Diary

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.

 

Pandemic Journal: Basil and Jasmine

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11/04/2020 – Durham, UK

Some days are bad. According to the Department of Heath and Social Care and Public Health England 9875 people have died of coronavirus in the UK. The figure does not cover those who died at home or in care homes so some argue that it should be doubled. I try to get my head round it, let it sink in. 9875 grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandsons, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles have died and most probably buried unceremoniously. There is stillness at the beginning as the neurotransmitters in my brain start sending excitatory messages, a drawing of breath, with fortunately I can still do, followed by anger.
Having witnessed and survived so many wars civil and otherwise, pandemics and epidemics, I despair about being a member of such an idiotic and short-sighted human race. This feeling makes death seem like a reprieve. As my late friend Elizabeth Anderson once said, ‘If death is oblivion, bring it on.’
We obviously learnt very little since 1346, when the black death swept many parts of the world. And despite all the pandemics and epidemics inflicted on us: cholera, the plague, Spanish flue, HIV/Aids, Ebola, Sars, we still prioritise amassing arms and protecting ourselves against mostly illusive enemies over our health and that of other species.
Arms manufacturers and dealers have thrived on wars in so many parts of the world from Korea and Vietnam all the way to Iraq. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) the arms industry sales of the top 100 manufacturers reached $420 billion, a rise of 109% between 2002-2018.
That shows that we invested heavily not in science that cures, but in science that kills: the atomic bomb, stealth and precision guided weapons, drones. With billions of dollars at their dispense, arms manufacturers created weapons that can find you, follow you down an alleyway, dance the waltz over your head, and then explode, killing you and those around you.
I read somewhere that the Muslims in medieval Spain (722-1492) were defeated because they made a conscious decision to stop destructive scientific experimentation in its tracks. Whether that is true on or not the war machine, devouring people and capital, must be stopped and funds diverted to a ‘peace dividend’ to be spent on education, improving the infrastructure, providing health for all, and foreign aid. The UK alone spent $50 billion on arms in 2018. How many universities, hospitals, care homes, social housing, playgrounds could have been built with that amount? How many respirators, oxygen cylinders, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for NHS staff could have been resourced? How many lives could have been saved?
Some days are worse. Fear, distilled and pure, for myself and others, races through my veins, sapping my energy. I feel depleted and struggle to go down to have breakfast. I try to keep it together, but the slightest challenge unravels me like failing to open a milk carton. I keep forgetting my rituals, routines and rhythms and start again. Do I normally go for a walk before or after breakfast? Perhaps after lunch? Then lunch comes and goes with me still lying on the sofa watching television and trying to make sense of the random images. They seemed alien as if beamed from Jupiter. On days like this a phone call could drain me, tip me over. I take the phone off the hook, keep my mobile on silent, switch off my PC and iPad and block all contact with the outside world. Do not disturb!
It is a solitude in disquietude rather than tranquillity. Bad thoughts rush in tripping over each other. How would I cope if I lost a loved one in one of many the countries they are in: Jordan, USA, Bahrain, Germany? Would I be able to reach them, attend their funerals, grief with other members of my family? Will I be allowed to see them lowered into their graves, so I could in the fullness of time have a sense of closure. Would I forgive myself for the decisions I made such as making Britain my home, and not travelling to Amman when the airport was open. What about remorse and contrition? Have I loved enough?
Other days are bearable. I wake up fine and can go about my daily tasks. During such respites, death seems distant and, for some reason, I am immune to it, my blood stream is full of antibodies that can fight all diseases including Covid-19. Delusional, I convince myself that this crisis will be over soon, and normal life will resume, whatever that was. My family like going out occasionally to The South Causey Inn in Stanley – the name triggers an eruption of nostalgia – to have Sunday lunch, roast turkey, with all the trimmings, potatoes, sautéed carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli. We reminisce about such simple pleasures, which now belong to the pre-coronavirus era and console ourselves by saying, ‘maybe soon we will be able to go out for a meal again.’ We sit in the garden, thinking of our loved ones in Amman as we listen to the Lebanese singer Fairuz croon, ‘Ba’dak ‘ala bali: you are still on my mind, oh young and proud, oh fragrant basil scattered on rooftops!’
Oblivious to our hopes, fears and nostalgia, the circles of coronavirus on the pandemic meters’ maps are getting bigger, denser and angrier. Death is driving up the highway and will arrive at our neighbourhood soon. I apologise to the grim reaper because despite all his warnings, grey hair, dimming eyesight, and stiff joints, I am still unprepared. What about what I still intended to do? What about the heart’s unfulfilled desires? What about unfinished businesses? There are projects to carry out, books to write, places to visit, words to say, and love yet to be expressed.
My friend G tells me that she group-calls her sisters in London every Sunday. I suggest that we do the same. Few days ago, my sisters and I arranged a group video call with my parents in Amman. When my father saw his four daughters together on one screen, he was overwhelmed. We spoke about the lockdowns and curfews, about being careful, and how far saliva droplets teaming with Covid-19 viruses can travel. My mother said, ‘I stopped going out to the garden. Sometimes children play in the street outside.’
My mother’s ‘game’, as my father once said, is her garden. With the help of my sister E, an agricultural engineer, they created a beautiful oasis in east Amman: lemon and mulberry trees, bougainvillea where sparrows nested, and jasmine vines. Every morning she would feed the tortoises in the flowerbed, water the plants, and fill the small pool so stray cats don’t go thirsty.
‘How about if you wear a mask when you go out to the garden.’ My brother looked for masks in all Amman’s pharmacies but couldn’t find any. My sister W created a mask at home that had two layers of cotton, which could be stuffed with crunched paper towels. ‘You could dispose of the paper towels and wash it in high temperatures after use.’ Amman has many seamstresses and probably most are without income now. We decided to ask one of them to make masks for my parents. Perhaps we can get them certified and then fundraise to make many more and donate them to the old and vulnerable.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.
 

Pandemic Journal: Stars Realignment

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30/03/2020

Durham, UK

Whenever I meditate in the evening, I watch out for Sirius, the largest and brightest star in the galaxy. Last time I noticed it I was on holiday in Tenerife in January. The sky was clear, and the star twinkled like that diamond in the nursery rhyme. It was twenty degrees and the distant sounds were that of a typical summer night: cutlery on crockery, clinking of glasses, chatter, laughter and a singer in the bar on the other side of the garden and lit swimming pool attempting an aria. The manicured garden had palm trees, with leaves braided like hair, orchid trees, flame vines, bougainvillea trimmed and used as a hedge, cape honeysuckle, hibiscus, freesias and birds of paradise. That evening their scent rose to the balcony and filled the air. I breathed in and exhaled. Then the glasses were still rose-tinted: life was good. Death was a distant eventuality rather than an imminent reality. Romance, love, happiness, recognition, and even immortality were on the cards. As Shakespeare wrote, ‘Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.’

That was before the pandemic threw all the cards and oysters up in the air and then broke the table they were on. Our lives now are divided into two periods: pre and post Covid-19 pandemic.

Yesterday in Durham I spotted the brightest star in the sky again. What was it called? Sirius A and B? It looked nothing like the one I saw in Tenerife three months ago, which seems like decades ago. It was smaller, less bright and like a tear in the dark fabric of the sky. The virus scrubbed the rosiness and other growths off the lenses. The world lost its sheen, became clearer and less safe. Sirius matured to what it is: a mass of hot gas. It was burning hydrogen into helium in its core to shine and was not the largest start in the galaxy, but it appeared so because of its proximity to earth.

I sat in the darkness looking at the silhouettes of trees and plants. Will it run out of fuel and die? The pre-Covid-19-me would have said at least it was shining bright and when it dies the heavier elements it releases will form new stars. But the post-Covid-19-me rejects that optimism. No romance, clichés, assigning objects with sentimental value, or seeing individuals and relationship not as they are, but as I wish them to be. No more artificial insemination of relationships or friendships via social media. No more self-deception.

After the pandemic is under control there will be a realignment of relationships too for some will get stronger and others will weaken or fizzle out. Covid-19 is a litmus test of people around you. Those who are genuinely concerned are blue and alkaline, and those who are not are acidic and red. You will see it in blue and red and you will not be able to deceive yourself, misinterpret it, or explain it away. This tempest will separate the wheat from the chaff, and then blow away the husks. You will be standing alone, but your loved ones and genuine friends will be standing by you albeit at a safe distance.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.

Pandemic Journal: Navigating in the Dark

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25/03/2020

Durham, UK
I am back after spending weeks reading and digesting the news about the corona virus and coming to terms with a new reality. The novel I was working on seems irrelevant, and even self-indulgent now. Life has changed drastically and what was important before Covid-19 seems trivial now and visa versa. It is like installing a new GPS system that you know nothing about and then using it to navigate a new path. Every direction or decision has repercussions: when to tighten the mask, where to walk, when to turn and go back, how to act when face to face with other unwise homo sapiens, and what to do when someone directs a cough at you and the virus itself races towards you?
Before my morning and evening walks, I wear a hat, mask, jacket with hood, and gloves then venture out, stepping into a hostile environment – please bring back that of the Home Office –  that could kill me instantly.
Skilled at self-deception we denigrated death to a distant eventuality, something that happens to others, but the virus turned it into an imminent reality. We have to get ready for departure, pack our suitcases, tidy up, clean the slat, and reconnect with loved ones. Every Skype conversation could be our last so which words to select that could be our last. Will they linger in their memories?
Then resentment builds up because there is so much you want to achieve, loose ends to tie up, projects to carry out, places to visit? How could this journey end prematurely? It is absurd. And all the things you accumulated: books, photographs, paintings, heirlooms, and objects that have sentimental value, which you didn’t have enough time to explain to your children or grandchildren to instil your personal history into their memory. Could you and your story vanish just like that? Puff.
Counting steps, I breath in the fresh air. With the numbers of death rising, it tastes of salt and is laden with grief. Although no one can see or touch the deceased we feel the pain of their families and loved ones. This is bereavement at a global scale that could wrench the heart and unsettle the mind if we are not careful.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.

Pandemic Journal: Mother’s Day

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21/03/2020

Durham, UK
The magnitude of the corona virus pandemic did not hit me until I saw a picture of my hometown Amman, ‘masqat ra’si: where my head landed when I was born’, empty. The boisterous city that rarely sleeps was deserted as if the country was at war.  Shops, restaurants and cafes were shut, and there were no pedlars, pedestrians or cars in the streets.
When I go to Jordan in the spring and autumn of every year, I normally stay with my parents in Jabal Al Taj in East Amman if I were travelling without my husband. Having no access to a gym or a swimming pool, I walk everywhere to keep my fitness levels up. Durham is hilly, and I am used to walking to the city centre here too. Early in the morning, before it got hot, I would walk to Al Mahatta: which was named because of it position next to the Ottoman Hejaz Railway station, through the Roman Amphitheatre, by the Roman Nymphaeum, by the Vegetable Market, to the city centre. When I arrive at ar-Rida street, I would hear the call of the fresh juice seller ‘Ahlan doctora, welcome, you’re back.’ Then we exchange niceties that are hard to translate into English.
‘You lit up the country,’ he would say.
‘The country is already bright with your presence.’
He would prepare my usual, a cocktail of orange, mango and carrot juice.’
‘This one is on me.’
‘No. Please. I wouldn’t have it if you don’t accept my payment.’
So reluctantly he takes the money. We would talk about his Egyptian helper who went back to Cairo, about the weather and  how well he is doing considering the challenges the country is facing.
Then I go to Abu Ali’s Book Kiosk to see which books are on display and to occasionally buy some. This is followed with either a visit to Jafra Cafe or having a Habiba Sweets’ kunafa, a stringy pastry layered with cheese and soaked in sugar syrup, which Ammanis have for breakfast sometimes. We eat it sitting on the pavements outside the shop.
Jordan’s measures to combat Covid-19 are strict and commendable. The lockdown began early, when the country had few cases. The virus turned Amman into a ghost town. When I saw the photograph of the empty streets, the magnitude of the tsunami we are facing hit me.
Will I be able to go back?
On 12 March I had to make a difficult decision: to travel or not to travel back to Amman. I had a few concerns among them the possibility of contracting the virus on the two taxi rides, two flights or in the three airports that I had to cross and then passing it to my elderly parents. If that happened, I would never be able to forgive myself. So, I decided to stay in Durham. Post Covid-19 every decision has repercussions, ramifications and might be the wrong one. Will I regret not going back to Amman when the airport was still open?
Mother’s Day in Jordan is on 21 March and on that morning my heart was tilting east so I wept into my porridge. I badly needed to see my mother, hug her, reassure her and make her laugh. Will I ever see her again? When will we be reunited? How long will we remain in a lockdown, under corona house arrests? Suddenly the world which seemed like a village in January split into separate continents. My parent, who seemed so near before Covid-19, are distant now, overseas, unreachable.
After composing myself, I rang my mother. We were emotional, but I didn’t want her to get distressed so I spoke of daffodils in the garden, which bloomed suddenly, of the jasmine my late fried Gwyneth had given me and how it survived another winter, of the Earley Ornamentals flowers’ catalogue, which I intend to send her in the post. ‘Hopefully we will meet again soon, mama.’ Our voices were strained, tears checked, and hearts heavy.
I washed my face with icy water and looked at the sky. The birds were still there and singing. Then I heard the click of the letterbox, after the postman had pushed a fat envelop through it. I opened it, got rid of the packing, washed my hands and inspected its contents: a card from my son and daughter-in-law, another from my grandson, and another from my granddaughter. ‘Happy Mother’s Day grandma.’ I caressed them, read their contents again and again and then displayed them on the side table, where I could see them.
The next day letterbox flowers arrived from my son and his family. I unpacked the roses, pink snapdragons, alstroemeria and foliage carefully, cut their ends, put them in a vase, filled it with water, stirred in the feed to help the flowers survive for as long as possible, then tied the ribbon around the vase. At least the flowers have arrived in perfect condition. Love will sustain us through this crisis, will carry us to the other shore and will heal us when the crisis is over.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.