The pianist was still droopy-eyed, her face as dark as
the keys they left her to press for half a century, though
she must have been white as an angel when they first
strung her up in the heavy frame on the wall.
Here amid the sighs of Umm Kalthum and the local wine of
uncertain vintage, I thought my courage might come through
that door next to the bar. While the garçon read his tabloid, and
I slid among my options like drop of dew on a bunch of grapes,
an Arab nationalist made an entrance, his hair all white as if he’d
just been fighting off an invasion of the midan down the street.
“The nation is on fire,” he said, instead of good evening, and
I started coughing from the smoke that suddenly engulfed me.
Intermittent barks from outside covered the sounds
of sighing inside. The garçon would turn up the volume
a notch for the Nightingale of the East, but the bitch’s
howling won the battle. Soon she’d give birth to a couple
of pups at least around the back of the building.
The garçon should really stop the 1943 Rivoli record.
Zakarriya Ahmad wouldn’t like this medley of oud, dog
barks, and coughing under a colonial-era roof.
I’d come back from a funeral that afternoon. A
surgeon, just out of school, was waiting for me in a
room he’d spent too much time tidying up.
But my courage never came through the door—the sordid side
door that separates the women’s room from the men’s urinal.
(Translated from the Arabic by Robyn Creswell)