ZAI EL-HAWAImagine the singer. April in Paris, his first day out alone. He doesn't mind being lost here. From a small shop he buys a shirt he knows he'll never wear. He buys it because a new shirt with plastic, cardboard, and pins is perfection and that to him is transcendence. Now imagine the singer's pain, his liver eaten up by belharzia. You have to see this because there's a kind breeze blowing on this sunny day in Paris, and because our singer is elated--a new song to record in two weeks, a concert in two months.
Now imagine my cousin who leapt from a balcony the day the singer died. For years everyone said he's ill, he's ill. But such a small, unconfirmed fact is like one of the barrels of gunpowder the Turks stored in the Parthenon for decades. A cigarette or a misfired shell from the rebellious Greeks and the roof blows up. Or the fireworks factory in Tennessee, ten miles from where I lived, a tremor on the pavement, and a distant boom like a whisper that goes unheard. I don't remember how the fire started or how many people died.
I stick a tape of Zai El-Hawa in the stereo and the singer introduces the song. Dilwaati zai el-hawa. Kalimat (lyrics by) Muhammad Hamza. Applause. Talhin (music composed by) Baligh Hamdi. Enthusiastic applause. Tuqadimaha ma'ya (performed by) Al-Orchestra Al-Massiya. Applause. Screaming. One song. Forty minutes. Once a year. Enthusiastic applause.
They love this man, his handsome face, his peasant origins. That he was an orphan would've made them weep had they known it. He's kept the the lice infested orphanages, the molesting by older boys, the rancid food a secret. And only his closest friends know he started singing after failing to master the flute. His listeners only know humble beginnings, and now they see his name written with white roses in a bouquet larger than a bed.
By now they are screaming. Awid. Min Awil. (From the beginning. All over again). They love this song though it's like the others--candle lit nights, flowers, and a longing that's by now a pertro-dollar trope--except the singer insisted on including a saxophone and an electric guitar. "But this is Arabic music," his friends complained. "So what, so what" he yelled back at them. He was right. The crowd loves it. From the beginning, all over again, I chant along with them.
Once on a coffee farm in Kenya a woman began rhyming. The children working for her gathered to listen. When she stopped they said "Sing again, sing like rain." Once I read in a newspaper...
Now imagine the singer getting tired from his walk. He chooses a small cafe filled with sunlight and orders tea. Then a man enters, expensive suit, gold wrist watch, the kind of man who would insist on accompanying the singer all day, buying him gifts, treating him to dinner, the kind of man who would end up drunk late that night telling the singer "I memorize all your songs," and weep to him about his exile and nostalgia and weep and weep.
But the singer hides his face behind a newspaper, and when the man leaves he is relieved the way a dying man would be relieved in learning that all history is wiped out, and pain will no longer exist. Now try to listen to the singer express this with a sound, half-whispter, half-sigh, a gesture liable to make a crowd gather, all screaming "From the beginning. All over again," and a group of child laborers rushing into the cafe begging "Sing again, sing like rain," among them a teen-age girl, fireworks jutting from her hair. 1