By Sharifah Alhinai
“Hi Baba! How are you? How’s your day going so far? What are you up to?” I ask my father over the phone.
“Alhamdellah, Mama. We’re just reorganizing some things. How are you?” he replies.
“Good. I miss you. Tell me when you’re in the garden next please,” I say to him.
“Yallah, we’re all heading there in a few,” he tells me, and my heart dances with glee as I shut the phone.
Minutes later, I pop my head out of my bedroom window and wave to my parents and a couple of my siblings who are gathered around the table by our vibrant bougainvillea tree sipping their afternoon coffee or nibbling on dates. We converse, me from my second-floor bedroom window and them a few meters down from the garden. It is day two of my self-quarantine and this has become our new normal; our way of seeing each other and chatting for a few minutes a day in the context of COVID-19.
I had returned from Oxford shortly before, where I had been doing my second masters for the last six months, and had placed myself in self-quarantine at home as a precaution. All was relatively tolerable in the UK up until a few weeks ago, when the numbers of cases began to escalate in a short span of time–a tale we have all, unfortunately, become too familiar with–forcing my university to close its doors and my embassy to call us back to the UAE. I packed my entire flat, and the life I had built for myself there, in less than 24 hours and left.
The trip from Oxford to London Heathrow Airport to Abu Dhabi was nerve-wrecking. Despite wearing latex gloves and a surgical face mask for the entire 11-hour journey, as well as frequently sanitizing my belongings and only consuming food I had prepared myself, I was nonetheless aware of and anxious about the probability of picking up the potent virus in such crowded, international hubs and bringing it back to my family.
But I soon realized that the biggest challenge in all of this was not leaving my studies with an uncertainty about an academic future I had worked hard for, nor was it trying to dodge the virus en route the treacherous journey back while wishing I too had worn a hazmat suit like my even more cautious neighbors had on the plane. Instead, it was seeing my mother standing just behind our villa’s gate, waving at me in a surgical mask and latex gloves while keeping a safe distance of three meters away from me as I came inside the house, and restraining myself from running up to her and swarming her with a big hug like I normally would after months away. It was having to lock my bedroom door after hearing my father trying to come into my room, tossing all caution out the window because he missed me. It was greeting my brother and catching up with him behind a pane of glass. In other words, it was not being able to touch, hug, or plant spontaneous kisses on the cheeks of the people I love and cherish most in this world, which has been my way of showing my love for some time now.
Growing up, I was not the ‘touchy-feely’ type–at least that’s how I used to describe people who were comfortable with long hugs and cuddles, which I shied away from, or thought of as something to begrudgingly endure when they were happening. But as I matured, I taught myself to be more and more comfortable with them, and eventually found myself becoming a proud instigator of them a few years back. In my self-quarantine and following calls for social distancing even prior, I am finding myself once again having to break away with old habits and relearning how to express love.
But in the context of the novel coronavirus, we are all relearning how to express our love. Refusing to see or touch cherished friends and family members, while no doubt a form of self-preservation we are all entitled to practice, has also become another way of saying “I love you and don’t want to lose you in case I’m ill and don’t know it”. Keeping a safe distance between us and strangers has become another expression for “I don’t know you, but I care for you and your wellbeing”. And subjecting oneself to the outside world for an urgent supermarket or pharmacy run instead of a loved one has become the ultimate form of sacrifice and devotion.
When we find ourselves having to be outside today or when we are watching the news, we may think we see a ubiquity of masks, latex gloves and hazmat suits. But if we look closer, we see our common humanity and vulnerability, and our shared love for each other. We are all watching out for each other as much as we are watching out for ourselves and in many cases even more than we are looking out for ourselves, and this is the beauty I choose to focus on in this global chaos, and what I feel have been years, and not just days of solitude.
Sharifah Alhinai is the co-founder and managing storyteller of Sekka Magazine.