This weekend, Orthodox Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus and his death at Calvary on Good Friday. The celebration coincides with the virus-triggered rise of the “body” as the fundamental consideration in political, economic and even religious decision making: yesterday, Pope Tawadros II held Mass at the Monastery of Saint Pishoy in Wadi el-Natrun, with no worshippers in attendance.
Ancient Egyptians venerated the body. To them, it was the vessel that carries the soul to the afterlife. They mummified it and weaved their mythology around its permanence. It was none other than the body of Osiris — the ancient Egyptian lord of the underworld and judge of the dead — that was scattered around Egypt, symbolizing its 42 provinces. His sister-wife, Isis, had to reconstruct his body in order to conceive Horus, whose destiny was to restore order to the world.
As the modern state came to be, its influence over the body grew, until the latter became the epicenter of conflict between the state’s power and the individual. Political, racial, social and cultural concepts were, consequently, formed around it.
Today, the body is where the fight against the virus is taking place. Many of us are self-isolating in an attempt to protect it — pulling back from public life and coming together with ourselves. We’ve stripped the body of political metaphors down to the literal skin and bones; our concerns now confined to keeping it healthy and germ-free.
This week’s edition of Detox attempts to decipher how our understanding of the body is changing in this unprecedented moment: from our evolving relationship with our own bodies, to the challenge of maintaining distance from the bodies of others, to the representation of the body in film and music.
We also thought some yoga might be in order, for the balance of the body (and the mind, for that matter). For those who’ve never practiced before, we spoke with Hala Barakat, founder of Rohana Yoga Studio, who recommended the following simple breathing exercises and immunity-boosting poses for beginners:
This week, Nawara Belal and Hadeer El-Mahdawy write about their renewed awareness of their bodies, the growing boundaries keeping them from other bodies, and new possibilities for intimacy in light of the pandemic.
I lie in bed, thinking about all the time, thought and money I put into buying a comfortable mattress that would accommodate my needs, mostly my aching back — a result of the extra weight I’ve put on, a herniated disc, and a surgery I had years ago that requires me to sleep on my left side with a pillow between my thighs. It is another day in self-isolation and I am half-asleep, but I am also thinking about a personal “dilemma” centering around another detail that has to do with my body. My hair is troubling me. I started relying on my hands and a pair of scissors to keep it short four and a half years ago. Ever since then, I’ve never allowed it to grow long enough to be pulled back into a rat-tail, let alone a pony-tail. I preferred the feeling of placing my hand on my head and being able to stroke my skull without any barriers, not even my own hair. But in the beginning of this year I decided — among other decisions that involve elevating myself to a higher level of human feeling and sociability — to let my hair grow long.
The traditional female archetype draws courage from the history of experience allegedly carried in long hair. In my little physical dilemma, I found myself longing to get rid of the hair I’d let grow since last December, but I was torn between the decision I’d made which I thought would elevate me to a brave feminine archetype — able to confidently carry my personal history — and the more immediate need I felt in my body during this quarantine spring to simply become lighter. As I tried to explain the situation to my friend and roommate, breathing into my pillow as I expressed my frustration, she asked: “Is this really a period you want to carry on your head? This coronavirus spring is what you want to document in your body?” She had barely finished her question when I headed for the bathroom, reached for the scissors and took to my hair.
My body revelled in the familiar feel of the blades working through my strands, as I frantically cut and cut and cut and let them fall to the white tiles around the sink. Two of my friends stood next to me, clearly concerned about the dramatic end about to befall my hair. As they watched uneven patches start to fill the back of my head, one of them intervened to save the situation, only to make it worse. The three of us gazed into the mirror, then the other one patted my head saying: “It’s really pretty.” We laughed. Only one thing was certain: in this extended moment of self-isolation, I was safe, at least, from the cruelty of society’s judgment. I am now comfortable with my very short hair.
Once again I sit in bed, conversing with that controlling voice in my head, which was now judging me for failing to become the female archetype I’d aspired to; the woman that carried her wisdom in her long, flowing hair. But the current restrictions to physical movement that I’m currently experiencing — imposed by self-isolation and the curfew — only reinforce my contempt towards the freedom of the sacred female archetypes. Today, I’d rather curse the female archetype I once longed for. The women of legends and myths don’t live out their stories trapped within four walls. A story has a trajectory, and it’s filled with risk, mystery and choice. My current moment, meanwhile, is defined by a need for sensuality, for physical expression, for touch, for friction — not just against other people, but against any other. A sense of vibrant, pulsating life.
At home, right now, my entirety feels limited and scattered all at once. Between the immediate meaning of my physical and mental existence that I find in the mundane activities I practice and lose myself to daily, and my physical, mental and psychological need for all that is normal but is no longer accessible — especially in a limited space that will not break free of its limits or free me of my own. I find solace in Donna Haraway’s writings about cyborg feminism, which I first came across in a workshop titled “Weaving Stories and Telling Textiles,” moderated by my friend Kerstin Schroedinger. The workshop, which took place in the spring of 2018, aimed at experimenting with different modes of storytelling and explored their relationship with certain crafts, focusing on the origins of feminine oral history and textile practices. We translated several relevant texts, including Haraway’s SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far. I didn’t think I’d feel the need to revisit Haraway’s words so soon, but they are especially resonant in the current moment. Commenting on “the practice of feminist speculative fabulation,” she writes: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.”
Haraway invites us to think of the characteristic functions of science fiction as a string game of sorts, where one is meant to alternatingly receive and give a pattern, and fails most of the time — but also sometimes succeeds in finding something meaningful: something with a logical structure that is perhaps even beautiful. And it is all the result of passing the string from one hand to another, to create new worlds — ones that we desperately need right now, within and around us. She particularly highlights one string figure: “Cat’s cradle is a game of relaying patterns, of one hand, or pair of hands, or mouths and feet, or other sorts of tentacular things, holding still to receive something from another, and then relaying by adding something new, by proposing another knot, another web. Or better, it is not the hands that give and receive exactly, but the patterns, the patterning. Cat’s cradle, string figures, na’atl’o’ can be played by many, on all sorts of limbs, as long as the rhythm of accepting and giving is sustained.”
In other words, Harraway asserts that the worlds of science fiction are simply the result of a shared and risk-filled process of patterning, and one can think of cat’s cradle the same way: as an adventurous activity to engage in during this moment of danger and emergency. I wish I could calm my body’s longing through physical intimacy with other people, but since this isn’t the wisest choice in light of what we know the virus can do to our bodies, perhaps the best thing to soothe one’s scared and trapped self right now is a game: some strings that would allow one to physically play with oneself, allowing for a margin of adventure in the process of creating string webs with someone else, or maybe a few others. It can also be an act of patience, and imaginative meditation (or meditative imagination, if you will).
Sometimes, my longing for the comfort and intimacy of the familiar in the exceptionally strange nights of the lockdown prompts me to rewatch my favorite films. That is, of course, if I can sit still in front of my screen for more than three minutes — I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to focus on anything.
The other night I watched As Good As It Gets (1997) and was surprised by my reaction to the film, which I’ve seen dozens of times. But it’s not just this specific movie; recently, I’ve been consistently startled by seemingly normal details on TV shows, films or random videos on the Internet: people casually sitting next to each other, shaking hands, dancing. I freak out when I see them holding door knobs without disinfecting them, or sitting on street benches as they wait for someone, or something.
I was able to sit through As Good As It Gets without pausing it to look at my phone, head to the fridge or roam aimlessly around the house. The film’s central character, Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), is a successful writer who’s also an obnoxious human being. Owing to his OCD, he doesn’t like to be touched or approached. He zigzags through New York’s busy streets, avoiding people and cracks in the sidewalk. He never changes the restaurant nor the table where he eats. He uses new plastic utensils for every meal, washes his hands with hot water, and never reuses the same soap. And he has to make sure his door is locked several times every time he closes it.
Despite empathizing with his quirks at times, I always found Udall to be incredibly strange, not to mention annoying. Watching the film now, however, his behavior felt perfectly normal to me. Suddenly, all the other characters — those not obsessing over the cleanliness of their hands or what they touched — were the ones who seemed crazy.
Our lives have completely changed in just two months. We’ve become obsessed with our bodies and our health, giving in to anxiety and fear. Anyone other than ourselves poses a risk, even friends and family with whom we’ve always felt safe. In the beginning, I thought they would be the only exception to social distancing, but panic begs to differ. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe such caution will enable us to stop this nightmarish pandemic.
But it’s still incredibly stressful. I catch myself feeling nervous whenever I’m physically close to another human being, be it a friend or a stranger. What’s the appropriate distance I should keep from others to protect myself and protect my loved ones? I keep my hands in my pockets to avoid the awkwardness of not shaking hands. That’s how my out-of-the-house gear came to include outfits with pockets along with hand sanitizer and tissues.
I’ve always thought death was sanctified in all cultures and religions. That’s why I couldn’t quite grasp it when an angry mob tried to stop the burial of a coronavirus victim in their town for fear of contamination. I couldn’t sympathize with them, even if I understood their concerns. I’m shocked by how hard burying people has become right now. Hearse owners are scared and so are cemetery workers. Families, too, are intimidated by the idea of their loved ones not receiving traditional burials. All these people are pitting their bodies against those of others. The angry mob wants to keep the virus away, while families seek proper farewells for the bodies of their dead kin.
In the midst of all the chaos, I choke when I look at the tally of dead bodies. The tens of thousands who have fallen are more than just a statistic, scary as it is. They have died and left hundreds of thousands of people mourning silently, alone and scared, unable to be consoled — for even hugs are inaccessible now. They may even be stigmatized and marginalized just because they happen to love people whose bodies the virus destroyed.
Our instincts are pushing us to survive, even as we — temporarily, we hope — sacrifice the most beautiful sensation humanity has ever known: physical bonding. But the scene of the angry mob points to another precious human quality at risk, and that’s empathy: the ability to understand, share and perhaps internalize the experience of others. How can we keep this from being eaten away as well?
Ingmar Bergman, 1972
From the beginning of the film, we know that Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is about to die. The cancer has devoured her body and she is in constant pain; she is frail, her hair has thinned out, and she has come to resemble a shadow floating around the big house. Her two sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), are there for support, but their presence actually complicates the situation. The three sisters share a painful history, the details of which are never revealed. The film relies on plenty of flashbacks that relay plenty of emotions but no solid information. The only truth is Agnes’s agony and her companions’s inability to console her or stop her body from collapsing. Bergman once said he believed the inside of the human soul to be a red membrane, and this film is dominated by red: the walls, the rugs, the fade-outs at the end of certain scenes. Despite the heaviness, however, the film isn’t devoid of hope, which manifests in Anna (Kari Sylwan), the family’s loyal servant, who is the only person able to provide Agnes with a little comfort through her pain.
Pedro Almodóvar, 2011
Haunted by the tragic loss of his wife in a fire, a plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) becomes obsessed with creating a new, synthetic kind of skin that can withstand burns. Here, the body is mostly present through its delicate, protective cover: the skin. We’re baffled by the secret experiment whereby the surgeon attempts to create a copy of the wife — she looks the same, but she is still different. As is usually the case with the iconic Spanish director’s films, The Skin I Live In takes us through an intricate labyrinth of complex characters and profound emotion, although it’s a lot darker and more twisted than the majority of his work. It is a thrilling, thought-provoking study of obsession, represented in a man who stretches himself and others thin in the elusive quest for perfection.
Agnès Varda, 1962
Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a moderately successful but not yet famous pop singer. She’s strikingly beautiful, and she knows it. It shows in her body language and in her awareness of how people look at her (we see that in a famous sequence shot from her point of view as she walks down the street). At the start of the film, Cléo visits a tarot card reader who assures her everything is going to be alright despite the death card she draws, but when Cléo leaves the room, the woman tells her partner that Cléo is “doomed.”
We find out that Cléo is awaiting the result of a test on whether the tumor growing in her stomach can be removed, essentially determining whether she lives or dies. We watch her through the two hours before the result comes out. She meets a lover in her apartment, wanders through the streets of the city, and encounters a stranger who teaches her something about herself. While trying on a hat in a store, Cléo looks at her image reflected in endless mirrors. As she leaves, she says that she will always believe her health is fine as long as she looks the same.
What does sickness — and what it does to the body — mean for someone so used to being looked at they can no longer see themselves?
Julian Schnabel, 2007
French playboy and fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffers a stroke at age 43, leaving him with locked-in syndrome: a rare condition in which the body is entirely paralayzed except for the eye. Only through moving his left eyelid can he now communicate with the world: he closes it once it’s a yes, he closes it twice it’s a no. Bauby slowly discovers and accepts this all-new language, and re-learns old, basic skills like swallowing. Despite this impossible situation, he decides to write his memoirs, and we are taken through a journey into his past life in flashbacks, all the while interspersed with scenes of the life he’s come to lead now, trapped in a hospital bed. The film is based on those very memoirs, which Bauby published in 1997.
Steve McQueen, 2008
This time the bodies are in physical captivity. Prisoners refuse to wash or wear jail clothing to protest being labeled criminals: they are political captives and they want to be acknowledged as such. It’s 1981 Belfast, and the inmates are members of the Irish Republican Army. Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) starts a hunger strike along with other inmates. We see its impact on their psyche and their bodies (Fassbender lost 10 kg during shooting). In one of the film’s few dialogue-dependent scenes, a physician explains to Bobby’s family how bodily functions collapse due to hunger. The storyline doesn’t delve into politics — rather, it unloads the inmates’ pain onto the audience: walls stained with food and human feces, floors soaked in urine and Bobby’s weak body covered with bedsores. Nonetheless, the film makes you think about the frailty of the human body against the mind’s resilience and clarity in facing death.
As we reflect on the experience of our bodies through this moment — in their isolation, their (relative) aloneness — we couldn’t help but think of Björk’s 2004 album Medúlla, which she produced almost entirely using human vocals (hers and other performers’) and no musical instruments.
Revisiting this 16-year-old musical experiment (often described as “outrageous” at the time) somehow imbues it with a newfound resonance. Made up of 14 tracks, Medúlla ventures into unchartered rhythmic realms, reflecting Björk’s experimental ambition, which questions the very essence of music. In a way, it can be seen as an extension of her electro-influenced, introspective album Vespertine (2001). Here, however, the source of all sound is none other than the body itself.