One day and one dream in the life of a self-isolating New Yorker

Will this be year zero of a new world or yet another year of us inching towards the edge?

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    Known as 'the city that never sleeps', New York's streets are particularly empty during the pandemic [File: AP/Mark Lennihan]
    Known as 'the city that never sleeps', New York's streets are particularly empty during the pandemic [File: AP/Mark Lennihan]

    Years ago, when I was writing my book on Arab revolutions, Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism, I proposed that the popular phrase "People Demand the Overthrow of the Regime" means more than dismantling the political order. I theorised that "regime" here means "regime of knowledge", the manner in which we understand things, the very emotive and epistemological foundations of our perceptions of the world. 

    Today, as I write these words from self-isolation in New York, and as we live our precarious lives through the global outbreak of COVID-19, that modest proposal seems positively childish and prosaic.

    What are the medical, social, political, environmental, and, above all, epistemological implications of how we are to understand ourselves through and beyond this pandemic?

    Could it be that Mother Earth is correcting course, taking charge of herself and her unruly offspring, yelling at us, as it were, that we are grounded, not for a week or two, but for good?

    The fact is as scientists and public health officials are trying to figure out how to tame this virus, the rest of us are left to our very limited devices trying to fathom, to reconfigure, what this all means for the future of our planet.

    A New Yorker in the coronavirus capital of the globe

    These days in New York, we oscillate between such grand narratives of where humanity is headed and the mundane daily chores of washing hands, cleaning surfaces, staying out of sight, and cooking a modest meal. Since early March, my family and I began self-isolating and about a week before public schools were closed, we decided to keep our children at home and opted for homeschooling.

    The Persian New Year came on March 20 and hurried away while we were busy washing hands, debating facemasks, and chasing after hand sanitiser.  

    Two contradictory sounds from my window now define my days from very early in the morning hours: A more than usual frequency of the sound of ambulance sirens and the chorus melodies of birds singing their mating songs so early in the spring.

    In between the shrieking sirens and the joyous birds singing, there is an eerie silence about our otherwise rambunctious city. In New York we are all noise addicts. There are plausible arguments that such addictions are conducive to our mental abilities.

    "Don't underestimate the effects of noise on your wellbeing. It affects our heart-rhythm and blood pressure and the way we behave towards each other." There are anecdotal reports that the consumption of alcohol goes up on Sunday evenings because the volume of noise in our city goes down.

    But these days the unnerving silence, sitting like a wet blanket over our vacated streets, has a different magnitude no alcohol consumption can alleviate. The whole world is getting quieter.

    I came across this report recently, which claimed:

    "Scientists say the "quieter" Earth during protective self-quarantine has reduced the ambient seismic noise. Human activity of all kinds, as we travel and gather and drive around, generates vibrations that distort measurements from finely tuned seismic instruments. In Belgium, scientists report a 30 percent reduction in that amount of ambient human noise since the COVID-19 (coronavirus) lockdown began there. "

    The report brought to my mind the famous song of Simon and Garfunkel with the phrase "sound of silence" in it:

    "Hello darkness, my old friend
    I've come to talk with you again
    Because a vision softly creeping
    Left its seeds while I was sleeping
    And the vision that was planted in my brain
    Still remains
    Within the sound of silence"

    I caught myself assimilating the enormity of the news of the daily death count in New York and around the world skyrocketing, which I could not quite fathom, in the comforting bosom of a sweet song of my youth.

    It is too early even to fathom let alone to pontificate the moral, philosophical, or metaphysical dimensions of this pandemic and what it is doing to our world. All we can really do is to pause and find comfort zones where we can collect our wits and wonder.

    Yet surprisingly, I learned that Slavoj Zizek has come up with a whole book on coronavirus already! Sight unseen, this itself must be added to the bizarre symptoms of this pandemic.

    Fears and frivolities

    The life of a person nearing 70 and thus considered high risk and therefore self-isolating in New York in these days is at once mundane and frightful, pensive and meditative, and yet self-consciously absurd. You get up in the morning, and you think of the meaning of life and rolls of toilet papers at one and the same time.

    How does the world look from such a strange standpoint? Political power becomes vital but ludicrous, medical expertise - dubious, but your life depends on it, religious convictions are most needed but far from reassuring. Suddenly your priorities change.

    I used to look at the picture of Jared Kushner and shiver with disgust. Now, I gloss over the news of his latest atrocities on my way to do the more urgent task of sanitising the toilet.

    Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio on a daily basis have been spoon-feeding us the terrorising news that people are dying by the hundreds.

    The rest of the country was told to self-quarantine for two weeks if they paid us a visit.

    President Trump, at one point, wanted to put our entire state under quarantine, just like his Muslim ban! New Yorkers have suddenly become a pariah, all of them the Muslims of the United States! Muslim New Yorkers quietly shake their heads in double jeopardy!

    On one of his daily briefings, our governor assured us that about 80 percent of us are going to be OK and it is only the elderly, the weak, the sick, and the immunocompromised folks that are in danger.

    That ambivalent assurance reminded me of a joke: When a plane was about to crash-land on water the captain came to the intercom and said, "Ladies and gentlemen we are about to crash-land on water. Those of you who know how to swim, go the right side of the plane and start swimming and those of you who don't know how to swim, thank you very much for flying American Airways!"

    Paradoxes are everywhere. The New York City Department of Education offers free meals to all NYC public school students during the school year - some 70 percent of its total 1.1 million students come from poor families. This is a major reason why Mayor de Blasio was reluctant to close the schools because of the coronavirus outbreak.

    When the schools did finally close, the city continued to offer free meals to hundreds of thousands of hungry students at various locations throughout the city. That has meant that the parents of these students cannot stay home and do their diligent duties of "social distancing". They need to go out to get their children's food or they would go hungry.

    In the most conservative figures, 41 million people (12 percent of all Americans) live in poverty, of which more than 13 million are children. The actual numbers are reported to be much more staggering. It is estimated that one out of five children goes hungry in the US. These are structural calamities that the coronavirus pandemic has now exposed for the whole world to see.

    Cut - I quietly whispered to myself, while making breakfast for my kids - that goddamn military budget by 10 percent and no American child will ever go hungry and happily stay home and do their share of "social distancing."

    The same is with the scarcity of vital medical supplies now depleting at a dangerous rate in New York hospitals. How many protective gears and ventilators can billions of dollars of military aid to Israel buy? Nobody dares to ask such questions openly in New York.

    "Panic in Year Zero"

    I woke up the other day to my childhood memories of an American film called Panic in Year Zero!, a black-and-white science fiction film. We are living the reality of a badly written science fiction directed by a commander-in-chief who wasted at least one crucial month in self-serving denial and criminal negligence refusing to prepare the nation for the pandemic.

    But Trump is an easy target. The issue is much larger than his charlatanism. I wonder if we as a people, as the frightened inhabitants of this earth, still have the moral capacity, the courage and imagination to comprehend the enormity of what is happening to our world.

    Today, I read Giorgio Agamben on Coronavirus - a philosopher I deeply admire and regularly read. He is rightly concerned that the ruling states may abuse this moment to grab more power. But his philosophical probity has lost its echoes in the deadly silence of this moment in this city.

    Will we survive this, will we endure it to wonder the prospects of a wiser, simpler, and more purposeful life? Will we learn something and start from ground zero, or will we return to business as usual, where the banality of evil that rules the world just resumes the comforting recycling of crowded days and the relentless urge of suicidal self-destruction? Will this be the year zero of a new world or just another year of us inching closer to the edge?

    Maybe what is now called "social distancing" is an occasion for a moral retreat, for what the mystics used to call "Khalvat"- contemplative solitude, a solitary confinement within our owns souls.

    We can no longer imagine our city

    On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I wrote a piece on my beloved New York, where I proposed: "It is an apparition, a phantom, a vision - a frontier outpost of a territory yet to be conquered, possessed, named. Americans will have sooner conquered and colonised another planet than claim New York as the capital of their empire."

    It is precisely that "apparition" which is today lost to us as New Yorkers, a panoply of immigrants from around the globe reimagining ourselves in the heart of an unruly urbanity we call home. We are told to stay home and do not venture out, especially if we are over 60, for fear of our lives, and the lives of those around us. We do as we are told.

    In between doing my homely duties, I am mostly quiet. Early this morning, I whispered a bit of Sohrab Sepehri to myself, like a soothing lullaby, from a letter the saintly poet/painter wrote decades ago to a friend in Tehran - from right here in New York. In the familiarity of Sepehri's prose, I sought solace from the foreign fear of this moment, trying to reimagine New York before and beyond this terrifying present:

    "I do a bit of painting, read poetry, see my friend Yektai, and then occasionally cook at home - then I do the dishes and cut my finger and for a few days can't do any painting. The food I cook is quite delicious, on the condition you eat it with a pinch of salt and a spoonful of generosity - how amazing was my mother's cooking, but I kept finding faults with it, "Oh, the green colour of your celery dish is a bit too dark." Humans understand things too late. How late did I finally understand humanity means for the time being."

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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