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.

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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.

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My name is not Mister

gouna cat

Stunningly beautiful day today in El Gouna; there’s whitecaps in the Red Sea: the cool North breeze is blowing away all the skeeters and flies.

So I decided to go to West Golf one last time to see Sandy the cat at the villa where I spent the last three months. Met the pool guy at the gate, who introduced me to the son of the owner and his wife. His name is Sam, and his wife is Sophia. He works in retail at Marks & Spencer; nice young couple from Bristol.

At Sam’s invitation, I went to the back by the pool to find Sandy.

She was hiding under the outside dining table and ran toward me as soon as she saw me, but probably only because of the tin of cat food in my hand.

It was such a pleasure watching her eat, and I stroked her back and tail one last time. She looked healthy, and happy to see me, and is becoming less feral: Sophia told me Sandy likes to bask alongside her on the sun bed by the pool.  So: I have domesticated a wild cat, and now she has a home, and will be safe forever.

I left after a brief chat with Sam, and took the bus back downtown.

The bus driver was in a complaining mood.

He told me how he had a fight with his landlord, and had to sleep outside in El Gouna last night in the street in El Bustan.

I empathized but I told him in my best oracular tone that a real man (ragil asseel) never complains about anything.

Did the rasoul Mohammed (PBUH) complain when the Kureish ( قريشي ) tried to kill him?

He took that in, then said a Mister had left a smartphone on the bus yesterday, but that he, the bus driver, had returned it to the front office, instead of selling it in Hurghada. I said what of it?  A true Muslim does not steal, even if he is penniless.

This was all spoken in fluent idiomatic Arabic.

I did not speak Arabic like this when I arrived 7 months ago in Gouna. The language of my childhood has slowly come back to me; but the authentic Egyptian accent is something I never lost.  This is why, as soon as I open my mouth to say anything, that I am viewed by Egyptians here as one of them, not as some “Mister.”

You cannot fake the Masri accent, and you have to be born to it to have it.

I got off the bus, wishing him rizk from Rabinna,  a way of saying rely on God, the same God I prayed to when my mother was having her operation yesterday.

He said, Allah yi khaleek, God keep you , then he said, ma’ el salama ya bey — go in peace, Bey.

This is what everyone called me as a boy. Not Mister, which is how all foreign men are addressed here by the locals. Not ustaz. Not basha, which is what the local young guys casually calls each other nowadays, robbing it of meaning.  Just Bey: the stately honorific of my childhood, and how I was used to being addressed, without a trace of irony, when I was a boy.

When I went to the family villa in Alex, I would sometimes look at the oil portraits of my great-grandfather and great uncles that hung on the walls of the salamlek, which is the smaller house in the Turko-Egyptian era of splendor where men would meet their guests.

My ancient primogentiure relatives all had huge moustaches (aka, shanabat), wore fezes (known here as tarboushes), and were actual landowning Beys.

I never met any of them, of course; or rather, I knew their pinochle-playing, decadent, reprobate sons and daughters — trying to preserve their dignity amidst the subtractive humiliations inflicted by Nasser.

Pity, that, as I would rather have enjoyed knowing the greatest one of them all, an authentic aristocrat by the name of Bahnas Basha, who had the self awareness that he had too much.

Ended up at Zomba’s were I had 2 foul and ta’ameeya with tahina and salata sandwiches, and washed it down with a large glass of freshly squeezed Orange Juice.

I ordered casually in Egyptian Arabic and the waiters all greeted me by my first  name, and then when I left, I felt saddened that I would be abandoning my country in two weeks.

No-one in America has ever pronounced my first name correctly, but here, it is a popular and respected name.  Here, in this place, in my country; not there.

Here, where featherless brown eagles attempt to soar above the desert while vainly searching for a voting booth.

Here, even though what you have in terms of the ruling class in places like Gouna is largely the cadre of nouveau riche who eventually took the place of people like el marhoum Bahnas Basha.

He was probably quite cultured, yet didn’t have the Special Eyes to not let that happen.

And by him, I mean everyone who once mattered, before going mad or dying.

I wish I could have warned them.

leaving america

Ouvrage

“[We] made several trial diggings […],
but we found nothing worth carrying away.”
E. A. Wallis Budge, noted British Egyptologist and philologist

 

Sometimes, it takes 50 years to understand what happened when you were 15.

The wind has completely died down today in Gouna, Egypt. Because it is Sunday morning, many people have already left in their cars. They’ll be in Cairo by afternoon.

Here, it is now quiet.

All you hear is the randy howling of cats, and the occasional passing of a micro bus. As always, Sandy remains close by, silently, and does not engage or participate in whatever the other, larger cats are doing — which is mostly foraging for food, and coupling.

gouna cat
The hated tomcat yowler

The lack of wind and people lends an almost classical feel to the place. You sense history writ in the large having unfolded. You sense an inflection point in history about to unfold. You sense in the stillness of the moment the present as an unalterable is-ness.

The French word ouvrage has multiple meanings. It can mean opening something, or, rather, the act of revealing; but it can also signify a literary or academic text, a book, a conceit, a fragment or shard of memory.

If you were here in Gouna simply to regain your health and get away from American carnage, that would be fine.  That would be sufficient.

But it isn’t for me.

Behind every day that I am here in the desert by the sea, I think to myself where is the opening? Where is the cut in the mountains that I shall take to explore the remote territory in a deeper way? Or is this nothing more than the delusional madness of the anchorite? Is that cupboard empty, with at best a dusty stray cat story yellowing on some bottom unseen shelf?

If Saussure and philolology are your thing — as they are mine — there can be no greater adventure than finding and reading an affordable copy of  P. M. Frazer’s Ptolemaic Alexandria.

I shall look for it while in Egypt; first at the Alexandria library in Gouna, and then perhaps at the real one in Alexandria itself.

It is necessary to find this book, given that much of what I am thinking about — as I go about my normal activities, the duties as it were, of cooking, shaving, walking, watching TV, or even reading about Nubia —  involves Alexandria and the deserts of sin.

I must go to Alex before I leave.

I must find this book.

egyptian snake
Egyptian cobra

The bucket list keeps growing; Marsa Alam; the nearby islands in the Red Sea; the visit to the Bedouin in the Eastern Desert wadis and spending a night or two under the stars in the mountains. What about the danger of snakes that are no doubt there?  I am an immigrant. Am I one now, too, a snake, as some American fools claim? Is there a secret sharer in this house?

I sit in the stillness and wonder how many of these superficial things I’ll be able to do before leaving. Time is growing short, even though such accomplishments are largely meaningless — the blue flies will eat out your eyes no matter what. It’s becoming obvious that I must return in October. Should the new place I am going to in a few weeks please me with it’s attractive proximity to the Red Sea, I may rent it for 9 months and finish writing my tortured imaginary novel there.

I watch — briefly — CNN and apprise myself of the latest rantings of the lunatic currently in the White House.

But then I switch it off.

I listen, again, briefly, to Jagger on YouTube singing “I’ll never leave your pizza burning” on Beast of Burden, and think of all the cunctative mulepacks that I perhaps mistakenly must rely upon in my search to discover the ouvrage that will — at last! finally! — define and validate the real point of my coming to Gouna, now long after I have ceased to be a handsome young man with the world before him like a bed of willing oysters, and with hours, no, decades, to spare, dawdling with complicated young women in New York City dive bars, engaging in the usual clever banter and chit chat, pissing out the future on urinal cakes in a porcelain prison, as if the moment of ultimate reckoning would never be at hand.

I listen to the silence of the desert.

What is it trying to tell me?

leaving america