The sun sets and we hear the Call to Prayer, arriving from several directions to the balcony garden of Sonya’s apartment in a neighborhood a dozen blocks or so from Hamra, the commercial district and heart of West Beirut.
The garden is a bower of endless delight. The sounds of the city filtered by the leaves of a score of potted and grown together plants are one of the recurrent pleasures of life on the balcony. The Call to Prayer comes with both regularity and freshness, like a call from a friend or a reminder of some special gift you have enjoyed in the past and will likely enjoy again in the future. This one comes at sundown. But another came sometime in the late afternoon. In an hour or two we will be happily surprised to hear it again as an end of day declaration or celebration of full darkness. When the windows, the big glass sliders that separate the balcony from the house, are open, the call comes right into your senses. The balcony is all about the senses.
When we were here two years ago, potted plants had staked out their territory over a good deal of the balcony. Now they’re working on the air space above. Sonya has constructed an arbor of thin wire the branches can tangle themselves up on. The result is a bower, a sheltered grove, a retreat, an eye and ear on the world, and something of a grotto after I help with the watering and create a few small fountains. The plants are a privacy screen, but also a blind for our own peeking, peering and monitoring of activity across the way in the neighboring buildings and below in the streets where people talk, laugh, shout, sell things and ride very loud motorcycles and equally busy though less powerful motorbikes.
The balcony garden is anchored by bougainvillea that climb aggressively and provide branching for the fence of green. They make purple flowers all over the city. Also red, perhaps from a different variety of the plant. In one corner sits an olive tree, making grayish leaves and biding its time. (We’re not counting on homemade olive oil soon.) We watch the lemon tree, for signs of very pretty. The Asian jasmine is already blossoming sweetly. A gardenia has deep green leaves and a satisfying profusion of thick and promising buds. We watched a hibiscus bud slowly and reddishly, push its nose out of the covers and smell the sunshine for a week. This morning we were greeted by the emergence of a fully-fledged blossom, with its own specially ornamented architecture. The alyssum, native or not, drops its seeds with abandon and flowers in different quarters. Many other plants hold their place in the scheme, some of them thickly leaved, even if I can’t summon their names.
The sounds of the city neighborhood come to the balcony in layers. The voices of the engines, sudden screams of motorcycles, building blasts during the work day, human voices calling out sales and services, singing the song of their days. And below that a constant murmur of throbbing human activity. Footsteps, talk, wordless activity, coming and going. It’s evening now. The human voices are domestic. I hear intonations of sharing, some excitement in voices, news or happy anticipation; the pleasure of a day’s work behind them and an evening’s fellowship at hand.
We feel that too, though our vacationers’ day consisted of a pleasure trip, a lot of good food, and a little shopping. Besides, the balcony will bring us a fresh day in the morning.