This is the fifth book written by Kalwas, who is unique in that he is a Polish writer and a Muslim, and it is different from his previous work. Salaam, Time, The Door and Mystic Race were novels about searching, about journeys through Africa and India, which were also expeditions into his very being, helping to gain self-knowledge. In contrast Home is a tale about establishing roots, about adapting to a place. About two years ago Kalwas moved out of Warsaw to base himself permanently in Alexandria in Egypt. It is Alexandria that is the main subject of the novel. So what led the writer to move home? It was his growing disillusionment with the consumerist, increasingly materialistic West. Kalwas has frequently focused on this theme in his writing; in Home you can also find some very bitter passages concerning Europe and Poland, but they are not central to this book. I would describe this book as a series of reflections on getting to know a city and growing to be part of it; reflections which have a very individual character and are completely different from the travel writing genre, which has recently been so popular in Polish literature.
So what sets Kalwas’s writing apart and how is it different? The author writes: “walking around and looking - that is my work.” The point is that he notices things, which are generally missed altogether by other people: he watches a woman, who, for no reason we know of, spends her time standing on the beach day after day; he observes ants wandering along the walls of the mosque; he observes the daily rituals of people living in the neighbourhood; he tries to solve the puzzle of the mysterious, fluorescent arrows on the wall. In this way he creates his own personal view of Alexandria, the place which he has chosen and come to love. On the other hand, in Home the writer takes a very particular point of view, which is largely the result of his own paradoxical situation: he sees himself as a person “from and of many places”, yet he tries to settle into one specific place. This leads to him describing the Alexandria of his imagination rather than the real city: roaming around the Egyptian city turns into wandering in time and space as the current reality is interspersed with memories of communist Poland, numerous literary references (for example to the writer Edmond Jabès) and philosophical musings. It is unusual prose, but it is exceptionally beautiful in all its strangeness.
- Robert Ostaszewski
I don’t remember when I noticed her for the first time. She always stood in the same place, or more or less the same place - on the beach at Silsila, at the start of it, at the point where the water meets the sand not far from the rusty lifeguard’s tower. The foam from the waves of the Mediterranean Sea, which finished their journey here, washed around her long legs. She stood motionless staring into the air around her which was shuddering with the heat of the day. She would always be standing up, she hardly moved at all; sometimes she would tilt her head slightly to one side as if wondering about something. She was silent.
Her beach was on the route I would take to walk to the small park opposite the Library. I went there almost every day with Hasan to feed the cats with chocolates and the leftovers from lunch. I shouldn’t say “I went”, I go there almost every day... I should use the present tense as I still live here and frequent that small park. I sit underneath the palm tree on the stone bench, which is hot from the sun, and throw broken bits of chocolate bar and scraps of meat to the cats.
There was a smile on her face. Maybe it was her smile that caught my attention. I don’t know. It was a strange smile, as she was altogether strange – it was so fixed, frozen, as if it were eternal. It made her seem sad. Perhaps it was just the fact that she was always there, motionless, slender, sad, and beautiful.
After a while I would use any old excuse to slip out of the house on my own in the evening, and would go to the beach to watch her. To check if she was still standing there and hadn’t gone off somewhere else, to see if she was still displaying her strangeness, her immobility, her existence. I still slip out and go there...
This is still happening all the time, almost daily, for this is where I live. The hot wind swirls around my head. I adore it. The wind is here all the time. It cools me with its heat. It calms me down.
Later still, I started going out at night. I made my way towards the beach at Silsila at a quick, steady pace. It’s about two kilometres away from my home. I enjoyed these night-time strolls, when my mind scanned through extremely vivid images of various events from my childhood – I enjoy that most of all. I would get to the low wall separating the beach from the boulevard and, out of breath, I would sit down and look around for her.
She was almost always standing there. She looked even more beautiful in the cold light of the stars and the moon. Oh, how I adored those nights and the early morning walks to Silsila to get a glimpse of her. I would set my alarm clock to wake me about forty minutes before the first prayer. Barely awake, I would wash carefully over the sink to shake off the remnants of my dreams and avoid drowning the small flies, which for some unknown reason always settled on the sink at that early hour. Then, in silence, I would walk at a quick, steady pace along the boulevard, which was almost empty at that hour, with my head full of images from my childhood. I say “in silence” because very often I whisper to myself as I walk. Yet I did not whisper at all on my way to meet her, instead I watched the semi-slumbering sea, seeing myself in the midst of its gentle waves, myself as a boy hanging from the frame for beating carpets in the courtyard , wearing cool sneakers from Czechoslovakia, which my father had brought back for me. I didn’t say anything then. I didn’t mutter anything under my breath. The sea whispered instead of me. I listened intently. They were strange, distant, insubstantial words - words in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Polish...yes, Polish...
Well, she was there all along. She stood motionless with her head tilted to one side. Once, in daytime, I took a camera with me to take her picture, but the moment I put the camera to my eye and saw her sad smile, I realised that it wasn’t at all appropriate. That a still, flat photograph would make her lifeless, it would strip her of her beauty. I didn’t take the photo, oh no.
Afterwards I would return from the beach along the boulevard, where sometimes Mamdouh, the corn-on-the-cob vendor, would already be setting up his meagre stand. Then I would cross under the boulevard by the subway and immerse myself in the small, narrow, littered streets of my city, which were filled with a hot wind, like tunnels full of warm, calming air: Sharia Orfi next to Abu Rabi’s snack bar, where I buy falafel balls that burn my fingers and smoky aubergine sauce; Sharia Kottahia, and on it my favourite café, The Lantern, where I smoke a water-pipe and drink tea; Sharia Fatma El-Youssef, which has a Christian bakery on the corner, where I buy hot rolls and date pastries from an exceptionally stout baker and where, each time I go, I cannot restrain my childish delight at the picture on the wall of St George killing the dragon with his bloody sword. I go back there, every day, almost every day. Because I live here. This is my city now.
Not far from the bakers, on Bur Said Road, there is a small mosque where I would perform the morning prayer, salat Al-Fajr, on my way back from the beach where she stood. Abu Rabi’s and the cafe were closed at that hour, but the baker was already working. I would buy bread from him and eat it on the way to the mosque. It was the real thing.
The bakery is open now. I am eating bread and it is the real thing. I pray. All this is happening in the present.
My home is very close by. This is where I settled a year ago. This is where I live. In Alexandria.
At the back of my house stands an old, ruined and abandoned villa. Once, as I was passing, I noticed a small plant by the wall; at first I thought it was a weed, but as I looked more carefully I noticed some small green fruits on the branches. They were tomatoes, wild tomatoes. I went home, filled a plastic bottle with water and then went down in the lift and watered the plant with great care. On the wall of the villa, by the entrance, I discerned an inscription in Greek characters, so blurred it was barely visible.
Translated by Kasia Beresford