I sat by the window, as usual, staring outside. I don’t do much these days. Anxiety keeps me from getting any work done. This window is incredible though: it looks out on a vast green garden, bounded on the left by a row of linden trees whose green shoots have started to bring color to the bright trees.
Covid is awful and they have forced us to quarantine. I only leave the house to buy groceries. German quarantine isn’t too harsh though: people can go out jogging, for example, or walking, as is my usual habit. Yesterday I noticed they had laid down a barrier preventing people from sitting on the benches in the garden that I walk in every day. They put the same barricade around the playground on the other side of the building. These barriers make me feel powerless, leaving me with the impression that there’s something wrong with the world.
Today I saw the same woman pass by underneath my window. She has attracted my interest in the past with her serenity, elegance, and white hair. She must be about eighty years old and it seems to me that she has lost the love of her life not too long ago, that she had been left all alone. Now she’s walking around the housing complex in a dark raincoat. Soon she’ll complete her five or six daily laps before returning to her gloomy home. I tracked her progress until she disappeared around the corner.
I’m just like her. I live alone in one of the seven buildings that make up this apartment bloc. The complex was built in a hurry after the war in order to integrate families that had been displaced during that horrendous era, when most of the housing in Berlin had been destroyed. I live all alone because I left behind my own homeland, which has also been decimated, by a different war, of course, and took refuge in Berlin, where everything has been rebuilt.
Before Covid I knew what I would do if I had a heart attack or some other kind of emergency. But now, with coronavirus, nobody answers their phone. Instead a recorded message instead that not go to your doctor’s office. Last week I needed a new prescription for my blood pressure medication. The recording told me that I must send a letter in the mail requesting what I need along with my health insurance card. Four days later the card was mailed back to me along with the prescription, but the medication that arrived wasn’t the one I needed, and there was a note inside hand written by my doctor explaining that she had changed my medication because of the concerns held by doctors combating the virus in Italy about my old medication, which it turns out is dangerous to people like me when they show symptoms.
I despise listening to these recorded instructions over the telephone. I’m dying to hear a human voice respond to my concerns and questions.
I am paralyzed with terror. I’m not talking about fear of death, but what if I did get infected and had to spend fourteen days sick and all alone, without even the possibility of going to the store to buy groceries or to the pharmacy to get medication? I went to the nearby pharmacist to fill my prescription, throwing a scarf over my nose and mouth. The problem is that the pandemic surprised the whole world, nobody was prepared for it, and there was not enough personal protective equipment available, masks and disinfectants, in particular, than was needed. I couldn’t find any of those items in the pharmacies or any other shops for that matter. They say that they were being shipped, during the first few weeks, to hospitals that were suffering shortages, which is one reason why the disease was being transmitted to doctors and nurses.
I have a neighbor here who lives with her boyfriend in a large apartment, on the same floor as my tiny place. They adopted a sweet dog I fell in love with at first sight. He adored me, too, trying to escape from his owners whenever he saw me, sprinting over to smell me and let me rub his head. When I came home at night, I would hear him whimpering behind the door of their apartment in a way that really affected me. Often, I would stand on my balcony and watch as my neighbors took him out for a walk in the garden so that he could do his business. I felt as though I had a friend, one who made me feel good whenever we crossed paths. Ever since Covid, though, the building residents take care to keep their distance from one another when they are coming and going in the stairwell. One person will step into the corner and allow the other person to pass with a brief hello, a smile, and a wish for the other to have a good day. This neighbor tried to secure her dog and prevent him from getting near me whenever we crossed paths. She believed that dogs could catch the virus even though I had read a study arguing that there was no reason to fear that dogs could be a vector of the disease. I would look at him when I was walking up or down, our eyes would meet, and I would know that he still loved me the way I loved him.
We residents of the building have never visited one another at home. We would exchange some pleasantries if we bumped into one another in the stairwell or in the green areas around the building. There’s a nice couple in their seventies who live on the second floor. We used to sit together for long stretches at a time talking about many different things. The woman suffers from a spinal condition and she had to undergo surgery in order to deal with the problem. She only got worse after the operation and now she has to use a walker whenever she and her husband leave the house. Once the two of them explained to me that the husband is of Polish descent while she is from East Germany. Her husband loved to share news with me although sometimes his wife would have to sit down on the seat of the walker if the conversation went on too long. Every time we met he would ask me for news about the war in my country, and on one occasion in particular when he saw me in the stairwell with a colleague he asked her, “How were things in your country before you came here to visit your father?” She isn’t from my country at all; she’s from Holland! She’s ten years younger than me, she isn’t my daughter! Another time he pulled out a bottle of wine and gleefully explained to me how he had finally found a non-alcoholic wine. A few weeks later I found the same wine in a shop and bought him a bottle, went and knocked on his door, and left it there for him. But recently we have stopped chatting with one another, stopping only to wave hello and hurry on our way. Now I suffer from loneliness much more than I did before coronavirus.
I spend my days reading by the window, often forgetting about whatever book I might have in my hands, instead staring outside for a long time. I read political news online and follow news of the virus. I’m interested in tracking the number of new infections each day as well as the “R Naught” transmission rate. I’m amazed by the pragmatism of the German response, the measures used to stop the spread of the virus. Because people here have such respect for Angela Merkel, they go along with government orders, knowing that she is carefully dealing with the situation based on the science. Like most Germans, I’m amazed by her.
I check my temperature and my blood pressure at least once per day. Every time I do I tell myself that everything is fine…“for now.” For breakfast I have oatmeal with nuts and coffee with milk. Then I wash the dishes, take my immune-boosting vitamins as well as an aspirin to thin my blood. At noon I take my blood-pressure medication and then leave the house for a walk or to go grocery shopping, and when I get back home I sit back down by the window to look out at the few people who are leaving their houses. I read a bit of my book but quickly become occupied with memories of the distant past, the time before I lived in Germany.
I remember my serious father whom I loved even more deeply after he got Alzheimer’s disease and started asking us all who we were every time we visited. One time he asked my mother what her name was, then asked her whether or not she was married and how many children she had. When she told him, he replied, “That’s how many children I have, too!” He died peacefully with all of us hovering around his bedside. The serious man died with a smile on his face. I don’t know why I think of him so often these days. My wife also died because of a chronic condition, but that was before I had fled the country and sought asylum in Germany. They told me that after my older brother died, my mother died from sorrow.
My phone doesn’t ring very often. Apparently, my friends think it’s best to leave me alone, but I need to speak with someone, anyone. When I’m successful at getting hold of one of my friends, we exchange news with one another, mostly about what we’re up to in these awful days, in this time of quarantine and stay-at-home orders. Most of my friends aren’t like me though. They have wives and children around them at all times. I imagine they’re all happy – except for one of my friends explained how unbearable quarantining with his family can be, telling me how envious he is of me for being alone, how he has nearly gone insane from his children’s constant shouting when they’re on their PlayStation. Throughout the conversation I could hear his children shouting in the background then the sound of his wife’s voice exploding to shut them up. I hang up the phone and feel a deep sense of relief. The next day I spoke on the phone with another friend who lives in Berlin all by himself. He came from Paris to work for a non-profit organization that works on refugee issues and got stuck in Berlin when they shut the borders between the two countries. He doesn’t speak German, doesn’t even know how to ask for help in an emergency! He explains to me his terror of the pandemic because of his chronic asthma, telling me how those with his condition can never fully relax. He let me know that he managed to get a supply of Hydroxychloroquine on the black market, which he’ll take if he gets sick.
In the evening I attend various kinds of events on Zoom. I’ll choose a subject and then wait for the specified time. I may toss out a question in order to feel like I’m participating in normal life. For example, one time I attended a discussion about the psychological consequences of the shutdown on people like me who live all alone. Here in Berlin there is a high proportion of unpartnered people. A friend of mine sent me a video clip to help me cope, one that claims, in the shutdown, you should feel free to talk to anything the house that you feel like, even flowers or candles, the argument being that this is natural and shouldn’t be a cause for concern. However, the video continued, if those objects start to speak back to you, you should call somebody.
During the weeks of lockdown my hair got long. I needed a haircut badly. I had let my beard grow so that it would match the length of my hair. My appearance was pathetic, how could it not be in such a context where we are ruled by anxiety and loneliness and insomnia and being trapped in the prison of painful memories.
But in the second half of April things changed when the lockdown was lifted somewhat, and they allowed some stores to open their door, including hair salons that could receive clients once again.
I shaved my beard because it’s forbidden to get a shave at the salon, then I paid a visit to my regular haunt in order to get a haircut. I felt a kind of happiness as I walked home with a fresh haircut and a scarf wrapped around my face. The sun was shining so I took a longer route than normal.
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss