Berenice Stories

Short Stories by John Oakes

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A GREEK, A COMET AND A PARROT

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In the 1960s I was running an airline handling agency at Benina, Benghazi’s airport in Cyrenaica. I had been posted there to replace an Englishman who, though excellent at his job, lacked the flexibility and diplomatic skills to operate in the volatile environment then prevailing in the province. He had been so incensed by a policeman’s tendency to offer gratuitous advice that he punched him and quickly found he had outstayed his welcome. Perhaps there was a connection. There had been some unrest caused by his original appointment which had led to the sacking of a young Greek who was thereafter vengeful and dangerous. My own appointment to replace the Englishman was said to have incensed the Greek even further. He had assumed that he would get the job for which he believed himself better qualified.
My main customer was East African Airways which operated a small fleet of de Havilland Comets between Nairobi and London. Benghazi was a convenient and cheap staging post with a hotel, the Berenice, in which the ‘slip crews’ were accommodated.
The East African aircraft staged through Benina during the night. The airport was usually sleepy at this time, except during Ramadan when people became nocturnal and generally sought an outlet for the frustrations caused by fasting in a difficult climate. That is why I was not surprised to be called on such a night to the airport where a troublesome incident was afoot.
I found that an East African aircraft had completed its refuelling, crew changes, cleaning and so on. The passengers had been returned to their seats and the engines were starting up when the Greek appeared, accompanied by his friend, a major in the Libyan Federal Police. The Greeks’ wife was said to be the glue which cemented this useful friendship. The Federal Police were very powerful indeed.
The major had peremptorily ordered the aircraft’s engines shut down and the passengers taken off so that he might inspect its ‘log book’ to see if it had ever been to Israel. There was no log book of course, a point which will not have escaped his Greek friend. When I reached the airport I found everyone in some distress, the Greek out of sight and the major sitting alone in the aircraft cockpit refusing to move. I joined him there, aware that his aim was to provoke me to do something which might allow him to deport me and create a job vacancy.
There is a technique for dealing with this sort of incident. It amounts to taking the problem seriously, behaving calmly and differentially and talking persistently and quietly until some way of solving it emerges. The solution was found when it became clear that the major wanted a parrot. We both assumed that East African Airways would send us one from Nairobi. There are, however, no wild parrots in East Africa; a fact which did not matter at the time since neither of us knew that.
Dawn began to threaten our tedious negotiations. With his Ramadan fast due to start the major traded my assurance that the aircraft had never been to Israel against the promise of a parrot and left the aircraft. He had demonstrated the Greek’s power over me sufficiently for his purposes. The passengers, deprived of sleep and somewhat bemused, were ‘reloaded’ and the aircraft allowed to depart. Sadly, I never found a parrot for the major. He may have been rewarded elsewhere.

Written by johnoakes

October 26, 2011 at 8:37 am

THE DYERS

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Down by Tripoli harbour, opposite the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, you could watch little donkey carts loaded with newly dyed wool arrive. The dyers plunged the skeins in the sea water and the surplus dyes washed off the wool and spread out across the harbour. They dyers wrung the skeins out, piled them back on the carts and trotted them away to dry.

Written by johnoakes

October 20, 2011 at 10:00 am

MILITARY COMMANDERS JOCKY FOR POWER IN TRIPOLI

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A military commander from Misurata, Salem Juha, has just been appointed Defence Minister by the Libyan Interim National Council. However, reports coming from Tripoli in the last few days suggest that he has a difficult job on his hands, despite the suggestion that he is acceptable to the Islamists amongst the many Libyan militia commanders.
Abdul Hakim Belhadj, who heads the Tripoli Military Council, is warning of potential conflict amongst armed groups which have stayed in Tripoli. Belhadj, a sometime member of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group which Gaddafi suppressed in the 1990s, is widely quoted as saying: ‘We need to end the presence of heavy weapons and keep them from proliferating, except among authorized parties’ – by which he means his own Tripoli Military Council. He may have a problem.
At a recent news conference in Tripoli a militia commander, Abdullah Ahmed Naker, claimed to have 22,000 armed men at its disposal as he announced the formation of a Tripoli Revolutionist Council. He asserted that his forces are already in control of 75 per cent of the capital and that Belhadj can only call on 2,000 armed supporters. Clearly Salem Juha, and the Interim National Council, needs to assert control in Tripoli.

John Oakes
5th October 2011

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October 5, 2011 at 8:02 am

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ABBAR’S TENT

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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.

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August 11, 2011 at 9:58 am

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A FAMILY PHOTOGRAPH

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He came from New Mexico and said that he was part Apache. His features bore this out as he had a touch of Aztec about his eyes. He wore cowboy boots, jeans and a sweatshirt most of the time and often a Stetson hat. It was said that he only had one pair of boots and when they were in for repair he would take to his bed. He was, at the time, unmarried and he lived as he pleased.

He said he had been a bomb aimer with the United Sates Army Air Force during the war against the Nazis. That may have been so. At least he wore his leather flying jacket when it was cold and it had the right look about it. In a town where there were people left over from both sides in that war the story was not unusual and excited little interest.

He had first come to Libya with one of the America oil drilling companies as a tool pusher or rough neck or the like. He was the best Kelly driller around. He had drifted from job to job and ended up in Benghazi running a company drilling for water where the wildcatting rigs set up in the desert.

As his water drilling company grew he employed more Americans to help him. He sent to the USA for his mother and her current husband and they set up house amongst us and entertained friends. She was a good cook and the family talked well at the table about their life in New Mexico. Stories of marital disputes settled with guns were not unusual in their repertoire.

They would show their family photographs around after supper. One was of a large group dressed up for a wedding or a funeral. It was the last family picture with aunt so and so they would say. They would point out the aunt and add that she was dead before they could get the photographer out to take the picture. They had dressed her up in her best frock and an uncle held her corps up from behind as the family stood in a row before the camera.

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July 16, 2011 at 6:16 am

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The Englishman’s Trousers

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There was a terrace cafe outside the main bar of the Berenice Hotel in Benghazi. It was on the right hand side of the great marble steps and from it drinkers could see across the cornich to the harbour mole. It was at its most popular in the summer evenings when the notables from the town sat with the oil folk and the airline crews and talked.

One night they heard a taxi coming too quickly from the sailing club. Some saw two men walking from the basement laundry around the casino towards the steps. Most heard the thump and saw a dead body fly through the air from the taxi’s bonnet into the sunflower garden.

News passed up and down the terrace amongst the drinkers. The dead man was a worker from the hotel laundry. It was the best laundry in town and many people had known the man by sight. The police came and did their work and an ambulance took the body away.

The next day an Englishman was arrested and questioned for some time in connection with the case. The dead man had been wearing his trousers which had been at the laundry for dry cleaning.
The Englishman remembered to be calm about the event. Many clients wondered what adventures their own trousers had seen whilst they were at the dry-cleaners.

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July 11, 2011 at 12:28 pm

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