The allure of the past can cripple the future.
The allure of the past can cripple the future.
The prolific novelist and esteemed motor-cycle riding (which killed him, at the age of 49), rebel upstate New York university professor once wrote that the inferior writer writes derivatively — or something along those lines.
And if I were in the mood to write a derivative post today, I would pen some moody piece about some old elephant slogging along, as he headed toward the so-called “elephant’s graveyard” that I used to read about in the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan books I read as a kid.
The old elephant would of course be some version of me, and there would some bittersweet remembrance of ancient battles fought and won, ancient loves won and lost, and, most terribly, the ancient memories for which elephants are famous — memories that haunt like ghosts.
The conclusion would be some Hemingway Old Man and the Sea moment, as the elephant turns back one last time to confront the tusk poachers who have been pursuing him for weeks. Then I would end it with some ambivalent finale that, while exquisitely melancholic, in reality would be no conclusion at all but just a cop out.
Well, fuck that.
Today, being the second day of the New Year, there is much to look forward to: the year is in its infancy, and hopes are renewed — no matter how useless a pursuit that may appear to the jaded.
For one thing, the crippling back pain that I suffered for four days has gone away — this happened after I stupidly lifted something heavy rather awkwardly, while forgetting to bend my knees.
Now that I am not confined to my study and the comp, I plan to go out and be up and about and take care of some things, like the car whose dashboard engine icon is now urgently on, a bad sign of expensive things to come. Perhaps I will end up on a beach, and have my wife snap a pic of me wetting my feet in the cold Atlantic — providing there’s no toxic algae bloom or flesh-eating bacteria floating in the ocean (this has become a perennial problem around Florida; moreover, there is also a mosquito Nile Virus alert in this Florida county at the moment.)
For some time now, I have looking for a place to hang my hat (I think I will wear this hat if and when I go to the beach later today). When one considers leaving America, you have to think: what is driving me to such and such a place? Is it that I am trying to escape from an America I can no longer tolerate, or is it that I am attracted to a particular place for what it has to offer?
For me, as I consider Porto, I really have to say that I have doubts. I do like Portugal, but the Atlantic is not my sea; the Mediterranean is. The truth is, that at my age — I am 67 — one does not want to waste a lot of time making the wrong move.
Supposing I drop dead tomorrow? Unlikely, as I am in excellent health (for my age), but if I were to, where would be a suitable graveyard? Florida? Not on your life. Porto? Uh, no. Someplace along the Mediterranean? Now you’re talking!
Don’t get me wrong: I really like Portugal, especially the Portuguese people: I think the coolest moment there was when I went to that hidden, back-street after hours place in Tavira and had a long conversation with a local — artsy, 40s, spoke English and French — about Fernando Pessoa and Tavira in general, and when he slipped me a piece of hash, shortly before he left to disappear into the night, I thought now that was pretty cool.
I learnt much about Tavira and Portugal from that meeting; but I’m not that interested in hanging out in the Algarve, despite the fact that my English cousin lives there; nor would I favor hilly, cold, damp Porto, that is completely infested with Birkenstocks as well as bucket list young people who spend a day or two or three taking in the sights and moving on with their young lives, as I remain behind, shivering in some ratty apartment with no heat.
What, exactly, would I do there. Go to the Livraria Lello and hope lightning strikes twice? It is good to remember what the pipe-smoking John Garnder said (in one of his On Writing books) in that regard, when one is tempted to do something moronic like that.
Instead, I really ought to focus on the why would I go to part of my quest, as opposed to the running away from trope.
This, in fact, is the subject of today’s post.
Let me get at what I want to say indirectly, as meandering along the back roads is usually more interesting than an on-the-nose, straight drive to the point.
I remember watching a movie in 1975 called Swept Away, directed by that formidable Italian Marxist, Lina Wertmuller (who is 90, and still apparently vigorous, as of this writing), that I remember seeing at the Cinema 11 Theater, on Third Avenue and 59th Street. That cinema, unlike many I used to go to in the 70s and 80s, when I lived in various studio and one-bedroom hovels throughout Manhattan, is still around.
Swept Away (I never bothered to see the Madonna remake) has remained in the back of my mind since then, especially for the classic comedic North/South “class” interplay between Giancarlo Giannini and the late Mariangela Melato, a movie that included an extremely funny ass fucking scene (which no doubt would be frowned upon by present era reviewers, unless they realize that the director is a fierce feminist), but also, and perhaps more importantly for the purpose of this post at least, the extended, idyllic scenes along the golden sands of the Sardinian eastern coast, in the province of Nuoro, before the Agha Khan and his successors had completely turned he Costa Smerlada into the obscenity it is today.
Who would not want to have an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (the movie’s ellipsed subtitle), especially in the company of beautiful firecracker like Raffaella?
Okay, now let’s cut to the point.
About twelve years ago, when I became restive in Florida, after a series of marital mishaps and career disasters and near financial ruin, I happened to find myself in Tunisia.
It is there that I first heard about the island of Tabarka, and its ancient relationship with the island of Carloforte in Sardinia. I was intrigued, as I invariably am, by points of historical connection along the White Sea, el bahr el abyad el muttawasat, as the Arabs call it, the sea of my now near mythic childhood summers.
Time passed, and I continued along my random travels, mostly along the French Riviera and Dahab in the Sinai, until I suddenly fell quite ill, almost died in Times Square, then almost went blind, had an eye operation, began to see again, and, about 15 months ago, resumed my quest, first going to Nice, where I spent a year once, and then El Gouna, where I wondered if the Red Sea could ever replace my beautiful Mediterranean.
But… after coming across par hazard this blog a few days ago, I wondered, what if Sardinia, yes, windswept, cold and rainy in the winter Sardinia, rugged hills Sardinia, nuragic Sardinia that is still empty over much of its interior surface (it’s about the size of Maryland, and has a million-and-a-half plus inhabitants, most clustered in cities, towns and villages along the coastlines), Sardinia that has ferries that go to all the Medi ports and rocky islands I love and know so well, Sardinia that is infested in summer with cruise ships and by Germans and Northern Italians and probably Brits too; Sardinia, Sardinia, Sardinia, whose language — a favorite of e. e. cummings and Eliot and Joyce! — I understand more readily than Portuguese, as it is closer to French than the former, and because so many Egyptian loan words in Arabic are of Italian origin; Sardinia, where if you wanted to be a hermit and write a book and do the retired writer thing in the sun thing might be financially doable, someplace perhaps around the tiny village of Nebida, or thereabout, not far from Carloforte, not far from Africa, not far from Corsica and the South of France, and not far even from a ferry that takes you to Barcelona in the summertime, where a childhood friend of mine has a place.
Something to think about (though Alghero does have its merits, too, not the least would be possibly far better housing opportunities for a writer’s garret at an affordable monthly rate). I have put out some feelers on the matter with the owner of said blog, and will wait and see what develops.
Stranger things have happened, as the phrase goes: but one thing I am sure of is that slogging through the upcoming nightmare between the Dems in the House and the mafioso Cyrus the Great charlatan occupying the White House is a tedious freak show that I would rather not endure.
Plus tôt que plus tard, on verra bien ce qui va’sse passer, avant que l’éléphant s’endormit pour la dernière fois et oubli tout.
The picture you see above is of the island in Cairo where I grew up. The red arrow shows the location of the apartment building where I spent my formative, teenage years. The greenery in the front part of the picture is the Gezira Club. This is where I literally spent the first 16 years of my life, knew everybody, everybody knew me, and all was good.
I went to the Gezira Club almost exactly a year ago today. I am no longer a sentimental nostalgist, but it felt odd to have to pay 150 LE to some guards to enter the place where once I walked in without a carnet and all the suffragis called me Ali Bey.
Life was a box of chocolates, then, for I grew up with extreme, unearned privilege — though I did help start one of the most famous rock bands in Egypt.
Immigration is hard on everyone, but particularly when your family abandons a life of apparent luxury, and you have no idea why.
Being dirt poor in Manhattan in the 70s through 90s, hanging out during those interminable afternoons at those Irish dives in the East Village, having those blurry, raucous one nighters with the various skanks that randomly came in and out of my shotgun walkup, then, seemed edgy at the time, the bohemian life any budding writer must lead to accumulate material, the idea of having noble dreams, while pursuing the most wicked of pleasures, saying no to little except the most sordid, but it was not much fun when no solid writing emerged, and I began to think of writing fiction not as art but as a form of pernicious self-indulgence, as I increasingly lived a life abstracted even from the unreality of early 80s Manhattan, a place that while not the hollow trustafarian garden it later turned into, was still a place where one could cultivate self-righteous rage and existential despair, until the rent came due, and I finally came to terms with the idea, like some dim-witted, unfunny Lebowski, that I had to find a real job that provided a steady income, not just gig money, one gig after another, a precursor to the so-called gig economy that passes for cool nowadays, which gets old real fast by the time you hit your mid 30s and keep having to explain to your date why you don’t have a real job despite getting a Ph.D. at NYU, this idea, this notion of a job, of steady employment, crucial to the coming to terms late in life with the necessities of an orderly, middle-class existence, like the one your parents had, and you don’t just have the one shitty suit from Moe Ginsberg that you wear winter, summer and fall, and with that the obligation of paying bills on a regular basis and not filing embarrassingly piddling chump change 1099s, because you’re a creative, after all, and not some ordinary strap-hanger, and you even have the bright idea one day of even trying to make a career of it, some it, any it, despite your late start, because while you may have scored the gorgeous girl in your mid 20s, when looks and clever patter are everything, now you’re starting to fall off the radar of desirability and that girl, the one who said you were the handsomest man she had ever met, remember her, the one who ended up dumping your bony ass for the rat-faced dork who was already a VP somewhere, the one they used to giggle at behind his back in High School, the same sort of dude whom you always knew could not even begin to compete with you at any level, so you thought, arrogantly, but now she shares his bedroom, and sucks his dick, and you sit there some loser in a cubicle wondering what happened, until you realize it’s never going to be now yet don’t give in for the contrariness of it — stepping past the built-in excuses and bitterness over the lost beautiful island and the One Who Got Away.
I am 67 now; an old man, and no longer handsome. Who is, at 67?
The last decade and a half has been for me a sort of lost weekend. I essentially threw away 16 years of my life, as I wandered from place to place, in Dahab and Tozeur and El Gouna and Nice and Tavira, not so much a digital nomad, for I walked away from that in anger when the tech meltdown ruined me financially in 2001, but a pilgrim looking in vain for that place where I could hang my hat again, and as the years progressed, where I could embrace the tranquility of growing old gracefully and without regrets and where I would not be horrified at resting my bones one day.
But my mind won’t let me; I can’t let go; not yet.
It still whispers to me that I have that novel to write.
It still tells me that I also have an affinity for tech. I was good at it once, why not have another go at it?
At an age when brains begin to shrink and atrophy, would I still have the mental suppleness to pursue such endeavors, or settle for the pensioner’s life, frittering whatever time is left away.
After publishing this post, I shall focus on what I planned on doing today — other than running my wife’s e-commerce site — which is learning some shiny new thing called graph database technology, which I talk a lot about in my other blog, the tech one, as well as on my chatty Twitter account.
My mind refuses to slow down; I probably still have a good ten or maybe even 15-20 years before it goes to sleep.
You can do a lot in 20 years.
Write a novel, or two.
Launch a tech startup — which is why I am so interested in the tech scene in Lisbon, as a way of getting permanently away from the bovine, antediluvian mentality of FLA.
I would love launching it in El Gouna, where I spent much of the past year. There is a flourishing angel funding tech startup scene that is constituting itself there.
In El Gouna, which is starting to address some of the wild roaming dogs and noise pollution issues I documented in this blog a year ago, being 67 and forming a little tech company might not be viewed as quixotic.
In Lisbon, I would probably cut a pathetic, faintly ridiculous figure.
But then, as I take off those ever tempting rose-colored glasses, and read news like this, I remember my late father, who left everything — including the opportunity to be as rich or richer even than the richest of mucky-mucks today in El Gouna — in order to provide his sons with something he deemed as infinitely more precious: Freedom.
My uncle the retired general still lives in the apartment overlooking the Nile that I grew up in, where the red arrow in the pic is pointing.
He has throat cancer now.
There may never be another chance to see him again, if I don’t return soon, he who represents one of the few direct links to my father still around.
He fought gallantly in Egypt’s wars, and was made to suffer immensely by the guy in the big suit you see in the pic above, for speaking up as to why ’67 happened.
What if… I returned?
Just look the other way as the poets and mystics and homosexuals and truth tellers are tortured and imprisoned or mutilated and left for dead in some ditch on the road to Alexandria; the way everyone else does in Gouna; ignore the proverty and lack of democracy outside its patrician walls, and do this startup thing in El Gouna, where if you keep your mouth shut and have the right friends, life is as it should be.
I have an Egyptian ID card that says Muslim on it, just like 90 per cent of the population there. I can recite the fatha from memory. Just by hearing the intonations of my accent in Arabic, there is no question to any Egyptian as to where I come from, even though to most I look like a “mister,” for it is my land, here, ardi, baladi, my country — even though the changes have been vast.
I watched an interesting movie last night called Goldstone, that the Guardian review described as a masterpiece of outback noir. There is a line in the movie that stayed with me, something about it not being the job of the world to accommodate itself to you, but yours to find a place where you fit in.
I am no longer the rich man’s son who grew up in a life of immense privilege.
I know what it is like to be poor, to go hungry, to get very sick.
Despite all that, I am still no sheep-like conformist.
2018 is coming to a close.
What will the future bring?
Will I finally shed my sense of overarching personal failure, and accomplish the impossible, at this stage of my life?
Or will I simply get older, and, one day, as time goes on, die a stranger in a strange land?