104. The Master Oud Player Announces His Return

THERE IS A KNOCK at the door. The master oud player opens it and standing before him is a young woman holding a clipboard: the journalist. He invites her to sit on the couch while he makes them both a coffee. The lounge room, she notes, is the spitting image of her grandparents' lounge room. The master oud player returns with the coffee. He sits and the interview begins. She asks him if it is true that he has decided to return to D---, his home town. Yes, he says. Despite the fact that there is a ongoing price on his life? Yes, he says, despite the fact that, to his knowledge, there is still at least one person in D--- who has vowed to kill him, and quite possibly another who would like to kill him, and by all rights should kill him, but who cannot and will not, because he is too good-hearted. The master oud player tells the journalist he has spent more than twenty years in exile and has wearied of his rootless, floating life. He has decided Los Angeles is no place for him. There is no passage of the seasons here, the city stretches to infinity, and what's more the master oud player will never master the art of driving. Not to mention the fact that his wife, more than twenty years younger than him, who was still a teenager when they married weeks before they left D---, has decided to leave him. He is poor and has no health insurance, whereas she earns a decent living as a dental hygienist. The master oud player doesn't blame her. While no longer in the fresh bloom of youth, she is still, in her own way, young, and the dental practice where she works is in a wealthy neighborhood. She will probably snare herself a rich customer before long. The master oud player wishes her well. He doesn't blame her for never having understood him. Or perhaps she did understand him - well enough make her escape so adroitly. Perhaps she simply had no sympathy for his considerable, and at times contradictory, dreams. After all, they were two very different generations: his generation had faith, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and her generation, much more wisely, didn't, and was ruined from the very start. At any rate, she is at home here, whereas he has his heart set on other things: endless games of backgammon in a smoky teahouse with high ceilings and frosted glass; cherry trees heavy with fruit in June; a certain muezzin's enchanting azan echoing through the streets of the Infidel Quarter; the delicate pink of February mornings; the smell of sweet pastries wafting from the open doors of a certain bakery in the Arab Quarter late at night; the black and white world of snow; the graceful, almost suggestive fall of a certain wooded hillside into a river gushing with foamy water in the spring; and above all memories of certain faces, certain names that belonged to those faces, and one particular face and one particular name, a face that has no doubt changed, a name that has not been eroded despite having been spoken, evoked, dreamed about a thousand times. The journalist asks the master oud player about his music. He tells her he has grown weary of the caprices of his audiences. Here, they will not let him sing in one language, there they will not let him sing in another. They are both just as bad as one another. He tells her he loves all the songs, in all the languages. Each song holds a truth, no matter its language. The master oud player tells the journalist he will take his many ouds back to D---, and donate them to the city's famed music school, where once he himself had studied, doing his exercises with equal measures of duty and impatience while his brothers and cousins played in the courtyard outside. The best of the ouds he will personally award to the school's best student. He will keep only the least of them, for his own personal use, and he will retire from public performance and retreat into a life of reflection, friendship and seclusion, waiting for death, from natural causes or from human hands, it hardly matters.