OSAKA, Japan — “You ever been to Japan?”
“Yes, I have. Several times.” Thinking, An ambiguous flirtation, then.
“Japan? Lots of people. Very expensive. Unlike Aswan — not many people. Very cheap.”
“I am a tour guide here for ten years for Japanese people,” he said. “I hate Japanese people. What is in their heads? What is inside? They are…” He didn’t finish the sentence.
He winced, searching for words. “I hate to be a guide for them. Something is wrong with Japanese people.”
“Maybe they are not like you,” I said, trying to calm him.
“They are not like me. Not like you. Not like anyone.”
“You think so?”
“I know this!”
To a Nubian like Mohammed, the Japanese were mask-faced, backward-looking, strangely attired, oddly aromatic, and inexplicable — much as a Nubian might seem to a Japanese. It was not for me to arrange for the twain to meet…”
— Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, by Paul Theroux (chapter 3: Up and Down the Nile, pp. 46-47)
I read this passage while riding the train from Osaka City to my university job in the folds of the hilly countryside. I put the book down, considered the faces of the other passengers, realizing, like most of the time, that I was the only foreigner among them. I somehow felt like this Nubian, sans the hate part. Let me start there. For all the odd in this far flung Far Eastern land, I am grateful to the Japanese people for granting me a life among them that has afforded me great opportunities, big and small, at times quirky, serendipitous, and, yes, inexplicable. I would have told Mohammed that not even 18 years here is enough to ever really understand “what is in their heads”. I say that affectionately.
Theroux’s passage reminded me of my sojourn in Egypt in March 1985, my first foray into the African continent (I’ve been four times). I remember the long train ride from Cairo to Luxor, and sharing Rolling Stones songs on a tape player with fellow passengers. It was in Aswan that I stayed in the Continental Hotel, the cheapest accommodation I have ever had. In its heyday — whenever that may have been — it was surely the finest hotel in town. But at US$0.50 a night, even that was too much for the mosquito-infested tinder box it was. But at least I had my own room and a hole (literally) to piss in. I awoke (if I slept at all) my first morning with what appeared to be chicken pox or a sudden bout of acne. So much for the mosquito net.
With a July 31 departure day fast approaching, my mind is turning more to the adventure that awaits and away from the logistics of putting this first leg of my Jewish Africa photo survey together. Departure brings great anticipation and wonder, much like the Japanese do for Mohammed, and a touch of angst, much like the Japanese do for Mohammed. My mission is to glimpse beneath the “masked-face” of Africa’s Jewish communities and to bring light to those that have become dark. Yes, indeed, I am heading out, or “lighting out” as Theroux did in chapter one, on a Dark Jewish Star Safari.
I can’t wait.
POSTCARD TRANSCRIPTION (click on images to enlarge):
CAIRO, March 16, 1985: This is truly a most fascinating country. Cairo is dirty and the people are the craziest drivers I’ve ever seen but they are also exceptionally friendly. I am writing from Aswan, 900 miles from Cairo on the Nile. The Nile is beautiful. On the front of this card are some pillars at Karnak Temple in Luxor, north of Aswan. It was here they filmed James Bond “Spy Who Loved Me”. The scene where “Jaws” was chasing him. I too played hide and seek there. It was fun. I’ll write w/ full details. Love from Egypt.
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