Souq al-ahad, or the Sunday market, actually open on Saturdays too, is held under an overpass next to Nahr Beirut. It sells a wide range of dodgy and delicious goods, from electronics made in both Germany and China (the fruit of some over-enthusiastic counterfeiters) to fat juicy olives. This is the place where self-respecting Lebanese stock up on the latest dvds, some not even officially released yet. No pretence is made about their source; as we browse the titles, a new shipment of pirated copies arrives and they are duly sorted into cases and matched up with their freshly printed covers. This type of down-to-earth fraud is almost comforting in contrast with the upmarket artifice of the Western-style supermarkets and malls.
Unlike the souqs of Marrakech, this market does not target tourists. I don’t try to haggle for any of the chandeliers at the antiques stalls at the northern end, where I would surely end up paying the pink face tax, but I can browse freely without being pounced on. There are even fixed prices being announced via a recorded message on loudspeakers at some stalls while the men who run them drift away to chat and drink coffee. There is none of that peculiar mix of disdain and reverence common among people who make their living from people they envy, whether it be Marrakech or the seaside towns of Devon where I grew up. No-one whistles a bird call to stall-holders downstream to signal the arrival of easy pickings.
However, there is some chirping – a huge stack of cages in fluorescent colours is piled high at the southern end of the market. Kittens and bunnies occupy the lower storeys, while the upper cages all contain small brightly coloured birds all singing their hearts out. I can’t tell if they are chattering so insistently because they are aware of the cats barely dozing beneath them, or on the contrary because they are in blissful ignorance. Pets are not a Lebanese thing, really. The cats that leap from every corner are all strays while dogs are unanimously considered dirty. The only exception being in Achrafieh, a neighbourhood mocked for wanting to be French so badly they even imported the pooches and the soiled streets. But birds are different. They eat next to nothing and are highly unlikely to reproduce anything you’d feel bad frying. So they make tidy, cheap pets and have earned a place twittering on balconies everywhere.
Back home, washing my fruit from the market, I hear an excited high-pitched chattering. School children, maybe. Another school bus stuck in the narrow street? I step onto the balcony. No-one in the road, not even a traffic jam for once. The noise is louder than birds, but it is coming from the balconies nonetheless. Across the way two girls are out on two floors, one above the other. They are both in chequered overalls, both leaning eagerly forward against the railing, in uncanny harmony. They look as if they belong to some musical and are about to break into an act complete with synchronised gestures. In fact they are deeply engrossed in a lively conversation with another maid who must be directly beneath me. The comments fly back and forth as the girls lean further over, willing away the distance, the street, the railings. I am tempted to look over the edge, find out which floor the conversant is on. But I don’t. Although I understand as much Amharic as I do bird song, I don’t want to disturb this public intimacy. It is not every day these caged birds sing.