The Elephant’s Memory

elephant skull
Elephant skull, somewhere in Africa

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.

cinema 3 ny

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.

Alas, no.

sardinia
The Nebida coastline as viewed on Google Earth

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.

sardinia
A view from the walk down from Nebida

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.

leaving america

 

 

 

The Saddest Year

alexandria egypt
No one knows what it’s like to be the Sad Man from Alexandria — photo credit The Guardian

Today is the last day of the Gregorian calendar.  The holiday blues will soon be over.

This morning, I clicked through the front page stories of the newspapers that I read online:  The NY Times, The NY Post (mainly for the coverage by Costello of the Jets), the Daily News (for the coverage by Manish of, yes, them Jets), NY Mag, The Guardian (where this story about my beloved Alex saddened me no end, remembering as I do how beautiful The Bride of The Sea once was), Madamasr, and not forgetting to skim the latest b/s in the state mouthpiece known as Al Ahram Online.

Everywhere, the news is grim.

Everywhere.

Here in the States, as I anticipated over a year and a half ago when I started this blog, the horror of what a Trump presidency would be like is finally sinking in.

The amount of deliberate destruction of a once beautiful country is astonishing to behold.

I believe the only way this will end is in an outright civil war, whether hot (war) or cold (doing away with gerrymandering, the Electoral College imbalance, and so on). There are too many truly awful people — particularly disingenuous racists, if not outright white supremacists, in this country who are blinded by religion: their ignorance and gullibility does not give them a free pass. They tend to like things just the way they are, and want more of the same, forever.

It’s obvious that a resolution will have to be unfinished — inachevé, as the French say — unless the cancerous underbelly that lurks in America is dealt with root and branch.

Waiting for the angry FLA or AZ geezers to die off will not do it.

The coming year — 2019 — is going bring further calamities and horrors, horrors that the leaders of the West seem unable to deal with.

Now the UK has to deal with the looming Brexit clusterf**k, the homeless roaming London, the slow collapse of the NHS, and what to do with the boat people; Macron is tottering, as the yellow jackets burn the cities; and Angela is leaving.

Who will rise to give the world the hope that it so desperately needs?

In my sadness this weekend, I wrote a stream of consciousness piece about Egypt based on the news.  I also watched a disturbing new Netflix release called You.  It is depressing to see what Manhattan seems to have turned into, a place where I lived for decades before coming to Florida; it is where I spent the most significant years of my adult life, experiencing both material success and borderline tragic poverty, largely due to an inability to put the past behind me.

Penn Badgley is not really a creepily insane person; you can watch him in the much more pleasant Greetings from Tim Buckley, which as of this writing is available on YouTube here.

I have gotten older; I used to listen to Buckley. before heroin took him away.

It is almost tomorrow already in El Gouna.

It is 8PM there as I type this. In a few hours the searchlights will fill the sky in Abu Tig marina, and all the restaurants and discos will be going full blast.  I hope my friend Memo at Smuggler’s has a good night.

My dear mother yesterday told me over the phone that she hopes next year will a better year for everyone.  She is quite sick, as in my uncle in Cairo.

I myself have had some issues this weekend, but they are finally improving.

porto-1982471_1920
Porto at night by the famous bridge.  It is rather cold, damp and rainy there in Winter.  Something to keep in mind.

Things will improve even more in 2019; soon, I will be making preparations for the big move to Porto in Portugal (maybe), where I might do the AirBnB 2 week stay, while finding a suitable long term let in April. And there are three, mark them, 3 tennis clubs in Porto where my wife can enjoy her days and make friends. If only Olhão didn’t have this shitty little problem, I would consider the Algarve.

I don’t know if that will be a new beginning, or the end of the line.  The man in the picture above is only 63.  At least I have not had to endure the hell he has lived, or shed tears as salt-filled as his; otherwise I would probably look just like him.

Perhaps this broken life of his will find a place where he can be happy again, with the small things in life — living in a small place by the sea and growing nice things in a garden, or being able to catch fish that swim in clean water once again.

But it won’t happen that way and no one will help him — certainly not the new rich of Egypt as they whiz by El Max in their expensive foreign cars to their even more expensive villas in the Sahel.

That is the name for the now ritzy Mediterranean north coast of Egypt, between Alex and Marsa Matrouh, which as a boy I knew only as the vast empty place where a terrible battle was once fought 10 years before I was born, where many English lads not much older than I was then were killed and remained behind, buried for the rest of time in a vast cemetery of sand and white crosses and austere sorrow, and where in the mid 60s Bedouin grew bitter olives and barley fields and draped fishing nets in the trees to catch migratory birds.

There exists a video of one of the summers we spent there as a family, in that distant era, before Marsa (as we called it: I’m the skinny kid in the black Jantzen) was built up; it concludes with a boat trip to Rommel’s island and the sound track of the Beach Boys hit my band covered with great success two years later.

There was no such thing as the Sahel, then; no gated compounds that covered every inch of this once gorgeous coastline; no groups of phony young Egyptians making a lot of noise and trying to sound and act as if they were Americans: being Egyptian was viewed as plenty sophisticated in and of itself.

The last time I visited that part of Egypt was in ’92.  I walked alone for miles in the desert, and saw two young bedouin, perhaps hoping to catch a Red-rumped Wheatear or a rare Thekla Lark, trudging over a stony trail with their carabine rifles slung casually over their shoulders. I walked deep in the mountains of the Libyan desert until I could no longer see the Mediterranean, and all I could hear was the sound of my heart beating and the blood rushing through my veins under the sun.

When will the memory of ayam zaman ever leave me? Just typing that Arabic phrase, which mean the Olden Days, reminds of supping on lentil soup and stuffed grape leaves in Gouna earlier this year, at Kan Zaman, an Egyptian restaurant I shall probably never see again.

olive oil
Olive oil made by Sinai bedu

I must look ahead to better days, no matter what, and despite the horrible realities of the present. The paralyzing fog of nostalgic depression that descended upon me after returning from Tavira a few months ago is beginning to lift.

lentil soup
My wife’s magnificent lentil soup

Tonight my wife — this coming year will mark 38 that we have been an item — is cooking a delicious lentil soup and white rice meal, the onion and garlic fried in olive oil from the Sinai.  Unlike the shurbet a’tss (lentil soup) at Kan Zaman, this soup is made fresh, instead of being frozen and put thru the micro to defrost.

Porto awaits, or is it someplace else in Europe where I shall land come April 2019?

Stay tuned.

leaving america

 

 

 

Zamalek, fein?

zamalek egypt

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.

gezira club 1955
Mum combing my hair after I swam alone in the big Lido pool for the first time at the Gezira Club in 1955

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.

nasser egypt
Me Dad showing Nasser the products of the manufacturing company he CEOed in Eypt in his early 30s in 1964. Dad is the one with the glasses on the right.

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?

Allahu a’lam.

leaving america