Saïfna Ahmar, Ya Sultan!

I

I HAVE already spoken of the so-called ‘requisitioning’ that took place among our people while I was working at Saffêd. This, of course, really amounted to wholesale pillage. The hand of the Turkish looters had fallen particularly heavy on carts and draught animals. As the Arabs know little or nothing of carting, hauling, or the management of horses and mules, the Turks, simply enough, had ‘requisitioned’ many of the owners — middleaged or elderly men —and compelled them to go South to help along with the tremendous preparations that were being made for the attack on Suez. Among these there were a number of men from our village. In the course of time their families began to receive most harrowing messages from them. They were absolutely destitute, no wages being paid them by the Turks; their clothes were dropping off in rags; many were sick. After much excited planning, it was decided to send another man and myself down South on a sort of relief expedition, with a substantial sum of money that had been raised with great difficulty by our people. Through the influence of my brother at the Agricultural Experiment Station, I got permission from the Mouchtar to leave Zicron Jacob, and about the middle of January, 1915, I set out for Jerusalem.

To Western minds, the idea of the Holy City serving as a base for modern military operations must be full of incongruities. And, as a matter of fact, it was an amazing thing to see the streets packed with khaki-clad soldiers and hear the brooding silence of ancient walls shattered by the crash of steelshod army boots. Here, for the first time, I saw the German officers — quantities of them. Strangely out of place they looked, with their pink-andwhiteness that no amount of hot sunshine could quite burn off. They wore the regular German officer’s uniform, except that the Pickelhaube was replaced by a khaki sun-helmet. I was struck by the youthfulness of them; many were nothing but boys, and there were weak, dissolute faces in plenty a fact that was later explained when I heard that Palestine had been made the dumping-ground for young men of high family whose parents were anxious to have them as far removed as possible from the danger zone. Fast’s Hotel was the great meeting-place in Jerusalem for these young bloods. Every evening thirty or forty would foregather there, to drink and talk women and strategy. I well remember the evening when one of them — a slender young Prussian with no back to his head, braceleted and monocled — rose and announced, in the decisive tones that go with a certain stage of intoxication, —

' What we ought to do is to hand over the organization of this campaign to Thomas Cook and Sons! ’

However, the German officers were by no means all incompetents. They realized (I soon found out) that they had little hope of bringing a big army through the Egyptian desert and making a successful campaign there. Their object was to immobilize a great force of British troops around the Canal, to keep the Mohammedan population in Palestine impressed with Turkish power, and to stir up religious unrest among the natives in Egypt. It must be admitted that in the first two of these purposes they have been successful.

The Turks were less far-sighted. They believed firmly that they were going to sweep the English off the face of the earth and enter Cairo in triumph, and preparations for the march on Suez went on with feverish enthusiasm. The ideas of the common soldiers on this subject were amusing. Some of them declared that the Canal was to be filled up with the sandbags which had been prepared in great quantities. Others held that thousands of camels would be kept without water for many days preceding the attack; then the thirsty animals, when released, would rush into the Canal in such numbers that the troops could march to victory over the packed masses of drowned bodies.

The army operating against Suez numbered about 150,000 men. Of these about 20,000 were Anatolian Turks — trained soldiers and splendid fighting material, as was shown by their resistance at the Dardanelles. The rest were Palestinian Arabs, and very inferior troops they were. The Arab as a soldier is at once stupid and cunning; fierce when victory is on his side, but altogether unreliable when things go against him.

In command of the expedition was Djemal Pasha, a Young-Turk general of tremendous energy, but possessing small ability to see beyond details to the big, broad concepts of strategy. Although he is a great friend of Enver Pasha, he looked with disfavor on the German officers and, in particular, on Bach Pasha, the German Governor of Jerusalem, with whom he had serious disagreements. This dislike of the Germans was reflected among the lesser Turkish officers. Many of these, after long years of service, found themselves subordinated to young foreigners, who, in addition to arbitrary promotion, received much higher salaries than the Turks. What is more, they were paid in clinking gold, whereas the Turks, when paid at all, got paper currency.

Beersheba, a prosperous town of the ancient province of Idumea, was the southern base of operations for the advance on Suez. Some of our villagers had been sent to this district, and, in searching for them, I had the opportunity of seeing at least the taking-off place of the expedition. Beyond this point no Jew or Christian was allowed to pass, with the exception of some few non-Mohammedan physicians who had been forced into the army.

Beersheba was swarming with troops. They filled the town and overflowed on to the sands outside, where a great tentcity grew up. And everywhere that the Turkish soldiers went, disorganization and inefficiency followed them. From all over the country the finest camels had been ' requisitioned ’ and sent down to Beersheba, until, at the time I was there, thousands and thousands of them were collected in the neighborhood. Through the laziness and stupidity of the Turkish commissariat officers, which no amount of German efficiency could counteract, no adequate provision was made for feeding them, and incredible numbers succumbed to starvation and neglect. Their great carcasses dotted the sand in all directions; it was only the wonderful septic power of the Eastern sun that held pestilence in check.

The soldiers themselves suffered much hardship. The crowding in the tents was unspeakable; the water-supply was almost as inadequate as the medical service, which consisted chiefly of volunteer Red Crescent societies — among them a unit of twenty German nurses sent by the American College at Beirut. Medical supplies, such as they were, had been taken from the different mission hospitals and pharmacies of Palestine — these ‘requisitions’ being made by officers who knew nothing of medical requirements and simply scooped together everything in sight. As a result, an army physician told me that in Beersheba he had opened some medical chests consigned to him and found, to his horror, that they were full of microscopes and gynecological instruments — for the care of wounded soldiers in the desert!

Visits of British aeroplanes to Beersheba were common occurrences. Long before the machine itself could be seen, its whanging, resonant hum would come floating out of the blazing sky, seemingly from everywhere at once. Soldiers rushed from their tents, squinting up into the heavens until the speck was discovered, swimming slowly through the air; then followed wholesale firing at an impossible range until the officers forbade it. True to the policy of avoiding all unnecessary harm to the natives, these British aviators never dropped bombs on the town, but — what was more dangerous from the Turkish point of view — they would unload packages of pamphlets, printed in Arabic, informing the natives that they were being deceived; that the Allies were their only true friends; that the Germans were merely making use of them to further their own schemes, etc. These cleverly worded little tracts came showering down out of the sky, and at first they were eagerly picked up. The Turkish commando, however, soon announced that any one found carrying them would pay the death penalty. After that, when the little bundles dropped near them, the natives would run as if from high explosive bombs.

II

All things considered, it is wonderful that the Turkish demonstration against the Canal came as near to fulfillment as it did. Twenty thousand soldiers actually crossed the desert in six days on scant rations, and with them they took two big guns, which they dragged by hand when the mules dropped from thirst and exhaustion. They also carried pontoons to be used in crossing the Canal. Guns and pontoons are now at rest in the Museum at Cairo.

Just what took place in the attack is known to very few. The English have not seen fit to make public the details, and there was little to be got from the demoralized soldiers who returned to Beersheba. Piece by piece, however, I gathered that the attacking party had come up to the Canal at dawn. Finding everything quiet, they set about getting across, and had even launched a pontoon, when the British, who were lying in wait, opened a terrific fire from the farther bank, backed by armored locomotives and aeroplanes. ' It was as if the gates of Jehannum were opened and its fires turned loose upon us,’ one soldier told me.

The Turks succeeded in getting their guns into action for a very short while. One of the men-of-war in the Canal was hit; several houses in Ismaïlia suffered damage; but the invaders were soon driven away in confusion, leaving perhaps two thousand prisoners in the hands of the English. If the latter had chosen to do so, they could have annihilated the Turkish forces then and there. The ticklish state of mind of the Mohammedan population in Egypt, however, has led them to adopt a policy of leniency and keeping to the defensive which subsequent developments have more than justified.

The reaction in Palestine after the defeat at Suez was tremendous. Just before the attack, Djemal Pasha had sent out a telegram announcing the overwhelming defeat of the British vanguard, which had caused wild enthusiasm. Another later telegram proclaimed that the Canal had been reached, British men-of-war sunk, the Englishmen routed — with a loss to the Turks of five men and two camels ‘which were afterwards recovered.’ ‘But,’ added the telegram, ‘a terrible sand-storm having arisen, the glorious army takes it as the wish of Allah not to continue the attack, and has therefore withdrawn in triumph.’

These reports hoodwinked the ignorant natives for a little while; but when the stream of haggard soldiers, wounded and exhausted, began pouring back from the South, they guessed what had happened, and a fierce revulsion against the Germano-Turkish régime set in. A few weeks before the advance on Suez I was in Jaffa, where the enthusiasm and excitement had been at feverpitch. Parades and celebrations of all kinds in anticipation of the triumphal march into Egypt were taking place, and one day a camel, a dog, and a bull, decorated respectively with the flags of Russia, France, and England, were driven through the streets. The poor animals were horribly maltreated by the natives, who rained blows and flung filth upon them by way of giving concrete expression to their contempt for the Allies. Mr. Glazebrook, the American Consul at Jerusalem, happened to be with me in Jaffa that day; and never shall I forget the expression of pain and disgust on his face as he watched this melancholy little procession of scapegoats hurrying along the street.

Now, however, all was changed. The Arabs, who take defeat badly, turned against the authorities who had got them into such trouble. Rumors circulated that Djemal Pasha had been bought by the English and that the defeat at Suez had been planned by him; and persons keeping an ear close to the ground began to hear mutterings of a general massacre of Germans. In fact things came within an ace of a bloody outbreak. I knew some Germans in Jaffa and Haïfa who firmly believed that it was all over with them. However, Djemal Pasha succeeded in keeping order by means of stern repressive methods and by the fear roused by his large bodyguard of faithful Anatolians.

While I was traveling in the South, another menace to our people’s welfare had appeared: the locusts. From the Soudan they came in tremendous hosts — black clouds of them that obscured the sun. It seemed as if Nature had joined in the conspiracy against us. These locusts were of the pilgrim or wandering variety; for forty years they had not come to Palestine, but now their visitation was like that of which the Prophet Joel speaks in the Old Testament. They came full-grown, ripe for breeding; the ground was covered with the females digging in the soil and depositing their egg-packets, and we knew that when they hatched we should be overwhelmed, for there was not a foot of ground in which these eggs were not to be found.

The menace was so great that even the military authorities were obliged to take notice of it. They realized that if it were allowed to fulfill itself, there would be famine in the land, and the army would suffer with the rest. Finally, Djemal Pasha summoned my brother (Director of the Agricultural Station at Athlit) and intrusted him with the organization of a campaign against the insects. It was a hard enough task. The Arabs are lazy, and fatalistic besides; they cannot understand why men should attempt to fight the ‘Djesh Allah’ (God’s Army, as they call the locusts). In addition, my brother was seriously handicapped by lack of petroleum, galvanized iron sheets, and other articles which could not be obtained because of the Allies’ blockade.

In spite of these drawbacks, however, he attempted to work up a scientific campaign. Djemal Pasha put some thousands of Arab soldiers at his disposition, and these were set to work digging trenches into which the hatching locusts were driven and destroyed. This is the only means of coping with the situation: once the locusts get their wings, nothing can be done with them. It was a hopeless fight. Nothing short of the coöperation of every farmer in the country could have won the day; and while the people of the progressive Jewish villages struggled on to the end — men, women and children working in the fields until they were exhausted — the Arab farmers sat by with folded hands. The threats of the military authorities only stirred them to halfhearted efforts. Finally, after two months of toil, the campaign was abandoned and the locusts broke in waves over the countryside, destroying everything. As the prophet Joel said, ‘The land is as the Garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness. The field is wasted; the land mourneth, for the corn is wasted; the new wine is dried up, the oil languisheth.’

Not only was every green leaf devoured, but the very bark was peeled from the trees, which stood out white and lifeless, like skeletons. The fields were stripped to the ground, and the old men of our villages, who had given their lives to cultivating these gardens and vineyards, came out of the synagogues where they had been praying and wailing, and looked on the ruin with dimmed eyes. Nothing was spared. The insects, in their fierce hunger, tried to engulf everything in their way. I have seen Arab babies, left by their mothers in the shade of some tree, whose faces had been devoured by the oncoming swarms of locusts before their screams had been heard. I have seen the carcasses of animals hidden from sight by the undulating, rustling blanket of insects. And in the face of such a menace the Arabs remained inert. In fact, they attempted to find the silver lining to this great storm-cloud by eating as many of the locusts as they could. I often saw groups of Arabs bestirring themselves sufficiently to collect piles of them and heap them in braziers full of charcoal; then, as they sizzled and crackled and fried, the Arabs would pull them out and crunch them with great relish. That is a picture which still stirs my indignation.

III

While our campaign against the locusts was drawing to its dismal close, events took place which finally decided me to leave the country. About one hour’s ride on horseback from our village lives a family of Turkish nobles, the head of which was Sadik Pasha, brother of the famous Kiamil Pasha, several times Grand Vizier of the Empire. Sadik, who had been exiled from Constantinople, came to Palestine and bought great tracts of land near my people. After his death his sons — good-for-nothing, wild fellows — were forced to sell most of the estate; all except one Feuzi Bey, who retained his part of the land and lived on it. Here he collected a band of friends as worthless as himself, and gradually commenced a career of plundering and ‘ frightfulness ’ much like that of the robber-barons of mediæval Germany. Before the outbreak of the war he confined his attentions chiefly to the Arabs, whom he treated shamelessly. He thought nothing, for instance, of stopping a native wedding-procession and carrying off the young bride to his big, castle-like house. We villagers of Zicron-Jacob had never submitted to him in any way; our young men were organized and armed, and after a few encounters Feuzi Bey let us alone.

After the mobilizat ion, however, and the taking away of our arms, this outlaw saw that his chance had come. He began to send his men and his camels into our fields to harvest our crops and sarry them off. This pillage continued until the locusts came — Feuzi, in the meanwhile, becoming so bold that he would gallop through the streets of our village with his horsemen, shooting right and left into the air and insulting old men and women. He boasted — apparently with reason — that the authorities at Haïfa were powerless to touch him. Finally things grew so bad that my brother, who at the time enjoyed some authority, advised us to appeal to the head — to Djemal Pasha. I had then the boyouroultou or laissezpasser of a locust-inspector, so I was chosen to go at once to Jerusalem and present our complaint.

Djemal Pasha put no obstacles in the way of an interview. The day of my arrival he received me, and listened attentively while for a whole hour I poured out the story of Feuzi Bey’s outrages. I put my whole heart into the plea and wound up by asking if it was to the credit of the progressive Young Turks to shelter feudal abuses of a bygone age. Djemal seemed to be impressed. He sprang from his chair, began walking up and down the room; then with a great dramatic gesture he exclaimed, ‘Justice shall be rendered!’ and assured me that a commission of army officers would be sent at once to start an investigation. I returned to Zicron-Jacob with high hopes.

Sure enough, a few days later Feuzi Bey was summoned to Jerusalem; at the same time the ‘commission,’ which had dwindled to one single officer on secret mission, put in an appearance and began to make inquiries among the natives. He got little satisfaction at first, for they lived in mortal terror of the outlaw; they grew bolder, however, when they learned his purpose. Complaints and testimonies came pouring in, and in four days the officer had the names of hundreds of witnesses, establishing no less than fifty-two crimes of the most serious nature. Feuzi’s friends and relatives, in the meanwhile, were doing their utmost to stem the tide of accusations. The Kaïmakan (lieutenant-governor) of Haïfa came in person to our village and threatened the elders with all sorts of severities if they did not retract the charges they had made. But they stood firm. Had not Djemal Pasha, commander-in-chief of the armies in Palestine, given his word of honor that we should have redress?

We were soon shown the depth of our naïveté in fancying that justice could be done in Turkey by a Turk. Feuzi Bey came back from Jerusalem, not in convict’s clothes, but in the uniform of a Turkish officer! Djemal Pasha had commissioned him commandant of the Moujahaddaen (religious militia) of the entire region! It was bad enough to stand him as an outlaw; now we had to submit to him as an officer. He came riding into our village daily, ordering everybody about and picking me out for distinguished spitefulness.

My position soon became unbearable. I was, of course, known as the organizer of the young men’s union which for so long had put up a spirited resistance to Feuzi; I was still looked upon as a leader of the younger spirits, and I knew that sooner or later Feuzi would try to make good his threat, often repeated, that he would ‘shoot me like the dog of a Jew I was.’ It was hardly likely that an open attempt on my life would be made. When Ambassador Morgenthau visited Palestine, he had stayed in our village and given my family the evidence of his sincere friendship. These things count in the East, and I soon got the reputation of having influential friends. However, there were other ways of disposing of me. One evening, about sunset, while I was riding through a valley near our village, my horse shied violently in passing a clump of bushes, and a moment later the report of a rifle rang out. It was a narrow escape. The bullet had flicked the lapel of my coat. I dug spurs into my horse and got back to Zicron-Jacob unhurt.

That night I had a long talk with my brother. There was no doubt whatever in his mind that I should try to leave the country, while I, on the contrary, could not bear to think of deserting my people at the crisis of their fortunes. We argued into the small hours. The moon sank into the distant Mediterranean, and the turquoise-green dawn light was coming on when at last I yielded to his persuasion.

IV

It was all very well to decide to leave the country; to get safely away was a different matter. There were two ways out. One of these — the land route by Constantinople — could not be considered. The other way was to board one of the American cruisers which, by order of Ambassador Morgenthau, were empowered to assist citizens of neutral countries to leave the Ottoman Empire. These cruisers had already done wonderful rescue work for the Russian Jews in Palestine, who, when war was declared, were to have been sent to the Mesopotamian town of Urfa — there to suffer massacre and outrage like the Armenians. This was prevented by Mr. Morgenthau’s strenuous representations, with the result that these Russian Jews were gathered together as in a great drag-net and herded to Jaffa, amidst suffering unspeakable. There they were met by the American cruisers which were to transport them to Egypt. Up to the very moment when they set foot on the friendly warships they were robbed and horribly abused by the Jaffa boatmen. The eternal curse of the wandering Jew! Driven from Russia, they had come to seek shelter in Turkey; Turkey then casts them from her under pretext that they are loyal to Russia. Truly, the Jew lifts his eyes to the mountains, asking the bitter and eternal question, ‘Whence shall come my help?’

The Turkish government later repented of its leniency in allowing these Russian Jews to escape, and gave orders that only neutrals should leave the country — and then only under certain conditions. I was not a neutral; my first papers of American citizenship were valueless to further my escape. I had heard, however, that the United States cruiser Tennessee was to call at Jaffa, and I determined to get aboard her by hook or by crook, hoping that her commanding officer, Captain Decker, whom I knew, would feel justified in making an exception in my case. One evening, as soon as darkness had fallen, I bade farewell to my people, and, with the tears of my old father still wet upon my hair, I set off for Jaffa, taking out-of-the-way paths and traveling only by night. I was liable to be stopped any time by pickets, and now that the locust campaign was over, my boyouroultou was useless. At dawn, two days later, I slipped into Jaffa by way of the great sand-dunes and went straight to the house of S-, a good friend, whom I could trust to help me in every possible way.

S— had little encouragement to offer me. He seemed to think, however, that my best chance lay in securing a passport of some neutral country, and t hat same morning he set out to try and secure one for me. All day he was gone; I was beginning to fear something had happened to him when he came home at sundown, tired and disheartened. All the venality, the subtle wire-pulling of the East had been useless. There had already been several escapes; the authorities were roused, and the human jackals who busy themselves with such matters as false passports were for the moment thoroughly scared.

I then decided to carry out my original plan of boarding the Tennessee without a passport. There was an old boatman at the harbor who had served me and whom I trusted as much as one could trust a Mohammedan of his class. Against the wishes of my friend, this boatman 1 was summoned to the house and I explained the situation to him. It was a desperate chance, I knew, but what else was there to do? At first he would hear nothing of it; finally, when I had raised the bribe sufficiently high, he agreed to meet me at dawn two days later — the Tennessee was expected then — near the sand-dunes just outside the town. When the man had left, S— kept walking up and down, wringing his hands and declaring that we were both ruined. It was, in truth, a most unpleasant situation. At any moment we expected to hear the voices of Turkish officers at the door: even after I had said farewell to S-the next day and started forth to spend the night among the dunes, I felt sure I should walk into some ambush.

Nothing happened, however. Next morning, long before sunrise, the prow of the little skiff grated on the beach and my boatman came running to the meeting-place we had agreed on. He was greatly upset; at first he declared it was all up with me, and I had the greatest difficulty in persuading him to push off. Finally he gave in; I doubled up in the bottom of the boat in the bilge-water and refuse, beneath a great stinking sailcloth, and the old man rowed out into the silence, the wavelets slapping playfully against the boards by my ear. It seemed an eternity before I heard the muffled voices of sailors shouting to one another through the wreathing dawn mists, and knew that we had come to the little flotilla of fisher-craft lying at anchor off the harbor. Once among these, we could wait for the Tennessee in safety.

Long, cramped hours I spent under that sailcloth, even after the cruiser’s whistle had blared out the news of her coming. Then the skiff shook; the rowlocks creaked; I knew we were off. I raised up an edge of the sail and whispered to the boatman. Was it safe for me to come out? He nodded; I emerged into the blazing sunshine, sore and aching in every joint. Ahead lay the Tennessee, a great gray bulk, with swarms of little boats creeping toward her, as though drawn by invisible strings. We edged up alongside into an indescribable confusion of screaming, cursing boatmen and wailing refugees; the gangplank hung above me;

I jumped for it and walked up with as bold a manner as I could assume, although there was a feeling of horrible depression and uncertainty in my heart. At the top stood an officer, clean and cool, who asked for my passport. I waived his question.

‘I want to see Captain Decker, please.’

The officer looked me up and down; then — decided probably by my fluent English — he passed me on to a sailor who took me up to the captain’s room.

I had met Captain Decker before, on an occasion when I had made him a confidential report. Now I unfolded my whole story, and wound up by asking if, under the circumstances, my ‘first papers’ might not entitle me to protection. He was silent for a moment; then he said,—

‘This is a hard situation for both of us.’

I knew what that meant. I also realized the perfect justice of Captain Decker’s refusal to take me away. Without any further words I turned and left the room. There were dozens of boatmen clamoring for passengers; somehow — I was dizzy and sick with disappointment — I got down the gangplank and started back to Jaffa.

On the quay I ran into Hassan Bey, commandant of the police, who was superintending the embarkation of refugees. I knew him and he knew me. Half an hour later I was in police headquarters under examination by Hassan Bey. I was desperate, and answered him recklessly. A seasick man is indifferent to shipwreck. This was the substance of our conversation: —

‘How did you get aboard the ship?’

‘In a boat with some refugees. A woman hid me with her skirts.’

‘So you were trying to escape, were you? ’

‘If I had been, I should n’t have come back.’

‘Then what were you doing on the cruiser?’

‘I went to talk to the captain, who is a friend of mine. My life is in danger. Feuzi Bey is after me, and I wanted my friends in America to know how justice is done in Palestine.’

‘Who are your friends in America?’

‘ Men who could break you in a minute.’

‘Do you know to whom you are speaking?’

‘Yes, Hassan Bey. I am sick of persecution. I wish you would hang me with your own hands as you hanged the young Christian; my friends would have your life for mine.’

I wonder now how I dared to speak to him in this manner. But the bluff carried. Hassan Bey looked at me curiously for a moment — then smiled and offered me a cigarette, assuring me that he believed me a loyal citizen, and declaring that he felt deeply hurt that I had not come to him for permission to visit the cruiser. We parted with a profusion of Eastern compliments, and that evening I started back to ZicronJacob.

[Readers of the ATLANTIC who have followed Mr. Aaronsohn’s stirring narrative will be relieved to know that shortly after his return to Zicron-Jacob he received a letter from his sister in Beirut, which crystallized his determination to leave Palestine at all costs. In the uniform of a Turkish soldier he reached Beirut, where he succeeded in obtaining passports of a neutral country for himself and his sister; and, after difficulty and risk without end, they finally got aboard a vessel that took them to Egypt. From Alexandria they proceeded by easy stages to the United States. THE EDITORS.]
  1. Readers of Mr. Aaronsohn’s article will be interested to know that the American press, in April, chronicled the fact that this boatman had been put to death by Turkish authorities on the charge of espionage. — THE EDITORS.