I sat on the backstage couch at Metro El-Madina waiting for the other musicians to arrive so that we could start rehearsing for an Um-Kulthum song that we were supposed to play in a week. I didn’t know who I’d be playing with. All I knew was the song, and Abdel Karim Al-Sha’ar would be singing it. It was quiet, as Metro usually is during the daytime. I heard something from the corridor that leads backstage. Someone was snapping their fingers; it went on for a few seconds before I leaned out to see who it was. I saw a man walking down the corridor with a violin case in one hand, finger-snapping and moving the other from left to right across his body. It took me a second to realize that the man was blind, and that he was using the sound reflected from the walls to draw a mental map, much like a bat. I could write a book about Toni Gideon, his violin playing, the conversations we’ve had, the things I’ve learned from him about bass playing in Classical Arabic music, but I’ll confine myself to a few things.

First thing that really caught my attention was how developed this guy’s ear was (mind’s ear). I realized I could never get to his level. Not because of incompetence, but because I have eyes that work. “He sees with his ears” said Abdel-Karim. I always thought the eyes could be deceitful and even inhibiting during musical performance, that’s how I explain why so many musicians and listeners close to their eyes in moments of deep musical experiences. I have a visual image of Toni in my mind as I have an image of everything that I think about. I guess all of us who can see with their eyes use mental imagery inside their head. It’s called imagination, it comes from imagery. Toni, on the other hand, I assume has a sonic image of me. He probably hears an impression of me. What I’m trying to say is this: If I use the word airplane, you will fetch a mental photograph of an airplane in your mind’s eye. I wonder what Toni’s mind would do…

Usually, after our monthly Um-Kulthum concerts, I would drive Toni to the bus meeting point at Dora for him to take a bus up north to Chekka, where a taxi driver waiting for him drives him up to his village. During our ride together, we’d listen to a bit of music and converse. One night I played the beginning of Shostakovich’s 10th symphony for him. Toni is primarily an Arabic musician, but he enjoys and seeks all kinds of good music. As he listened, the music reached the first climax and he said “Oh my God… this music summarizes the pain and suffering of the entire planet” he had never heard Shostakovich before, but I’ve always thought this was what the music was about, the dreadful human condition. How fascinating is it, that we can hear something like that in a piece of music.

One other night, we reached the bus meeting point and there were no buses, so we got out of the car to wait for one on the street. “I really appreciate this, Makram, thank you for doing this” he said. “Don’t thank me! I’ve learned so much from you about playing bass on Um-Kulthum songs, you’ve saved me years of figuring it out on my own” I replied. He laughed and said “Life is all about exchange, my friend!”

And it is, it’s all about exchange and cooperation. There is no such thing as “self-taught” or “self-made” or “I did this all by myself”. These statements are narrow-sighted and false. If we really examine things, we will come to see that no one has ever achieved anything independent of another being.