Pandemic Journal: Sweet and Sour

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21/04/2020

Durham, UK
During my daily walks I pass by fields, which are part of Durham’s Green Belt, and farms. I stand by the dry stone wall of Elvet Moor Farm watching nature at peace with itself unlike us. The large open spaces and meadows highlight how constrained we are under the coronavirus lockdown. All you can hear is the rustling of leaves and the singing of birds, punctuated by ambulance sirens. The tranquillity of the countryside is in sharp contrast with a boisterous and unruly virus, racing in the air, looking for a angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor to colonise and destroy.
Spring has sprung unnoticed. In one of the fields the sheep and blackbirds share the feed and eat together in harmony; seagulls land on the freshly ploughed fields, white upon brown, then fly off; and the sunset turns the tops of beach, birch and oak trees into gold. Families cycle together. People wearing masks wave and thank each other for observing social distancing. We inhale the fresh air, which thankfully we still can do, and resisting our primal need for closeness we step away from each other.
When I got home, I sat in the garden sipping tea with fresh mint. I know I am in trouble when I start listening to the Egyptian diva Um-Kulthum and reminiscing about a youth misspent in Amman’s cafes and restaurants. A friend said, ‘You get intoxicated and become amorous and stupid listening to her songs. You could fall in love with the leg of this table.’ We laughed and filled our nostrils with the smell of Turkish coffee with cardamom, jasmine and freshly watered oleanders. We were young and life and oyster were close to each other.
During the 1970’s gender roles were defined and strict, and women should know their place, but we didn’t. We connived to be able to go out for a walk, or a cup of coffee somewhere. In exchange for the coveted permission to leave The House of Bernarda Alba, we did all the chores. These outings were such a treat and a break from our daily routine: dusting, mopping floors, scrubbing bathrooms, preparing breakfast and dinner, cooking lunch sometimes, ironing, and then studying. All had to be done to perfection and elders appeased so we could reach our destination, Jabal Amman, and live it up.
From our kitchen’s window above the sink, I could see the Hejaz Railway winding its way on hillsides, and watch aeroplanes take off and land at Marka Airport. Washing the suds off plates, I wondered where did trains go and aeroplanes fly? What lay beyond the hills? Birds migrated, but to where? Were there other worlds beyond the horizon?
I was a nomad like my aunt and my feet were always itchy. She has style and liked to try new restaurants, so when in 1975 the Chinese expatriate Peter Kwai (Abu-Khalil) opened the first Chinese restaurant, just off Rainbow Street, overlooking the Ahliyyah School for Girls. we were there in a shot. Then I was young and troubled, but sitting in the old stone house, with red lanterns dangling above my head, enveloped by foreign aromas: the smell of chicken cooked in soy sauce, ginger, fried rice, provided a much needed respite. It was a mental escape from the harsh reality. Surrounded mainly by diplomatic core and businessmen we tried chopsticks, sweet and sour chicken, and shredded beef for the first time. Abu Khalil knew that we liked chicken with cashew nuts, and he always served complementary extra portion. It was as close as we could get to a holiday outside the country.
It is now post-coronavirus and the other day I played the gang’s favourite song, Amal Hayati: the hope of my life. I found the lyrics sentimental, even sickly. ‘Take my whole life but let me live through today! Let me stay in the embrace of your heart!’ Seriously?
We lived on a staple of romantic fiction, false premises and promises, and a culture that objectified women. You were a burden and life was a hunting ground. Your raison de d’être was to catch an eligible bachelor. Wearing glasses, having bad posture, and reading all the time, which I did, was frowned upon. ‘You are destroying your looks and you will not get married.’ I ignored the warning and continued to consume my uncle’s library like a woodworm. Fashion had to be followed religiously and time must be spent perfecting your hair, make up, clothes. As for your mind you must leave it be because the more ignorant you are the better. Men do not like clever women. We were high on the ‘happiness ever after myth’ while most of our rights were either non-existent, being eroded or inactivated. We were second-class citizens and big brother was watching us all the time. We got used to being policed and created strategies to get out of the male family members’ curfews.
Having no other option but to survive, we did. Women supported each other in real time and terms, and ‘sisterhood’ then was not incubated in an ivory tower, but the grass-root grew it organically. In our neighbourhood the women’s subculture was that of solidarity. We rallied round the weakest and most vulnerable among us: those who were ill, were beaten by their husbands, or in financial need. We shopped for them, sent them food, took care of their children until they got back from health clinics.
The equivalent of a ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘put the kettle on’ were endless cups of Turkish coffee. You put some ground coffee with cardamom in a dallah, bring it to the boil, skim the surface, boil it again then pour it in demitasses. But before that, like red Indian smoke signals, you spill some on the cooker hob, so the aroma fills the air, travels in the breeze to the women’s noses, inviting them to your courtyard. Then the daily group therapy begins, chats about the price of lemons, exchange of recipes, recommendations of Indian films that really make you weep, description of the dreams you had the night before. ‘All will be alright at the end,’ we say and drink a glass of water, indicating that we are ready to leave. There was cooking, cleaning, laundry, teaching of children, and gardening to do.
Cliché alert! We cannot walk by, above, or below the coronavirus. The only way is through it. There will be loss, pain, and questions to be asked. Will the shift in our priorities remain unchanged? Will our identities metamorphose? How will we evolve as a human race? Will we respect nature and harmonise with it? All will be clearer in the fullness of time to those who remain alive. However, if you are born a woman in a male-dominated society, and you survive that and even prosper, your life skills are robust, and a pandemic is passable.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.

 

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