By G. WILLOW
Published: April 8, 2007
During the last few years, my
In the beginning, Hassan and his wife and sons came and went in silence and remained something of a mystery to the rest of us. No one knows, for instance, whether Hassan’s family is Sunni or Shiite, and people are too polite to ask; our building, whose residents are an eclectic mixture of mainstream Sunnis, Coptic Christians and conservative Wahhabis, is a site of religious détente.
About a month after they moved in, things changed. Hassan began to hold noisy get-togethers that started at midnight and lasted until the dawn prayer. For weeks after this ritual began, my husband and I were jolted awake several times a night by cheers, stamping and loud music.
My husband, who was raised in
Still, we tried to tolerate the disturbance — to complain about noise, unless it is truly excessive, is seen as a little gauche in this city, famous for its all-night chaos. They were new neighbors, after all, and had left their country behind them; besides, we reasoned, they couldn’t possibly have parties every night.
But they did. When the noise continued, night after night, week after week, and I slipped into a state of sleep-deprived delirium, we decided something had to be done. I would never have thought that my compassion for a family in exile could be undermined by the thinness of walls, but it occurred to me that compassion is easiest at a distance.
“I’ll talk to them,” my husband said, and when the whistling and stamping began at midnight the next evening, he went upstairs to complain. I hovered in our doorway to listen. After awkward introductions, Hassan apologized and promised to tone down the noise.
“Do you know what they’re doing up there?” my husband asked when he came downstairs. “They’re playing backgammon. Everyone shouts when someone rolls a good score.”
“Why make that much noise over a board game?” I said. My husband shrugged.
“Anyway,” he said, “I think they’ll keep it down.”
They did, for two or three nights. Then the noise began again. This time when my husband went upstairs, he was less polite.
Hassan told my husband the reason for
his nightly gatherings. “I haven’t been able to sleep through the night since I
He went on, asking my husband if he understood how alienated they felt, using a word, ghorba, that shares a root with the word for the solitary, cemetery-haunting crow, and with “stranger.”
My husband told him that regardless of his situation, we had to work in the morning and simply could not tolerate these nightly interruptions. Their agitated conversation echoed down the stairs. They did not part on good terms.
After the confrontation, our neighbors went quiet. But I still couldn’t sleep. I lay awake listening for their softened footsteps; absorbing their anxiety. For me, insomnia was something ordinary, and it came and went for ordinary reasons. I could not imagine what it was like to lose sleep for months on end — to have gone through what they had gone through.
Incurably wakeful, I studied the dark ceiling of my bedroom. I couldn’t rest, and they couldn’t escape their restlessness. We had all been awake too long.