The story of Al Twal family
This recital is an extract from the book “Coutumes des Arabes au Pays de Moab” written by Father Antonin Jaussen and published in Paris in 1904. Father Antonin was a missionary in what is now Jordan and lived there for over forty years. The book is a fascinating recital of the customs of the time, many of which still exist among the Bedouin of Jordan today. The rather laborious style of much of the text reflects the usual style of writing at the beginning of the 20th century.
This story of Ibrahim al Twal is given in an appendix of the book.
Ibrahim al Twal is a Christian Bedouin from Madaba. His knowledge of the country, his skills, his courage and his loyalty commend him to all those whom the love of the desert and the desire for its study bring to the land of Moab.
I made his acquaintance in 1896 during our first trip to Petra. Since then Ibrahim has become one of my guides each time that Providence brings me to these beautiful places. During our long rides, both by day and by night, this gallant companion who knows the name and the history of every hill and valley that we pass, recounted vividly the experiences that he had lived: continual fighting, brutal raids, fearful revenge and audacious exploits. In addition he was at the heart of the events that brought his tribe, the Azeizat, to move away from Kerak to Madaba.
Ibrahim, whose story I tell in his own words, told me nothing about his childhood. His life story begins with a sad event which opened his eyes to his personal responsibilities : the death of his father. He fell during an expedition against the Howeitat and the Arabs of Wadi Mousa, struck down by a bullet not far from Tafileh. It was a bitter blow for the young al-Twal. “My heart drowned in the thirst for revenge” he told me. “ I swore by God to kill ten enemies for the life of my father”.
Ibrahim was nineteen years old. Mohammed Mozally, sheikh of Kerak, organised a formidable raid against the offenders. Led by his son Mosleh, 180 riders left Kerak and made for Shobuk through the valleys to hide their approach. They rushed on the Howeitat camped at Basta, killed five men, and got away with two thousand camels which were taken directly to Kerak by a few riders.
The Kerakians then pressed on for Wadi Mousa and attacked the village of Elgee. The inhabitants were threshing corn in the square. With the first volley, fourteen men fell; the rest of the population escaped through the rocks, abandoning the village to the enemy, who captured the beasts nearby, collected the grain, loading it on donkeys and mules, set fire to the straw and came back to Shobuk with a rich booty.
"This time" explained the narrator, "and contrary to custom, the spoils were not shared out among everybody, but remained with whoever had seized it. Like that I only got a hundred ewes and a camel - I was very young".
At Shobuk they celebrated, among the inevitable arguments cropping up in any collection of Arabs, especially when different tribes are together.
The Howeitat in turn prepared their revenge. Reinforced by the Arabs of Jebel and of Wadi Mousa, they advanced in number. The Kerakians came out from Shobuk to meet them. The battle took place in the Buqei’ah, above Petra. This time the Mogally were defeated; thirty riders fell, and among them Mosleh. However brave the Mogally, they were forced to fall back before the threatening attitude of the Howeitat, and after a campaign which had lasted for more than a month they return to Kerak, with no profit, no booty and no glory “because they had lost their leader”.
They were allowed a short respite; as when a fire is covered by ash, the first breeze stirred the flame to life. Sheikh Mohammed had a son to avenge and the honour of his army. He sent a messenger to the Fayez, a clan of the Sehour, to ask for a reinforcement of forty riders. His request was granted and the riders soon arrived at Kerak, led by Sattam, their Sheikh. Mohammed Mogally personally directed the operation; they settled in on the heights above Wadi Haasa, close to Rugum, Abu Shokeh and near to the spring at Ain el-Hogeh; the enemy came up from Tafileh but they were pushed back into the valley; the fighting continued for two days; nobody had the upper hand. At that time one of the Sehour Sheikhs, Ali Ereisan intervened and in his wisdom managed to make peace between the sides.
“On what conditions?” I asked Ibrahim. “No conditions” he replied. Who had won, won, who had lost, lost, who was killed was dead. No revenge to be sought, no looting, no hate; peace, quite simply, with no conditions imposed.
Only Ibrahim al-Twal was an exception. He thirsted after blood to avenge his father. Had he not sworn to kill ten of the enemy?
The Kerakians returned to their home. Peace did not last long. A raid was soon decided on against the Zeben; the attack was about to be made when Eben Ma’agel, sheikh of the Ruwallah reconciled the adversaries. As the old storytellers have it, everybody went home.
In the previous chapter I have described a few of the provocations endured by the Azeizat who were surrounded by Moslem tribes. Our hero was not immune from these persecutions; but nothing was particularly serious until the unfortunate event that we will describe below.
Ibrahim was twenty-one. His sister Negmeh had been married to Geries al-Twal, a relative. He had a servant named Mahmoud of the Moslem tribe of Saraireh. One evening Negmeh went down to the stream of Megeisel, to water the flocks. Mahmoud saw her, carried her off and took her to Kafrabbah, a place some two and a half hours to the south-west of Kerak. In the morning the news spread around the camp. The Azeizat beside themselves with fury rode full tilt to the town (of Kerak). Immediately all the Christian tribes armed themselves and sprang to horse; the Mogally joined the Christians. Before midday a considerable force of cavalry mustered in front of Kafrabbah. “Either Negmeh, the kidnapped wife, shall be returned immediately or the entire enemy tribe shall be destroyed”.
In the front rank, Ibrahim, his eyes burning with anger, was held back by Sheikh Saleh. “What would you do with them?” asked the Sheikh. “If I had no weapon” he replied “I would tear out their throats with my teeth”.
Before this attitude the Sareireh sheikh ceded everything. Negmeh was immediately delivered to Sheikh Saleh and to a Latin missionary who left Kerak that same evening covertly taking the poor woman with him to Jerusalem and from there to Nablus to preserve her life. Ibrahim or another member of the family would not have hesitated to stab her if he had seen her. In such circumstances any nomad from Moab, whether of the Latin, Greek or Moslem faith would have done nothing else.
Ibrahim was unable to get at his sister. Not knowing where she had found refuge he put off the necessary task of washing the family honour clean in her blood and for the moment he concentrated his rage on the principal culprit, Mahmoud el Sariry.
The entire tribe of Saraireh left Kafrabbah the following night, and sought safety in the deep gorges of Wadi Haasa. Prudence dictated their flight, but the storm was not delayed. Ibrahim had clearly stated the only condition that could bring peace ¨”I want Mahmoud the ravisher, I want personally to cut his throat; my own hand shall shed his blood”.
The Sairaireh sheikh had immediately offered him reparation : one hundred thousand piasters, several camels and a mare. Ibrahim al-Twal replied : “I am to accept money to compensate such an abomination ? Never! I need no gold, only blood!” His demand seemed legitimate to his whole tribe, but even while it conformed with their ideas it conflicted with another Arab custom no less constraining : the sheikh of a tribe will never give a member of that tribe up to someone who will kill him, their own blood is sacred to them, and everything is done to protect it. The Saraireh therefore refused Ibrahim’s demand categorically and helped Mahmoud to escape and to take refuge in the Jebel.
Only an armed expedition could mete out justice. Unanimously the Aseizat took arms and declared war. It was the first time that I had heard this word from the Bedouin. Ibrahim explained what it meant: “We fell on the camp of the Saraireh with all the speed that our fastest mounts could offer; men and women fell under our swords; donkeys, camels, mares, everything was slaughtered: and when, masters of the place we saw nothing living around us, we burnt the fields, cut down the trees and destroyed all the dwellings. It was pure destruction”.
The Azeizat expedition was a cruel one. Ibrahim, however, was not satisfied as the sequel showed. This crime had a sorrowful result for the Azeizat : “It is impossible for us to remain at Kerak” said the Sheikh Saleh; the council of the elders approved his decision, the Latin missionary did not disagree. They took the road to Belqa to come to settle at Madaba through many obstacles of which we have already spoken. For the moment we continue to follow the life of our hero.
The Azeizat were scarcely settled in their new home when Ibrahim turned his eyes towards Kerak. Alone and on foot, he left Madaba at nightfall. By sunrise he reached Kerak. All day he remained hidden near to the town, when it was dark he bought a tin of petrol in the bazaar; he threw it around his enemy’s house and set fire to it; he then headed back to Madaba where he arrived in the morning.
A month later Ibrahim took his gun, covered the distance to Kerak during the night and rested close to the town. At dusk he approached the house of Mustafa, brother to Mahmoud, the ravisher. From the outside he carefully examined the interior of the house; an incautious move attracted the attention of the inhabitants who threw a stone, supposing that it was a stray dog. Ibrahim remained still, shouldered his carbine and fired; the bullet striking the right side of his enemy’s brother; then he returned to Madaba.
A third time Ibrahim made his way to Kerak and found the house empty; but before he left he hamstrung a donkey and several cows.
A fourth time, with two companions, he arrived in Kerak and made directly for the mill to the west of the town which was owned by Mahmoud’s relatives: he hoped to find the owner and satisfy his thirst for blood with him. The door was locked. “No luck” said Ibrahim. “Never mind, I broke open the door, and threw everything, grain and flour into the water. I broke the door and the wood of the mill wheel, heaped them up and set fire to them. Then I returned to Madaba”.
A fifth expedition took him back to Kerak with two friends, always with the same purpose. He killed two donkeys and cut down about forty trees his enemy’s garden. “ I could never lay my hands on Mahmoud” said he sighing. “God didn’t want me to”.
One day he really thought he would get him. The Azeizat were camped at Mukawir. A messenger arrived breathless from Kerak. Mahmoud was in a certain house there. It was the day before Christmas. Immediately Ibrahim mounted a horse, but his friends wanted first of all to observe the feast day, and in any case the missionaries held them back “Where did they want to go with such serious expressions?” “Abouna” they said “ a huge wild boar has been seen nearby, we want to hunt it”. In the morning they left.
The riders arrived at Kerak in the evening; they left their mounts in the valley guarded by some of the band, the others made for the town. Silently they approached the house in question. Inside several people were gathered around the fire in the middle of the room; everybody seemed merry and the coffee was being passed round according to the custom “a little at a time, but often”.
Through the door, the only opening into the house, Ibrahim examined the faces with a penetrating eye. There was no sign of Mahmoud! But one of the participants had his back to the door. Could it be him? How could he find out? Ibrahim laid down flat and called his name “Hi, Mahmoud!” He turned around – and received six bullets in the back….
The next day Ibrahim and his friends were back with the tribe and learnt the news : the unfortunate man the night before was certainly named Mahmoud, but it wasn’t the ravisher… “It was a mistake” said Ibrahim. He paid the blood price and hid his anger, he would wait for a better chance to wreak his vengeance. In the meantime he went to Jerusalem, ostensibly to join Morcos in the exploitation of some land, but in reality to seek out his sister and to stab her. He had barely left Madaba when war broke out between his tribe and the Hamaida.
Hearing this, Ibrahim returned from Jerusalem and became the leader of the raiders. In Wadi Habis he shot one of the Hamaida. A few days later, together with five other riders, he carried off a convoy of supplies ; without stopping for rest he fell anew on the Hamaida, stripped them of all they had but let them get away from him at Waleh; his best friend Salman, more lucky than Ibrahim, held onto a rich booty. “Every time I got back” said Ibrahim “the priest Daoud scolded me severely, saying that God forbade looting. In front of the priest, Sheikh Saleh was angry as well and called me a miserable wretch but in private he urged me on. “Keep it up, Ibrahim, go on with the raids, you are bringing us prestige!” And the young warrior mounted his white mare and set out once more. This struggle with the Hamaida could have lasted for some time with no serious consequences, but an unexpected incident brought the young Christian once more to the edge of ruin.
The powerful tribe of the Beni Sakher, incontestably the most powerful and the most fearless of the Moab plateau, considered that the newcomers – no more than forty families – were fair prey. Not only did they rob them and carry off the harvest, but having captured a Christian they insulted him unforgivably and actually killed his companion. A shiver of fury went through the Azeizat. Sheikh Saleh immediately made all speed to the camp of the Sehour in question. “The men shall pay four times the blood price or it will mean war!” The Sehour smiled condescendingly.
Beside himself, Saleh returned to Madaba. The Azeizat were few in number, but the blood ran high in the veins of their warriors! Soon they learned that a caravan of the Sehour was preparing to leave for Jerusalem. Led by the Sheikh and by Ibrahim, the Azeizat laid an ambush at Magera-Aqwa, fell on the Sehour, wounding several men and carrying off all the camels to Madaba. At the same time they raided a second caravan following Wadi Kefrain. They returned home, bringing with them a large number of camels carrying butter : Madaba now had enough butter for three years! The Azeizat had proved to the Sehour that they would not tolerate their insolence. On both sides tempers were running high. An incident set off the fire.
The behavior of Salem Q… who killed the “Tanib” (or close neighbor) of the Sehour, set all the Arabs against Madaba which they besieged. All day Ibrahim remained on the field of battle. He needed to be held back rather than be urged forward. “By a dispensation of God” he told me “we fought all day and yet nobody was killed” An intervention from the Government ended the hostilities; peace was made, but for some time the Christians dared not venture from the village; they remained as prisoners in their own homes.
Ibrahim al-Twill was the first to stir from this torpor; alone on horseback he rode out into the plain a short distance and returned at the gallop. The next day several riders went with him and under his leadership patrolled the environs and got used to fighting. Soon the Christians regained courage. The Sehour tribe had made peace, but the victim’s brother demanded revenge. Fearing worse trouble, the inhabitants of Madaba paid him a mare, a gun and twenty loads of corn, while the Governor of Salt put a price on the head of this fanatical Sahary. Captured shortly afterwards by a rider who brought him back captive, he was freed by the Christians who advised him to flee. He was not seen again.
Shortly afterwards, the Government named a Governor in Madaba. He granted land to the Christians who energetically helped him to establish his authority over the entire region. I shall not describe this conquest in detail, but it continued towards the interior of the area. I shall only mention that the official guide for the Sultan’s troops was our Ibrahim. He led the soldiers who marched against the Hamaida, and he recounted happily how pleased he was to see them massacre his former enemies. He was also a guide in the army which captured Ma’am, Shobuk, Tafileh and Kerak, which it entered without a shot being fired. The victory was total. However the Christians’ troubles were not over. The presence of a central authority in this region so long left to itself did not automatically mean security. It would be easy to give examples, I will only mention one incident in which our hero was involved.
One night Ibrahim was startled awake by a call “To horse, to horse, they are raiding the herds!” Within moments he was at the head of six of the Azeizat who speeded into the plains and brought back the stolen animals. But together with Hannah Farah, Ibrahim al-Twal was accused of having fired the bullet which killed two men. He was summoned to prove his innocence by the test of the “bale”. Here is a description of this test.
An Arab whose reputation for probity is as great as the desert is wide is a virtual judge, considered both infallible and supreme. The accused kneels before this individual who holds in his hand an iron bar, flattened at the end which is red hot. Three times the iron is applied to the tongue of the accused. If there is no trace of a burn he is declared innocent. This happens at el-Ela. Al-Twal could not refuse this test, it would have been to admit his guilt, but he disliked the idea of such a long trip. He got round the difficulty. He declared a Bedouin whom he knew to be his representative, and to make more palpable the mandate he gave him, he dressed him in his own tunic and gave him forty megidys. The test proved to be favourable.
There are many other stories I could tell about the life of Ibrahim al-Twal.
One day he was told that a villager from Dear Divan had stolen his cows. With a few riders, he left, caught the wretched man, whipped him severely tied his feet together and and hung him upside down in an empty cistern. After this he brought him back to Madera, chained his ankles and fastened him in the stable for a month. He then sent him home, advising him not to begin again.
Another time he heard that the Belasis Arabs prowled around Madera in the evening to spy on the Christian women and insult them. Alone he patrolled the surroundings at dusk and several wretches whom he found were roughly handled by this giant with a heavy fist.
I will not speak long about the life of Ibrahim al-Twill; his energy, his stubborn clinging to grudges, his anger, the hate he bears for his enemies, his outrage when his honour was impugned are sufficient to give an idea of this indomitable man. You might wonder if such a nature could ever feel affection for anybody.
I have seen this man weeping at Nablus over the tomb of his unhappy sister, the principal cause of his suffering. In Madera his house is always open to travelers, Arabs or foreigners. All his money goes on his hospitality: he built a “madefa” to receive his guests. In church he remains alone to pray. One of our students was attending Mass in the simple chapel in Madaba. This tall Bedouin came to kneel beside him, a pair of pistols in his belt (even now (1904)an Arab would never leave home without his weapons). After a few minutes the European saw the nomad reach inside his tunic. “For certain” he thought, “this Bedouin is going to murder me!”. He relaxed when he saw the Arab draw out his rosary.
Just as previously he thirsted for blood, he hates shedding it nowadays.
“I have blood on my hands,”, he says, “I have blood on my hands”. And to atone for his former life, he vowed that Friday and Saturday he will only eat bread and drink water. When we were traveling together, we were invited to eat a sheep on a Saturday. “I have vowed to fast” he replied simply, and he contented himself with a few olives that evening.
Religion has changed this savage soul and has made him the saviour of the poor and the deprived. I have seen him carrying butter with his own hands to a poor woman reduced to destitution. He is not afraid to call on the Government to intervene when someone is oppressed; neither does he hesitate to confront this same authority when he considers it to be abusing its power.
Here is an example. Some soldiers changing their barracks decided to requisition mules from the Christians – a unjustifiable requisition – and arrived at Ibrahim al-Twal’s house preparing to carry off his mount. “Don’t touch it!” he cried “or you will never leave here” and he waved his rifle in his hand.
His pride and independence still remain. Recently a telegram arrived from the Waly in Damascus, sending for him to come to the capital to discuss some disagreement with the Arabs. “Sheikh Jakub is just as wise as I am” he said. “He can go alone to Damascus, I shall remain here”
He leads a simple life, modest and unpretentious. He has a son of twenty-eight who lives with him, although he has been married for several years. He is the only son of Ibrahim’s first marriage; after the death of his first wife Ibrahim married a widow belonging to a schismatic Greek religion. Ibrahim allows her complete religious freedom, but surveys his children and sees to it that they never miss the Latin missionary’s school or the catechism.
He remembers every kindness he has received and from his simple nature he knows how to show his gratitude. His son Metry was treated by the French doctor in the hospital in Jerusalem to thank him, Ibrahim sent him the skin of an ostrich with all of the feathers.
However he is fully conscious of his impetuous nature, and he considers that is the good influence of the Latin missionaries which has helped him to control it.
Translated by Ruth Caswell. © translation 2004