Chapter 6 : Under cover of darkness

Nowhere in Alexandria was the difference between cultures more apparent than in the hostelry where I was lodging. This modest building, a mix of traditional Egyptian and modern Greek architecture, was a cauldron of languages, customs and colours of skin. On a typical day I would hear conversations in primitive Greek heavily accented with strains of Spanish, Roman, Arabic and even Chinese. Communication was limited and frequently interrupted by curses, threats and all kinds of misunderstandings. Often these would lead to minor scuffles or even raging arguments that would spill noisily into the street. But these disturbances were common enough in a city which embraced so many travellers from so many parts of the world.

During the previous weeks I had become adept at keeping my head down and avoiding any situation which might compromise my ability to remain in the shadows. I had learned to blend with my surroundings as effectively as any wild creature avoiding the threat of attack. On the rare occasions anyone spoke to me I answered with as few words as possible, closing down further conversation. I was never rude; it was simply that I had learned to evade people’s curiosity and so pass largely unnoticed.

In the wilderness, invisibility is a form of power. The most successful hunters are those that move unseen through the landscape and whose senses are attuned to the slightest movement or change in atmosphere. Similarly, animals who are natural prey can find safety even in plain sight. Their texture and tone of skin change subtly to match the appearance of sand, earth or rock, and what was visible one moment suddenly becomes nondescript. Having observed this a thousand times on my journeys through the desert, I was able myself to remain hidden. My clothes were carefully chosen to match those of the merchants and traders who made up the bulk of visitors to the city and I had mastered the art of always looking as though I knew where I was going. I went about my business openly yet still managed to close myself off to the world. While this invisibility helped soothe many of my fears and suspicions, it made it harder to achieve what I had set out to do: it made the task of finding a teacher all the more difficult.  

Even though my heart yearned for guidance on my journey, something inside me baulked at taking the next step. Was it simply that I lacked the courage for this quest? Or was there some other matter I had overlooked which hindered my progress? I spent many hours waiting for a clue or glimmer of inspiration but nothing came. To find a teacher one must be patient. There are many who would call themselves teacher but few who have truly earned the name. Any common thief or charlatan could present himself as a master and gain the respect of someone gullible or desperate enough to believe in him, but his teachings, lacking the seeds of authenticity, would bear no fruit. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that a master would appear when this student was ready and not a moment before.

Days and weeks passed in a blur and I began to feel as though I was moving, not closer, but further away from my goals. My moods changed from one day to the next and I learned to step back from them, distracting myself with trivial things. But, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, I could not avoid the chasm that was opening in my heart. One morning I awoke early – so early that the moon was yet bright in the night sky. Drawn by its light, I dressed and made my way silently through the sleeping building and into the still air of the city. This was the first time I had walked its streets at this hour and I quickly found myself enchanted. During daytime the air was thick with cries of traders and a frenzy of people heading to or from the port, but under cover of darkness I discovered a very different landscape. As the moon swept in and out of cloud, its light illuminated first one detail then another. To my surprise, far from being deserted, the streets appeared full of life. My eyes barely had time to adjust to the dark when I sensed, rather than saw, movement all around me. Instinctively, I took a step back. As I did so the moonlight offered me a glimpse of something sleek and lithe at the very limits of my vision. Bright as torches, a pair of luminous eyes pierced the darkness, perhaps taking in my own movements. Realising I was not alone was both thrilling and disconcerting. I was watcher and watched; hidden, yet caught in the gaze of whatever was out there.

I could feel my breath shallow and tight in my chest. Listening carefully, I thought I heard the sound of powerful jaws working through bones and scraps of food. Then, as my eyesight grew accustomed to the light, I saw shape and form: a streak of matted fur, muzzles locked on a piece of meat. Now and then an argument would break out and the air would explode in a cacophony of snarls and yelps and howls. For protection I shrank back against the wall of a nearby hut, shielding myself behind a stack of wooden crates. But when I realised these creatures were more interested in their meal than in me, I began to relax into my role of spectator.

I wondered what kind of animal was responsible for all this noise and commotion. The moonlight, bright as it was, made it hard to pick out features in any detail. From their ferocious appetites I guessed at wild dogs of some sort, but what species I could not say. The scavenging hyena was as common in this part of the world as it was back home in the desert, but jackals and foxes were also to be seen skulking around the fringes of the city. Opportunities to sniff out a meal from the rubbish and discarded food would prove irresistible and, as the choicest scraps were found near the fishermen’s huts and market stalls, it was natural for them to try their luck in the heart of Alexandria’s commercial district. Watching them feed in the empty streets I was suddenly gripped by a rush of emotion. Here, in this brash and noisy city, nature had found a way to thrive and flourish as it did in the wilderness. Beyond the human world, in the midst of mundane lives, there was a hidden reality most men would never witness or even dream of; a world governed by other laws and senses. I knew both worlds intimately and perhaps understood them better than many, but it was only in the realm of nature I had ever felt at ease. Here there was no politics or corruption, no masks or deceit. Life was simply what it was: a dance of survival, a precious gem revealing first one facet then another, each illuminated by the fire of some inner sun which burned its truth for all to see. As I crouched behind my wall of empty crates I felt this truth keenly and over every inch of my body.

I do not know how long I roamed the city. Perhaps it was two hours, perhaps three or more. As I wandered from one district to another my imagination began to free itself from whatever sickness had gripped it these past weeks. Tiredness and tension eased as my muscles grew flexible and strong again, and it was as if some burden was lifted from my soul. I felt at one with my environment. This feeling was so familiar to me from the mountains and desert, it was like coming home to myself and to those infinite skies and wide open spaces. The city seemed real as never before and I found myself welcoming everything it offered: the lofty stone pillars in the public square and the lines of dirty, squalid houses, no more than animal shelters half exposed to the elements. All of this – poverty and wealth, privilege and injustice – revealed itself to me without need of judgement. For all its beauty and contradictions, its undercurrents of fear and darkness, I saw that Alexandria too was the wilderness. Here, as in all truly wild places, nature was supreme. The dramas unfolding within its busy streets were no more nor less than the everyday struggles of the desert where life was maintained through a balance of elements and seasons, and only the thinnest of margins existed between death and survival.

Slowly, inspiration grew as I remembered what had brought me on this journey. All the tiredness and despondency of recent days was now gone, replaced by the thrill of what lay ahead. There had been hardship, certainly, and times when I had doubted every instinct and decision; without realising it I had allowed fear to take root in my heart. But where was fear now? Where was clinging to comfort and the past? In that moment all I knew was the sensation of my feet on the ground connecting me to the strength of the earth – the same earth which had always supported me, both at home in the desert and here in Egypt. One thing was now clear to me: no soldier of the Roman army was going to stop me achieving my goals, nor hesitancy turn me from my path. Today was a new day, and l was a man with no past or future. Everything I owned was waiting for me in a satchel back at the hostelry, and I could just as easily stay or leave this city by nightfall and never return. As the sun rose over Alexandria and the human world began to stir, I rejoiced at my freedom and thought myself the most fortunate man in the world.