June 13 2021
About the book
Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness takes place in and around a 24/7 harbourside café in a Greek town. It tells the story of the Egyptian immigrants who work as fishermen on the trawlers and other outcasts who hang around the café and the harbour. Each chapter is a stand-alone short story and each story is a step further into the darkness and light of a novel where the Egyptian fishermen, the beggars, the café’s servers, the prostitutes and the spat-upon homosexuals become the grotty heroes of the everyday.
The book is based on ethnographic work that took place nearly twenty years ago, while I was an undergraduate student in Social Anthropology, but also a waiter and barista in the harbour-side café where Egyptian fishermen liked to gather and spend their spare time.
Find below an excerpt from the book. This excerpt is from the section titled “Two Arms”.
It was night and it was October and it was cold for October. It drizzled. The terrace of Café Papaya was empty, silent, wet.
Angie stocked the fridge with beer. She had sold five Amstels and two Heinekens that evening. A piece of white cardboard covered the Heineken case. She put the cardboard on the bar, sat on her stool, got a pen, and began to draw. She drew and drew, and when she looked up, she caught the figure of a man emerging from the Port Authorities. It was One Armed Mohammed. Or just One Arm for short. One Arm was called One Arm because he had one arm. The other had been sheared off one night at sea. He was pulling up the nets when part of the winch broke, fell into his left arm and sliced it off. Gone, sucked away by the waves. His one arm waved goodbye to his other arm.
One Arm stood, gazed out at the sea, took the view in, gazed up at the sky, took the view in, stuck the remainder of a spliff between his teeth and sucked that in and kept that in and emptied his chest of a sigh soaked in sea-views and star-views and hashish. He walked over to the other side of the open bar, pulled up a wet stool, sat, and soaked his bum.
‘So what can I get you, One Arm?’
One Arm didn’t want anything. He was sad. No, maybe he wanted something. He wasn’t sure. Did he want something? Hang on. Let him think. Yes, he did want something. Beer.
Angie cracked him open a beer, slid over a glass, continued drawing.
‘You want a cigarette, Angie?’
Angie didn’t. One Arm did. He didn’t have any. He asked for one, got one, tapped it against the bar: ‘How about an ashtray?’ Angie passed him an ashtray. One Arm coughed, excused himself, ‘Well, I think I need a lighter now.’
‘Do you want a mouth to smoke it, too?’
‘No, I’ll smoke it with my nose.’
‘It’ll hurt. Why are you sad?’
‘This is a long story.’
‘Long long long.’
‘I finish at midnight.’ She looked at the clock. Drew. Said: ‘You got fourteen minutes. Is it more than fourteen minutes long?’
One Arm lit his cigarette. Sucked in. Hard: ‘It’s five and a half years long.’
‘What story is this?’
‘The story of my missing arm. I want the story to finish, but it won’t. I’ve had enough. What’s that you’re drawing?’
‘The map of Greece.’
‘Where are we?’
Angie pointed, made a blob, wrote the name of the town in capitals: KAVALA. That made no difference to One Arm. He couldn’t read Greek.
‘I want to learn to read Greek one day.’
‘One day you’ll learn. So will you tell me the story of your missing arm?’
No, now One Arm didn’t want to tell his story, he wanted to talk about something else. Lately, he said, there was no hashish around town. He couldn’t find any anyway. A friend of his in Salonica had some, had loads really, but One Arm was scared to go to Salonica. Too risky. He had to take the coach to go there. Police stopped coaches. Police searched passengers. One Arm was scared of the police.
Angie kept on drawing and One Arm watched her draw, sipped from his glass, continued:
‘But tonight I was sad. I was sad because of this long story that doesn’t end. So I went for a walk by the harbour. It was raining, but I like the rain. I was walking over there, at the Port Authorities place. I went all the way down. At the breakwater’s end I smelled something nice. I saw two young lads in the rain, standing in the darkness, smoking hashish. I wanted to smoke, too. I hadn’t smoked for so long. I went over and said to them, “Excuse me, lads. Do you think it’s OK if I take a puff from the cigarette?” They said, “Take it all, friend.” There wasn’t much. It was below the middle. Five-six puffs. It was good though. And so I smoked a bit, alhamdulellah.’
Angie looked up at One Arm and down at her map again. Next to the town of Kavala she drew a spliff. It looked more like a canon than a spliff and it pointed to the South. She asked: ‘Where do you come from?’
‘I know that. I mean from what place in Egypt.’
‘From a village.’
‘What’s its name?’
‘You won’t know its name.’
‘Tell me its name.’
‘Ezbit El Burg.’
She wanted to draw the North-East coast of Africa, but she had already drawn Crete near the edge of the cardboard. There wasn’t much space. She didn’t care. She drew the coast anyway. Egypt and Greece came closer. She smiled at that. Then she realised she had missed out some sea. She liked that too. She felt happy for the missed-out sea. Asked: ‘Is it a small village?’
‘No. It’s bigger than this town. Four times bigger. Five times bigger.’
‘Then it’s not a village.’
‘We call it village.’
‘Whereabouts is your village?’
One Arm looked at the map. Had a thought. Sipped some beer. Smoked. ‘It’s where the Nile becomes the sea.’
Angie drew the Nile Delta. Next to it, she made a blob and wrote down the name of the village in capitals. Said: ‘Tell me about your village.’
‘My village is six hours from Cairo. Cairo is big. Seventeen or twenty million people. There’s a great zoo in Cairo. In Egypt we have beautiful stuff, ancient stuff, the Pyramids. They are huge. We have the Nile. Nile is great. Nile is everywhere.’
‘Yes, everywhere. If you don’t see him, you talk about him.’
‘Then he’s still a God. Tell me about your village.’
‘There’s nothing in my village. Just fish.’
‘Then tell me about fish.’
‘Fish?’ One Arm gazed out at the harbour. He gazed out at the harbour for a long time and stubbed his cigarette out: ‘Fish?’
He filled his glass to the rim, emptied his chest with a sigh and sent it out to the sea. Asked: ‘You want a cigarette, Angie?’ Angie didn’t. One Arm did. He pulled one out from Angie’s pack, lit up, drank more beer, and said:
‘When I’m twelve years old, my baba says to me, “What job you want to do?” I say, “I like the sea. I want to go to the sea with the caïque and become a fisherman.” He says, “Mashallah, this is a tough job. Later you’ll regret it.” I say, “No, I want to go to the sea.” So, I go. I’m a tiny kid. This is the first time I go to work and I’m very scared. The captain says, “Come over. You sit here and watch. Don’t move from here till I tell you.” I say, “OK,” and I sit in a corner on the deck. Then we sail away. As soon as we leave the harbour and enter the open sea I feel nice, very nice. The sea is silent. But then I begin to cry. I want to leave. To go back. Wallah I want to go back. But it’s forbidden to go back. I’ve got to stay for a week at sea. A whole week. Day and night. I cry! Every day and night I cry: “I want to leave! I don’t like the sea! I want to leave!” And then I see the fish. I see how they got the fish out of the sea with the nets. The little fish. I like this a lot. It’s like a game. I know I will like this job because it’s like a game. Then we go back to the harbour and I go to my baba and he says to me, “Tell me now. Will you go again to the sea?” I say, “I want to go to the sea again, baba.”’
One Arm lifted his eyes to the sky, uttered a sigh, and sent it up to the clouds, and the stars beyond. He remained silent. He only smoked. Then he said: ‘I like to remain silent and only smoke.’
‘Yes, it’s nice. And so you became a fisherman?’
‘No. Not really. Then I go for another caïque voyage and when we return to the harbour the captain pays me. He pays me very good money. I’m twelve years old and I have so much money. Too much! What can I do with it? I’m so happy that I don’t know what to do. So I go to another town, a big city, Dumyat.’
‘How did you say that?’
One Arm repeated the name of the big city.
Angie showed him her map: ‘Whereabouts is this big city?’
One Arm took a long drag from his cigarette and let it rest on the ashtray: ‘Not far from the sea.’
Angie made a blob not far from the African coast and wrote the name down. Said: ‘So when did you become a fisherman?’
One Arm sighed. ‘You sure you don’t want a cigarette?’
She didn’t. He did. He pulled a cigarette from Angie’s pack, lit it, saw his other cigarette burning in the ashtray, uttered a sigh, and having sent his previous sighs to the sea and the night and the stars beyond, he let this one hang around his shoulders. He remained silent for a while, took one of his cigarettes, sucked that in, kept that in, pulled one leg over the other, and let out a silent fart.
‘One Arm, can you please be a bit quicker with your story? We got six minutes left.’
‘Of course. Where was I?’ He sniffed the air. It didn’t smell.
‘You went to this big city.’
Happy that his fart didn’t smell, One Arm narrated the next part of his story with confidence: ‘Ah, yes. So I’m twelve years old and I come back with all this money the captain gave me and I’m very happy and I don’t know what to do and I go to Dumyat. You know what is the first thing I do in the big city? I eat a chicken dish. Really. It was delicious. Then I go to the cinema. I watch a film and then I go out and buy some clothes, shoes, all new, I buy a ring, and then I go home to sleep. My baba is waiting for me. He’s sitting by the kitchen table, like that – angry: “Come here, you. Where you’ve been?” Oh, no… I’m scared of my baba. I know I’ll get a beating. He says, “Come here. Where’s the money you got from the captain?” “I haven’t got any money, baba.” “Haven’t got money? You got all this money the captain gave you. Where’s all this money?” “I bought trousers and shoes and ate and I haven’t got any. I only got these coins, baba.” “Only these coins? Where’s the rest?” “Gone. Flew away!” I had smoked the rest, but I didn’t tell my father. I had hidden the cigarette pack in my sock. And my baba grabs me. From here – the neck. He takes off his belt to give me a beating. I bend over the table and my shoe falls off and he sees the cigarettes: “Aman! You smoke again, haiwan? You spent all your money and you smoke too?” Beating, beating, beating… For one week I’m not allowed to leave the house. No food either. But when my baba goes to sleep, my mama brings me a dish, and says, “Eat, habibi. Eat, my boy, eat. I won’t tell your baba.” I eat and my baba doesn’t know. Next morning I go to my baba and say, “My baba, I will not do that again. I will go to work and as soon as I get paid, I’ll bring the money to you.” He says, “If you do that again, I’ll lock you in your room.” I say OK and I leave. I go for another caïque voyage and, when we return to the harbour, the captain says, “Here’s your money.” I say, “No! Give it to my baba. I don’t want it, I don’t want it!”’
They laughed. One Arm’s laughter was murharharhar-like and made Angie laugh even more.
‘The captain gives the money to my baba. My baba gives a little bit to me, so that I won’t buy cigarettes. But again, I get cigarettes from my friend. You know which friend? Maybe you remember him. He used to come here in Café Papaya. The one with the long hair.’
‘Ah, yes, Long Hair. Where is he now?’
‘Back in Egypt. We’ve been very good friends since we were kids. He loves me too much. We used to smoke hashish here, too. Now he’s back in Egypt and he calls me every night and says, “I smoked a bit of hashish and I want to talk.” We spend one hour on the phone. Every night.’
‘Wallah, every night. Only he talks though. He tells me stories and I never interrupt him, because he’s so sensitive he’ll think that I don’t like his story. I lie on the bed and I put on the loudspeaker, and say, “Now talk.” He talks and I fall asleep. He’s so funny.’
‘Yes, he is. So tell me, after the beating you got from your father you became a fisherman?’
‘But when did you become a fisherman, for God’s sake?’
‘Hang on. How much time we got?’
‘Three minutes? I’m stressed.’
‘OK. Right. So: when I grow up a bit, I don’t want to always be working. I like skiving. The captain keeps looking for me. He comes to my home: “Eeeeh! Mohammed!” BAM-BAM-BAM, he bangs the door: “Get up to go to work!” I pretend I don’t hear. I don’t want to go to work. “Eeeh! Mohammed!” He shouts, he shouts, he bangs the door, he gets bored, he says, “I’d better go,” he goes. When the captain leaves, I sneak out and go to see my friend. The one with the long hair. The captain comes there, too, and keeps banging, but my friend likes skiving, too. Bam-bam-bam, the captain bangs the door, he shouts, he shouts, he gets bored, he says, “I’d better go,” he goes. He goes back to the caïque, but he doesn’t have enough crew to go out fishing. Many fishermen are like me and my friend, we all like skiving. So the captain can’t go to the sea and he goes to the café and drinks tea. Next day the captain comes again to my home and I pretend I don’t hear and he goes to look for the other lads, and they pretend they don’t hear, so the captain goes to the café and drinks more tea. That’s how it went. Because we work for one month, two months, and then we don’t want to work. We say, “Forget it. We’ll go out, walk around, see friends, go and buy clothes. When money runs out, we’ll go back to the sea.”’
One Arm had a sip from his beer and stubbed out his cigarettes.
Angie was drawing the Aegean islands. She wasn’t sure where most of the islands were or what their shape was, but she drew them anyway. Her map of Greece didn’t look much like a map of Greece.
And that’s how it went for some time. The night-shift waiter, Pavlo, was late to arrive, and so Angie drew and drew, and One Arm just gazed at the night. Then he said:
‘I can stay for twenty-four hours in Café Papaya. From here, from this little corner, the whole world passes by. I like to sit and watch the world. Everyone passes by here. If people come that way, they pass in front of Café Papaya. If people come the other way, they pass in front of Café Papaya. If it’s quiet, I look at the harbour and the sea and imagine people in faraway places. And so I like it. I like to go and smoke some hashish, sit under the trees of Café Papaya, drink a beer, smoke a few cigarettes, and watch the world passing by.’
‘So when did you really become a fisherman?’
‘When I was twelve years old.’
‘Then why keep on saying, “Not yet”?’
‘Yes. Three times.’
‘You know what?’
‘It’s such a beautiful night.’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘I love nights like this one. I like watching the people, but I like silent nights, too. Like this one. Just sit here and see the rain and the street and the sea. Have you finished with your map?’
‘Getting there. I have to draw the islands. We have so many islands.’
‘The first time I came to Greece I worked on the Island of Naxos. Make a blob of Naxos when you draw it. I’ve lived there, but I don’t know where it is.’
‘I will. When did you come to Greece?’
‘The first time…’
‘Hang on. Do you mind if I do the cashing up while you talk?’
‘Is it midnight already?’
‘It’s past midnight.’
‘OK, you do your work.’
Angie left her stool and stood by the till and pressed some buttons. ‘I’m listening.’
‘The first time I came to Greece it was in ’88. I was sixteen years old. I came to Naxos.’
‘Ah, of course, Naxos.’
‘Have you blobbed it down yet?’
Like most of the islands, Angie wasn’t sure where Naxos was. She decided not to draw Naxos. She thought Naxos was better off out there with that bit of missed-out sea. She said she would draw it later. Then she said: ‘Go on, One Arm.’
‘All of us Egyptian fishermen come to Greece with a work permit. For eight months. After eight months I leave. I want to come back to Greece, so I start doing the paperwork. But I don’t have time because after a few days I’m called up to join the army. So I go to the army for three years. The army hurt my heart too much.’
‘Oh really. Because army is like prison. Once I finish the army, like a little bird I go out in the street. And I come here again, to Greece, and go straight onto the caïque. From fire to fire.’
‘Army is fire and caïque is fire. I say to myself, “What the hell is this? Better die.” I want a bit of life: buy clothes, go to the disco, go with, you know, women. I want to taste some of the good life. So when Christmas comes and we break from the caïque for four days, I spend all my money. Ha! Every day for four days I learn about the good life. Morning comes, I go out to drink coffee. Afternoon comes, I go to the taverna. Evening comes, I go to another taverna. Night comes, I go out with women. Four days. After that, I go to work. Then the eight months of the work permit pass and I must go back to Egypt. But I don’t go back. I stay here. I was illegal for four years. And it’s true, every day police were after me.’
‘Wallah. They shout, “Come here! Come here!” Murharharhar. Police. And I hide in the caïque. I go down below deck and crouch in a corner under a bunk bed and the police search all over the caïque for me and they can’t find me. They leave, I get out of my corner, they come back next day, I go back to my corner. Ha! Sure, I was like a rat.’
Here, Pavlo arrived and took over from Angie. That is, he made a café frappé, dried a chair on the terrace and sat down to smoke. It had stopped drizzling. Still, everything was silent and wet. As if the land wanted to become sea.
One Arm sighed. Heavily: ‘Time to go home?’
‘I’ll stay for a bit,’ said Angie. ‘Are you going home?’
‘No! I’ll stay here till tomorrow if you want me to.’
‘Can I have one of my cigarettes?’
‘No need to ask.’
They lit up.
Angie took a long, slow drag.
One Arm’s mobile rang. He looked at the screen and a smile filled his mouth: ‘It’s my friend. The one with the long hair.’
‘Ah, Long Hair! Say hi from me.’
One Arm put on the loudspeaker and answered the phone and talked in Greek. Introductions were made, then One Arm said to Angie that Long Hair was shy to speak in Greek because his Greek is not good and he’s so sensitive about it. Long Hair said something in Arabic and One Arm told Angie that Long Hair had smoked a bit of hashish and wanted to talk. Angie’s and One Arm’s eyes met, and they smiled at each other. Then Long Hair laughed. He laughed way too long. He went on laughing for so long that Angie and One Arm found it funny and began laughing themselves. When all the laughing stopped, One Arm leaned over the phone, and said to Long Hair in Greek: ‘Angie just finished work and she’s tired and she needs to go home soon. We’re smoking a last cigarette.’
Arabic came from the other side.
One Arm turned to Angie: ‘He asks what we’re talking about.’
Angie smiled. ‘Tell him that I really need to go home soon. Tell him my parents will be worried. Tell him that we’ve got time for one cigarette. Tell him that we talk about rats.’
‘What rats?’ One Arm asked.
‘Rats. When the police were after you.’
‘Ah! When the police were after me and I hid under the bunk bed,’ said One Arm, and told Long Hair about it in Arabic.
The sound of the lighter was heard. The lighter strike that came through the loudspeaker sounded better than the real sound, cracklier.
Long Hair spoke in Arabic. One Arm translated:
‘He says that he wants to tell you the story of when he was a rat. He says he just lit his cigarette and his time runs from now.’
And so, Long Hair began telling his one-cigarette-long story in Arabic, One Arm translating in his broken Greek, and Angie listening and drawing more islands.
‘He says that he spent many years as an illegal immigrant in Greece. The first time he came here he was sixteen. He had to go back to Egypt after eight months. But he didn’t go back. He says he didn’t go back because he has a mind of his own. He says every man has his own mind. His mind told him to stay in Greece and wait to become thirty years old so that he wouldn’t have to go into the army. Because if you are away until thirty, you don’t have to do your military service. You can pay it off, instead. That was his plan. But how could he wait for so long? When you are sixteen, how can you wait until you become thirty? How, eh? (I’m translating everything, Angie.) After seven years police caught him.’
Suddenly Long Hair stopped talking.
Angie looked at One Arm. One Arm covered the phone with his hand and whispered: ‘Don’t worry. It’s the hashish that plays in his mind. He’ll recover soon.’
Soon Long Hair recovered and the narration and translation resumed:
‘Yes. So after seven years they caught him and sent him back. He was twenty-one.’
‘It doesn’t add up,’ said Angie.
Quickly One Arm covered the phone again. ‘Don’t interrupt,’ he whispered, ‘he’ll think you are bored of his story. He’s so sensitive.’ He continued:
‘He says he doesn’t want to try to remember if he was twenty-one or older, because trying to remember something forgotten is funny and he’ll start laughing again and will lose time.’
Angie looked at her map. Next to the name of Ezbit El Burg, the Egyptian village, she drew a spliff. It looked more like a canon than a spliff and it pointed to the North. She wanted to make the two spliff-canons shoot bursts of laughter over the Aegean Sea, but she didn’t know how to draw that.
‘He says that it doesn’t matter how old he was really. He says that police caught him at some point and sent him back to Egypt. Now he couldn’t get away. No way. That was it. He had to join the army. But he didn’t. He bribed some officials and didn’t join the army.’
Here, Long Hair broke into a monstrous laughter. The night-shift waiter turned and looked at them. One Arm turned the volume down and begged Long Hair to stop laughing, but instead he began laughing himself.
When Long Hair began talking, One Arm turned the volume back up.
‘He says his cigarette has nearly finished, so better be quick. After the bribing, he wanted to come to Greece again. But he couldn’t come to Greece because he had been deported from here and the police here knew his name. What could he do? He changed his name.’
The two friends found this very funny and laughed with all their hearts. Very quickly this time, though, they quietened down, and continued:
‘He says he changed his name and came to Greece again. He says he had chosen a shorter name, easy to remember, but, still, he kept forgetting it. About a year and a half later, the same story. They arrest him, they take him to the police station and put him in a cell. He grabs the bars and wedges his face between them, and wails: “What can I do, what can I do now? Ah, Allah, Allah, what can I do now?” The policeman tells him, “Don’t be sad.” He says to the policeman, “What do you mean, ‘don’t be sad’?” He was very sad. The policeman says, “What’s wrong?” He says to the policeman so and so and so. The police know that we come and go illegally. So the policeman says to him, “Look, mate. We’ll deport you. But you just change your name and come back again.” He says to the policeman, “I’ve already changed it! Change again?”’
All three of them burst out into a final, hearty laughter, at the end of which, they stubbed out their cigarettes and Long Hair hung-up.
‘Now I’ll go home to think of my long story,’ said One Arm. ‘But when the morning arrives, I’ll come to Café Papaya to drink coffee and watch the people passing by.’
‘I’ll take my map with me,’ said Angie, ‘and finish it at home before I sleep.’
‘You still didn’t finish? What do you need to finish?’
‘I need to draw the sea.’
‘How will you draw the sea?’
‘Like the fish you saw on your first caïque voyage. Little fish.’
Alexandros Plasatis is an immigrant ethnographer who writes fiction in English, his second language. He is the author of Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness: a novel in stories (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021). Stories from this book have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of The Net, and over the years all the stories were published in US, UK, Indian and Canadian magazines and anthologies. He is the editor of the other side of hope, a literary journal edited by refugees and immigrants. He lives in the UK and works with displaced and homeless people. This is his website www.alexandrosplasatis.com
Featured photo by Conor O’Nolan: “Mural is on wall in El Cotillo, Fuerteventura. Unknown origin. Seen March 2019. Find here on Unsplash.