Coronavirus Approaches Overcrowded Burj al-Barajneh Camp
March 23 2020

My aunt moves slowly, reciting verses from the Qur’an to ward off the Corona virus.  The camp is uncharacteristically silent, a silence that it hasn’t witnessed since the time of sieges and wars.  “It’s as though the evil eye has struck the world,” my aunt says.

Children cry out in their narrow houses pleading for a miracle that would release them from their confinement.  The elderly take small steps, reading from the Qur’an, and feeling more tired with every passing day.  It’s as though time sat on their backs and they bore it silently and patiently.

Only the shops are open, and one neighbor tells another about the importance of staying at home and being wary of the enemy that doesn’t distinguish the young from the old.  Women purify their houses with incense and loudly recite the “Corona prayer” from their windows: “Oh Lord, save us from every distress and disease.  We put our lives, souls, and bodies in your hands.  Guide us from the supernatural realm and have mercy on our camp.”

Everything moves slowly like my aunt: the pictures on the walls, politics, the Deal of the Century, Palestine, veteran resistance fighters, prophetic stories about the liberation of the land, even memory itself.  It’s as though the whole camp was balanced on a slender trapeze rope, and would fall to the ground if even one case entered its alleyways.  All viewpoints would topple in order to resist it, because the narrow houses that are crowded together and the alleyways that intersect like the passages of anthills would expose everyone’s life to the danger.

“It must be an American conspiracy to strike China, and the camps too — why not?” shouts Abu Ali in my face, angry about everything.  The young man sits around for the thousandth evening in a row without employment.  He never found work before Corona and he will certainly not find it afterwards.

The rain that defies the dust of approaching summer wants to assert itself in each and every narrow alley and on the electric wires as well.  Despite everyone’s willingness to take responsibility for disinfecting the camp, my aunt insists that the rain will wash everything away and there’s no need for disinfectant.

Young people volunteer to sterilize the camp in a special initiative.  “No one on the outside cares or is concerned about us.  It’s our battle, and like all our battles, we’re fighting it alone,” was what Muhammad said, who works for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

My aunt, grandmother to twenty children, mother to six sons and two daughters, hosts everyone in her small room in Burj al-Barajneh camp. The television screen reports the number of Corona victims.  Voices rise each time the tone of the conversation intensifies.  Bawling and a state of hysteria overtake the children.  The reality alarms everyone present:

“There’s no space here for quarantine,” says my aunt with a smile.

“We’ll isolate ourselves in the closets,” responds my cousin.

“The camp is immune.” 

“Don't talk to me about immunity, if we’re going to die, we’re going to die.”

“So can UNRWA do anything?” 

“What can it do?  Trump stopped all funding, it can barely take care of us.”

Discussions escalate as it gets later and later.  Suddenly a silence descends on the room.

My aunt conspires against herself and makes dinner for everyone.

All hands compete over the dinner tray: yogurt, cheese, and garlic to strengthen the immune system; anise in one teapot, and sage in the other.

Everyone forgets about Corona and everything to do with it during the blissful moments of sharing food.

My aunt goes back to reciting verses from the Qur’an.  My cousin tells her: “Even Mecca has emptied of worshippers, so Corona makes no religious distinctions.  All of us means all of us.”

The camp dozes off to the news and wakes up to the news.  People resume their conversations about the impending war, as though it were just two meters away from the camp.

“How can we distance ourselves from each other?  Can ants distance themselves from each other?  We’re ants, my dear, and ants are partial to closeness.”

From the same blog series: Coronavirus in Palestinian Life
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