Shafik Elias looks up, as though about to conclude. He scans the room, his gaze gliding over the faces, some of them familiar, others not. The silence is total, intense, almost liturgical; the anticipation at its peak, the kind that comes before the punchline of a good joke. Shafik leans towards the mike. Holding on to the lectern with his fingertips, he takes a deep breath. ‘I would be remiss if I did not quote the words my father so often repeated to me: Al-dunya fani wa azzaman kabas. Yes, my friends, let us enjoy this lovely evening, for the life in which we are submerged is a trap, a trap contained in the prison of time.’
Shafik takes a step back. The quality of the silence changes. For a long second, people seem to hesitate. Then Shafik smiles, and the applause erupts, instantly filling the entire hall, from the top tables to the back of the mezzanine. The peroration of the speech has released a peculiar energy among the hundred or so guests seated throughout the two floors of La Toundra.
Eyes aglow with emotion, a proud smile playing on his lips, Shafik absorbs the unmistakable electricity generated by applause. He steps down from the dais, beyond which the river, the downtown skyscrapers, the silhouette of the mountain, perhaps even the cross at its summit, are visible. A waiter walks between the top tables and the dais to make sure the guests are enjoying the long-awaited first course.
A woman at a table in the second row – let’s call her Ruby Brume – wears a glimmering red satin dress and a look of perennial astonishment.
‘Your cousin’s father – is his accent Lebanese or Egyptian?’ she is saying.
Édouard Safi sits beside Ruby. He is one of the protagonists of this story, the groom’s cousin, but most importantly, the best man at this wedding. Édouard does not respond to his wife’s question. Concentrating on his plate, he painstakingly removes the alfalfa sprouts, or whatever they are, covering the thin slices of beef.
The origin or nature of his cousin’s father’s accent is not Édouard’s main concern: this meat, this very red, very – what’s the word? – viscous meat, was it cooked in the oven? That is what he would like to know.
Ruby persists: ‘I’ve never understood where the people in your family come from . . .’
Édouard would like to answer ‘from the Mediterranean’, but it sounds vague. A car mechanic and self-employed tow-truck operator, he dislikes being pressured.
Ruby Brume’s capacity to exert pressure is unrivalled.
Édouard is annoyed by Ruby’s question not because he refuses to discuss the origins of his forebears. On the contrary. The problem with the question is that the one asking it is Ruby.
Tomorrow, Édouard Safi and Ruby Brume will move into their first apartment together: the charming lower half of a duplex in a suburb on Montreal’s South Shore, a stone’s throw from the St Lawrence, the very river whose waters can now be seen shimmering beyond the dais in the waning late-afternoon light.
Édouard, who has had enough, replies: ‘Lebanese, Egyptian, it’s all the same.’
Shafik Elias stands a few metres away from Ruby’s chair. He takes the first of the ten paces that separate him from the Cleopatra table, one of the three top tables where the newly-weds’ close relations and friends are seated.
It was Sue Mechanic’s idea to name the tables after cardinal cities in the newly-weds’ ‘history’, which should be understood here in the broad sense.
Who is Sue Mechanic?
Okay, but wait.
Who is Édouard Safi?
Okay, but wait, wait.
Who is Shafik Elias?
In the course of his very brief walk, currently estimated to be fifteen paces, Shafik, father of the groom, will see the film of his life projected in fast-forward.
Not to worry: he won’t stumble and hit a table corner; he won’t die before the evening ends. Besides, it’s impossible for this Mediterranean man to fall on a table corner: Cleopatra is not the traditional rectangular shape; it’s round. Sue had no choice. The three top tables, Cleopatra, Shawinigan in the middle and Addis Ababa, are round. This is scandalous. Sue is taking the compromise very badly; it’s political. For a wedding planner of her calibre, it’s a nightmare.
Thus, as he moves through a parallel time, the man whose words inaugurated this story will visit, or rather, revisit, the best scenes of his life. This is his favourite film, and Shafik, like most people, never tires of remixing the key episodes.
There’s no denying that this day offers a unique opportunity to add a new one: ‘The Son’s Wedding’. Shafik is an organized man fond of collecting memories and objects, sorting them, classifying them, storing them in boxes, folders, cameras, computers, all sorts of machines. However reserved and stoic he may be, he feels a surge of emotion, the effect of the prolonged applause, and the images projected on the screen of his mind are scrambled. The Swiss contracts appear before his mother’s death, the first snow in Montreal before the Six Day War, the feluccas on the Nile before the Corniche in Alexandria, his son’s wedding before that of his own father.
As the guests look at him with gleeful smiles, Shafik Elias sets out to cover the dozen metres between him and Cleopatra, where the beef carpaccio awaits him. He is about to stride back across half a century.
Events move quickly, or slowly, or normally. He blinks, a second expands, and all at once he feels many things.
We are in the middle of La Toundra on 7 July 2007. He takes a step, blinks, feels the torrid heat of his native region, and in his eyes, such a pale shade of blue, the hue of Alexandria’s sky joins the deep blue of the sea, as if the colour were unable to choose.