Hot

I have spent most of my summers in humid Illinois, a few in Mexico, and last summer in Phoenix, Arizona. Yet, every time spring yields to an overpowering summer, the heat catches me off guard.

Sure there are ways to survive even without air conditioning. Here in North Africa, spray bottles, fans, popsicles,  and cold water bottles come to mind.

The sun hovers directly above the city and beats its rays into the vast stretches of concrete and tile. Don’t picture me lounging on lush green grass under a generous shade tree. If I reclined on the ground, I would probably fry like an egg. And most of the shade comes when the sun dips behind the concrete buildings.

I have little energy. Staying hydrated is a chore. Headaches are routine. Sometimes I’m even sick to my stomach.

Yet, this miserable heat brings out the camaraderie that wouldn’t be here if the weather were perfect. After the sun goes down, people unite on the streets, visiting, shopping, or just watching the world go by. The carefree atmosphere comes from the underlying sensation of “Whew! We survived another day together!”

The belt slinger

Sitting in the shade of a damp sheet strung across two clotheslines hadn’t been too bad. But now out on the street, I had to stop pretending it wasn’t hot. The concrete tossed the day’s heat into my face as we walked down narrow streets of the tall apartment buildings in Aisha’s neighborhood.

It was the day of Eid, the celebration at the end of Ramadan. As the sun considered setting, people started to appear on the streets, freshly scrubbed and in new clothes. Time for the party!

Aisha had explained that all of the children would be out on the streets in their new clothes, playing, dancing, and laughing. We were on our way to witness this delightful street party now.

But we were only approaching Aisha’s mother’s apartment when we encountered a slight glitch in our plans: apparently, Aisha’s nephew had whacked a neighbor girl with his belt. The girl’s mother approached the few family members lingering outside of Aisha’s mother’s apartment. She was furious as she displayed the belt’s point of contact with her daughter’s face.

Along with the others, I peered at the unbruised, unbroken skin, trying to ascertain the validity of the crime. Her inflammatory remarks didn’t set well with the boy’s family. An instant wall of excuses met her accusations: this wasn’t the boy’s problem, but her daughter’s problem, the family told her.

The little girl’s shaky sobs were lost as the confrontation exploded. Hollering escalated, echoing up and down the street. Neighbors rushed to the scene to offer unwanted advice and intercession. Others stood in the background to observe. Above us, others leaned out of windows to watch the drama unfold on the street below. A bit of pushing began, but tapered off quickly as friends dragged the more aggressive ones away. There was little effort to control any display of temper.

I was the only foreigner, the only one who didn’t quite culturally grasp what was happening. I leaned awkwardly against the doors of a closed shop to watch, fighting my own instincts to intervene.

The original crime had been so trivial. Why the big fight in the middle of the street?

Meanwhile, the little belt slinging offender was running around slaying other children with his belt, unhindered and unnoticed altogether… except by me!

Good windows make good neighbors

Robert Frost once wrote a poem about good fences making good neighbors. But what if there are no fences, only windows that overlook walls of windows from neighboring apartments? Do good windows make good neighbors too?

Through the windows, I can sample the lives of my neighbors. Without really knowing them or even really knowing exactly what apartment they live in, I know certain things.

For example, a man sneezes about 9:00 every evening. It’s not just a sneeze, but a SNEEZE. Actually, it is a series of sneezes that gives me an estimate of the time not unlike the call to prayer. And since the Ramadan time change, the sneezes have been coming at 8 p.m.

There is an unpleasant child in a lower level apartment, whose screams are punctuated by the parents’ roars of disapproval.

I can smell what neighbors are cooking, at times even identifying individual spices. And there is often the clattering of women washing dishes or the hissing of a pressure cooker.

In a tiny courtyard below, some neighbors play soccer with friends. When there are five or six of them, I don’t know how they manage to fit, let alone play a game. Their shouting in African French echoes all over our mini community.

Parties on the roof until the wee hours of the morning mean that talking and laughter float through our windows with the cool night breeze.

One evening, a little boy appeared in his window wearing only a T-shirt and his underwear. Silently, he climbed up in the window sill and measured the window with a tape measure. Then he climbed back down.

See, good windows must make good neighbors… or at least provide daily entertainment.