Letter From A Correspondent, Undated.

March 10, 1885 ·

The sun is setting over a panorama of dusky masjid towers, and the dust of the immeasurable Sahara lends the sky above a similar hue to the ground beneath. All is sand. Lest I run the risk of forgetting that I’m sitting in Africa’s greatest city, of course, my bawab chatters away in his impenetrable Cairene accent, doing his best to distract me from the task at hand.

Said task: to find the hashish, to smoke the hashish, to somehow portray the ineffable mystery of the sandy sky in the midst of the great release brought about by the hashish.

My attempts at marshalling my paintbrush whilst dissolved in the oceanic effects of laudanum in Cathay having failed me something awfully, I decided some time ago to turn my arts to the skies of Africa, and my lungs and veins to a lesser poison. I have found it most a most effectual inspiration, if disorienting slightly, but a handful of the retainers-in-exile of the former Mahdi of the Soudan seem to appreciate paintings of improbable masjids dangling from the sky, so all that turned out for the best. Now, fraying at the edges like the delightful arabesque rug upon which I recline, I try to drown out the penetrating ayn and the punctuating qaf – not so much a consonant as a glottal stop to the Cairenes – and focus my awe on the same sky and the same sand that every great man from Rameses II to Napoleon has awed at

My bawab, it must be said, does not appreciate the sight. I would consider dismissing him, but unfortunately, he comes with the building, and in antithesis to the Kipling-Cat, I am quite peculiarly attached to my particular nest.

I am finally torn from my reverie (dusty canvas watching me balefully from its single mihrab-eye in the wall of its unfinished masjid) by the phrase “Art’fisal Adam”, spoken with some contempt in an approximation of English. The speaker, Sara, is the one person in the building other than myself who can read English, and she has come to join the conversation with a copy of The Daily Telegraph. On the front page (which, in my enthusiasm, i hastily snatch up and bear triumphantly to the heavens to catch the dying sunlight), a crude diagram of a man’s head filled with cogs.

I admit I had quite forgotten, in this place of donkey and cart, where airships are a rare sight which children chase, laughing, through the alleys, that such wondrous mechanical endeavour was taking place back in the Home-Land. And for a brief and sparkling moment my heart pumps oil and my head whirs with ticking cogs, and I know what these mechanical men must feel and how they must think. I see the lines and circles in the world; I see its component parts.

I know now that I must make art, but not how. Suffice it to say, I decide to become an amateur sculptor, hoping to reproduce in art the magnificence of science. I go out to buy metal and saws and most of the equipment necessary for arc-welding in the home setting, and turn my apartment into a sculptor’s studio.

Well, it is now some days later, and the kind, British-trained surgeon Mr. Abd el-Maksoud tells me in his flawless (Manchester-accented) English that I am likely to keep the use of all of my fingers, “despite my best attempts”. I would make a mental note to halve his backsheesh for that, but he is right, of course. Nothing has changed, regardless. I still feel the ticking now and again, and I still know that a world of unrestrained magnificence, powered by the relentless, infinite ticking of the future’s steam-and-brass engines, lies a centimetre behind the eyes of our Artificial Adams.

Every culture that we have ever met has affected our art, our music, and the way that we think. Here we have the opportunity for reflexive creation: to create a thing that can create, and thence to see how it influences us, and how we influence it. Far greater than the simple process of birth, and the schooling and indoctrination that follow – a decade and more before the talent accrues to produce works of worth and respectability – here we will be treated to a new influence just as certainly as if we had met it on an island already speaking our language but thinking thoughts wholly alien to us.

But first, I must wait, while the bandages on my hand and wrist (and arm, side, and chest) come off, and I am assessed again for functionality. Would that I had replaceable parts!

And that, Mr. Editor, is why my column is late this month.

Reporter: Ambrose Garcia III

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