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In Desert and Wilderness

In Desert and Wilderness

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In Desert and Wilderness

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28. Sept. 2021


Egypt, 1884: Fourteen-year-old Staś Tarkowski grew up along the banks of the Suez Canal, convinced that he was more than ready to take on anything that life might throw at him. His cocky self-assurance is put to the test when he and his young friend, Nell, are kidnapped for ransom by fanatical members of an Islamist rebellion.


Now held hostage and destined for a meeting with the uprising's infamously cruel leader, Staś and Nell are faced with a perilous journey through the Sahara Desert. Staś will have to muster all of his ingenuity and inner strength if he is to free himself and Nell, while suffering at the hands of their heartless captors.


As they are taken farther south than anyone expected, their situation appears hopeless. Even if they can escape their kidnappers, it would only mean death from disease, hungry predators and other dangers in Africa's unexplored wilderness. Armed with only his trusty rifle and their unyielding determination, Staś and Nell find allies among the indigenous people, adventurers and even animals they meet along the way. But it may not be enough for them to escape, survive and find their way home. The impossible, life-changing journey will take them and their new friends, Kali and Mea, across half of Africa -- before the final challenge that may prove too much for them to overcome.


Don't miss this thrilling, adventure-filled journey of danger, self-discovery and friendship, first penned in 1910 by Polish Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz. Now translated into contemporary English for modern audiences by Andrew Anžur Clement, PhD and author of the Keepers of the Stone trilogy, this timeless tale shows how much we can accomplish by never giving up hope, never losing sight of who we are and never surrendering what we hold most dear.

28. Sept. 2021

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In Desert and Wilderness - Henryk Sienkiewicz

Translator’s Dedication

For Staś, Nell and friends


You know, Nell, Staś Tarkowski said to his friend, the little English girl, yesterday, the police came and arrested the overseer Smain’s wife and her three kids; it’s that same Fatima who came to the office to see your dad and mine a few times.

Little Nell raised her greenish eyes to Staś as if she were a pretty picture.

You mean they took her to prison? she asked, half in surprise and half in fear.

No, but they aren’t letting her leave for Sudan. An official came to watch her, so she won’t set foot outside of Port Said.


Staś was fourteen and loved his eight-year-old friend very much. But, because he thought of her as a complete child, he responded with a totally arrogant look on his face.

By the time you get to be my age, you’ll know about all the goings-on, not only along the canal from Port Said to Suez, but in all of Egypt. Haven’t you even heard anything about the Mahdi?

I’ve heard that he’s ugly and impolite.

The boy gave her a knowing smile.

I don’t know about the ugly part. The Sudanese seem to think he’s good-looking. But to say impolite about a guy who’s already murdered thousands of people is something only a little eight-year-old girl in a dress would . . . Ha! Such a girl. You’re killing me! he laughed.

My dad told me, and Dad knows best, Nell shot back.

He told you that because you might not get it otherwise. He wouldn’t talk that way with me. The Mahdi is worse than a whole herd of crocodiles. I like that way of putting it, though: impolite! It’s such baby-talk.

Noticing the girl’s face clouding over, he paused before going on.

Nell! I didn’t want to upset you. You know that, right? The time will come when you’ll be fourteen; you’ll understand more then. I promise you that for sure.

Ah! she replied with a practiced, worried expression, But, what if the Mahdi comes to Port Said and eats me before that?

Well, the Mahdi isn’t a cannibal, so he doesn’t eat people; he just murders them. He also hasn’t made it as far as Port Said, but if he did somehow come here, and he wanted to kill you, he’d have to get through me, first.

The way in which Staś declared this, with a huff, breathing in air through his nose, boded none too well for the Mahdi. It also noticeably calmed down Nell insofar as her own safety.

I know you wouldn’t hand me over, she said back. But why won’t they let Fatima leave Port Said?

Because she’s the Mahdi’s cousin. Her husband, Smain, told the Egyptian government in Cairo that he was willing to go to Sudan, where the Mahdi is, to arrange for the freedom of all the Europeans who have fallen into his hands.

So, Smain is good?

"Hold on. Your dad and mine, who know Smain really well, didn’t trust him that much and warned Nubar Pasha not to trust him, either. The government agreed to send Smain, anyway.

"Now, Smain has been hanging out with the Mahdi for the past half-year. Not only have the European hostages not been returned, but the news from Khartoum is that the Mahdists are treating them more cruelly all the time and that Smain, having stolen money from the government, defected. He went totally over to the Mahdi’s side and was named an emir. People say that he commanded the Mahdi’s artillery in that horrible battle where General Hicks died; he probably taught the Mahdists how to use cannons, which, beforehand, as an uncivilized people, they had no clue how to do.

Smain is now trying to figure out how he’s going to get his wife and kids out of Egypt because when Fatima, who obviously knew what Smain was planning from the beginning, tried to quietly slip out of Port Said, the government had her arrested together with the children.

But what would the government want with Fatima and her kids? Nell asked.

Now the government can tell the Mahdi, ‘Give us back the hostages, and we’ll give you back Fatima . . .’

The conversation was broken off for the time being. Staś’s attention was drawn to the birds flying from the direction of Ekhtum om Farag toward Lake Menzaleh. They were flying so low in the clear air that it was only possible to see a few pelicans with crooks on their ridged necks, slowly moving their huge wings. Staś immediately started to imitate their flight by raising his head and running on the embankment for a few dozen steps. He waved his outstretched arms.

Look! They’re flying . . . and there are flamingos! Nell exclaimed.

Staś stopped for a moment. Just behind the pelicans, but a bit higher, he could see them like two big purplish-pink flowers suspended in the blue.

Flamingos! Flamingos! Nell repeated.

They’re returning by evening to their roosts on the islands, said the boy. Ah, if only I had a rifle!

Why would you want to shoot them?

Women don’t understand those kinds of things. Come on, let’s go further on; maybe we’ll see more of them.

Saying this, he took the little girl by the hand. Together, they walked toward the first Suez Canal stop after Port Said. Dinah, the African woman, who was little Nell’s nanny, followed behind them. They went along the embankment that divides the waters of Lake Menzaleh from the canal, through which, at that particular moment, a big English steamship was sailing.

It was getting to be evening. The sun was still high enough but had started to fall toward the lake. Its salty water began to gleam with gold and twinkle like the reflections of peacock feathers. Beyond the Arabian shore, the desert stretched for as far as the eye could see: tan and sandy, silent, ominous and lifeless. Between the glassy, dying sky and the endless, wrinkled sands, there was no trace of a living being. By contrast, the area around the canal was teeming with life. Boats sailed by. Steamship whistles rang out. Flocks of seagulls and wild ducks glinted in the sunlight over Lake Menzaleh.

The children saw a few more flamingos while walking toward the marina. Then Dinah announced that Nell had to go home. The days in Egypt are often very warm and sunny, even during the winter. The nights, however, are quite cold; Nell’s health required a lot of attention. Her father, Mr. Rawlison, didn’t allow the girl to be out by the water after sunset. They turned, therefore, back toward town, where Mr. Rawlison’s villa was situated on the outskirts near the canal. They found themselves under the villa’s roof at the same moment when the sun plunged beneath the sea. Mr. Tarkowski, an engineer and Staś’s father, showed up after a bit, having also been invited for supper. The whole group, along with the French woman, who was Nell’s private teacher, Ms. Oliver, sat down at the table.

Mr. Rawlison was one of the directors of the Suez Canal Company. Władisław Tarkowski was a senior engineer with the same company. Over the years, they became best friends. Both were widowers; Mrs. Tarkowska, a Frenchwoman, died shortly after giving birth to Staś over thirteen years ago. Nell’s mother passed away from consumption in Heluan when the girl was three. Both widowers lived in neighboring houses and saw each other every day due to their jobs. Their shared tragedy brought them even closer to each other and strengthened their already-existing friendship.

Mr. Rawlison loved Staś as if he were his own son; Mr. Tarkowski would jump into fire and water for little Nell. After finishing their daily work, their favorite thing to talk about in their downtime was their children, their upbringing and their futures. Their discussions most often went like this: Mr. Rawlison would praise Staś’s capability, energy and courage, while Mr. Tarkowski would fawn over Nell’s sweetness and angel-like face. Both of them were right, although Staś could be a bit arrogant and full of himself. However, he was a fantastic learner. The teachers at his school in Port Said considered him to be of above-average ability. His courage and honesty came from his father, who was able to rise to a high position because he possessed these qualities to a large degree.

In 1863, Mr. Tarkowski fought the Russians’ occupation of Poland ceaselessly for eleven months. Then wounded, he was captured and sentenced to imprisonment in Siberia, from where he escaped into deep Russia and made his way abroad. Before fighting in the Polish uprising, he was already a qualified engineer, although he took another year to study hydraulics before getting a position with the canal project. In the space of a few years, during which his know-how, energy and work ethic became known, he took on the higher-up position of senior engineer.

Staś was born, raised and had made it to the fourteenth year of his life in Port Said, on the canal. This was why the engineers, who were his father’s colleagues, nicknamed him Desert Child. Later on, already being in school, he would accompany his father or Mr. Rawlison on trips during vacation or holidays. The engineers had to make the excursions from Port Said to Suez for reviewing the work on the embankment or deepening the canal’s capacity. Staś knew everyone, from the engineers and the customs officers to the workers, Arabs and Africans. He got into everything, popping up when least expected. He made long trips along the canal and traveled by rowboat around Lake Menzaleh, at times, going quite far from home. He would cross over to the Arabian shore, and once he made it there, he’d take a horse, or—in the absence of a horse—a camel, or even a donkey, so he could pretend to be Mickiewicz’s poetic hero, Farys. In a couple of words, as his father liked to say, he knocked around everywhere; each moment he had free from his studies, he spent along the water.

His father wasn’t against this. He knew that rowing, horseback riding and living a full life in the fresh air strengthened the boy’s health and developed resourcefulness within him. Also, Staś was taller and stronger than an average boy of his age. It was enough to look him in the eye to see that, in case of some kind of incident, he’d be more daring than fearful. By the fourteenth year of his life, he was one of the best swimmers in Port Said, which was no small achievement, considering that the Arabs and Africans in the area could swim like fish. Shooting at wild ducks and Egyptian geese with bullets from small caliber carbines earned him a steady hand and eye. His dream was to hunt the bigger animals in central Africa; he hungrily listened to the tales of the Sudanese employed by the canal, who had encountered great, ravenous predators.

Perhaps he had this to thank for the fact that he quickly learned the workers’ languages. It wasn’t enough to simply dig the canal. It also had to be maintained, as otherwise, the desert sands lying on both of its shores would fill it up within a year’s time.

Many of the workers came from elsewhere in Africa. Staś lived with them all like they were brothers in arms; Like many Poles, he had an aptitude for languages, and he picked them up while not knowing how or when he’d learned many of their dialects. Born in Egypt, he spoke Arabic like an Arab. From the Zanzibarians, of which there were many working as firemen on the machinery, he learned Swahili, which is spoken all over central Africa. He could even talk with members of the Dinka and Shylluk tribes, who live beneath Fashoda along the Nile. Besides that, he spoke fluent English, French and Polish; his father was a passionate patriot. It was very important to him for his son to be able to speak the language of his homeland. Staś, of course, was of the opinion that it was the most beautiful language in the world. He managed to teach it to Nell with mixed results. He simply couldn’t make her understand that his name was pronounced Staś and not Stes. Many times, this ended up causing an argument between them, which would last for only about as long as it took for Nell to start tearing up. At that point, Stes would apologize—and then get angry at himself for making her cry.

Nevertheless, Staś still did have the bad habit of talking down to her about the fact that she was eight, comparing that to his greater age and experience. He maintained that a boy who had made it to age fourteen, if not completely an adult yet, was at least no longer a child; therefore, he was already capable of any and all types of heroic acts, especially if he had Polish and French blood in him. He could hardly wait for the need to arise for such deeds, specifically if they required Nell’s defense.

The two of them would imagine various threats; Staś had to respond to Nell’s questions about what he would do if, for example, a ten-meter-long crocodile or a scorpion the size of a dog came into her house. Not even for a second did it run through their heads that a very real threat was about to eclipse their wildest fantasies.


At Mr. Rawlison’s home, good news awaited Staś and Nell, along with supper. A few weeks ago, Mr. Tarkowski and Mr. Rawlison had been invited, as expert engineers, to inspect and evaluate the whole canal system in the province of El-Fayum, in the area around the city of Medinet, which was near Lake Karoun, as well as along the Yussef and Nile Rivers. They would have to be there for about a month and had received vacation time from their company. Christmas was coming; not wanting to be away from their children, both men had decided that Staś and Nell would also go to Medinet to celebrate the holidays and ring in the new year, 1885.

Upon hearing this, both children were so overjoyed that they almost jumped out of their skin. Up until then, they had only visited the cities along the canal, especially Ismaila and Suez. They had also gone to places on the other side of the canal like Alexandria and Cairo, where they’d seen the great pyramids and the Sphinx. But those were only short trips, whereas the journey to Medinet-el-Fayum required a day’s train ride along the Nile to the south, and then from El-Wasta to the west, toward the Libyan Desert.

Staś knew about Medinet from the tales of engineers and travelers, who had gone there to hunt a great variety of water birds, as well as desert wolves and hyenas. He knew that there was a large, separate oasis there that lay on the left side of the Nile but wasn’t dependent on its flooding. It had its own water system, formed by Lake Karoun, the Bahr-Yussef River and a whole network of smaller channels. Everyone who saw this oasis said that, although the place belongs to Egypt, it is divided from the rest of it by the desert, such that it seems totally separate. Only the Yussef River connects it to the Nile Valley like a thin blue string. The great amount of water, fertile soil and exceptional vegetation make it seem as if it were heaven on earth; the extensive ruined city of Crocodilopolis draws hundreds of curious travelers. Staś, however, was mainly interested in shooting at flocks of birds from the shores of Lake Karoun and the wolf- hunting trips into the desert hills of Guebel-el-Sedment.

Yet, Staś’s vacation still wouldn’t begin for a few more days; the inspection of the work on the canals was an urgent matter. The two older men couldn’t lose any time. They had decided to leave immediately and that their kids, along with Ms. Oliver, would join them a week later. Nell and Staś wanted to leave sooner, but Staś didn’t dare push his luck.

They did start, however, to question the various matters related to their travel plans. They were excited to learn that they wouldn’t be staying in uncomfortable hotels that were run by Greeks, but, instead, in tents equipped by the Cook Travel Agency. This was the regular arrangement made by travelers going from Cairo to Medinet, who planned a longer stay there. The travel agency provided tents, servants, chefs, food supplies, horses, donkeys, camels and guides, such that a traveler didn’t have to worry about anything. It was an expensive way to travel, but Mr. Tarkowski and Mr. Rawlison didn’t have to worry about that, either. The Egyptian government had invited them as experts to review the canal work; it was going to cover the costs.

Nell, who liked riding camels more than anything in the world, got a promise out of her father that she would get her own humpbacked mount, which she could take on trips around the nearby desert and to Lake Karoun, along with Ms. Oliver or Dinah and, sometimes, with Staś.

Mr. Tarkowski promised Staś that he’d be allowed to go wolf hunting at night and that—if he got a good report card—he’d get a real English rifle with all the necessary hunting equipment. Staś was confident about his grades, so, from that moment on, he started to think of himself as the owner of the gun. He promised himself that he would do many astounding and unforgettable deeds with it. Over supper, the happy children chattered about everything they planned to do.

Ms. Oliver was the least enthusiastic about the upcoming trip. She didn’t want to leave a comfortable villa in Port Said and was scandalized by the idea of a few weeks spent living in a tent and taking camel rides. She’d already tried such rides a few times out of curiosity, as Europeans in Egypt normally do, but things always ended badly for her. One time, the camel got up too fast before she was situated in the saddle, and she rolled off its hump onto the ground. Another time, the beast shook her up so much that she fainted for two days. Suffice it to say that just as much as Nell assured everyone that there was nothing more delightful in the world than traveling by camel after the two or three pleasure rides that Mr. Rawlison had allowed her to take, Ms. Oliver had the opposite view. She said that camel-riding was a good thing for the Arabs or for little breadcrumbs like Nell, who didn’t feel the rough ride any more than a fly would if it sat on the camel’s hump; it was not for older, perhaps a bit more curvy people, who are prone to get seasick.

In addition to this, regarding Medinet-el-Fayum, Ms. Oliver thought she had another reason to be afraid. In Port Said—just like in Alexandria, Cairo and all of Egypt—no one was talking about anything but the Mahdi’s uprising and the atrocities committed by the dervishes, his extremist warriors. Ms. Oliver didn’t know exactly where Medinet was; she was nervous that it might be too close to the Mahdists. She started to question Mr. Rawlison about it.

He smiled and just said, At this very second, the Mahdi is laying siege to Khartoum, which General Gordon is defending. Do you know how far it is from Medinet to Khartoum?

I have absolutely no idea.

It’s more or less like from here to Sicily, Mr. Tarkowski clarified for her.

More or less, Staś confirmed. Khartoum is all the way down where the White and Blue Niles come together and form one river. There’s the huge expanse of Egypt and all of Nubia between us and it.

Staś wanted to add that, although Medinet was closer to the places taken over by the uprising, he’d be there with his rifle if anything happened. But, recalling how similar self-congratulatory remarks had ticked off his father a few times before, he kept his mouth shut.

As Staś considered this, his father and Mr. Rawlison started to talk about the Mahdi and the uprising. It was, of course, the most important matter affecting Egypt. The news from Khartoum was bad. Wild hordes had besieged the city for more than a month. The Egyptian and English governments were slow to act; relief was just now getting underway. The general fear was that, despite General Gordon’s fame, bravery and competence, the strategically vital city would fall into the barbarians’ hands.

Toward dinner’s end, Staś asked why the Egyptian government took over all the countries that lay to its south, like Kordofan, Darfur and Sudan, all the way down to Lake Albert-Nianza, and deprived their inhabitants of their freedom. Mr. Rawlison presented him with an explanation: in reality, everything that the Egyptian government did was on the recommendation of Britain, which had placed a protectorate over Egypt and now ruled Egypt by default.

The Egyptian government hasn’t taken anyone’s freedom, he informed Staś. "It gave it to hundreds of thousands and maybe even a million people. In Kordofan, Darfur and Sudan, there wasn’t any state or government before. Only here and around some small ruler who laid claim to certain lands took them against the will of the inhabitants by force. Mostly, they were inhabited by feuding Arab-African tribes. So, in other words, people who have the blood of both races. These tribes lived in a state of constant warfare. They would attack each other and take horses, camels, livestock, and, above all, slaves while committing many other atrocities in the process.

"The worst were the poachers, who were after elephant bones and the slave traders. They made armed journeys into deep Africa, plundering elephant tusks wherever they could and capturing thousands of men, women and children. If that weren’t enough, they destroyed villages, settlements, fields, poured out rivers of blood and killed anyone who resisted them without mercy. The south parts of Sudan, Darfur and Kordofan, as well as the lands along the upper Nile and all the way down to the lake, have been almost completely depopulated in some areas. If those Arab bandits were allowed to go any farther, all of central Africa would have become a land of tears and blood.

"Now, here’s where England comes in. As you know, we pursue slave traders all over the world. We agreed that it would be best if the Egyptian government took over Kordofan, Darfur and Sudan. It was, of course, the only way of forcing these looters into giving up their heinous business, and the only way of keeping them under control.

"The poor Africans who were caught up in the attacks and looting breathed easier because they could finally live under some kind of law and order. But, of course, the slave traders and poachers were none too pleased with this state of affairs. So, when they found Mohammed Ahmed, known these days as the Mahdi among their ranks, and learned that he was going to declare a holy war under the rationale that the true faith of Mohammed was losing ground in Egypt, all of them jumped to his defense, as if they were a well-oiled machine.

So, that’s how we got this terrible war that has been going on since—and going very badly for the Egyptians. The Mahdi has won every battle with the government forces. He occupied Kordofan, Darfur and Sudan. Currently, his hordes are besieging Khartoum and pushing north all the way to the Nubian frontier.

Do you think they can make it as far as Egypt? Staś asked, though current events and part of what Mr. Rawlison had just told him were nothing he didn’t already know.

No, responded Mr. Rawlison. The Mahdi claims that he really will conquer the whole world, but he’s an uncivilized imbecile who doesn’t know anything about anything. He’ll never occupy Egypt. England won’t allow it.

But what if the Egyptian army gets totally defeated?

In that case, the English army would step in. It has never lost to anyone, ever.

But then, why would the English army allow the Mahdi to occupy so much territory in the first place?

How do you know that it is allowing him? Mr. Rawlison replied. Britain never rushes. It’s greater than that.

Further conversation got put on hold by a servant from southern Africa who announced that Fatima, Smain’s wife, was at the door. She was begging to meet with them.

Muslim women in the Middle East are concerned almost completely with home life. They rarely even go out of their part of the house. Only the poorer ones head out to the market or work in the fields like the wives of the fellahs—Egyptian peasants—do. Even then, they veil their faces. In Sudan, where Fatima was from, however, this wasn’t the custom. Still, despite the fact that she had come to Mr. Rawlison’s office before, her showing up at his private house at such a late hour was, quite frankly, strange.

We’re about to find out something new about Smain, said Mr. Tarkowski.

Right, Mr. Rawlison replied, giving his servant the sign to invite Fatima in.

After a few seconds, a young, tall Sudanese woman entered. Her face was totally uncovered; she had a very dark complexion and beautiful but wild, slightly sinister eyes. Upon coming in, she quickly lay on the floor, facedown, in respect. When Mr. Rawlison told her to get up, she did, but she remained on her knees.

"Sidi, she said, may Allah bless you, your children, your home and your animals!"

What do you want? asked the engineer.

Mercy, rescue and help from my misfortune, please, sir. I’m imprisoned here in Port Said. Doom hangs over me and my children.

You say that you are imprisoned and yet you can come here to see us; you’re here at night.

The police brought me here. The same ones who are watching my house day and night, and I’m sure have orders to cut off our heads before long.

Speak like a rational woman. Mr. Rawlison shrugged his shoulders. You’re not in Sudan. This is Egypt, where they don’t kill people without trials. So, you can rest assured that not a hair will get yanked from your head or your children’s.

Still, she kept begging for both men to go to the government on her behalf and get her permission to leave so that she could be reunited with Smain. Great Englishmen like you, sirs, she said, can do anything. The government in Cairo thinks that Smain betrayed them, but that isn’t true. Some Arabian merchants from Souak came by yesterday. They had bought rubber and elephant bones in Sudan and told me that Smain is sick in El-fasher. He is sending for me, together with our children, so that he may bless . . .

Mr. Rawlison interrupted her. You’re making all of this up.

She started to swear on Allah that she was telling the truth. And, after that, she said that if Smain gets better, he would most certainly buy the freedom of all the Christian hostages but that if he dies, then she, as a relative of the dervishes’ leader, would easily be able to get access to the Mahdi and get whatever she wanted. Finally, she tried to argue that they just had to let her leave because her heart was howling with longing for her husband, such that it might rip itself out of her chest if she stayed. What had she, an unfortunate woman, done to the government? Was it her fault? Why did she have to answer for having the bad luck to be related to the dervish Mohammed Ahmed?

Fatima didn’t dare actually call her relative the Mahdi in front of the Englishmen because it means world savior. She knew that the Egyptian government considered him a rebel and a conman. She kept hitting her forehead and calling upon heaven to provide proof of her innocence and misery. She then started to cry and howl sadly like Middle Eastern women do after losing their husbands or sons. She, once again, threw herself on the carpet and waited in silence.

Nell, who usually wanted a nap after dinner, woke up. Having a sincere little heart, she grabbed her father’s hand and kissed it again and again, speaking up on Fatima’s behalf. Dad, you have to help her! You have to help her!

Fatima, who could apparently understand English, didn’t raise her head from the carpet and said between sobs, May Allah bless you, heavenly flower, Omay’s delight, little star without blemish.

Even though Staś was personally very much against the Mahdists, he was also moved by Fatima’s pain and requests from the moment Nell stood up for her. He always ended up wanting what Nell wanted. And so, a second after she spoke up, he said, as if to himself but loud enough so that everyone could hear, If I were the government, I would allow Fatima to go.

But, seeing as though you aren’t the government, Mr. Tarkowski lectured him, it’s better you don’t get involved in things that don’t concern you.

Mr. Rawlison had a merciful soul, and he felt for Fatima’s position. However, it struck him that certain things in what she was saying appeared to be total lies. Having almost daily interaction with the customs house in Ismaila, he was well aware that no new cargoes of rubber or elephant bones had recently come through the canal. Trade in these products had ceased almost completely. Arab merchants also couldn’t return from El-fasher, as it was in Sudan; the Mahdists, generally speaking, hadn’t allowed merchants among them from the beginning of the uprising. Those they could catch, they robbed and made prisoners. He was also practically certain that the yarn about Smain’s being sick was a lie.

Still, Nell’s little eyes looked at her dad, begging him; he didn’t want to make his daughter sad. So, after a bit, he addressed the desperate woman:

Fatima, I already wrote to the government about your request, but to no end. Now, listen: tomorrow, myself and this engineer, who you see here, are leaving for Medinet-el-Fayum. On the way, we will stop for a day in Cairo; the Khedive wants to talk with us about the canals running from Bahr-Yussef and give us some instructions. During our conversation, I will try to bring up your situation and get you his pardon. But that’s the most I can do, and I’m not promising anything.

Fatima got up. She cried out and held up both hands in a sign of gratitude. And so, I am saved!

No, Fatima, replied Mr. Rawlison. Don’t speak of being saved. I already told you that you and your children aren’t threatened with death. Whether the Khedive will allow your departure or not—I can’t say because, quite frankly, Smain isn’t sick. What he is is a traitor who stole government funds and who doesn’t give two seconds worth of thought about ransoming the hostages from Mohammed Ahmed.

Smain is innocent, sir. He is in El-fasher, repeated Fatima. Even if he had embezzled from the government, I would swear before you, my benefactor, that if I am allowed to leave, I would beg before Mohammed Ahmed until he releases your hostages.

Very well, then. I promise you once more that I will mention you to the Khedive.

Fatima started to bow down. "Thanks be to you, sidi. You are not only powerful, but just. Now, may I also beg you to let me and my family serve as your slaves?"

No one is a slave in Egypt, Mr. Rawlison replied with a smile. I have enough servants, and I couldn’t even make use of your services right now. As I already told you, we’re all going to Medinet, and we could be there all the way up until Ramadan.

I know, sir. Fatima replied. Chadig, the supervisor, told me. Once I found out you were going, I came not only to beg you for help but to tell you that two men from my Dangal tribe, Idrys and Gebhr, are camel drivers in Medinet. They will bow to you when you arrive, offering themselves and their camels to your orders.

Fine, fine, responded the director. But that is a matter for the Cook Agency, not me.

Fatima kissed the hands of both engineers and the children’s, especially blessing Nell. She left. The two men were silent for a bit.

Then, Mr. Rawlison said, Poor woman . . . but she lies like they can only lie in the Middle East. There’s even the shadow of a lie in her thank-yous.’

For sure, Mr. Tarkowski replied. But is it true that the Egyptian government has no right to detain her, whether or not Smain is a traitor? She can’t be held responsible for her husband.

The government doesn’t allow any of the Sudanese to leave for Souak or Nubia without separate permission, Mr. Rawlison argued back. It’s not just her. A lot of the Sudanese in Egypt came here to make money. A certain number of them are from the Dangal tribe, which is the tribe that the Mahdi comes from. It’s possible that Fatima, Chadig and these two camel drivers come from it, too. The Mahdists consider the Egyptians to be Turks and are waging war against them. However, it is possible to find followers of the Mahdi among some of the Arabs here who might want to defect to him. We have to count among their ranks all the extremists, the followers of Arabi Pasha and many among the poorest classes. They have it out for the government, which has totally given in to English influence; they maintain that the religion suffers as a result. God knows how many have already escaped through the desert, instead of going by water to Souak. So, therefore, the government ordered that Fatima be guarded when they found out that she also wanted to leave. With just her and her kids—the relatives of the Mahdi—it could be possible to get all of the European hostages back.

Do lower-class Egyptians really support the Mahdi? asked Mr. Tarkowski.

The Mahdi even has supporters in the army. Who knows? Maybe that’s why it’s fighting so badly.

But how would the Sudanese escape through the desert? That’s got to be thousands of miles.

And yet, that’s how they bring slaves up to Egypt.

Maybe, but I doubt that Fatima’s kids could handle a trip like that.

That’s why she wants to shorten it by going via sea to Souak.

In any case, she’s an unfortunate woman, Mr. Tarkowski finished. With that, the conversation was over.


Twelve hours later saw that unfortunate woman carefully shutting herself in her house, along with the son of Chadig, the overseer. She whispered to him with knitted eyebrows and a gloomy look in her pretty eyes:

"Chamis, son of Chadig, here is the money. Go to Medinet today. Give Idrys this letter that the holy dervish Bellali wrote when I asked him. Those engineers’ children are nice, but, if I’m not permitted to leave, there’s no other

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