Niki Marangou was born in Cyprus 1948. Studied sociology in West Berlin from 1965-70. From 1980-2007 she run KOCHLIAS BOOKSHOP in Nicosia.
She has published books of prose, poetry and children’s fairy tales and won state prizes for her literary work. In 1998 she won in the Cavafy prize for poetry in Alexandria. In 2006 she received the Athens Academy poetry award for her book DIVAN. She has written the novels “Is the panther alive”, “From Famagusta to Vienna”, “Gezoul” and short stories “A layer of sand”, “the Daimon of Lust” “Nicossienses”. Her books have been translated into many languages.
Niki had seven exhibitions of her work in painting. She lives in Nicosia Cyprus.
More in www.marangou.com
In the room where I sleep, a beautiful armoire with inlays made from walnut wood, a dressing table and a nightstand with rounded sides, furniture for other types of homes. I think of the woman who used to look at her body in this mirror, store her jewelry here, waiting for her husband or lover. A woman satiated or hungry for love?
I don’t know why this city captivates me so much, simply walking her streets looking at people, exploring junk shops, imagining how it was in the past when my mother was here. And a climate that suits me perfectly, not cold, not hot — the temperature of my body. My feet hurt from walking; I can’t walk all day like I used to anymore, and I end up at Patisserie Delice in the afternoon. I order a fruit salad, and I am served a work of art made of guavas, strawberries, oranges, peaches — all cut into fans, brimming over the glass bowl. How does the old-world sophistication of this place survive after so many years, the sense of the good life in some areas, when everything has changed? And at the Arabic bakery down the street the croissants are the best I’ve ever tasted. They have know-how from the past.
At the Hellenic Foundation for Culture on Rue Fouad, the ancient Canopic Way, we meet Aspasia Papadoperakis, sculptress of Cavafy’s bust at the General Consulate in Alexandria. A sweet low-key woman with natural grace. Sketches for Cavafy’s bust and works by Andreas Karayan are on display in the large hall. Translations of works by Cavafy in different languages in display windows.
In the office of Manolis Marangoulis, the Director of the Foundation, I see an exceptional watercolor of two fish, and ask to meet the artist. He is Yossry al Mamluk who takes us, together with Aspasia, to Agami to show us his work on the following day. A nightmarish journey through the industrial area and garbage dump around Lake Mareotis and we arrive at Agami. He turns onto filthy dirt roads, and opens to door to an apartment with two small rooms where he stores his work. He is a calligrapher, so he includes calligraphy in his paintings. Beautiful artwork. All along the way, a wall of dismal cement buildings hide the sand. We find an opening and walk to the sea. A fine white sand and a sea of translucent turquoise. “Lemoun,” which means lemonade made from limes, at Delices while the sun sets.
In the morning I am awakened by car horns and voices from the street despite that, in Alexandria, everything starts late since people work until midnight. Only in the afternoon does the city gear up to its rhythms, when everyone spills onto the streets and the city puts on its festive looks. After the square of the consulates people jam toward the bazaars where the road leads left and right, into a maze of alleys around Rue Faransa (French Street), where a crowd composed mostly of women buys yarn, tassels, undergarments, bijoux. Alleys so narrow that two people barely fit to pass. Shops arranged by type — endless shops that sell kerchiefs of all sizes, colors and qualities for Muslim women, but also spices and jewelry. In one shop I see scorpions, and dried chameleons, lizards, bats — I assume for Alexandrian ‘magi’. Next door, they are grounding yellow roots of some kind. I ask what they are and with gestures they explain that they’re for women after they give birth. Women with black burkas multiply on the streets of Alexandria and watch, from the narrow slit, the comings and goings. A couple in front of a window with gold. At some point he pinches her, and she turns tenderly toward him. There’s a strange eroticism to this scene with the woman covered in black.
I board a tram. The first compartment is reserved for women. The rest are for men, but women can also enter. The price is 25 piastres (100 piastres is one Egyptian pound, and seven pounds are one Euro). With one Egyptian pound you can eat a tasty pita with falafel, tahini and salad. Alexandrian Greeks gather at “Enosis”, the coffee shop of the Greek Brotherhood of Alexandria. Passages from the Koran heard everywhere through loudspeakers as it is Friday. Outside Enosis one lane is blocked by prayer mats that the pious have spread along the street. They pray genuflect. It’s noon and no one is here yet. I see an old lady, curved by time, calling a cat to her. I ask for her cat’s name, and we begin to chat. She is Renée, and she is French; she has no one left in the world — “everyone’s died”. She comes from Montaza every Friday by bus to eat at the club. “Is it not too far?” I ask. “Habit makes what is far appear close,” she replies. “In any case, I can’t eat alone.”
I meet Flora Kavoura, an Alexandrian Greek, who’s brought her newborn for her friends and co-workers at the Alexandrian Library to see. They chat among themselves in Arabic, Greek, English and French. Only Flora and another woman are Greek. The aging waiter can’t remember the entire order, so he brings the teas first, then asks how many coffees were ordered, etc.
Painter Anna Boghiguian arrives from Cairo to meet us. I meet her at Delice. It is remarkable how this woman who lives in isolation can be so sharp, how she can have such keen awareness of everything. A poetry reading in Cavafy’s home. Alexandrian ladies climb the stairs with effort. The house is full and lit by candlelight. The recitation in Arabic begins with “bismi-llāhi ar-rahmāni ar-rahīm” (In the name of the omnipotent, merciful God). A handsome Egyptian man leans on a column. He recites Cavafy in broken Greek. He is Khaled Rauf. “The city” is heard in seven different languages. Then we go to Pastroudis, to the inner bar. Four of us sit at a semi-round table, against a huge mirror. It’s as though there are eight of us. We speak through the mirror. The walls are decorated with red taffeta, the quintessential bar. Next day, in the afternoon, we are invited to Mohammed’s house — an Alexandrian friend. The taxi speeds along the Corniche, passes Glymenopoulos Beach and Stanley Beach. In front of the shore with the cabins, a huge bridge has been built over the water. The taxi drops us at Victoria College. We enter an ordinary Arab neighborhood and, in a narrow alley we find the entrance to the house. We knock. Inside, the house is spotless. Blue armchairs with gold trim, the table already set, the father an imam, the mother in a long dress, kerchief and with a smile full of kindness, and the sisters — Dua, the eldest, gorgeous; the middle one, who just got engaged, pretty; the youngest rickety. All three in kerchiefs and long dresses. Three young children play. A tray with drinks made of carob is served — very sweet. We sit down at the table, which is full of food: soup, chicken, vine leaf dolma, cabbage dolma, baked macaroni. I ask about the roots that I saw at the bazaar — they are called hab el aziz, which means “seeds of the beloved,” and instantly Mohammed’s mother offers to prepare it for me. I watch. She puts two spoonfuls of butter in a briki and roasts sesame seeds. Once they are roasted well, she adds a spoonful of the powdered root. She slowly adds water and a lot of sugar. It turns into a thick drink, which she serves in a cup with coconut and ground almonds. Thousands of calories. Impossible for me to drink. During our visit, the volume of the television set was turned down a couple of times for prayers. Repentances and passages from the Koran recited by the father. The mother behind him, the men nearby, while the women busy in the kitchen — they will pray later. Andreas is asleep on the couch. Mohammed takes out the family album to show us pictures of his grandmother. He recounts how, as a child, he was greatly impressed by the photographic flash. He believed that whenever there was lightning God was taking his picture. And so, he would comb his hair, put on his good outfit, and stand on the balcony. After each lightning bolt, he would change his pose for the next photo.
These people are so friendly that I feel that, if I told them that I’d be staying in their house for a month, they’d welcome me.
I bought a children’s book and I’m trying to learn the alphabet. At night you can see the entire Corniche from Manolis Marangoulis’ apartment. He shows us a series of photos from festivals where the pious dance in trance.
Something strange has happened to Alexandria. At least the main roads have been cleaned and paved, while a few years ago – when I was here last – you had to walk through garbage and broken pavements. Now there are bins everywhere and garbage collectors gather every piece of paper from the streets. But as soon as you enter the side roads, the scene changes instantly.
On Sunday we walked along the Corniche to the Hellenic Club. A sunny day and the sea as smooth as oil. Fishing boats came out and people bought fresh fish. How fertile is Egypt — fruit, apples, guavas, plentiful strawberries. From a cart, I bought a small basket made of woven palm leaves. It contained seeds, which resemble plumules and have excellent taste. Further down another wandering merchant sells pieces of a heart of palm. The soil produces richly and plentifully, yet there is poverty and misery. People stroll to the Lighthouse. Children rent small bicycles. Petty merchants sell anything from seahorses to cups with the kaaba painted upon them.
ANDREAS’ HOUSE IN ALEXANDRIA
At Andreas’ house on Mahmut Saleh El
next to the pharmacies with the false limbs and the
crutches you always have to take the stairs because the
elevator is locked.
The supermarket has no lemons
you can find some further down at the
Arab with the baskets
the lame dog sleeps under the cars of the
and the muezzin calls out persistently from the
minaret of white marble.
On Stanley Beach the women enter the water
in long dresses,
those wearing a veil sit on the beach,
cutting slices of watermelon under an umbrella
and watching their husband teach
the children how to swim.
Two boys dive off the jetty with
the rotting planks.
We sit there by the sea on plastic
chairs carefully mended with black
a child brings us mango ice cream.
On the side table in the hotel a diagram shows
the direction of the Kaaba. All the cars
passing by sound their horns and look out for
the pedestrians who have priority. As for the tram
it never stops at all, you hear it even through the
earplugs. I think of Constantis and cannot
fall asleep. At sunset people
gather on the pier to watch the sun set behind the castle. The pushcarts sell
jasmine flowers, sweet potatoes, clams dressed with lemon, seeds.
They rent out roller skates to the children.
FOOTSTEPS ON THE STAIRS
Footsteps on the stairs
two at a time
the young Arab
skipped down the steps
a scent of cedar or hyacinth
to the whole staircase
snuffing out the dirt of the wall
the broken windows
the sound of the doorman’s crutch.
Mr Athos Patikis
a descendant of tobacco makers
always wore suits
made of toile de soie and seta cruda
and white shoes.
In the innermost room of his house
purpose-built without windows
with mirrors lining the walls
and tables covered in felt for playing cards
he would sometimes sit and smoke in the mornings.
He avoided looking at himself in the
which had become turbid with the years.
Every night he would go with his three friends,
first to the Greek Club
and then to the Chanteclair cabaret.
In the underground waters of the great mosque
some hear the waves of paradise
and others hear the wailing
Just like Father Theodoritos
speaking of the fish
and the golden ring
Symeon found in its belly
while Abu Farouk
sweeps the yard
and children play war
among the ruins.
Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
and let this City have its rest
this deadly City, this stone-throwing City
with the machine-guns set
around the Wailing Wall,
let its people walk in peace
around the city wall at dusk
that they may say the DOMINUS IVIMUS
LORD WE ARE COMING
with a blue boat
graffiti on the white marble
For Nasa Patapiou
Philippe* wrapped his cloak tightly
round his neck,
he had tired of looking for work at the Rialto
as an agent at the merchants of the east
and the approaching Venetian winter
At night he walked the streets of the besieged town,
he would wake up in a cold sweat at the clang of metal.
He had experience in administrative affairs,
he spoke Greek, Persian, Arabic and Turkish
so something would probably turn up.
There were of course the hundred ducats that
Marco Angelo had paid
for his ransom,
those he could delay for a while,
but what about Virginie who was waiting for him?
What would happen with Virginie?
* Philippe Membre, official translator of La Serenissima
was taken captive by the Turks during the siege of Nicosia.
In company with the aphid and the caterpillar
I have planted roses in the garden this year
instead of writing poems
the centifolia from the house in mourning at Ayios Thomas
the sixty-petaled rose Midas brought from Phrygia
the Banksian that came from China
cuttings from the last mouchette that survived
in the old town,
but especially Rosa Gallica, brought by the Crusaders
(otherwise known as damascene)
with its exquisite perfume.
In company with the aphid and the caterpillar
but also the spider mite, the tiger moth, the leaf miner,
the rose chafer and the hover-fly,
the praying mantis that devours them all,
we shall be sharing leaves, petals, sky,
in this incredible garden,
both they and I transitory.
STREET MAP OF NICOSIA
Looking at the street map
of Nicosia and its suburbs
Fuat Paşa Street ends on Dionysou and Herakleitou
Defne Yüksel on Hermes street
Yenice Şafak on Leontiou Mahaira
in the vicinity of Rocca Bastion
on old maps the river cut through the town
but Savorniano, the Venetian, changed the flow
to fill the moat with water.
There on Sundays the domestic servants
from Sri Lanka spread out their shawls
and eat together.
The palm trees remind them of home.
LETTER TO DIONYSIS
Nothing we have said is certain
concerning either halcyons or nightingales.
You see, Dionysis,
it is not easy for us today to speak
with certainty of halcyons or of nightingales
when we do not live in houses on whose foundations
cocks were sacrificed
nor have we slept on mattresses
with crosses sewn at their four corners
where coins fell
of silver and of gold
and seeds of cotton and of sesame
nor have we poured into the streets
deep into the night
and into houses brightly lit
with Lazaruses in yellow flowers adorned
their blossom-filled beds beset
with garlands and grains
birds lizards petals
flour fennel candles and honey
softer than sleep.
That’s why, Dionysis,
in the “general mess
of imprecision of feelings”
drinking coffee on a Friday morning,
I just have to tell you
that I’ ve missed you very much
THE TERRIBLE MOMENT
Ariadne never forgot
the terrible moment
when she saw Thesea’s boat
disappear on the horizon.
The golden wreath Dionysos gave her
was no consolation
nor corona borealis
which she saw every night in the sky.
All text & poetry in this post: © Niki Marangou
© Translation of the poetry by Stephanos Stephanides and Xenia Andreou
Published with the permission of Niki Marangou