Humera Afridi on the Quarantine State of Mind
A Brief Report From the Unknown
In this half-life of quarantine, danger lurks in the unlikeliest of places: the touch of an elevator button, a store-bought carton of milk, my son’s sneeze. Insidious and cunning, death is everywhere around us.
I pattern sedulous days at home with occasional walks around the neighborhood, along silent streets trailing westward to the Hudson River. Solitary walks, for the most part, because the locked playgrounds and confiscated basketball hoops stir a sense of horror in my 12-year-old. My lung hurts, he says, panicked and teary, feeling the city’s pain as his own one afternoon days before his 13th birthday, when I drag him out to get some air. This is too depressing, he mopes. I just want to stay inside. All but two of his friends have left the city to shelter upstate, with room to roam in isolation and scamper unfettered amid the changing foliage. In times of disaster, fissures are stark, the lines of difference indubitable. He sulks, alternating between The Office and All American for relief. Grateful he’s engrossed in narrative and not a video game, I bite my tongue and indulge the screen time.
Waiting for New York City to reach the “apex” of the health crisis, we are held in a kind of limbo or “barzakh”—an interval between spheres of existence, as Ibn Arabi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet, described. Barzakh is how I think of our suspension, the stasis between our lives before quarantine and the as yet unknown life to come after it’s lifted. Each time I venture outside—opening the building door with a scrap of newspaper (swiftly discarded in the corner dumpster), then vigorously slathering hand sanitizer on my chapped hands—I am all too aware of treading a liminal field between health and possible sickness, tiptoeing on the threshold between life and possible death, this material realm and the unknown afterworld.
Outdoors, I pull out my phone. Everything strikes me as frangible; urgently alive. A blooming flowerbed on a sidewalk, startling against the surrounding desolation; a duo of construction workers proceeding uninterrupted; a lone, masked delivery man on a bike; hand-made posters on boarded-up and vacant storefronts. Neon-lit public health warnings flash in timed intervals on the LinkNYC video screen on Spring Street, curiously animate; dissonant amid such emptiness. Sometimes, by the time I reach the river, a mysterious euphoria comes over me, a glimmering, shimmering ecstasy that shoots through my entire body and lights up my mind for fleeting seconds. A victory, that I’m here—despite everything.
Reckoning with mortality has unburdened me somewhat, freed me up. If death is my destiny, I have nowhere to hide. Something else, too, has ushered in a sense of uncanny peace; a serendipitous harmony between the fear and isolation that colonized my mind and spirit for months and months and which had excommunicated me from the vibrant, invincible world—an inner landscape of vulnerability—that is now mirrored in the empty city, the despairing news, the depressed world at large. For those of us who were struggling before the pandemic, the crisis has momentarily, at least, created an equalizing, even empathetic, affect. We are all fasting now—from habitual routines, comforts, extravagances, freedom of movement. We are faced with the prospect of actual death and finality, not just the living death of impoverishment, statelessness, homelessness, oppression—endless tortures amid the playgrounds of the comfortable and affluent.
Die before you die, the Sufis say. There’s a bankruptcy that’s pure gain / The moon stays bright when it / doesn’t avoid the night. / A rose’s rarest essence / lives in the thorn, Mawlana Rumi sings to us across the span of centuries in “On the Day I Die.”
The omnipresent news of death has been a call to wake up, to live each day as if death were around the corner; alert to what truly matters. Purified of the commanding desires of the ego, living with sincere intention, Rumi, at least, was at peace with his lot: The angel of death arrives/and I spring joyfully up/ No one knows what comes over me/ when I and that messenger speak!
But equanimity in the face of imminent death is the hard-won terrain of saints, the ordinary among us who evince extraordinary courage, often earning their saintliness in retrospect. I am reminded of Masha in c.k. william’s poem “After Auschwitz”:
of whom Levi tells
how, when she’d escaped,
been informed on, caught
and now was to be hanged
before the other prisoners,
someone called out to her,
“Masha, are you all right?”
And she’d answered, answered, answered,
I’m always all right.
We should all aspire to Masha’s enviable tranquility. Her content, assured demeanor amid horrific circumstances calls to mind the nafs-ul-mutmai’nnah and nafs-e-radiya, advanced stages of self-realization in the journey of life. In the midst of the devastation wrought by the pandemic, I think of Masha, breathing calmly, fully awake, and courageously striding through the interstices of time leading up to her murder. I marvel at her extraordinary peace with qadr; destiny.
On April 11, 2020, at his midmorning press briefing, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo states, “This is a moment in history where our actions will have the most profound effect, will determine life and death… This is the most unparalleled period and has the most potential for positive change.”
In the looking glass of history, each era faces its own unprecedented moment and experiences it as unparalleled. I think of July 1940. Nazi forces were at Calais, 20 miles from Britain’s shores, when Winston Churchill signed an order to create a new secret army, the Special Operations Executive, that would go behind enemy lines to disrupt the German military machine by any means possible. Armed with idealism and deep faith, Noor Inayat Khan, a Sufi mystic and author, chivalrously joined this novel guerilla warfare after the War Office made a formal decision in April 1942 to give women the right to bear arms and engage in combat. Noor had not completed the final stages of her SOE training when she was deployed to the field—the need for a radio operator was that urgent. As undercover resistants and volunteers, Noor and her SOE peers served without the protection of military uniforms and the Geneva convention. They worked quietly, invisibly, with profound earnestness behind the scenes, shaping—and surrendering to—destiny.
In our present “war,” I think of nurses and doctors, and the myriad invisible caregivers, delivery people, postal workers, garbage collectors and grocery workers, serving behind the scenes, forming, during our barzakh, the living bridge between past and future, giving unequivocally of themselves for the greater good, often without protective gear. Together they invoke the spirit of the benevolent monkey chief in Noor’s short story “Monkey-bridge,” who saves his tribe from extinction at the hands of a tyrannical King seeking retribution for the mangoes pilfered from his orchard. The monkey chief binds one end of a reed to a tree, ties the other to his foot, then springs to a mango tree across the riverbank, and turns his body into a bridge for his 80,000 followers to cross over to freedom.
The public health crisis has rapidly become molded to a discourse of war. In the first days of April, Cuomo announces he is allowing senior medical students to graduate early in order to “fortify the frontlines of health care workers.” There is a “call to arms for physicians and nurses to join “the fight” against the coronavirus. Nurses and doctors are fighting an invisible, “brilliant” enemy that “operates” with “genius,” in the words of the President. The Surgeon General sounds a dire warning on April 4, telling the nation to brace for a “9/11 moment, a Pearl Harbor moment.” That same day the President announces he is sending “medical troops” to New York City which will, within a few short days, become the “epicenter” of the pandemic.
The fear in the city is palpable; strangely, the dread among those who’ve fled the city is more so. Fear, silent and invisible, is as viral as the elusive, slippery enemy that has the experts confounded. This particular virus, lethal as it is, is strangely equitable. So widespread and universal is its reach that the great big tent of concern and worry that it has inspired into being extends hospitably over the collective, pulling in beneath its sheath, even if just to the fringes, those who’ve been suffering and struggling invisibly long before the coronavirus. For the working class, the asylum seekers, the artist-fakirs, the refugees, the newly arrived immigrants, the already sick and the already poor, and all those fighting daily to survive the roaring tide of inequity, there are incremental ways to die.
Suspended in our barzakh, we are uniting around grief; coalescing around our aversion to a common enemy that has wrought devastation to our disparate playgrounds. Each day that we “shelter” deeper in quarantine, fear sneaks past our makeshift masks, enters our bodies, like the scarred air of Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the Trade Center attacks. Before we became the “epicenter,” we were “ground zero.” Cordoned off amid the raging fire and black clouds in Lower Manhattan, those of us living downtown eventually wore masks, but, still, the noxious particles slipped past the barrier and settled into lungs and chests and eyes and noses, dusted our clothes and created a film over every surface inside our apartments. We breathed in the ashes of the dead and we united as a city in mourning.
When I think back to our “9/11 moment,” Galway Kinnell’s voice is forever folded into it, reading this passage from “When the Towers Fell” at an MFA student and faculty gathering at NYU:
The towers burn and fall, burn and fall— in a distant shot, smokestacks spewing oily earth remnants out of the past. Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts we drink it at midday at morning we drink it at night wir trinken und trinken we drink it and drink it This is not a comparison but a corollary, not a likeness but a lineage in the twentieth-century history of violent death—…
And Adam Zagajewski’s hopeful, heartbreaking “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”:
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Back then, some of us went from being invisible overnight to being “other” as the wounded city and nation needed—for selfhood and ostensible survival—to unite over a common enemy: an enemy that was brown, black, Muslim, Muslim-seeming. Isolated in my studio, I read Agha Shahid Ali—And who is the terrorist, who the victim? / We’ll know if the country is polled in real time / “Behind a door marked DANGER” are being unwound / the prayers my friend had enscrolled in real time—and felt in my bones the holocaust of Partition, the fracturing of a homeland, and my grandparents’ departure for a newly imagined country, all the while fearful that my name on the building’s buzzer on Thompson Street would give away my identity.
The morgues are overflowing. In parking lots across the city, freezer trucks store the overflow of bodies. There’s talk of digging mass graves in a public park. FEMA is building a makeshift hospital in Van Cortlandt park. “The pain is increasing, the grief is increasing,” Cuomo says. “I can’t imagine that we as New Yorkers would lose the humanity of this. The last thing I do is get numb.”
A fortnight later, he reflects, “We are all connected. It’s not about me, it’s about we. Get out of yourself. Think about we, think about your family, society, about interconnection.” His words, at once banal and revelatory in a culture habituated to cynical, competitive individualism, suggest the discourse of war is shifting to one of humanism.
During our “9/11 moment,” some of us adamantly remained in the city, refusing to leave our neighborhoods. We stayed to witness and mourn, expressing our fealty, our “interconnectedness.” The shock, then, of suddenly being considered a terrorist! The hyper-visibility was jarring, as was the strangeness and isolation that ensued from a shift in perception in the dominant culture. Overnight, Muslims—and anyone who fit the stereotype—became a national security threat in the eyes of the state and all those stirred to hate. Hate: a matter of life and death. Deportations destroyed families; immigrant neighborhoods were eviscerated.
Hate is a virus that mutates; in our present apocalypse, its target has shifted to anyone who appears visibly Chinese.
On April 8, the governor announces that Blacks and Latinos are dying at a higher rate than whites from the virus. “Why is it that the poorest people pay the highest price?” he asks, promising to look into why Latinx and Black communities are more susceptible. He orders flags to be flown at half-staff to commemorate the thousands of people who have been killed by the virus to date.
By night and day, you must always be prepared for the trip that will take you out of (the world) and into the hereafter, advised the 12th-century Baghdadi mystic Abdul Qadir Jilani. You must live your life between fear and hope. We find ourselves at the mercy of a universal, equal-opportunity agent, intent on ravaging anyone in its frenzied path. It has shorn our customary modes of being, snipped us loose from our past, and flung us into the barzakh. Floating in the interval, many of us have died to who we once were. What’s yet to come, Rumi intimates, depends on the state of our heart:
Longing is the core of mystery.
Longing itself brings the cure.
The only rule is, Suffer the pain.
Your desire must be disciplined,
and what you want to happen
in time, sacrificed.
The greatest joy, the highest and most inconceivable, is achieved by the price of non-existence and the sole existence of God. This joy is attained… by every sacrifice, every service, every offer, by restraining from judging and by forgiving, wrote Noor, who would go on to give her life for the cause of liberty.
We are, in truth, at peace, not war. We have electricity, running water, open supermarkets and pharmacies aplenty. We have hospitals and ventilators. The streets are desolate but lit by the promise of spring. Obliged into stillness—those of us who are not serving on the frontlines—we have the chance now to reflect on what we, individually, might contribute to the creation of our interconnected new normal. Time has never felt more urgent.
Returning home from a recent walk, well after the sun had set, an inner voice assures me I am alive. I can relax and breathe, it says, things in my life have prepared me to die, and die yet again. Also, to resurrect. The barzakh is all potential. I pause in front of my building to marvel at the three-quarter moon, incandescent, glowing in a way I can’t recall having noticed before. Moved by the still composition, I raise my arms up, wide as wings; I whirl and whirl on the sidewalk, the gnarled cobbles on my street the only witnesses, until an Uber pulls up and breaks the spell.