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Friday, November 11, 2011

memory palaces 27/10

Where I lay  my heart is my home, am a rolling stone.-50 cent

I was first introduced to the concept of a memory palace by an article that a friend of mine sent me in the last days of law school. It's an ancient Greek invention, thought up by a guy who survived an earthquake at a dinner party. He found that afterwards he could remember all the people who were there by placing them in his minds in the seats they had occupied at the party. The concept is simple, the results are astounding. Bring to mind a structure you know like the back of your hand, for most people their childhood home is best. It has to be a place you can close your eyes and move around in your mind without making one mistake. In every room in this palace you then place a memory of something, its best to do this by using association rather than the actual words and figures.

I had forgotten about it till I read  Hannibal by Thomas Harris. You see Dr. Lecter maintains a memory palace, his is extensive and airy, it contains works of classical art and architecture,he stores everything that happens there and thus has superhuman recall ability. Consider his remembering Clarice Starling's address,

a parade in Arlington cemetery led by Jesus thirty three, driving a twenty seven model t~ford truck, a “tin lizzie,” with J. Edgar Hoover standing in the truck bed wearing a tutu and waving to an unseen crowd, marching behind him is Clarice Starling carrying a .308 enfield rifle at shoulder arms.  Translation?

Her address is
3327 Tindal,
Arlington, VA 22308.

That's how they work.

Well, am moving tonight, I got the call to pack up and get ready in 2 hours, my last flatmate left this morning and for a glorious 12 hours I had a two bedroomed apartment all to myself, this kind of thing doesn't last very long in my life. Also I can't live alone, I never had my own room till I came to Egypt and I can't stand the solitude of my own apartment. One day I came home early and couldn't sleep, I looked out of my window at the red sky and it felt ominous, for the first time since I came here I was anxious and scared, what if something happens? I asked myself. In the morning she was back and so it was OK. Another thing every time a flatmate leaves they take a small something with them, a trinket that without which life becomes unbearable. This could be read to mean I fell in love with both of them and a piece of my soul is missing but it’s not so. The first one went back to Italy with the only key to the apartment leaving us hermits for a day, this one went with the lighter. The cigarette lighter we use to  turn on the gas cooker. Charading my way to an understanding that I  need a lighter is past my capabilities. So I can't warm water for tea, I can't cook, its impossible to live without fire.

Still I’m sad. This apartment could be a memory palace for me already, I’ve been here barely 2 weeks and i made it home. Cities resemble disorganised human beings in that they spread to their outskirts taking over more and more of the surrounding area, they envelop whatever space is left to occupy, slums and tin shacks, shanty towns and nomad like shelters pockmark the surrounding country side, a chaotic person does the same,they begin by living out of a suitcase then they spread, they leave their clothes everywhere, find a method to madness that is the shoe brush under the bed, the dirty clothes on the floor, the soap next to the sugar and so forth. My room looked like a hurricane was still passing through it and this made me feel at home.

When I leave the house I turn right and press the button for the elevator, I turn left and press the other one, I take out my wallet as I wait and put my key in its abode. When the lift comes I enter it and go down, there I’ll see the landlord, he lives in a small room on the ground floor, it has enough space for his bed and for him to tumble out of it. “izzayek!” I call with a smile.

Then I leave and turn left, then  right down an alleyway I wouldn't think of walking down if I was in Kenya. The first business I come into contact with is the shisha bar. There's a young boy who works there, I bonded with him since he can understand English, I wave to the owner and smile. he doesn't smile back but he’s not a smiley sort of guy, he looks up from his shisha long enough to acknowledge me and this is enough. I start down the road to the metro, in the next two hundred metres I’ll see nearly fifty businesses selling everything. Food, medicine, household supplies at least 5 more shisha bars. Dozens of young schoolgirls all similarly garbed in a white hijab walkthrough here taking their time getting to school crowding all the places to buy food. Then  comes to the road down which cars are always speeding. Then the subway station.

But I leave all this behind today. I went to the shisha bar for the last time and they all greeted me, I was served my shisha and I sat there for the last time, I looked around at the bar and its patrons. The old men who sit and smoke and play at all times of the night. The smoke left my nostrils and I knew I would never see this place again. I wanted to say goodbye desperately. These were my friends but my poor Arabic stopped me. What words do you use for “i'm moving so I want to say goodbye forever.” I have no idea so I smoked. Puffing and puffing away, hearing these sounds as I prepared to pack.

Packing took maybe ten minutes, it's strange how few the things we need   to make a house a home. My suitcase sits on my bed bulging and satisfied and I sit next to it as empty as my apartment. Am excited about where am going, new flatmates and all that but I can't help feeling like am losing something. Unlike my flatmates who always took something away from this apartment I feel like its taking something away from me. But at least I’ll always have another memory palace.


  1. ;-) Yeah, I know it's annoying when someone leaves a smiley as a comment, but I'm smiling. And the word verification for this comment was glingits. Yeah, me too.