A few minutes later, a tired-looking man saunters over and hands each of us a program. I nudge Talal when I see his name listed, but the other guys are buzzing instead about the presence of a band's name further down on the program. Before I have time to ask if they know the group, a gaggle of long-haired young men in matching black T-shirts approaches. Each of them shakes hands first with Ahmed and then with the rest of us; the greeting is cordial but not warm. After they depart, I watch Ahmed survey them as they pick up their instruments and check the extensive sound equipment on stage.
Hussam shows up a few minutes later and plops down in a mafraj seat next to me, all smiles. He whispers that he used to go to school with one of the girls currently walking down the aisle. Though they do not know each other very well, Hussam explains that they have had some good, albeit superficial, interactions recently and that they even exchanged numbers a few weeks ago. I tease him about having a girlfriend but he just chuckles to himself and slaps me on the back, "I wish."
Later, as he tries in vain to point out his not-girlfriend standing in a crowd of women dressed in black robes with nothing but their eyes showing, he tells me how he once heard her remark after class, "Marriage is stupid."
"That alone made me know that she is the one for me," Hussam grins.
After the drawn-out ceremony finally finishes, Talal takes the stage. The younger members of the crowd go wild after each trick -- he puts cell phones through balloons, makes knots in shoelaces disappear, and walks though entire sections of rope. The older men and women, however, only clap perfunctorily after a few tricks. Talal takes a big bow at the end of his performance and gives 3 Meters Away a special wave, winking in our direction.
After Talal, the band in matching black shirts gets on stage and grabs their instruments. Within a few bars of their first Egyptian pop song, a good chunk of the audience is singing or humming along. Young men push their way to the front of the stage area to bust some moves, and even the fully veiled graduating girls wave their diplomas a little bit to the beat of the music. Anwar nudges me in the side, grinning. "Look! Even the girls want to dance to Tamer Hosni!"
The band grins at the start and finish of each number, as the whole audience recognizes each pop song and claps or roars with approval. Seven or eight songs in, Talal rolls his eyes. "How many songs are they going to play?" he asks.
Hussam goes to speak with his not-girlfriend for a few minutes while Talal tries to find the organizing committee manager so he can get paid for his show. Watching Hussam dart through the crowd to find her, Anwar jokes that we will have to drag Hussam by the ears if we ever want to leave the building.
Talal returns first, but his eyes are glued to the ground and he looks like he got punched in the gut. "They didn't pay me," he whispers.
Ahmed and Anwar jump immediately into action, scouring the hall to find the committee manager, who is suddenly nowhere to be found. Talal gets on the phone with Omr to explain the situation, though he is already neck-deep in his own bureaucratic nightmare by spending his second day in a row at the embassy trying to secure visas for his family. "Corrupt bastard," is all I can make out from Omr on the other end.
We beckon Hussam to follow us outside. Ahmed puts his arm around Talal reassuringly as we head to Anwar's car. Talal picks up his deck of cards and box of magic. The light gleaming in his eyes while he performed is gone.
Outside the hall, a kid tries to sell me some bullets. "I've got a whole arsenal of them!" he beams, flashing a toothless grin at me. When I decline, his smile drops, and he pretends to pull out a gun from his ratty clothes, miming shots at me. Hussam shoos him away.
It has been a rough day all around. Back at Ahmed's house, Talal goes straight into his room and closes the door -- the dozen or so calls to the graduation committee organizers have gone unanswered all afternoon.