At Winder's - The Dragomans - Mishka - Ibrahim - A Motley Crowd

*On Handak street, which meets Anastase street a few steps away from the place where I'd eaten, the bustle was at its height. Although lazy and indifferent when they have nothing to do, Arabs are very much alive and quick when there's a chance of making some money.It was a working day. The junction where we'd stopped led towards four of the most important parts of the city and was incessantly crossed by passers-by. A crowd of red fezzes and robes in all colours, some made of shiny satin, others of common calico, intersected the path of our bland European suits, clogging the street and making the passing of any vehicle impossible. You can see here the hurried one jostling the one without a worry in the world; the European full of himself because of his "civilised" origin, brushing aside with contempt the humiliated native who had stepped on his toes in the throng; the patient coachman, as well as his patient clients, driving the horses very slowly and shouting incessantly: "Make room to the right!" or "Mind your feet!" Here too you can see crowding, as if on purpose, all the pedlars with their trolleys full of dates, figs, bananas, coconuts, all kinds of seeds, good for chewing at times of laziness, and all the possible sweets, full of dust and dead flies. And especially you can see the much sought-for merchant of sugar cane, with his twenty paras1 merchandise, the two metre long stick full of sugary sap, which the Arabs are always crazy about, and in which they thrust with gusto their teeth like wolves' fangs, sucking the juice with disgusting greed, and then littering the streets. These merchants deafen you with their long, plaintiff calls, and if you don't see their stuff, you need thirty years of living in Egypt to actually understand what they are saying; and when their roars are joined by the shrill rattling of the barrel organs of the Italian lazzaroni, the din is so unpleasant that you feel like running away.The cafés are many, at every step, and full of people even on workdays, something you can find only in the Orient. The tables lined along the pavement block the passage completely sometimes. The clients, often sprawled in typical Oriental fashion, chatter away, sometimes sleepily, sometimes passionately. The hookahs puff, making the water in the bottle bubble in a monotonous concert; the dice clatter when cast onto the backgammon board, and Turkish coffees carried on shiny nickel trays pass ceaselessly through this lazy world, which is always the same, at any time of the day, making you wonder what it lives on.Abesalon had got so used to the racket of such a street that he would have remained indifferent even if a bell had tolled in his ear. His only care was that his boots should not be stepped on or that his clothes should not get dusty, and he avoided these things so skillfully that he hardly ever got "dirty." As he was as tall as a lamppost, he could see everything around him and he would have spent hours looking amused at such a crossroad. But I wanted out of the throng."Let's go see Winder," he said, "but you must know he no longer has that shop, The Romanian Sentinel's, which you've been to and where we had Romanian sausages together some years ago. He lost it.""And has he moved out of Handak?" I asked."No, he's still in Handak, over there, across the road from his previous place." And he showed me a small shop, not far from us, with no sign and with a few tables laid outside. Handak street and Hamamil street, which is the continuation of the former beyond Anastase street, which it cuts into two, are barely one kilometre long put together, but are always full of people and carriages because they are the shortest way from the town to the port. This is where you can find most of the Romanian, Greek or Italian shops and cafés that do business with the ships, and this is also where waves of travellers go by, who've come here from all the corners of the world, whether by the desire to visit a country that still bears the traces of the first human "civilisation," or by some kind of trade, more or less legal. Among them, the long, endless stream of those oppressed by the fate Abesalon dreaded, that scum scattered by the wind of the same "misfortune," people coming from somewhere and going somewhere, very often not knowing themselves where they come from, nor where they want to get, stopping when it gets dark, eating when it happens, differing in faiths but similar in their mistakes, and this is the way the writer of these lines met them. Their faces, undistorted by the prejudices of any literary requirements, will make their appearance, one after the other, in the following pages, pages that will by no means be those of a novel.We headed towards Winder, whose previous store I'd briefly known and left in full prosperity. It used to be famous in the quarter inhabited by people from our parts for its good drinks, some of them brought from Romania, and especially for its grill with beefsteaks, "mititei"2, and "p­irjoale"3 and other "instant" goodies, prepared according to the Romanian taste. All those who still felt attached to our old customs would meet there, and, on Saturday or Sunday evening, you could see, in the middle of an Arabian country, a "stall" like those on the Spirii Hill or those in Badalan, where the "patrons" would drink "tzuica"4, burn their tongue with hot chili peppers, and swear openly in Romanian. It sent far into the distance the smell of "pi­rjoale" full of thyme and the wailing of some violins played artfully in our language by those who at home get only hatred and a few coins thrown contemptuously. Excerpted from:  Poor Brothers. Abesalon Dragoman, Minerva, 1983
* The text refers to the author's arrival in Alexandria, Egypt, aboard the Hohenzollern, in 1907.1 Twenty paras = 0.6½ centimes. Forty paras – a small piastre, thirteen farthings (author's note).2 Spicy, minced meat rolled in the shape of small sausages and grilled.3 Flat minced meat balls grilled.4 Very strong plum brandy.

by Panait Istrati (1884-1935)