This weekend started on Friday the 13th, with weather to match, but we’re trying to stay positive.
Egypt has added its own touch to the global coronavirus panic with a storm so massive the government told everyone to just stay home starting Thursday. Meanwhile, we’re noting the sheer emotion felt as cities are put on lockdown, flights are canceled and hysteria takes over the world with no change on the horizon. We’re all experiencing it together as a generation; just like we saw the internet closely knit the world together; just like we all suffered nearly identical crises growing up; and just like we watched Hollywood make a love story out of the disaster of the sinking Titanic: We’re now witnessing the spread of a pandemic and we’re hoping it doesn’t turn into one of those inescapable blows of history.
This photo story, published in The Atlantic, takes us to a number of deserted public spaces around the world, as people increasingly opt to stay home, be it out of caution or necessity.
Similarly, our weekly recommendations this time do not include any out-of-house activities. In any case, it’s probably best to relax at home and make sense of the panic and stress of the past days. We hope this guide will keep you company meanwhile, especially with the electricity cuts and shortage in water supply that many have been experiencing since Thursday.
In our Read section, Hadeer El-Mahdawy visualizes the end of the world, and Haitham El-Wardany provides tips on writing about catastrophes. In Watch, we observe the end of the world through the eyes of Japanese Anime artists. And in our Listen segment, we select some music fitting to the climate, literal and otherwise — may it bring us some joy through the days ahead.
In “The Long Shadow of the Catastrophe,” a piece perfectly fitting with the current global moment, Haitham El-Wardany writes: “What is exceptional and devastating about catastrophe is that it is the point at which history collapses. And today when we pose the question of the future, we do that from no other position but that of catastrophe; our position within the gap left by that collapse. This is why literary efforts should ensure that the question of catastrophe is not absent when the question of the future is addressed today. What is it that we could expect from literature then, from this position? Perhaps the most logical answer is that we should not expect works telling us about catastrophe, or urging us to imagine alternative places to be. Rather, we should expect catastrophic works. Catastrophe will not be the subject of these works, but the condition under which they are written. Literature’s true function does not lie in informing, but in finding a form for that which refuses to be shaped.”
Literary Hub publishes the translation of an e-lecture given by author and Chinese culture professor Yan Lianke to his class of graduate students, about the notion of community memory and how COVID-19 will be addressed by storytellers in the future: “In the past and present times of our lives, why do tragedies and disasters always fall on the individual, family, society, era, or country, one after the other? And why are the catastrophes of history always paid for with the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary people? Amid the countless factors that we don’t know, don’t ask, or were told not to ask (to which we obediently listened), there’s this one factor — humans, all of us collectively as the human race, the ant-like nobodies — are forgetful beings.”
Fuck, is the world really ending?
We’ve always jokingly anticipated the end of the world, laughing at fake news of a meteor about to hit the planet, just like the fake news that kept circulating for years about Mubarak’s death. We waited for the meteor that would finally end our problems: a late paycheck or a delayed summer. We waited for the meteor to end a feeling of boredom; a bad day, some hard weeks, or a few tough years. Mubarak did die, finally, but the meteor still hasn’t found its way to the earth.
Perhaps the meteor hasn’t hit us yet because our current planet is not worthy of such an elegant ending. The meteor apocalypse is similar to the scientific theories explaining the extinction of majestic creatures like dinosaurs, which assume that a meteor slammed into the earth and caused a drastic change in climate, spreading gas, dust and debris that put an end to all forms of life. However, the era of dinosaurs is over, and now we are in the era of corona: the egoistic human being of this age, the major reason behind the ruination of our planet, is now threatened by a microscopic creature — a virus with the same name as my favorite childhood chocolate and a popular Mexican beer.
The planet’s demise by a meteor is perhaps more final, more poetic. This coronavirus, however, despite its “cute” name, promises a slow and ugly ending. “If the world wants to end, fine, but it should end politely,” a friend of mine told me a few days ago, during a quick chat about corona.
Most probably, the world is not going to end; the egoistic human being will find a treatment or a hideout, especially if they are a white citizen with money, lots of money. Or maybe a brilliant young human from somewhere in the Global South will post a video on YouTube of a medical formula they accidentally discovered using sweet potato roots that will save billions of human beings from the virus.
But what if the treatments, the hideouts, the internet prescriptions didn’t work? What if we assumed that the world is ending soon, and not “politely”? Which world exactly is going to end? Hasn’t it ended already? I feel no direct connection to the “world.” What is the world? What are its boundaries? The world might be a very relative matter; the Third World is a world, the First World is another world, there is the broader world, and there is the small world that every individual creates around themselves. Which world is it that’s going to end, then?
A few months ago I had a brush with a natural disaster, in a country that comes second only to religions in its knack for imagining end-of-the-world narratives. I was in the US state of California during fire season, and a big forest fire was spreading quickly because of the wind in the neighborhood where I was living at the time; my house was located in the “yellow zone” on the Los Angeles Fire Department map, which meant that I had to be ready to evict the space, in case it entered the “red zone,” which would mean the fire was getting closer.
There are two kinds of natural disasters in California, earthquakes and fires; therefore, it was normal to find emergency/survival kits in all places of residence. The kit usually includes things like water, emergency medical aid, a flashlight and some food. On the first night of the fire, with the rise of the smoke in the sky, I could not sleep, not because of fear, but due to the constant update alerts I was receiving on my phone from the fire department. The alerts told me to prepare a small backpack and be ready to go. I did prepare one, but I didn’t really deal with the event as an end-of-the-world situation until I read a piece online titled “Things You Should Have in Your Apocalypse Kit,” or something like that. That’s when I realized the situation was probably dangerous, and I did feel the danger, for a day or two — but with the fire raging for almost two weeks, I ended up following the updates rather indifferently; I’d look at my prepared backpack and my “apocalypse kit,” then resume my day quite routinely. I felt the same palpable sense of danger on Wednesday, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, but this sense of danger might itself become normal in a few days or weeks.
My small world, and a number of other small worlds — separate from or interconnected with mine — have indeed come close to ending several times before. The fire was not going to end the whole world, the world whose boundaries we don’t know; nor was the whole world really going to end all those times we felt that fate was moving decidedly against us. But in each of those instances, the whole world didn’t matter; eventually, perhaps, what matters most is our own little, limited world — we will not gain or lose much when the “big” world ends, even if the thought of collective death promises a bit of companionship.
Amid the ongoing wave of thunder and dust storms in Cairo that completed the apocalyptic atmosphere, I looked up at the orange sky and tried to seriously consider a scenario in which the world ends. All I could muster was a deadline logic: I thought of all the dirty laundry I had to do before everything fell apart — maybe I should cook the fish I have in my freezer, and I might also need to pay my rent and my internet bill in advance for the coming months. If the world really is ending soon, then I have to publish the book I’ve been working on for years, and I should also submit all my pending journalistic stories. Maybe I need to stop being lazy and start stocking some food and hand sanitizer, like everyone else. Perhaps I should buy a few bags of potatoes; it’s a suitable food for wartime and would definitely be suitable during a quarantine as well. Or maybe I will leave a message to the post-end-of-the-world world — a message someone might find in thousands of years, which would then end up in a museum as an anonymous letter that proves a former life on earth.
Many of those who are faced with a terminal illness and know their remaining time on earth is short make a bucket list of things they want to do before they go; resolving pending issues maybe, ending silly disputes, doing crazy things like skydiving or swimming with sharks, or climbing the top of the highest mountain in the world, or maybe, for economic reasons, the top of the highest building in the neighborhood — and the final wish could just be a last intimate gathering with friends.
An intimate gathering with friends seems like a good idea to face the end of the world. Family and friends cannot be carrying the virus; we’ve known them for years — only strangers contract corona, right?
In a few months, we might get used to waiting for the end of the world. We’ll make more jokes and memes while waiting. Maybe after the egoistic human being of today finally realizes their true size before Mother Nature, they’ll come to forget again. Maybe I’ll continue to check on the “apocalypse kit” next to my bed, then I will finally get used to corona, and we’ll all go back to waiting for the meteor.
We see destruction in every scene — empty houses and cities. Passersby are wearing facemasks, plants are rotting with a foul odor. We can almost smell their decay as fumes rise from their leaves like purple smoke from a bomb.
This is a world that has been ruined beyond repair. Transport is only possible on the backs of animals or wind. “Wind riders” use drone-like vehicles and carry weapons to defend themselves against danger. The beasts humans ride are like no animals we know: they’re not horses nor camels nor mules, but four-legged mythical creatures. The industrial age has ended and the world has been devastated and only small villages survived the colorful destruction. The “Sea of Decay” has swallowed the world as we know it, and the lands beyond the sea are reduced to jungles where insects, animals and giant beasts called “Ohms” live.
This is a general description of the first few minutes of the 1984 animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The film presented a visual language that was very unique at the time and was the first utterance of the style that took shape with the founding of Studio Ghibli a year later.
The film can be streamed on Netflix along with 20 other works from the same studio, making for a highly gratifying watching experience.
Studio Ghibli was founded by directors Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki. It is said that the studio’s name was inspired by the hot Saharan winds in Libya to signify the new wave of long animated films.
This week we tried to pick a soundtrack fit for the virus-induced apocalypse surrounding us. We can’t change much, but maybe we should ponder ways to minimize losses as we walk into the eye of the storm.
We start with a bittersweet song featured in Youssef Chahine’s The Sixth Day (a film about the 1947 cholera epidemic in Egypt). Written by Salah Jaheen, composed by Omar Khairat and performed by Mohamed Mounir when his voice was still soft and silvery: “After the flood, the world is foggy … We speak to each other in panicked whispers.”
Then we go to the fateful beats of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which he wrote between 1804 and 1808:
And because yesterday was Mohamed Abdel Wahab’s birthday, we picked this song of defiance:
Here, Tom Waits tells us “How It’s Gonna End”:
And according to Akher Zapheer, “This Road Ends on a Sad Note”:
Jim Morrison sings about “the end of our elaborate plans, the end of everything that stands”:
While this is the “End of the World” as envisioned by Aziz Maraka:
And by Cairokee:
And, of course, this:
“I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’, heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world,” sings Bob Dylan:
But “Is That All There Is?” Peggy Lee wonders:
Coldplay’s attempt at fending off “Death and All His Friends”:
Because then again, someone might just save the world today:
And we’re still here, despite everything:
In the end, dear readers, we leave you with this gem of a poem by T.S. Eliot. Read through to the end and you’ll know why.
Until next time: stay safe.