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Exclusive - Syrians Await New Form of Death in Coronavirus

Exclusive - Syrians Await New Form of Death in Coronavirus

Monday, 23 March, 2020 - 09:00
A health official tests passengers at Damascus International Airport as part of security measures to avoid spreading coronavirus. (Reuters)
Khaled Khalifa

I was a child of nine years when I rushed home to tell my mother about the cholera outbreak and that the Hummayat Hospital in Ain al-Tall near our house was overflowing with corpses that the municipality would later burn. It was as if I was telling her that al-Ahly football club – before they changed their name to al-Ittihad - had won against the al-Arabi, which later would change its name to al-Houriya.

She grabbed me and asked me about how I learned about the cholera. I answered her mockingly: “You could go to the Hummayat Hospital and see for yourself. Cholera is wandering around the halls of the old hospital.”

The annual cholera pandemic had begun. The Hummayat Hospital was close to our school, Al-Mansour. The school stood between the al-Midan middle class Armenian district and the Hellok al-Tahtani and Hellok al-Fawqani, the renowned residential neighborhood and heart of the Syrian left in the late 1906s and early 1990s. Its residents were a mix of farmers and displaced from Aleppo, Armenians, Turkmen, who became shoemakers, and Kurds. The area was located near Ain al-Tall, which boasted the majority of cotton gins that harbored leftists and Palestinian resistance factions, most notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

My mother, like all mothers, didn’t know how to protect us from the cholera that was sauntering in the streets. She resorted to dumping us in hot baths and rubbing us with soap until the cholera was cleansed from our skin. I still recall the panic in her eyes when I boldly told her how I, along with my friends, scaled the hospital wall and saw for ourselves how cholera was infecting patients and killing them before the municipal workers would come along and burn them.

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Cholera was an annual visitor that claimed tens of thousands of lives, laying waste like an unstoppable silent killer. I no longer remember when this phantom stopped roaming the streets. I believe it may have been the late 1970s. Its horrors are still etched in our memories and come back again with any new pandemic. In recent days, however, I believe that the new pandemic will definitely lead us to the end of the world. I never dared to imagine that the entire world could shutter its doors and that rivers could rage as nature would have it or that birds would build their nests wherever they wanted.

I mused that various extinct species of animals would reemerge. My imagination ran wild with images of the white giraffe walking down London’s Oxford Street. Of course, the last two remaining white giraffes were killed just days ago by a professional hunter somewhere in Africa. I imagine that those extinct species would return to life and later share our streets, homes and bars. I like the idea of sipping cognac with a small elephant at bar as he sheds tears like us lovers and losers do.

What if these animals refuse to coexist with us and instead choose to avenge what we have done to Mother Earth? What if they choose to expel us permanently and begin the production of a new line of humans, who are more merciful towards the plant and each other?

Even though I was never an environmentalist, I feel drawn towards them now in order to fend off the fear for my life, which I believe is truly being threatened, especially since the mighty coronavirus has yet to make up its mind if it would prey on those who are no longer young and not quiet elderly.

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Throughout the eleven years of writing my latest novel, “Lam Yasil Aleyhom Ahad” (No One Reached Them), I read the majority of books on Aleppo’s history. I found out that Aleppo never enjoyed a pandemic-free decade. The most dangerous of these diseases was the plague that claimed lives near and far and which only compounded the daily misery of the city residents. The plague struck in 1822 after that year’s earthquake. The pandemic crippled the city for years and it took 50 years for it to erase its devastation. Any reading of the history of Aleppo is a reading of a history of pandemics. In his 1771-1805 memoirs of the city, merchant Youssef Gerges al-Khoury wrote of the plague that struck his city in 1787. He detailed the horrors and listed the names of the victims.

I could not choose a better image of the impact of the pandemics than when Hanna and his friend Zakaria arrive to an empty city. This is an image that has stayed with me since my youth when my mother locked us up in the house as the cholera wreaked havoc in the city. We used to peep at the world from behind closed doors. We watched as the cholera sauntered down the streets where it claimed its victims while the smell of burned bodies clung to the air and as mosques called for salvation in burning tearful entreaties.

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I believe that humans today and everywhere are hostage to major companies. We welcomed them into our daily lives or they were imposed on us without asking for permission. No one asked us if we wanted to stop at the “fax age” or move on to the “internet age”. We can count every human achievement around us without pausing to ask “at what cost?” The arrival of the pandemic is linked to regret at the time when regret is futile. It is delusional to claim that life a hundred years ago was better. This is not true. Life was always an exercise in ongoing hardship.

Modern life is about eating away at oneself. We are veering away from happiness by moving closer to a modern life that is based on owning things. This too is an illusion. Life has never ceased being a temporary test that cannot be judged without the facts the politicians and scientists are concealing from the public. Scientific groups have reached the highest level of advancement. I am certain that they are capable of reproducing life or stopping death. However, at this terrible moment, they appear helpless before this virus that has shut down the world. This is the truth, not fiction. The same policy of hiding secrets still stands. We won’t find the answer to “where did the virus come from?” Similarly, we have yet to find the answers to: “Where did ISIS come from? And why? Who will compensate the tens of thousands of victims?”

With every pandemic, people become corpse we should steer clear of. The images of funerals around the world simply inform us that death may actually be hard work. The world is now sharing Syria this hardship even though the angles may be different.

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Right now, the Syrians are again waiting arbitrary death, this time in a new form. I am one of them. As a people, we have experienced all forms of death. Tens of thousands of Syria’s finest youths have died under torture. Entire cities have been razed to the ground under shelling. Over half a million Syrians have been killed and millions have been displaced by the war that is not over yet.

Today, the new coronavirus is sauntering around and all of us in Syria are helplessly awaiting it without knowing whether we can fight it. Deep inside, we know that the people are dispensable to the regime, which can live on with only a quarter of the population or three fourths of the people dead. No one will ask why there aren’t enough ventilators at Syria’s hospitals and why the medical system is almost non-existent. No one addressed with the question wants to assume responsibility because deep inside every Syrian is growing a strange realization that those who survived the war will be a survivor no matter what. Those who drowned in the sea, will not be deterred by a stream. Who knows, the stream could turn into terrible flood that would sweep us all towards the abyss and incinerator that will turn us all into ash.

*Khaled Khalifa is a Syrian novelist.

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