Maha walks towards me, “Call me Maha,” she said, “Fifi bores me a little, but Kamal loves her. Why not? Kamal you get to choose, habibi.”
Kamal paused a little, then mischievously started humming Feiruz’s Khallik Bil Beit, or as she would have pronounced it, Khallik Bil Bayt, in romanticized archaic Lebanese countryside diction with which all of her songs aligned. Maha wouldn’t take it. She held a familiar ceramic vase off one of the cabaret’s familiar tables, raised it over her head as if she was going to demolish it on his, and ran towards him.
History wouldn’t have allowed this scene to trespass into its books and into my present, but this was not Cairo, neither was it Beirut. This was not the past, nor was it the present. This was a cabaret in a hotel that existed outside the paradigms of time, apparently, bluntly situated within the contexts of my own pleasure. This was Asmahan and her lover as Tom and Jerry. This was Maha and Kamal fighting over Feiruz, which in one or two adequately western elocutions would rhyme with Beirut. This was not Beirut, nor was it Sao Paolo, as I turned around on my stool to face the piano and started playing a Bossa Nova.
Maha stood still. Kamal kept running, “I like this kid,” she said and walked back towards me pointing obliquely to the ceiling, “Lights!”
It wasn’t that dark outside, but Leila switched on a spotlight illuminating a circular terrain right next to the piano, “Kilmé, Kilmé, ya habibi ta efham alayk,” Maha starting singing and I played along. She chose one of Feiruz’s few songs that don’t reside on either banks of the river of tears that the Rahbani brothers constructed, flowing from the utmost tip of Mount Lebanon. This song is a fiesta, riding a Bossa Nova, about a woman fed up with the nonsense of her lover, ending with a famous Lebanese proverb, declaring that ‘remorse would never build a house’. Maha would tell you that it’s that diva after all, and no one will be spared her drama, but everyone in the room enjoyed the show. Kamal was clapping. I stood up and started clapping, primarily for myself in felicitations of successfully gaining their admiration.
It’s funny to consider being approved of by a group of strangers an accomplishment. Maybe that would give me more chances to know what was behind that third door. Maybe I was enjoying the ride and wanted more. Maybe I was just enjoying the show, the spotlight. Maybe I was just happy, and it has been a while since I have been just happy. Happiness is underrated. At least that’s what Hassan, the grocer under my parents’ house, use to say, “Bahjé!” he screamed. I liked the word, “Where’s your Bahjé?” he would ask everyone as we picked our vegetables in apparently boring routines. Bahjé is Arabic for happiness… utmost happiness, contentment, pleasure, gladness, cheerfulness, joy, glee, bliss, delight, exhilaration and ecstasy. Maybe he was right.