(an essay/story I couldn’t sell, so I’m putting it here)
That Most Decadent of Cities
by Jess Nevins
after Javier Marias
Metropolises, those colossal beasts of urban agglomeration, can be defined, delineated–differentiated–in many ways. The character traits of cities, for example, are often different, though all cities share certain traits in common, such as depravity and decadence. One might quibble at separating those two terms, for surely they seem to carry much the same meaning, so that distancing the two is a distinction without a difference. But for me the distinction is a necessary and even vital one, which has to do with the innate character of a city, which, far more than a city’s outward appearance or its citizens’ cultures, brands you as a visitor, scars you, permanently changes you after you have been cast out.
Depraved cities tend to be insecure, child-like in their evils, and talkative, so talkative, facile and tiring, impatient locales eager to show off and in a hurry to enthrall. If the visitor is not careful, the city will whisk you away, rush you through the bazaars where all is for sale and the bordellos in which no girl or boy is too young, hurry you on a tour of the fighting pits or a hasty visit to the den of a wonder worker or sorcerer. The depraved city will not allow the tourist to dawdle, to saunter, to act the flaneur. The city will do whatever it takes to make the visitor’s behavior conform to the city’s own. Even at the expense of loutishness or bullying actions, the city will seize the lapels and robes of outsiders who walk down its streets and drag them, will they or no, past its smiling facade and into its disreputable depths. The city will try to draw you in, beguile you, overwhelm you, make you their own. Depraved cities, and I am thinking of Isfahan, Herat, Samarkand, are altered by the very existence of tourists on their streets–not because these cities depend on them, for dependence would rob the cities of their independence, their lack of servility, their chest-thumping–but because the cities cannot bear to leave the tourists alone and unchanged. Perhaps the depraved metropolises are addicted to the rush of bringing about the moral downfall of its visitors, or perhaps there is a competition between the cities to see who can corrupt as many outsiders as possible. There is an odd fascism to these cities–they cannot tolerate difference, a cool reaction to the fervid evil of the cities, a flaneur’s passing-by, or anything less than a soul-felt agreement. These cities are all different, yet boringly all the same in their depravity, demanding all from their tourists but while demanding they are also giving their all. These cities demand obsession from outsiders, yet the cities are the ones obsessed.
Durrës, on the other hand, is the most decadent city I know, even more so than Istanbul or Cairo, much less what is left of Rome and London. The decadent city shares with its depraved brothers and sisters a firm belief in its own singularity, whether because of some unique feature the city boasts or because this belief is simply a prerequisite for decadence. But decadent cities could not be more different from their depraved counterparts. Decadence does not require a loud mouth to broadcast its distinctiveness. And then of course the decadent cities are the lazier of the twain. They hoard secrets where the depraved flaunt theirs; they act in an almost hesitant way when it comes to showing the visitor their nodes of degeneration; they avoid those who would define them, rather than seeking them out. The decadent cities yearn for a good word from a tourist, but yearn still more for jealousy. They want to convince the outsider that the cities have hidden and vasty depths, to appear fractal in their complexity, all the while aware that there will always be tourists who wish to plumb those depths and map the folds of complexity. And unlike depraved cities, the decadent cities allow the visitor their fidelity to their real homes. Decadent cities know that tourists ultimately have split allegiances; decadent cities are content to exist as they are, knowing that their show of decadence will eventually lure the tourist in and yield not just compliments but a final and heartfelt surrender.
What makes Durrës more decadent than its relatives is that–and this amazes the experienced traveler–it makes no effort–none whatsoever–to pay attention to its visitors, or to bother to try to draw them through the city gates. Samarkand, even in its current downward spiral, puts on a painted smile for its visitors, conscious that those visitors might wish to stray off the ko’cha cherkovlar and let themselves be entranced by the manticores for sale in the Hidden Market, or seduced by the comely witches of Sand Square. Istanbul, boastful, even conceited, nonetheless is haunted by insecurity–“how could the Arbereshe of Durrës best the Navy of the Faithful, again and again? How could the Beneficent, the Almighty, the Granter of Security allow this to happen, time after time?”–and doomed by its conservatism and the resistance its inhabitants have to changing anything old or accepting anything new. Cairo is what one imagines, when one imagines Cairo; it attracts by living down to the stereotypes and prejudices one has of it. Venice matches Istanbul in its loathing of change, but goes beyond it by looking adoringly at itself as if in a mirror, as if to gaze upon Venice was all that there was to do in the world. But Durrës seems somehow to be ignorant of what attracts visitors to it, or perhaps is much better at pretending to be ignorant of its graces than the others–and that is what, in my view, makes it the most decadent of cities. This pretense of innocence, this coquetry, is as the over-experienced, over-rouged fourteen year old courtesan, both innocent and louche, where the other cities are the over-conscious and over-anxious thirty year old streetwalkers.
This is why Durrës can seem pallid to outsiders, who mistake its affected ignorance of its own decadence for the actual absence of same. But I, I have always experienced the city as moderate, somehow restrained, rather than colorless. Conceited perhaps, but in a reasonable, approachable way, with a degeneracy that exists yet does not call attention to itself, or possibly a degeneracy which is in some way reluctant, so that a visitor’s enthusiasm for, say, the boy whores who parade in front of the Arnavutluk brings about an almost embarrassed smile, as if one has received a compliment which must be endured rather than graciously accepted. Or perhaps Durrës’ reluctance is sham, after all, like its coquetry, like the faux-magics peddled to newcomers and ignorant visitors. (The real thing exists much deeper into the city than tourists usually dare to venture, in suburbs like Shtëpi Publike, where everything is for sale, from Ottoman slave-mages to Swedish mercenaries, and emphatically including the body- and soul-devouring spells which the wonder-workers of Durrës specialize in and are known for). Durrës is interested in devotion, like any other city–even Stockholm, that cleanest and most upright of cities, wants its children to look at it with awe. But Durrës wants both citizens and visitors to feel devoted to its degenerate quarters and degenerate characters much more than it wants the simple allegiance that the Swedes feel for their capital, and Durrës is willing to despoil its own young to guarantee that kind of devotion. What is more degenerate than someone willing to debauch his own children? Who could be more degenerate than someone who takes pride in the depths to which he has fallen?
If this was an acquaintance I was speaking of, he would seem ordinary in his degradation; she would even seem to be proud. And yet Durrës is neither ordinary in its degradation nor ultimately proud of itself. Durrës is no lazy aristocrat lolling on his couch idly gazing at a succubus conjured up for his carnal delights. Durrës is too committed to its degeneracy, too disciplined in the constancy and application of its debauchery. Durrës, as I said, is no lazy aristocrat; Durrës is the alchemist in his laboratory, purposeful, patiently, even zealously at work. Durrës is the only city on the Silk Road (of those I have visited) that seems to observe its traditions, its days of sacrifices, its orgy rituals, and its rites of intoxication with the seriousness of a scientist. On Saint Ansgar’s Day, the Arbereshe proceed from the Cathedral of Saint Aleksandr to the Shtëpi Publike and the brothels of the Bërryl without delay. On the evening of Saint Veronica’s Day, the Arbereshe ritually consume the goat’s head stew which grants visions as it induces lethargy. The Arbereshe do this not out of habit but as a celebration of tradition and the past, both privately and publicly, whether or not they are seen to be doing such, and never with smiling contempt for what their ancestors began, never as a reflex, and never as a self-conscious re-enactment and aping of the past, which seems to be the case in every other city which continues practicing the observances of its ancestors.
It’s this private aspect of the celebrations which speaks the loudest of Durrës’ reticence. Take the shops of Durrës, one of the subtler yardsticks of any city’s character and preoccupations. In my own city of Skopje, we have every city’s banks and government buildings situated cheek by jowl with the filthiest of taverns and the most diseased of whorehouses–restaurants alternating with slave auction houses, cafes next to purveyors of drugs, food carts competing for street space with streetwalkers. We are, in other words, depraved in a vulgar and unimaginative way. In Durrës, by contrast, the groupings are more subtle. Brothels and whorehouses in their own discrete suburbs, the university and library and the Tower of Dust next to the Cathedral, ruins confined to certain boroughs. Bookstores along the Rrugë e Keqardhje, peddling their tomes bound in questionable skins. Gun shops in Arapaj, theaters in Rrashbull. The tiny pastry shops are everywhere, of course, as are the general stores known as zahires, which in Skopje are called, far more anachronistically and poetically (for we Makedonski fancy ourselves poets, every one of us), zalihi na hrani. This grouping, and the subtlety of the businesses’ advertising of their presences, and the general reserve of the suburbs, bespeaks Durrës’ approach to business and consumption, as something to be done with privacy and when possible in seclusion. Pastries are taken home rather than eaten in the street; so too with the foods purchased in the zahires. Every restaurant–even taverns–has booths rather than group tables in the middle of open rooms. Slave auctions are held to an audience of masked men. Even the whores are veiled. The Arbereshe enthusiasm for collecting is, like every other aspect of their lives, singular. Durrës is the great marketplace of the world, the final stop on the Silk Road. All is for sale, and many are the stores catering to collectors. Collectors are everywhere in the city. Even the city’s librarian, an otherwise parched and repressed man, a librarian among librarians, indulges, in his obsession with accumulating all the lost works of Sappho, the “Tenth Muse.” But what is more singular than collecting? Every person’s collection is different from their neighbors’. Durrës is a city in which the behaviors of ethnic groups can be generalized: the Tosks, blond, tall, and fair, are the more reserved and Catholic, while the Gegs, shorter and swarthier, are more outgoing and Muslim, traits which are more fully displayed in the villages outside of the city. But the Tosks and Gegs of Durrës are collectors, just as the many immigrants of the city are, and indulge themselves in pursuits of individual passions. Such pursuits can become competitive, even cutthroat–and I mean that last quite literally, the assassins of Durrës are as professional as the whores, and as given to earning their money. But those pursuits are personal and secret in Durrës, and all know that the accumulating of a collection gives pleasure in ways that it is difficult to articulate. This is one of the reasons why the Arbereshe are not boastful: because describing an individual acquisition, or even one’s process of acquisition, makes it easier for others to imitate the action.
This is why the Arbereshe are like their city. Neither city nor citizens compare themselves to their neighbors, or even worry about what they might do. The Arbereshe, Durrës, each pursues its own passions, whether collecting or the indulgence in degenerate pursuits. It is this attitude which makes the city seem to ignore its neighbors, to portray itself to outsiders in a wan way, as if Durrës believed that interest in tourists and their home cities and countries would lead to being victimized–as if the act of seeing automatically led to the act of being seen.
The boroughs of Durrës are all quite different, but they all share this disinterest, to accompany their degeneracy. The villas on the Mali I Durrësit and in the Shkallnur–Bërryl and the rrethi I ri–Vrinas and its ghettos–even Rinia, along the city’s outward wall, miles from Cathedral at the city’s center–despite Durrës’ size, one never forgets that the city is a port, constantly visited by outsiders, even those from as far away as Kuala Lumpur and Guangzhou. The initial impression of the visitor is that Durrës has every kind of person from every one of the lands that survived the Flux, and that they are all on the streets, watching, individuals flowing into crowds which threaten to become mobs. But this impression soon gives way to the realization that even the largest mob is turned inward, like the city, ignoring its individual members’ personalities and desires and agency. What at first seemed to be a cornucopia of depravity soon becomes a vision of bloodless decay, which in turn conceals the true degeneracy of the city. Always and everywhere there is the same feeling that I experience walking up the Rrugë Malore, the road to the heights of the Mali I Durrësit: a cramped and winding road, more suited to the tiny, irregular neighborhoods of Istanbul than to Durrës, with its wider and more regularly planned broadways. Walking up the Rrugë Malore one can see increasing amounts of Durrës, see the expanses of shops, open marketplaces, the constant stream of tourists and immigrants, but the shops advertise only a little, the marketplaces are full of masked and cloaked men, the immigrants seem to have somewhere private to go. That’s how it is in Durrës: the true sources of degeneracy are veiled, like the women. For all the height of the peak of the Mali I Durrësit, one sees very little that is true and unconcealed, and what one glimpses–the tiny figures of the boy whores in front of the Arnavutluk, the colored lights flashing through the windows of the sorcerers’ towers–only teases the mind with the knowledge that the true degeneracy will always remain hidden from you, in much the same way that the bits of vinegared peppers which street vendors give away as samples tingle the tongue with the promise of a dish one cannot afford to buy.
But the private degeneracy of Durrës goes far beyond the windowless shops which advertise neither their wares nor their existence. Durrës is, simply, degenerate by nature, in its blackened heart and its effete emotions, and like most of us prefers to keep its true nature to itself. This is why it seems so inhospitable, so unfriendly to tourists and visitors wanting to spend money and of themselves. Even for those, like myself, who rented apartments or mansions and lingered in the city for years, Durrës appears wary, secretive–coded. This goes beyond the houses, which like those of Istanbul are built windowless, facing toward inner courtyards, although the houses certainly help foster an air of indecipherability. It goes beyond the typical Arbereshe’s unwillingness to open their homes to strangers, to share a meal or show off their collection. It shows, but does not originate, in the private way that Durrës celebrates its naval victories over the Ottomans, where even the military parades seem to be personal affairs, not open to strangers.
No, the private degeneracy of Durrës comes from its inward gaze, forever spurring itself to deeper deeds of wickedness committed first in the depths of its mind before being brought to light by actual practice. The city looks at itself and only itself, refusing to acknowledge (much less learn from) its visitors. Every business has, it seems, its private room, open only to employees, in which gags, whips, chains, and restraints are common, and the stains on the floor and walls are blood and worse than blood. The smallest zahire has a private stock which reveals its owners’ willingness to sell anything; even the meat of talking beasts, like the giant rats which famously inhabit the sewers of Durrës, can be purchased. The public slave auctions have their secret counterparts, where stock of any race and nation, any age and gender, any color and shape, can be purchased. (Who among us has not wanted a comely Tosk handmaiden to share our bed, or an Ottoman slave-mage to do our forbidden bidding?) But each shop strives to be different in its degeneracy, superior in its own way and the best way to achieve this is to ignore what its neighbors are doing. Every citizen of Durrës protects their home with a jealous fervor; every large building has guards to keep away those with no business entering; every neighborhood has its walls, real or magical, and watchers on those walls. The citizens of Durrës try to avoid mixing with those outside their circles, or even meeting them. I read once, in a Venetian gazetteer, a description of the streets of Durrës that stated that for every one person on the street there are three behind closed doors and shuttered windows practicing the devil’s arts–that the acts of degeneracy (which the writer, being a Venetian and therefore an unwelcome outsider, could only imagine) committed in private would stagger even the Doge himself, but that the Arbereshe of Durrës would never tolerate their specific acts or even their collections becoming known, which is why the Arbereshe seem so unfriendly. Even those of us who have spent years in Durrës are forced to hazard guesses at the rituals and sacrifices, the orgies and murders, the spells and drunken sprees, because guesses are all that we are capable of. Ignorant of Durrës’ true nature we were when we first entered the city, and ignorant of the profundity of its degeneracy we remain.
For the visitor, Durrës, especially at night, seems like a darkened reverse of Harun al-Rashid’s Baghdad. Those in the street do not bother passers-by with stories of the fantastic or perverse; shops do not hang torches or lanterns above their doors to advertise their wares; the houses are not open to strangers; the exotic beasts for sale, the talking rats or women with the heads of cats or men with the bodies of scorpions, are purchased in darkened cellars far below street level. What the unlit streets and cloaked and masked inhabitants emphasize is the darkness in which the visitor stands and the black void of his or her knowledge of Durrës. The subtly-lettered and illustrated posters which adorn so many walls are written for those who already know their messages; they tell the visitor that Durrës is degenerate, but that the degeneracy is hidden from view.
Perhaps this is the greatest degeneracy of all: to debauch oneself, in private, by onesself or in the company of a trusted few, while all others are tantalized and subtly degraded by the awareness that such degeneracy is taking place.