illustration by Avi Katz
Ilana elbowed me and eyed the couple sitting to our left in the Hirsch Theater. Shaken out of the reverie brought on by the Tarshiha Orchestra’s rendition of Um Kulthum’s hit song “Raq al-Habib,” “The Servitude of Love,” I followed her gaze. The woman to my left was tapping out a text message on her Android as she whispered to her husband, who had a large knitted blue-and-white kipah on his head.
“Hadas,” she said, apparently in response to his question.
“Did you tell her?” he asked.
“Doing it right now,” she nodded.
I caught her eye and put a finger to my lips. I also pointed to the phone, as if to say that the glow was distracting me. She shrugged and muttered “Almost done.”
“Did she say anything about Ya’akov? Why he didn’t come home?”
The young woman who was standing in for the late great Egyptian chanteuse finished the song with a flourish and the audience cheered. Nasim Dawkar, the concert master and conductor, called another member of the chorus up to the solo microphone to sing another song composed by Muhammad al-Qasabgi, to whose works the night’s concert was dedicated. The woman at the mike, plump and heavily made up, launched into an Um Kulthum favorite, “Inta ‘Omri,” “You are My Life.” Ilana smiled and mouthed the words silently—it’s a song her mother used to sing to her and which Ilana sang to our own children.
Over the years I’ve come to appreciate Arab music. Now I know why it sounded like annoying noise at first—it’s based on an entirely different scale than music in the West, one with notes between the notes we know, a music of unisons rather than harmonies, where structure and meaning are provided by repeating rhythmic and melodic motives rather than harmonic progressions. The Tarshiha Orchestra, like others of its kind, is composed mostly of stringed instruments—eight violins, a cello and double bass, an oud, a zither, and percussion, with a single nay flute as the only wind.
My neighbor’s phone beeped. She read, and hissed at her husband: “She can’t believe it.”
“Believe what?” said the husband in an undertone that was barely under.
“That he’s sitting just two rows in front of us.”
“Are you sure it’s him?”
“I mean, I took his picture and sent it to Ze’ev, and Ze’ev said bingo!”
“Excuse me,” I said very quietly, “but we came here to listen to the music.”
“Oh, so did we!” said the husband, leaning over his wife. “She’s really great, isn’t she?” And he joined clapping the rhythm with much of the rest of the audience.
Um Kulthum of Tarshiha launched into an extended gruppetto that rose and fell and rose and fell again like a tsunami of adoration of the light of her life. The audience went wild. A man two rows in front of us jumped to his feet, hooting and applauding.
I felt a hand on my wrist. It was the woman next to me. She gave me a quick glance out of the corner of her eye as if commanding me to follow her gaze to the applauding man.
“That’s him,” she said. “Do you know what he did to my daughter-in-law?”
“Tell her you don’t care what anyone did to her daughter-in-law,” Ilana whispered angrily in my right ear.
But my neighbor was gripping my wrist and my not-so-subtle efforts to wriggle free made no impression on her.
“Dou’ ma-aya el hob, Dou’ haba bei haba,” the plump woman sang, clasping her fingers together and closing her eyes. “Taste love with me, taste, a bit at a time, from my tender heart.”
“My daughter-in-law works at VAT,” the woman stage-whispered at me.
“The tax men. Big office building in Givat Sha’ul,” the man said proudly. “Not a secretary, no, she’s an accountant. Studied at Hebrew U.”
“Her family,” the man corrected. “Dark and beautiful, that’s what our son Ya’akov says.”
“We’re Iraqis,” the woman reassured me.
“No way,” Ilana, who is Iraqi, hissed in my other ear. “Iraqis would be too cultured to chat in the middle of a concert. Obviously Kurds.”
“Well, northern Iraq,” the woman said defensively.
“But Iraq,” her husband insisted.
“Anyway, Hadas, that’s my daughter-in-law, she was born on Sukkot so they called her Hadas, she has to take a file up to the collection office two floors above.”
“She works on the tenth floor,” the man interjected.
“Ya aghla min ahlmiv,” sang the distant lover from the Galilee, “Oh, more beautiful than my dreams, take me to your gentleness, take me from my life to far away.”
“So she gets on the elevator,” the woman said. “And who’s there but this young Arab guy who cleans the bathrooms.”
“I think he’s sort of a handyman. I don’t think he cleans the bathrooms,” her husband said. “That’s what Hadas said, handyman.”
“She told me he cleans the bathrooms,” the woman insisted. “Anyway, none of the girls in the office like him. They say he’s strange, that he always stands too close, tries to talk to them, you know what I mean? You can tell when someone is just a little bit off.”
“It’s a big elevator,” the man said. He now placed a set of calloused fingers on top of his wife’s hand, which had, in the meantime, worked its way up to my forearm.
“It’s a big elevator, but where does he stand? Not a centimeter between him and her!” Her eyes opened wide. “Imagine! And she’s a married woman, a mother! And he starts singing to her!”
“Inta ‘omri, illi ibtada b’nurak sabahuh,” the deep alto sang, lilting around a single note, a bit up, a bit down, and return. “You are my life, the dawn begins with your light!”
“She sort of pushes him away and he gets angry, curses her. Well, Hadas is scared stiff. She gets off on floor twelve and calls me right away.”
“See, our son, Ya’akov, is in Hong Kong on business,” the man explained.
“He sells apps,” she said. “Apps and links.”
“Does very well,” said the man proudly. “Travels all over the world. Weeks at a time.” Then he added, a bit dejectedly: “Hadas gets lonely sometimes.”
“No she doesn’t,” his wife snapped.
“She told me.”
“She’s happy to have Ya’akov. What more could she want?”
“I was just saying …”
The woman turned back to me and tightened her grip.
“So ‘Havva,’ she says, that’s my name, Havva, ‘Havva, this Arab guy is bothering me. I’m afraid to go in the elevator, afraid to go alone to the bathroom.’ And I say, ‘That’s awful!’ But I tell her, ‘Don’t worry, I know exactly what to do.’ Right away I knew what to do.”
“You didn’t know right away, you asked me when I got home,” her husband said.
She shot him a frozen smile. “I knew right away.”
Ilana had managed to block out the conversation and concentrate on the music. “Wala shaf elkalb kablak farhah wahdah,” she sang softly in my ear, together with the soloist. “My heart never knew happiness before you, my heart never knew anything in life but the taste of pain and suffering!”
“You have to know what works with them,” she said, pointing with her chin at the man two rows before us. “We have a nephew who’s an infantry battalion commander in the reserves.”
“Two falafels,” her husband said, tapping his shoulder. “He knows Gabi Ashkenazi personally.”
“So I’m on the land line with Hadas and I call Ze’ev on my cell phone. He’s at work but I tell him, Ze’ev, go straight home, put on your uniform, strap on your pistol, and head over to VAT. Invite Hadas down to the cafeteria for coffee.”
“Did she say when is Ya’akov coming home?” the man asked. “I don’t understand the boy. He shouldn’t leave his wife stranded like that. I never did.”
“He called, don’t you remember? He was delayed.”
“Hat a’inaik tisrah fi dounyethum a’ineyyah!” The singer looked heavenward. “Bring your eyes close so that my eyes can get lost in the life of your eyes! Bring your hands so that my hands will rest in the touch of your hands!”
“Ze’ev’s a great guy, always ready to help,” the husband assured me.
“So he does just what I say, and in half an hour he’s on the tenth floor at VAT escorting Hadas down to the cafeteria on floor three for a coffee.”
“So they get on the elevator,” the husband said.
“And who’s there? Guess?”
I look at the man two rows before us, who was holding his arms up high as if he wanted to grab the singer on the stage.
“Precisely,” the woman said. “And there’s Hadas with this army officer in uniform, with his rank, and his pistol on his hip.”
“Do you think he gets up close?” the man asked me.
“He retreats into the farthest corner he can find,” the woman chortled.
“Mina el wujud w’iba’idni,” Ilana intoned in my right ear. The plump woman from Tarshiha continues the line: “Take me away from the universe, Far away, far away. Me, and you, far away, far away. Alone.”
“So you know what happens?” the woman asked.
“There’s an earthquake!” the man said.
I twitched. “An earthquake?”
The woman looked at the singer. “Not as if. A real earthquake.”
“Last week,” the man explained. “You probably didn’t feel it, but the VAT building, it’s one of those new buildings built to be flexible. So the whole building starts to sway.”
“And that Arab, he gets propelled from the corner where he’s cowering straight at Hadas and Ze’ev,” the woman related. “Thrown right into their arms.”
“So there he is, embracing this religious woman and this army officer,” the man chuckled. “Ya’akov should have seen them.” Then he said mournfully: “I wish Ya’akov would come home already.”
The woman continued: “He looks at her, and then at him, and there’s terror in his eyes. That’s what Hadas says. And they reach the third floor and before the door’s even half open he’s bolted out of there. And in the week since then he’s made sure not to get anywhere near Hadas.”
Um Kulthum of the north built up to a climax as she came to the end of the song. “Omri dhayea’ yehsibuh izay a’alaya? Inta Omri illi ibtada b’nurak sabahuh! How could they consider that part of my life? You are my life that dawns with your light!”
As the sound of the orchestra faded, a few seconds of utter silence filled the room, as if the audience were too moved to react. Then the applause broke out. Gradually, by twos and threes and then by whole rows, people rose, joining the already standing man two rows in front of us. The woman finally loosened her grip on me as she and her husband, and Ilana and I, stood to acknowledge the moving rendition.
Ilana leaned over to speak to her.
“And there he is?” she said, directing her gaze at the man two rows in front.
Her husband was looking at him warily, uncertainly, in trepidation.
“There he is,” the woman said. And her husband repeated after her: “There he is.”
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