Enter Mr Abideen

arch-snowstormNew York City can get awfully cold in the winter. Biting cold winds blow through the streets and avenues of Manhattan Island and the sky would become as grey as an Old Italian fedora. It was during one of those late afternoons on Greenwich Village’s Cornelia St. that the front door of The Café Aladdin opened, and in walked the silver haired gentleman I was later introduced to as Mr. Muqtad Abideen. Bundled to the throat in an old woolen overcoat whose collar was raised up to shield his ears. The old man walked through the door and tapped his ever-present cane on the floor to shake off the accumulated snow.

At the sound of the entrance bell that rang as soon as you opened up the front door -Hassan, the owner stuck his head out of the tiny kitchen serving window and yelled his Sallams to the Silver haired gentleman and then yelled at me to seat Abideen ‘Effendi’ at his favorite table near the front window facing the street to enable the old man to watch the street traffic. Hassan walked into the sitting room and politely asked: “What will it be today Effendi, Coffee or tea”? The old man replied: “Tea, my dear brother, a big mug of hot steamy tea to take the chill off my bones, if you please.” When the tea was ready I sat it on the small table in front of our first guest of the day – me leaned forward with his eyes closed, his nose hovering over the steaming pot and murmured softly, “Alhamdullillah!” Hassan usually kept the lights in the sitting room turned down low, dim to dimmer depending on the overall mood of the customers.

During the fall and winter months the New York sky was as grey as the old stone buildings were grey. The snow and the chill, and the ever-present vapor pouring out of the people’s noses and mouths as they moved about the city added a particular steam locomotive aspect of grayness to the scene. As I remember this day I am held in a momentary rapturous moment of still and focused silence, looking down the narrow hallway of a restaurant – a tiny kitchen space in the rear, emitting pungent smells reminiscent of Hassan’s early childhood homes in Harrer and Jig-Jig Jigga. Alive with the soft clanging sounds of ceramic plates, pot covers and silverware all adding in their special way to the special atmosphere of Café’ Aladdin.

A narrow room that held at best maybe eight or nine small round coffee tables, and that ninth table was Luuj Hassan’s, it sat in a small alcove niche facing both the tin lavatory and the white curtained entrance to the kitchen. That ninth table was as important to the décor as the bulbous bay window that jutted out into the street at the front of the café’ – sitting majestically atop the table was an old Olivetti typewriter on which Hassan during his spare time would be writing both his memoirs and his Book of Somali/Ethiopian Recipes. Like: (Annapeen, Rifaali, Guy-eyya, herb baked chicken with rice or pilaf)

As the eyes of my memory looked down the narrow room toward the front window the room becomes silhouetted in blacks browns and greys – and I see Mr. Abideen sitting hunched over his tea as if he were chiseled into the dank space with a charcoal pencil – still life, Starker still with the grey light slowly pouring through the window creating a starker, darker silhouetted crouching figure. I had seen German lithographs of scenes like this –squares of charcoal silence.

The only movement one could detect in this still life was the cloudlike movements of the rising steam from the teapot and the hazy opaque figures of people and the occasional automobile as they past eerily and silently in front of the curtained window, which was also laced with a layer of steam. Hassan would come out of the kitchen from time to time wiping his hands on a small white towel he kept tucked in his apron – he would stand or sit momentarily with his silver haired friend, and to see them together was a contrast in physical architecture and misplaced period furniture: Hassan was a tall broad shouldered dark brown skinned man with a slightly twisted handle bar moustache that he kept waxed – Abideen on the other hand had quite pale white skin, a small short diminutive wisp of man with a shock of long bushy silver white hair.

Mr. Abideen was usually dressed in dark clothes, and at this meeting he was wearing an old black heavy woolen overcoat with the collar turned up, Hassan on the other hand was usually was dressed in kitchen whites and always wore a Harrari styled woven cap – both carried with them an aura of another world and other earlier times. Each had a unique voice and spoke English in finely clipped (woven) accents, Hassan’s was more British and Italian because of his long stay in England and the influence of the Italians during Somali Occupation. Mr. Abideen’s voice was definitely Turkish – I loved to listen to them talk – it was a joy to hear them laugh – because they had very little to laugh about, both growing old, far away from their native lands and interestingly alone for the greater part of their days.

Although an older man, Hassan had a young wife and several young children and a business to look after – Mr. Abideen on the other hand was single and lived alone in a tiny fifth floor walk up apt. On the lower east side of Manhattan, living on a very small retirement check and social Security – he had only his daily trips to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings – and he walked all the way from the east Side to The West Village to spend a few hours purging his soul of past liquid misdeeds.

These two men became my champions in many ways – both had long and interesting histories, they had lived interesting lives and had played unique historic roles in their respective countries social history, but for this memoir might go unknown and forgotten to the rest of the world. Perhaps I should rename this story: Café’ Aladdin, or an addition to “Meetings with remarkable People” – for now I will keep it as it is – One chilly day Mr. Abideen came into the restaurant a little earlier than usual. I was alone in the restaurant, in the  kitchen in fact – he sat himself at a table closer to the kitchen and greeted me through the serving slot with a warm soft “Sallam Aleikum”. I brought him a hot cup of tea and he motioned for me to sit with him. He has the habit of pouring his tea into the saucer and lifting the saucer to his face alternately blowing over it and sipping it – as usual I was fascinated with his every move.

We began a casual conversation, he was interested in where I hailed from and what type of background I had – why I had traveled all the way from Boston, Massachusetts to live and work in NYC. I then began to ask him about himself and it was during this initial conversation that the most intriguingly beautiful story began to unravel: “I was born in the remote mountainous forest region of Anatolia, my father was a wood cutter and he and my mother lived in a small cottage at the edge of the great forest, high in the air, far away from the nearest village”, he said nostalgically. What a far off look he had in his graying eyes – the steam from the saucer made it all look somewhat misty and ethereal. “My parents were poor illiterate mountain peasants who made their living cutting wood and raising a few scant vegetables for food. We lived a simple life but it was healthy – we had one book in the cottage and that was an old illuminated Arabic Qur’an that I had become completely fascinated with. I had no brothers or sisters and their were no other children top play with so I developed quite an imagination living up there amongst the big trees and the tall mountains.

From time to time the mounted Janissary (cavalry) would pass our cottage and stop to have water or eat food that my mother offered them – it was during one of those visits by the Janissary that one of them asked my mother where I was – they used to joke with me and chase me around -I guess they had children of their own back home and they wanted to have fun with me. “He is out back”, my mother said. And the soldier came around to the back of the cottage to discover that I was writing, actually drawing on the flat black flagstones that lined the path to the cottage. I used to use a special white stone to copy what I saw on the pages of The Qur’an –I would copy the lines and shapes, sometimes flowers and fancy squiggles that saw on the pages of the book. The Soldier was quite amazed and picked me up and gave me a hug that took my breath away.

As time passed I began drawing on the  flagstones in the front of the Cottage as they led away to the edge of the forest – so anyone approaching our home from the forest would encounter these stone etchings, most visitors and they were usually the janissary would not step on the stones but would walk along the path beside the stones – I did not know why they acted so strangely – the stones were there for them to walk on, but they didn’t. One day that I cannot ever forget was the day that three Janissaries came riding on really big horses, they had swords at their side and rifles across their backs they looked like giants. I remember them standing at the side of the road talking to my father suspiciously, glancing from time to time at me and then the flagstones and back to each other.

One of the Soldiers handed my father a small bag and shook his hand they approached me and swept me off my feet and placed me on the saddle in front of him – white stone in hand and terrified we rode away down the mountain – all I can remember was that I was crying and very afraid. I remember that we stopped at small villages along the way to eat and rest – we slept at night on the ground – I remember a striped woolen blanket that they gave me at night and I wrapped myself up in it to keep warm – they cooked food on a small fire and I would feed the horses. The horses were big and high-spirited and they always looked at me as if they were trying to talk to me with their big soft eyes. After what seemed a long time we arrived in a city – I had never been in a big city before – there was so much of everything and everything was loud – many different new smells – everything was strange and new, very different – I was frightened and fascinated at the same time. Looking down at a new world from the heights of a giant horse. Many people looked at us riding along and they pointed their fingers at me and smiled – many children used to run along beside the  horses and jump and laugh and point at me. I was not aware at the time but I must have been a sight, barefoot and – wearing the rough patched clothes of a peasant, my hair was long and wild just as you see it today – you know I have never been able to comb my hair properly – true, as I looked at the silver shock of hair on top of his head it was indeed a wild bush. I was brought to what I learned later was a grand hotel – it had large colorful rooms and big beds with soft sheets and there was always a lot of good food to eat – and it was served on silver trays.

There were many children there – maybe hundreds, and by the looks of them they came from many different places which I learned later was called the Empire. Some of these children looked very different from me or any other children I had ever seen – some had yellow skin and thin slanted eyes others were very white and had light colored eyes, blue and green -my eyes like my hair was jet Black. Some of the children were brown and had curly hair like the hair of the mountain sheep – half the time I could not understand what most of them were taking about – they all seemed to be speaking languages that I didn’t understand. After a few days or so I was taken to a big Mosque and given to a man all covered in dust – he was a nice man and he showed me how to mix and stir different kinds of sand together like thick soup.  I would pass this thick mess to him and he spread it on the walls of certain places inside or outside the mosque. It went on like this for a while and each day he would show me how to add colors and patch small holes in the walls. As time went on the I was passed on to different men who did different types of decorations until I finally was assigned to one of the men specifically in charge of Calligraphy. This final phase opened up the doors to the letters of which my beloved Qur’an is composed – and after many years I began to do sign painting in the shops and murals in peoples homes.

This story that Mr. Abideen told me would probably be the basis for a truly wonderful movie. And it is about a popular movie that came out in the early 1950’s called Topkapi that serves as the frosting on the Abideen cake – full circle so-to speak. Mr. Abideen had told me at the outset that during the Caliphate of Sultan Abdul Hameed, who had been one of the last Sultans of Turkey – that due to the condition of many of the famous mosques though ought the country the Sultan had decided to initiate a campaign to restore these monumental structures nation wide -but there was only one problem – their was a shortage of qualified artisans to do the work. So, a nationwide search for qualified people to do the work ended in a nationwide roundup of talented children to be trained by the few masters that were left. It was during this nationwide search that the young Muqtad’s reputation had found its way via the Janissary (mounted branch of the Turkish Army) to the ears of the organizers. All the rest is history. Or by the time this tale has ended it will become a part of history – God willing.

In many respects the year 1964 was indeed a golden year. I had read in the New York Times Newspaper that a film called TOPKAPI was being released and beside its roster of great film stars the story line intrigued me – it was about an attempt to steal the famed Emerald encrusted Dagger of Sultan Mehmed II of Turkey which was housed and on display in the national museum of Istanbul called The Topkapi Museum. One day while Mr. Abideen was having tea I mentioned the film to him and he became very excited. I invited to take him to see the movie – but He told me that he would love to see the movie but he had not been in a movie theatre in many years and he did not know whether or not he could sit through a whole movie without having to go to the men’s room to relieve himself.

The Waverly theatre was right around the corner from café Aladdin on Sixth Avenue – not even a full block away – so after visiting the box office the next day and obtaining the film schedule I later shared the schedule with Mr. Abideen, and we decided that the best time to go would be an early afternoon ‘matinee’ showing. A few days later – a Wednesday, as I remember – I met him in front of The Waverly Theatre – and we were ushered in by a young lady who showed us to center aisle seat – Mr. Abideen chose to sit toward the rear of the theatre and in the first seat in row on the aisle. As the scenes of Turkey began to flow over the silver screen Mr. Abideen was obviously moved to exclaim every now and then: ”Ma-ShaAllah!”–“SubhanAllah!” –and several times he reached over and whispered in my ear that this or that particular mosque or building he had worked on – one I remember was the Famed Blue Mosque.

After the movie we walked briskly through the cold to Cafe Aladdin to sit over a hot cup of tea and talk about the movie. Hassan joined us at the table and was as happy as his friend. It was a day that I shall always remember. About a week later Mr. Abideen came lumbering into the Café on his way to ‘AA’ –he had a small paper bag in his hand which he handed me –“its not much, but I wanted to give you a gift for taking me to the Movies”, he said.

I opened the bag and pulled out a sheet of paper on which he had written my name in Arabic, the script was (is) in a flowing crest-like style. Immediately thanked him and reminded him that he owed me nothing for the movie because I had enjoyed taking him – and had learned so much during that adventure. He apologized several times, saying that his eyes were no longer what they were but that he enjoyed doing the calligraphy. He also said that as a child he had not been very good at memorizing the Surah’s of the Qur’an. He was always better at writing rather than at reciting. And he chuckled a bit when he gave me an example of the tongue twisting gamut he had to run when he was a child attempting to learn Surah Kafirun, that had so many words that were like his own name ‘Abiddeen.’ – doon, ta bedoon…etc. He smiled and said: “You know what I mean’? The three of us, Master Chef Hassan Dhrepaulezz, Muqtad Abideen and myself stood in the narrow room and had a great laugh together. “Effendi”, said Hassan, “you are not alone, there are many people around the world who have the same problem.

I didn’t stay long as a waiter at Café Aladdin – Hassan thought it a better idea we use a pretty girl to wait table, so he found one that dressed in African attire and was much to her advantage quite attractive – she was also a single parent and needed the money. Over the years I still kept in touch with both Hassan and Mr. Abideen – as a matter of fact Mr. Abideen took sick shortly after the film incident and I used to visit him in the hospital. I remember one day Jafar and I brought him a roasted Lambs head all wrapped up so we could smuggle it past the nurses. He had expressed during an earlier visit that while he was in the hospital all he thought about was roasted lambs head, like his mom used to cook when he was a youngster. So Jafar and I went to one of the Arab restaurants on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and had one specially cooked for our sick friend.  Speaking of Atlantic Avenue, this street has played a pivotal role in many peoples lives and has served as a cultural backdrop for middle easterners of both Muslim and non Muslim backgrounds. Malko Brothers, Sahadi, Rashid’s Music Sales, Queen of The Nile, Euphrates Dining Room, the list of names goes on – and many of these businesses here on Atlantic Avenue and in the lower East Side of Manhattan had their signs and their murals painted by Mr. Abideen. Perhaps if you visit Atlantic Ave. you may find one or two still left.

Years ago Hassan had commissioned Mr. Abideen to do his sign, which hung outside the café in the old styled way – it was made of
wood and was actually hung so that it would sway back and forth. It was a stylized oriental teapot written as:‘Ma-Sha Allah’! With the Meem at the handle –and under the teapot was written Café Aladdin. That sign somehow fell into the hands of my old friend Jamil Green, after Hassan closed the shop and moved to Massachusetts to try his hand in the Berkshires –and if someone looked hard enough they could find it on the Island of St. Croix. Far away from where it used to hang.

The last time I saw Mr. Abideen was in 1968. He had cooked a traditional dinner for me in his tiny kitchen of the upper floors of a
lower EAST SIDE COLD WATER WALK-UP FLAT. Dr. Ahmad Saqr was the first President of the fledgling MSA during its infancy during the 1960’s and it is to his credit that I owe the next two experiences in dashed hopes. I had been offered a scholarship to the Sanussi Institute in Benghazi Libya that year and was preparing to leave the country. Mr. Abideen invited me to his place for a farewell meal and some advice on how to survive in a Muslim country. The interesting thing was that this scholarship abroad became one in several aborted attempts to study abroad in the 1960’s. Colonel Qadafi overthrew the Government of King Idris that year and sent the king –who was the patron of The Sanussi Institute, into exile in Europe. Talk about events occurring in double or pairs –it was one year later –I had received an invitation to attend the Islamic University at Omdurman, Sudan –and believe or not the same sequence of events happen almost identically – Nimeiri came to power and seized the Sudan in a Coupe –yup, you guessed it –the school was closed and the scholarship lost. As a result of these foiled attempts to study abroad that I decided to go to College in the States and that is when I turned my attention to Community College and then on to Wesleyan.

It was during this last supper with Muqtad and also during the visits to the hospital that I first learned to consider North Africa, Morocco in particular as a place to retire – it was possible then (and Now) to survive and live a half way decent life with the small Social Security checks we received from the government. I remember sitting in the small hospital room with Mr. Abideen poring over old editions of National Geographic Magazine – many of these magazines had been purchased from street corner book salesmen that used to line the streets of Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. He or I would stop now and then and comment on an interesting photograph –usually a scene taken in some African country –these conversations would usually concern comparisons of lifestyles and customs and how easy or difficult it might be to fit into that particular cultural situation.

Mr. Abideen would often drift back to his early career in the bourgeoning advertising business that was taking hold of America and Chicago seemed to be a key city in this development. Somehow he had heard that the large Chicago based department store ‘Marshal Fields’ was searching for talented people to develop their catalogue and advertising department. They needed skilled Illustrators and designers and according to Muqtad working in the square based geometrical format of Latin letters and box-like printing techniques of the European and American presses it was Childs play for him –and it was. He rose quickly in the business and made quite a name for himself – and to his saddened dismay his rise was accompanied by an ever increasing taste for wine women and song. He talked about the great parties held along the famous shoreline of Chicago’s famous lakeside resorts and his eventual transfer back to New York City and the boom on Madison Avenue.

Madison Avenue enabled him to join the late 1930’s jet set whose playground became “Fire Island’, and The “Hamptons’ on Long Island. A few faulty early attempts at marriage convinced him that domesticity was not the way, so he never had any children. Lonely and intoxicated Muqtad began to lose his grip on his senses and his faculties and he spent long periods in sanitariums and rehabilitation centers in the New York area –his health finally gave out and eventually he moved from a luxury midtown Manhattan apartment to a one room cold water flat on the lower East Side of Manhattan. He lived either on the fifth or sixth floor and he had to walk up those long flights of stairs holding on to the railing with one hand and balancing himself with his cane on the other.

This is the Muqtad Abideen that I met and came to love and respect during those halcyon days of the early 1960’s –a period of learning and understanding, and of exploring the inner workings of a great city that is filled with endless variety, replete with tales of woe and stories of that contain great historical insights, like this one. The Sirat al Mustaqim, as I was coming to understand it is a long endless road filled with tests that defy the human imagination and challenge the mettle of the strongest men and women. That old Bugaboo: Free Will versus Destiny (Kizmet/Qisma) My mother used to say that: “Hard Times will make a Monkey Eat Red Pepper.” And red pepper Muqtad had eaten, lots of it, in the form of humiliation and shame – so much so that it had burned away his desire for waywardness and turned him into what I would describe as a ‘pure soul. God forbid that all of us would have to run that particular type of gauntlet to attain sobriety and a modicum of sanity. But I have learned that all men must pass through a single great trial or a series of trials that brings him to a heightened state of reality whereby he walks softly upon this earth and has an appreciation for “what Is” particularly for the sanctity of the human body, the temple and temporary abode of the soul.

Muqtad Abideen came as a ship in the night and passed my way, as so many ships that pass through the Port of New York – the fog  and BeFunky_mr-abideen-sq.jpgmist and the occasional siren that echo from the port bring back memories, of other ports of call and of other streets and avenues that begin at the docks and wind their way like tall tales from the sea to the inner city only to lose themselves amid the shuffling throngs. I looked for Muqtad many times; I went to his old apt. And there was no sign of him and no neighbors who remembered the old man that walked with the cane. I checked the obituaries and looked for him along the streets, but to no avail. I have only this small piece of calligraphy (see right) and my memories to remind me of this dear man and the few precious moments we spent together in the New York City that spawned my entrance into academia from the ground level.

My hope and my prayer, when I remember -has always been that he found a home somewhere, maybe in Morocco near a Mosque with a Tasbih in his hand waiting ever so patiently for the sound of the Adhan and the promises that resound in its words. Ameen.

JULY 25, 2009