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Faces in the Windows

This year, the beginning of April in Dubai feels cooler than it has in the past few years. Temperatures hover around 20 degrees Celsius and the evenings are pleasantly breezy. This month though, is different than the April of years gone by in ways more than just the weather.  For one, the annoying cacophony of heavy construction machinery in my residential neighborhood, just after sunrise, has been replaced by sweet birdsong. The city is on lockdown, and instead of traffic, I hear conversations and the hiss of pressure cookers.

At the end of this month, I’ll have completed six years of living in the same house- that’s the longest I’ve lived in one flat since I turned 18. Over the years, my sense of home has evolved into something fluid, conflicted, and often confusing. But now, when the world hunkers down, united by fear and anxiety, home is here in Dubai, the city I was born in and where I now live with my husband.

I live in an old Indian neighborhood in Dubai, the kind where scantily-clad South Asian women stare up at you from pamphlets hurriedly scattered on otherwise clean pavements, laundry lines outside apartment windows heave under the weight of towels, sheets, and paisley patterned salwar-kameez, corner cafeterias sell 5 dirham omelet parathas, and lanky guys in baseball caps deliver groceries on bicycles. 

Like the rest of the world, the pace of the city has slowed down drastically over the last couple of weeks. One can no longer be outside unless it’s to go to the supermarket, pharmacy, or hospital, or to work in one of the sectors where working from home isn’t an option. For all of these, one needs to apply for a permit each time one intends to leave the house.

Our daily routines have now been replaced with simpler tasks that fill longer-than-usual days. They’re days spent entirely at home- baking banana bread, making Dalgona coffee, squabbling over whose turn it is to sweep the floors, and oscillating between keeping our spirits up and the absolute depths of despair.

It’s tragic, terrifying, and yet, there is something remarkable about the underlying sense of connectedness spurred on by this pandemic in communities across cities like mine. In cities where far too often, daily routines, chock-full with expectations and responsibilities, prevent neighbors from making the transition from strange to familiar. In cities, where the figures in the windows of drab concrete apartment blocks around us remain faceless silhouettes, whether we’ve lived there five years or fifteen.

Thrice during the past two weeks, we’ve gathered in the windows and balconies of our middle-class neighborhood to clatter and bang pots and pans to show our appreciation for healthcare workers and those who keep the city running in times like these. On the first day, some faces emerged to stare curiously, as a few of us unabashedly made all the noise. The next day, they were back, this time with large steel plates and ladles that they banged with fervor. On the third evening, we turned on the lights in the windows and waved at each other enthusiastically.

The silhouettes had finally stepped out of the shadows eager to make a human connection, as if to say, “We see you. We’re in this together.”  We pointed at each other, raising our utensils, as we tried to make music out of our organized chaos, for nearly an hour. We failed. It was as if for a few moments, we’d all become children once again, with a free pass to make as much noise as we could.

The next morning, I stood in my balcony, sipping on rooibos tea. I watched a flock of pigeons gather on the terrace of the next building, around grains that I suspect someone had left out for them earlier in the morning. Two floors below, a woman in a shiny black braid, leaned out of her window to hang wet clothes over a laundry line. When she was finished, she looked up, held my gaze, and smiled.

The collective fragility of our lives, laid bare by this pandemic, is a beautiful, humbling force. It’s heartbreaking, and it has shattered every illusion of control, reminding us of our vulnerability and therefore of the one thing that connects us all- our all too human powerlessness.

Every evening as the sirens of patrolling police cars fill our empty streets, I look across my window and see that I am not alone.

There’s the teenaged boy hunched over a book, seated on a wicker chair in his balcony. There are the siblings washing dishes and folding laundry. There’s the family watching cartoons. There’s the woman pacifying her wailing infant. There’s the couple stirring something in a large steel pot. There’s the bald middle-aged man who fights late-night restlessness with steaming cups of tea. 

These days, the curtains are drawn revealing the lives behind them, the lights are on, and the windows aren’t quite as lonely as before. 

It seems, we’re letting each other in, just a little bit.