Lebanese restaurants in London used to position their shawarma near the front window, so that a passerby could always tell the time of day by the volume of the orotund mass of diced lamb remaining on the spit. Now that many of them have become gentrified, that traditional enticement has been replaced with potted palms and other properties suggesting that the establishment is an oasis of goodness in the midst of metropolitan wickedness.
I used to sit by the front window at the bar in London’s first Maroush on Beauchamps Place, eating my shawarma while chatting with Camil, the barman who had a wife and six daughters. He was, in other words, the poorest man I knew. We mostly talked Middle Eastern politics, and I think I can now say that Camil was increasingly under the impression that no wiser fellow than myself had ever crossed his employer’s lamb-scented threshold. “But why don’t you write all this up?” he once asked me. “Who’s going to print it?” I retorted. “Well, why not start your own paper?” I explained that one could be poor even without having a harem of daughters, certainly too poor to publish a newspaper of one’s own. Camil replied that he had saved a thousand pounds for the wedding of his firstborn. He would let me have it, if only I set myself to doing something useful.
I have known many Arabs since then. Christian or Muslim, they invariably had the knack of acting upon their joviality, as though social intercourse were a magic tablecloth out of which exotic fruit and honeyed sweets on platters of intricately wrought silver could always rise whenever an honest man bid them. Money grows on trees, they believed, as naturally as oil comes out of the ground. In the West, long lulled to riches by the guitar-strumming hypocrisies of mature Christendom, such aboriginal affinity to a central tenet of Scripture was not easy to spot. The birds of the air and the lilies of the field were not to be found in Michelin guides. They fluttered and flew somewhere to the right of Rabat and to the left of Basra, but then again, had this not been their natural habitat since the Savior’s day? The East had the faith and the charity; we had been stuck with the actuaries and the usurers.
Recently, my familiar circumstances have changed, requiring my presence in London at least for a few days each month—mind you, I am now nearly as broke as Camil ever was—with the unexpected consequence that I have had to find, quite literally, a place to lay my head. The most Christian of estate agents in Mayfair laughed like Turks torturing an Armenian when I mentioned the weekly rent that I assured them I could afford. I walked the length of Park Lane to Marble Arch. Here began the Edgware Road, endless as an Oriental bazaar, running to Maida Vale and points beyond to places like Kilburn, places I had never dreamed of visiting and where the people I knew did not live, a medina of Eastern life and the umbilical chord linking the Mayfair of today to the British Empire of yesteryear.
A shawarma was prominent in every restaurant window, most of them belonging to what had long become the Maroush empire. Of food shops—Lebanese, Egyptian, Iranian, Moroccan, Indian, Pakistani—there were uncounted thousands here, proving that the density of trade in comestibles in a given area is always in inverse proportion to the vitality of democratic illusions among the inhabitants. After a light repast of manakeesh and labneh, I headed for the first shop up the road, one that specialised in money transfers, cell phones, and fresh fruit. I took it for a good omen that the man inside looked like the Camil of my memories, though it turned out he was Iranian.
Undaunted, I told him my name came from the Persian for New Year, and that an ancestor of mine emigrated to Russia in the reign of Czar Ivan IV, who, though known as the Terrible, must have had a soft spot where immigrants were concerned. He nodded, took my money, wrote out a receipt in Farsi, and told me that neither a bank account nor references would be necessary in the case of a gentleman such as myself. Twenty minutes later, I was a resident of the Edgware Road, possessed of a set of keys to a fifth-floor mansard featuring an en suite toilet, a folding bed, and a vast window with a panoramic view of St. Mary’s Paddington in the rainy distance.
In the street below, black-robed women passed like gondolas. Men dressed like Solomon in all his glory, here gesticulating like dervishes, there impassive like busts of marble, sat on low stools smoking their water pipes. Bluish smoke issued from braziers where the kaftas and the kebabs were meeting their Maker, and peals of laughter wafted up from somewhere beneath, random yet significant entries in the glossary of popular contentment.
If, after the solar and insular tranquility of Sicily, what had been needed was some kind of decompression chamber for breathing once more in the godless crucible of the Industrial Revolution, I could not have done better. The very air here, redolent of the roasting meat, of thyme and the Indian spices, reminded me of Palermo; of a Christianity that is a natural way of life rather than a set of abstract loyalties; and of the Mediterranean aesthetic, which is to world politics what my brave Camil is to the Ford Foundation. God bless him and all my kin in the Edgware Road.