Zaatari / photo credit: Planet Labs, Inc. CC-BY-SA 4.0
Standing at the stove, I am stirring the bright white of milk, waiting for it to set. The kids are asleep, and though I have other things to do, tonight I have chosen the anti-rebellion of cooking low and slow. Stock-piled milk in the fridge threatens to go bad, and because it’s almost summer, I’ve been remembering the way my grandmother used to make muhallabiyeh in the Beirut summers. My sole job in the creation of this Middle Eastern kind of milk pudding, is to stir, repeatedly, for around an hour, so that the milk sets without burning. It is one of my favorite desserts, and though it is extremely simple—essentially made of a mere three ingredients (milk, sugar, and orange blossom water)—this is the first time I ever make it, because creating the gel of gelatin without relying on gelatin takes time. Before the pandemic of 2020, when I would burn things in the oven due to a compulsion to multi-task, my four-year old would remind me of the repetitiveness of the burning (and by extension, the ineffectiveness of my multi-tasking) with a well-rehearsed, “oh no, not again.” Now I dare attempt Muhallabiyeh, which joins a series of Middle Eastern dishes that rely on a long-short sense of time in the making—like the preserving of mini-eggplants, at their ripening; the grape leaves layered in brine; the delicate rolling of cabbage before long stewing; the soaking of pastry in honey; the bringing water to boil, but just boil, of coffee. These ceremonies require a watchful waiting, while also ushering the waiting subject through what often feels like an unbearable slow-fast passing of time. It is 8pm again. How did that happen?
When you are pregnant, waiting for the miracle of birth—a new life—you find yourself on the receiving end of many things, some welcome, some unasked for: hand-me-downs, stares in the grocery store, judgements at the coffee shop, smiles from strangers passing you by, alleviated work-loads, seats on public transport, and, mostly, advice. With the first born, the advice came flowing from all directions, and I remember almost none of it now, except for the worn-out but true expression offered by my brother-in-law: “With children, the days are long, but the years are short.” Sleepless nights, long days, short years—these are all parental, everyday forms of experiencing time through waiting; for a child to surrender to tiredness, for the evening to come and grown-up or me-time to be possible, for sleep, for growing out of hard moments and into easier ones, for birthdays, for milestones. There is, as Frank Kermode puts it in The Sense of an Ending,1 the anticipation that after one thing comes another, after the “tick” of time, there is a “tock.” We wait, but waiting is endurable due to its elasticity: it anticipates the snap of ending. These days, we tell ourselves we are waiting for the threat of the Coronavirus to dissipate, for a vaccine to come, for antibody tests, for it to just, “like a miracle,” disappear. We wait, in what has been called isolation, quarantine, and most ubiquitously, lockdown, for it all to end, before we might take back up our other forms of waiting. Acutely, we wait in layers; we anticipate the end of something together, while we also suspend our own individual waits; there is a global waiting that supersedes our personal waits, yet the one that is longer than the other is not necessarily that shared by all. In fact, the shared, stretched-over all, temporality of our global wait, means that the dimensions of personal, domestic, and sometimes political temporalities are wont to implode.
When we wait, we experience a fullness, a thickening of time. This abstract yet palpable gelling is, like other human predicaments of love, and grief, the stuff of art. “Lobsters play their bone guitars all summer” writes American poet Robert Bly, before bringing in the overly wanting human figure who, with its “opposable thumbs” wants “Heaven to be, and god to come again. / There is no end to our grumbling.” In a more politically overt rendering of the wanting within waiting, Beat generation poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti uses the repeated start, “I am waiting” to describe the various forms of “wonder” missing from America and American life, before exhaling at the end of each stanza with his reframed description of a “rebirth of wonder”:
and I am waiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder.
The Rolling Stones have a “waiting” song, as does Paul Simon, as do Diana Ross, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Sublime, Weezer, The Beatles, and these are just the first to come to mind. These songs and poems all work because waiting is so inescapably human. As the editors of Ethnographies of Waiting explain, “waiting is an integral part of human life.”
But waiting is an especially integral part of life for those who wait beyond specific news cycles to end. For the displaced Arab, waiting is almost nostalgic. Tonight’s milk-stirring variety makes me think of my grandmothers who have waited without complaint—both at the stove, and in the politics of their lives, while the milk sets. I indulge in it as I stir, because it takes my mind off of the seemingly existential threat that awaits us outside in 2020, beyond this milk. What I am waiting for is not to go out into the streets with a surgical mask and gloves on, nor to send the kids back to preschool to sit two metres apart from one another, nor to enter my office building and walk in a single file spaced out line to sit with half of my students in a spaced-out lecture hall. What I am waiting for is the opportunity to safely board a plane, fly to that Middle East which waits as it always has, land and wait first in two separate lines for passport control (Inti Arabiyeh?), and then at the carousel for the two hours it usually takes to retrieve baggage, wait to pass through four haphazard forms of security, wait to wade through the crowds of waiting families, and finally hug my waiting mother. “What took you so long?” she’ll ask after the hugs, and I’ll respond with the question that knows its answer: “Have you been waiting long?”
Because she is Palestinian, my mother has spent her life in waiting. And because I am her daughter, I have been born into a sense of waiting too. The waiting I gesture towards in pointing to her, and an occupied, forgotten, or lost land (depending on who you ask) is distinct from waiting for the milk pudding to set, the lockdown to lift, the plane doors to open. The moment a plane lands but has not yet opened its doors, when phones begin to ring again, the impatient unbuckle their seatbelts, and the strategies of crowd navigation silently assemble themselves in anticipation—it is a moment of waiting. But it is short. It is pregnant; it contains its own end. The kind of waiting we currently endure threatens to be different: it suggests it is beyond us, and beyond a plane door; that it might linger, lurk for years, threatening to close the doors that today begin to open, to lock us, collectively, down again. Yet it is not different. It is also one of anticipation, of a promise, of something—maybe something altogether different than “before”—but something, at the end of it. There are social, collective, bound dimensions to the temporalities of both. But the waiting of refugees aches differently.
I set the waiting of lockdown next to the waiting of the refugee, at the stove, and in general, because I experience one presently, and the other professionally and personally. In terms of the pandemic, alongside everyone else, I wait for lockdown to end, and life to resume. But I also know the waiting of refugees: I have been interviewing Syrian refugees over the past few years, as part of a project first funded by Durham University, and then by the British Academy. And these interviews have not been simple—they have been interpolated by my own personal understanding and experience of waiting: a long duree, of sorts, in the inherited, syncopated understanding of having waiting written into your cultural DNA (it comes and goes).
I may have begun interviewing refugees in the camps of Jordan as an exercise in delay itself: refusing to serve as “the bridge between east and west” which mentors, professors, aunts and uncles encouraged me to be, I took to reading poetry instead, negotiating the shapes of stanzas instead of states. When the crisis of migration began in 2015, I told myself I would interview refugees in the camps of Jordan as a small act of correction: the line of questioning centered on the journey, rather than the destination. My own personal experiences had taught me that displacement is perpetual—it structures an entire life, and the lives that come after. After urging my mother, for example, to join me in a “teach-in” on the crisis of migration in America, I asked her what she thought of it. I caught the sense that she was almost ready to speak during the university event. In the parking lot, she responded with characteristic curtness: “cute.” I encouraged her to say more by laughing. She offered it: “It is really nice that they feel moved to come together and talk. But it’s all abstract theory. I am in my 60s and do not have a home. I have never had a home—a safe place to call mine, on this entire earth. Do they know what that actually means?” The teach-in was aimed at discussing the possible creation of a city of sanctuary in Florida for Syrian refugees. My mother responded from the situation of a diaspora forgotten in the background of the news-cycle, arguably, for decades at a time.
When I completed my first day of interviewing refugees in Zaatari, I asked the last family I sat with if there was anything they’d want the world to know. It felt a hokey question, but it begot a generously vulnerable response from the teenage daughter who had otherwise been silent all afternoon: “Don’t forget us,” she both asked and told. I told her I wouldn’t, and smiled, but she persisted, “If we were not forgotten, then how are we still here?” What could I say? “Some of us haven’t,” I promised. She politely invited me to return, and I said I would try, assuming, like her, that she’d be waiting there for years.
Time passes, the displaced subject is not alone in fearing forgetting in it, and being forgotten by it. Social media posts, dances, memes, and unasked for tutorials on eyelash serums—these are pleas to not be forgotten—pinpoints on the bulletin boards of our collective virtual walls; elegies to the everyday. But there are also, arguably, forgotten people, waiting in the background of our waiting, and not posting about it. The waiting of the refugee is more loaded than the anticipation between the “tick” and the “tock” we experience in lockdown, because the refugee, living both a liminal life, and often on the limits of civilization, is collateral damage—first forcibly displaced to the fringes, before receding, more often than not, into forgotten landscapes—historical, social, and geographical. They live at “My address” offered by Mahmoud Darwish in his notorious “Identity Card”: “an unarmed village –forgotten—.” What is troubling me in our current, global, collective, shared moment of waiting, is that it might further obscure other, longer, more vulnerable, interminable, and often forgotten experiences of waiting.
The We that Waits
We live, these days, in waiting—and by “we” I do not mean my household, or even my relatives and cultural community. I write from a moment in history in which we all, uniquely, wait—together and apart. Our two-year old calls it “the long holiday.” Her brother, two years the wiser, dropped the “holiday” cover-up description in April. “It’s the Coronavirus” he emphatically corrects her, even though we’ve gone to such efforts to shield them—both from the disease and from the impending sense of external threat that awareness of it brings with it. And though we are very lucky to have a home, a garden, salaries, and health, we are also living as expats, twice, if not triply displaced due to the multiplication of our combined vectors. It would take seven hyphens to adequately describe the immediate heritage of the children.
In the early days of lockdown, we leapt online to distract ourselves from the impending sense of doom. We created a neighborhood group chat, and by extension a sense of community we had not yet experienced in our two years residing in our current home, despite the fact that our houses have always been physically connected to one another. We did things fast then slow: realizing, first with confused hesitation, then with the embrace of a very old lost friend, that there was no need to rush anymore. “But we didn’t get to finish the rainbow” my son says with a mix of complaint and concern before bedtime. “It’s ok,” I answer, brushing back his hair and mixing rebellion into surrender, “we have time.”
When we, my family, calls abroad, we are confronted with the various-ness of international responses to lockdown. Jordan, where many of our relatives reside, is being praised for its firm and—at the time of this writing—successful response to the pandemic. But Jordan is also full—estimates say 75% full—of refugees and other unofficial forms of displaced people. As the circumstances of my own personal history, coupled the five years of interview material with refugees I’ve collected indicates, refugees are especially conditioned to lockdown. Their circumstances are characterized by feeling threatened, living amidst uncertainty, being unable to plan for a future, having little agency in the movement or circumstances of their lives, and, mostly, waiting. Pandemic lockdown has presented us with a compound situation, which brings with it compound possibilities: We are bored or exhausted, or both all of the time. We are also at once united in the global dimensions of this pandemic, and separated by it, with nations adopting different versions of sealing themselves off—anticipating threats of second waves from outside, and in so doing, invoking isolation policies of a previous century. I wonder about the “we” which we belong to, and the waiting, which a “we” beyond us has endured far longer than us.
A viral meme a few weeks, or months, or days ago, reminded us of the variations in our “we”s, via innocent comic strip. A stick figure in a row boat says to another in a yacht, “we are not all in the same boat; we are in the same storm,” reminding us that what we share, in this moment, is a remarkable tendency to jump into the quick-sand of self-absorption: we wonder where the groceries will come from, when it will be safe to go outside, when we might touch loved ones again, when we will be permitted to move house, when we will have to move house, where we will live, when we can travel, if our sourdough starter will start, whether we should plant autumn vegetables now, while we wait because we may continue to wait, when our children will go to school, where they will go to school, if our jobs will be waiting for us when this lifts, when this will lift, if this will lift. The list expands and expounds upon itself, in sophisticated algorithms never fully rendered by the daily charts and slides we are presented with during our various forms of press conferences held around the world—which one wishes, might finally be one global conference—a final healing of Babylonion cacophony possible in these days in which “we” all deal with the same thing.
Sometimes I volunteer for a local community group who sponsored the resettling of a refugee family here in England, providing botched translations for both the family and the community group. When the pandemic began, there were many translations needed—relaying news of school closing, of social distancing measures, of grocery needs, of administrative tasks to be completed, online English classes to be attended. Often during this work, I feel the urge to translate other things—not out of English into Arabic, but out of Arabic into English—like what it means to be someone without agency, waiting, outside a “we” which assembles itself in carefully completed paperwork, well-meaning sponsorship, or the sanctuary of a democratic state. I want to tell the community sponsors not to worry themselves with relaying such texts and material—that they, the refugees, we know how to wait. My plural pronouns slip and slide.
The first woman I interviewed in Zaatari Refugee Camp (in 2016) repeatedly gestured towards her two toddlers in her use of “we.” She explained she decided to flee Syria when her brother’s building (neighboring hers) was bombed and he was killed. She continued to explain that it wasn’t just the horror of her brother’s proximal death, but that the bombings persisted:
When the bombings first started I didn’t know what to do with my babies. One of them was 3 days old. The other was 4 years old. On the younger one’s third day of life, I ran to the safe area … There were a lot of people there and I didn’t know what to do. Because there were so many bombings, we felt exiled from our town. We went to a safe place in the desert, and then we came here. If I had taken more time, I would have had the chance to bring things from home but I decided that it was not the best situation, especially with the babies. … We travelled for 7 days, by foot. My baby boy had severe calcium deficiency and his leg started to curve. I was dehydrated, and was unable to nurse. He was also malnourished but I couldn’t do anything about it. We only had water to drink for almost seven days, and barely anything to eat.
Certain phrases from these various interviews currently protrude: “I didn’t know what to do”; “We felt exiled”; “We went to a safe place, and then we came here.” The “here” in which we sat and spoke that summer day of 2016 was Zaatari refugee camp, where, she explained, “we were treated very well.” Grateful for the safety and care they found in Zaatari Refugee camp, this mother explained later that she did not intend to leave her six by nine foot caravan “home” anytime in the near future. Her children were 1 and 5 when I spoke to her, and now must be 5 and 9. By the end of our two hours together, I too, felt too comfortable to want to leave, noticing not the confinement of the construction, but the love and sense of space possible within such compassion and comradery. “There is such shelter in each other,” declares a character from a Zadie Smith novel.ii I imagine that small family still there, taking solace in the shelter of their “we” within their caravan.
The “we” of the refugee speaking from the caravan of the camp is distinct from the “we” which claps together from balconies and windows on Thursdays at 8pm, or which shouts across the sidewalk—“if you need anything let us know!” We, the online queuers are not forgotten, in fact, we have very much melted into a global “we” that has yet to be fully appreciated (or even appreciated) in the midst of the tendency to fracture. I spent the early days of the pandemic searching for a passage from a Victorian author, in which passers-by refuse to touch a beggar-woman thought to be ill with the plague. Eventually her illness spreads, as a reminder not of her contagiousness, but of her humanity—that everyone who passed by her and chose to ignore here was, in fact, human too; susceptible to illness in the same way that she was. Early propaganda surrounding the Coronavirus was quick to remind an elitist audience that “this virus does not discriminate,” and as proof, even Tom Hanks had it. But recent investigationsiii of the implicit discriminations abounding have proven that we, as people, do. By early May, a UK press conference featured a reporter asking why the global comparison of deaths was no longer being presented as one of the daily slides. The implication was that “we” were no longer winning. What the removal of the global comparison slide implied was that “we” was always, crucially, “us.”
It is this hinging “we” that is plaguing me. In a 2017 book-length study of the plural pronoun and its use in poetry, Bonnie Costello explains that the pronoun “we” is in itself “a relation, emerging in the constant shuttle of “I” and “you.”” Costello quotes Barack Obama: “The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’” She warns that in a “fragmented and society of other plural pronouns like “us” and “them” there is a “turning away” from “we,” especially when confronted with the “suffering of minorities.”iv There exists a “we” of 2020 collective limbo, and then behind it, there is also a “we” that is disjointed from society, turned away from, in the greater and later 20th-21st century moment—or what Paul Gilroy called, “The century of the camps.” The camps that Gilroy refers to include concentration camps and refugee camps. The figure of the refugee—both abstract and terribly concrete—pronounces itself when one thinks of a long wait, an open-ended limbo, and such vacuous timelessness bookened-ed by threats from before and after.
Now might be as good a time as any to sympathize with such vulnerability to ever-present threat. “We are” as Wallace Stevens explains in a 1936 lecture, “preoccupied with events, even when we do not observe them closely. We have a sense of upheaval. We feel threatened. We look from an uncertain present toward a more uncertain future.” The fact that Stevens’ words seem perpetually relevant speaks to the perpetuity of uncertainty itself. Many of the Syrian refugees I have interviewed in the camps of Zaatari and Azraq explained their trepidation at the thought of returning to Syria post war, out of fear of a vacuum of old power of the regime. One mother worried her son would be prone to brainwashing at school. We wonder if ours will be prone to the virus. Both invisible, interminable threats.
More specifically: the refugee experience is a microcosm of our current experience, or vice versa: What might refugees—in waiting for weeks, years, decades now—tell us about how to wait? And why does the “we” of lockdown so conveniently ignore the suffering “we” of other, longer standing forms of lockdown? Yes, “we” wait. But while we wait, we could turn out of ourselves, both as escape and expansion: There is an opportunity in this moment to push the dimensions of what we deem global and collective, to incorporate society’s most marginalized people, who wait. Our collective appreciation of waiting might, in this moment, also become a space in which to attend to a previously uncultivated compassion, and to correct such truancies.
The (Lebanese) Art of Waiting
Neighboring Syria and Palestine, is the small yet large in character country of Lebanon. The country’s greatest natural resource might its charisma. Negotiating decades of waiting for bureaucracies to organize themselves, my paternal land of Lebanon offers an arts scene rich with poems, plays, and music of waiting. When I last left living in Lebanon in my twenties, I’d frequented a bar named “Godot.” It was hip and popular, and featured an empty chair hanging on an unusable internal balcony, making light of a waiting in the collective imagination. More recently, popular Instagram accounts like Farid Hobeiche’s “Farixtube,” make light of especially Lebanese brands of waiting; Farixtube went viral in 2015, for example, after a series of sketches joking about the country’s garbage crisis. It waits, most simply, for its trash to be taken out. More recently, he posted a skit in which he lathers on sunscreen and prepares to go on what appears to be a beach picnic, before revealing that the preparation is for the wait in the line at the bank to withdraw US dollars—a currently a restricted scarcity in Lebanon. Knowing from experience that the wait will be long, he is coming prepared with drinks and chips.
When waiting is very long, it gets less funny. In a poem accordingly long and thus difficult to sustain, Lebanese-Syrian-Greek American poet Etel Adnan describes waiting as manifest in marking “time,” characteristic of “To be in a Time of War”:
To look at the watch, the clock, the alarm clock, to listen to
the ticking, to think about it to look again, to go to the tap, to
open the refrigerator, to close it, to open the door, to feel the
cold, to close the door, to feel hungry, to wait, to wait for –
dinner time, to go to the kitchen, to reopen the fridge, to take
out the cheese, to open the drawer, to take out a knife, to carry
the cheese and enter the dining room, to rest the plate on the
table, to lay the table for one, to sit down, to cut the cheese in
four servings, to take a bite, to introduce the cheese in the
mouth, to chew and swallow, to forget to swallow, to day-dream,
to chew again, to go back to the kitchen, to wipe one’s mouth,
to wash one’s hands , to dry them, to put the cheese back into the
refrigerator, to close that door, to let go of the day.
The poem’s letting go, like the “time” it “marks” in waiting during war, is unrelenting. Barthes reminds us: “There is a scenography of waiting: I organize it, manipulate it, cut out a portion of time in which I shall mime the loss of the loved object and provoke all the effects of a minor mourning. This is then acted out as a play.”v The speaker in Etel Adnan’s poem, like that of Barthes’s scene of waiting in A Lover’s Discourse, does eventually go to a café, but because it is “wartime,” the experience is laden with a waiting for—anticipating— danger, rather than company. In our current lockdown, company is the danger.
In Adnan’s poem, the few moments of relief come in seeing the sea, feeling the breeze, and being reminded that she is part of a greater earth, that is witness to, though curiously blasé about human—or our current case—biological threats. Climate change was aching for attention before the pandemic struck, and there have been glimmers of hope that that attention might finally be offered. But we seem to only be able to focus on one catastrophe at a time, and are forgetting things almost as quickly as we remember to remember them. Early photographs of suddenly clear waters, clear skies, and frolicking wildlife are being replaced by humans in masks opening up nail salons and the manicured artificiality of nature available via golf clubs and tennis courts. Not yet sick of the virus, those of us sick of our walks in the woods turn back to the worlds we’d made.
Adnan is perhaps most Lebanese in her leaving of Lebanon: there are more Lebanese living outside of Lebanon than within it.vi She left Lebanon to study abroad, and re-engaged momentarily with Lebanese-hood in professional settings, before ultimately choosing a life abroad. My own Lebanese experience follows a similar trajectory, and it is indeed a typical route that is not always pursued with agency. For my generation, the Civil War (or more finger-pointing title “War in Lebanon”) meant an unofficial exile, difficult to reverse after such a long and perpetual dislocation. I have never felt so foreign as the moment in which I found myself, very alone, standing at what during the War had been dubbed “Speaker’s Corner” on AUB’s campus, in between classes on English poetry and Political Studies—eager to stake claim to what I’d been told was always going to one day be mine—Beirut, parental alma mater, Arabic swimming in French, manousheh, muhallabiyeh, the sea. My mother reminds me that the word for what I and others like me are is between mughtaribeen (migrants) and aghrab (strangers). These are just two of a handful of Arabic words that describe particular brands of displacement, and as perhaps characteristic of my own, I’m left lingering between the two.
When I lived in Lebanon, I had the privilege of attending the theater and seeing the reproduction of a wartime play by Ziad Rahbani. Its title, Bel Nesbi La Boukra Shou,vii nostalgically asks the popular Lebanese colloquial, yet unanswerable question: What about tomorrow (or more exactly, “with regards to tomorrow, what?”). The question is second in my favorite of Lebanese colloquials, to “shu fee ma fee?” (“what is, and what isn’t?”), and though seemingly more specific, equally unanswerable. As I remember it, the play features a couple in the living room, enacting the banality of the quotidian, while performing the loaded everyday conversation of couples, about what to do and how to do it. Comedy ensues, but each day ends with the same, anti-climactic, overwhelming question: “ou bel nesbi la bourka, shou?” (and what about tomorrow). The play is not, then, Waiting for Godot, because its situation will not be ended by the entry of a savior, and because it insists (through repetition) on moments of lightness alongside the darkness.
The play, like the everyday yet complex question it repeatedly poses, is also extremely accessible. It is produced by the Rahbani brothers, who might be best known in the popular imagination for their work with (and one of their marriages to) Fairuz. Here I dare make a generalizing, totalizing statement: I do not know a single Arab that is not familiar with Fairuz. This includes all of the refugees (Syrian and Palestinian) I interviewed during my fieldwork in the camps of Jordan. In that triangulation, the travel of Fairuz’s music is evident: Syrians, and Palestinians, in Jordan, are quick to call up their memories of listening to Lebanese singer Fairuz. The often arbitrary though tense (in the Middle East’s case) borders of nations do not matter to her songs, though they are sometimes the subject of them. Like Simon and Garfunkel, Fairuz played in the background of much of my own childhood, spent waiting in American to “return” as my parents always reminded us, to war-torn Lebanon. The living room cd player shuffled between “Homeward Bound” and “Habaytak bi Sayf” (I loved you in the Summer), without skipping a beat, and both songs blended into one another, with the bilingual slippage we’d become fluent in, as they describe loving and waiting in the same breath.
This fluency traveled with me to the refugee camps, where I went in hopes of translating the stories of Syrian refugees to what I hoped would be American audiences. The first refugee I interviewed in Al Azraq refugee camp of Jordan had her phone sitting in a coffee cup, so as to create a make-shift speaker. It was nearly 8am, and she was playing Fairuz. A few hours later I was asking another about their daily rituals. She explained: “In the morning I always drink coffee with my husband and play Fairuz, because I love her voice.” Throughout the various refugee camps, urban ghettos, and even in the UK, the refugees and displaced people I have spoken to have, without fail, mentioned Fairuz’s music as the sound of home and solace.
Many displaced and lingering refugees also mention the singer Um Kulthoum, usually citing the ways in which Fairuz belongs to the morning and Um Kulthoum, to the evening. My own mother, who grew up in a country not her own, studied and married in another not her own, raised children in a sort of double performance of exile, and then returned to not return to either, explains the rhythm and the history of seeming pan-Arab appreciation and adoration of both singers:
Um Kulthoum was Egyptian and enchanted the Arab world with her 3 hour long songs that were broadcast over the radio on the first Thursday of every month. Her songs which were characterized by repetition of a certain verse many times evoking different emotions with every repetition would drive the listener to what is known in Arabic as Tarab, a word roughly meaning rapture.
In the afternoon of the first Thursday of the months between October and June, the streets would be empty. Everyone would rush home to listen for an hour or two and be transported to a different reality only he or she can imagine. She sang about love, country, loss, dreams and regrets. Um Kulthoum was for the adult listener best indulged sitting watching a sunset or dreaming of one. It was an experience that evoked a certain mood and frame of mind.
I realize in listening to my mother today, that I forgot to ask the refugees I’ve interviewed how long they listened to each singer each day. But maybe that question wouldn’t have been useful, because as we understand in lockdown, time is irrelevant, or adopts new vectors of relevance (wow, another day, gone?).
Demanding less time, but still seeming to mark time, refugees also recall listening to Fairuz with frequency, and at specific times of the day. As does my mother, who explains:
For us, it was always Fairuz in the morning, while drinking coffee and starting the day, and Um Kulthoum in the afternoon. One could start their day singing along about traveling down the winding village roads, picking jasmine flowers on the way to make a necklace for the loved one waiting by the river down there.
Um Kulthoum felt like something for the afternoon—to be listened to during the slow of happy hour. You can’t start a happy hour at 10 am, it is always after five.
By the time I left to collage, I had memorized all songs and musical plays by the two chanteuses with pauses and laughs and whatever there was to hear on those big reel cassette tapes.
Fairuz and Um Kulthoum were not only listened to and cited by refugees, aunts, uncles, my mother, my cousins, my friends—all the Arabs I know—with senses of time and community, but created senses of time: they structured the days of those collectively in waiting.
As I prepare to hang up the phone with my mother, I start singing the lyric which marks the climax of my favorite Fairuz song, “Shadi”: “daah Shadi” [“Shadi was lost”]. The song recalls days spent in waiting for Shadi, a young boy the singer used to play with as a child in the valley, to return. He never does. My mother is quick to remind me that “Shadi” is “about the loss of Palestinian childhoods which disappeared in fighting and waiting.”viii My mother urges me to listen to “Zahrat al Madae’n” (The Flower of Minarets) in which Fairuz sings, “The door to our city will not be locked, I am going to pray. I will knock on the doors. I will open the doors.” The last thing she says before she hangs up is: “She speaks of the key.”
Of course, I think, the key. This is not TS Eliot’s key (“thinking of the key, each confirms a prison”) but the Palestinian key, which I have been reminded of, weekly, for much of my life. My interviews in the camps turned slums of Palestinians refugees in Jordan re-solidified the image of this key: not merely a worn-out symbol, the key is often a tangible, framed object in Palestinian homes—the real key to the home that a Palestinian left in 1948, or 56, or 67, assuming they would return in a matter of weeks— and a symbol, like Shadi, of loss. Both are also Palestinian symbols of waiting, extra-national, or merely human, in the desires they express—the desire to place your key in the one door in the world which opens to it, to sing with that one childhood friend again, to complete a youth. This is a kind of waiting we are not especially wont to think of, from the self-isolation and preservation of our 2020 pandemic blues—that of what may arguablyix be the largest and longest group of waiting people in history.
The Bureaucracy of Waiting
There are formulas for calculating the cost-benefit of certain forms of waiting. In mathematically based queue theory, this is addressed as the unique “stress of calculus”—most simply manifest in the banal act of waiting in a line alongside other lines, and wondering which will pass the fastest.x What queue theory generally deliberates is the practical vs psychological implications of various forms of line-waiting (or, to be English, “queuing”)—such as standing in one of the multiple lines we encounter at grocery stores, or in the snake-like winding lines we encounter at clothing stores—to arrive at the theory that though the outcome of waiting in each in terms of time is usually the same, the perception of waiting in a serpentine line is less stressful.xi
Despite the complexity and intricacy of interdisciplinary queue theory, the conclusion of its various multiplications seems to be that we are simple beings, just plain prone to human hysteria brought on by boredom. In his 14th “Dream Song,” the poet John Berryman takes on a mother’s voice before offering a relatable confession:
Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.xii
“I’m bored,” says the four-year old in the corner on day 43. “Ever to confess…” I begin, but before I can finish he’s found a woodlouse to “rescue.” He does not recognize that the woodlouse rescues him, as even the threat of lockdown implied that the Department of Inner Resources frantically anticipates depletion. We cling to our woodlice, I think, stirring.
In the early days of lockdown the threat of boredom was circumnavigated, alongside the anticipation of loneliness, with various, sometimes overwhelming forms of broadcast. An articlexiii on queuing brings to mind the anecdote of the Manhattan building with an elevator waiting problem. Complaints about having to wait were thwarted not by the installation of a second elevator, but by the installation of a floor to ceiling mirror. The reflection of one’s own tantalizing image is, it seems, distraction enough. During lockdown, we have looked at ourselves by looking to other people to look at ourselves: through endless zoom calls, YouTube tutorials that no one necessarily asked for, FaceTimes with friends never FaceTimed before, and the proliferation of middle-aged Tik-Toking. The performativity of connection presented itself: asking us in darker moments to wonder how much meeting a friend at a café had in fact also always been about dressing up for the café, walking to the café, being seen in the act of sipping coffee at the café, acting the part of one at a café. Usually fiercely private, by week two I found myself recording my fourth video for social media circulation—this time through the channels of a local tennis club. By June, I will have recorded 12 videos for various outlets, including one in which I wait for water to boil and wonder, while waiting, if I should have cut this bit out.xiv This will bring my lifetime number of online recordings to 12. As all our previous, carefully erected walls of privacy slip away, and the student enters the professor’s kitchen, the news audience the reporter’s makeshift office in a shed, the yoga class the instructor’s dining room, we come off our screens to rub our eyes and wonder whose room we are in anymore. When this is over, how quick will we be to reconstruct these walls? Is our “heavy boredom” revealing itself as a desperation to see and be seen? If the sourdough starter starts, and noone’s there to take a picture of it for Instagram, did it ever really start?
The queue forms out of an urge to organize the waiting of the unformed line. When the waiting of our lockdowns began, there was, a colleague excitedly proclaimed at online meeting number 99, an opportunity to clean-up shop, and remove old, time-consuming systems at work. That is, we no longer had time to wait for tedious bureaucratic paperwork to be completed. We suddenly became too busy globally waiting, to engage in the waiting of bureaucracy. And though waiting is often a by-product of bureaucracy, it is also navigated more often than not, by more bureaucracy.
The refugees I’ve spoken to suggest that they are sensitive to the fact that waiting is an “integral part” of Middle Eastern human life. That is, Syrian refugees in waiting at refugee camps seem acutely aware of their neighbor’s seemingly unending experience in waiting; No-one knows how to wait like a Palestinian. It could be said that Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleimanxv specializes in the art of rendering waiting. His Divine Intervention waits, more or less, for intervention that never occurs except for in a mother’s voice urging, with a characteristic Arab mother’s tone of stern love, to take the food off the stove. “Khalas mama,” [Stop it dear] she tells her son, played by Suleiman, as they sit in the final scene staring at a pressure cooker that symbolizes, among other things, the Palestinian situation. She waits for him to respond but he is quiet, and she continues by explaining, “bi kafeeha” [it’s enough for her; she has had enough]. It implies that “she,” who has had enough, has been waiting. She is also appropriately ambiguous: Is it the pressure cooker, the food inside of it, the mother, or, more possibly as the film suggests being set in a space currently in its 72nd year of occupation, Palestine and its people?
While Palestine continues to wait, the nation, its displaced people, and her arts might tell us of enduring waiting. Suleiman’s 1996 film, Chronicle of a Disappearance, conveys the ways in which life as a refugee, or person living under occupation (lockdown, if you will) translates to a life in which simple things take a disproportionate amount of time to process. Suleiman’s film has within it a silence, which is provocative in conveying the implosive dimensions of waiting for bureaucratic processes to unfold, as the main character, played by Suleiman himself, is pictured mostly silently waiting in offices, in traffic, for lovers, for rights to move, for progressions—which for a Palestinian living in an occupied land, manifest as painstaking protractions.
Inside refugee camps, there is an abundance of long-term waiting at the hands of bureaucracy (for example, in waiting for answers regarding resettlement requests), but there is also the short-term, daily, waiting that occurs on the domestic level. Simple, mundane activities are made even more so, slowed down by the lack of technology and modern comforts. One refugee with an especially memorable sense of humor joked about how she missed watching the microwave in her house twirl around to warm her food in three minutes, because it now took hours to complete such a simple task. Throughout the camps that I have visited, the practical issue of toilets came up frequently, as emblem both of lack of privacy, and as a simple luxury that is missed. Refugees must travel from their tents, or caravans, by foot to a toilet anytime they are in need—and that includes evening. Imagine this midnight walk as a young mother of toddlers, plural. Some despairing refugees took, in the early days, to acting as some of us do when camping, and utilizing the space around their tents as spaces for relief in the night. But the smell of urine did not mix well with desert heat, and the waft of despair implied in such moves was too overwhelming to make it wide-spread practice. The foods that are made take time. The gas that is used to light the fire, time to acquire, attain a vessel for, set up, conceal, make usable. The lines to process food-stamps, also time. The charging of the one single solar lamp offered to inhabitants of Al Azraq (in 2016), time to charge. One family I met had tasked their seven-year old boy with “charging duties,” meaning he would diligently go out each night to sit outside holding the solar lamp before sunset to soak in the last few rays and ensure some evening light within. These are little ways of waiting, but when added together, and then multiplied by the various other parenthetical formulas of waiting they sit alongside, they compound. The refugee, though, cannot indulge in the self-pity of complaint (and indeed very few I have spoken to have). Instead, they sit with it all, and wait.
Waiting happens throughout Middle Eastern processes—both to those (citizens) owed them and to those outside of them. Waiting for permission to enter the refugee camps of Jordan took, in the first instance, for example, four months—I was granted it the day I was meant to leave. Recently, an attempt to re-visit Zaatari refugee camp required a three hour wait in a trailer at the entrance, for various officials to approve the already attained approval letter I held in my silently frustrated hands. Bureaucracy is a forceful waiting. The word itself comes contains within it “cracy,” from the Greek, “kratos” which translates to power, and the violence that comes with it.
The End of Waiting
Waiting makes us mad. “It’s the interminability of it” I tell the postman, who stands in for anyone who will listen. He responds with the kind of question that doesn’t want an answer: “You alright?” It is the British version of the American, “How are you?” and when asked on the wrong day, like today, can marshal in a spiraling. French literary theorist Roland Barthes contextualizes it as part of the “lover’s discourse” in a book of the same name. He explains waiting as a tri-part process, the end of which is both ethereal in its interminability:
Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move. Waiting for a telephone call is thereby woven out of tiny unavowable interdictions to infinity… For the anxiety of waiting, in its pure state, requires that I be sitting in a chair within reach of the telephone, without doing anything.
Waiting is, according Barthes,xvi a sexy (and, problematically “feminine”) thing to do, as waiting implies absence. And desire, as many theories of sex tell us, intricately laced with waiting. Barthes describes the scene of one waiting at a café for someone to arrive: “And if the other does not come, I hallucinate the other: waiting is a delirium … Everything is solemn: I have no sense of proportions.” Where mathematical theories of waiting anticipate an end, and religious ones (such as the Catholic notion of limbo)xvii a decision, literary theories offer mental breakdowns instead, free, at least, of the false promise of ending in sight. The only end, then, in the poetry of waiting, is of the closure of sanity.
I can feel myself losing it. A recent New Yorker comic strip highlighted that waiting makes one go crazy, showing a couple sitting a table reading about dinosaurs. One says to the other: “It turns out it wasn’t the giant asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. It was stress about the giant asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.”xviii I look for a name for what it’s called when you forget to remember to remember and find instead Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness. I need to confuse my own feed at this point, and log onto Facebook for respite, where I find myself being asked if I know Shree and would I like to add her as a friend. Of course I would, I respond to the algorithm, I love Shree! She was so kind to me when I was her new colleague, so nurturing without being patronizing. I click “add” and then remember that Shree is dead. She died four months ago. Little Richie is dead. Steve McClure is dead. Lily’s uncle is dead. My grandmothers are dead. Also around 400,000 Syrians are dead. Mahmoud Darwish is dead. The poet Donald Hall, who urged me to say “dead” instead of “passed away” (“don’t try to unkill it”), dead. Roland Barthes, dead. As of June, over 380,000 recorded dead by Coronavirus. The deaths proliferate, and the days do too, and one cannot tell the difference between one and the other, as with each day’s passing, the time-space we are in becomes more and more obscure. In the midst of a beautifully murky fusing poem of long winding sentences, “The End of Days,” Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji writes for a moment succinctly: “Time is a game.” The character of the four-year old’s current favorite book “sailed back over a year / and in and out of weeks / and through a day” and honestly, same.
Unable to tolerate waiting much longer, we start to do crazy things. In the moment in which I write, there are reports of violent protests in the streets of both America and Lebanon—response to different serious frustrations which had first been pent-up by time, and then by lockdown. The threat of a virus that had locked the world down set quickly—one might say irrationally—aside because we can’t take it anymore, and by “it” I mean both the waiting in lockdown and the waiting for various forms of justice. It should come as no surprise then, that with no promise of clear asylum, or resettlement, many migrants in waiting take to unsafe boats and other modes of passage in an attempt to secure it themselves. The crazy thing I do on a day in May is go to town. The four-year-old woke up on this May day morning and announced: “The coronavirus is over.” Not wishing to sustain the “exhaustion of calculus” he has clearly, quietly, absorbed, I borrow from a phrase from a parenting handbook and respond with, “And what makes you say that?” When he was younger, he would respond with a blank stare and the implication of a duh? before thwarting such invitations to faff with: “I make me say that.” His answer today is not dissimilar—he has grown certain and wordy in his little years: “I opened the window, and saw that it was a beautiful day outside, and I can see that the coronavirus is over.” He begs to go for a walk “to town, or to a mall, or anywhere where there are people and shops and cafes” and I oblige his little urban consumer extroverted soul. When we get to town, though, I see the first masked person in months, and recognize I’ve come without masks, sanitizer, gloves, or explanations. I silently implode. The explosive dimensions of this breakdown manifest in a profusion of raisins in exchange for the children not getting out of the stroller, while I hike us back up the hill to suburbia. As irrational as this sounds, it is also not so different to mix of surrender and raisins being offered by certain global leaders in May, pronouncing the virus over and the economy ready for re-starting, before offering an array of distracting provisions to get certain groups back up the hill.
“The coronavirus is over,” a leader seemed to tweet, and when pushed to explain or footnote their claims, they came up with some conjecture of: “I make me say that.” But behind such obstinance is being tired of waiting. A recent article from The New York Times,xix explains more fully, that most pandemics end “socially” rather than actually, exploring more fully the ramifications of “fatigue” which was anticipated by none other than Sir Patrick Vallance in the UK’s early responses to the crisis.xx Britain’s fatigue presents itself on a Sunday evening in May. A few days after my strolling episode, I found myself joining the British in waiting, at the edge of our 7pm pj-ed sofas, for Boris Johnson to deliver a speech. We assume we might be told to go to work, or stay home, and instead are told to do neither exactly or exclusively, but rather to “stay alert.” We are so alert we are frustrated by our own alertness, and what it tells us was not said in what we were waiting to hear said. My colleagues are all close readers by trade— and nobody can make out what was said. One tweets, “We’re going to die of vagueness, aren’t we?”xxi
In attempt to clarify the vagueness of the lifting of lockdown, I searched for footnotes online. My feeds, like my days, are confused, and instead of finding more clarity about BoJo’s speech, I find Samuel Coleridge’s poem, “On Limbo.” I turn to my Romanticist husband for reference. “It’s a minor poem,” he says with uncharacteristic vagueness and brevity. I wait for him to say more, before pressing on. “Why are you so suddenly curious about it?” he asks. “Because it’s called “Limbo”” I explain, gesturing in the air towards the limbo within which we sit, which is of course, indistinguishable from the air. He begrudgingly continues: “The more famous Romantic “limbo” poem is ‘This Lime tree Bower my Prison.’ It is about being stuck at home in his garden, injured, while his friends perambulate in the wilderness.” I turn to it, but find a poem that joins the long list of Romantic poems about FOMO, rather than waiting. The poet-speaker stands on the edge of something (“I am lost” hangs the second line) they cannot trespass, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, and are stuck missing out on, due to time passing.
My husband would be disappointed to find out that after reading Coleridge I turned to Dr. Suess. Suess’s book length poem, Oh the Places You’ll Go! is written to children on the verge of launching into their (presumably adult) lives. In its middle, the reader is brought to a precipice of what Suess calls “the most useless place”: “The Waiting Place.” In this place, “Everyone is just waiting,” and to make sure we understand the monotony of the “waiting” Suess offers a long list of everyday kinds of waiting (Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, / or a plane to go or the mail to come, / or the rain to go or the phone to ring) before repeating “Everyone is just waiting.” The “just” (or futility) of the waiting asserts itself, before the child audience is escorted out of this terribly liminal “place” with “NO! That’s not for you!” What a luxury to just leave waiting, with a turn of a page, or a decision not to be a person who waits. Indeed that choice is at our disposal, even in lockdown, evidenced by the various images of people celebrating what is possible within the slow yet implicitly bracketed space-time of this period. But we have gotten even tired of our distractions, I think, as I stare at the lettuce waiting to sprout on the window-sill.
The lettuce joins a series of potted plants, as we wait for a sense of where to live more permanently—and we are among the lucky types. To be a displaced person in lockdown is sort of redundant. Like waiting, displacement is complex and compound, characterized by uncertainty, liminality, and a sense of feeling “threatened.” Is there any space in the contemporary, tired, bored, anxious, and spiraling imagination to empathise with those who engage in the intensity of waiting interminably? What would happen if the sudden seemingly global engagement in sourdough-starter became, instead, an engagement in the glutinous alchemy of waiting. Do we have the energy, while waiting, to remember not to forget those who wait?
On nights when I get teary, mostly out of concern for when I will see my family again, I call my mother who doesn’t have the emotional space to even permit such teary-ness—I with the kids in my background, her with the silence in hers. “Ou badayn?” [and then what?] she retorts, with typical fusion of love, anger, and humor. “Ou badayn,” is usually asked with a flustered sigh, and asks “and then what?”—but also tells: “that’s enough.” In my motherhood, and in the motherhood I have inherited, it is a phrase used to rhetorically ask a misbehaving child what they think the end of all their mischief might yield. The questioner and their audience always already know the answer. My son teases his sister, and I turn to him with, “Ou badayn?” and he knows to stop. My daughter runs away from bath-time, naked, squealing. “Ou badayn?” I holler down the hall at her not quite bilingual two-year old self. She knows to stop. That is, “Ou badyan” is a protracted version of “bel nis bila boukra shu?” and “have you been waiting long?” but tells you no sooner than it’s pronounced, “khalas mama, bi kafeeha.” One cannot handle anymore.
“Ou badayn,” my mother asserts; telling me, by asking what I think the point is to the teary-ness, that we cannot afford to indulge in it. And it is this imploring fortitude that has sustained the refugees I have met and meet in their waiting. They ask questions framed as riddles over tea, tell stories, sing songs, tell jokes, smoke cigarettes, bring the Arabic coffee to two rolling boils, pickle vegetables, stir the milk.
i Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the theory of fiction (OUP: 1968), 44-47.
ii Zadie Smith, On Beauty, (Penguin, 2006), 93.
iii https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/18/the-virus-doesnt-discriminate-but-governments-do-latinos-disproportionately-hit-by-coronavirus; https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-discriminates-against-black-lives-through-surveillance-policing-and-the-absence-of-health-data-135906
iv Bonnie Costello, The Plural of Us: Poetry and Community in Auden and Others (Princeton UP, 2017), 2.
v Roland Barthes, Lovers Discourse, translated by Richard Howard, (Hill and Wang: New York, 1978).
vi Various census reports put the figures at 4 million Lebanese living within Lebanon, and 4-8 million Lebanese living outside the country.
viii The Palestinian leanings of Fairuz are discussed by Christopher Stone, in “Our Eyes Travel to you Everyday” (Jerusalem: History, Religion and Geography, eds. Tamar Mayer and Suleiman Mourad (London: Routledge, 2008). (http://arteeast.org/quarterly/our-eyes-travel-to-you-everyday/)
iv Coopers Camp, in West Bengal India, may in fact be the oldest camp, preceding the Palestinian camps by one year, opening in 1947.
x Larson, Richard C. “Perspectives on Queues: Social Justice and the Psychology of Queueing.” Operations Research, vol. 35, no. 6, 1987, pp. 895–905. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/171439. Accessed 13 May 2020.
xi An article by Ana Lawson offers a useful overview of queue theory (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/27/what-you-hate-about-waiting-in-line-isnt-the-wait-at-all/).
xii John Berryman, “Dream Song 14” from The Dream Songs. Copyright © 1969 by John Berryman, renewed 1997 by Kate Donahue Berryman. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. .
xiii An article by Ana Lawson offers a useful overview of queue theory (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/27/what-you-hate-about-waiting-in-line-isnt-the-wait-at-all/).
xiv The British Academy Summer Showcase [link]
xvi Lover’s Discourse 29.
xviii New Yorker Cartoon, May 12, David Sipress
xx Sir Patrick Vallance repeatedly referred to “self-isolation fatigue” in a March: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51865915
xxi Shelley Harris, https://twitter.com/shelleywriter/status/1259248132589748230?s=20
Yasmine’s background is as a literary scholar and critic. She has lived, worked, and written from the US, UK, and Middle East. Her current project assembles these experiences, and collects 4 years of interviews with Syrian refugees, and her Business Relationships have been published by Oxford University Press and Edinburgh University Press. She occasionally writes reviews for Poetry, the TLS, and a variety of other literary and academic journals.
The research behind this work has been generously funded by a large British Academy award (“Tackling the UKs International Challenges”). She has also recently been awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. Other recent accolades include a Research Fellowship held at Durham University. For more, please see her personal website: yasmineshamma.net.