Mysterious Stranger at the Cairo Opera

By Beshara Tarabolsi


Whenever I’m at the Opera House, he’s there. I never knew him personally; he is always sitting alone, a 60 something year old with an air of sophistication to him.

I always wondered how he manages to get the same seat in every performance, eyes always on the orchestra, zealously fixated on the music as if it’s conversing in a code only he understands.

Even at ballet performances, he never pays attention to the dancers. His eyes never leave the orchestra.

I was drawn to him ever since I glanced at him and caught him crying during a performance several years ago. I didn’t understand why he was crying; his tears were scorching and silent. I still remember the performance, it was “Zorba the Greek” ballet.

The man wept when the Madame Hortense scene came on. I never cried during performances despite my love for them; that’s why he caught my interest. I kept trying to understand, maybe the scene reminded him of the death of a loved one and that tugged at his emotions, but that logical explanation didn’t satisfy my curiosity.

Several months later, I went to a concert of Egyptian musical pieces. My curious friend was there. I noticed the empty seat next to him, so I sat down, giving him a greeting. He reciprocated with a nod of his head and a curt smile. 

The curtain went up, different pieces by various composers, exquisite notes, elegant compositions. My neighbor was in his usual state of focus and attention. Then Mohamed Elkasabgy’s “Zekr’yaty” started playing and he transitioned from focused to consumed. He cried, so I cried, he sighed, so I sighed, his hands go red with the force of his applause and my hands did the same. He bolted out of his seat to give a standing ovation and I followed, I became enthralled in his emotions as if he was controlling me.

At the end of the performance we walked out together and I attempted to start a conversation.

“Do you come here often? I see you often”.

He smiles and replies, “I love music; and I won’t find a better place to enjoy good music other than here”.

We exchange name and professions and I decide to invite him for a late night cup of coffee or tea, to my surprise he agrees.

We go to a nearby café that overlooks the Nile and order a cup a coffee, sitting in silence for a moment.   

He sips his coffee, looking at the Nile and asks me if he can smoke, taking a long drag from his cigarette before he starts talking, “did you know music is magic? Sometimes I wonder if music is the only thing we managed to steal from heaven before we were kicked out of it. Once an orchestra starts playing my heart transforms into one of its instrument, my arteries are strings, even my breath joins the wind instruments, my whole being transforms into a musical instrument, playing in perfect harmony and resonance.

All music captures me, whatever its source. You know, I don’t even have a TV”, he laughs, “just various record players going back to the earliest models,. I have hundreds, maybe thousands of records, I’m always surrounded by music, I breathe the rhythm”.

“But why do you cry?”, I ask.

He looks at me, smiles and says, “crying is not an expression of sadness or depression. It’ just that I found it’s the best way to react to certain pieces. If music expresses what words cannot, as Plato said, then allow me to tell you that tears are emotions, finding no release unless being shed. I never cry unless I’m listening to music. The melodies invade me, forcing me to reveal what I hide within, music has power and control that are magical, and nothing can surpass that.

I have bothered you enough for tonight, let’s get going, but you’ll take me back to where I parked. Thank you for the coffee, we have a bond now that we inaugurated with music and coffee and that is stronger than a bond forged with bread and salt”

We both laugh and exchange phone numbers, promising to meet during performances whenever we had the chance.

We met frequently during performance, always going to our familiar café afterwards. Always giving me his impression – in between puffs of his cigarette and the smell of latte – about this piece or that. He opened my heart and ears to music like never before; he taught me to see, smell and touch music. Whenever he spoke of a piece he was fond of, his tears would flow and, because we became friends, he stopped trying to hide them from me.

One day I called him hoping that we can go to a Vivaldi concert. He declined due to his illness.

I went to visit him, a bouquet of flowers in hand. A humble home in the old Ma’adi area, a relatively quiet area that compliments his character, the sound of music emitting from his home, which seems to have overlooked the Nile bank at some point.

His wife, who knows me through him greets me at the door, leading me to his bedroom.

Silently listening to a piece I’ve never heard before he grabs my hand, and says with difficulty, “it is time to go, I often prayed to God to send me someone who understands me and shares my passion. He sent you… I leave you with all my hardships, which may mean little to anyone but, it was a life to me. I entrust you with my life, and bind you with our oath of coffee and music to spread these treasures I have stolen from paradise, that we may give our ugly word some of its lost beauty.

As for me, I will soar, becoming a cosmic tune, floating in harmony with melodies foreign to human ears… until we meet again”

After the funeral, I went to the Opera at the same day. It was “Zorba the Greek” ballet.  I sat in his chair, gave myself over to the music, and wept at the same scene as him. And here I am now, sitting in our familiar café, writing about my friend with the escaping tears, until we meet again.


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