When I visited the Barcelona museum of Hash, Marijuana & Hemp in September this year I came across an intriguing article displayed on the walls of the exhibition space. Written for the French periodical Voilà by Francis Carco (1886-1958), and published on May 4th, 1935, this reportage provides a fascinating contemporary account of music-making in the hashish dens of Piraeus, Greece.
I immediately recognised that this was a previously unknown source in rebetika music studies – at least in English (see corrections by Άγγελος Σέρτης in the comments) – as well the sub-genre known as hasiklidika, whose lyrics reference drug-taking practices (particularly hashish) as well as the places they were consumed in – the tekedes (or hash-dens).
The Hash Museum website provides the following background information into how this article came about:
“In 1932, the French author Francis Carco, who worked for various newspapers, was given the assignment to write about two of his favourite topics: prostitution and drugs in the Mediterranean. For his reportages, he successively visited the slums of Barcelona, Athens, Izmir, Istanbul, Beirut, Alexandria and Cairo.”
The other articles written by Carco on cities like Izmir, Istanbul and Alexandria would also prove to be revealing sources for researchers into the genre of rebetika. Hopefully they can all be sought out and translated at a later stage.
Heartfelt thanks must be given to John Humbley, who translated this article from the original French into English. Additional assistance was also sought from Thomas Henry (of Ceints de bakélite) to verify the date of the original issue in the microfiche archives held by the National Library of France.
And a final thanks to the Barcelona Museum of Hash, whose permission was sought to publish this text on my blog.
– Michael Alexandratos,
November 13, 2019.
It was on a blue-tinted night that I was out walking with a policeman along the Piraeus waterfront, when I suddenly had the idea of visiting a hashish den. I had been told that these dens were not uncommon in Greece and that they were really something special. I even had some addresses. My companion smiled. “You know”, he said, “all the dens you mention are in fact closed now. We are cracking down on them. Still…”
He hailed a taxi and told the driver where to take us. The car took off at high speed in the direction of a part of the town that I had not yet explored. It was on the left, just past the Customs House in an area where there were refugees. As we drove up the street there were glimpses of the sea. Then we turned off to the right along a road above the seafront, in the moonlight, with huts where drinks were sold and dogs could be heard barking. No one was about on the road at this time of night, everyone was asleep, no lights on anywhere. There were boats in the inlets, quite motionless. The phosphorescent water stretched out to the horizon, all peaceful and smooth without a ripple.
“Look at that tumbledown stonework by the side of the road’, said the inspector. “It’s the remains of the old town walls. There’s not much left, but still…”
“There won’t be much left of the car either”, I said, as we were being shaken up as we drove.
“Yes, it’s not a good road”.
It was really a very bad road, and the driver, rather unwillingly, took a thousand precautions as we proceeded. I took advantage of this to get a good look at the surroundings. There were one storey, cube-shaped cottages without any roofs, stacked up facing the sea, so close together that there was only an ill-lit alleyway between them, going down to the water.
My guide went on:
“Not long ago no one would have taken the risk of venturing into this neighbourhood at night. It was infested by thieves, criminals of the worst sort, who practiced what you call, I think, in France, la mise en l’air – doing away with people.”
“It would be a good place for it”
“Let’s get out, it’s here” the policeman suddenly said.
The taxi stopped and we took a few steps in the direction of a track that zigzagged down from the road, past boulders, to the shore. There was a shack with all the doors and windows closed and no light visible. There was a sort of a flag on a mast. The mast must have been used to locate this place from the sea. I was just preparing myself for adventures when my companion knocked on the door, which was opened quietly by an old man who had obviously just been woken up.
“Kalinichta (good evening)” said the man, “what do you want?”
The Inspector pushed him aside and went into the shack. I followed him in. There was a front room that served as a bar, with tables and a counter, and behind this a smaller room. In it there was a folding bed and chair with a lighted candle screwed into an empty bottle.
“What do you want?” asked the host, who had come in with us.
The policeman explained why we had come, but the innkeeper, either because he was being frank or because he didn’t trust us, launched into a long story interspersed with sighs. As he was speaking Greek, I didn’t understand a word of his outpourings.
“What’s he saying?” I whispered.
“He claims no one smokes here.”
Taking me aside, the old man started talking again, trying to make me understand with so many extravagant hand gestures that instead of convincing me he just got on my nerves.
“He says that if his place was a hashish den, you would smell the hashish”, said the policeman.
“Fair enough”, I said. “But what about cocaine?”
Hearing this last word, the old man’s shouting got so loud that I was literally deafened.
“Shut up will you! Quiet!” the inspector shouted, pretending to inspect the place. “Don’t make me search your den – you know who I am?”
The old man clasped his hands and suddenly, pricking up his ear as a shrill whistle came from outside, he stammered: “Police!”
“What’s this?” I asked.
Voices could be heard, stones kicked along the pathway and footsteps after the whistle, getting closer to us. The inspector walked across the room and waited at the doorway.
Three men in the moonlight were coming down the steep track. They were policemen doing their rounds who had been surprised to find a car stopped on the road and had questioned the driver. Then when they had the information they needed, decided to inspect the shop. My inspector only had a word to say to them but with a revolver in their hands they came into the shack and brutally shone their electric torches all over the walls and ceiling.
“Bah!” I made up my mind. “It’s no use insisting. Let’s just go somewhere else. Perhaps we’ll have more luck.”
“As you wish.”
We left the old man to sort things out with the policemen and got back into the taxi, which, this time, drove us back to the port at such speed that it almost broke an axle. There my guide had the taxi drive along the waterfront and then towards the station, passing through vacant blocks alongside the railway line. We had to walk through some soggy ground, with rocks strewn about and our shoes sinking into the soil. The moonlight made the rails shine and sparkle, and behind a ragged line of trees we could see light coming from a small house with open shutters. A dark wall surrounded the house and the trees. We took this direction and shortly afterwards were greeted by furious dog-barking.
“No fear. We are there!” said the inspector quietly, throwing three pebbles at the window.
The barking stopped. Someone from inside opened the door that gave onto the street and without asking a single question, mysteriously closed the door behind us. There was only one downstairs room, with a beaten-earth floor. Once we were in the torchlit room, we could make out the figures of several individuals. The men were sitting on sacks, staring through the gloom at us, their eyes abnormally bright. One of the men held a flimsy Turkish guitar in his hand. He was sitting on the floor with his legs crossed and seemed to be waiting to play his instrument as we took a seat. This expression of expectancy was on everyone’s faces, but a pungent acrid smell of burnt weed floated in the air of the room, and I saw the man exchange the usual greetings with the master of the premises.
He was a Sicilian, with woolly black hair, harsh features and a hooked nose like a bird of prey. In his hands was an object he was fingering with great care…To use the local word, the object was a tsibouki, consisting of a recipient filled with water and two hollowed out bamboo sticks. The first stick served as a pipe for the tsibouki and the other to heat it. This pipe supported the tobacco and glowing charcoal on a tin ring. The extremities of the two bamboo sticks were immersed in the liquid in the recipient.
“I speak to my heart to give me comfort…”
The musician started to sing all of a sudden, accompanying himself on a Turkish guitar.
My heart does not believe me.
I tell my heart she will come back to me. I tell a thousand lies.
My heart does not believe me.
Kala! Kala! Shout several deep voices by way of approving.
Under the low smoky ceiling, the strings of the instrument barely vibrated and the tone of the singer was all the more penetrating, warmly persuasive. The light of the torch enhanced the spell of the song and as the Sicilian raised the back of his hand so his breath would fan the glowing embers of the tsibouki, a young boy was preparing some hashish, kneading it through his fingers.
“Look”, said the inspector softly.
The Sicilian offered me the tsibouki, taking care to use the traditional formula to accompany his offer. Everyone around him repeated the formula, and, as I brought the tube towards my lips, I inhaled first one puff, then another, then a third, until the man sitting next to me, aroused by the smell, took advantage of my coughing fit, snatched the pipe out of my hands and finished it off with relish.
“Isichia!” cried all those present.
The man let himself drop to the floor after he had smoked and although I had personally not felt anything yet, I saw his face take on a blissful expression which astounded me.
“Lie down, you’ll feel better” said my policeman after a little speech the Sicilian made for my benefit.
I didn’t want to do anything, since I was convinced that the three innocent puffs I had taken would cause no ill effects, and I answered:
“No, no way.”
“You’ll regret it!”
However, the smoker’s expression changed from one of ecstasy to one of stupor, but I hardly had time to take it in when I felt as if I was overcome by a feeling of giddiness and I was losing my grip on reality. I tried to fight it off, but the effects of the hashish were so strong that I felt increasingly awful, to my very bones. Everything went fuzzy, confused, strange, it couldn’t be put into words. I was almost knocked out by a shock of delicious brutality and it dawned on me then that this was the state of “mastoura” which the stupor induces in the smoker.
“It’s all right…just wait” I heard the inspector say. “I’ll peel you an orange. That’s the best antidote there is.”
I felt myself tightening up and I could hear the notes of the guitar as if they were coming from another world. They rocked me to contentedness, filled me with sweetness, with dreaminess. It was strange. Their resonance found some unknown continuation within myself and after I had closed my eyes for a short while, I opened them to see on the wall, in a frame, a gaudily coloured reproduction of the Acropolis, and that naïve picture seemed so marvellously evocative that I felt completely transported. No need for any orange any more. Nevertheless, when I was offered one, I felt obliged to eat several quarters so as not to appear ungrateful. Finally, I got up, and went to leave when there was the sound of a dog barking furiously in the courtyard that we all looked up at the same time.
“Stay there, I’ll go and see”, said the Sicilian.
He went outside and tiptoed…towards the door, which he pushed ajar, but then closed again, bursting out laughing.
“What? What’s wrong?” the guitar player asked.
The other man gleefully told him of the conversation he had just had. It was indeed comical. A hashish dealer had seen our taxi stopped by the vacant lot…and as at that hour it was a bad sign in itself, the man did the rounds of the hashish smokers to warn them.
“He thinks that the police are about to launch a raid” said the Sicilian. “The police! Go on with you!” I replied: “Go home and go to sleep. Don’t bother anyone. It may be the police lurking round but for the first time in my life, I’m not afraid, eviva! I’m waiting for them.”
“Of course,” my guide growled.
He laughed too, but his laugh lacked conviction.
– Francis Carco
Voilà, May 4th, 1935.