I’ve always loved hearing other people’s stories. I love to hear about small and inconsequential experiences. It gives you insight into a life you may have never touched.
I want to use this time to talk about an old woman in Lebanon named Elvira Estephan. Elvira lived in Samer’s building in Ain El Remmaneh. I only met Elvira one time, and she was utterly uninterested in me. It was the first time I went to Beirut, and she stopped by to say hello to him. Elvira was a low-level grifter and eccentric in an almost Sophia Petrillo way. She never had kids, and her neighbors mostly forgot about her by the end of her life. She will likely disappear into obscurity. That’s probably the reason I am spending this time writing about her. Here are the stories that I know.
Elvira had one functioning eye. The other stopped working due to some sort of childhood infection. As she aged, she started to lose sight in the other eye. That never stopped her from driving, and by all reports, she got behind the wheel while blind for quite a few years. She even got in a car accident with Samer’s mom, but it was obviously the other driver’s fault.
Elvira worked as a nurse without any training and had no bedside manner. She sutured injured people during the Lebanese civil war. She once drew blood from Samer’s dad for a test and was so rough she left his entire arm bruised. She gave Samer a model human skull when he was in medical school studying anatomy. No one asked where it came from, though most assumed she stole it from the hospital she worked in.
Samer’s family did not curse, but Elvira was prolific in it. Samer learned all his Arabic curse words from her. Once she used, Kess Ikhtak, which scandalized Samer’s uncle so much he stopped talking to her. Though, her favorite curse was manyook, which is basically “fuck.”
She did not cook for herself and made her rounds in the building during the lunch hour, stopping in to say hello right when the food was served. Obviously, an invitation was immediately extended. Typically, she would open with “so and so, didn’t even offer me lunch when I visited. Imagine!” Samer’s mom would debrief the visit with the other neighbors and quickly learn that Elvira had indeed received an invitation, accepted it, and enjoyed lunch before arriving at Samer’s house for a second lunch.
One story that I even struggle to comprehend has to do with a long time con she ran to not pay her water bill. To explain it, we need to understand how utilities are handled in Lebanon. For some reason, changing the person’s name on a bill is very complicated. So, imagine this: a new building is created, and you are the first person to live in it. You’ll need to set up a utility bill. You live there for a few years and then decide to sell your apartment and move away. It is easier for the person who buys your apartment to keep paying the utility bill under your name than it is to change it to their name. When paying the bill, the second owner will use the address but may even use the original owner’s name. This is maddening to me, but that is me being very American-centric.
On to the story. Samer’s family has lived in their apartment since the 1960s. Before they moved in, Elvira and her brother lived in it but moved to an apartment on a lower floor. Elvira will live in that apartment for rest of her life. This meant that Samer’s family paid their water bill under Elvira’s brother’s name for about 60 years. (That is crazy to think about, but it is no big deal to anyone in Lebanon.) Somewhere in 2019, the water company found out that Elvira had stopped paying her water bill. They threatened to cut her water off. Always up for running a scam, Elvira contacted Samer’s mom to get the bill the Badr’s had been paying under Elvira’s brother’s name. Elvira planned to say, “your records are wrong, and my brother’s account has been consistently paid for ages.” Hoping the water company staff would not realize she was were living in an apartment with a water bill under a different name. Samer’s mom didn’t help out with this con, but it was never resolved, as far as I know.
She worked her entire life and was frugal (stingy, to be honest) beyond measure. Samer reports she did have some family and left the city in the summer to spend time with them. A family story about Elvira was that she randomly dialed numbers from her phone and talked to people who picked up on the other end.
Elvira’s victimless shittiness did have a sour note in the last few years. She had a maid, who probably functioned like a homecare worker, who she abused. There is nothing to laugh at here, but I only mention it because it ostracized her in the building. Lebanon is rife with domestic worker abuse. Samer’s mom had functionally moved away to her mountain apartment by this time, and his remaining family didn’t talk to her much after the abuse accusations.
The last story I know about her is that she contracted COVID-19 in the fall of 2020, and folks saw her getting into a taxi without a mask around the same time. Going where, no one knows. Elvira died in December 2020 from COVID-19 related issues. She was over 80 years old at the time.