People of the Reeds by Gavin Maxwell
It was blowing hard and cold when we left the village, and the sky was empty and grey without individual clouds. We left the palm groves and the stretches of dry land behind us, and soon the horizon was flat and bare, and the yard high stubble of burnt reeds and bulrushes through which the ill-defined watercourses ran was paler than the blue-grey horizon sky. Very far away in front of us a few dark specks showed the last of the palm groves before the edge of the permanent marsh. The earth seemed flat as a plate and stretched away forever before us, vast, desolate and pallid; pale bulrush stubble standing in water that reflected a vast pale sky, against which strained here and there the delicate shape of a long reed bent before the wind, the silhouette urgent as the keening of a violin. As the gusts grew stronger and ruffled the water among the reeds into flurries of small ripples, it tore a chorus of strange sounds from the stiff, withered sedge stumps, groans and whistles, bleats and croaks, and loud crude sounds of flatulence; if the devils of Hieronymus Bosch could speak from the canvas this would be the babel of their tongues, these the derisive notes of the trumpets at their backsides.
There was no colour anywhere, and the grey sky, unbroken by hill or tree, seemed as immense as from a small boat far out at sea. Occasionally a Hight of pelicans would sail majestically by, riding the wind on stiff outstretched wings, rigid and bulky in body as seaplanes; and once a flock of white ibis drifted past very high up, to fan out into a wheeling kaleidoscope of white petals on the great empty sky. It was in some way a terrible landscape, utterly without human sympathy, more desolate and inimical than the sea itself, except, perhaps, when it breaks in winter on a long shingle beach and the land behind it is flat. Here in the limitless stubble of pale bulrush one felt that no sheltering ship could sail nor human foot walk, and there seemed no refuge for any creature whose blood was warm.
For three hours after; we moved through this unchanging landscape with the weird clamour of the reeds about us, while the little dark blot of the palm grove at Ramla grew slowly bigger, and at length we were in waterways where the reed stubble grew on firm ground at our sides, and the reed houses of Ramla showed huddled round the palms.
Though Ramla stood on a low mud island with scattered palm groves about it, and thus was not a true Ma’dan village, it was yet the first of the primitive communities I had seen, for at Huwair we had been close to the road and to civilization, and had stayed in the mudhif of a sheikh and not with the common people. Here the houses were small, some twelve feet wide by thirty-five feet long, and many of them appeared disordered by the gale that tossed and flung the threshing palm trees into alternately beckoning and suppliant shapes. The shallow water of the marsh petered out into mud-banked ditches and scum-covered backwaters among the houses, and above the level of the water the wind churned up an eddying dust-storm of sand and small reed fragments. A group waited for us on a bank by one of the nearer houses, their robes and headcloths flapping wildly, and after the first exchange of greetings we were ushered – as I was to regret so often and for so many reasons in so many other villages – straight into the house. The entrance was a slit in the vertical reeds forming the end of the house, so narrow that one could only enter sideways.