It took the death of an elderly neighbour to remind me why I am still living in this chaotic country.
That day, I woke up to the wailing of several women. I looked out the window to see a coffin being brought into an apartment just opposite mine. Our buildings are so close that I could easily see the proceedings. Three women were staring in shock at the coffin, holding each other and crying out for the return of their loved one. On the balcony, several men paced nervously and fumbled with their cigarette packs.
Disturbed by the tragic scene, I began to turn away when I noticed almost all the neighbours in the four buildings which make up this small community standing on their balconies, heads bowed. Some were praying, others were wiping away silent tears. Young and old stood in silence.
I vaguely remembered the elderly man and his wife standing on their balcony staring at me and my husband only a few months ago. We were newlyweds and moving into our first home. I found their stare disconcerting and commented to my husband on their perceived rude behavior. Much in the impatient spirit of a young career couple, we pointedly turned our backs to them.
In the days to come, however, I found many of the neighbours' attitudes annoying. I thought that living in a community with buildings so closely facing each other would be rather exciting. Before moving here, I lived in a high-rise apartment and had a lovely bird's-eye view of some parts of Beirut. In this community, however, the view was people staring at us from their balconies.
But as I watched the neighbours standing in silence that day, shaking their heads and weeping over the man's death, they suddenly took the shape of caring neighbours rather than nosy ones. It dawned on me that they stared at us for a purpose. In this closely-knit community, women wanted to know if new tenants posed any threat to their offspring running round the neighbourhood and men needed to study the strangers who might intrude in their families' lives.
I also began to notice other details. Men, for example, came out on their balconies when pedlars arrived.
By now, neighbours had figured out that my husband has late working hours and I am often alone in the evenings. Visitors are dutifully noted.
When a visiting girlfriend inadvertently blocked the entrance of a nearby building with her car and came up to my apartment, neighbourhood boys knew exactly where to locate her - and kindly helped her find another parking space.
It was then that it occurred to me that it's the people who tie me to Lebanon. There's the cobbler down the street, for example. When my car was giving me trouble he promptly shut his shop, climbed into the passenger seat and took me to his mechanic nephew. Then there's the grocer. Knowing that I'm still learning how to cook, he picks out the best produce and gives me a new recipe each time - adding a few items without charge 'just to give your stew some more taste,' he assures me.
And there's also the shop owner who runs to take some heavy bags from me and carries them the whole block to my building.
And, just the other day, I was in a hurry to leave for a weekend holiday. I was carrying a big bag filled with blankets and, of all things, my mobile phone. It was only hours later as I opened the trunk of my car that I realized that I had left the bag on the sidewalk and made off without it. Two days later I returned to the scene. I didn't have much hope of finding it. And then I spotted the bag - my bag - on the top of a car.
Next to it an elderly tailor was sewing a pair of trousers.
'Some young people found it on the sidewalk and brought it to me,' he said. 'I thought I'd keep it until its owner turned up.'
I could have hugged him.
When Beirut's heavy traffic, potholed roads, nightmare of bureaucratic government offices (it's too much work even to report a theft), and the inconsistent electricity irks me, I remind myself of the cobbler, grocer, shop owner and the elderly tailor.
As for my neighbours, my husband and I are no longer items of curiosity. The staring from balconies has drastically decreased. We are now officially accepted in the community. However, there are some new tenants who moved into a flat in the opposite building.
I think I can get a better view of them if I stand on the balcony.
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