Lockdown diaries: Lessons from Yemen to Italy

A Yemeni shares his life experiences with Italians via his YouTube channel to help them get through the pandemic.

Yemeni story / Stefania D’Ignoti
Yemeni chef Taha al-Jalal gives Italians advice on how to cope with the lockdown on his YouTube channel [Laura Silvia Battaglia/Al Jazeera]

Taha al-Jalal’s daily lockdown routine at his home in Milan, Italy, involves a morning soundcheck and about an hour of video editing.

Every two days, he places his wife’s professional camera on a tripod in front of his couch, presses the red button and records his days of isolation in Milan in the form of a public video diary.

In his video appearances, he shares the lessons he has learned about coping with a lockdown from witnessing the continuing conflict in Yemen.

As of March 9, the national government has placed the whole of Italy under lockdown, the most radical step taken by a Western country to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. Restrictive measures mean residents may only leave their homes for urgent, verifiable work and health situations or emergencies.

Among the roughly 60 million people forced into home confinement for safety, many are finding refuge in virtual connections.

Al-Jalal decided to share his personal lockdown tales and thoughts by starting a YouTube channel, which he says helps him connect with the outside world in a situation of forced physical distancing. 

“I think this period of quarantine will completely change our concept of human relationships, and give us a chance to discover more about each other and our loved ones. I’m trying to see this as an opportunity for personal growth,” he says. 

Welcomed with ‘a warm heart’

Al-Jalal, a Yemeni home cook and Arabic translator, moved to Milan in early 2015, to reunite with Laura Silvia Battaglia, an Italian woman he had met in Sanaa about a year before. Today, she is his wife and quarantine companion. 

Like many other couples these days, they are trying to figure out how to make the lockdown work for two people not used to being stuck together 24 hours a day in a 60 square-metre (646 square foot) apartment. 

“This could make or break our relationship,” Battaglia says chuckling. “But four weeks have already passed, and I still see this as a chance to re-discover our love and recover many moments lost beneath a modern, frantic lifestyle.”

Battaglia, a documentary filmmaker originally from Sicily, met al-Jalal in Sanaa in 2013, where she spent a few months to improve her Arabic language skills in preparation for completing a video project about Yemen’s child brides. 

A year after their first meeting, al-Jalal applied for a scholarship at the Catholic University of Milan, where he graduated with a master’s degree in International Relations.

He and Battaglia got married in Italy a few months before the conflict erupted in Yemen. “Italy welcomed me with a warm heart and merciful hands. I found it easy to call this place home, because generosity is the main similarity between my two homelands,” al-Jalal says.

Human bonds in the ‘worst situations’

The couple, amid many difficulties, has been able to return to war-torn Yemen twice since their wedding, to visit al-Jalal’s family who is still there. “Yemen has turned into a country that people have limited access to, and find it even harder to get out from,” he says. 

In 2016, on their way back from Yemen to Italy, al-Jalal and his wife were held at the land border between Yemen and Oman for three days, in an overcrowded room with other people trying to leave the country, with no Wi-Fi and limited access to food and water.

“We were totally disconnected from the outside world, only knowing that a conflict was happening just outside. Still, we took that chance to get to know each other and socialise. In retrospect, I ended up seeing it as one of the best lessons of my life, that you can still develop human bonds and support within the worst situations.”

That memory has acted as a point of reference in facing Italy’s pandemic lockdown with a more positive attitude. “It inspired me to share my perspective – that of a foreigner with family trapped in a war-torn country – with worried Italians, and encourage them not to see this as a tragedy, but as an opportunity to appreciate the privilege of staying close to their loved ones.” 

Messages from Yemen

His videos now tackle a variety of subjects, from comparing Milan before and after the lockdown to his appreciation of Italy’s strong healthcare system, which he is sure will overcome the crisis. 

Al-Jalal personally saw the efficiency of Italy’s ICU system, as he recovered from brain cancer surgery two weeks before the first coronavirus cases made it to the news. “All the treatment was for free, and in my videos, I encourage people to trust Italian doctors’ skills.”

As an immunocompromised brain cancer survivor, he says he was worried about living through this pandemic, but not frightened.

However, when the situation escalated and the number of COVID-19 deaths in Italy surpassed those in China, he found it odd to be receiving messages from relatives and friends in war-torn Yemen worried about him.

“They told me they had read news about the Italian president crying on TV, bodies slumped in the streets of Milan and rumours about Muslims being cremated without the families’ consent. They thought I was the one living in a conflict zone. So I began adding videos in my diary specifically for a Yemeni audience, debunking fake news and sharing useful tips on how to maintain the environment clean, despite the limits caused by six years of conflict.”

The couple’s closest friend and groomsman, Hamdan al-Zeqri, also from Yemen and living in Italy, thinks al-Jamal’s lockdown diary idea can teach both Italian and Yemeni audiences a lot. 

“It encourages locked-down Italians to put things into perspective, since the message comes from a migrant who saw conflict ravaging his home, like the many that sought refuge in Italy in the past years,” al-Zeqri says.

“But it can also educate fellow Yemenis about a topic that is causing the spread of misinformation back home, and that could create panic or negligence in a place where, either way, the current context could make things worse.” 

Virtual relationships

The YouTube series also offers a daily moment of distraction from the couple’s new reality of uncertainty. 

As a freelance home cook, al-Jalal has temporarily lost a large part of his monthly income, like many other contract workers in Italy. But he has not lost his passion for cooking, and uploads some Yemeni recipe videos.

Luckily, for now, the couple can rely on Battaglia’s job as a professor of video journalism at the Catholic University of Milan. As for many teachers across Italy, her lessons have turned into digital Skype conferences that have dragged her into a completely virtual lifestyle.

“I can at least still see my students through a webcam, and support them as much as I can, although it’s not the same level of excitement as teaching in real life,” she says. “But virtual relationships are even more emotionally draining when it’s your family members that you’re not allowed to see because of the lockdown.”

With her elderly parents stuck alone in Sicily, on the other side of the country, Battaglia constantly thinks of the moment she will be able to reunite with them.

From their small Milan apartment, the couple awaits the moment it will be safe for them to walk out of the house again, without fears for al-Jalal’s fragile health.

“Be it a war or a pandemic changing your life as you knew it, you don’t know how much you have until you lose it, including the simple freedom of roaming crowded streets,” he says.

Source: Al Jazeera