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?
An unusual sense of calm has overcome me, as the legal noose gets tighter and tighter around the orange felon’s neck.
Now that I have decided — following what happened to the front of our house last week (see previous post) — to leave for good, the question is where in Portugal.
The Algarve’s far too hot to live there year-round.
Right now, there is much that I like about a city called Coimbra, which, like many cities in the Iberian peninsula, has a Moorish history — which I love, as it gives me a sense of belonging, of not being a stranger, but the descendant of those who once ruled here, for many centuries.
I have much to learn about this beautiful inland town on a river, between Porto and Lisbon, but so far, what I am finding out is attractive — including the cost of renting a flat or buying a house.
I need to start listening to the music of Carlos Paredes and how to play a Coimbra guitar. His personal story, too, resonates.
I need to start studying Portuguese, and at learning more than saying obrigado. Ah, to be able to read Pessoa in the original!
I also want to learn more about the tragic story (there always seems to be a story of doomed lovers in Portugal, just like the one in Tavira with the river of two names, Gilão and Séqua), but here the star-crossed lovers are Pedro and Ines from 1336, and I want, also, to visit the Fontes des amores and of course check out the Casa de Escrita.
Most of all, I need to find a way to deal with my personal and long-term history of Saudade.
I have carried this depressive affliction with me since I was 16, which is also why I feel a sense of kinship when I hear Fado music and I get all quiet and pay attention to every note, every intonation of suffering that seeks not pity, every plaintive cry of unbearable hurt and unrequited love or, worse yet, of love that disappeared after once seeming so promisingly eternal.
I have yearned for things that used to be and vanished, some in the blink of an eye, others not so suddenly, but slowly, like the sense of history that is finally being drained out of what is left of my once beloved Cairo, not just in my lifetime, but sometimes for things that happened even well before that, that I know of through books and dream plays and old movies and the poetry of the maudits.
I want to live in a life where suddenly I can see a beautiful young woman walking down the street, or glimpse the remnants of a ruined Moorish castle by the sea, and not feel an unbearable sadness, of knowing how things usually turn out, in this world which often takes from us for no reason that which we most love, snatched just like that away from us for no reason at all.
I am 67 years old now, and sometimes I still tear up like a boy.
Who knows how much time is left for me, after the ruinous lost decade and a half I’ve just spent in Florida?
But one thing I do know is that I refuse — when the time comes, which I hope of course shall not be for many years — to be buried in this country. For a lot of reasons, some of them not really that pleasant to talk about, and so I won’t.
I need to find a place where I can feel at ease and enjoy my life again, and so I wrote about that to me Mum, to which she quipped back, gallows humor style, via email, yes, the new meaning of RIP: Rest in Portugal.
I originally thought that perhaps my final resting place should be in England, where I was born, in Stafford in the Midlands — perhaps under a shady tree in the gracious Eccleshall Road Cemetery that I remember faintly from my youth when I took walks in the country with my grandad, whose first name was Percy, and whom my Nanny called Perse, until I saw this, and showed it to my wife.
One look at that Mirror article, and her snappy immediate retort was “I guess nowadays RIP actually means rest in plastic.”