Pandemic by Sarah El Halabi

On an October Adha night in a small shrine in Mount Lebanon, a little girl knelt against a stone coffin in an empty shrine. The coffin was cold, and as she placed her forehead on it to pray, she could feel her body shudder. Outside, other children were running, trying to catch one another under the full moon. Others were eating buttered cookies and playing with fireworks. The laughter and even the sound of fireworks celebrating the holy day did not distract the little girl. Her body merged recalcitrantly with the stone coffin, and she was consumed by its cold surfaces and enshrouded in the night air. The cold breeze crept into the silent shrine and
surrounded her kneeling, silent body with the scent of pine.

“Samera,” the girl’s mother called to her, “It is time to light the candles.” Samera quickly unwound her body from its kneeling position and ran outside holding her two small hands together. On her way outside, she thought very seriously about what she would ask God, who, her mother suggested, was particularly open to prayer on their holy night. On the steps of the shrine, she saw her father and her uncles lighting their candles, praying for a better world, for a loved one, to God, in the darkness, to the holiness of their own crouched dark bodies under the full moon.

In a small apartment in New York City, Samera awoke with cold tears on her face, her forehead a slab of ice. It had been more than two months since she had been sheltering in place as New York suffocated in place, one precious body at a time, then hundreds of nameless stolen breaths all at once. This is Pandemic, that like a God, warped time and space and declared itself master of the universe. She left her room to wash her face, still shaken by the forced isolation of her body and the brutal departure from her dream of congregation and community. In the bathroom, she stared frantically at the mirror in search of a familiar face, anyone who would look back at her, even if that person was just her own reflection. As she examined her face, Samera noticed that her eyes had grown lighter, just like her mother’s did when she was saddened by some great inescapable tragedy, a particular shade of hazel brown. Her mother called that shade of hazel brown the color of relentless grief.

Samera’s eyes had never done that before, and it took 26 years, a pandemic and almost a year of forced separation from her family for her body to love enough to despair, for her eyes to efface their own color and take up familiar grief instead. Samera tried to forget about her family, about the pandemic, about despair by “getting things done” but the stagnating hours of her past, and the festering violence of her present pushed back at her, piling up on her desk as she tried toget work done, on her face that grew more tired with every passing day till productivity became a ridiculous myth. Samera’s small room overflowed with violent time, with half completed projects and relentless memory that met her at her every attempt to forget.

She rearranged her furniture and called her parents. As the phone rang, she paced to and fro in the small haven of a space that she managed to clear in her bedroom. Nobody picked up. She opened her text messages to find a 2 minute voice note from her mother, probably, Samera guessed, asking Samera to buy food. Samera laughed, a scalding laugh that burned her even as she stood in the small haven. She had been trying to get groceries for 2 weeks now, to no avail. New York City shopped hysterically, leaving no time slots for most people. It was as if the whole city was surviving on borrowed time, and when the pandemic hit, it realized its debts ran too deep, and so it declared itself bankrupt. As such, Samera survived off whatever food she still had in her apartment. She preferred a meagre dietary intake to leaving her house and possibly dying. A meal was not worth dying for.

What was worth living for? Samera asked herself on days when her body was frustrated with Pan, all the shutdowns, all the deaths, all the mounting anxieties that left her shuddering in her sleep. As Samera drifted into her own reverie that she felt lasted a decade, her mum called her back. She looked at the time, only 3 minutes had gone by since she first tried calling. As she listened to her mother’s concerned voice over the phone, time oozed like a wound that refused to heal, tormented her with memories of her mother and stabbed her in the head with blazingmigraines and so Samera was not sure how to respond when her mother asked: “How are you?”

From that phone call, Samera learned that the banks back home were still considering a dollar to be worth 1,500 LL, but that the country had been dealing with the dollar like it was worth 6,000 LL, like it was a formidable God that burned and destroyed, and left them all on their knees. Pan. Pan debt, Pan bankruptcy, Pan people scrambling for their lives to eat, Pan people rioting in the streets in the midst of a pandemic to keep whatever jobs the country had left. The shelves in Lebanon were not completely empty like the shelves in New York. Many people couldn’t afford to shop the amounts that a shelter in place for months required. Many
people in her country also didn’t think a meal was worth dying for, but would have to die for it anyway.

“Did you get yourself enough food?” her mother asked in a non-negotiable stern voice. Samera lied and promised that she had. After the phone call, she pushed aside her lie, the crumbling world, the bankruptcy, the death and ran back to her mirror. She wanted to look into her own eyes. She wanted to bracket the world, treat her eyes like they were some mural in a famous museum. She wanted to absorb the mural, absorb the fading color of her pupils as they witnessed the world and ran to find her mother and wistful dreams of the shrine on the other side of it. She rinsed her own face as she stared at it in the mirror, the water was cold. She suddenly fell back to her dream and held her chapped over-washed hands together, and tried to remember what she asked God for that night outside the shrine.

Perhaps health? She didn’t imagine that she did, and if she did, the wish wasn’t very long lasting. Samera had been living, since she was a teenager, with endocrinological conditions, and now that it was Pan damage and she no longer had access to pills, her body became untethered, wild, its hormones piling up endlessly in her veins. She felt her body rot under all the confinements imposed on it, like the world had shrunk and the world now lived in her body, swelling with the damage it carried, promising Samera the rise of her long suppressed symptoms.

Samera continued looking into the mirror. This time, she traced her own figure on it. She realized that her waistline had been replaced with a bloated stomach, so bloated that it could easily have been mistaken for a pregnancy. The hair on her body was flourishing again. Acne was beginning to invade her forehead that was no longer a clear childlike slate resting against a cold coffin, but a battlefield for everyone to observe the ongoing war in her body. Still, despite the war, Samera’s illness paled in comparison to the pandemic. Though it now overthrew the previous order of her regulated hormonal world, she didn’t feel like her illness was Pan, Pan
death, Pan doom. At least she was not suffocating under some ventilator in the middle of nowhere with no one to hold her hand as her eyes carried grief and faded away along with her life. Maybe she did ask for health after all.

Her phone pinged. She heard it even from the bathroom. Her ears had became attuned to it. She sat with it daily for hours, arranging meetings, calling family, staring at friends through a Skype or Zoom screen. Sometimes she reclined in her chair and tried to glue all their virtual faces together, to stitch their smiling eyes into one canvas that outwitted the chasms of space and the beguiling illusion of virtual unity. She went back to her room to read the text. Again her mum, this time with a text asking her to start looking for another place to rent. Her lease ended in June and she couldn’t go back home because of COVID-19 and the instability there and the high chances that if she did return, she would join the ranks of the thousands who were trying
desperately and madly to leave, but couldn’t.

What was she going to tell her mother now, that most rent ads these days sound like this “ONLY SERIOUS INQUIRIES WANT RENT AND WANT IT ASAP WITH DEPOSIT IN ADVANCE. MOVE IN NOW.” People are hysterical, Samera scoffed, if they thought that anyone would want to pay rent with such fervor in this miserable time. July remained a mystery to Samera as she tried to survive another day in New York City and time and space strangulated her and her body and the city, and the world, Pan, Pan, how damned and terrible of a God you are. She lied again, telling her mother that everything would be fine, that soon, New York would open its doors again and that she would be able to find an affordable place to stay and though a dollar slashed them five times as hard than it did last year, there was nothing New York City loved more than the dollar.

How do we find hope Mama? Samera asked her mother in soliloquy after she finished reading her last text. She rubbed her eyes and wished that she could extract the grief that resided in them, wished she could unwind the growing violence in her body, now a desecrated, trembling, confused shrine torn between continents, tormented by an old illness, confined by the crumbling economy of her home, brought to its knees by a global pandemic, haunted by beautiful memory.

She wished that she could collect time from its sticky and painful expansiveness and condense it again into one moment that didn’t hurt. She decided that if she could, that she would call that moment God. Samera was exhausted, and headed back to the bed she had only left an hour ago. She fell back to sleep and drifted to a place that the virus could not touch, that the world had not thrust into poverty or death or illness or some kind of cruel combined misfortune.

In her dream, Samera was back in the shrine again. She was still kneeling against the cold marble praying in the dark with her small soft hands and her clear bright face. Her eyes were still dark and unweathered, her pupils sparkling with joy, like the holy night and its full moon. The air was cold and smelled of a stinging but pleasant pine, and in the shrine, the world was frozen and time, time was only one moment. It was the moment when she said God out loud and felt that God listened because more cold air rushed into the shrine and swept her into a gentle euphoria.

“Samera” her mother called. “It’s time to light the candles.”

Samera got up, holding her body as if embracing herself for a life changing event. She whispered her wish into the night. She had forgotten that small detail in her first dream. She heard it now even as she teetered between sleep and wakefulness and the sirens shrieked outside her small New York apartment. “I wish to remember this night and how safe I felt in it when things get bad and the world feels like it’s falling apart” Samera declared. On the steps of the shrine, she saw her father and her uncles lighting their candles, praying for a better world, for a loved one, to God, in the darkness, to their own bodies out in under the full moon. She held her father’s hand as they both lit her candle and their bodies stepped away from it to watch her wild
wish illuminate the night.

Author Bio

Sarah is a Lebanese physician completing the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University. She is interested in storytelling and the interweaving of narrative with multiple aspects of daily life, particularly mental health. She finds solace in the simultaneous particularity and the universality of the human condition and loves reading work that highlights these dualities. Her favorite pastimes include dancing, reading and spending time with family and friends. She hopes to write from her own embodiment as a Lebanese woman and looks forward to a life of change making communion and loving labor with all those she meets.

Her blog is available here: https://se2507.wixsite.com/website

Tags

#Lebanon and New York #Embodiment #Hopeintimesofcrisis

Image Credits

Sheehan, Shan. Meteor Shower. Digital Image. Flickr. Flickr, 15 Dec 2012. Web. 31 Oct 2020.