A person walks under the blossoms along the Roosevelt Island Historical Walk during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on Roosevelt Island in New York City, US Image Credit: Reuters

The terror of it dawns on you when you realise, as you sit within four walls, left to self-address, that the world you had known all your life is cracking up, and all that the people inhabiting it can do is stare blankly, as an unseen virus declares its intent to inflict irremediable human suffering around the globe.

You don’t feel in control anymore. In the absence of a vaccine, it is the virus that impels your destiny. It is a time when you’re expected to shelter in place, when home is more lock-up than refuge, when you want to rage, rage against the dying of the light, as the Welsh poet’s entreaty had it.

Only in the fragile ecosystem of cities and the alienation that urban life imposes, do you find a sense of at-homeness — a dream that dances in every exile’s imagination


It is also when you decide to venture out, taking to the streets of Washington, where you had lived for the last 45 years, though you know that your sally there may expose you to contagion.

No distinctions

Today you go out or you go insane. Getting infected is a crapshoot, you say, left to brute chance to determine, for the virus recognises no stratifications of class, nationality or race, no distinctions, say, between those who live on the West Bank of the River Jordan and those who live on the Left Bank of the River Seine, for under its egalitarian rules, all men are created equal.

You walk to Adams Morgan, the hip neighbourhood a mere mile away from where you live in Cleveland Park, and pass Angles, for years your favourite Runyonesque watering hole, and peer through the window.

The establishment is shuttered, like all others around it, with tables pushed to the side and chairs stacked on top. The once bustling streets are now deserted, desolate, forlorn, save for the solitary jogger here and there, whom you clearly give wide berth to.

It is the same elsewhere in the city, in Georgetown, DuPont Circle, Mount Pleasant, The Hill. And you wonder when everyone will get a chance to step out of the shadow of this damnation.

You love cities. You were born in one — the city of Haifa, in Palestine. Then, as a child exile, you went on to live in cities around the world, where you acquired your leap to a maturing consciousness.

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An exile's imagination

And only in the fragile ecosystem of cities and the alienation that urban life imposes, do you find a sense of at-homeness — a dream that dances in every exile’s imagination.

Time to head to Rock Creek Park — to hug a tree. You had never told anyone that you’re a tree-hugger, fearing you would be mocked as a New Age flake.

Hugging a tree is a habit you had picked up as a child, when you constantly hugged that fig tree in the backyard of your parents’ home in Haifa.

In later years, you read somewhere that hugging trees increases levels of the hormone oxytocin, which induces feelings of calm and emotional bonding in the hugger.

No one — not the odd jogger, cyclist, dog-walker — bothers to look in your direction in Rock Creek Park, whose 1,700 lanes and 32 miles of trails make it larger than Central Park in New York.

For an hour or two you sit there, with elms and redbuds around you, feeling kin with the ancient laws of life that trees transmute to one, severed for now from the anarchic fears that the pandemic had instilled in you.

Then you walk to the Tidal Basin, along the shoreline of the Potomac River, to feast your eyes on the cherry blossoms. It is Spring, and no self-respecting Washingtonian will forgo a trip there at this time of year.

There, unyielding cops enforce the rule against gatherings of more than two people.

Internal economy

Before the sun sets, you are back home, again alone — confined to your little island of privacy, isolated from other human beings, a metaphysical experience that, as John Donne would attest, is alien to our internal psychic economy.

You go online to find out what’s happening, in the old country, to people below the stairs, with few resources at their command, left to fend for themselves, to assume the burden of ailment, hunger and contagion on their own. The news is grim.

It is Easter Sunday, and you watch Italian tenor Andrea Boccelli on TV, who, in an effort to celebrate the festival, is performing a virtual concert to an empty Duo di Milano, Milan’s main cathedral — sans parishioners in the pews — all proffered as a message of hope to those in lockdown around the world.

Coronavirus is habituating us, you say to yourself, to think that encountering a logic other than that of reason is now a quotidian affair in our lives.

We are living epoch-making times, a turning point in the workings of our global village. How the inhabitants turn with it will surely shape human history — a sombre thought, you say, to sleep on tonight.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.