During late July of last year, I went to my regular café to meet a friend visiting from out of town. He was running late, so I ordered my Americano and sat outside to read. It was one of those summer mornings that held so much promise: I woke up early, had a brief but pleasant exchange with my cab driver, and was greeted by the barista like an old friend when I arrived. This was the kind of coffee shop where everybody knew everybody. It was always packed with young freelancers who headed there under the guise of productivity but decided, upon arriving, that the sweet summer air was only good for socializing.
I had taken one of the last remaining empty spots, a high stool by a thin counter outside the door. I longed to rest my back against something. Despite the canopy, the heat was sweltering. An iced coffee would’ve been a better choice. Still, I was filled with a primal comfort lazing in the warmth among so many people, especially with jazz music diffusing softly around our bodies from inside the café.
A man and a woman arrived, and after abandoning the pursuit of empty seats settled some feet away from me by another counter. The man went inside to order. The woman stood with her legs crossed like a ballerina, held up a book to her face, and started reading. The man returned with two drinks, handing one to her, and smoked a cigarette while she continued to read. Some minutes passed in silence before he disappeared again, mingling with this table and that and returning to check up on her, and still she was reading. I found myself captivated by the urgency and commitment of her act. It was as if she had woken up that day determined to be outdoors in the company of strangers, reading her little book, and nothing – not even the heat or the absence of a chair – would stop her. How wonderful it must be to sink into your own world like that.
This is the memory that conjured itself on the sixth night of lockdown in Amman, as I lay in bed anxious about the future of the world and about the man from the medical lab visiting tomorrow to test me for the coronavirus. The girl with the book, along with everybody else sharing their existence with me that day, felt so desperately out of reach. For the first time since the lockdown began, I understood, and duly lamented, the loss of an overlooked yet fundamental element of urban life: the intimacy of strangers.
The office hummed with electric heaters when I started working in late February. The costume department was filled with the smell of coffee and the occasional clamor. There were bags and bags of clothes to be sorted through. These are new, these need to be washed, spray the used shoes, leave them in the sun. A lot of things came from the Friday market (crowded crowded place). When everybody else was out, I would sing along to Nina Simone as I dashed from room to room, organizing our stock of costumes. On busier days, we had camera tests, fittings, actors coming in at this hour and that. Fix this button, steam that blazer, call the seamstress, excuse me, thank you, here’s the money, do you want some coffee, Columbian, may I fix the collar, perhaps if you tuck the shirt in, fetch the other dress, check on the washing machine, see you tomorrow, goodbye!
Eventually, we started leaving the balcony doors open. The moon arrived a little later every evening. With spring on the horizon, I wanted nothing more than to walk the ten minutes uphill to my favorite café and join some premature celebration of the sun with all the other strangers who decided to wear untimely summer clothes for an hour of midday warmth, sitting outdoors and sipping iced drinks and pretending it was already June. (Nevermind that a sharp change in weather, as quickly as this coterie had assembled, would always send everyone scurrying home).
On Tuesday nights, my friends and I were always at the same jam-packed bar, a ritual we complained about but still upheld. Almost shoving our way up two floors to the terrace, and after the laborious process of ordering drinks and spilling some of them, we would stand in whatever awkward empty space we found. Shouting over the music, either shivering from the sharp breeze or sweating because there was nowhere to hang a jacket. Embracing people we saw every Tuesday, picking up where we left off last time. The rest of our days certainly changed from week to week, but for as long as that bar had happy hour all night on Tuesdays, that was where we would all convene, saying there you are and I’ve missed you and I know we have work tomorrow but let’s get another round. Which is to say: Cheers to surviving yet another week. Here, let’s celebrate life.
If it wasn’t a celebration, then at least it was an acknowledgement of existence that I sought whenever I left my house. Of course, my parents acknowledged my existence everyday. So did my friends – albeit mainly virtually. Yet what I craved was not the reassurance of people who already knew me. No, I craved the unanticipated act of extending myself to someone new, even if for a moment. Feeling suddenly overcome with an urge to take a chance on a stranger, and being filled with a curious delight when they return the gesture.
I think of the man reaching up with his phone, like I was, to another speaker across the bar because we both wanted to find out which song was playing. “Did you get the name?” I pleaded later, and sadly he had not, and we shared a small sorrow together. Or the middle-aged woman beside me on the tube in London, who pointed to a young man standing in front of us, one arm tattooed respect yourself and the other respect others. “Really says it all, doesn’t it?” she asked me. And it really did. (“Who the hell talks to strangers on the tube?” my brother, a Londoner, later exclaimed). Or the woman and two men sitting across from me in a restaurant in Beirut, in the summer building up to the thawra, who kept glancing at me and finally asked where I was from. “You don’t look like you’re from here.”
“Jordanian! We thought Moroccan.”
Oh no, not Moroccan. And you’re Lebanese?”
“Eh, lel assaf...tfaddele eza baddek!”
“Thank you, I’m waiting for some friends, sahtein!”
Just like that, a momentary intimacy. Or, as John Berger would call it, an agreement about life. “We tend to associate intimacy with closeness and closeness with a certain sum of shared experiences,” he writes in his essay “Some Notes About Song.” “Yet, everyday total strangers, who will never say a single word to one another, can share an intimacy. An intimacy contained in the exchange of a glance, a nod of the head, a smile, a shrug of the shoulder. A closeness which lasts for a second or for the duration of a song being sung and listened to together. An agreement about life. An agreement without clauses. A conclusion spontaneously shared between the untold stories gathered around the song.”
This is a song I knew all too well. Yet lately I fear I’ve begun to forget what it sounds like.
Everything escalated rapidly. In early March, my colleagues and I were debating wearing masks in public spaces like it was a hypothetical scenario. There was only one case in Jordan, a man who had returned from Italy. But by mid-March, we were washing our hands every ten minutes, and sanitizing every five. One Saturday, after an exceptionally long day of fittings, I wore rubber gloves and ran around in a frenzy, disinfecting chairs and door handles and clothes hangers with bleach because it was the only thing lying around. So many new people had walked in and out of the office that day. As the pandemic spread globally, flocks of Jordanians had rapidly returned home in the past week, all of them potentially carrying the virus with them. Who could tell what was safe and what wasn’t anymore? Earlier that day, the government had announced that it was suspending schools and shutting down airports. No new cases were reported yet, but the decision confirmed that they existed. And sure enough, as I would discover two days after our project was halted and we were sent home, one of these cases was somebody I worked closely with.
Miraculously, I tested negative, but I had to spend a week in my bedroom before I could find this out. Hiding away like that, I thought of Gregor Samsa, how he woke up one day to find himself transformed into a large insect. I struggled to conceive of how my own body had so suddenly transformed into a repulsive and threatening thing. If I needed anything from the kitchen, I wore gloves and a mask, my father trailing behind me with disinfectant spray. My mother checked up on me from the hallway and left me trays of food outside my door. The possibility that I might have jeopardized their health made me feel sick with fear. And all the while, like a little kid, I wanted to cry because no one would come near me.
“How we wish to penetrate the outside world, not to take control of it, but to feel more completely part of it.” This is Yves, John Berger’s youngest son, writing to his father in a published correspondence titled Postcard Chat. “To overcome the isolation we feel in our flesh. The terrible border of the body.”
Two years ago, I auditioned to be an extra in a movie. There were thirty of us in an auditorium. We were asked to space ourselves out on stage and wander around while remaining equidistant from each other – about a meter and a half. “Walk with direction but without rushing,” the choreographer instructed us, “and do not bump into each other!”
I think of this now whenever I go outside. I head down a street and, upon seeing someone walking along the same sidewalk, automatically cross to the other side. My neighbours and I repel each other with the gracefulness of a synchronized performance we’ve practiced all our lives. What was once a game of ego and concession (who will be the first to move out of the way?) is now a courteous collaboration to alter our routes away from each other.
Rami, who is in Beirut, tells me the quarantine almost feels like a return to childhood, where not much exists to us outside our houses. Ola, in Amman, echoes this sentiment. “I haven’t spent this much time at home with my parents since before I went to kindergarten,” she muses. There are no drives anywhere, no rendez-vous, only walks and bicycle rides with friends who live nearby (how does everyone suddenly own a bike?). And even then, there’s a curfew by sunset.
Despite our physical distance, my neighbors and I interact with each other more now. “Five minutes left!” a young man announces as he drives past me and some other neighbours strolling in ones and twos. He must have a permit to use his car. Or, more likely, he is breaking the law. Soon enough, a siren will pierce the sky and people will still be on the streets. There is no rush to get home, we all know, so long as we are making our way there.
Nevertheless, my parents tell me to be more careful next time. “Three minutes late!” my dad exclaims from the intercom. I take my shoes off before entering the elevator and spray my hands, my phone, my earphones, and my keys. This little outing is short and unsatisfactory, and returning home no longer evokes the same sense of relief it once did.
“Something about the summer makes my skin feel more my own,” I wrote to Nur and Nawal last July. “In the winter we are always hiding, but it is now, in these months, that we allow our bodies to touch the world around them.”
But who knows when we can extend ourselves to the world again? What started as a quiet pause in mid-March has spilled itself into April and consumed the month of May whole. It seems futile to wait for the pandemic to end – any development will only unfold as seasons do, gradually and irregularly. Many prospects are hazy on the horizon, like returning to work or seeing my brother or embracing someone I haven’t seen in a while. Instead, I occupy myself with spring, measuring the passage of time through the departure and arrival of fruits. We forwent the superstore when the lockdown began in favor of a produce truck which visited our neighborhood every Wednesday. With the idleness of quarantine life, fruit-shopping became the event of the week. Today we part with clementines, today we welcome the watermelon.
My mother leaves all the windows wide open. In the morning, pollen fills the air inside the house and by the end of the day, the smell of wet earth and fresh mint have wafted in. Our daisies have bloomed, and idle bees hover around them. The apricot tree is tending to its small fruits, which are on a journey of reaching their sweet, plump prime. Each afternoon, my aunt is in the garden, watering the plants and pulling out the weeds. My other aunt is in her study downstairs. My parents are on the balcony. I can walk from room to room and speak to all of them from the windows. Sometimes that is how we convene: someone from their bedroom window, someone from the backyard, someone from the kitchen. And sometimes, as a mild cure to our social yearnings, one of us would wave, mimicking the thrill of running into somebody we haven’t seen in a long time. Oh hey there! I’m here, up. Look up! What a lovely coincidence seeing you...
John Berger visits me now more than ever during the quarantine. His book, Confabulations, is next to me wherever I sit. His face ever-present on my laptop. Sometimes he is still young but most times he is old, and it pains me to see him so, because it reminds me that I discovered his words only one day after he had died (at the age of 90 in his house in Antony, France, on January 2nd, 2017).
He was — still is — the master of observation. Strangers come alive through his pages. Sometimes he pauses his own story to talk about them. Like the young boy Berger writes about in Et in Arcadia Ego, telling a sea captain on an island in Sweden that he had seen a moose in the morning. “How did your moose get on the island?” the captain entertained the boy. “It swam,” the boy said. “Must have swam.”
A mundane exchange. Yet I can imagine Berger smiling or nodding pensively as he watched the two go back and forth. Perhaps this is what compelled him to write about them; he understood that these people, foreign to him as they may be, were conducive to his own existence. Perhaps he is not pausing his own story at all but merely delving further into it, observing all the little indispensable details which made it what it is, made him who he was.
But it is Berger’s son, Yves, who reminds me that even in isolation (especially on a rainy day like today), there is still much to observe:
The grey sky has come down even more and now it weeps drops of rain. And those drops, on the windows of the train, move along, rolling almost horizontally, in the opposite direction to us. If I say it's due to the effect of gravity combined with speed and the nature of water and glass, does it diminish the poetry and the mystery of such an event? And I look at people looking out of the window, and say to myself: How beautiful …
Flowers. Drawing flowers. Painting flowers. Celebrating flowers. I think that could be the next chapter of our exchange. What better to do in the month of May?