He sat on the stony curb by the side of the road, cross-legged like an eastern sage, a portable scale resting by his aching knee.
A senior man he was, with bronzed marked face, wearing a high collar shirt underneath a lambswool waistcoat. His grey stubble and wistful eyes, gave him the air of a suffering artist, turned mendicant in later life.
“Would the gentleman care to weigh himself for a bargain?” he asked with half a smile and practiced politesse.
“How much is a bargain?”
“Just 20 Lek. And the scale, being German, is reliable and most precise.”
Around us, the lane teemed with cafés and side-road groceries, fruit and vegetable markets, mobile and watch repair kiosks. Lonely vendors tried to sell cornels on paper cones or sat grilling corn crops to perfection. From the left a row of impersonal apartments blocks unfolded, interposed here and there by the odd garden-house with vines and fig leaves, stubborn remnants of a steadily-vanishing Tirana.
I gave the man 100 Lek and he fumbled in his pocket for the change.
“No need” I said.
“Most generous of you” said he, putting his hand on his chest in token of gratitude “thank you ever so much, and may your kindness be returned to you tenfold. And where does the gentleman come from, if I may ask?”
“Shkoder” I answered.
“Most important and renowned city in all Albanian-speaking regions” he stated with credible authority “and where does the young sir live presently?”
“Most important and renowned city in the world, perchance” said the older man, with composed amazement “city of clocks and politics. Many a time has the fate of our peoples been in its imperial hands. Oh yes. Not much good came of it, alas, still…and what does the gentleman do there, if I may be so bold?”
“Most respectable profession!” he said, bowing again “as it befits a true gentleman of Shkodran stock, descending from a valued part of one old empire, educated and employed at the centre of another. Honourable men like yourself give a good name to our peoples; while evildoers, who grow like weed and multiply like germs, continue to soil our good name and image abroad”.
I mounted his weighing machine and observed, a little scared, its needle tilting violently in clockwise direction.
“Mashallah!” uttered the eloquent man, clearly perceiving weight as a sign of wellbeing. “May God grant you unremitting health and keep you safe. He looks kindly on the generous.”
I offered him a cigarette.
“You know” he said, while tapping the cigarette gently on his elbow “one cannot survive on one’s pension here. Your parents are lucky to have you. Sitting here all day, waiting patiently for the odd kind soul to stop by and weigh themselves, is not exactly a choice”.
I gave him another 100 Lek, the equivalent of 60 British pence, and told him to keep it. He plunged again into his ritual of excessive praise.
“God has blessed me with two children” he said, while exhaling smoke “a boy and a girl. My daughter is married, has her own family to look after. My son (he sighed), my young son is gentle and generous, like yourself. But alas – being a child of old age and that – he is not well-versed in the ways of the world. He spends his time reading and praying. And now we’re all struggling. Jobs, there aren’t many, as you know. Most vacancies are in bars and clubs – dens of depravity my boy would not deign to set foot in. Alas; real employment in this capital of ours is in the hands of those who respect neither man’s nor God’s law.”
He halted a moment, to look at a passing black Bentley with tinted windows, its spotless wheel discs reflecting the sunrays aggressively, like a collection of revolving daggers. Although the lane was too narrow to accommodate a two-way traffic, cars and vans and scooters passed each-other with miraculous skill.
“His cousin pulled some strings and managed to find him a job in a shoe manufacturer. My heart was filled with joy; and not just for myself. His engagement had been postponed because of his financial situation; and that girl awaited him patiently – good girl, from a God-fearing family. And so we were all very happy.”
He shut his eyes and drew in a lengthy breath.
“But when the owner met my son in person, he said to him: ‘if you want to work for me, you have to get rid of that beard. In my company, image is paramount. And I won’t have no scarecrows hanging about in my workshop!’. That is what that man said to my gentle boy, my only son and heir.”
He shook his grey head gently.
“Most cruel individual” he continued “ruthless. And he goes by the name of Ali – the name of that holy man who married the Prophet’s daughter, Peace be upon Him”.
His tired eyes searched my face for a reaction.
“My son is a good Muslim, see. Doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t go with women. Keeps a long spiritual beard, to which he is dedicated. But now the beard has become a problem.”
I took advantage of the pensive pause and asked him where he stood in all this and what he thought his son should do.
“As you can see for yourself, my Shkodran friend, I belong to another generation. We had no choice with regard to beards and such. Drinking raki for me and my workmates was a way of warming up in cold winter mornings, out there in the building site; I laid bricks, you see, before arthritis invaded my limbs. As for food, we ate whatever we were given…”.
“Would shaving his beard make him a bad Muslim?” I asked.
“That’s exactly what I thought at first” he said, raising his finger “But you see, mister: that is how it starts, the road to perdition. Today he shaves his beard, tomorrow gulps a glass of brandy…and so on and so forth, till he becomes a regular soldier in the army of sheytan.”
He hounded that last word away with some long mystical phrase in Turkish.
“I succumbed” he carried on with soft determination “because I had no choice. My son decided not to, succumb. He should not; even if we die of hunger. If it is God’s will, then let it be so. My son’s cause is good and just.”
In his tone of voice and his expression, reluctance battled with resolution. He looked up magnanimously. The flawless autumn sky seemed cut up by the multitude of intertwined electric wires, which formed like a giant plastic spiderweb, droll and ominous at the same time.
Within seconds the old man produced a coloured photograph and handed it to me.
“That’s my son, Olsi” he said proudly, holding back any contesting emotions on the surge “the nicest boy you could ever meet.”
The picture showed a bearded young man, no more than 22, standing in front of a deluxe pizzeria. He had indeed a gentleness about him, the half-smile of his father, and the laughing eyes of his presumably deceased mother. His haircut was as decent as it could be. His beard however, looked as if had not been trimmed since the Flood. It felt like someone – with a vicious sense of humour – had forcefully stuck foreign bits of hair around it, to make it look as scarily grotesque as possible.
“Very nice” I said to the old man while handing him back the photo “very nice indeed. I wish him all the luck in the world.”
“Most kind of you” he responded.
“I’m positive something will come up – something that suits him.”
“Inshallah Amin, so be it.”
“And if not, his community – a growing one – will find a way of helping him; I’m sure.”
He looked at me – this time with a probing eye.
“I’ve heard there is an allowance” I said “beard-related one. The longer, the better – I’ve heard.”
Now his wistful eyes, projected astute examination.
“So be it” he said blankly “so be it.”
Then, without taking his eyes off me, added: “may I say: for a man who weighs 82 kilograms, you look deceptively light.”
Ten minutes later, I found myself drinking in a bar called ‘Quo Vadis,’ which had a good selection of cloudy beers and decent pictures on the walls, by contemporary unpretentious artists who clearly aimed to sell. The untouched villa of the communist dictator stood some metres away on the opposite side, surrounded by bars and clubs and other dens of depravity. The TV on the wall delivered the breaking news on the robbery of Kim Kardashian West’s jewellery in a luxurious Paris hotel. Ten, million, pound, worth. I thought of the man’s face and how great a painting it would’ve made (perhaps I ought to have been more generous with a fellow-human and compatriot in need). I thought of his gentle and resolute son, Olsi, dedicated to his cause and his beard.
Above all, I thought of Ali, that brave Ataturkian and of how big a fine he would’ve got in imperial London, for that most heretical act of his.