Omar El-Hakim
Feature 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 hadn’t 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 English.

Omar had 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 hadn’t 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 other’s company. Omar’s charm and energy didn’t 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. It’s not too far from here.”

Mavis and I looked at each other, wondering if we could trust bedding down in a stranger’s 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?

* * *

Omar’s apartment was in Nea Faliron, an Athens suburb. As we headed there in a taxi, Omar kept talking. He’d 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. “We’ll give all the Russian and Polish immigrants living here Greek lessons.”

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, I’m 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, I’m 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? I’ll split my commission with you.”

“Sorry again. No can do.”

We reached Nea Faliron and Omar’s 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 them water.

“We can’t stay here,” Mavis muttered. “We’ll die from nicotine poisoning.”

But it was too late to change our plans; we would have to tough it out and hunker down in Omar’s 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.

“I’m really a very spiritual person,” he said. “The authentic Omar El-Hakim rejects the material world.”

We didn’t 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 Omar’s 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 didn’t stir until we reached Amorgos early the next morning.

Imagine our 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, Omar’s hand did not move. The same thing happened when we had lunch later. “I’m 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.

“Isn’t it something!” Omar cried. “Isn’t it beautiful? Are you sure you don’t want to buy a plot? Think of the villa you could build here, with a million-dollar view of the sea!”

“Sorry. 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. “It’s 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 he’d 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.”

“And 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 wasn’t 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. Omar’s eyes never left her, taking in her long, lithe body, her straight, light-brown hair, her impish smile. Omar was smitten with her, couldn’t 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. “It’s 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?”

“He didn’t scare me. I was a boxer in my youth. I would have knocked him cold in a fight.”

“Omar,” I said, “You’ve 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 I’ll 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?”

I nodded.

“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 person.”