In the days and weeks that followed I found myself merging with the ebb and flow of the city, leaving almost no trace of my existence. My encounter with the soldier had left me in a state of shock. Life in Alexandria was so different to what I was used to that I felt like a child again taking its first steps in a grown-up world. Wherever I walked I imagined the glances of strangers, regarding me with either curiosity or suspicion. While I told myself this was understandable, a natural reaction to an event which had left me feeling vulnerable and exposed, it made little difference to my state of mind.
I had found lodgings at an inn not far from the harbour, an establishment often visited by sailors off the grain ships that sailed between this port and countries throughout the northern Mediterranean. This type of hostelry had a reputation for trouble: drunkenness, fighting, thievery and all kinds of other illegal dealings. Its greatest advantage was that it was cheap and anonymous; people arrived and departed all hours of the day or night depending on the tides and no one asked any questions. Business was business, and a person’s privacy was vouchsafed by the very fact that almost everyone using the premises had something to hide.
My accommodation was frugal to say the least, the room being only just big enough to lay a bed of straw and a bag of belongings. Still, it suited my needs and eased my fear of being dangerously visible in a city whose currents I had yet to comprehend. With so many strangers under one roof, so many cultures and customs, one more traveller would not have aroused even the slightest interest or suspicion. The chaos and commotion of the place reassured me the way darkness brings comfort to the leper or the blind man.
The inn’s owner was discreet, a man who understood the needs of his customers and had no interest in conversation. He accepted my money without so much as glancing at my face. A sullen-faced boy showed me to my room at the very rear of the building, next to the block which served as the stables. The air inside was stale and I was so close to the animals that their stirrings and mutterings often awoke me during the night, but in spite of these discomforts I was grateful for the shelter.
I spent my days wandering the streets, losing myself in the labyrinth of alleyways and courtyards. I roamed freely without any plan or particular sense of direction. I explored the business districts with their stalls and open-fronted shops, and the great public square where an entertainer performed tricks with doves while his trained monkey scampered among the audience causing mayhem. I even ventured out of the centre and into the more wealthy residential areas with their wide streets and big houses hidden behind towering lime-washed walls. Anyone observing my daily routine might have wondered if I was not in fact hopelessly lost, drifting through the days without structure or occupation. I had enough money to purchase all the supplies I needed for as long as I chose to remain here. But for the time being at least, I had no idea how long that would be. Any plans I made were tentative and seemed to change with every sunrise until I gave up planning and entrusted myself instead to destiny.
I was one person in a city of thousands, and yet for all the bustle, noise and good-natured banter I barely spoke to another soul. People were friendly enough, but there was something in their openness which did not feel true. It was as if there was a barrier, a silent declaration which read “This far, my friend, but no further.” After the closeness of my friendships on the road to Egypt this came as something of a shock, and a part of me retreated even further into its shell.
The excitement of my arrival in the city had been dampened by that event which now seemed to follow me like a shadow – the leering face of the soldier like an image from a nightmare lodged inside my head. I found myself going over the scene repeatedly, lingering on images which appeared as fresh and vivid as if they had just taken place. On the one hand I felt I behaved with honour when I stepped in to protect the young boy, and were I to stumble upon the same situation again I could not say I would behave differently; but on the other hand, instinct told me I had been reckless, putting myself and others at risk. In these few weeks I had begun to see the world through new eyes. In place of the old ways and traditions – markers which had guided individuals and communities for generations – I was beginning to sense something else, some new influence operating beneath the surface of life. Whatever this was it was so utterly foreign to me I had been blind to its existence, and even now its true nature remained hidden.
One night I awoke from the deepest of sleeps. I lay in the dark listening for the tell-tale noises of animals stirring in the stables. But for once the building was silent, with no suggestion of what had disturbed me. Instead of the drowsiness of that in-between state which is neither awake nor asleep, I felt so sharply alert I could have heard the sound of a needle fall in the courtyard outside. As I listened to the whine of wind through the rafters an image presented itself in my mind – a face, half in light and half in shadow. It appeared with all the vividness of a dream and yet I swear I was fully awake and possessed of all my senses. I observed the face for some time, how long I could not say. Like a Greek statue it gazed sightlessly at a world I could not see and which I sensed was closed to me. Neither obviously male nor female, the face was like a perfect mask: stunningly beautiful but strangely cold, lifeless yet living.
At some point I must have fallen back into slumber for the next thing I knew I was being woken by the sound of conversation somewhere in the building. In place of darkness, my room was now lit by the soft grey light of dawn. As I lay on my bed, feeling the world take shape around me, the memory of that startling vision returned with none of its power or clarity diminished. Again I saw that face, like a statue cast from shadow and light; but where before I had perceived only mystery in those blankly staring eyes, I now saw their true meaning. Understanding arrived all at once as if a floodgate had been drawn back, washing away all doubt and confusion. Now I could see clearly what I had been struggling to make sense of since I arrived in the city.
All those months travelling with the caravan had revealed to me the true essence of friendship: its tolerance and open heart, its generosity of spirit. As a child growing up in a small village, I had tended to shy away from friendship and keep to my own company. The other boys were transparent to me and I could read through their many faces as easily as words on a page. They were all about false pride and bravery and trying to best one another as if every boy were competing for the keys to the Temple. I found it all laughable and struggled at times to keep my contempt a secret. Rather than playing along with their games I had chosen instead the company of the desert where there were no demands and no masks. My relationship with nature was one I could understand: honest, direct, with no conditions and nothing concealed.
In Alexandria, however, life could not have been more opposite. Here, people had a public face and a private one. The public face might say something with all the sincerity of friendship, but when it came to it these were just words: a story, a myth as opposed to the true nature within. Where the public face was freely given, the private face was so closely guarded you might never know it was there. Beneath these masks people wore they concealed all the secret shame and darkness which haunted them in those moments when the gaze of the world was turned away. It was easy to forget of course that Egypt, like Judea, was a land enslaved. Though in many ways life here continued as it always had, its people hid their true face behind a mask – half in light, half in shadow. Whether because of their own darkness or shame, or fear of the other – that occupying force which had claimed their land as its own – there were boundaries you simply did not cross.
Without realising it I had found myself living in a city of myths, where the mask was the only face you saw. As a stranger here, a man of the desert, I had made the mistake of accepting this mask as the truth without taking the time to question or observe. By confronting the authority of Rome and standing up for justice I had revealed my true face – naïve perhaps, but honest and open – without ever suspecting that that honesty might be dangerously misunderstood.