The next-door neighbour
Neighbours: A series of seven stories
Wherever we are in the world – home or away, in the place we were born or somewhere else – there will always be someone next door. A neighbour, a person living by our side. We may differ in manners and ideas of how things should be done, but we will remain closely connected – because borders and walls, bushes and fences from metal or wood, connect us more than keep us apart.
Lebanon, bordered on one side by the Mediterranean and on the others by olive, orange and wheat fields, may have complicated, if not outright thorny, official relations with its neighbours today. But the relationships nurtured by people are different. By their very essence they traverse borders, and connect what is on one side with the other.
There is also a distinct neighbourly culture within Lebanon, which connects people living in the same street or building: a culture of chatting, sharing and helping one another. Some might argue that this is fading away with time; that close neighbourly relations are something of the past. Either way, there seems to be an inherent nostalgia associated with the concept of neighbours, and we are interested in finding out its current relevance.
The seven stories in this series on Neighbours, all written or produced by former participants to our workshops on journalism and writing, set out to do that.
First out is the tender memory of Sarah Khazem of early morning rituals with a temporary next-door neighbour; following that is Abby Sewell’s conversations with Syrian activists on the revolutionary events in Lebanon. Layla Yammine’s meeting with an antiques dealer in Beirut’s Basta neighbourhood comes third; fourth is Andrea Olea’s notes of kitchen conversations with two Palestinian friends.
Hamoud Mjeidel then takes us to the families residing in Umm Ali’s building in Shatila, and Ghadir Hamadi invites us to hear her family history spanning Lebanon and the Gulf. Rayan Sukkar and Samih Mahmoud, finally, brings us voices from those who may be considered neighbours of the ongoing Lebanese uprising.
Refuge. It could be embodied in a person or a community, or simply mean sanctuary in a foreign land. In addition to the connotation of safety that the word holds, its significance also lies in the gleam of hope it carries: a promise, somehow, of a better tomorrow.
In 2011, when bombshells and Dushka bullets from the Russian-made machine gun started to devour the cement walls of Syrian houses, Lebanon became a primary destination for those seeking shelter for a night or two. Little did they know back then that their sojourn would be prolonged to hundreds of sleepless nights.
Today, Lebanon is not only home to over one million Syrian refugees but also plays a vital role in the lives of many young Syrians still residing in their war-torn homeland. In the past few years, they have found in the neighbouring country a safe space to share expertise, ideas, political views and stories. And I am one of them.
Little did they know back then that their sojourn would be prolonged to hundreds of sleepless nights.
Being a social activist and creative writer, I have been travelling between the two countries regularly for almost two years, roaming the streets in search for stories to cover or poetically compose. Throughout the years, I never had the chance to experience a genuine relationship with any of my neighbours in Lebanon, mainly because I never settled in one place for more than a week. Until the day I decided to join a group of Syrians sharing a house in a building in Hamra, the street and neighbourhood known for its coffee shops, hotels and unique cosmopolitan culture and identity.
My decision to stay for two months in that apartment came with my quest to find untold tales and unconventional storytellers in the neighbourhoods of Lebanon’s cities, out of a belief in the importance and beauty of the oral narratives of communities. It was fortunate, because that is how I came to meet a catalytic storyteller named Claudine.
Claudine, a fifty-six-year-old Lebanese woman living solo in a spacious house, was our next-door neighbour. At first, that was all I knew about the blonde woman who drank her coffee alone on the balcony every day at 8 a.m. Several days later, I met her on the stairs of our building. I introduced myself as the new neighbour.
“Apparently, this new neighbour is a communist, right?” she said smiling, after having spotted Souha Bechara’s wartime memoir Resistance in my hand.
“I don’t consider myself a communist, but my father was one,” I replied.
Claudine smiled and remarked that her late husband “was one” too. She then proceeded to tell me how she knew Souha in person and how her elder sister used to run out without their parents’ consent to meet Souha and other friends in Hamra during the civil war.
“Apparently, this new neighbour is a communist, right?”
Two days later, Claudine came to visit us, bringing with her a plate of homemade waraq enab, stuffed grape leaves.
“You were the first person in years to approach me and introduce yourself as my ‘new neighbour’,” she said.
“It made me feel a kind of intimacy that I had relinquished years ago, and I thought would never be restored again. I almost forgot what the concept of neighbours embodies, what sort of traditions and rituals are shared.’’
Afterwards, when we sat together to eat, we began to chat about war as a medium to get to know each other. Syria and Lebanon have gone through the same horrific experience of a destructive war rendering part of the population dead and the other part immigrants. People of both countries have suffered from identical consequences of different wars, taking place during different centuries: consequences that overlap on so many levels that the destinies of both people are linked.
“I lost my home during the civil war. I lost family members and parts of myself, and I shared with millions of Lebanese the loss of a country we adored,” Claudine said.
“We were constantly on the run. We had no time or opportunity to make new friends or get to know our neighbours, before we had to leave to another place. And now, even though the war has ended, we still don’t seem to find time for each other.”
“Now, even though the war has ended, we still don’t seem to find time for each other.”
Claudine proceeded to recount stories of her two sons who now live abroad, and the friends she got to know in Syria in 2006, when she fled there with her husband and two kids from the July War in Lebanon.
A refuge within a refuge
She found in me, I think, a representation of an intimacy that had been missing in her life; an escape from the isolation that had been forced upon her by the inevitable changes of time. To us, she represented a refuge within a refuge, the kind that comes embodied in a person you meet in a foreign land if you are lucky enough.
The morning coffee at 8 a.m. became a ritual between Claudine and me. We would sit on the balcony of my apartment every day, drinking Turkish coffee and exchanging different kinds of stories. She knew the neighbourhood and its stories better than anyone else. Once, she recounted the story of one of the Lebanese Civil War’s most landmark events.
She represented a refuge within a refuge, the kind that comes embodied in a person you meet in a foreign land if you are lucky enough.
“On a cloudy day in September 1982, I passed by Hamra with two of my friends. We saw a crowd assembling around the Wimpy Café. We couldn’t reach all the way through but we were able to collect fragments of the story. A 19-year-old guy called Khaled Alwan had attacked Israeli soldiers with a pistol. I shouted, from the bottom of my heart: ‘God bless his soul. God bless the fighter that gave birth to him.’ What a rapturous moment it was!”
I already knew the story of the Wimpy operation well; I had read a lot about its political ramifications. But no one ever told me about the shouts, the tears or the blessings before Claudine did.
Speaking of heroes, I shared the story of Kareem, an 11-year-old boy I met in a center for empowering internally displaced children in Syria, with Claudine. Kareem had to leave his school in Aleppo after it was turned into a military barracks. “He never missed a class,” I recalled, “even though he had to work and sell flowers to help his family. He always seemed to find a way to show up to my classes. One day I decided to reward him for his diligence by giving him a copy of the kids’ book The Little Prince, my favorite childhood story,” I told Claudine. “Two weeks later, at the farewell party in the center, he came to me with a piece of paper that said, ‘Miss, you are my hero’ penned in both English and Arabic.”
Claudine, with a smile, said, “Sometimes, the people who have the most impact on us are those who gently fill our gaps, even with the smallest actions. That’s how you became a heroic figure to that little boy.”
Three years have now passed since I first met Claudine, and since I first came to Hamra.
It was on my very first visit to Lebanon. The taxi driver, abruptly, stopped the car in a busy part of the city. “We are here, this is the main street of Hamra,” he said. I gave him a handful of the unfamiliar money I had in my pocket, then stepped out of the car. My friends were waiting for me in a coffee shop, but I had no Lebanese phone line to contact them or to google the location. So I had to resort to the traditional way of asking people for directions. I walked the streets with my backpack, taking in the unfamiliar bustle of the neighbourhood.
“Sometimes, the people who have the most impact on us are those who gently fill our gaps, even with the smallest actions.”
At the same time, I was engaged in an internal monologue. Should I believe the misleading information about ‘others’ and ‘other countries’ I was given before travelling? Should I follow the instructions of what it seems to become a stereotype-based handbook imprinted in my mind about what I would see and how to react to it, and consequently disguise my Syrian dialect to avoid a racist backlash?
I muffled the voices in my head and moved towards an old man standing in front of his sweets shop to ask about the place in my original Syrian accent. He did not know, nor did the others I asked, until a girl accompanied me to the right location. “We were getting so worried about you, we thought you were lost!” one of my friends shouted when I arrived to the café.
Rewriters of history
During the last few days of my stay in the Hamra apartment, I started to ponder about the significance of the stories and oral narratives shared with Claudine. I concluded that what made her storytelling unique is the same characteristics that distinguish the traditional Damascene storyteller.
As practitioners of a popular art form that survived a number of successive conflicts in Syria since the French Mandate, the storytellers of Damascus were not only part of making its history, but also of rewriting it. They brought people together, recalling details in their stories that were considered trivial or redundant for media outlets or other storytellers.
The same goes for Claudine. Even though she does not wear the traditional red cap, recounting stories in local coffee shops holding a stick, she is rewriting the history of her Beiruti neighbourhood and her country. No need for a fez.
The stories we told each other were uncountable and invaluable. We shared tales of war heroes and heroines; of historical events, victories and defeats; of lost battles and laurel wreaths. They were the cornerstones of a bridge built between two people from different generations, countries and backgrounds, who happened, temporarily, to be neighbours.
We shared tales of war heroes and heroines; of historical events, victories and defeats; of lost battles and laurel wreaths.
One month ago, in the same coffee shop where I went on that first afternoon in Lebanon, I asked one of my friends what Beirut had come to represent to him. He replied that, “it is only a two-hour trip from Damascus to Beirut, so sometimes I feel like I’m only crossing to the next neighbourhood – the safe one, the one with no snipers on the rooftops. Beirut is like a stage that overlooks our cities, from which we can assess the damage that has been made.”
Then he recalled jokingly “the time I was lost in Hamra”. I laughed and said that “No one could ever be lost in such a diverse neighbourhood”. Three years on, I can metaphorically declare Hamra as the place where I found the lost pieces of myself.
Neighbours was produced as part of the 2019-2020 Switch Perspective project, supported by GIZ. All illustrations by Ismaël Abdallah.