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Days of Alexandria

Days of Alexandria


First Part


…as polite as guests

Lao Tzu

“War and commerce are the two pillars of our civilisation.  I sometimes wonder how many of us would be here without them”, observed Elias Chouri, wishing to say something as they waited for the Special Advisor of the High Commission.

This remark summoned Antonis Charamis from his momentary torpor.A minute earlier, he in his turn was wondering how Chouri had managed to find himself at such a meeting.  Neither war nor commerce featured among this mysterious man’sspectrum ofactivities.  Nonetheless, over the last two or three years, Antonis was unable to think of any great project that was accomplished in Egypt without the mediation of Elias Chouri, known by his sobriquet “The Lebanese”.  That lanky figure with its fair complexion, decked in extremely expensive suites and elegant hats, frequented the shops around the Rue Cherif Pasha on an almost daily basis, smelling out the commercial maelstrom of the city.

In one of these locales, the Danielle pub (where, according to “The Lebanese”, you could drink authentic German beer of the finest quality, rather than “horse piss”), he had arranged the meeting with the British dignitary, and Antonis, who rarely frequented pubs any more, allowed his eyes to wander around the room with its heavy wooden panelling, its mirrors, and its lamps nestling in the walls.  Since the flimsy curtains stretched along the whole façade did not seem enoughto stop thetorrentialsun, he was inclined to believe that the swarthy wood soaked upthe excess shafts of light,not allowing them to pour into the corners and spread to the lofty ceiling.  From his seat, he could barely make out the facial features of the man who was coordinating the service for the customers from the back of the room, behind a wooden counter. He only saw his bulging paunch wobble each time he wiped the counter with a white cloth, and Antonis was amused by the way in which he kneaded together three or four languages in his singsong Sicilian accent.

Chouri started explaining to him: “That man Danielle is the pub’s star attraction.  He’s il protagonista, a sort of comédien who gives a daily performance behind the counter”.It was true that the counter, with its discrete lighting and a glass canopy of giant beer mugs hanging from unseen hooks, recalled the footlights on a stage.

“For who?” asked Antonis impulsively.

“As soon as the Boursecloses, the “jobbers” arrive.An ice-cold beer in the Danielle is a balm for those poor sods.  Haven’t you seen how they shout themselves hoarse racing up and down their wooden steps all morning, chasing after the prices of cotton on blackboards?  The stock exchange requires tough guts, my friend, un point c’est tout.  Their silk shirts are soaked in sweat.  After them, the lawyers and bankers tumble in.  Y a du monde, je vous assure”.

Antonis reflected that Elias was also preparing to give his own performance in front of all these people.  In the end, he would have preferred to resolve this matter without any fanfare, in a quiet office, far from the eyes of the world, and Elias’ insistence on meeting in such a crowded place had begun to irritate him as much as the tardiness of the British dignitary.The Lebanese, who intuited this irritation, annoyed Antonis even more when he attempted to excuse the inexcusable by saying: “En tout cas, we’re waiting for His EminencetheAdvisor of the High Commission,not just the first passerby”.

This drove Antonis over the edge.“His Eminence, huh?” he growled angrily.  “We’re waiting for some lapdog who hasn’t learnt to be on time!  And stop fidgeting and fiddling with that damn watch in your pocket, because you’re getting on my nerves!”

Elias stared at him aghast, and hurried to stuff his watch into his waistcoat pocket.  Then Antonis flipped his lapels decisively and crossed his arms as he continued to wait.

However, the real reason for his anger lay elsewhere.He felt that he had allowed Elias to exploit him for the sake of theatrical display.  When the two of them entered the pub, Elias had beckoned to Danielle, who bowed like a true protagonista in his white shirt, suspenders, and bow tie. Antonis felt certain that the giant Italian would trumpet the fact that his establishment had hosted the tobacco industrialist Charamis and the Advisor of the High Commission, who was expected at any moment.

Their meeting would practically anoint Antonis Charamis as the official supplier of cigars to the British army, making him one of the wealthiest Egyptian Greeks – the formalities would be the lawyers’ concern.  Not that Antonis was not already counted among the Croesuses of Alexandria. Since the start of the century, the famous pack of “Charamis – CIGARETTES EGYPTIENNES”, stamped with Alexandria’s emblem, the Needles of Cleopatra, could also be found in England, in Germany, in Holland, and even as far afield as Sweden and Norway.  The Esteemed Advisor had surely been well informed, and would be aware that Charamis had been, amongst other things, the supplier to His Majesty the Sultan of Egypt, as well as to the Prince of Greece, Constantine. So Antonis only decided to bring the photograph that Sarah Bernhardt had dedicated to him with her own hand, when she had visited his factory in Moharram Bey five years ago and declared herself most profoundly impressionée by its location and infrastructure.This story was stillwell known among circles of diehard smokers.In any case, well known or not, it was one of the first things that the Lebanesse had asked him about as soon as they met:

Et la photo, tu l’as apportée?”  And he asked to see the photograph of the famous singer, with her dedication on the back.

Elias Chouri was a French citizen from a Lebanese family; he had been born in Beirut and belonged to the Maronite denomination.  These things explained to a certain extenthiswell-groomed appearance.  Il est toujours tiré à quatre épingles” was the first remark that people made about him in this city. Antonis liked him for exactly the same reasons that he disliked him.  He was incapable of not liking a man with such agurgling crystal laugh,but Elias’ youthfulness was a serious cause for dislike, now that hehad fortuitously made it to his fifties.  At least Antonis knew that he could partially trust him,precisely because Elias would never gain his complete trust. Whenever he wanted to fling an insult at his face, like right now, he would realize that he needed Elias and had to restrain himself,but even when this need was absent, he was unable to hurl abuse at[bad-mouth?]theinnocent boy in front of him.  He always had the impression that the Lebanese was manipulating him at will, though in reality hewas the one exploiting Elias to promote his own interests.

And thatobsession of his for little details was so irritating!  But when Antonis spotted two signs of sloppiness in Elias’ appearance, he felt victorious in his observations.  As always, Elias had naturally tamed his luxuriant tufts of hair with an abundance of brilliantine, and asmall silver chain dangled from his waistcoat.However, if you looked closely at his moustache, you would notice that some wild stray whiskers protruded here and there,brushing against his plum-coloured upper lip,and frequently obliging him to push themup with his lower lip.But most inexcusable for such a comme il faut Lebanese was the fact that his jacket pocket lacked the little white handkerchief with which he would wipe the small drops of sweat that formed on his forehead,and instead of which he was using his white serviette while stammering “Quelle chaleur!”Today, it was abnormally hot for the month of May.Last week,the rain had poured down nonstop, a common occurrence in Alexandria.

Unlike Elias, Antonis had woken up earlier than usual and had the foresight to hire the services of Kikinos, the Cephalonian barber, whohad carried his kit to the Quartier Grec at daybreak, before opening his shop in the Soter district, behind the Shallalat  Gardens. For good luck, he had entrusted the shining of his shoes to an Armenian boot polisher in Mohamed Ali Square.

Seated opposite Chouri, he gazed at his own face in one of the bar’s mirrors, deeplysatisfied to see that the barber had not only groomed his moustache, but also his sideburns.At that same moment, the doorbell rang, but it was not the man for whom they were waiting.An exquisite fragrance filled his nostrils, and he turned around to look.There emerged, from behind the doorway’s wooden partition, an impressive woman in a wide-brimmed hat.  A bolero concealed her shoulders, while her plaited dress reached just below her knees,revealing a pair of gorgeous calves.She stood still for an instant, while a little cross-eyed boy took care of her hat. Then Faouzi, the waiter, ushered her to the neighbouring tablewith an almost theatrical gesture. With ethereal motions, as though she were dancingon her high heels, she alighted on her seat.  She languidly sloughed her snow-white gloves, which she folded and slipped into her handbag.Then she spread her fan and fluffed out her wavy hair with an affected swish. That same moment, Antonis thought she was smiling at him, and he rushed to raise his glass in response.He was so impressed by the European panache of this young woman that he could not contemplate any thought except “Quelle belle femme!”

“Yvette Santon!” Elias Chouri informed him, noticing his interest.“Swiss-French.  With a Swiss mother and a French father… or was it a French mother and a Swiss father?”  And he went on in a whisper, “They say that Philippe Jacquot brought her here.  In fact, she onceposed as his lawful spouse, even though everyone knows that Jacquot already has a wife and children.  An old scoundrel, mon ami.”

Antonis Charamis knew Jacquot very well: he was another Chouri who had made shady deals in Egypt over the past five  years. He was neither better nor worse than the Lebanese.  As for his so-called lady companion, Antonis planned to become better acquainted with her on some other occasion.  For the time being, he could simply imagine herentwined in his embrace on the banks of Lake Mareotis, or in some suite of Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, far away from the prying eyes of Alexandrians.

The arrival of the British dignitary brought Antonis back to reality.  The former was not alone.  He was accompanied by a red-haired man with freckles on his face, slightly taller than him, who introduced himself as the Special Advisor to the Minister of the East at the High Commission.His presence seemed to displease the Lebanese, who muttered something under his breath.  Antonis, on the other hand, considered it perfectly natural that their man should be accompanied, even for no other reason than to impress.  He had no idea whether he should address the Advisor with some title or other, and so, after making introductions, he simply called him Mr. Cosner.The latter immediately gave the impression of beingboth arrogant and ignorant about the region’s problems.  He combined the politeness of the English gentleman with the pomposity of the British imperialist.  He had pointy ears that protruded in a comical way, poking up like hornsfrom his square-shaped head, and his hair had a faint parting, which he repeatedly tried to make more visible with his fingertips.He had barely settled himself down on his seatbefore he started raining curses on Alexandria and her spring showers, counting himself fortunate to have spent a fantastic winter in Cairo.He had just arrived from the capital two days ago, and the only thing that pleased him here was the splendid view from the small hillof the Governmental Palace.  The rest ofAlexandria struck him as a dull provincial townwithlimited venues for recreation, and little of archaeological interest compared to Cairo.  Clearly, he was completely ignorant about the place’s history, and even more clueless aboutcontemporary developments.  Judging from some comment he made about the murdered Coptic Prime Minister, Boutros Ghali Pasha, Antonis concluded that Cosner had no idea about the exact time or circumstances of the murder.  As for the other man, the redhead, it was debatable whether he had uttered a single wordduring the entire meal.In fact, from the beginning, when Cosner had suggested for some obscure reason that they should speak in French,the Advisor to the Minister of the East must have failed to understandwhat exactly they were discussing.

But none of this mattered.  It only remained toclose the deal, which, exactly as the Greek tobacco industrialist suspected, had already been sealed beforehand.This meeting in a pub on the Rue Cherif Pasha was merely a formal working lunch whose main purpose served to ensure Elias Chouri’s commission. All Mr Cosner wanted was to smoke some Charamis cigars, instead of his favourite pipe. Once Antonis had grasped the state of play, he could not even be bothered to take the photograph of Sarah Bernhardt from his jacket’s inside pocket.Feeling that he had earned the right to relax,he leaned back a bit more comfortably in his seat, putting all his soul into enjoying the delicacies served by Faouzi. He looked at the finely crafted décor around him.  Fortunately, the monotonous tone of the swarthy wood was broken by Danielle’s white shirt, by Cosner’s flaxen moustache, trimmed “à la brosse” as Kikinos would say, by the blonde beer, and by the refined presence of Mademoiselle Santon, whom he had seenfor a split second, applying makeup with the help of her pocket mirror.If he could trust Chouri’s words, the pub would soon be bursting with people.  “Well, just waiting for the stockbrokers, the lawyers, and the bankers”, he said to himself.He suddenly began to enjoy the prospectof meeting these people in such a congenial atmosphere.In the future, he thought, both professional transactions and private flirtations will happen in places like this.But perhaps people would dress themselves more simply.There would always be a crafty Chouri pulling strings, and an exquisite Yvette to tempt his imagination.With all this in mind, he raised his glass again and saluted Jacquot’s mistress, who responded with an eager look.A minute earlier, he had whispered something predictable in Faouzi’s ear, and the waiter, clad in his green and gold-embroidered caftan, informed the Mademoisellethat the dapper gentlemanwithgrey hair and well-groomed moustache had taken care of her bill.  As things stood, the happy outcome of his flirtatious pursuit would soon crown the greatest commercial deal that he had ever sealed, and with no particular effort on his part.

The blonde beer sparkled in the glass bocks that they raised and clinked.Outside, in the street, the frantic city could be seen racing towards economic renewal. Calèches competed with the rare automobiles, and among them mingled a swarm of people of all stripes and ages, piously sacrificingto Mammon.The backdoor of the pub led to an alleyway where Egypt and her natives winked at you with sly and crafty looks.The main door, on the other hand, led you straight to Europe, where the gracefulness of European fashions was put on display, where English and French were the dominant languages.  From the corner of his eye, Antonis spotted one of his Greek employees rushing up the Rue Cherif Pasha with a bundle of paperunder his arm.He was apparently heading to work without any distractions, and this filled his employer with deep satisfaction.

When all was said and done, Antonis enjoyed life in this city, where a harmonious symphony of races, languages, and creeds resoundedin a daily carnival.  He could not imagine any other place where adventurers like Elias Chouri, Yvette Santon, and he himself mightmeet a better fate.According to the big clock on the wall, the time was half past one.

It was not merely war and commerce that brought us here, thought Antonis, once he had found his way to thehidden mysteries of Yvette’s body.When he first penetrated her flesh, he completely forgotabout the bedroom and felt uncertain whether he was really inside Elias Chouri’s sumptuous apartment in Roshdy, on a double bed with gold-plated headboard, entwined with a woman who had intoxicated his imagination.Later, her muffled moans, along with the encouraging cries of “poussez, poussez!” that accompanied their rhythmic coupling, helped him to regain the sensual outlines of reality:her breasts as firm as lemons, her curly hair whose long waves werelost behind the bed’s headboard,her pubic triangle that prickled his skin. 

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