Today is the 35th day of quarantine and the second day of curfew that has been imposed in some areas in the West Bank. We are facing an upsurge of measures due to the marked increase in the number of Coronavirus cases in order to stop the disease from spreading on a wider scale. This is what the Ministry of Health and official parties are saying, but things are under control, whereas the emergency committee appointed to combat the pandemic says that if necessary, it will take even more measures according to its following of the disease’s path on the epidemiological map.
Despite the danger, I went out in the evening for a short walk in my neighbourhood. There was complete silence and tranquillity. Everyone was committedly staying indoors, the streets were empty and there were no passers-by; I was alone in Abu ‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri Street. I was careful, this time, not to stray too far from home to avoid problems. It seems I did not follow the news very well, or that I lacked information and I did not want, in any case, to hear any more explanations from policemen if they stopped me by chance, as it would not really be that useful to explain my point of view concerning the measures or what my life philosophy is or my opinion about the virus.
I was the citizen stripped of his will and they are the authorities who are giving us instructions. During normal times, I would not have taken heed of their measures, I would have been busy with something or another and I at least would not listen to the government’s guidelines. I hardly had the time to go for a walk with a friend or to go to the club. I would perhaps go to my studio on Batn al-Hawa Street to finish some artwork. I no doubt had many unfinished things to do. I would have been sitting with a friend or attending a meeting or visited my mother; anything but this feeling that I am like an intruder with no purpose.
It was not me walking in the street now, but me as a boy during the days of curfew imposed by the occupation authorities on Palestinians to punish them and to take control of their lives. I monitored the patrolling Israeli army jeeps from the roofs of houses before going down to the streets to resist them and to practise a stolen freedom and to protest what was being planned against us as human beings. This time, things were definitely different.
I said to myself, “Stop being boyish!” and “Why don’t I go back home and walk in the garden without wearing a mask at least?! I could kill some time by pruning the plants—didn’t I always want the time to do that?”
The word ‘curfew’ reminded me of the past and I started imagining an Israeli military patrol ons the street corner. I started hyperventilating upon these strange imaginings while wearing my light blue mask. The city has not been this empty for a long time, there was no one there to keep me company during these moments, and no doubt people were acting in the correct fashion.
While walking quickly home, a police patrol car turned right from the direction of the mosque towards the street I was walking. What bad luck I had! How embarrassing! I will tell them that I was just taking a breath of fresh air and that I was committed to their instructions. However, the patrol did not stop me or even pay attention to me, as if I was not in the street violating the curfew. The “Affinity Checkpoints,” as they were dubbed by the official spokesperson, did not prevent me from walking around as if they were just memories of checkpoints and crises.
It was an invisible play.
I am borrowing this term mostly from popular Egyptian tradition: “with my hands on my heart.” It is a somewhat ambiguous term, transforming into the passive or third party when the enemy wears the cloak of invisibility. But with things as they are now, the term seems more appropriate for describing the situation with the Coronavirus. When Ahmad Zaki and Saeed Saleh used it in the play entitled The Kids Have Grown Up, where their younger brother—Younis Shalabi—was kidnapped, the so-called “kidnapping gang” was a joke, but now things seem to be serious. Airports are closed, streets are empty worldwide and hospitals are overflowing with the sick. The virus is not a joke and life has ground to a halt all over the world. But until this dark cloud passes, one must take up more weapons than just isolation, doubt and fear of everything around us.
It is impossible for isolation to be the only weapon to face the virus. In the midst of all this, even the places that provide solace and peace of mind to human beings—the mosques, churches, museums, cafes and bars—are closed.
Where are the dervishes, the believers, the art lovers, the sociable people and even the opportunists? Where are you good people? I say to myself that I will write all this once I get home.
I spent most of the time during the quarantine with my son ‘Amr, who had to stop his studies at Dar al-Kalima College in Bethlehem due to the virus. He came back home as everyone does during a crisis. For me this was a good thing. He came back with his new instrument, the saxophone, and he had a lot of time to practise and to compose music to post online. I would enjoy the music he played in the next room. He is a distinguished artist and would suggest or insist that I watch certain films. I was the cook or the gardener in the house and every time I searched for the artist within me, the maintenance man would appear instead.
It’s the 47th day of quarantine, and despite the fact that I know this, I do not really know which day it is exactly. In reality, I do not want to know whether it is a Friday, a Sunday or a Saturday. I am writing this now without knowing the day or exact date. Of course, it would be very easy to find out just by looking at a mobile phone or the TV or the computer. But it is somewhat different as it is related to the disruption of our circadian rhythm and a feeling of our uselessness and insecurity.
Unlike past pandemics, this virus has impacted our lives with great changes and is still doing so—it has impacted people’s behaviour and I am one of those people. My habits and relationships with things, ideas and people have changed, like the perception of the place we call home, in this case, and my perception of time has changed as well. My relationship with the sink, the disinfectant gel and the mask has evolved. After the initial shock came the feeling of boredom, then numbness; even creating artwork or writing could not help me as they did in the past. I feel that time flows in a circular form and not in a straight line moving forward. There are no projects to commit to, no tasks or necessary duties or work with a deadline. Everything stopped with the development of the virus and the excuses developed without any pangs of conscience. The Coronavirus has liberated us from commitments and the rat race has stopped. Life is moving as if in slow motion and at ease, as the popular saying goes, “Food and no work.” The work that you could do in a few hours is stretched over days. the municipality’s planting of seedlings took three days and I pared the vine the day after that. I went up to the roof to fix the water tank on Thursday and I folded the washing on Sunday; the schedule became relaxed and homely to the greatest extent. The house became the geography in which you passed your time, it became the stage upon which events were performed. Visits became non-existent at the beginning, then very limited and only for some very close friends or relatives and we would sit far apart in the garden. We would converse, exchange news or discuss current issues and share smiles; we did not believe some news or we would make fun of our ambiguous belief. This is a time when you quickly feel a desire to return to the ‘cave’—to your solitude. It seems as if the discussion mixes you up and that people staying metres apart from each other has become familiar in a way and necessary, not just to protect you from the virus but also to keep you calm while you are away from others, contrary to Ihsan ‘Abd al-Quddus’s claim that “True comfort is to be away from yourself.” You say and hear the same ideas spread on Facebook, you both know your own convictions well but the extent of misunderstanding or agreement remains the same. There is nothing new while we are sending our ideas through social media, so what is the use of direct conversation from behind a mask?
Humanity is facing this pandemic without prior experience, unfortunately, and there is not enough information about will happen or about our future. This blindness might make us follow all the reports, news and analyses, even contradicting ones, but in the end you resort to what is in your own head, to your own thoughts and solitude—you resort to your inner conversation and unknown destiny. Communal thinking does not relieve your mind anymore nor does it answer pending questions.
While facing yourself, the past starts coming up. What should one do in such a case? Should one think of current times or the past? And what about the future? The virus is suggesting a new way of life.
When one is in prison, for example, one waits for the moment of release impatiently; or if a country is in a state of war or is under occupation, it aspires to victory or some sort of settlement.
In brief, when an area lives through a crisis, one starts to place hopes on other areas that are not experiencing a similar situation that they can run to during a worst-case scenario. However, if the world is in crisis, then both geography and time are narrowed down.
The scenes of kangaroos running towards the Australian desert due to the fires were broadcast universally on TV—the image rang the alarm bell of the dangers threatening life on Earth. The universe had also previously sent a number of signs indicating imminent danger due to human behaviour towards nature and life in general. However, unfortunately’, we did not take heed of these indications and fires.
It is also shameful that after our invasion of space and enormous scientific development, in addition to decoding human DNA, gene editing and other impressive discoveries, science—when facing this virus—is only able to say, “wash your hands and stay at home until God finds a solution.” It is truly worrying that so far, the world has only come up with a number of protective measures and not even one cure.
At one time, we saw the world in a different light while looking at life from different perspectives. Now it is as if we are all looking at it from the same perspective; we are wearing the same lenses but do not see the same things. Whether it is development of the Coronavirus in nature through the combination of one virus or more, or its development within one living being or more or in one country or another, or its mention in a book or film about the end times or science fiction.
The virus is the result of the laws of the universe and the disease exists as an essence of the medicine somewhere, even if scientists and specialists do not recognise it yet.
The black Coronavirus cloud has begun to dissipate in some areas and the strict measures were eased until the threat of a return of the virus begins again. Unfortunately, there were many more cases and deaths in one day than in the first months. But now the numbers are mentioned without the fanfare or magnitude of the panic or the curfew. In August, I was listening to the news in my car when the broadcaster said that in Palestine, there were seven deaths and more than 678 cases in one day. In the southern and northern governorates, this number would have been alarming during the first three months of the virus. It was as if nothing had happened. The only race now is to find the vaccine, not the nature of this emerging virus!