I was in the Iraqi Kurdistan region when COVID-19 hit the world hard in March of this year. Suddenly, all airports, roads between cities in Iraq, and life itself were shut down in Iraq and many countries around the world. A strict curfew was imposed while I was visiting my relatives in Duhok city. The curfew kept getting extended, mostly two weeks at a time with no end in sight. I decided to remain calm and maintain my equilibrium. After everything I have experienced in Iraq over the years, there is hardly any disaster that can take me by surprise, I thought to myself. Not even death itself will get the pleasure of taking me by surprise at this point.
In fact, in case the world still doesn’t get it, the current worldwide measures of quarantine combined with the shortages of food and medical supplies in many parts of the world, in many ways, resemble the strict and criminal sanctions that were imposed on Iraqi people by the so-called “civilized world” from 1990 until 2003. Furthermore, this sudden inability to travel and move around has always been the reality for millions of people who come from marginalized countries; people who hold passports that are not viewed favorably by those who like to call themselves “more fortunate”.
After months of lockdown in Duhok, I finally managed to find a flight from Erbil’s International Airport in early July. Following a long and tiring trip, I arrived in the US. The trip itself is another story that I will share with you another time. From March until July of this year, to cope with the curfews and quarantines while in Iraq, I wrote short postcard-length reflections that I shared with some close friends. In these postcards, I captured simple daily moments, reflections, and images from life in a world struck by a pandemic. Today, Dear Friends, I want to put these fleeting moments in your hands and in the hands of Time.
When the room becomes too tight. When the world becomes too narrow like the narrow alleys of childhood. When you are surrounded by four walls to confront everything that has ever happened to you, everything that has ever been done to you. When even books, writing, cooking, and the people around you can’t provide any solace or explanations to what is happening. When you get really close to understanding that split second in which a heart attack takes place!
“It is complicated,” they say. I am so sick of this response. Many people use it repeatedly to escape depth and confront reality. They use it to take solace in the fact that they don’t know (or don’t wish to know) the ugly truth of what is happening right in front of their eyes. They reduce crimes, injustice, war, pain, hunger, rape, and everything that must be unpacked, dissected, and confronted to this: “It is complicated.” They say this about COVID-19, too. Oh, how I have grown to hate this response. Every time I hear this statement from someone, it sounds like “I am a loser” to my ears. “It is complicated” is the favorite response of lazy brains that refuse to think and do. Oh, my friends, I insist it is not complicated. If you really want to know, it is not so complicated. However, if you are really looking for reasons and excuses to justify your silence, complicity, and to protect your self-interest, then you are absolutely right – it is complicated!
I don’t know if we should call it the banality of being locked down or is it that quarantine simply exposes the banality and fragility of certain personalities who are afraid of solitude, thinking, and paying a visit to their soul and conscience. While in quarantine, I found that many people do everything they can to avoid solitude. I feel tired of all these phone calls and messages I receive from people to supposedly check on my well-being. Most of them end up being like therapy sessions about how lonely the caller on the other side is feeling! I often wanted to remind the callers of Sartre’s words: “If you are lonely when you’re alone, you are in bad company.” Why are we so afraid of confronting ourselves? Why do we always use the loud noises of the outside world to mute what our inner voice is trying to tell us?
Next time you call me or message me, please don’t ask me “how are you?” I am not well. I am under a curfew. You, wherever you are, aren’t well either. We are in a world struck by a pandemic, so let’s talk about how unwell we are. Let’s get to the point. I am quarantined. Let’s talk about all the damage we humans we have inflicted on this beautiful planet. Oh, dear Mother Earth, I am so sorry I have lived long enough to see what has been done to you. If it matters, let me whisper a secret in your ears: I have always felt that I was in the wrong place and the wrong time. I am forever out of time and out of place. Oh, Mother Earth, I can only imagine how you feel having to deal with the misfortune of being inhabited by us humans.
With all this hoarding, alarm, deceit, lack of information, plethora of disinformation, ambiguity, and confusion, I wonder whether it is time for us to start drafting a post-coronavirus manifesto? Perhaps it should contain all the things we don’t want the world to become after this pandemic is over. There are many alienating powers out there that thrived on keeping us quarantined, at distance, and distrustful of each other way before COVID-19. There are systems that thrive on our loneliness, and fear. There are institutions dedicated to make sure that we don’t help each other so that we turn to them for help. I am thinking of places like the World Bank and any institutions that operate according to their ethics. Let’s not allow them to get their way once this pandemic is over! Let’s make sure that we create a world in which such blood suckers are not needed in the first place. Oh, my friends, let’s beware of the ways disaster capitalism is using the pandemic for its benefit.
For decades, the exploitative capitalist system and neoliberalism have been trying to persuade the world that it is for our best interest to reduce (or even erase) the public sector and give more power to the greedy private sector. They have been pushing -with great success – for the privatization of every service that can benefit the poor and marginalized people. They have and still are trying to get rid of universal healthcare anywhere their hands can reach. Why do they do so? The answer is simpler than we think: it is to keep people at the mercy of the greedy capitalist system that sees individuals as either potential cheap laborers to benefit from or a burden to dispose of when no longer usable. This global pandemic should be a wake-up call to all of us about how duped the world has been all along by this narrative. How many more disasters and pandemics will it take for the world to wake up?
The rising infections and deaths resulting from COVID-19 in Italy coincide with my re-reading of parts of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s brilliant novel, The Leopard. One line that caught my attention, which I find timely, is when the Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio Corbera says: “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.” What is particularly insightful about this line is the context in which the statement is made. The Prince of Salina, a 19th-centruy Sicilian man from a noble family, is encountering the upheaval of a revolution to change the status quo in Italy. The biggest threat for the Prince is the newly acquired wealth and power by the peasants. As such, as the novel progresses, the Prince finds himself forced to either continue to live in denial by maintaining his family’s vain upper-class values and appearances, leading to his demise, or to adapt to change to salvage his luxurious life. This made me think of our current and post-pandemic world. I already imagine how the 1% of the rich and powerful will capitalize on the pandemic to use it to further plunder this planet and exploit its wretched people (AKA disaster capitalism). They will use people’s fear and uncertainty to rob them even more than before. Like the Prince in the novel, the powerful elites in most countries realize now that change is inevitable. They are concerned that people won’t accept things to remain the way they were before this pandemic. Therefore, they are preparing to find ways to co-opt, hijack, and silence people’s efforts towards change. And because they have no interest in changing the status quo from which they greatly benefit, I am afraid they will change everything in such ways that everything remains the same for them!
Everyone is talking about how great technology is to allow many of us to continue working, learning, and doing many things remotely. This is true. Everyone is talking about the value of the virtual world keeping us connected in the age of COVID-19. It is indeed valuable. Yet, perhaps because many of us are used to asking the wrong questions or remain fixated on the discourse we are fed by the media, we may want to take some time to reflect on the value of working together face-to-face. We may want to reflect on the indispensable value of going offline to have a clearer vision of our lives and our world.
Since the quarantine became a reality in most parts of the world, I have been hearing many stories about couples who are spending “too much time together”, or “being in each other’s face for way too long”. I am hearing many accounts on how this is making many couples get frustrated, tired, sick, or fed up with each other. One friend told me: “my wife and I will start the day just fine. Then we argue over a stupid matter. Then we make up in the afternoons or early evenings. Then, before the night comes, we may repeat the above cycle one more time before going to bed.” This made me think of many questions about love and relationships. Do we always love our partners, or do we simply get used to them? Can we really coexist with our partners or are there cases in which we learn to coexist despite not fully accepting or getting used to each other? How many partners out there still mistake possessiveness for love? Do relationships suffer when we don’t learn how to be protective of each other’s solitude even when we are stuck together?
The AIDS pandemic forced humans to cover their genitals with condoms. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing them to put on masks. It is as if many people weren’t already going through life putting on a million masks and changing them based on convenience and self-interest. It is as if countless humans on this planet weren’t already forced to keep their mouths shut and endure the misfortunes imposed on them by the “fortunate” few. I wonder which body part we will be forced to cover next. I wonder if, in the first place, all of this is happening because our eyes were covered all along. Are we heading to a time when staying safe becomes akin to a death sentence with stay of execution?
I was walking in an old, poor neighborhood in Duhok city. I saw a woman begging. She was sitting on the ground with a child in her lap. She was wearing gloves and a mask. She is a beggar in the age of COVID-19. I thought to myself: how has life changed for this woman or for billions of other poor people around the world? It looks like nothing has changed other than, on top of the pain of having to beg, now they must do so while wearing a mask. I imagined that this beggar knows more than anyone else how just when one thinks life can’t get worse, it does!
I see all these corrupt politicians on TV wearing masks and/or gloves. I don’t see them as people protecting themselves and others from the virus. What I see is just thieves disguised in masks as they continue stealing, exploiting, and misleading people. I don’t know why they look a lot like those masked criminals robbing banks while holding employees at a gunpoint.
The curfew hours have become more flexible as of early May in Iraq. I am now able to go on longer walks. I went to the old bazaar in Duhok. I was delighted to hear all the sellers loudly advertising for their fresh fruits and vegetables. Each one is claiming that his prices are the best. Each fruit seller is claiming his fruits are the sweetest and tastiest of all. Like my childhood days, I heard the voice of the watermelon seller shouting: “The sweetest watermelons are here! Conditional upon a knife cut!” I realized how much I missed this statement which simply means that the seller will cut a piece of the watermelon right in front of you, and you will only pay if it is red and sweet! And like my working class father used to do when I was a child after a long and hard summer day of work, I saw a working father with dirty and shabby clothes carrying a watermelon in one arm and holding the hand of his little son with the other hand. I thought of all the poor working men and women in Iraq who barely make money to buy some vegetables and a watermelon. I took solace in the fact that poor people who can only afford vegetables and fruit, ironically, live and look healthier than many rich Iraqi people gaining weight on Americanized foods and ways of eating. The latter type never stops talking about new diets, recipes, and “proven ways” to lose weight. Apparently, nobody has told them that the best and most proven diet in human history has always been one and the same: eat less, share more, work hard, and don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Many people in Iraq are still not taking COVID-19 seriously. They are not always following the recommended precautions to stay safe. There are moments that show how people are simply struggling to get used to this new reality. They are not used to doing away with their hospitality and expressing the daily human sentiments. Several memorable moments come to mind here. One day I was walking in the bazaar with a friend in Erbil. We wanted to enter a shop to buy something. Before entering, I noticed the shop owner was sitting alone with a mask on. As we entered and started chatting, he put his mask down and started joking around and laughing with us! He then offered us water and tea, which we respectfully declined. Another moment happened as I was walking in the working-class “industrial area” in Duhok. I passed a car mechanic shop. In it, I saw two young men in their twenties sitting on a small shabby and worn out couch in the shop with arms wrapped around each other. They were both looking at their iPhones with sinister smiles on their faces!
On one of the early days after the curfew was relaxed, I went out walking in a touristy area near the Duhok dam where both locals and visitors of the city drive to buy refreshments and enjoy the scenery. Most people cruise the area in their cars, so I was one of few individuals walking. It was a beautiful summer evening. The moon was spying on the place from between the trees on both sides of the mountain. Almost every car that passed me had the windows rolled down with loud music blasting. As a pedestrian, the experience of hearing the blasting music from every passing car is not enjoyable. In fact, it is disturbing. With every passing car, I thought the music was loud, lacking taste, and I was never able to hear enough to enjoy any part of any song. Before I could even guess the song played, the blasting music from the next car was already piercing my eardrums. At that moment, it occurred to me that maybe, in a way, this is just like the human condition. Everyone wants to blast their music, to impose their voice and opinion, to make noise that is loud enough to cover every other voice around them. I wondered what would happen if we truly gave each other a chance and listened carefully to the tunes played by the fancy or broken instruments of each lonely soul around us?
After months of being stranded, here I am heading to the airport. Over the years, I have grown to love airports, despite all the travel inconveniences which are getting worse every year. I don’t know why I have this strong desire to depart; to always be somewhere else. Maybe getting displaced and being forced out of my home as a result of war has turned me into a permanent nomad? Since I left Iraq for the first time in 2005, I almost always have a plane, bus, or train ticket to go somewhere. Sometimes I think of the mothers who abandon their unwanted babies at the doors of churches and mosques. I imagine that my mother, too, had left me at the door of an airport with a plane ticket instead of a pacifier in my mouth! And since then, I have been moving everywhere and arriving nowhere. Could it be that disillusion takes place precisely at the moment we arrive at a certain destination? I don’t know why I love airports. Is it because I spent so much time at airports? Is it because of the many possibilities and ideas that I get while in transits and long layovers? There is a certain clarity that comes when writing at airports that is beautifully described by the Syrian writer, Ghada Al-Samman, who writes, “vision is more transparent at airport transits covered with grey dawns, drowsiness, exhaustion, and the smokes of departing planes.”
At the Erbil International airport, while waiting in line to check in my luggage to Istanbul, I saw a beautiful middle-aged Iraqi woman dressed elegantly. When it was her turn to check in her suitcases, I imagine she was told she had excess luggage, so she either had to pay or do something about her overweight luggage. I saw how stressed she got suddenly. She started sweating and her make up mixed up with her sweat. She opened both of her two suitcases and started shuffling things around, moving loads from one suitcase to another. She had many boxes of baklava, Turkish delight, spices, and other cherished Iraqi delicacies. I wondered who is she taking these to? Perhaps, like most Iraqis, she is taking a taste from home to many loved ones scattered here and there. I tried to imagine her life story in Iraq: how she left for another country because of the war, how she returned to visit, and how she is returning now to some foreign country with nothing but more sad memories and some Iraqi delicacies to give her a fleeting connection with a lost life and a lost home. I don’t know why her image, especially how stressed she looked as she was dealing with the overweight suitcases, and the moment when her hair claw fell on the floor while she was shuffling things around can’t leave my head.
During my long transit in Istanbul, I spent some time walking around one of the huge souvenir shops at the airport. Melancholy pervades me every time I enter a souvenir shop. I have been to many of them around the world. I try not to buy anything for multiple reasons. One of them is because I find the way souvenir shops represent a country or a culture problematic, to say the least. The items you find there are almost always either much better or much worse than the way locals do things. Each item is glorified or trivialized – depending on the taste of the manufacturer and the demand of the buyers. They are always designed to give you a presumed idyllic and warm feeling about the country from which you buy them. In reality, many locals strive to get close to owning some of the items displayed in souvenir shops. Moreover, even if locals use items like those displayed, their daily lives are never as romantic and as smooth as the feeling you get in these shops. In a sense, then, souvenir shops are places where people and their cultures are objectified and romanticized par excellence. Their human joys are amplified. Their grand sorrows are downplayed or buried altogether. Their real histories are either erased or diluted at best. Nevertheless, I confess to you, I always end up buying honey. Perhaps because bees represent life to me. Perhaps because, I find that healthy bees and wildlife speak volumes about the overall health of a place and its people?
Here I am in the US once again after months of separation. I came to a totally different home raging with the fires of racism, protests, the devastating effects of the pandemic. All of this, while our politicians are watching indifferently and arguing over the most trivial matters. The first thing that caught my attention was the trendy masks that some people were wearing to look “cool” or “sexy” in the age of the pandemic. I don’t know why people wearing these presumably stylish masks bothered me. Maybe because they are the same people who insist on keeping the old game of looking good, healthy, and sexy no matter what? I can’t explain it better than that. What I can say is that there is definitely nothing sexy or stylish about how our complicity has caused so much damage to this planet that our chances of survival are getting slimmer by the day. If we don’t make immediate changes to how this beautiful planet has been exploited and destroyed, we are risking not being around to make any changes at all.
I am finally home in North Carolina. As I self-quarantined for two weeks, I went through my notes from my time in Iraq and decided to put these twenty postcard-length reflections together to share with you. When I was a child, I read a sentence in the Iraqi magazine, Ali Baa, which was an interview with a writer whose name I don’t remember. What I remember is a haunting sentence (written in bold). It read: “I love reading old letters and postcards because they don’t need to be responded to anymore.” And in that spirit, Dear Friends, I put these postcards in your hands. And so, however you feel about them, they are history now and they don’t need to be responded to anymore.