress comes just below the knee, and is a slip of white embroidered muslin or lace over colored silk, bound at the waist with a sash. As ornaments are used ear-rings, necklaces, bracelets and a curious pin, which I can scarcely describe, used to fasten the draperies. The pin is of Kabyle origin, generally silver, with a flat head in shape of a triangle, a crescent or disk or the prophet's hand. It is either cut out in lace work or is of filagree. Fastened to the pin is an open ring, and through this incomplete ring, with a ball at each side of the open part, the material is caught, so that it is as secure as if fastened with one of our safety pins. The French occupation of Algiers has done away with many old customs and has rendered the people less bigoted. Any stranger taking off his or her shoes can go all over the mosques, while in Tangiers strangers have been nearly killed for attempting this.

In Algiers the women of the upper classes walk or drive abroad, wrapped in the sheet-like drapery. They do not seem to aim at concealing their faces, and the drapery is often semi-transparent. I saw them at the tomb or shrine of one of their saints, where barren women go to pray for children, lounging about on the cushions or floor without mantles or drapery, and men coming and going all the time. We were directed to a bath, and at the door all our romantic illusions about the beauty of them were dispelled. The old hag in charge exacted a fee of twenty cents for allowing us to enter and look on. We went down two or three steps to a room below the level of the street, dark, dirty, ill-smelling. Around the wall ran a divan, and on it were heaps of clothes left in charge of the old woman and her assistants, two almost nude, repulsively ugly negresses. The old woman led us to a door which opened into a steam room. The marble floor of it was several inches deep in water, and two completely naked negresses kept it at the same height by continually dashing on it pails of water from a fountain high on the wall, an outlet carrying off the water. The steam filled the room as with a cloud, and the most strong and offensive odor of perspiration filled every nook and corner. On the floor were over fifty nude women and little girls, some scrubbing themselves or each other, others washing their heads and combing out their long hair, others again were stretched out at full length, resting after their exercises, not a shred of clothing to be seen unless wash rags and towels could be so called. We stood gazing a few minutes and then beat a hasty retreat, glad to get away from the heat and the stench. The women did not seem to mind our looking at them; they only called out to shut the door behind us, as the draft was cold. I could not help thinking what a golden opportunity such a visit would be for a painter or sculptor, with such models scattered around in so many different positions, and nearly all young and handsome. I was, however, cured of all desire to participate in an eastern bath.

A few days later we left the shores of Africa, and, steaming across the Mediterra- [Page 468]  nean to France, I had these Moorish women constantly in mind. They seemed happy and cheerful; I had not seen an unhappy or cross looking woman from Tangiers to Algiers, save those who were actually suffering. All, from the dirty, bathing-sheet draped women of the market place, to their more fortunate and daintier sisters of the palace, seemed blessed with even tempers. They evidently had no idea of the higher education, of the fads, isms and ologies that make part of our lives. Their children, their embroideries, their clothes and jewels, their flowers and trifles seemed to fill their lives full of interest, and I asked myself this question: "Are we women of another race, striving upward and onward feverishly toward a higher goal–are we any happier, any better women than these simple-minded creatures with no interests outside of their homes?" I have not yet answered the question to my own satisfaction, and so I leave it to you.


[Page 463] 

Mrs. Amelia Louisa Howard is a native of New Orleans, La. Her parents were James Waters Zacharie and Caroline Elizabeth Zacharie. She comes of a French family, her grandfather, a native of Lyons, France, coming to this country with Lafayette or Rochambeau. Though offered a high position under the government of Napoleon, he refused to return to France, saying he was an American citizen. He was manager of the first bank west of the Alleghanies. Mrs. Howard was educated in New Orleans schools, then at the Ursuline Convent, finishing at Miss Marcelly's Academy, Natchez, Miss. She has traveled over the United States, a great part of Europe and the north coast of Africa. She married first B. D. Howard, a lawyer of New Orleans, and after his death became the wife of his brother, Richard Austin Howard, of San Antonio, Tex. Her principal literary works are lectures on English and French literature and newspaper work. Her profession is teaching. Her postoffice address is New Orleans, La., No. 248 Eighth Street.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom