“Jiran” aka Neighbours

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Beirut is a city that is hard to keep up with. It constantly morphs into something new, forever tries to rid itself of any traces of the war, conceal bullet holes and silence the voices from the past, pimps itself, really. Real estate – except social housing – is booming.

The punishing property prices and rents drive many Beirutis to move outside the city and commute. The demolition of landmarks confuse locals considerably and tear at the social fabric of many neighbourhoods-including mine.

In the relatively short period I’ve come to know Beirut – my first visit dates back to 2012 – I have witnessed many buildings torn down, often seen green mesh, the sign of impending demolition, rarely of renovation efforts. Though just stones, the loss of heritage, the depletion and predatory exploitation cause great outrage.

While some years back this outrage was caused by the near systematic tearing down of old palaces, villas and heritage buildings, the 1940s, 50s and 60s are now under attack. These two, three and rarely more than five or six storey high residential blocks built just a few decades ago, are oh so generous to their inhabitants.

They offer balconies, often more than one, with space for people, plants and pets, large bright rooms with high ceilings, and the traditional set up of a private area and a part of the flat for socialising. These buildings reflect a way of living that is getting buried under the new, grim highrise that bring owners and investors much in returns but usually fill to only 40% of the inhabitable space. It is not uncommon to see 3-4 of 12 units filled, 6 months after completion of a project.

Some of the investment comes from the large Lebanese Diaspora. Some might be from abroad, the GCC. I’m not entirely sure, to be frank where all this money fuelling more and more buildings to go up comes from… What is undisputed, however, is that Beirut has been and still is being (re)built by Syrians.

That builders are mostly Syrians, however, engineers, architects and developers Lebanese, is not a recent thing – it has become the norm. Given punishing property prices, Syrian construction workers stay on site. Given the war raging in their home country, they can’t even travel for public holidays or annual leave.

Ironically, during the day, the noise of the machines and the builders screaming across the site, takes over the street. And the nearby flats… Once the working day is over, they turn into very quiet almost shadow-like creatures. It seems that the role they play during the day – construction workers – is the one ascribed to them. Once it’s past 5pm, they assume the role of residents or rather “residents” seeing that they’re merely tolerated as such and while curfews against Syrians have not been issued in Beirut, they seem to know to keep quiet after hours. So they stick to themselves and do not venture far from site.

Earlier this summer, watering the plants on the balcony facing the highrise construction site, one night, I suddenly noticed from the corner of my eyes, someone nearby. Indeed, a few meters across the narrow street, on the bare ledge of what one day might be a lounge, on level with me, lying on a mattress of sorts, was the grey-haired construction worker I’d seen before, I assumed to the site manager, looking at the screen of his phone.

I was startled. And felt like a voyeur, staring into my neighbour’s bedroom like this! Then again, I had for weeks already, walking the flight of stairs to the flat, been seeing the construction workers in their lounge cum bedroom through the gaps in the bricks. I’d stopped to seen how they had built a sort of mezzanine where two to three mattresses were spread out and how they often would watch TV – the news – at night. Cement bags stacked around them. A home of sorts but then not quite…

The older man with the grey hair would often wear a dark grey gown and he’d stand and pace, while there’d always be some construction workers sitting on this side of the street smoking, talking into their phone, maybe for privacy’s sake, maybe for better reception.

Privacy. How to grant these neighbours privacy if they sleep under the stars 5m from the plants we’re watering? Maybe the foreman has been wondering a few times-how come you didn’t clean the litter boxes 5m from my bed, yesterday?

I’ve come to see the barren site, that the men – I’d guess 10 of them – have been using as their home base. I have seen them use the first floor as the building progressed, hanging up laundry on the ground floor where they have a bathroom of sort, a toilet and built a room at the back. For now, as the temperatures are still quite hot, everything resolves around the mezzanine.

I often wonder, what it will be like in winter. Where they are from. Where their families are? What they make of the cats? Have they seen us sneaking out of the bathroom wrapped in towels? Going out all dressed up?

I also wonder, what some people mean when they say “they are used to living like this”…

*the image purposefully does not depict any of my neighbours.

Listen to Fairuz’ Nehna Wel Amar Wel Jiran (We and the moon we’re neighbours) click here

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About Tales from a Small Country

I'm a project coordinator and features writer with a passion for the seventh art, a keen interest in culture and mobility, as well as social and environmental subjects. Half French, half German by origin possibly explains why I am drawn to divided countries and diverse societies: I called Cape Town in South Africa home for over a decade before coming to Beirut in early 2012. Besides people watching and cats, I also love Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.
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One Response to “Jiran” aka Neighbours

  1. biddygreene says:

    Hi Nath

    This is a great – if depressing article. I’m sure for many South Africans it rings huge bells of migrant labourers in the bad old days – and still today on the mines. A difference though was that here the ‘displaced’ were living together in a place where they could make merry – and have women.

    Another bad bell that it rings is the developers here. You won’t believe the gigantic blocks they’re putting up in any blank space in a heritage area. (Actually more complicated than that, but I have to go now to a meeting!) The City Council appears to be ignoring its own rules – they’re deep in the pockets of the developers…

    lots of love, Biddy.

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