There should be incense, you think.
Incense and smoke in the air,
scents that remind you of your youth.
There should music from the Levant,
just on the edge of discordant,
weaving music with new octaves.
This is your flaw, one of many,
that a single thing, an image, a wiff of perfume
transports you to times and places,
past places, and stronger ones,
the places you imagine,
a mind victim of books and imagination,
of life too traveled, too full
of magic and scars so intense
to keep under control.
And here you are in this place
with its Victorian treasures,
plunder from another age brought
from Egypt and Lebanon and the markets
and you are lost in every film noire movie you have seen,
lost in the Cafe Nile and Rick’s Tavern.
You imagine cafes and dangerous places,
Mediterranean dishes served with dangerous women
and always the music of another world.
The tour guide notices you staring at the metalwork
and offers to give you a history of each piece on display.
You wave her away,
preferring your own magical history
than mere facts.
About this poem.
Often when I see a place or a thing, I stand stock still for a while. When I do, I am more often somewhere else rather than soaking in the thing in front of me. The object has triggered memories read or seen long before. I often joke that my sense of time and place and history comes more from novels and movies than history books. But there is some truth to it.
“A Cafe on the Nile” is a book by Bartle Bull. It is part of a series of books that formed my image of the middle east in the nineteen thirties. Rick’s Tavern was the tavern in the center of Casablanca. The picture was taken at Olana, the home of artist Fredrick Edwin Church, who once traveled to the Middle East and it transformed his entire aesthetic. It was built in 1872.