My excursion from Kagnew Station Asmara, Ethiopia down the mountain on the escarpment road had endured harrowing hairpin turns, misguided camels, and passenger Eric hurling fresh oranges at anything that moved, including baboons. However, negotiating the winding road was harmless compared to my initiation into Massawa’s strange inner sanctum…
For the past few hours we sat at a bar deep in the confines of Batsi Island in Massawa. Ghidey’s sailor pal, Baghdadi, had plied us with a nasty alcoholic drink called zibib chased by Melotti beer. I quit the zibib an hour ago when I had thoughts of taking an old rug on the dusty floor for a magic carpet ride. My Kasbah cohorts—Ghidey, Baghdadi, and a Yugoslavian I called Fred—had nearly finished the bottle of zibib.
The perfunctory effects of the zibib (that would haunt me for hours) had lifted Baghdadi to a shaman-like status within the aura of my inebriated persona. I watched the Turkish wizard pour the remainder of the bottle in a circle on the table in front of us. A lighter appeared in his hand out of nowhere.
Was I about to partake in some ancient Ethiopian ritual designed to recant the Queen of Sheba’s spirit? The beaded curtain behind the bar rattled in preparation for the fabled Queen’s entrance, or was it Salome (sə-ˈlō-mē), sent to dance the seven veils around us?
Alas, there was no music and the illusion revealed to me would normally be found only on a scorched desert dune through the eyes of feverish thirst. For the first time I saw fear cross Ghidey’s face, or was it the effect of the mother of all alcohol drink—zibib. The bottle should have had a warning on the label. CAUTION: MAY CAUSE BLURRED VISION, HALLUCINATIONS, ILLUSIONS OF GRANDEUR, VARIOUS PHYSICAL AILS, OR ABSOLUTE FEAR.
As Baghdadi subtly prepared to torch the tabletop, the bartender who had rushed over in a feverish state, began repeating no-no-no with his index finger. Curiously, none of the other patrons expressed concern. Humphrey Bogart—Rick—sat at a table by himself and knocked back another zibib… Ilsa wasn’t coming back.
The bartender pleaded to Baghdadi in words spoken in a foreign language. I didn’t understand except by the gesture.
Baghdadi smiled. He dipped the flaming lighter to taunt the bartender.
The bartender pleaded with splayed hands now, palms up, accompanied by pained expression, which wasn’t easy considering the deep crevasses etched in his leathery face.
Baghdadi snapped the lighter at the alcoholic circle. A bluish tint topped vibrant flames that somehow gave no evidence of spreading. We watched, mesmerized by Baghdadi’s pyro techniques.
The mad Turk stared down the bartender like the poker stakes were high and he had an ace stowed away. He raised a clenched fist. The bartender retreated a half step.
While the flames swallowed available oxygen Baghdadi opened his fist to reveal a wad of Ethiopian money. He muttered what I understood was, “Take it,” although in that other language, possibly Arabic (this guy was truly amazing).
The bartender reached over for the money. Unlike Baghdadi, the heat teasing his wrist caused him to flinch.
Baghdadi, the magnificent… Baghdadi the magician, tossed a potion in the middle of the circle of fire…
The small combustion propelled the frightened bartender and his handful of money backwards, into a wall, suffocating Salome who was preparing her epic dance. In the aftermath a blue haze formed above and around the table. My cohorts instinctively rose.
“Wait, she’s going to dance for me,” I said to Baghdadi as he pulled on my arm.
Outside, the darkness engulfed us, like the inky fluid expelled from an octopus in flight. The Massawa heat, afraid of nothing, malingered even after the sun had forsaken it. Ghidey’s slurred speech claimed that the bartender had been over-charging Baghdadi all week. Uncharacteristically, she didn’t laugh.
* * *
Baghdadi led us to the Torino Hotel and rooftop disco. We scaled the steps of a dark stairwell that threatened by sheer solitude. The ancient building exuded centuries old pungent odor far more potent than magic. As we neared the top I swore I could hear Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page singing “Stairway to Heaven,” and it made me wonder…
“Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?”
—Led Zeppelin’s, “Stairway to Heaven”
But when we arrived at the top of the stairway James Brown’s voice flooded the rooftop disco. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page sat alone at a table near the edge of the roof and peered at the nearby Dahlak Archipelago, faintly lit by fishermen’s lamps. Jimmy knocked back a zibib…his dear lady would never make it up the stairway.
James Brown’s voice bellowed out of old speakers that might have been the type used for Muslim call to prayer… “I Feel Good… I knew that I would, now.”
Colored lights along the perimeter of the rooftop served as a beacon for sailors and other lost souls. A well-dressed Ethiopian couple strutted like tribal dancers to James Brown’s soul felt vibes. A pop legend, James Brown was revered in Ethiopia to the level of Haile Selassie… well, almost.
Baghdadi’s magic trick at the bar might have taken some of the wind out of our sails, although the mad Turk and Fred the Yugoslavian wasted no time in dallying with a group of Habesha dollies a few tables away.
During the lull, Ghidey, numbed by the zibib, sang Baghdadi’s song. The merchant marine’s assignments had been confined to Istanbul, around the Mediterranean Sea, and south of Cairo to Massawa and on to Djibouti. Understandably, Ghidey cooed that Massawa was Baghdadi’s second home. The Turk had once driven from Istanbul to Baghdad just to see the ruins of Babylon. During his visit he apparently won large sums of money betting on horse races in Baghdad. Thus, Ghidey nicknamed the Turk, Baghdadi.
Baghdadi returned alone, followed by Fred, clutching a Habesha girl’s arm. Out of the blue, Eric and Mala the Nigerian enchantress appeared in front of us. Baghdadi pulled a chair out for Mala while Eric (distraught over Mala?) plopped down and chugged half a bottle of Melotti beer. I should warn him about the killer zibib.
When Nat King Cole established calm, Baghdadi asked Mala to dance. She smiled. Their eyes locked. He reached for her lithe hand and they waltzed onto the dance floor. Baghdadi’s sea legs had found a new deck to swab. The two slid across the dance floor on soap suds.
Eric rotated his torso to eye his black queen slow-dancing with the Turkish sailor to Nat King Cole’s, “The Very Thought of You.” When he turned back I caught his sorrowful expression and shrugged as if to say, “You can’t win them all.”
The remainder of the evening lost itself in the music and the stars. White light shown on whimsical Salome as she performed a private dance for me to Led Zeppelin’s, “Stairway to Heaven…”
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
As I reached for a bright star Salome interrupted her dance just to warn me not to let Eric drive the old Jeep back up the escarpment. I proceeded to gift the vehicle to Baghdadi, who promised to visit me in Asmara (the sailor had no use for land vehicles). The last I remember was Baghdadi escorting Mala through the doorway that led down the stairway, and it made me wonder…
* * *
The following afternoon I drank Coca-Cola. We all met up with Johnny and the other Kagnew-ites at Gurgusum Beach on the Red Sea, north of Massawa. I’ll have to save that afternoon adventure (along with more tales from Asmara) for future military flashbacks at Foreign Service Messages…