In December 2011, my family, my aunt’s and various members of my extended family, decided to spend the week till Xmas eve in Sharm-el-Sheik. A hot December was new to me and someway odd, though it was worth experiencing.
I had never been in Egypt and that was an opportunity to visit a small part of it, at least–sincerely said, not that I went nuts for Sharm (nor would I even go today), it’s such a touristy area.
Let’s cut this short.
The resort was fantastic. From the bar at the main entrance, you could see it stretching over for hundreds meters till it crumbled into a wide quiet beach. Pools, restaurants and bars all over – the latter were the ones we would attend the most. (Hey I’m not the only good drinker in the family, what did you think?)
We also took many trips to visit historical spots and characteristic towns, hidden beaches and the coral reef, the dreary and lifeless desert and posh casinos.
Mmm…For me, thumbs down!…
It just was not what I was expecting. Not that I believe in cliches but, what about the land of the 40 thieves? What about its magic and mysterious appeal? And the mythical characters of the bedtime stories? All ruins of a forgotten era buried under thick layers of golden western ashes. The leftovers of a population knelt to a new dominion: the green touch of a European Midas.
This acknowledged, instead of going to the sea, lying under the sun, enjoying the transparent water, I would sit in the hall and study for an exam – indeed, me! My parents definitely couldn’t believe it. At the time my focus was more into my studies and my band. We were launching an EP for Xmas and an album was due to go live asap on the new year. The Xmassy mini EP consisted of 3 songs: acoustic versions of 2 songs included in the album and a guitar-and-voice track. Cool stuff!
That aside, can’t find any other reasons to my lonesome behaviour. Either Xmas puts that mode on or I’m a kind of weirdo. I second that!
All in all, even if Sharm had no charm, the time in there was pleasant. The company was fun and the trips on the coach turned into pure comedy.
Few days after, still before Xmas, I turned 24. On the night of my birthday – the midnight of the 22nd – we stopped at a bar straight out of the resort to open a bottle of champagne. Suddenly, all the people that worked in there, gathered around me and started singing some Arabic song. That was droll! Must say: people there still got a thing.
And from that moment onwards, I started learning that many individuals had thrilling stories to tell, unique tales of a culture so different from mine. Our guide, in fact, would tell us of mysteries, legends, ancient uses and habits that Europeans can only admire: stories of Bedouins, of the desert’s bandits, of magic arts and connections with the afterlife, of glory and fallen kingdoms. Fascinating!
How can you not think of Aladdin? How can you not think of a flying carpet, of a magic lamp and a feisty Genie that grants all your wishes?
I can’t say whether such things really happened in a time back then. Yet, something magnificent can simply be true.
Assuming that not all feelings can be explained in words, let me try to describe one specific night.
A different world, a different sky, a different moon.
That moonlight. That absurd shimmering effusion radiated some enchantment and magnetism that would make one night last a thousand. It was in the air: medieval folklore and legendary myths could have arisen from the sand to interrupt the silence. No surprise.
I was by myself sitting on a short wall under a palm out of my bungalow, and although I was wearing earphones, the placid music couldn’t distract me from that huge and blazing moon – closer than ever – that along with a lucid dark blue sky were wallpapering the weird veil of secrecy that had wrapped the resort. The atmosphere was surreal.
I swear to my life that the finest European night will never be as beautiful.
Fast forward to the present day.
We often go have dinner at one of the Turkish/Arabian restaurants that give onto Harringay Green Lanes, which is only 5 mins walking from my place.
Who is “we”? Alex and I! Do you remember my cousin?! That’s the one!
Anyway, the food in there has very high standards and I undoubtedly rate it 5 stars, as well as the impeccable service. One of the waiters always puts on an extra large smile to greet us and we are always treated with utmost kindness.
Time after time, this guy started inviting us in for a mint tea and some sweets on the house–in fact, he seemed to enjoy our company. We would talk a lot. We learned about his glorious story, his difficult roaming to London, his tumultuous past, his 70-hour-a-week shifts. Nonetheless, he looked always extremely energetic and unstoppable with his can-do attitude and hard-working ethic. His appearance was more of a fit stylish European fellow: a boy of manners, smart-dressed, and in a great shape. His robust look, captivating tone of voice and fierce personality, were solid traits of his esoteric background, features of centuries of enthralling roots. He was special: he was a vivid and intriguing untold mystery.
Once, he asked us to spend a night out together and got in touch a few times to make arrangements. Unfortunately, due to various commitments, advance-planned stuff, or just being awfully tired, weekdays (the only days he was available) are not always a good moment for us to hang out. Thus, although he had asked us out several times, the night never happened.
We stopped going to the restaurant for a while.
Going a bit off-topic. You got to know that seldom London devours people from the inside. It’s not just the long commuting, or the intensive days of work, or the unstable housing conditions. It’s the sempiternal need for rushing, the feeling of being always in the wrong spot, the lack of long lasting relationships and people you can trust; it’s the chaos, the insecurity of what will happen the next day. And all consumes you till you grow bags under the eyes, expressive wrinkles, and some hair come grey. London makes you stronger on the outside but weaker on the inside, by acting like a slow spreading cancer.
(In this moment, while I’m writing, I’m standing at the bus stop with hundreds of people in the hope that the 341 won’t be too late. History repeats itself. And I seriously need a beer!)
Back to the story.
Few months later, we went back to the restaurant for my dad’s birthday (my parents had come to town for a week). Ali was there: all done up and smiling as usual. Only one thing had changed: his look. His eyelids were heavy, his cheeks limp, his mouth shivering. His movements were slow and his speaking almost nonsense. He told us he had started a second job – that ended him having half a day off – because he was in need of some extra money.
His words had no more confidence whatsoever but got liquefied into an unconscious flow of tired thoughts that he would randomly throw up.
The mysterious Arabian guy – the guy with the enchanting background and the majestic past – gave the way to a common cold European London fellow, a somebody that has been corrupted by a forced material lifestyle to survive in a different world. He was now equal, he was no exception. The unforgettable Arabian nights, the legends, the eastern wind, by now only belonged to a faraway land.
Ali wanted only one night, just one single night. But we were way too blind… As blind as London made us.
Ali was alone.
Ali is alone.
But Ali is strong and won’t quit.
Sometimes I walk by the restaurant and look inside through the big windows, and can’t stop thinking of that night.
It was too late.
In the real world, the Midas’ touch is no legend, and his body began to rust. His infinite roaming had finally stopped and he was granted a special night that would last a thousand.
Where is he now?
Ali is now in the stories of one thousand and one Arabian nights.