The Old Man and the Sea

When I was a child, my Mother would take me every Sunday morning for a walk on the shore of Ramlet el Baida. She’d say that it was our way of “returning back to the source”. We sometimes took Mana2ish with us, and tea, and enjoyed what, as Lebanese citizens, we can sadly no longer claim as ours. Our dog would make sure we’d all get some good exercise, and we’d often come back so full of sand and salt we’d even have some in our teeth.

And it is exactly like that that I first met the Man. It must have been around 7:00 AM – we rarely ever stayed until after 8:30 – when I saw him walk into the rabid sea. I don’t remember what month we were in, but I knew that I was startled as I knew the Sea to be way too cold for a swim – God knows I had already tried it myself. But the Man walked, and walked, until he was waist high into the water. There, he stopped, and proceeded to rub his arms, his neck, his beard, and so on. Realizing I had spent the last few minutes staring, and staring at someone who probably needed some intimacy, I turned back and, like any child would do, bragged to my Mother about what I had just seen; a Man braving ice-cold water (and its surprises) to bathe! We walked on, enjoying the bit of calm before the others would arrive and crowd up the area above the shore.

As we made our way up the stairs, we noticed him leaving as well. If you had ever seen this Man, Ali, when you were younger too, then you definitely remember his ingenious makeshift shoes. Ali was, and wasn’t, your ordinary vagabond. His shoes were made of folded cardboard, with a ribbon used to tie the thing together. And his story made of urban legends.

It took about six years for me to find myself face to face with Ali once more, just enough time for me to finish school, and head to college. I was very pleased to see him again – he looked less pleased to be met with yet another curious teen stare. After all, there were tons of me’s going about their daily business, freaking out at the next Math 201 session, but only one Man who bathes in ice-cold salt water, builds his own shoes, and whose schedule is not based around meals. To much of my delight, others referred to him as the “Genius” as well. And we all were served coffee and got our cigarettes from the same guy. And we all tried to meet this Man’s stare and start a conversation, to know a little more about who he was. And if he was patient enough to start one with you, you would listen.

Unfortunately, the only conversation he deemed me worthy for was centered around the fact that “I should not speak with those [some] people [around a shop on Bliss] because they are all from the intelligentsia” (ما تحكي معهن هول كلن مخابرات. كلن مخابرات.), which he probably repeated to you, him, her, and maybe himself as well. Interestingly though, about 7 years later, what he said turned out to be somehow true.

One of the stories I was told about him went as follows: the Man was a genius – a physics professor. He had once woken up early one morning, simply crossed ‘the genius line’ (you know, that one line we were all so afraid to cross because of too much studying, and so always made sure to stop right before?), and had walked out on wife and kids. A gloomier variant of this legend involves the loss of the Man’s family during the war, which, explained by some ambitious Psych student, could have been enough to trigger schizophrenia. A different legend had the Man walk into one of these bakeries that often popped open and shortly closed on the second half of Bliss street (you know, after that street that goes up), and solve an impossible physics homework under 5 minutes – all that without uttering one word. The Man never asked anyone for anything. And as much as we tried to know about the Man, he remained a mystery to us all.

He’d often disappear for a few days, and come back shaven, and sometimes slightly grumpier. This gave birth to other urban legends; now, he was a war hero, an undercover spy, sent on missions deemed impossible for others because no one could ever blow his cover and pierce through that poker face. The stuff of any little kid’s dreams!

The Old Man and the Sea - Ali Abdallah

Photograph by Noir Barakat, taken last week.

The truth is, no matter how we all grew, left, came back, Ali was a constant. He was the “charactère traditionnel” that billboard announces, and quite often the only Man to hang around AUB, when none of us wanted to. The reality of it all is that, no matter how many adventures he spearheaded, this Man was homeless, often taken care of by the few who, unlike many of us, acted, instead of hoped. And if most of us will remember the urban legends, only too few will think of the others who remain, walking around, borrowing a cardboard, a corner, a lighter, or time.

There are others.

For a great post about ‘our Ali from Bliss street’, check this one on Beirut.com.