by Willard Manus
Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the actor Eli Wallach?
The unexpected question came at me from someone at a nearby table. My wife
and I were sitting at eleven pm in a cafe on the Piraeus docks, waiting
to learn when the ferry to the Cyclades islands was going to leave. The
dock workers had gone on strike earlier that day; unless their demands were
met all traffic would be suspended indefinitely. Rumor had it, though, that
an agreement might soon be reached, which is why we continued to sit there
and fester, while drinking one coffee after another.
Omar was dressed in a white linen suit which hadnt been cleaned or
pressed in years. He was wild-haired and was missing two front teeth. He
had a huge, overstuffed briefcase by his side. He spoke accented but excellent
been born in Alexandria, Egypt, where his father was a successful architect,
working on important government projects. He had been sent to study archaeology
in England but hadnt ever worked at that discipline. While
in London I discovered film, he explained. I became an actor/director/producer
and have been involved in various movie projects since then.
This explained the Eli Wallach reference. He loved American films and
the actors who starred in them. It was something of a miracle to meet
a stranger-an Egyptian, no less!--on a Piraeus dock and hear him
rhapsodize about Hollywood.
Omar also took pride in the literary history of his birthplace-especially
Cavafis and Durrell. He talked knowledgeably about those writers, and
about his childhood in Alexandria, growing up in a cosmopolitan neighborhood
with Greek, British and French friends. The hours slid by as we chatted,
laughing a lot, enjoying each others company. Omars charm
and energy didnt flag, he kept talking, powered by caffeine and
nicotine. He was a chain-smoker and kept puffing away right down to the
filter, drooping ashes all over his lapels.
At about three a.m. it became obvious that the strike was not going to
be settled. My wife and I debated what to do, spend the rest of the night
here? Search for a hotel at this late hour?
Come stay with me, Omar suggested. I have an apartment
with two bedrooms. Its not too far from here.
Mavis and I looked at each other, wondering if we could trust bedding
down in a strangers apartment. A stranger in a wrinkled linen suit
dusted with ashes. But how what was there to fear about an Egyptian film
buff who insisted I was a dead ringer for Eli Wallach?
* * *
Omars apartment was in Nea Faliron, an Athens suburb. As we headed
there in a taxi, Omar kept talking. Hed been living in Athens for
a year, trying to establish himself as a businessman. One of his schemes
was to open up a language school with his girlfriend, an Uzbeki woman.
Well give all the Russian and Polish immigrants living here
Another scheme was even more ambitious. Do you know who the Richard
Branson is? he asked.
The entrepreneur, right?
Omar nodded. Branson fell in love with Greece and bought himself
a mountaintop on Hydra, where he intended to build a tourist village.
The local authorities turned him down. Now Branson is looking to sell
the mountaintop. I can help him save his project. You see, I know Hydra
quite well, used to go there on weekends.
He patted his briefcase. I have put together a plan for him which
will bail him out, thanks to my many contacts. Problem is, Im unable
to reach Branson. Do you by any chance know the man? Can you contact him
and put in a good word for me?
Omar, Im a writer, not a businessman. Branson operates in
another sphere from mine.
Well, then, maybe you can help me in a different way. A friend of
mine has bought property on the island of Amorgos. He would like to sub-divide
it and build a string of houses. Do you know anybody who might like to
buy one of those plots? Ill split my commission with you.
again. No can do.
We reached Nea Faliron and Omars apartment. When he opened the front
door we were hit by a blast of stale cigarette smoke. All the ashtrays
in sight-there were dozens of them-were heaped with cigarette
butts. The resulting stench was over-powering; it stung our eyes and made
We cant stay here, Mavis muttered. Well
die from nicotine poisoning.
But it was too late to change our plans; we would have to tough it out
and hunker down in Omars spare bedroom. Which was dark and messy:
black drapes over the windows, bits of clothing strewn about, empty bottles
of retsina and ouzou. As if to redeem himself, Omar pointed to the bookshelves,
which were packed with tomes by writers like Gurdjieff, Krishna Murti
and Mary Baker Eddy.
Im really a very spiritual person, he said. The
authentic Omar El-Hakim rejects the material world.
We didnt sleep much that night. Mavis refused to take her clothes
off: The sheets are too filthy. She sat up in an easy chair
while I tried to fall asleep in bed, fighting off the tobacco fumes and
some pesky mosquitos.
We crept out of Omars apartment at dawn, leaving a thank-you note
on the kitchen table. We flagged down a cab which took us back to Piraeus,
where we had breakfast and awaited the resolution of the dock strike.
This happened about two hours later, at which time we boarded the ferry-boat
and went to our first-class cabin, where we immediately fell asleep and
didnt stir until we reached Amorgos early the next morning.
surprise when we debarked...and were met on the dock by a smiling chap
in a wrinkled linen suit, Omar El-Hakim!
* * *
As we learned, Omar had rushed to Piraeus once he discovered our note,
purchasing a deck-class ticket to Amorgos. Now that we are reunited
we can enjoy the island together, he said happily.
After we had found a pension and stored our bags, the three of us went
down for breakfast. Omar ordered eggs, sausage, juice, toast, marmalade,
coffee and a brandy, sounding of all the while about his first love, film.
My favorite director is Woody Allen, he said. What I
like about him is that he puts out his own image and sticks to it, not
caring what other people think. Take me or leave me, he says to the world.
When it came time to pay the bill, Omars hand did not move. The
same thing happened when we had lunch later. Im afraid I left
my wallet back in Athens, he confessed with a sheepish smile. All
I have on me is a little pocket money.
He led us to a bus which took us to a distant corner of Amorgos where,
sandwiched between two low hills, could be found a small cove with a pebbly
beach. There was no sign of life here: no olive or citrus trees, no grazing
goats or donkeys. All was quiet, weed-infested and bleached by the Greek
sun. Not a bird could be seen in the sky.
Isnt it something! Omar cried. Isnt it beautiful?
Are you sure you dont want to buy a plot? Think of the villa you
could build here, with a million-dollar view of the sea!
It looks pretty barren to me. Is there any fresh water in the vicinity?
Not to worry. The authorities will bring in water and electricity
once we start building!
When will that be, Omar?
Soon, he said. Very soon!
* * *
On the bus back to town we met a young American couple, Susannah and Michael.
They had been living on Amorgos for a year, in an old farm house on the
bank of a dry river-bed. They both were musicians, lute and violin, respectively.
They were deep into Greek folk music, in a very pure way, eschewing amplification
and the intrusion of the bouzouki. Its an instrument of the
cafes and hashish dens, they explained. We love the authentic
music played by Greek farmers and fishermen.
They invited us to their house, which was furnished in a spare, simple
way: homespun fabrics and rugs, a sleeping platform, cushions for chairs,
a wood-burning stove. They confided that they lived on three hundred dollars
a month, which they earned by giving English lessons.
They fed us dinner: butter beans, greens and brown bread, washed down
with retsina poured from a clay jug. They picked up their instruments
when they were joined by a Greek friend. Manolis lived nearby with his
wife, Birgit, a slender Danish girl hed met in Athens while working
as a land surveyor.
I hated my job, Manolis said. I decided to give it up
and return to my island and become a shepherd.
a musician, Birgit added. Skilled enough to be hired to play
at weddings and festivals.
Manolis played the santouri-a zither-like instrument with rows of
strings that looked fiendishly difficult to play. But he wasnt fazed
by it, just sat hunched over it, tapping away at the strings with two
little mallets, producing these rich, warm sounds.
Together they played one tune after another; sometimes Birgit sang sweetly
in Greek; other times they played with wordless concentration and finesse.
Mavis and I listened intently, caught up in the ambience of the moment.
Omar, though, kept his eyes on Birgit, who sat opposite him, drinking
hard, aware of his interest.
She soon became tipsy and flirtatious. Omars eyes never left her,
taking in her long, lithe body, her straight, light-brown hair, her impish
smile. Omar was smitten with her, couldnt stop staring at her. She
liked the attention; liked being wanted. Manolis sensed the sexual tension
in the air and began glaring at Omar as he kept tapping away on his santouri,
mouth a tight, grim line. How long would it be before his anger exploded
and he attacked the drunken, horny Omar?
I decided to take pre-emptive action. I stood up, crossed to Omar, grabbed
him and said, We should go.
No, dammit, no! he cried.
Come on, I said. Its best we leave.
I dragged him out of the farmhouse. Omar kept protesting as we walked
down the road toward the nearest village, You son of a bitch, you
ruined everything for me! The girl was ready to fuck me!
With her boyfriend there?
didnt scare me. I was a boxer in my youth. I would have knocked
him cold in a fight.
Omar, I said, Youve seen one movie too many. Hollywood
has poisoned the way you think.
* * *
Omar had checked out of the pension by the time Mavis and I sat down for
breakfast. He said you were going to take care of his bill,
said the owner, Marietta. Is that correct?
I thought about it, then shrugged my shoulders. Of course Ill
take care of it, I said, adding, Did he say where he was going?
Back to Athens and then by airplane to Paris, she replied.
To do what?
He said something about meeting someone famous to make a movie.
Oh? Did he mention a name?
A man named Francois Truffaut. Have you ever heard of him?
Is he really famous?
Yes, he truly is.
Then Mister Omar might make a successful movie.
He certainly might, I said. He is quite a remarkable