How good is Cupid's aim?

Is love random? A beautiful stranger glimpsed across a crowded room, two ships passing in the night? Instead of a bow and arrow, does Cupid shoot (as in the song Bang Bang Bang) a sawed-off six-gauge missing its sight?

I don’t think so. I think love is a symptom of a nearly universal mental illness. I find Harville Hendrix’s theory convincing: you fall in love because you’ve found someone with whom you can re-create a key childhood struggle, one that still hurts to this day. Love is the hope that this time—with this person—you’ll win.

So naturally you fall for someone who displays the same unfortunate tendency to inattention or over-emotionalism or hypercontrol or detachment or whatever caused the original wound. It’s doomed before it starts; how else could it be? And the more intense the need, the more neurotic the choice, and the more doomed it is.

I grew up watching my father use the women he dated without regard for their feelings. Especially those who wanted to marry him—with them, he appeared to enjoy free rein.

Well, the little girl reasons, I won’t be a man when I grow up, but at least I can be a woman who won’t act that stupid. If the battle is lost before it’s fought, why fight it? If sex is what men want from me, then sex is what they’ll get. I can’t expect a happy marriage anyway; it’s obvious I’ll have to take care of myself. And I can’t possibly raise a child. So what difference?

And straight out of the gate—before I even graduate high school!—I meet a man whose father is famous for a lifelong obsessive love transacted entirely on the exalted plane of High Art. A pure love. A platonic love.

The poet Ahmed Ramy’s passion for the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum is a romance as grand as John and Yoko’s, and just as well-known to its audience. They met as young adults; the poet had just returned home from Paris, where he’d been studying at the Sorbonne, while the young woman with the amazing voice had just come to Cairo from the countryside, brought by her ambitious father. Smitten from the moment he first heard her sing, Ramy declared his love with a poem so passionate, it almost caused a scandal when she sang it with her customary, inimitable fervor.

Ahmed Ramy loved Umm Kulthum for the rest of his life. Offered as love poems, no pay asked, many of his beautiful songs became her greatest hits. Rumors flew, but the diva was strong-minded and independent; she sang and grew famous and rich, and stayed single throughout her prime. (As an old woman with kidney disease, she married her doctor.)

After many years, the poet married someone else, with whom he had three children. But he never stopped writing for his diva, and he never stopped coming when she called. Even now, their story remains so compelling that Egyptian writer Selim Nassib based a novel on it. In I Loved You For Your Voice, a fictionalized Rami resigns himself to his situation thus:

“I would not love her in this world but in another, where the relation is all the stronger because the body does not exist.”

His son remembers it differently. “Marry her?” Tau recalls his father asking. “Why would I want to marry her?”

Why, indeed? That would've been my father's view of it, too.

I spent a summer with Tau, not a lifetime; and I was a screwed-up, self-involved kid at the time, so I can scarcely claim to know what he was thinking. But this much is fact: from his earliest awareness, he’d seen his father leave his job at the Egyptian National Library, or his home and family, to go to his diva’s side when summoned. His whole life, the son saw his father give the star his finest work to use as she wished. Is it so hard to imagine this boy growing into a man who thinks: I’ll be damned if I’ll let a woman treat me that way?

On the day he drove up to Vermont to visit a teenager still in school, his father had loved and waited over four decades, but Tau wouldn’t wait four weeks. Nor was I inclined to make him. Not four hours, if memory serves.

No, Cupid’s aim often shows uncanny precision. Not exactly two ships passing in the night, Tau and I. More like two opposite trains barreling down the same track, straight to the wreck.

For more information

The definitve book on Umm Kulthum, and a fascinating look at 20th-century Cairo life and Arabic culture:
Danielson, Virginia. The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century. 1997. Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.

A documentary based on it:
Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt. 2006. Narrated by Omar Sharif. Available as a DVD from Arab Film Distribution.

The novel fictionalizing the relationship between Ahmed Ramy and Umm Kulthum:
Nassib, Sélim. I Loved You For Your Voice. 2006. Europa Editions, New York, NY. Translated by Alison Anderson.