Everything Here Is an Absolute

by Zeina Hashem Beck

Look at where this nostalgia has brought us: we go down the stairs
and order frozen margaritas. It’s been years since
we’ve lived here. The waiter shows us to
our table, hopes we don’t mind two American boys
sitting with us. There’s no space for them elsewhere in this small
cabaret. We say we don’t mind. We are used to this city of small spaces
into which everything fits. The American students are our age
about a decade ago. They tell us their names, and I decide to call them
Ahmad & Faysal. They agree. As the performers go on stage,
as the songs and smoke rise, we raise a toast, and Ahmad & Faysal smile
and clap nonstop. They’ve even learnt the Arab shoulder shimmy.
Once I’ve margarita-ed enough, I start explaining
song lyrics—She’s warning him he will regret and it’s no disaster
if he leaves, and yes, motor is pronounced motore—and suddenly
I discover I don’t really know who Zayn al-Abidin is,
though I’ve been singing for him all my life. Yay, yay, yay
needs no interpretation. Neither do the colorful costumes
and feathers and all this going back in time. I want to shout
no one eats hummus with carrots, and no one calls this
pita bread, it’s just bread, khobz, because everything here
is an absolute. Faysal says thank you and I remember
one expression for thank you is May your hands
be safe and sound. Then I ask, Doesn’t Beirut
remind you of New York? His silence is polite,
to which I argue there are no fire escapes here,
but there could have been. Some cities burn faster than others.
I Beiruted East Houston when I first saw it, and my friend
disagreed and said streets were making me delirious again.
What I mean is if you write your name on a wall and find it
gone, you say, My name has left. Would you feel abandoned?
Would you trace it again? What I mean is there are songs
where the fallen don’t have rope enough to climb out of wells,
and there are songs where lovers return when the night happens.