This café was always my second home. It’s by the harbor. For the poor lot. But I didn’t change it even when I found the fishing village and struck gold. Nowadays, I come here and try to remember. Every morning, I tell my story to myself—imagining that people are living inside me listening to my story—and every morning more and more things are going missing. I can feel that; I’ve been struck three times. I’m scared now, scared to find out what’s left of my story. But scared or not, I must crack on: bon voyage.
Let’s see. I went to the sea when I was a nine-year-old kid. I was a deckboy. That’s the word, isn’t it? Deckboy. I don’t know what you educated people call it. I became captain at sixteen. The best caïque captain in Greece. Or maybe at fourteen. Can’t remember. I think I was born in ’29 and I became captain during the Greek Civil War. You work it out. I don’t want to confuse you.
Ah—I forgot to bring my bag. I’ll bring it tomorrow. Show you my diploma. And what a diploma, eh? Not a Mickey Mouse one. Twenty-five of us applied, only two got it. The others got shit. And, you know, everything is written properly on the diploma, scholarly-like. I was—
“Good morning, Mr. Manolis.”
The waitress with the sweet smile. Every morning she saves this table in the corner for me. “Good morning, my dear.”
“What can I get you?”
And she’s a good worker, fast and slender, deer-like. “I’ve forgotten your name, my girl. What’s your name?”
“Angie…Some milk, Angie.”
“Milk? Yes, of course.”
“With six—” Did I put on pomade this morning? “Erm, six—” Wait, let me feel…
Good, I did. “Oh, no. Have you got—” I always kept my hair short and tidy. “I don’t know how you call it.”
“No, no, no. Bread, crackers. That’s it, crackers, a biscuit, something.”
“All right, I’ll bring you some bread. Any sugar for the milk?”
“Six sugars. Good, well done.”
Right. So I was the best caïque captain in Greece. And I’m not ashamed to say so. Remember, Manolis Siderakis was the best seaman around. There’s no one else. Say that the one and only and the best in fishing was found in this small town, Kavala. His name is Manolis Siderakis—Manolis Siderakis, who became a captain at sixteen and plowed the Aegean Sea with his caïque. Ah, I remember all that, but if you ask me, “What did you do two days ago? Ten days? One month?” I won’t remember.
Here, here. I’ll show you some photos of mine. I always carry them with me. In my wallet, in my back pocket. These photos are my sweet memories. I’ll show you. Which one, which one… Ah, yes, this one, yes. Look at this one. I’m so young in this one. Hang on.
“Sweetheart. Girl. Come here a moment.”
Wait, wait, she’s coming, you’ll see.
“Yes, Mr. Manolis.”
“Look at this photo of mine, sweetie. I’m so young here. Handsome, eh?”
“That’s a phone card, Mr. Manolis. I’m too busy for this today.”
Yes, I always had a moustache. I look good here. So young. A young man who got his captain diploma at sixteen. I’ve said that, didn’t I? Pardon me, friends, if I repeat things sometimes. I worked hard—very hard—and after a few years, I strived to buy a small caïque. I excelled on that caïque, made a good bundle of money, and then I became a partner in a bigger one. But it didn’t work out. I was young and my partner stole, mucked things up. So I worked hard again and I bought my own caïque: Thessalonica 147. Sixty tons. And before my twentieth birthday, I went out into the wide blue yonder, wealthy and good and a distinguished captain.
“Here’s your milk, Mr. Manolis.”
“Well done, my girl. What’s your name again?”
“Angie… Our eyes are the same color. Did I tell you? Men with brown eyes are reassuring out at sea. It’s the color of soil, it’s where you want to go back to when things get messy.”
“That’s nice. And here you go. I’m afraid the bread is not very fresh, though.”
“Oh, it’s fine, I like bread better when it goes hard. Thank you, sweetie.”
Good, a cup of warm milk and a story. Now let’s leave the milk to cool down a bit.
Baedoz. Listen, listen, I remember! What a jackal I was, eh? Listen. During baedoz, the non-fishing weeks—we call them baedoz, I don’t know if you’ve heard that before, that’s the fishing term, baedoz—well, yes, during baedoz, other captains loafed around. But I’d look for more work.
Eagled-eyed! I’d do everything. I’d pilot my caïque over to Thrace or to Thessaly—southwest of Salonica in case you didn’t know—so I’d go there, load my caïque with watermelons and get them to all the islands. Even down to Rhodes with my caïque! I would travel all around the Aegean. Lemnos, Mytilene, Chios, everywhere, everywhere. During baedoz, other captains went home to sleep. They’d go to bars and drink ouzo and whisky, but I was out there, on the sea, ferrying coal, olives, and furniture from the mainland to the islands, from one little island to another, fighting with the waves, but you know—well, how would you know?—it was a happy fight with the waves, they didn’t scare me, the waves and the sea. For me the sea was like a mandarin. I’d peel it easily and eat it and it tasted good, fresh. I want to cry, cry, cry now, remembering all that…
“Girl! Waitress! Girl?”
“Yes, yes? What is it?”
“Thank you for the milk.”
“You’re welcome. I hope it’s not too sweet.”
“Of course not.”
Now, what else? Ah, yes. I’ll tell you about my breakthrough. Captaincy and all that was good, but my breakthrough, what gave me loads of money and will go down in history because of me, because of Manolis Siderakis, is when I went down to Egypt. Listen, my friends. I’m an old man and I’m ill, but I know what I’m talking about: go to every corner of Greece, go wherever there’s a fishing harbor, and you’ll find Egyptians working on the caïques. And that’s because of me. It was I who started it. Listen.
Many, many years ago, how many I can’t remember, I went down to Cairo. There had been a lack of fishermen there, Greek men had become lazy, they feared working at sea, and Greece and Egypt had signed a bilateral treaty, that’s the word, bilateral treaty, I’ve got the papers at home, I’ll bring them tomorrow, you’ll see. As soon as I found out about that treaty, I said, “That’s it! I’m going down there to bring over Arevas. I’ll be the first!” People told me, “How can you…? You’re not good with the papers and words, how can you do all that?” They tried to stop me. But I started from here, Kavala. I went to many places that deal with paperwork, big buildings: city halls, port authorities, four or five places like that. I signed papers, went to lawyers, then I took the airplane and went down to Piraeus. Piraeus, Athens. More papers and words and signatures and deals. More big buildings: Commercial Fishing Industry, Marine Ministry, Foreign Office. And imagine this: I was the first one in Greece who did all this and I only did four years in primary school. What a jackal, eh? Then I hired a translator, a lackey, and flew for Cairo.
Down in Cairo, I remember now. I remember I went down there the time when Cairo argued with another country. Do you remember when bombs went off and three hundred people died? I was there. It was hot, too hot. People were screaming and crying and the army was out and the tanks were in the streets. I didn’t care what the devil was going on.
I went on with my business, visiting more big buildings and doing paperwork. In the end, at the Foreign Ministry, two officials took me to an office and offered me coffee and baklava and cigarettes.
“Mr. Manolis Siderakis, well done. You’ve finished with the paperwork. Now you can get people to work up in Greece. How many would you like? One, two, three hundred? One thousand? We’ve got them ready for you.”
I sensed something was wrong. They made it feel too easy. And I didn’t like it that they didn’t use napkins and kept licking the baklava syrup off their fingers
“Yes. As many as you want.”
I didn’t like them. Never trust men who eat baklava and smoke at the same time, you can’t appreciate two pleasures simultaneously. They’re the sort that muck things up.
“Where are they from?”
“From here?” I nudged the napkins towards them, “Where here?”
“From here. From Cairo.”
“I don’t want them! There’s no sea in Cairo. They aren’t good sea fishermen. I want good hands.”
“But we’ve got the Nile. They work the Nile.”
I didn’t want them. Nile is a river, they say Nile is a God too, but I’m not scared of foreign Gods. We Greeks have St. Nikólas, the Sea Saint. I wanted men who knew the sea.
“I don’t want them!”
“You don’t want them? Then have a good day, Mister. Go find seamen yourself!”
I left their Foreign Ministry. Out on my own, I was in a foreign country, and war with the Jews was going on. I took my lackey with me.
“Come. Let’s go to a café. Find me a big café where poor people go.”
We went to a café and I ordered tea for everyone.
“Listen!” I said to the people there, “I want to find good fishermen. Fishermen who know the sea. Where is the best place to find these fishermen?”
Five or six men came to my table. “Up north, but don’t go there,” they said.
“North? Where north?”
“Where the Nile becomes the sea.”
It’s easy to get facts from poor people, but you must be brutal to cut through their vagueness, “And what’s the name of this place?”
“It’s a fishing village near Damietta. It’s the sea eye of Egypt.”
“I don’t care what it is. Tell me the name.”
“Ezbet El Borg, that’s where the great sea-fishermen live.”
“And how far is this place?”
“Eight hours drive. Ten hours drive.”
“Order a taxi,” I said to my lackey. “We’re going to the fishing village right away!”
“Don’t go,” they said, and grabbed onto my arm, “the men there are strong and hateful. There are no hotels there, no decent place to stay.”
I shook them off, but I wasn’t angry. They were trying to protect me. “We’ll find something.”
“Don’t go! We are in war. There are rebels and thieves on the roads all along the way. You are a foreigner, they’ll kidnap you, ask for ransom.”
We started driving north. I was fearless. Their roads were terrible, ancient, full of donkeys and camels and animal carts. Nothing happened on the way. Besides some men trying to stop us. They blocked the road, but they had no guns, only knives and axes and scythes. I threw a few notes at the driver and ordered him to keep on going, “Drive fast! If they stay in the middle of the road, drive through them.” They made way, of course.
No foreigner had ever been in that place. Everything was dirty and filthy in the fishing village. Strong? The men were skin and bone. They were wearing these long dresses they have there, I don’t remember what you call them, and they dragged them along in the dirt. There were four inches of filth on their dresses.
The women were all covered up in black robes, veils hid their faces, they even covered their hands with gloves in that terrible heat. The streets were full of rubbish, goats and dogs and cats and flies ate together from amongst the rubbish. The houses were pathetic, made of mudbrick. That’s how I knew straight away that many good fishermen lived there: only the fishing boats stood out. A thousand beautiful wooden caïques, with paintings on the hulls: eagles and eyes, the dark eyes of Arab women, big dark eyes with long eyelashes. I went inside to inspect some of them. They didn’t have radars. No machinery. They were ages behind us Greeks. I picked a skeleton of a man and threw a bundle of old net at him.
“Mend it,” I said and he took the needle from his pocket and worked on it. I nearly cried when I saw his craft.
I went in a café and all the fishermen came to me. Word had got around. “Khawaja, Khawaja!” They begged me to take them to Greece.“Alhamdulillah! Alhamdulillah!”
I drank their coffee and it tasted like mud. I spat it on the floor and ordered them to wait. I called one by one all the captains that I knew in Greece.“Now, how many araves? Five? Five costs so and so.” I gathered one or two hundred famished ones and packed them for Greece.
I made good money out of this. I didn’t get money from the Egyptians. The deal was to get a cut from the Greek captains, but most of them didn’t pay me all the money, and they stole from the Mohammedans, too. What sort of Christians were they, stealing from the poor? Go and listen to the stories of other captains if you like. Yes. Go. Go on. They’ll lie to you. They are shit-mouthed. Out of all the captains, only five are the real thing. The rest are women-souled. Better forget that I’ve said this. I don’t care, I’m ill—I want to be honest with you—but I don’t want to ridicule the Greek captains. You’d better forget what I’ve just said.
So that was how it all started. During baedoz, I’d go down to Ezbit El Borg. In the beginning I staffed vessels with Arabs around Kavala—and without problems or prisons, because I’ve never been to prison, others have been. Then I spread my business throughout our lands, and for years, I sorted out all harbor-places in Greece. Salonica, Volos, Porto and Lagos, Patras, Crete, everywhere, everywhere. And the Greek fishing industry flourished. Later, I stopped doing this. Other people smelled dough and went down there to do business. The path had been opened up by me. Right. Let me have my milk and bread now.
I want something in return for telling you my story. I want you to remember me. I want you to say that I was a capable man. Don’t be sad about me. Never be sad about me. I’m old and ill, but I’ve still got the sea-worm inside me. And the sea-worm is alive, alive, alive. Alive and strong. So, now. Remember.
I had no problems with them Egyptians. As soon as I raised my hand, they bowed down. They bowed down to me like they did for their God, poor souls. How strange these Mohammedans were. Out at sea, at night, they washed their faces with seawater, their hands and feet, they put a newspaper sheet on the deck and bowed to Allah. They prayed. How many times I saw the Mohammedans praying on the deck. And when St. Nikólas brought storms, when the storm brought high waves and it rained from the sky and the sea, their eyes searched in the rainy darkness for their Mecca. They fell to their knees, brow on deck, “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.”
I felt my heart cracking, “Don’t get angry with them, St. Nikólas, they were born in faraway lands, they have their own God, protect us all.”
No, I wasn’t a bad man. Neither bad nor good. I was fair. If they dared to misbehave, I’d cast them back to Cairo. They were people who starved to death and when you starve, you behave yourself. If they’d stayed in Egypt, they’d die of hunger. Hun-ger! Nobody should be hungry. I hope you never starve, friends.
I had to teach the araves how to behave. When they first came here they were strays. I put them on a lead. Some of them forgot about their wives and went out with whores. And they learned to drink alcohol and gamble, that’s why they’re still broke. Those who worked on my caïque were quiet and harmless as sheep. Their families in Egypt wouldn’t manage without me. Every time I went down there, their wives would bring me the few sweets they had and ask me, “Khawaja, what happened to our husbands? They don’t come home. Why don’t they come home? They spend the money over there and they don’t come home.”
I’d say to the women, “Don’t worry. I’ll sort your husbands out.” When I’d finish with my business there, I’d return to Greece and send the husbands back to Egypt to die of hunger. I was eagle-clawed. I acted with justice.
Never scared to be killed. Never scared to be beaten. At sea, the araves did as I ordered. But, down in Egypt, they stole my wallet many times. One of my girlfriends down there used to steal from me, too. She was from some place, can’t remember its name. She was married and had kids and her kids were starving. She used to steal from me, God rest her soul. I said, so what? I stole from no one. Get it? I owe to no one. I did everything with my own hands.
And now, so many years later, Egyptians from that village still work on our caïques. From grandfathers to their grandchildren. And I’ve heard stories that now all the men in that fishing village can speak Greek. Because they’ve all been to work here at some point. A whole village, a big village, thousands of araves can speak Greek. That was because of me, remember, because of Manolis Siderakis, a fearless, brave man, a jackal who outstared all dangers.
“Girl! Waitress! Girl!”
“Yes, yes, coming, Mr. Manolis, coming. What is it?”
“Tell me now, don’t you think, ‘Fucking hell, how can this old man remember all this stuff?’”
“What stuff? Some more bread?”
What a lovely girl. “No, thank you, my dear.”
So I did all these things in my life. I bought more caïques as the years passed by. I’ve travelled all around Europe on airplanes and ships. I’ve slept with the finest beauties. Me, Manolis Siderakis, who did four years in primary school. And I did many more things. Things that right up until my last days as captain only I could do. But slowly, slowly, I grew sluggish. And d’you know how they treated me in the end? I’m talking about the Greeks now. I’ll tell you how they treated me.
It’s the day of St. Nikólas the Sea Saint. I’m coming down here to the harbor church, I light a candle, and as I’m about to kiss St. Nikólas’ icon, I’m struck down by something. I get up. Then it’s St. Vasílis Day. I enter the church and I’m struck again. I get up. Epiphany comes. Me, as the president of fishermen, I gather everyone, all people—wealthy, poor, officials, the Bishop, all people—and we do the religious ceremony at the harbor. I believe you might have seen it, when we threw the crucifix into the sea. Later on, I put on a spread at the Fishermen’s Society, where we cut the pie. So we have the dinner, I kind of fall asleep, and they keep eating. I put on this spread for all those people for fifty years.
And that year, they knew I messed up. Once at St. Nikólas Day, once at St. Vasílis Day, they knew it, but they don’t grab me to take me to the doctors or do anything. Whilst asleep, I hear my name: “Manolis Siderakis will now cut the pie.” I do this, do that, until I manage to stand up. I go up the steps. Once I go to cut the pie, the thing strikes me for a third time. Nobody comes near me. I try to stand up, find the steps, get hold of the railings. I slip, legs first. They don’t send for an ambulance. Nothing. I get up, make it home. Epiphany, a festive day. I make it to the door, open it. My family had a meal ready. A festive day.
Alexandros Plasatis is an immigrant ethnographer who writes fiction in English, his second language. His work has appeared in US, UK, Canadian, and Indian magazines and anthologies. He lives in the UK and works with asylum seekers.
Tomer Peretz utilizes oil, acrylic, photography and conceptual art to express his point of view and is represented by Fabbrica Eos gallery in Milan, Italy. He works in Los Angeles at Ouro Studio.