This is for you Amir, so that you do not feel shy anymore when posting whatever in here.
Yusef is the name of a male-character -in a still unwritten story- who I have supposedly met while looking at the winged-lion in Piazzetta San Marco, Venecia.
From the Arab resonance of the name some inferences can be made of that man; for instance you may have already darkened a bit the color of his face, turned his eyes into turquoise green or maybe dark-brown (depending on custom or on the ability of your imagination), while enlarging (if you think of Berbers) or shortening (if you come further east along the Mediterranean) his thin but strong bone structure.
The truth is that I have decided Yusef to be aggressively fat, with a pale white face, dark eyes and an aquiline nose that in the whole, leaves, to whoever listens to him, with an uneasy feeling of mistrust.
This man is obviously Arab, not so obviously Muslim, and almost surprisingly American.
Right now I am enjoying a capuccino in a terrace by the Sansoviniana Library, where Tiziano's 'La Sapienza', covering the hallway entrance, adds up to the enlightening interior.
In front of me, in the middle of Piazzetta San Marco, the fat man that happens to be called Yusef is staring at the winged-lion that rests upon a nine hundred year old Byzantine column. I wonder, while I look both at him and the column, whether the eastern looking gaze of the Lion is able to suggest to this man a thought of Greece, of the Myth; to bring a poem of Euripides, a word of Goethe, some forgotten song; and from there may be allow him to think of the Persian Lion, with all the otherness that this implies for a fat American Arab.
Suddenly, for no particular reason, the man turns around and walks towards my table. He asks me for a seat with a somewhat mischievous look and without waiting for an answer he makes himself comfortable by my side and starts talking.
- You have probably heard of Margarito de Brindisi before.
- What? Who?
- The Genoese pirate, 12th century, haven't you? Well, he was appointed Count of Malta by the Pope.
- What!? A pirate are you saying, appointed by what Pope? What...
- Well, yes, a pirate. Pirates have always been appealing, not only to women, you know, plus there is no need to mention that they have always been quite profitable as well.
- But what are you talking about? Pirates and Popes? And how could a pirate be appealing to any Pope anyway? And why...
- Oh, you know, to begin with, pirates came up with this brilliant logo; their flag, black under white, with the skull and the crossed bones which represented the Christian Inferno or the Purgatory, where impious souls are condemned to suffer before entering Heaven.
And further more pirates, if only for their strenght, were -as they are today- a symbol of power.
So, you see, for a Pope to master him who punishes the impious seems to come quite naturally, don't you think?
- Well, maybe, but I still... Why are you telling me about...
- About this pirate? Sir, I have noticed your interest in the Leone di San Marco.
- How could you know...!?
- I am also beginning to notice you are a man of questions. Well, it doesn't matter. I have eyes everywhere, which is the natural thing for a man like me.
- A man like you? I do not quite follow what are you trying to...
- And you don't need to, sir. In fact, for all that matters, you better don't. You are probably an Arab yourself; no ill intention in that. So am I. If I am speaking English to you it is only because you may not remember the Arab language... you seem to be so highly educated. And yet, who does not speak English nowadays?
So now, it is important for you to hear this story. Those columns you see over there were brought from Persia to Venice at the end of the 12th century, as you probably know.
A bandit of Phoenician origin named Sidik carried the columns through land from Persepoli to Alexandria, where Margarito de Brindisi waited with his ships. The Pope himself had entitled them to protect the columns and the winged-lions, for there were two of them originally. It is said that Sidik kept one of the lions hidden in mount Casio (where Zeus and Typhoon once fought) on his way to Alexandria, but that is another story.
Margarito, an honest pirate after all, brought the columns and the remaining lion to Venice. That made the Pope happy and the pirate got the Maltese islands for him to enjoy.
And there you have them, the Persian columns and the winged Lion. Are you following me so far, sir?
- Yes, I am. But this is an absurd story. As far as I know the columns are of Byzantine origin, not Persian, and those bandits and pirates you mention -working for a Pope!-, well, I doubt they ever existed!
- Sir, as I insinuated before it is not so strange for a powerful man to be surrounded by scoundrels that he may use to maintain the status-quo; power sustained through force, the rich get richer and the sick stay poor -you know the song. And outside there is always a barbaric enemy ready to eat your guts -an enemy that is kept barbaric through war or piracy, or both. Nothing new under the sun, you see.
But as I said it was important for you to listen to the story, not to believe it.
And now, talking about pirates, I do believe that someone must have stolen your camera. Didn't you have it on the table when I sat down?
- My camera!! Where...? How did you...?
I searched the man but obviously enough he did not have it. The police was not of much help either and at the end my camera was simply nowhere to be found.
- Have a nice day, sir.
Those were the last words that the man, whose name could well have been Yusef, addressed me. He walked away, slowly, turning back towards the Leone di San Marco, whistling -and I am quite positive of this- a pirate's tune.
Sliema, February 2005.