The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Mr David Manner

There are no two ways about it. Mt Athos is a fortress of discrimination. No women, of course. I should stand with the oppressed and refuse to go. In a sense, however, I am one of them. A hundred Greeks are allowed on the mountain per day, but only ten foreigners. It’s official. A Greek is ten times more important. Orthodox clerics are exempt from the quota, but they still need a letter of recommendation. There’s a wrong type of Orthodox, too.

“You should be fine,” Terry said when he signed my application. He was commenting on my chances of admission. I was finer than he imagined. Once, when I was on Athos alone, I decided to stay an extra night beyond the four-day limit. I told the monastery I’d missed the boat. There was one a day. The extra night was illegal, but they let me stay. There wasn’t much choice, since the boat had gone, though they weren’t bothered. I could have stayed longer. All the same, Terry may have known things I didn’t. The monks mightn’t want you in the first place.

One morning, I took Manur to the consulate. Terry observed him, then put his reading glasses on. He checked Manur’s passport, every page. I have an image in my head of his turning certain pages upside down to examine them more closely. I’m probably exaggerating. But there may have been something, a stamp, a black cross, an empty space which disqualified Manur. With his office work, Terry normally followed the rules, though he broke others, as I found out later. We all exaggerate, Manur included. His face had a tight expression. The passport scrutiny upset him. It got worse.

“Manur David Madyan.”

Terry read out the full name on the ID page (I’ve changed it slightly). Along with his official tone, there was a hint of doubt. He reflected for a moment, then started writing on the application form.

“We’ll make that David Manner.”

I liked the we. He wasn’t changing Manur's name forever. He couldn’t, could he? He did it for Mt Athos, for the permit, to make a better case for admission. He also put Manur down as British. He was doing him a favour. He was lying and he disliked people who did that. Manur looked even more uncomfortable. I felt a monstrous laugh bubbling in my chest but kept it there. When the application was done, Terry took his glasses off and sat back in the chair. He was pleased with himself. Manur had passed the interview, albeit in an altered form. Diplomacy is about compromise. He was now an Englishman and, implicitly, a Christian (I think he was already), not quite the right kind for the monks, but as good as they usually got with a foreigner, better – in their view and possibly in Terry’s – than most of the alternatives. Terry didn’t notice the humour. Manur didn’t either. After the interview, as soon as the door was shut, he said “I don’t like him” and quivered with disgust. “David was my father’s name.” 

     Terry meant well, but surely admission was guaranteed, as long as you paid the fee. Your name wouldn’t make any difference, or your race or religion. We were all non-Orthodox, all damned. 

     There’s one thing Terry didn’t mention – not till we were on the mountain  the rumours about the monks. I say we. The next time I saw Manur, he told me about the monks’ sexual habits. The rumours, that is. His Greek friends at the university had filled him in, gleefully, I expect, when he referred to Mt Athos. If he went, he would not just sacrifice his name, his filial pride and his nationality but his maidenhead as well. It was too much. Manur no longer wished to go. In the end, he disqualified himself.