In Portugal: Requiem for O Manel

Manuel Simões is being forced to close his 70-year-old family business, a restaurant on the outskirts of Lisbon. Since VAT rose for businesses like his, 75,000 jobs has disappeared from the industry.

Manuel Simões, 64, stands behind the steel and glass counter of his restaurant, O Manel, looking tired under the dim lights. “Everything has a beginning and an end,” he says, trying to hide how emotional he can get when talking about closing his 70-year-old business.

Simões has been serving meals and pouring drinks since the early 1970s, when he inherited this business from his father, who established it in the 1940s. Running the restaurant has never made Simões rich but it provided him with enough to keep the business profitable while employing four members of staff.

Located in Vale da Amoreira, a troubled, working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon, O Manel is a place where you can enjoy the rare sight of an amiable conversation between African immigrants, gypsies and Portuguese. 
 
“Even those kids who are involved in all sorts of things – you know, drugs and what not – when they come here they never cause any trouble,” says Fatima Simões, Manuel’s wife and the restaurant’s cook. 
 
O Manel was founded back when Vale da Amoreira’s landscape was all pine trees and wild nature, not sevenstorey grey buildings enveloped in an aura of crime and poverty. Seven decades later, the restaurant is the only institution left that has seen it all.
 
But this month marks the end of O Manel. Although Portugal’s financial crisis is partly responsible, Simões was driven over the edge by the VAT rise from 13 to 23 per cent for restaurants and cafés – an austerity measure implemented in 2012 as part of Portugal’s bailout programme. This has slashed most businesses’ profit margins, at a time when eating out has become more of a luxury than a habit.
 
According to the association of Portuguese restaurants and hotels, since VAT for restaurants has risen, 75,000 jobs have disappeared in an industry that employs 300,000 people, 6 per cent of Portugal’s workforce. The association predicts that by the end of 2013 the number of jobless food-service workers will rise to 120,000. 
 
Simões reacted to the VAT hike in the way he thought most fair to his blue-collar, crisis-affected clientele: instead of raising his prices, he reduced them in order to keep the customers coming. 
 
His hope was proved wrong – or rather, insignificant, as Portugal’s economic crisis spread like wildfire, bringing the country to a record overall unemployment rate of 17.8 per cent. Although the customers stuck with O Manel, spending €6 (£5.20) for a meal gave way to paying just €1 (90p) for a beer. 
 
“When we shut the restaurant down, people won’t know what to do,” Simões told me when I met him. “We’ve always been here. We’ve seen so many people grow up. It’ll be like losing family.”

 

A "Pastel de nata" - Lisbon's most popular pastry. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle