I wish I could sing.
Instead, I listen to others sing. Lately, I listen almost exclusively to Arabic classics and folk songs from the 1950s and 1960s, that mythical “Golden Era” that my grandparents look back on with such nostalgia.
Imagine if, 50 years from now, your grandkids refer to the early-2000s as the Golden Era of music and jam to N’Sync like you used to, except in hipster way.
Weird, right? But I digress.
It started because I needed something to listen to while I worked on my school assignments because complete silence was strangely distracting. But Bruno Mars was also not conducive to concentration. What I really needed was something fairly slow-paced that I already knew the words to, so that I could sing along on automatic (I must sing along, it’s just a compulsive behavior), freeing the conscious part of my brain to analyze the structure of the Iraqi federal government.
Or something like that.
That’s how I ended up listening to Lebanese singer Fairouz.
I wasn’t particularly familiar with her work, but there had been a summer in Egypt not too long ago where I had spent almost a full month listening to one ancient (and by ancient, I mean ‘80s era) cassette over and over and over again.
This is how it happened.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, the only car we had access to that summer was my great-uncle’s, and it was so old it only had a cassette player. The radio didn’t work, either.
In an attempt to banish the oppressive silence that we hope will facilitate family bonding but really only leads to arguments, my dad rooted around in the car for a tape we could listen to, and that was the one we found.
The cassette had a total of eight songs on it, one of which was a demo recording of another song that was already on the cassette, so really there were seven. In the space of three weeks in that car, I went from enjoying the music to hating Fairouz, the tape, the car and my life, to singing along loudly and obnoxiously as the lyrics imprinted themselves indelibly into my brain.
Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
(When we finally got our own car back, which had thankfully been produced this century, my father suggested we bring the tape along for an upcoming two-hour drive to Alexandria. The look of horror on my mother’s face was indescribable and hilarious.)
Needless to say, I still remembered the words to all these songs nearly two years after that summer had ended, so as far as I was concerned that was exactly what the doctor ordered. But you can only listen to the same seven songs so many times, a lesson that is as applicable in a tiny apartment illuminated only by the light of a laptop as it is stuck in traffic in downtown Cairo.
Thus I began to expand my repertoire of Fairouz songs, and then it occurred to me that I should look into other famous singers I was familiar with from the same era. I started off with the legendary singer Umm Kulthoum. Let me tell you, the advantage to Umm Kulthoum when you are writing a paper is that her songs go on for at least an hour, so you don’t have to keep switching back to YouTube to pick another song or waste time making a playlist. And it’s not just her, by the way: some of Abdelhalim Hafez’s songs are just as long.
That was perfect for a long semester of writing papers, as far as I was concerned.
It was during the break that I realized that it wasn’t just about the assignments anymore. The music was beautiful, like me a mix of East and West, the beat of the tablah setting off the piano’s tinkle, the oud, and the violin strumming together. They follow each other; one sets a rhythm and the other takes it, amplifies it, mimics it, enhances it, strengthens it. The lyrics – even better.
There is a time and place for calls to shake one’s booty while chugging a bottle of scotch, but there is something romantic – yes, I said it – about a song that tells a story.
The songs tell me stories of handsome peasant boys, the sun absorbed into their skin as they work in fields of wheat. Girls with wide dark eyes and wild hair walk through the cobblestoned streets of medieval neighborhoods. They love each other, abandon each other, long for each other, return to each other. They ride bikes through the park and their eyes meet across crowded rooms and they huddle together in times of war.
It is embarrassingly corny.
Especially for me, the person who thought Rachael Adams should have married James Marsden instead of Ryan Gosling in “The Notebook.” I really hated “The Notebook.”
I can’t help it, though.
It’s not the earnestness of the lyrics or the passion with which the singers declare their love. After all, “The Notebook” didn’t lack in earnestness or passion, and it only made me hate it more. It’s not that I can imagine myself in the scenarios the songs depict, either – I hate riding bikes and I find that the major advantage of crowded rooms is the ease with which you can avoid eye contact.
But there is something about these songs that speak to me in a way that is very hard to explain or justify – to people of my generation.
My grandmother totally gets it, though.
Which is why, in case anyone asks, my favorite singer is Bruno Mars.
That’s what the kids listen to these days, right?