Home Armoire THE DESERT


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It was the custom of all the great families of Arab towns to send their sons, soon after their birth, into the desert, to be suckled and weaned and spend part of their childhood amongst one of the Bedouin tribes. Nor had Mecca any reason for being an exception, since epidemics were not infrequent and the rate of infant mortality was high. But it was not only the desert’s fresh air that they wished their sons to imbibe. That was for their bodies, but the desert had also its bounty for souls. Quraysh had only recently taken to the sedentary life. Until Qusayy had told them to build themselves houses round the Sanctuary they had been more or less nomadic. Fixed settlements were perhaps inevitable, but they were dangerous. Their ancestors’ way of life had been the nobler one, the life of tent-dwellers, often on the move. Nobility and freedom were inseparable, and the nomad was free. In the desert, a man was conscious of being the lord of space, and in virtue of that lordship, he escaped in a sense from the domination of time.

By striking camp, he sloughed off his yesterdays, and tomorrow seemed less of a fatality if it were as well as its when had yet to come. But the townsman was a prisoner; and to be fixed in one place, ­ yesterday, today, tomorrow – was to be a target for time, the ruiner of all things. Towns were places of corruption. Sloth and slovenliness lurked in the shadow of their walls, ready to take the edge off a man’s alertness and vigilance. Everything decayed there, even language, one of man’s most precious possessions. Few of the Arabs could read, but the beauty of speech was a virtue that all Arab parents desired for their children. A man’s worth was largely assessed by his eloquence, and the crown of eloquence was poetry. To have a great poet in the family was indeed something to be proud of; and the best poets were nearly always from one or another of the desert tribes, for it was in the desert that the spoken language was nearest to poetry.

So the bond with the desert had to be renewed in every generation – fresh air for the breast, pure Arabic for the tongue, freedom for the soul; and many of the sons of Quraysh were kept as long as eight years in the desert so that it might make a lasting impression upon them, though a lesser number of years was enough for that: Some of the tribes had a high reputation for nursing and rearing children, and amongst these were the Bani Sa’d ibn Bakr, an outlying branch .of Hawazin, whose territory lay to the south-east of Mecca. Aminah was in favor of entrusting her son to the care of a woman of this tribe.

They came periodically to Quraysh for nurselings, and some were expected shortly. Their journey to Mecca on this occasion was described in after years by one of their number, Halimah, the daughter of Abu Dhu’ayb, who was accompanied by her husband, Jharith, and a recently born son of their own whom she was nursing. “It was a year of drought,” she said, “and we had nothing left. I set forth on a grey she-ass of mine, and we had with us an old she-camel which could not yield one drop of milk.

We were kept awake all night by our son who was wailing for hunger, for I had not enough in my breasts to feed him; and that ass of mine was so weak and so emaciated that I often kept the others waiting.” She told how they went on their way with nothing to hope for except a fall of rain which would enable the camel and the ass to graze enough for their udders to swell a little, but by the time they reached Mecca, the rain had fallen. Once there they set about looking for nurselings, and Aminah offered her son first to one and then to another until finally she had tried them all and they had all refused. “That”, said Halimah, “was because we hoped for some favor from the boy’s father. ‘An orphan!’ we said. ‘What will his mother and his grandfather be able to do for us?’” Not that they would have wanted direct payment for their services, since it was considered dishonorable for a woman to take a fee for suckling a child. The recompense they hoped for, though less direct and less immediate, was of a far wider scope. This interchange of benefits between townsman and nomad was in the nature of things, for each was poor where the other was rich, and rich where the other was poor.

The nomad had the age-old God-given way of life to offer, the way of Abel. The sons of Cain – for it was Cain who built the first villages – had possessions and power. The advantage for the Bedouin was to make an enduring link with one of the great families. The foster mother gained a new son who would look on her: as a second mother and feel a filial duty to her for the rest of his life. He would also feel himself a brother to her own children. Nor was the relationship merely a nominal one. The Arabs hold that the breast is one of the channels of heredity and that a suckling drinks qualities into his nature from the nurse who suckles him. But little or nothing could be expected from the foster child himself until he grew up, and meantime his father could normally be relied on to fulfill the duties of his son.

A grandfather was too remote, and in this case, they would have known that ‘Abd al-Muttalib was an old man who could not reasonably be expected to live much longer. When he died, his sons, not his grandson, would be his heirs. As to Aminah, she was poor; and as to the boy himself, his father had been too young to have acquired wealth. He had left his son no more than five camels, a small flock of sheep and goats, and one slave girl. ‘Abd Allah’s son was indeed a child of one of the great families, but he was by far the poorest nurseling that these women were offered that year.

On the other side, though the foster-parents were not expected to be rich, they must not be too poverty-stricken, and it was evident that Halimah and her husband were poorer than any of their companions. Whenever the choice lay between her and another, the other was preferred and chosen; and it was not long before every one of the Bani Sa’d women except Halimah had been entrusted with a baby. Only the poorest nurse was without a nurseling, and only the poorest nurseling was without a nurse. “When we decided to leave Mecca,” said Halimah, “I told my husband: ‘I hate to return in the company of my friends without having taken a baby to suckle. I shall go to that orphan and take him.’ ‘As thou wilt,’ he said. ‘It may be that God will bless us in him.’ So I went and took him, for no reason save that I could find none but him. I carried him back to where our mounts were stationed. He drank his fill, and with him, his foster-brother drank likewise his fill. Then they both slept, and my husband went to that old she-camel of ours, and lo! her udders were full. He milked her and drank of her milk and I drank with him until we could drink no more and our hunger was satisfied. We spent the best of nights, and in the morning my husband said to me: ‘By God, Halimah, it is a blessed creature that thou hast taken.’ ‘That is indeed my hope,’ I said. Then we set out. She outstripped the whole troop.

“We reached our tents in the Bani Sa’d country, and I know of no place on God’s earth more barren than that then was. But after we brought him to live with us, my flock would come home to me replete at every eventide and full of milk. We milked them and drank when others had no drop of milk; and our neighbors would say to their shepherds: ‘Out upon you, go graze your flocks where he grazeth his,’ meaning my shepherd. Yet still their flocks came hungry home, yielding no milk, while mine came well-fed, with milk in plenty; and we ceased not to enjoy this increase and this bounty from God until the babe’s two years had passed, and I weaned him.’

“He was growing well,” she continued, “and none of the other boys could match him for growth. By the time he was two years old, he was a well-made child, and we took him again to his mother, although we were eager that he should stay with us for the blessings he brought us. So I said to her: ‘Leave my little son with me until he grows stronger, for I fear lest he is stricken with the plague of Mecca.’ And we importuned her until she gave him once more into our keeping and we brought him again to our home.

“One day, several months after our return, when he and his brother were with some lambs of ours behind our tents, his brother came running to us and said: ‘That Qurayshite brother of mine! Two men clothed in white have taken him and have laid him down and opened his breast and they are stirring it with their hands.’ So I and his father went to him and we found him standing, but his face was very pale. We drew him to us and said: ‘What aileth thee, my son?’ He said: ‘Two men clothed in white came to me and laid me down and opened my breast and searched it for I know not what.’”  

Halimah and Harith her husband looked this way and that, but there was no sign of the men; nor was there any blood or any wound to bear out what the two boys had said. No amount of questioning would make them take back their words or modify them in any respect. Yet there was not even the trace of a scar on the breast of their foster child nor any blemish on his perfect little body. The only unusual feature was in the middle of his back between his shoulders: a small but distinct oval mark where the flesh was slightly raised, as it were from the impress of a cupping glass; but that had been there at his birth.

In after years, he was able to describe the event more fully: “There came unto me two men, clothed in white, with a gold basin full of snow. Then they laid hold upon me and splitting open my breast they brought forth my heart. This likewise they split open and took from it a black clot which they cast away. Then they washed my heart and my breast with the snow.”! He also said: “Satan toucheth every son of Adam the day his mother beareth him, save only Mary and her son.”

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