Berenice Stories

Short Stories by John Oakes

Archive for August 2011


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I am trying to recall when I first met him. My impression is that he came to see the new offices which I had opened near the dock gates in Benghazi. I remember his appearance well. He was unshaven and his lugubrious eyes were bloodshot. He wore traditional Libyan dress. On his head was the little white tarbush worn below the maroon one, as was common in Libya. For the rest, a white loose shirt with a waistcoat over it, blue cotton trousers which gave plenty of air to the crutch and were tight about the calves and leather sandals out of which his toes with long nails emerged. Most unimpressive of all was the old British army greatcoat he wore against the cold. I had been in Libya long enough not to discriminate on the grounds of apparel and greeted him with the same deference my Libyan colleagues were showing him.

The next time I saw him he had come to visit us in his new western clothes and to receive our admiration for his conversion into a modern man of substance. He wore a smart suit, shirt and tie, pointed leather shoes – with socks – and no tarbush on his head. Most impressive of all was his shave and coiffure, which had been administered by a barber along with strong perfume. I was strangely disappointed but followed my colleagues with fulsome praise for his westernisation and with cups of Turkish coffee proffered in celebration thereof.

He honoured June and I with a feast and a day on his private beach. His home was distant from the town and reached by striking out into country. There was no road and no features to aid navigation. Simmering pools, caused by hot air refracting the light, filled hollows in the ground; mirages I suppose. After an anxious drive his guests were met by retainers and directed to the shore from whence the metallic sea reflected furious sunlight.

His hospitality was dispensed in his simple tent, pitched on the sea shore and shielded by dunes amongst which his sons and retainers lay discreetly hidden. Their purpose was to protect June against prying eyes and to communicate the progress of the feast to Abbar, who remained in his modest house up on the rise. It was a very small house, flat roofed, stone built and protected by a reef of rocks and cacti.

Abba’s flock of sheep was driven down to the sea to bathe. Caiques passed on the horizon on their way to fish for sponges in the Gulf of Sirte. The feast was Bedouin in style and not suitable for western digestive systems. Nor was it in accord with western customs, though simple chairs and a small table were provided for guests unable to squat.

First came individual tins of a powerful fish for which tin-openers were provided. These were followed by plates of raw egg roughly mixed with chopped red meat. Then, from the house, the big cuscus bowel was carried down along with many legs of lamb, charcoal cooked, though not thoroughly. Afterwards came grapes and water melons. It took many painful, helpless, shameful days to recover from Abbar’s hospitality.

Who was Abbar? He was Mohamed al Abbar, of the House of Abbar, of the Awaquir tribe. The house of Abbar reflected the glory of the great patriot and guerrilla fighter, Abd al Hamid al Abbar, hero of the Senussi wars against the Italians and one of Sidi Omar al Mukhtar’s lieutenants; the only one to escape the murderous clutches of the butcher Graziani after Omar al Mukhtar had been hanged on 16th September 1931.

Written by johnoakes

August 12, 2011 at 7:27 am

The Contortionist

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A small ageing Englishman lived in the Berenice Hotel in Benghazi. He was a bachelor and his work was not demanding. He spent much time in the cabaret in the hotel basement. It was known as the Snake Pit by its aficionados.
The cabaret acts toured the North African circuit in troupes. Spanish dancers were popular. There is an affinity between flamenco and Arab dancing.
The artists were required to entertain the male customers and persuade them to buy Champaign. For each bottle they sold they received a small plastic token which they could cash for spending money. The Greek who ran the place called this ‘making the consumption’. It was unpopular because some customers were too demanding.
The old Englishman made no demands and was well liked, especially by the Spanish dancers. They helped him endure his sixtieth birthday with a joyous celebration in the Snake Pit, only some of which he remembered. He awoke in his room in the morning to find they had flattered him by leaving some female underwear in his bed.
He fell in love with a young Yugoslavian contortionist who was unhappy. Her troop was on the point of leaving. He wanted her to stay in town a while longer so he took her to a rival cabaret for an audition. She performed her strange act before two cynical Greeks whilst he sat nearby. The morning light flattered neither the contortionist nor the old Englishman. She failed the audition and left.
The Englishman retired to live in Spain where he was sometimes visited by second rate flamenco artists who were between engagements.

Written by johnoakes

August 11, 2011 at 9:58 am

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