The Librarian’s Flame, or Alexandria

Matt Hanson

(Turkey)


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The pale, blue horizon was covered in a searing mist. The late summer humidity cast a mirage of white fog over the northerly, African city. The Mediterranean had never looked so lonely, nor dull. Its frosted waves glowed like neon, silent in the distance that seemed to remain fixed, aloof. The beaches were scarcely peopled, the top layer of their sand was burning hot under the cruel heat of the midday sun. 

Egypt was the Mother of the World, they said. Foreigners came in droves, looking for the spirits of their myths, dead gods of their childhood imaginations. Iskender did not harbour such illusions. He was a clear-eyed man of the capital, raised by a fisherman and his housewife. The umber of Cairo’s sandstorm cityscape marked his forehead with unmistakable urbanity. But he was jobless, having been fired off the line at one too many fish restaurants. 

So, he sat, whiling away the hottest hours of his empty days, smoking the endless haze of flavoured hookah tobacco, its gummy leaves glowing under a square of charcoal atop his blackened, glass water pipe. He gurgled, and slaked his thirst on rounds of tea, savouring their saturation in sugar, liquified by the heat that was only bearable the more he licked the residue of his inflamed nicotine-laced smoke, letting the boiled caffeine seep into his blood until the cool of the evening flustered his nerves awake. 

The ground at his sandaled feet was bare, nothing but mud. He watched a bus unload and saw a blue-eyed boy just past his teens. The young American looked around with that characteristic sheen of awe. He was seeing minarets rise up from the shorefront, leading him through broken-down souks and over-restored mosques. Iskender turned to a fellow beside him, who’d been drinking arak to further numb his ennui.

“Hey man, Mahmoud, shoof. Look, ripe one.”

Mahmoud was hanging back, slack in his reclined position. Blurry, he gazed, squinting, where Iskender was pointing. 

“What’d you say, take ‘im for a whirl?”

La’ man, I ain’t got the energy t’night. Gonna pass out early.”

“Same here, same, ya man.”

Iskender got up and paid his bill with a few crumpled Egyptian pounds. The old waiter had a pen in his ear, behind a tuft of greying hair. He didn’t even look at Iskender as he took his money, and silently returned to his game of backgammon with another elderly sort. Iskender turned a bend around the hookah bar, the shadow of his body fading under swinging street lamps that shone with a dark yellow over the dirt road. He disappeared behind a corner entrance into his building and found his way to a studio, which had barely enough room for a cot on the floor, furnished with nothing more than a single gas stove to light his rusted, tin pot for tea. He didn’t even turn on the light, but laid down, and fell asleep. 

He heard a cock crow in the distance, muffled by the thick, unfinished concrete shell of his apartment building. He heated some water, made himself a quick tea under a bulb that shone in the windowless room. He wanted to bathe, and would have to go to the nearest mosque for that. 

He walked outside in the clothes he’d slept in, and saw Mahmoud at the fountain also washing up, soaking his feet, slicking his hair back and blowing out green mucus from his nostrils, one hard, nasally exhale at a time. 

*****

They prayed, without a thought, and almost no emotion. A hefty, older man prostrating in front of Mahmoud had a handgun, tucked neatly by his hip. Mahmoud could not help but catch a glimpse of the furry crack under his lower back. He closed his eyes and intoned the words, “Allah, there is no god but Allah.” 

Mahmoud gave Iskender a thin, white Cleopatra cigarette as they walked out of the crowded mosque. The loudspeakers normally used for the adhan, started to blare with obituary notices, naming the recent dead with a deafening, humdrum drone. When it was over, Mahmoud and Iskender were back where they’d spent the last evening at the hookah cafe with a good view of travellers pouring in from the main road, named after the Greek, Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy. 

Iskender saw the same young man, staring at the clear, cloudless sky. He had a red backpack strapped over his shoulders. Mahmoud lowered his knockoff Ray-Bans, and squinted into the glare of the midday sunlight. He stood up, and nodded to Iskender, who took a long drag on his hookah and blew out a thick plume of hot white smoke.

Iskender was slightly jealous, but shyly hung back. He knew, at least, that he was not going to budge until Mahmoud came back with a few green dollars, or, at least a stack of Egyptian pounds to lighten their load for the day. He watched them talk. The young American man was buoyant as he conversed with Mahmoud in English. He could hear his voice, faintly in the distance, masculine, yet light-hearted. 

Mahmoud saw in him an easy catch. He looked down at the short fellow, and saw a certain innocence in his deep, blue eyes. 

“I’m Mahmoud, and you?” 

“I’m Martin.” 

“Welcome to Alexandria. Have you been to the Suleyman Pasha mosque? I can show you the way.”

“I’ve not, though I heard about it from a teacher of mine.” 

“Oh, yes. Where do you study?”

“In Cairo, at the British University.” 

“That’s great. What are you reading?”

“Arabic, and history.” 

Mahmoud noticed that Martin hesitated before saying history, and that, when he was finished speaking, he had more to say. He turned and faced a dirt road through a little, open market. 

“The mosque of Suleyman Pasha is right through there. It’s the most beautiful place in the city. Here, ta’ala, come. I’ll show you.” 

Martin followed him without a word. He gazed at the architectural features and Maghrebian decor of the buildings that they passed. He wanted to stop and talk to everyone, buy their goods, and learn about their lives. He had a sketchpad in his bag, and as they turned a corner, he was inspired by the shadows cast under the canvases of the open-air market, and wanted to draw it. But Mahmoud was hurling forward, uninterested in the kind of scenes he’d seen since he was a boy. And he had an impatient air about him, so much so that Martin did not want to interrupt. 

When they came to the entrance of the mosque, Martin awed at its high arches, and gleaming marble. The polished whiteness of its stone had the effect of being pellucid, almost liquid. The call to prayer blasted upward into the cloudless azure above them as they entered, leaving their shoes at the door. And with only their socks on, Martin was quite comfortable. He wanted to curl up in a corner and read, like some of the prayerful were doing. Only, he had a book by Albert Camus and a collection of Cavafy poems. 

Up above the mantle of the mihrab, where the imam would stand beside before giving his sermon to the crowds of prostrating men, there was a long, curved sword and a strip of black cloth. Martin thought it strange to see a weapon in a place of worship. Mahmoud stood close beside him, and started to explain. He was curiously anxious. His lips quivered as he spoke. 

“That, they say, was one of Prophet Muhammed’s swords, which he used to lead the tribes of Saudi Arabia. And that cloth was taken from Mecca, the holiest site in all of Islam. Have you heard of Mecca?”

“Yes, we learned about it in class.”

“That’s good, good. Now, shall we pray?”

“Okay, I’m just not sure how.” 

“Well, here. It’s simple. I’ll teach you.”

Mahmoud looked into Martin’s blue eyes, and felt a pang of jealousy gnaw at him, roiling his stomach. He kneeled with both knees on the thin carpet, and gestured for Martin to do the same. 

“See here. Each cloth repeats the same pattern. It reminds us of where we’re facing, toward Mecca. Now, follow after me.”

Martin watched as Mahmoud put his head down onto the carpet and closed his eyes. He did the same. His backpack was still on, and shifted to his side, closer to Mahmoud. He wanted to take it off, but he was worried that someone might steal it. Then, he decided to take it off, because it was a mosque, so likely safe from thieves. Only a moment passed as Martin brought his head back up. He experienced a wash of peace bubble up from inside him. He copied Mahmoud’s movements, as he pointed to the ground with hispinkie finger and swung his head to the left and right, mumbling a prayer that sounded like the incomprehensible Arabic surrounding him.

They stood up, and Mahmoud was covered in sweat. His wet face was a curious sight for Martin, as they weren’t doing anything strenuous. There was even air conditioning under the dome of the mosque, an eyesore if there ever was one. Mahmoud then reached into his pocket, and went toward the back of the building to take a call. 

He left and Martin watched him go, alone, without another word. He picked up his bag and sauntered outside. Mahmoud was not waiting. He was hungry and went in search of bread and falafel. As he reached into his pocket, he realised that he’d been had. It was Mahmoud, he thought, who’d taken the last of his spare Egyptian pounds. He had a few coins, but he knew it wasn’t enough. The food vendor looked at the shiny stack of metal in his palm, took it all without a word, waved at him dismissively, then said something he couldn’t understand and handed him his sandwich of fried chickpeas. 

*****

Martin went near the coast to eat. He found a bench by a short tower, without too much seagull dropping smeared on it, and put his backpack down. He bit into the hard, crusty bread. The grit of the overused oil moved across his tongue, and he swallowed his pride, knowing that he’d been taken for a ride. Alexandria had bested him. It was the salt of experience, a sharp and unexpected learning curve. His innocence was draining from him like the slow emptying of a long-neglected abscess. He decided to take a walk, pass the centre square, withdraw some more cash from the national bank and scan the cafes for a place to read. 

By the time he’d found a place, he was already back close to where he was staying, and it was nearly dusk. He ordered an Arabic coffee with sugar, and a mint hookah. After cracking open his Cavafy, he read a poem of the old city, its Turkish carpets and desperate lovers stealing what hope they could from the dying light. When the stars began to gleam above, he asked for a hibiscus tea, and delighted in its raw, sour taste. A man came up to him, local, and spoke in muffled, broken English. 

“I Iskender, I sit with you?”

“Alright.” 

“What your name?”

“Martin.”

“Just tourist?”

“Yeah. I’m a student in Cairo.”

“Ah, Cairo, my home.”

Iskender seemed too excited, simply to sit. He called for tea and smiled. Martin was a little uneasy but tried his best to defuse the man’s sudden and overbearing posture. He was sitting too close, and as they sucked back hard from their long hookah pipes, their smoke whirled into each other. 

Martin sipped slowly from his tall glass of hibiscus tea, karkade, in Egyptian, and relished in its tart, sugary flavour. He’d heard that it was good for the blood. The fact that they were not talking much was comforting for Martin, who was glad to be in friendly company while thinking about his day, what he’d seen, how he’d admired the wispy clouds over the Mediterranean, burning under the late summer sun where the Nile drank in its salty, flowing watershed. 

He opened his book of poems in the soft light of a single bulb that illuminated half of the cafe, mixed with a flickering street lamp that hung over the muddy path leading into a sleepy residential quarter. Cavafy, he thought, must’ve known the city like the back of his hand. He was inspired by a line in his poem, “The City”, even with its dreadful tone of a man seemingly depressed by the dead-end of a place he’d lived in for too long, and which gave little vitality in return, only the promise of total obscurity. 

Martin wrote his own poem in a largely empty notebook. “The fill of a man is only as deep as his belly / And when hungering, he must remember his limit / The bridge between a thought and experience is a feeling / Rickety, it is thin, while a man void of emotion grows fat / Licking his lips, to taste the last of what never lasts”. 

When he looked up from writing, scrunched as he was in his cold metal chair, awkwardly contorting to fix the end of his pencil over his paper in the darkness, he saw that Iskender was staring at him. It was unnerving, as they hadn’t spoken for the better part of an hour. It was now well into night. He was becoming slightly nervous, enough to want to leave. 

He didn’t know anyone in town other than a contact from the university, and sitting in the cafe to attempt a guise of locality wasn’t helping him get comfortable. The way to where he was staying in a cheap hostel, he thought, might present certain challenges. At least he was not drunk. And raising his hand, asking for the bill, Iskender spoke up. 

“Please, me. I pay.”

Iskender shouted in Arabic. The old, bald water came with his own little notepad, grabbed his pencil from behind his ear and held out his hand to pocket the few coins and single, shrivelled paper bill that Iskender handed him, with conspicuous reluctance. When Martin got up to leave, Iskender did the same. He saw that there was two roads ahead of them, one toward the coastline, the other into the neighbourhood, the latter being significantly less lit, and seeming more dangerous. But he turned left, abruptly, between the silent buildings, where broken lamps swayed to the seaborne winds. 

Although quite spontaneous, the decision left him thinking to himself, just why he might want to test fate, to ride the edge of experience and take his chances. The darker path had always appealed to him more, anyway. It was there where he could submerge into obscurity and surface with a sense of his own originality. It was an affirmation of himself, that he was an individual, and of his adulthood, capable of making his own decisions, despite how foolish they might be. The more reckless the better. 

He felt someone walking behind him. It was Iskender. He was walking fast, and close. Martin expected as much, having gone down the dim alley. And Iskender was not the cleanest of sorts. But Martin was not afraid. And when Iskender asked if he wanted to see where he lived, he said yes. It was amateur anthropology, he thought, to see how people like Iskender lived in Alexandria. He wanted to know the reality of their lives.

Martin followed Iskender as he wound around the side of a building and entered its cold metal door. The pale ceiling lights glared hospital white, and after climbing a couple stories of chipped, concrete steps, they came to a single room, a studio, almost like a closet, with a thin, rectangle of foam on the floor, half-covered with a sheet, and a couch for two. Iskender invited Martin to sit beside him. 

“Tea?”

“Okay.”

Iskender then lunged at Martin’s face, opening his own, as he groped him. Martin then quickly realised he was not in the right place, and abruptly left. He ran down the stairs, and came to the street when he noticed that Iskender was behind him. They wrestled, holding each other’s hands, as Iskender fought to dive into Martin’s pockets to steal what loose money he might’ve been carrying. Martin fell back, and Iskender grabbed a construction brick, heaved it over Martin’s head and held it in the air.  

Martin looked up, dumbfounded. It was in that moment that he wondered to himself if he was already staring up at the end of his life. If that was it, it hadn’t lasted long, and to die a brutal, painful death after a brief fight with a stranger in a foreign country over petty cash, was practically unfathomable in that moment when it might have happened exactly like that. 

Iskender dropped the brick, and ran away. He was scared of the fact that he might have let that stony mass fall onto the head of his naive, young tourist acquaintance, and disappeared into the shadows down the alley. Martin dusted himself off, and realised that Iskender had, in their tussle, stolen the last of his money. He was strangely not afraid of dying. He had chosen that road, after all. Instead, he thought of Iskender, who had not. 

*****

The next day was sunny. Martin informed an assistant from his university that someone at a cafe had stolen his money. He did not mention Mahmoud. On the spot, a professor who’d come along for the trip handed him the cash that he’d lost. It wasn’t more than twenty or thirty dollars all told. He sat on his seat on the bus and watched Alexandria fade into the distance, the superficial blue of its sea silent, impalpable as Egypt from behind a glass window, more alone as he left it. 

Matt Hanson

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Matt is a writer, journalist and editor based in Istanbul. He has written for leading art magazines like Artforum, ARTnews, and ArtAsiaPacific. He has contributed book criticism to World Literature Today, Tablet Mag, Words Without Borders, The Millions. He is currently seeking representation for his debut novel of historical fiction.

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