Monday, August 14, 2006 12:00:00 PM
|Just when this journal was going to sleep, I pull out the quill again, inspired by a moment in one of the oldest cities in the world, sitting in a touristy/holiday-spirited square of Westernised not-quite-but-almost-fast-food places in a half-round, looking out on the city's Lake near sunset. That is, about eight p.m. CET (it's in the same time zone as Berlin).
See, there's this walking lesson in politeness, as well as a difference between Old European and really old African cultures, here. An older man, perhaps fifteen years ahead of me, black hair, white sideburns, kind eyes, walking around with a sign saying "hand-drawn portrait so-and-so-many dt" in four languages. He wears black trousers, and a matt-yellow shirt, checked with thin black lines. He is carrying a black wide bag on a shoulder strap, which holds his drawing utensils - some pieces of coal, some pencils and an A3 block of drawing paper.
The thing is, he never speaks to prospective customers. He just walks between the café and dinner tables, smiling, or, if not, having his eyes invite conversation. He tends to sit down with couples or an adult with child; he seems to navigate a wide berth around noisier, larger groups.
And here's the difference I meant: People, mostly men, do actually speak to him. Perhaps they say "that's too expensive" or "why don't you stop bothering us?" or just "won't you sit down?". They don't as a rule just glower and look away. I can't tell exactly what's said, because I don't speak Arabic; I can only interpret the tone of the talk. Once he does sit down, had you not noticed him before, you couldn't tell he hadn't been sitting at that table from the beginning, he's so radiantly happy and involved.
Once he draws, and he takes about twenty minutes a picture, it's all concentration - and shy pride on the part of the drawn person. He discusses the picture as it takes form with the non-modeling (paying) person, then hands it to the proud portraitee at the end.
As the slightly rippling surface of the near lake darkens, I'm reminded of Saint Exupéry's story tellers in Citadelle, and his admonishment to turn your life into some visible work that you have produced. This man, this wise drawer, is doing that, and not even thinking about it. And, unless the locals learn European bad manners, portrait drawers will be offering their skills well into this century, like they probably did even in fabled Carthage. While it fell to ruin, they still thrive, quietly, young or old (it doesn't matter), skillful, eternally giving pride and pleasure, for a small fee.