“Right, there is one way to avoid contracting this new sickness that’s going around!” our father officiously began earlier this week. “Always wear a face mask with an onion in it.”
In some ways, my Egyptian migrant parents responded to the news of a dangerous, global pandemic with a surprising calm, indeed, their lives of panic have been the ideal preparation for this very moment. But I also see the way that COVID-19 has evoked some of their more frustrating tendencies, such as the naturopathic remedy above.
Their lives of panic have been the ideal preparation for this very moment.
This is, of course, not the first time they have faced a society-wide ‘crisis’. When, at 15, my dad was caught in the fallout of the War of Attrition, he was forced to pack whatever he could carry, leaving his friends and his world behind in a town near Port Said, to make for Cairo. The house he shared with my grandparents and auntie was bombed and all his possessions destroyed. My mum’s family too had their properties and businesses stolen from them when, under President Nasser’s socialist annexation policies, my grandad’s assets were co-opted into the ‘public purse.’
When your life is changed so suddenly at such a young age, is it any wonder that, going forward, you take more than you may strictly require and that you sometimes overreact? Here are some of the habits, good and bad, which have emerged during the coronavirus pandemic for my parents, my friend’s parents, and I’m sure many other Arab migrants in Australia.
Reassuring Dad that there was no need to stock up and that the supermarkets would still be open made little difference to go ‘el shopping’. Dad entered the house bearing loaves of Focaccia, Turkish bread and Lebanese bread, like the triumphant winner of some kind of bakery fire sale. He also brought home a whole lamb and several weird, bony cuts of beef. We don’t really eat meat during Lent, but whatever.
He then imposed a ‘stronger together’ strategy, enforcing a strict ‘no school, no friends, no work policy.’ My sister and I are always working and Mum often talks about how she would like to see us more, so this pleased her. “You kids, always running around and no time for rest!” she said, carrying my three-year-old niece on one hip, my one-year-old nephew on the other and marinating the lamb with zaatar and olive oil with her free hand.
Watching the neighbours
“What are they up to?” our dad murmured grumpily, staring out the window. Dad has a love-to-hate relationship with one of our neighbours. A Toyota Tarago pulled up to their driveway and out jumped four children, two women, an old man, his walker, and a Cocker-Spaniel. “So glad we can self-isolate together!” shouted Ħilda*, the lady of the house.
Dad watched the family hugging and even kissing each other on their driveway. “That’s wrong,” he grumbled. Much has been said, after all, about the importance of social distancing in these fraught times – avoiding all unnecessary human contact is crucial.
Our mum tried to calm Dad down, reminding him that in a similar attempt to self-isolate we, a week earlier, invited our Auntie Gamilah over and her nine children and grandchildren. There is a saying in Arabic, ‘mafeesh ahsan min al lama2’, which roughly translates to, ‘there is nothing greater than unity.’
“It’s not the same!” Dad objected.
There have been many wild theories circulating on social media about how to protect yourself, and even cure yourself, from El Coronas. One of my dad's favourites right now is a morning throat gargle of crushed garlic and vinegar. He insists this is an excellent 'immunity booster', and I remind him that it's also a great little trick to ward off any pesky vampires who might be lurking about.
Dad has spent the last three days unmaking and then re-making the same wristwatch. Mum has pickled everything in sight. Apart from vegetables like capsicum and onion, she also turned to stone fruits like plums, which have no business being pickled.
“God is greater than this!” Mum tells her sister in Cairo.
“Ah, Salwa, only God knows the end of a matter from its beginning,” Auntie Huda responds.
This kind of mindset, of living in the moment mingled with a certain brutal practicality, is common in Arab cultures.
My now retired parents pray, they call their relatives and friends, they hoard food they don’t need, and they love their children and grandchildren with the belief that, in the end, we will emerge from this crisis stronger.
*Names and details have been changed.
Daniel Nour is an Australian-Egyptian journalist and writer. His work centres on the migrant experience in Australia. He tweets @daniel_nour and his work is visible at danielnour.com
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.
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