Wednesday, February 15: How can I talk about Omar Khairat without talking about Egypt? And about Ahmed? And about love? Music is like gossamer, weaving itself clandestinely into our lives, wrapping itself around our experiences. A song, a chord, a musical interlude, even a symphony become inextricably intertwined with a memory. And that is that. There is no fighting it. It is just there, forever. A song and a memory, bound in matrimony, till death do us part.
Tonight, here is Omar Khairat, in Muscat, Oman. At the Royal Opera House. And here I am, listening, enraptured, and transported back to my first memory of him. And of someone named Ahmed. And of Egypt.
I first heard about the famous Egyptian composer and pianist on a November day in 2009, a Sunday afternoon in fact, while sitting in my bedroom in my house in Virginia. The air was crisp and blue outside my window. The leaves had fallen off the trees and the branches were spindly tangles outside. I was chatting online with Ahmed, an Egyptian I met on Facebook. He had just been the night before to the Cairo Opera House to see Omar Khairat. I had never heard of this “famous” Egyptian. So Ahmed sent me link after link, and I listened to Khairat’s music. We chatted between the musical pieces. Ahmed sent me pictures of himself and his friends, all spiffed up at the Opera House. Pictures of them with Omar Khairat.
It was a lovely Sunday afternoon. Too lovely, really. I fell a bit in love with Ahmed on that day. And with Omar Khairat.
But wait. How did I meet Ahmed online? A strange thing really. I had spent a month in Egypt in July, 2007, “studying” Arabic at Al Azhar University. Actually I wasn’t doing much studying, but was just having the adventure of my life in Egypt. I fell in love with the dusty Cairo streets, the chaotic and incessant honking traffic, the Cairo Hash House Harriers, the hills and the corniche of Muquttum, the pyramids of Giza, Ma’adi, the Grand Cafe on the Nile, the felucca at sunset on the Nile. I fell in love with camels and the Khan al Khalili Bazaar and the Egyptian people. I also fell briefly in love with an Egyptian brain surgeon, but that is another story. (I am writing a blog now about my time in Egypt, trying to reconstruct that amazing time in my life, but I haven’t written much. It’s a work-in-progress, but if you’d like to see what I have so far, it’s here: catbird in cairo.)
Later, much later, on Facebook, I joined a group called the “I LOVE EGYPT” group, and suddenly I had 35+ new Egyptian friends, all young men, most looking for a ticket to America.
Somehow Ahmed was different. We had rapport, chemistry; he was funny and smart and we just clicked. If you can really fall in love with someone online, then I guess that’s what I did. In December, I got a job offer to teach English in Korea, and I decided with the money Korea would pay for my one-way flight, I could stop in Egypt for only a little more money out of my pocket. I did just that, met Ahmed, and stupidly, fell even more in love with him on just a four-day visit.
After I got to Korea, I was heartbroken to leave him, and then continued to be heartbroken over and over again in my first months there, as Ahmed told me lie after lie after lie. Finally, after too much suffering, I deleted him from Facebook and told him whatever we had was over. He already knew that it was over, of course, from his end. For me to cut it off was something necessary for my own sanity. I never heard from him again. Ultimately, I believe he wanted something from me too, possibly a ticket to America, an escape from Egypt. Just like all the other Egyptian men who added me on Facebook that fall.
Oh well. Still. The memory of all that, the “falling in love” (if you can call it that), the experience of Ahmed and our time in Egypt, all come back to me as I listen to Omar Khairat tonight at the Royal Opera House. I am swept away, back to my love story with a country that I dream of going back to one day.
The concert is billed as “Omar Khairat: Soundscapes of Egyptian Music.” It begins with Egyptian Overture and then goes through to The Sorceress & The Magical Perfumes, which comes from a Canadian ballet of the same title composed by Khairat in 1989. It’s a lovely panorama of music that sounds Egyptian, yet doesn’t. It comes from a universal heart, and touches mine.
At intermission, I get to walk around the opera house and admire the opulent interior. At this time, I’m finally able to buy the program, which tells me more about the concert. Now I am enlightened.
Intermission is also time for people-watching, and I do just that. I watch the Omani women dressed in their ornate abayas and their gorgeous long dresses, their long black hair either bundled in huge ponytails or buns under their headscarves, or loose down their backs. Their dark and seductive eyes are made even more mysterious by black mascara and eyeliner. I have to say I’m envious of their beauty and their youth. The Omani men, dressed in their spotless white dishdashas, look regal and, well, perfectly Arab. One Western boy is dressed in the dishdasha and musyr for the occasion. The Westerners are dressed in uninspired suits or dresses. As for me, for my second time at the Opera House, I am distressed that I don’t have the appropriate thing to wear. I finally threw together a black knit top with a long skirt, but it’s disappointing and makes me feel frumpy. 😦 It doesn’t help that I gained about 7 pounds while my sons were here! I pledge that before I come here again, I will find something cute and appropriate to wear!!
Omar Khairat was born in 1948 to an artistic family in Cairo and is considered one of the most successful and influential Egyptian composers of all time. After he received his degrees in piano and musical theory, he began composing music for the Egyptian cinema, television and theater. He also wrote music for the ballet. His music was influenced by Arabic and European classical music, Egyptian and African traditional music, as well as jazz, pop and blues.
What makes his music different, and so universal, is his way of combining Western and Eastern musical instruments. It is beautiful and moving, and at several times during the concert, I am brought to tears.
The principal conductor is Nayer Nagui, from Alexandria, Cairo, born in 1970. He is a handsome and energetic conductor, great fun to watch. He conducts the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra (ROSO), which was established in September 1985, under the direction of HM Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose interest in music and culture contributed to the formation of the orchestra. The orchestra’s women are dressed in gauzy scarlet headscarves and matching pants with gold brocade at the ankles, along with emerald-green silk tunics. The men are dressed in tuxedos, except for the lively drummer at the back who wears a white shirt and who often claps his hands in the air, inviting the audience to clap along to the music.
Omar Khairat plays the piano and in his group are the more traditional Egyptian instruments: the conga, doff, drums, Okordion, Oud & Qanon, Req and Tabla. The Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra includes trombones, violins, violas, cellos, double basses, flute, oboe, bassoon, harp, horn, trumpet and trombone.
The second half of the concert opens with the lovely Arabian Rhapsody. I am swept off my feet by the Three Pieces for Orchestra & Piano. The final three pieces are stunning: Al Bakheel (The Miser), Enta El Masry (You are the Egyptian) and 100 Sana Cinema (100 Years of Cinema).
Sitting next to me is a young couple named Tony and Wafaa. Tony is Irish and teaches at one of the private universities in Muscat. His wife Wafaa is Algerian, very pretty and pregnant (due in May!). They plan to stay in Muscat indefinitely as life is good here, and easy. I agree.
Before the concert begins, while I am standing in the lobby taking pictures, two young Omani men approach me and one says “I read your blog!” I say, “Oh my gosh, how did you recognize me?” He says, “I’ve seen your pictures enough on your blog to know who you are. Are your sons still here visiting?” I tell him no, sadly, they went home on February 3; I just haven’t had time to catch up on my blogging about their visit. He introduces himself as Riyadh and his friend is Haitham. I take pictures of both of them; I’m thrilled to meet one of my readers, as I always am! He says, “You should read my blog sometime: Omani Cuisine. I say, “I have read it!! You write that blog? I read it to get restaurant ideas and it’s featured on my blogroll, on the right side of my blog!” I’m so happy to meet a fellow blogger!
Riyadh asks me if I read Andy in Oman and I say yes, of course I do! He says, “You should go back to one of the blogs he wrote when he was teaching in Ibri, I think it’s called “Arablish” or something. It’s so hilarious!” I look it up when I get home and find it: Konglish”, “Chinglish”, “Spanglish”-ARABLISH?!” Riyadh is right…It is HILARIOUS and oh so true!! I LOVE IT! Andy is an institution on the Oman blogger scene, and inspires me always!
Life in Oman is always full of surprises. On my way back to Nizwa, late at night, around 11:00, I pass by numerous groups of Omanis parked along the side of the highway, having picnics on the gravel ground. This is a common sight in Oman, whole Omani families, or groups of Omani men, sitting on blankets alongside their cars, alongside a major highway. Now I’ve come to think of it as normal, but as I think about life in America, I can’t help but laugh out loud as I try to picture groups of Americans parking alongside interstate highways, blankets spread on the ground, picnicking to their hearts’ content.