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Rima Rantisi | Editor's Note

Where do we begin this discussion of health and illness?

Pandemic? Most powerful non-nuclear explosion in history? Economic meltdown? The most fraught political situation since the end of the civil war? A long freefall from hope?

Since I started writing this editorial, Israeli warplanes droned over my building and my friend texted asking if I had leads on how to find Zoloft for one of her family members, as there is a shortage. The mental health of the average person in Lebanon has sunken to depths we had not imagined even just a year ago – pre-Covid, pre-August 4 blast – and while we still had the revolution beating in our hearts. The pandemic has left the country, the city a memory: the streets quiet, storefronts blank, the cats hungry, the current gray cold blanketing everything like a pall. Hospital beds are completely filled, and people ask about oxygen tank suppliers on WhatsApp groups. I struggle to write this and anything as I recuperate from a bout of the virus. The apocalyptic image of people’s breath stopping and their falling to the ground plagues my thoughts. We sit indoors, under a full lockdown: caught in a no-man’s land between health and illness, life and death. We are still in the layers of illness, grief, catastrophe.

But this issue was not meant to be about any of this, nor was it meant to be a “pandemic issue” – and it isn’t. The impetus for the theme “Health and Illness” was pre-pandemic; it was a call for an artistic and intellectual grappling with our bodies. A moment to traverse the interiority of our visible and invisible health issues, topics that do not take up so much space in literature. There was a desire in the call to question medicine and modern-day healthcare. When the pandemic was announced in the middle of the call, we extended the deadline to give time for people to process it. We learned quickly that this has not been easy, despite the extra solitude, which in fact – one year on – has not been so comforting. If Lebanon is known for anything besides its corrupt politicians, it is the comfort of its social life. Being drawn indoors, often alone or severed from our community, has particularly affected how we see the country and how we cope with it.

While we prompted contributors with Susan Sontag’s famous line from Illness as Metaphor – “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick”– this issue aptly gifts us with an array of art and literature that gives us views into each but especially opens up intimate insights into the minds of those in the terrain between the kingdom of the well and the sick.

In these pages, you will find work that zooms in on the health of Lebanese rivers and its coastline, invisible disabilities that come and go, forgetting and being forgotten, anorexia’s demons, the multiple ways a mother’s body can devastate. You will hear from the head of ER telling her story of the harrowing night of August 4 and the moral dilemmas that accompanied the responsibility of caring for an endless stream of broken bodies.  You will find essays and poetry that grapple with living alone during the pandemic, and lockdowns as political oppression, just like during the Egyptian revolution. You will find stories that address PTSD in the rice fields of China, or a man becoming delirious as he awaits the removal of his appendix. In translation, you will find letters sent between brothers during the Chinese epidemic of 217 as well as a unique text that gives recipes of potions for the “enlargement and invigoration of the small penis.” In drama, you will find a play by three students that addresses how the seeds for the demise of the university are sown – in the famous test banks. In graphic narratives, you will find work that shows how one blips in and out of ADHD as well as how twins can feel aches and pains at the same time, in the same place. In art, you will find specimens of bodily fluids, powdered bullet shells on paper, photography that cuts. Incidentally, the close-mouthed Egyptian kiss surfaces twice in this issue. An apt image, an appropriate ethos for these times.

With all my heart, wishing you engaging reading, open-mouthed kisses, and a future in the kingdom of the well.

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Rima Rantisi is a faculty member in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut. She is the founding editor of <em>Rusted Radishes</em>: Beirut Literary and Art Journal, which publishes artists and writers from Lebanon, its diaspora, and the region and is currently in its eighth circulation. Her essays can be found in the anthology <em>Arab Women Voice New Realities</em>, Assay: <em>A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, </em>and <em>Sweet: A Literary Confection</em>. Her essay “Days of Pearls,” published in <em>The Slag Glass City </em>was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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