the lemon


? what is the date again?

Language. Music. Lemon.

Travel, after years, after decades–this kind of plunge-into-lives-and-intense-conversations travel–means that nothing is discrete. Nothing is separate. Countries and experiences echo and recall one another, asking to be known through a lens that is wide enough for all of it, every experience passing through and a myriad filaments between them. (They shimmer and move, part of the river, deeply or briefly known then gone; held, not held, fled into the past.) The moment is the point, the present. And in that brief now rings all, all, all like a bell clanging at the centre of one’s life. That is the point, and the good luck, of a long life. Nothing less than the whole. (Poetry does this, sometimes. In language, only poetry and prayer do this.)

That lens is more than ‘my mind’s eye’, more than my ‘mind’. It has to be more than intellectual because so much happens to the body. The mind is in the body, the chemicals, the neurons, the synapses connecting, the memory sorting through a hundred thousand files of days and hours, airports, roads, stones, faces, hands, people I have loved. Some would talk about spirit, or religion. Music knows all about this holding as it rushes away; that is tempo, rhythm, key change, silence in between. The Sabreen musicians last night played and played, the oud, a flute of some kind, the drums, their voices rising and falling ‘how beautiful your face, my beloved.’


The old man was dancing alone in his spitaki, his arms up and straight out, his eyes half-closed. The radio was on. I stopped to watch him. The moment I paused I became a spy, but I didn’t care. How many times had he spied on me? I could have no idea, he was that good, that silent; I would look up from a task or a nose-pick and there he would be, like a sudden manifestation of the field, fifteen paces away from me. His spitaki was a field away from mine and down a small incline—a little stone house in a field surrounded by olive trees. An apricot tree almost in flower right out the front door. Off to one side stood a rickety wooden pen for his six sheep, a couple goats. The radio was on, low, but the music was beautiful, old, the melodies almost like rembetiko but a little faster, not quite familiar—I couldn’t hear the words, just the familiar voices and instruments, at once plaintive, joyous, and defiant. I was surprised that he’d managed to get such a good station; we used to have competitions, trying to get some decent music; we both disliked the tacky skeeladiko (literal translation: dog music) songs that seemed to infect the airwaves around the island. He had moved the chairs out onto the small concrete patio so that he had more room to turn to the music (the other room was filled to bursting with last years’ almonds). I came a little closer, moved by the music but also by him, Andreas, my old shepherd dancing alone at eleven in the morning, his scarf wrapped turban-like around his head, his face more deeply wrinkled and older-looking in its relaxed state.

I realized with a shock that I had never seen him dance before. He had had polio as a child, so he moved with a distinct limp; his shoulder dipped further down when he stepped into a turn. His mouth opened now, like someone who is thirsty. Or hungry. He was a life-hungry man; that is why I loved him so much. I used to call him my papou, my Greek grandfather, but really he was my father, the father I had never had, who taught me things and brought me into his world and fashioned a beautiful place for me there.

He opened his eyes and saw me and yelped. I started to laugh and he shouted “Ela etho!” He looked wonderfully caught out, and clapped his hands at me. “Come here! You brat!” He adjusted his mandili as I came closer, still laughing. “Keep my secret, all right? I can’t help it! The Turkish radio stations have much better music, you know? So what! I listen to the Turkish music! It’s all one music, for us. And they dance this way too.” Considering the long occupation of Greece by the Ottoman Empire, some Greeks would consider it almost sacrilegious to listen to Turkish music (though less so, perhaps, on this island, forty minutes away from the mainland of Turkey). He lifted up his arms again and scooped another lopsided spin through the air, crying out to me, “Ela, ela!” He came out onto the patio and we danced a few steps together there, but I could tell he felt bashful. He went back into the house to make some coffee, and turned the music off. When he brought the two little cups out on a tray, he announced (as he always did)“Café turkico! Now you understand exactly what I mean.” (meaning: now you understand why I always call it Turkish coffee.)

* * *

When the Palestinian musicians got out the drums and the oud, I was purely, childishly happy. The food had been one form of communication, familiarity (olive oil, kefta—keftedes—tomato salad, pita) but when it comes to the sounds we make, music is the most easily acquired human language. It can have complex architecture, a fabulous grammar, but you don’t have to know the grammar to be at home inside music. A drum beat is the human pulse. It calls the blood. Any child knows this, and every general, every dancer. It is a sound from inside, sent out, and brought back in; you can move into and out of music as though it were an open shelter. There is always a place for you here, habibti. Turkish rhythms are inseparable from Greek ones are inseparable from Arabic ones, the 5/8 beat, the syncopation, the instruments, the gestures of the singers, the expressions on their faces, the expectant looks of those looking on, rising (if not in body then in energy, tapping, clapping, wakened) to step inside that sound . . .

* * *

Now it’s 3 a.m. and once again I have to go to sleep, how truly irritating. It is a crime to sleep! Who said that? Heinrich Boll, I think, et moi aussi. I have to be up at 8:30 a.m.—also a crime. But I wanted to post something now, before falling into bed.

There is a lemon on the stone window sill, given to me by a woman named —–. She was born in the house of the lemon tree and her parents died there, but she and her family have been served an eviction notice. The Israeli government has told her that her house is close to a Jewish holy site, so she must leave, like her neighbours across the street, who live in a tent in the garden of their old house, which is now occupied by yeshiva students, young boys and their bearded master.

There is a lemon tree in the garden of her house, and nettles. “I don’t have time to garden,” she said, by way of apology, then asked her daughter to climb the tree and give me a piece of the sharp yellow fruit.


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