Thursday night; the official play-day of all Egyptian youth since it precedes the Muslim Sabbath, Friday. Tonya, who had escorted Lana to her home, was getting ready in front of the mirror. The girls knew it was going to be a cold night, and they put that into account when choosing their outfits. Tonya brought over with her her hot-pink, woolly, turtleneck pullover and her plaid Technicolor miniskirt patterned with squares in black, blue, red and pink. Even though they made her thighs look even chubbier than they already were, she simply adored those little skirts and shorts. As she admiringly observed herself in the mirror, Tonya helped herself in putting on her long, golden earrings with a small flower protruding at the end, and she buckled the thin, golden necklace with a similar flower pendant. She had borrowed Lana’s golden Tissot watch and was now adding the final touches to her make-up. The heavy mascara, the pinkish eye shadow, the brown lipstick, the peach-colored foundation with the soft blusher spread on it; every single cosmetic was used to make Tonya as alluring as ever.
As Lana watched her adding little, simple details to finish off her appearance, she finally realized how this disorganized shape she always found Tonya in got built about. To her, Tonya always overdressed, over-accessorized and over-embellished in a somewhat vulgar way. She had been taught by Dalia that simplicity is the key to irresistible beauty. And Lana always took that to extreme levels, for she would rather under-dress than dress properly for the occasion. For instance, at that particular instance, Lana was in a short black and white dress, all tight from head to bottom, slightly showing the turns at her waist, sleeveless and with a neckline which covered her chest completely and only showed fragments of her bare shoulders. She wore her hair up high in the form of a long ponytail of certain volume. Both she and Tonya were wearing black, opaque tights and black, leather boots, but Tonya’s had fur along their edges.
Turning around from the mirror, Tonya eyed Lana judgingly.
“What?” asked Lana, sensing some comment on the way.
“You look great.” It didn’t look like she meant it. “But the thing is, the dress is a bit bulky. It might need something to spice it up a bit, let’s say a … a brooch!”
“No way!” refused Lana immediately. “I’m not wearing one of those in a million years.”
“What about some long necklace with a relatively large pendant?” suggested Tonya, already going through Lana’s accessory drawer. “I’m thinking white gold, since you’re in black and white and all. There,” she said pulling one end of a necklace out, “with this beautiful dolphin-shaped pendant, this piece’s definitely gonna give you the edge your looking for.”
Lana wasn’t so sure. After all, she never liked leaving herself in Tonya’s hands. But this time it was different, for the necklace really did suit her well that she actually considered going for it. She took one final look at the mirror, believed that the dress needed a simple touch to make it shine, then looked at the necklace; saw that it was simple enough.
“Ok, then. Buckle me up.” She said holding out her ponytail and turning her back towards Tonya.
AS THE CHAUFFEUR pulled over by the side walk, Tonya immediately noticed Mark waiting by.
“There, Bassiouni,” she said to the chauffer hastily, “that’s where we take off. Thanks.” With that she grabbed Lana’s hand and pulled her out of the car behind her.
“Hey, Mark.” She said stretching her hand to meet him.
“Hey.” He replied, with less excitement. “Hey there, Lana.”
“Hello.” Lana wasn’t looking at him as much as she was looking around. “Where’s Mohammad?”
“Inside, getting ready.”
“So this is the Sawy Culture Wheel.” Said Tonya looking at the large gate covering some tunnel which stretched under the May 15th bridge curiously.
“Yes it is.” Answered Mark. “Shall we?”
The girls nodded, and he led them inside to take their seats.
ONLY OPENING UP in 2003, the Sawy culture wheel had presented Cairo with a new type of entertainment. It was placed in a very awkward position, though in Zamalek, one of the classiest districts in Cairo, The Sawy wheel was actually built up underneath a bridge, in a place that used to be a garbage dumpster just a few years before. Now, it offered all different types of courses, ranging from photography to guitar and even self defense courses. Nevertheless, what it really added the most was a place where all underground bands could perform for recognition. In the Sawy wheel, any growing talent had a chance to have their own show without much hassle, and perhaps that was the brightest reason why people were so high on it.
“So Lana,” began Mark, as the three of them were now standing in front of their seats, anxiously waiting for Mohammad’s band, ‘Bangels’, to make their debut appearance, “is this your first visit to the Sawy wheel?”
“What? You never performed here before? Never participated in any of the dance activities here?”
Lana shook her head.
“This is not exactly the place for Lana’s performances.” Explained Tonya. “She had done over a dozen performances in the Cairo Opera house.”
“Good God!” exclaimed Mark, surprised. “No wonder you find this place disgraceful.”
“I don’t find it disgraceful.” Protested Lana, heatedly.
“Then what do you think of it?”
“Good enough, considering it’s actually under a bridge. We all know what those unfortunate places are destined to become here in Egypt.” That is: garages, shelters for the homeless and, as in our current case, huge garbage dumpsters.
“So,” said Lana after a while of silence, during which Mark and Tonya exchanged a few whispers, “have you listened to Mohammad’s band perform before? Are they good?”
“What? You never listened to Mohammad sing?” asked Tonya, sarcastically.
“Of course I’ve listened to Mohammad. I’m talking about the whole band. Are they as talented as Mohammad is?”
“They are actually.” Replied Mark. “They have this certain style in performing; I’m sure you’re gonna like them.”
“Well, she has met them before,” concluded Tonya, “haven’t you?”
“No, actually I haven’t.”
“He doesn’t ever talk about them, even.” Replied Lana innocently.
“What do you talk about then? You’re always murmuring to each other. What do you discuss?
“He’s always asking me questions that sometimes I feel I’m with a secret agent. Hardly ever speaks about himself. Even when I ask him about the guys in his band, he usually tends to change the subject.”
“And don’t expect him to lead an introduction.” Said Mark with certitude.
“Why not?” asked Tonya, a little upset.
“That’s just the way Mohammad is. The smoke of mystery that surrounds him; it’s not an act. He really doesn’t like to talk about himself. I know it’s spooky, especially for girls, but it’s just who he is.”
Lana listened with a doubtful ear, somewhat mystical. “But don’t worry though,” continued Mark, returning to her, “I’ll tell you all about them if you want to.”
She suddenly became extremely attentive; Mark could see she was starving for his briefing. “Now the band’s made up of five members: two guitarists; Baher, who’s also a vocalist, and Mustafa; long, curly, black hair, small body, pale skin and a pair of blue eyes you’ll hardly see from over here. Very talented, but a bit unstable. Then there’s Ashraf; that’s the main vocalist, he performs in almost ninety-nine percent of the songs, usually alongside Baher. And of course there’s Youssef; short, brown hair, confident smile and sweet words. He’s the bass guitar player. But, beware of him, big time. He’s a serious playboy. And not like my brother; this guy can bring about disasters. He’s on everything that’s not in the book; drugs, alcohol, fornication. If you ever get worried that music’s gonna have a bad influence on Baher, that’s the guy to fear. And if he comes to say hello after the party, when he’s shaking hands with you very heartily; he’s not being nice, he’s being dirty.” He said the last words with a certain air of menace. “I mean it; careful.” He now turned his eyes towards Tonya, made her see that the words were also for her ears. Despite Lana’s disapproval of having to hear something like that from him, feeling that he had no right to give her such advice, Tonya couldn’t have loved listening to anything more, for this meant that he was trying to protect her. And when Lana would believe that she doesn’t need protection, Tonya would be thrilled to find someone willing to do the job.
“Last but not least,” resumed Mark, “is Assal.”
“Assal?” The name was an Egyptian equivalent of the word: honey.
“That’s his family name.” explained Mark. “He’s first name’s also Mohammad – so now you see why we all call him Baher. He’s a bit chubby, not very attractive for a rock star. But when he gets around those drums, he just sets the stage on fire. Outside the stage, though, he’s a little too shy. But he’s a good guy, no need to fear him.” Throughout this long clarification, Lana looked at Mark like a student looking at her professor, always nodding and trying to digest the whole information. “Of course, when they all get on stage, I’ll be able to explain a bit more, since they’re gonna be right in front of you.”
“That is if she could see anything from where she’s standing.” Interrupted Tonya facetiously. “One thing you don’t know about Lana is her struggle with her height.”
Lana gave out an embarrassed smile.
“She’s not that short.” Said Mark amusedly, checking her out. He noticed that her boots were of high heels, but not too high.
“Oh, oh, oh,” babbled Tonya, “since you’re both here, please stand shoulder to shoulder, so that I could see the difference in height.” That ought to have been enjoyable, given Mark’s relatively tall nature and Lana’s relatively short one.
“If someone hears you say that, they’d think you’re a tower yourself.” Lana punched back with the same sense of humor. She had a point, for Tonya was only a few centimeters longer than Lana.
“Do you know that she once had a boyfriend who made her wear heels so that people wouldn’t make fun of them when they’re walking together?”
“He did not!” exclaimed Lana fitfully.
“He did too! He was almost as tall as you,” she was referring to Mark, “and some of his friends told him he should dump her because they looked ridiculous together. She came to me practically begging for me to teach her to walk in high heels.” Lana looked haughtily away, yet Mark seemed to be quite enjoying himself. “Up till now, if you watch closely, you’ll notice how she can hardly hold her grounds when walking in heels.”
“You make it sound like I had a million boyfriends who totally controlled me.”
“But you did!”
“No, I didn’t. I only started dating in the tenth grade. They must have been only three boyfriends.”
“What? No way, I would remember if …”
“Five.” Insisted Tonya. “Ahmad, Sameh, Shereef, Nader and Baher.”
“Mohammad’s not my boyfriend.”
“Yeah right.” Tonya was again speaking only to Mark. “Another thing you should know about Lana is that it takes her at least six months to confess that she’s actually in love with someone.”
“That’s not true.” Objected Lana.
“And once she does, she begins facing the problems and all the imperfections in the relationship, since, you know, it takes those almost six months to surface. So technically, she misses out on the best part in any relationship during the period of time she spends in denial.”
“Don’t listen to her.” Now Lana was the one only talking to Mark. “She’s just tryin’a tarnish my reputation; paint a hideous picture of me.”
“I’m just stating facts.” Said Tonya defensively.
“Anyways, even if that’s your way of loving,” intervened Mark, after a while of indulging in the show they had both been playing out, “you still gotta claim Baher all to yourself if you really like him. For who knows? If the crowds cheer for him tonight, I won’t be surprised if some chick ends up steeling him away from you by the end of the concert. After all, he is gonna be a rock star, and that’s like: girls’ magnet.”
Lana took that as a joke, but deep inside, she knew that it could be true, for Mohammad was known in college as a womanizer.
Soon afterwards, the concert began and the ‘Bangels’ hit the stage. The moment they all took position, Lana began to apply Mark’s words on the scene that was right in front of her eyes. And she had to give it to him; Mark had been very thorough in his description, since even though it was the first time to see them, Lana felt like she had already seen the band members before through his efficient sketch.
“Better take off your coats, girls. You won’t be needing them anymore, since the show’s getting started and the heat is already on.” Said Mark, excitedly applauding and cheering for his best friend.
Tonya immediately took his advice, and threw the coat back at her seat. But Lana; she thought twice before making such a – in her opinion – rash act, given it was a cold night in November and she was only wearing a sleeveless dress underneath.
They began playing, mostly rock songs but no metal included; a relief to Lana, who adored all genres of music, yet hated metal and hard rock with all her heart. After a few songs, Lana whispered to Tonya that it seemed they were a cover band for The Calling. They weren’t Lana’s favorite, but she certainly enjoyed their music. Like Mark had said, it was Ashraf who performed most of the songs; his voice was so similar to that of Alex Band, harsh, masculine yet tuneful. It shared a similarity with Mark’s strong voice; Lana wondered for a second why he too didn’t make up a band of his own, but she dared not ask him.
In the end, and after a lot of cheering from the audience, Mohammad announced that they would wrap it all up with a song by Mohammad’s own words and musical composition. This was about the only song in which Ashraf hadn’t participated, for it was sung entirely by Muhammad. Before playing out the solo, Mohammad said that he dedicated this song to a beautiful girl who was currently gaining on his heart. Mark and Tonya glanced at Lana playfully; she was already in tears.
When it was all over, the three of them rushed to Mohammad to congratulate him on his huge success. From Mark, Lana had learnt that Baher’ band had performed in school and in college a couple of times. Yet this was considered their first official performance, and since it was very pleasant, Mohammad suggested the four of them leave immediately for somewhere where they could “celebrate”. This was a relief to Lana, for it meant that she wouldn’t have to shake hands with Youssef.
When they had all crammed up in Mohammad’s Astra, Lana riding in the front seat, Mohammad drove to the nearest outlet to the Nile, where he parked in some secluded place, hidden away from the people’s eyes by large, branchy trees. Anyways, Zamalek wasn’t that crowded with pedestrians around the Nile, especially if compared with other parts of the corniche.
The moment the engine stopped, Lana opened the CD compartment and began searching for some decent CD to play.
“’Bomba 2003’,” she read out from an old tape, “what the hell is that?”
“Just some Arabic mix tape.” Replied Mohammad.
“God, I hate those.” Joined Tonya from behind. “They always remove repeated verses and overlap the songs that you can hardly tell where one song ends and the other begins.”
“They were ok before downloading songs from the internet.” Said Mohammad. “You see, each invention has its time of glory.”
“Yeah, then so long mix tapes.”
“There, ‘Old is Gold’,” Lana held the CD up in her hand, “that’s gotta be oldies and classics, right?”
“I think I’ve found us something to listen to.” Announced Lana, pressing the eject button, replacing the CD in the player with the one she had just found, then pressing play. “There; enjoy.” She said as she turned on the volume. The first song was j’ai quitte mon pays by Enrico Macias. The boys were surprised when Lana began singing along with the song.
“You know French?” asked Mohammad, a bit astonished.
“She speaks it fluently.” Assured Tonya.
“Why, you went to a British school, right?” Lana nodded. “They don’t teach fluent French there, as far as I know.”
“I didn’t learn French at school.” Explained Lana. “It’s practically my mother’s first language. I think I learnt to speak it even before I could speak Arabic. None of you guys have learnt any French in school?”
“We used to take it when we were in national school, up till preparatory or something. But we weren’t really learning it, you know. Just memorizing some empty words that would get us through to the next year.” Mohammad said. He once told her that he and Mark used to be in the same school, Manor House, till third Prep, that Mohammad even attended the funeral of Mark’s father. However, afterwards, Mohammad’s father decided to transfer him to an American high-school while Mark joined the IGSCE division in the Manor House. They didn’t become best friends, though, until they met again in college.
“Yeah, but Mark’s mum knows French,” intervened Tonya, again, “doesn’t she, Mark?”
“Sure. She actually was in the Mer de Dieu, since it was a nuns’ school and all. So her French’s pretty good. But mine is not as good, though. Never took it seriously.” Lana listened with great interest. From what she’d heard about Mark’s mum – for Tonya gave her a full description of all their meetings – she seemed like a nice person to know.
“Enough about the schools’ talk here, alright?” said Mohammad, irritated. “How about you talk about something else?”
“Like for example, your performance tonight?” suggested Lana with a wicked wink.
“Well,” began Mohammad, smilingly.
“It was awesome.” Blurted Tonya clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Everything was great; the choice of songs, the music playing, the singing. It was all synchronized perfectly.”
“Yeah, man; you totally rocked.”
“Yes, by the way, Mark, you know what I’ve been thinking all through the show?” Mark was silent, waited for Tonya to tell him. “Why on earth you never thought about starting up your own band. I mean, you’ve got the voice, the charisma.” Suddenly, Lana felt red with embarrassment. Realizing that nobody noticed her state, she waited anxiously for Mark’s reply to the question she had longed to ask.
“Actually, it’s not my thing.” answered Mark. “I take music as a hobby, unlike Mohammad. Besides, those bands are all about folks who sing western covers. I’m all about Eastern music, on the other hand. It suits my voice best.”
“Well,” started Lana, looking back at him from her front seat, “how about the Opera? That’s exactly the place for a voice like yours, especially if you’re gonna sing Tarab; classic oriental music. As a matter of fact, I can hook you up with a few guys who might secure you an audition.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather it remained a hobby.” Said Mark politely. “My greatest dream is to become an architect. The whole singing thing is just gonna stand in my way.”
Just as the song ended, and a new song: can’t help falling in love by Elvis Presley began, Tonya and Mark excused themselves, said they were going to have a walk by the Nile. That left Lana and Mohammad by themselves. The awkward moment of silence was broken by Mohammad.
“So you never told me what you thought of my performance tonight.”
“Loved it.” Said Lana, shrinking back in her seat for a while. “But,” she now looked up, as if she had mustered all the courage to get her speaking honestly, “there is one thing I wanted to ask you about.”
“Haven’t you ever considered singing for James Blunt?”
“God, you’re just obsessed with that guy, aren’t you?” Said Mohammad with a humorous laugh.
“Not exactly. But he is really good. I mean, his songs are so simple, yet they carry a certain depth within them.”
“And if I shall sing for James Blunt, which of his songs would you want me to sing?” asked Mohammad meekly.
“Any song. I love all of his album.” She was referring to his debut album, Back to Bedlam, for it was the only one released back then.
“Yeah, but which of them do you like the most? You’re beautiful?” Mohammad took the wild guess given it was the song she had chosen for their talent show number.
“No, in fact, my favorite’s goodbye my lover.” Confessed Lana dreamingly, in her mild, sweet voice. “When I really feel like dancing, I just turn it on and all the best moves just keep flowing by.”
“Why didn’t you suggest we use it in our number then? Instead of you’re beautiful, I mean.”
“Two reasons,” Lana held out her index and middle fingers. “First; because its performance depends solely on the piano, and you only play the guitar, so I figured it would be better if we stick to what you know best. And second; for me to dance perfectly to a song, I have to really feel its words. And since I haven’t gone through that painful goodbye yet, I figured it was best to take one thing at a time. Besides, I’m not really looking forward to saying goodbye to someone I love like that.” Mohammad couldn’t find something to say that would come up to that, so he decided to keep his mouth shut. “Oh,” she screamed excitedly, turning on the volume, “there’s another of my favorites.” The song she called her “favorite” was Moon River by Frank Sinatra. “I used to listen to this song by the sea in Hurghada when I’d go there with my family during my midterm vacation. It would be night and the moon would shine through the dark, shimmering sea as the wind would gently blow my hair. As much as I enjoyed the view, I would always imagine I was in truth overlooking the river. Can’t believe I’m living through it tonight.” She said as she looked romantically out the window. “And a full moon, too.”
That night, Mohammad discovered a number of things about Lana; things that made him fall deeper for her. As the songs rolled on, her excitement reached its climax, until she jumped out of the car and began dancing by the riverside. To fully satisfy her, Mohammad opened his trunk and connected the bazooka speakers he had installed in there. The sound they produced was scary in its clarity, all the better for Lana, who had already taken off her coat and boots, and was dancing like a crazy person. What amazed Mohammad the most was her rare gift of knowing how to dance to every single tune, no matter how different it is from the one that precedes or follows it. Whether it was slow, jazz, Latin, pop, or even soft rock, it didn’t matter; Lana always found a way around it. It suddenly occurred to him that their love for music was almost equal, but they loved it each from a different prospective.
After almost an hour, Mark and Tonya returned holding hands.
“We come bearing gifts.” Said Tonya shaking a plastic bag she held in her hand.
“What is it?” Lana ran lightly towards them, trying to peep through the bag and see what it contained.
“Ice-cream.” Tonya started distributing the Mega ice-cream sticks.
“I can’t believe ice-cream could be so delicious in this freezing weather.” Said Mohammad as he broke through the thick chocolate crust.
“Me too.” Added Lana. “Oh,” she exclaimed running back to the car with the uneaten ice-cream still in her hand, “I love this song!”
“What is it?” asked Mark clueless.
“Words don’t come easy by F.R. David.” Answered Mohammad, walking slowly towards Lana. “Words,” he began singing, pretending that the ice-cream stick was his microphone, “don’t come eeeeasy … to me. How can I find a was … to make you see I love you? Words don’t come easy.”
Lana fluttered from side to side, as she joyously sucked on her ice-cream. Mohammad leisurely approached her, and when his mouth was at her right ear, he tenderly whispered:
“You know that the song I sang tonight at the concert was dedicated to you?” Lana blushed against her will to stay cool, as she looked up to his hazel eyes. “And so is this one.”