Tahia Abdel Nasser
At 7 I walk our dog Rio. Normally, I wake up at 6 and walk him at 6:30. It’s especially important in summer when it is cooler. Rio scuttles after tiny geckos, pricks up his ears at two birds, sniffs around, and trots into a puddle, his paw prints like flower petals on the asphalt. I mull over sentences, part of a chapter, a story, drafts.
The family is together. Our daughter is home from college. She came home just in time for quarantine. She disappears into her room for most of the day for online classes. My husband’s voice chimes from his online meetings. I am at my desk. Quarantine is writing. We have family meals together. Naturally, I have made and run through my daughter’s favorite dishes for nourishment. How long will we be together? Will colleges reopen in the fall? I worry about my mother at her home. I remember my father.
My daughter was in her online classes in Ramadan. When her class went beyond sundown, I brought a meal on a tray to her desk and caught a glimpse of her professors, so poised, chatting at their desks, shuffling digital models nimbly on the screen. Diagrams and sketches and buildings. How can you assemble models remotely? I wondered about online teaching in the fall. How would it be with literature? With words and close reading? Remote teaching.
At 9 a warbler whistles a tune. At my desk I’m tinkering with a manuscript. I am thankful that I have the structure, the purpose to while away the quarantine. Pigeons coo at my windowsill.
They say: dolphins and swans have returned to the canals in Venice.
In March, orange blossoms would have bloomed in the orange groves on campus. Orange blossom was the scent of where I grew up, I would have thought on my way to class.
If there is anywhere I want to be in quarantine (besides home, of course), I think, it would be Cuba. Hospitals are first-rate. Façades are picturesque, Afro-Cuban son is everywhere, there is the echo of maracas and claves. In Hemingway’s house there is a library-study in a three-story tower where Hemingway tapped on his typewriter standing up at a high makeshift desk. If you stand at the top of the tower, you can look out over Havana. Hunched over my manuscript, I am so far-away that it seems I am on an island.
In the afternoon a warbler trills. Nature is reclaiming our neighborhood. The heat is fragrant with Indian jasmine. There are no cars and no construction. I look out, and, lo and behold! There are two warblers on my balcony.
They say: peacocks roam through the empty streets of Dubai.
They say or don’t say: the pandemic will last a year.
After lunch, a courier is at the door. I rummage for masks. As I tear through a slim parcel, I note that the belly of the cardboard seems to be folded like a bird. I open the flaps, scoop out Mu‘ein Bseiso’s The Tragedy of Guevara. I cover it in tissues and put it gingerly on the table. The Tragedy of Guevara in cerements.
A nightingale’s song slices through the late afternoon. I scribble some more. I long to read for leisure. Wistfully I look at a stack of new novels. Focus on the manuscript. And afterwards? Read, read, read.
There are intermittent pauses when I think we are in Albert Camus’s The Plague. In the spring of 194– (and I pore over an online archive). Will things ever be the same? What will be the ‘new normal’?
There have been far graver catastrophes. Mahmoud Darwish wrote: “To be, or not to be. To be, or to be. Not to be, or not to be.”
When I write, I don’t outline. I’m told there is virtue in outlining. I prefer the element of surprise. I write to know, and a story takes shape over a number of drafts.
The story of the plague is “in the midst of things.” I’m discovering the story, and have just learned to be.
My family walks together just before curfew. We smile, wave awkwardly, and chat from afar if we happen upon friends. At dusk, pink, lavender, and tangerine hues seep into one another. A blazing orange sun dips below the palm trees. Scorching flames whorl out.
Briefly it is beautiful. To be, or to be.
Tahia Abdel Nasser: "I am an author and the editor of a memoir. I am an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo."