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Maps, Islands, Isolation and Masks

Maps, Islands, Isolation and Masks

Monday, 16 March, 2020 - 10:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The meeting with Mr. Saxton was always fun and constructive. It's that type of friendship that takes place between strangers in a cafe if they find topics that would kill boredom. He was heading steadily towards the 90s, but leaning against the stick failed to demotivate him.


Saxton dedicated his life to two areas: literature and music. He remained faithful to them during retirement. He specialized in French literature and spent years making comparisons between writers produced by France and others crowned by Britain.


Because of the distortions in the profession, he was quickly slipping into his favorite matter, and I would push him in this direction if he got busy reading British developments. In fact, for me, meeting with him was more like visiting a garden or a library. His topics of interest brought me out of depression and made me forget the news that consumes the life of an Arab journalist.


Perhaps he would be delighted to find a man, who prefers to listen rather than speak, especially if the subject was about those who have squandered their days to come out with a brilliant symphony or write a novel that defies time and forgetfulness.


Saxton grew old, but his passion hasn’t. He talked about Strauss, Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart, like someone talking about his loyal friends. He talked about Flaubert, Proust, and Balzac as if he had just come from a pleasant evening with them.


Money did not have an exceptional place in his evaluation of his life. He was glad that retirement allowed him to buy books and attend major concerts.


Since days now, Coronavirus is the only plate on our table… On the phones, screens and editorial meetings… Headlines, articles and breaking news…


It stole the limelight from anything else, including presidents, who tampered with constitutions to extend or eternalize their term. The recurring topic is a tiring one, even if it is important and dangerous. It is not easy to find a daily non-redundant headline.


Annoyed with the recurring topic, I rejoiced when I found Mr. Saxton challenging fear and cold, suggesting that normal life should continue. So I grabbed the opportunity to take a short break from the subject that has colonized our days for weeks. But it turned out to be a miscalculation, as the virus also changed my friend’s priorities.


Your friend reassures you as if he was trying to comfort himself. This is a black cloud, but it will pass. The world should follow directives and keep its cool.


This wave is worrisome, but it is nothing if compared to what the world was previously exposed to. People are alarmed to see victims in the absence of treatment or vaccine because they have learned to trust scientific and medical progress and the ability of the human mind to face and often anticipate dangers.


The new Coronavirus shook the people’s confidence in the global clinic that is responsible for his health. He suddenly found himself in front of doctors and scientists asking questions more than providing answers.


In general, ambiguity raises confusion and shock. What if it came to people’s lives?


For this reason, grief can be felt in the talks about the new virus. Sadness for the victims and the fearful crowd… Sadness, because this harmful message reminded man not only of his fragility but also of the fragility of the entire march towards progress, despite achievements and leaps.


The crisis has turned ordinary citizens into experts in epidemiology, especially as information is now easily accessible.


My friend reminded me of the painful chapters that humanity has lived throughout its history due to raids by unknown epidemics, which sometimes claimed millions of lives.


My friend spoke of the Justinian plague that spread throughout the Byzantine Empire, was transcontinental and caused a large number of casualties. He also spoke of the black plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century and led to the death of about 20 million people.


I did not need evidence of the ferocity of epidemics and their ability to kill. However, it was necessary to listen in appreciation of the efforts of the friend, to whom epidemics do not fall within his competencies or interests.


He mentioned the Great Plague of London, which arrived in the seventeenth century from the Netherlands and devoured a quarter of the city’s population. He talked about the yellow fever epidemic that struck the American Philadelphia area and then moved to the Great Plague in Marseille, which killed 100,000 people within days.


Then the conversation moved to the Manchurian plague at the beginning of the last century, as well as the Spanish flu epidemic that claimed the lives of tens of millions of people. He continued his useful lecture, reaching Corona after going through Ebola and other painful events.


The lengthy description of the British old man of these details was an indication of the magnitude of the concerns that Corona raised among ordinary citizens, which led them to try to identify precedents to reach a clear conclusion that the world will ultimately defeat this murderous visitor.


It was clear that Saxton wanted to say his word on the mobile serial killer. Perhaps he was afraid that order would soon be issued to shut down cafes and oblige people to stay home.


It was clear that Corona made him forget Beethoven, Hayden, Shakespeare, and Voltaire. Saxton will not remember his old friends who occupied his long life. He hinted to his fear that the mask would be the new flag.


A mask for the map to stop shaking hands with its neighbor. A mask for the city to resign from its outskirts. A mask for the man to escape from the breath of the closest people around him.


The serial killer imposed its agenda on the world. It emptied the most beautiful squares of visitors and closed schools, museums, and cafes.


Poor Saxton. The world is no longer preoccupied with symphonies and novels. It fell in the fear of the other, as if it dismantled the “cosmic village”, maps, cities, and families… isolating people and islands that hide behind a sea of masks.


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