I have many things to be grateful for despite the pandemic. I am lucky to have a roof over my head when so many are homeless or cramped in crowded tents in refugee camps all over the world. I am lucky that my family here and abroad are healthy and safe when so many have had to suffer in isolation or could not say final goodbyes to their loved ones. I am lucky that I can keep on working from home when so many have been laid off and had their businesses shuttered.
I am also grateful that my son is too little to notice that I am scared.
Sami turns one this week. How time flies. It’s difficult to think back and picture the impossibly small being we brought home that afternoon from the hospital, to recall the disbelief at the idea that they’d let us take something so fragile home when we obviously had no clue what we were doing. Those first few nights, the weight of being an immigrant far from the village who was supposed to help raise this child became devastatingly apparent.
Now he has favourite books (the top choice is about a llama who has a tantrum at bedtime), loves avocados and broccoli but can't stand sweet potatoes for some reason, points at the cats if we say their name, gives his mother hugs on command and mimics the sound of a siren when he holds a toy fire engine. And he points towards the room where I work when he is asked, "Where's baba?" He claps for himself when he does something new, does a head-banging dance when we play music and laughs when we chase him.
And it’s particularly magical because he’s too small to realise that we have no idea what we’re doing or that we’re scared because everything is so uncertain and we don’t know when he’ll see his grandparents next or when we will be able to hug our friends again. It helps that I don’t yet have to explain to him that there are so many forces beyond our control, and that he cannot consciously witness society at large grow fearful of intimacy. Witness our fragility.
Although, when you come to think about it, mine and his mother's adoption of the world's new normal meshes with our constant, overarching desire to protect him. There is an Arabic expression that embodies this sentiment. It speaks of a desire to protect a loved one from everything, including nasmet al hawa – a breeze of air. And what greater form of absolute protection is there, from coronavirus and everything else, than sheltering at home and closing off one's world, locking it into a box that no virus could penetrate?
Home has always been abstract concept for me. I am from Egypt, but grew up mostly in Dubai, which became one home because it seemed to lack permanence. There was always a mythical point in the future when we would go back to Egypt and settle there. I have lived in the Hague, Beirut, Istanbul and now Montreal. I secreted away a piece of my heart in every city, entrusted to family, friends, brothers and sisters.
That is the problem when you wander around. Home is not a discrete structure in time and space. It is strewn all over. And so, in whichever direction your gaze wanders, there is friendship and love.
We are all going to have to be without our friends for a little while longer, but perhaps one faint silver lining that can be discerned is that faraway friends are no longer so far. They are as close as those from whom we must physically distance ourselves – always close enough (time zone permitting) for a Zoom call, but not close enough for a hug.
We cannot have an actual first birthday for our boy, so we’re going to ask friends and family to record short videos for him, telling him who they are and how they became part of our lives. How is it that we once saw each other every day or every week in past lives and they haven’t seen him yet, and we haven't seen them or their children in so long? We’ll show Sami the video on his birthday, and then again when he’s old enough to understand.
Perhaps then, once we’ve all weathered the storm, he (and we) will know that this cage was only momentary, that the bustle, scents, noises and the breeze beyond carry with them, instead of danger, the promise of boundless love.
Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada