Athens: A Strange Curiosity.

Ah you, Greece, they have been telling me all about you for what seems like forever.

Whether it be walking along the Corniche in Alexandria or exploring ancient Sirkap in the foothills of the Himalaya or racing across the arid plains of Iran it is evident that your legacy spans far.

I have seen you in the playful green eyes of blonde haired Pashtun men staring back at me through rearview mirrors as they drive me through manic cities, I have seen you reflected in Gandharan art, I have seen how you have inspired the great architects of Europe, I have seen the marble statues in many cemeteries that all seem to harper back to you. It was inevitable that I would one day appear on your shores and now it is time.

Sprawling Athens

While sweeping across the Mediterranean I felt a rush of excitement and apprehension. As the desert of North Africa faded behind me I realised I was returning back to the continent of my youth.

It had been four years since I had left. A time when I had promised myself never to return. I had become disillusioned, the last spores of the meteor that was the 20th Century were fading forever, now it was all about scrolling and social media. Europe was dying, the true beauty of the west was like a great star collapsing in on itself. Yves Saint Laurent was dead, his eloquent French expression never again to radiate through our universe, the eccentricity of Diana Vreeland gone, people who really knew about art and style. Paris was full of imposters now and award shows were reduced to nothing more than High School Assemblies. Things previously considered bad taste were now considered beautiful. There was nothing left to hold me in Europe anymore, even those I had loved in my family were all gone and some cherished friends too.

Time does heal I guess you could say or you just forget. I didn’t know what to expect. The world had just gone through the trauma of Covid-19 and even though the engines were starting up again I wondered how much Europe really had changed. Could it have gotten any worse from when I had remembered it last?

I wasn’t coming back because I missed it though but rather to do some shopping. I don’t like to talk about the situation in my new homeland as I love it dearly and until now I have experienced an advanced level of kindness unmatched anywhere else. It has been getting harder to find certain products hence my journey to Greece.

Temple of Hephaestus

My last trip had been to Pakistan and strangely I didn’t experience any of the culture shock that other travellers do when arriving in Lahore. Lahore is alot like the city I live in now, the same chaos, the same dust and heat, the same cityscapes. If you had told me I would experience culture shock in Europe there is absolutely no way I would ever have believed you but that is exactly what happened after clearing customs in Athens airport.

You have to remember I have been living in a very conservative Islamic society although not a part of it, an outsider looking in, an expatriate so to speak. In all those years I only saw a handful of westerners and even now post Covid I still don’t see that many.

In the airport terminal I went into a bookshop. I know it sounds strange but I noticed Prince Harry’s book “Spare” on sale and at that moment, feeling how odd it was to see that book along with badly dressed sunburnt tourists milling around, naked limbs all over the place and the quietness, the quietness of Europe, I began to feel rather panicked as it all felt just so alien. I felt worried and tearful and had to sit in a café just to compose myself.

Growing up in a time of Gorbachev, Pravda, imminent nuclear strike and the Iron Curtain to me Greece was always that far off satellite, cut off from the rest of us by the East Bloc, a beacon of hope in a region I perceived as hostile.

At the Acropolis Museum

That is why when driving into Athens I realised the city had probably not been able to hold out from it’s neighbours. Athens visually reminded me alot of Bucharest, hints of Istanbul were there too along with that Fascist architecture seen around the main train station of Milan, all that then covered in a thick coat of graffiti and broken sidewalks.

I had been aware that Athens had a graffiti problem but I was prepared to accept it all, even the tiniest scribble a form of human expression. I had hoped it would be like Copenhagen’s Christania but on a huge scale but sadly it was far from it. Athens feels tough and run down and the graffiti just made it worse.

My days in Athens were spent in utter confusion. How could this city have produced such heavenly works of art? Why did the woman get angry when I told her I wanted a five day metro pass, why was everyone wearing black, why were there riots and strikes every other day, why were four metro stations all closed in a row and the station I was supposed to get out at was in darkness, why did Plaka feel so Disney and out of touch with reality?

At night the Parthenon was lit up as if the goddess Athena was hosting an event up there along with Dionysus and Hermes, a life of luxury while the rest of us scurried around down below dodging tear gas and tripping over discarded spray paint cans.

Sculpture at the Stoa of Attalos
At the National Archaeological Museum

After getting over my inital shock I began to notice that the Greeks are actually some of the nicest people I have ever met. One became surprised when talking about Cleopatra VII (as you so often do!) that I mentioned how wonderful it is that she was Greek. The woman almost embraced me while telling me I’m the first non Greek she ever met that was aware of this fact. The food too, it was just delicious. There is a neighbourhood called Metaxourgeio, while by no means fashionable it was there I liked Athens the most because it just felt real, the type of place that is not trying to show off.

I feel that although Athens lacks beauty it’s lovely, curious inhabitants really make up for this. I can’t gush about Athens and although the city was at times frustrating all in all I had a nice time and was able to view some of the very best art humankind has to offer.

At times I have forgotten why I live in Africa, it gets easy to complain and compare and to imagine other places as being better. I feel sure now that I’m living in the right place. Athens gave me the boost I needed to return back home and carry on with my life, more secure in this region than I ever was before.

Yves Saint Laurent would often return to the place he had grown up in, North Africa, for inspiration, infact his ashes are scattered in Marrakech. Paul Bowles could never leave Tangiers nor could Isabelle Eberhardt give up on Algeria.

I realise now that having the chance to live here has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. Just the other night while lounging in a kaftan on the rooftop of the villa I live in I watched a lazy moon, it’s sharp curve almost as it it was lying in bed and down below heard the faint sound of the call to prayer, still as exotic and as beautiful as it has always been.

Even though Athens was not for me it’s classical art, museums and people enriched my life just that little bit more and reminded me just what I have in the here and now.


Northern Africa in Retrospect.

As Greece and Turkey burn across the sea to the north, experiencing their worst heatwave in thirty years I write to you from an even hotter place, from a tiny sliver of life, perched between the Western and Eastern deserts of northern Africa.

This post finds me wandering around the “Religious Complex”, better known as Coptic Cairo which can be found towards the south of the great Ibn Tulun Mosque. I thought I understood the beloved city very well but this interfaith district has a certain charm all of it’s own, reminding me of how the intertwining districts of Jerusalem could possibly be, reminding me of my days spent in the enchanting lavra under the city of Kiev with it’s burrow of chapels and shrines, of hushed whispers and candlelight.

It seems like an eternity now that I had left northern Europe, washing up on this new continent, full of promise of what might be. An emotional refugee you could say, escaping from my haunting past, escaping from the ghosts that had consumed me so entirely, how they had conspired together with the demons within me, playfully dancing on top of my soul, crushing me with every waltz.

They say that you cannot escape from your past by running away and as I spend my remaining days here I realize that to be true.

You could say the only consolation I have is in the indecipherable script above doorways and on shop windows, the distant tones and guttural sounds of the unknown language, of the moments seeing fireworks reflect in my eyes making me wonder, just for one precious instant, which celebration it could signify this time and of course, the city, the magical, supreme city which arises with every blazing dawn and at night bathes in the sultry and balmy air of the world’s greatest river.

Even it´s moon is beguiling. I can assure you only from this point on Earth is she at her most beautiful, her otherworldly crescent and dim light, her tranquility indescribable as she lingers in solitude above the crowded city below.

Church of Saint George

I love to spend my days discovering the most beloved of cities and this district has been a real eye opener, the heavy presence of religion confronting me with my own mortality, the dust of the ancient manuscripts, the still traces of Roman blood on Babylon Fort, the love and devotion to God. I realize my struggle is but of a temporary nature. In some strange way I feel a deep connection to this district, it’s religious expression giving hope while adding serene joy to my eyes, to a soul starved of ethereal beauty.

This alien civilization is the only thing that can console me inside, it keeps me preoccupied during the daily toil of a humdrum life. As I try to spell and pronounce the nursery words from the unintelligible instruction manual it keeps me at the certain and, above all, necessary level of distraction. Distracted from the flames of the natural disaster which forever lies within me. I live each day as a newborn, given the possibility of hope, of the chance that I might one day be able to live again.

I have been living here for a few years now and when thinking back I realize I must have gone through a major life cycle and at night I often wonder if I’am better or worse for it. I do know that since I was very young I have always been adamant on living a life full, to savor every emotion, whether they be good or bad. To one day know, on my deathbed that I had lived, that I had truly lived.

Ben Ezra Synagogue
A service inside a Coptic Church
Icon in Coptic Cairo

It has been a strange journey and indeed that of a newborn.

I always thought I would have missed the restaurants and art galleries of Europe, the food and entertainment but in fact the only thing I miss are the forests. I first noticed this during my first autumn in the desert when I had asked my friends to make photos of the forests for me, and in particular of bright green moss. An urgent need for my most basic wants to be appeased. I found these photos to be mesmerizing and I longed to walk through a summer forest at dawn once more, the droplets of dew, the life elixir of everything or to swim in the lakes between the lotus flowers as I had often done in a time less pressing.

As winter approached I would close the blinds to the endless blazing sun and inside watch videos about the frozen forests of Sweden and the Arctic Circle and of life there, as if my body was aching for the winter months once more.

When I first emigrated here I thought it such a novelty to sunbathe in March, gleefully calling my friends to speak of sunlight and warmth. These days clouds, the blacker the better are my favorite due to the rarity of such vision. The first drops of rain after summer usually stop me in my tracks as if in suspended animation, my soul dancing in totality, my hands raised to the heaven.

Notice the beautiful facade of the building in the background with it’s Pharonic hieroglyphics.

These are some of the oldest known streets in Cairo, very atmospheric. I spoke to some of the residents in broken Arabic and they in broken English and we seemed to have reach the same conclusion that we were charmed by each other.

The photo above is of the Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox church, built during the patriarchate of Isaac in the 7th Century. This church is unusual, being built atop the ruins of Babylon Fort.

Saint George killing the demon, the dragon.

Charming ancient streets of an ancient city.

The photo above is showing A’mr ibn Al’as Mosque, built in the 7th Century as the center of the newly founded city of Fustat.

I spoke to a rather wonderful if not eccentric homeless bag lady (as I often do) and she spoke surprisingly good English. She explained to me that the area is being cleared so that eventually this great mosque, the oldest in Egypt, will look uninterrupted onto the waters of the Nile.

I’m developing a deep rooted fascination for the Greek community who live and have lived in Egypt and of ancient Greece itself. I was caught rather of guard by this photo on a tombstone, the girl’s eyes totally compelling.

I guess you could say I needed a gentler life, and as ironic as it sounds I have found peace here in a city of 20 million. This new world seems poetic. I feel for once that I’m living in a place that somehow matters to the person who i’am inside, an old soul in the ancient holy world, where the Fertile Crescent links me to Mesopotamia, towards the cradle of civilization. and even further away to the mountains of Iran.

I´m very much at home here, where old fashioned manners matter, where families still know each other and children are respectful to their elders. No matter their hardships the Egyptians still smile, their resilience a lesson to us all. I have witnessed so many incredible acts of kindness, it is always the smallest things, like watching someone help a stranger whose moped has broken down, or for instance a security guard who went out of his way to help me find where I needed to go, that matters the most.

It has been one of the greatest joys and honors of my life to have had the chance to spend my days in northern Africa and I feel a true blessing from God and the angels when I was in my darkest hour.

Blessed are the hearts that can bend for they shall never be broken'” – Saint Francis de Sales.