Almost There:

by | Jul 25, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

I tucked into my falafel, using the hot, crispy balls to scoop up a dollop of hummus.

Whenever I’m in London, I always make a bee-line for Edgware Road, especially at breakfast time. The long, straight, bustling dual-carriageway reminds me of my beloved Middle East.

The street is populated with shops, restaurants and cafes from all over the region. Their brightly coloured signs, in Arabic script, resemble a long, multi coloured passage from the Quran. Every so often, this homage to all things Islam, is punctuated by a solitary symbol of Britishness, as if to remind one of the location. There is the Marks and Spencer store on the corner of Chapel Street as well as the local versions of both Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

My place of choice is the Al Arez Lebanese restaurant, its long red canopy, adorned by the familiar black image of the cypress tree.

On this particular day, in summer, it was hot. Probably the low thirties, which gave the place added authenticity.

“Ah, good morning Mr Brain,” greeted the patron, using the Arab pronunciation of my name. “Welcome back to Al Arez. Are you here for business or pleasure? Where is your beautiful Iris?” His smile disappeared as he saw the pain etched on my face at the mention of her nickname.

“I shall bring shai with na’na. On the house while you decide,” he muttered, handing me the menu. He scurried off, tutting and stroking his huge, black moustache.

I closed my eyes tight, quelling the heat behind them and fought back the tears. The wound was still tender and the patron had inadvertently poked it. When I opened them, I was in a shadow. The obstruction to the sun consisted of a tall, broad framed man. He passed by and took up a table two away from me. Remembering what she’d told me on our last visit, I asked the man, in my best Arabic, if he’d like to join me. The Arab tradition was not to let someone dine alone.

“Thank you sir. I see, from your dialect, you’ve been to Lebanon,” he smiled, letting out a single breath. Too small to be a chuckle, too polite to be a scoff.

“No, Jordan ya zalame,” I replied, a blush flooding up from my neck.

This man was big, over two metres tall and everything about him said Egypt. The whites of his eyes were the colour of quartz and the pupils, sandstone. Their stare froze me in my seat. His skin was dark and leathery from the sun, forming wrinkles around his eyes, nose and mouth. When he smiled, his off-white teeth were exposed like newly excavated ivory ornaments from a Pharaoh’s tomb.

He wore a traditional kufi hat in shades from chocolate to beige and his toffee coloured thawb, with four buttons down the front, almost touched the floor. On his feet were dark-brown sandals tied with finely cut thongs of the same material.

As he pulled up the chair opposite, I noticed that he carried no bag, purse or wallet and the breast pocket of his thawb was empty. The only decoration was a large scarab ring on his right middle finger.

The waiter brought the mint tea and took my order. Strangely, he ignored my companion, which didn’t seem to bother the big man. He did the same twice more, when bringing the order and checking on my satisfaction with the food.

I tucked into my falafel, using the hot, crispy balls to scoop up a dollop of hummus. The man dragged the kufi from his head, revealing a smooth shining dome like that of a mosque. He leaned forward and began to speak.

“You have had it hard my friend, but let me assure you, your journey is almost over. Forget the Levantine and look west to Cairo. You will be joined by one of mine soon. Invite her to sit with you. Believe me, you are almost there. Your life has prepared you for this moment.” With that, he replaced his kufi and got up. He gave an elegant bow and strolled off.

I reached for the napkin to wipe my mouth and when I looked up, the man had gone. When the patron came to collect the plates and bring the dessert menu, I confronted him.

“Why did you ignore the man who was sitting with me?” I demanded, nodding at the empty chair.

“I’m sorry Mr Brain, I didn’t see any such man. You have been alone the whole time. Would you like more tea and perhaps some knafeh?” He replied, looking puzzled and balancing the crockery on his forearm.

“Erm yes please,” I said, taken aback by his answer. “You’re sure you saw no one? He was big enough.” The man shook his head hurrying off into the restaurant.

At that very moment, my attention was grabbed by the scruff of the neck and shook hard. Approaching the restaurant from the direction in which the man disappeared, came a vision of loveliness. At around five feet, with straight black hair that curtained her exquisite features, she was the image of Cleopatra.

She took the table previously occupied by the tall man and picked up the menu. Taking a deep breath, I addressed the beautiful siren, in Arabic, asking her if she would like to join me.

“Thank you sir. I see from your dialect, you’ve been to Lebanon,” she smiled, letting out a single breath. Too small to be a chuckle, too polite to be a scoff,

“Let me guess, you’re from Cairo,” I replied as she pulled out the chair opposite. She simply smiled and nodded.

At that moment, the patron returned with tea and dessert.

“What can I get your beautiful companion?” He asked, winking at me.

“Oh, you can see her?” I breathed with a sigh of relief.

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