History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

12 February 2010

Jane Digby El Mezrab - Part II

Jane Digby’s life in itself was an eye-opener; her life in the deserts of Syria was an eyebrow-popper! Six months of the year she and the sheikh of her life, Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab, spent in the palatial residence she built in Damascus; the other six months they lived in Arab tents in the desert. Isobel Burton, stationed in Damascus while husband Richard collected notes for his translation of The Arabian Nights (and his later Terminal Essay on Arabian sex life and customs), observed that:

“When I say the men are riding djerid (the wild, plunging charge of Bedouin horseman),I mean that they are galloping about violently, firing from horseback at full speed, yelling, hanging over in their stirrups with their bridles in their mouth, playing with and quivering their long feathered lances in the air, throwing them and catching them again at full gallop, picking things from the ground, firing pistols, throwing themselves under the horses’ bellies and firing under them at full gallop . . . ”

And Jane loved every minute of it. Apparently she made no attempt to change the Bedouin pattern of violence, or convert them to Christianity. She lived among them, keeping her own beliefs. Another interesting note is that Medjuel “the adored, the noble, lion-hearted, independent lover, never availed himself of Jane’s considerable family fortune. Instead, he preferred to acquire funds in ways traditional to his people - raiding other tribes for horses and camels.

Inter-tribal warfare was common, often over questions of pasturage and trading concessions. In one skirmish, the Mezrabs suffered losses of men and cattle and their camps were sacked. Jane, now a grandmother, rushed off to join the fray beside Medjuel. The entire tribe was devoted to her.

Jane gathered about her the European residents of Damascus, members of the Consular and Government Services, and visitors for occasional “rooftop” suppers, which Isobel Burton remembers:

“How I look back to those romantic days ... when the mattresses and cushions of the divans were spread on the housetop...then the supper was prepared on the roof, and there remained with us the two most interesting and remarkable characters of Damascus,the two who never knew what fear meant - the famous Abd El Kadir and Lady Ellenborough.”

Even at sixty-one, Jane was still a beautiful woman, a true grande dame, commanding and queen-like. Jane dressed simply, plaited her hair in two long braids down to the ground, milked camels, served her husband’s food, offered water to wash hands and face, sat on the floor washing his feet, poured his coffee, offered sherbet.

Not only did Jane dote on Mezrab, she loved animals; at one time she had horses, donkeys, dromedaries, a pelican, Persian hounds and parrots. And 100 cats, each with its own plate. A long-suffering serving maid cared for the pets.

In 1859, after a snowy winter, famine, and unrest, Moslem and Christian came to blows. In Beirut, the Druze massacre of the Christians spread waves of terror across the country. The fervor reached Damascus, and Kurds and Druzes set fire to the city, smoking out Christians, who were raped, dismembered, or killed. Corpses rotted in the gutters, and all who could leave, did so. But Jane and Medjuel remained to help. Medjuel tried to reason with the mob, then opened his house as sanctuary for Christians.

As the Christian wife of a Moslem, Jane’s position was dangerous. Fires raged. The foreign consulates were burned. Damascus became an inferno. Yet Jane left the protection of the Mezrab household and went into the city, alone, to do what she could. Neither her person nor her house were touched out of respect for her position among the Arabs, but she defended her Christian faith with a notable lack of tact. Medjuel took an equally firm stand for Islam and finally left Damascus and Jane.

Jane was desolate; she adored Medjuel as she had never loved another man. They later reconciled, but Jane was now 74 years old and began to find life in the Bedouin tents too rough and the long desert rides too exhausting. Medjuel went to and from the desert without her, but she felt it bitterly.

During the summer of 1881 cholera swept through Damascus. Most of the Europeans left, but Jane and Medjuel stayed on in the house with its fountains, gardens, the menagerie of animals. Jane died in August from an attack of dysentery with Medjuel by her side.

But when the funeral cortege slowly wound toward the Protestant cemetery, the desert Bedouin, which Medjuel was at heart, rebelled. The funereal gloom and ritual sickened him. He escaped the carriage and fled. The funeral continued, and just as the last words of the service were being read, there was the sound of horses’ hooves.

Medjuel had returned, riding Jane’s favorite black mare. He galloped up to the open grave and then rode out into the desert and where he sacrificed one of his finest camels in her memory.

Sources: The Wilder Shores of Love, Lesley Blanch; Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, post, October 2007.


Blogger Unknown said...

Make me think of The Wind and the Lion (which is airing on either TMC or AMC this weekend; I have it all set up to record). I love that movie, but I always wanted Mrs. Pedecaris to stay with the Raisuli. Clearly I was a romantic even as a child, LOL!

11:01 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What an amazing story, Lynna. I had no idea.

7:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This has been a wonderfully interesting series of posts. We often forget that there were real women out there that lived life on their own terms. Some of their experiences challenge what fictional heroines experience. More of these stories should be publicized.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks so much for these wonderful posts on Jane's story, Lynna! So fascinating. The sort of story that were it fictional, I can imagine people saying
"oh, but that would never have happened in real life."

10:14 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I mentioned this the first time you posted on Jane Digby, Lynna -- she remains such a fascinating woman with such a unique life that I continue to marvel why her story has not been set to historical fiction (or has it, but I am not familiar with the novel?)

If not, what do you folks think is holding it back (because I am sure that authors have floated proposals over the years). Could it be the Arab angle? Are editors fearful that western readers will have too many immediate prejudices against Medjuel, or Jane's relationship with him, to accept the novel?

9:01 AM  
Blogger Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I am delighted to find your blog--thank you so much for offering great research tid-bits!

12:49 PM  

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