memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘omar kyam’

Dates (2)

The phone rang on my desk in Porto some 15 years later and I was put through to a very influential person in Lisbon (my boss) who requested me, as a personal favour, to meet a friend of hers (the Libyan Chargé d’Affairs in Lisbon) at the Meridien Hotel in Porto the following morning and give him lunch and generally show him the sights.

So the next morning I met the gentleman in the foyer of his posh hotel.

He was a charming man, polished and multi-lingual; he was easy to entertain and I knew just where to take him. The venerable old Porto Stock Exchange (the Palaçío da Bolsa) was situated in the old part of city behind the church of S. Francisco with its golden rococo wood carvings,   (deconsecrated now, it’s just a museum).

We went through the grandiose portals of the Stock Exchange and climbed the wide tiled staircase to the first floor and entered the fabulous Salão d’Arabe.

Salão Arabe in the Stock Exchange PORTO

I could see that he was impressed and moved to find such unexpected tribute to his culture.

It bought home to me the full force and meaning of the term arabesque – the depiction of the human form is anathema to that culture.

He pointed out with a smile that some of the tiles on one the columns quoting from the Koran had been laid in the wrong order.

Over lunch I recounted my episode in the Saharan date garden in Algeria and we spoke about the Persian poet Omar Khyam.

I deposited him back at his hotel in the early evening and he was effusive in compliments saying that he had enjoyed his day up in Porto.

A few weeks later I went down to Lisbon to attend a Director of Studies meeting and late morning Her PA summoned me into the Presence; She told me how much her Libyan friend had appreciated my hospitality and had left a small gift for me – a wooden box of the finest hand-picked Libyan dates!

Dates (1)



Algeria – Oil fields in Eastern Sahara, 1980

I’m driving along in the Sahara Desert (you know, as one does) in the company of young Abdel Kader. It is an early afternoon in December with the sky a pale washed blue and still warm at midday. He has just shown me a deserted French Foreign-Legion fort – a desolate place which is gradually being reclaimed by the desert sands.


I explore the place, climbing up to the ramparts and indulging in the usual clichés, Beau Geste desperately repulsing the Berber hordes etc. Actually what I found most evocative were the prison cells with the graffiti presumably scratched on the walls by the miscreant legionnaires.


Back on the sandy track with me again at the wheel, Abdel Kader mentions diffidently that his village isn’t far away and asks my permission for him to visit his wife for a while. I say yes of course, but ask where his village is because, as usual, all I can see is sand. Abdel guides us along the winding tracks until we find the village with its characteristic white windowless dwellings nestling in a whaddi. At the end of the village is a small date grove which, it appears, belongs to Abdel’s family. He asks me if I wouldn’t mind waiting there while he pays a visit to his wife and baby and again I agree.


I enter the garden and look round for a place to settle among the tall stately palms, sitting down eventually with my back to the trunk of a towering date-palm.

Perfect peace – all I can I hear is the gentle murmur of the irrigation streams which are watering each individual palm tree.

The harmonious beauty of the setting argues the existence of a divine plan.

I fall into a contemplative trance and allow my beating heart to slow right down and fall asleep.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough                                                        

 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness.

I awake to find Abdel and his father Mohamed eyeing me expressionlessly. I look at my watch – it’s time to get back to the camp. Before we leave I am offered a small hempen sack of dates.

Some of the dates have been harvested from the very tree under which I have been reposing and are therefore a special gift from God, Mohamed assures me and opines that I will have a lucky life.

He shows me how to assess a good date: first it should be dry and light brown in colour and when held up to the light it should be translucent; the ripe fruit should be firm and sweet.

I like dates and keep the bag in a drawer of my desk partaking of several each day.

(To be continued)

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