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BEIRUT INSIGHT

May Melki's Piano Lesson

It is a beautiful lesson of life and resilience that this lady gave to the world, set at the key-board of her piano in a completely devastated apartment, in the aftermath of the double explosion of August 4.

May Melki's Piano Lesson

May Melki in front of her piano, more than a month after the double explosion in the port that devastat-ed her apartment in Beirut. Photo Carla Henoud

"Mrs. Melki, May Melki?" "It is here, on the third floor." Everyone knows Mrs. Melki in this neighborhood of Achrafieh; all the neighbors thank her when she softens their lives with her few piano notes that she spreads into the air. But the world discovered her on August 5 in a vid-eo on social networks that went viral, when she rushed to her damaged apartment and found nothing better – in a spontaneous gesture both so gentle and so violent – than to sit at her pi-ano, detuned by the double explosion of the day before, to perform Ce n'est qu'un au revoir (It is Only Goodbye).

Six weeks later, the windows were still being installed in her building and those of the neigh-borhood. Through its closed door, not really a door but a temporary piece of wood on which is inscribed in pencil madkhal (entrance), the song's heady notes slowly escaped, reviving images of the catastrophe and our still present sorrows. Then the melody stopped, and it was a (still) smiling Melki who received us with a luminous, almost soothing face. In this still gaping interior that was trying to make itself beautiful again, the furniture was lined up in order, some wrapped in nylon, the big mirror in the dining room was broken and a precious vase was cracked. On the wall, a portrait still stood, intact. "It is me," she said. "It is in 1960, the year I got married. It is by a Russian painter called Boris Novikov."

Memory

Elegant, Melki, née Abboud, clearly remembers all the details of her life which she shares with confidence: Her childhood both tender and painful, her life with her grandparents and her mother whom she lost too early – on the eve of her 14th birthday, after seven long years of ill-ness; and her English nanny, "Mrs. Betty Townsend... She had dentures, I remember it well!"

And then the piano, which she started at the age of four. "A Cohen! It was a gift from a man who owed money to my father, Najib Abboud, and had belonged to the wife of the German am-bassador to Iraq, Mrs. Bechstein..."

Little May's first teacher was a Russian "who did not speak a word of French." Mr. Bloch and all the teachers who came after him may have asked her to "play the notes," but nothing will do... "I loved this instrument, I had a very good musical ear, a certain talent, but I was lazy, I did not practice," she said. The same goes for ballet, of which she still keeps this lofty posture. "I was whimsical. But now I am more serious."


The Love of Her Life

The piano would not have been enough to console her grief. It is in spirituality that May Abboud will grieve. During a prayer retreat of a few days, she met Elijah Melki; she was 15, and he was 18. They fell in love, got married a few years later, "on September 17, 1960", and had four chil-dren: May-Lee, Imad, Camille and Nouhad. "We have been living in this apartment ever since... It was hit several times during the war... We are used to rebuilding," she said with a slightly veiled smile . August 4 would probably be one time too many. "Luckily, we were not here...”

It Is Just a Goodbye

"We spend our summers in Feytroun," the pianist said. "My husband went to his haberdashery" Melki, "in Beirut, as usual. In the morning, I felt uncomfortable, a slight feeling of suffocation." She asked him to "go back home" earlier. At the time of the explosion, he was on his way. It was only the next day that they would discover the disaster. "We did not realize the magnitude of the double explosion or the extent of the damage," she said. On the sidewalk, on the stairs, footsteps screech to the sound of broken glass. "I had my key in my hand and I found myself on the doorway; the front door no longer existed. I went inside and, without thinking, I walked over to the piano to make sure it was still working." Without thinking, she sat down and started play-ing the first notes of Ce n'est qu'un au revoir (It Is Just a Goodbye). Why? "Simply because the score was open on this page..." Without thinking, too, her daughter-in-law Hoda, filmed this un-expected moment with her cell phone and sent the video to her daughter May-Lee abroad who immediately shared it with friends and family to reassure them. In a few minutes, this poignant moment of simplicity and power went viral. "I am not strong, as people may have thought; I am very religious, and I draw my strength from my prayers."

As soon as this sentence is uttered and without warning, our pianist returned to her favorite in-strument and tirelessly recaptured this tune never interrupted in our minds. "Ce n'est qu'un au revoir," she sang as she played. Faut-il nous quitter sans espoir, sans espoir de retour ? Faut-il nous quitter sans espoir de nous revoir un jour ?""I asked myself, I asked Him – I was not ashamed to ask – why all this? Why am I still alive, at my age, when there have been so many young victims? This video had so much effect that I realized that I had to do something with it, improve myself and, through music, give a little comfort to others. I said to Him: 'I am going to take this seriously, do what you want with it...'"

And this magnificent piano lesson of August 5 would have already served its purpose... It will remain, in addition to the images of the double explosion, one of the strongest and most elo-quent testimonies of the formidable determination of the Lebanese people.


"Ajudar Beirut," Inspired by May Melki's Video

While the images of this total unknown went around the world the same day, arousing a collec-tive emotion, and the media – press, magazines, television – picked up on this moving and unex-pected story, May Melki at the piano inspired, without even knowing it and often without being informed about it, many videos and songs shared on social networks.

One of them, full of emotion, stands out from the crowd. It comes to us from Portugal under the title Ajudar Beirut (Help Beirut). "I was working on the songs for my new album when the dou-ble explosion took place. In the images of this chaos, I remembered those of this lady playing the piano at home, in a destroyed home," the song's author, João Marques, a doctor and musician, told L'Orient-Le Jour. "It was such a powerful and meaningful moment that I had to do some-thing with it. These images are at the same time so sad and so beautiful... In the heart of this dev-astation, this woman, this unknown, appeared as a symbol of resistance and strength. Through her music and this moment filmed by her daughter-in-law Hoda and shared by her granddaughter also named May-Lee, she managed to console the souls of the Lebanese and give them some hope," he added. That night, he took his guitar and composed a song. He sent it to his pianist, Miguel Marques Lima, and his producer, André NO. "The next day we were recording," he said. "There was a woman who loved to play the piano until nightfall, and she had a song for every situation, allegros and adagios for every season....But the day the sky collapsed on the city, strong in pain, she started playing the piano. In the heart of this chaos, a light appeared..." To the melancholic sounds, the poetry of the text and the warm voice of Marques, were added to – al-most placed in – the images of the photographer of L'Orient-Le Jour, João Sousa, taken in Beirut on the day of the disaster. "A few days later, I met Andreia Castro who was setting up a fund-raising campaign for Lebanon. I offered him my song, which was used to produce a video," the musician said. Through this campaign, approximately 250,000 euros were collected, allowing the purchase and shipment of some three tons of hospital equipment and medicines. It would be a great honor," he concluded, "for this woman to be able to listen to my song. Let her know the inspiration she has been to me and to so many others around the world."


This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 24th of September


"Mrs. Melki, May Melki?" "It is here, on the third floor." Everyone knows Mrs. Melki in this neighborhood of Achrafieh; all the neighbors thank her when she softens their lives with her few piano notes that she spreads into the air. But the world discovered her on August 5 in a vid-eo on social networks that went viral, when she rushed to her damaged apartment and found nothing better – in a...