A woman donning a mask makes her way through a secondhand market in Tripoli near Nahr Abu Ali. Tripoli, Lebanon. June 13, 2020. (Natheer Halawani/The Public Source)

A woman donning a mask makes her way through a secondhand market in Tripoli near Nahr Abu Ali. Tripoli, Lebanon. June 13, 2020. (Natheer Halawani/The Public Source)

Quarantine: New Bodies in Familiar Places

Day 241: Saturday, June 13, 2020 

Gloves, masks, spirits, disinfectants and social distancing were never part of our daily lives but have now become essentials we cannot leave the house without. The COVID-19 virus introduced new tools, behaviors, and relations into our lives. Along with these changing practices brought by the virus, our relationship to space, our bodies, and those around us has been transformed. 

Activities we used to consider simple have become nearly impossible. Ordinary places have even disappeared from our lives and common physical movements now frighten us. The virus has closed off certain places and confined us to others, shackling our body and weighing down its movements. Simple gestures like touching the face and answering the phone with gloves on, or the thought of taking a lip balm out of the bag, rubbing the gel with the index to apply it on the lips, evoke nightmares to come. With the virus, objects and bodies have become guilty as possible vectors of disease, transforming the outside, be it matter or human, into a potential enemy. In this text, I discuss our novel relationship with things, places, and bodies that have suddenly become death threats. 

The Supermarket

In shared spaces, we were forced to establish relationships to things that became “enemies.” We now perceive door knobs, elevator buttons, and shared taxis or busses as if we were in a science fiction movie featuring a virus in the form of an overwhelming and round moving mass. Ordinary tools and machines that facilitate our lives now come with new restrictions, laden with an unexpected threat.

State regulations regarding private and public transport have affected many, especially those who don’t own cars and live outside urban centers. Such strict measures as the total ban on public transport and traffic limitations to specific days of the week depending on license plate have impeded the movement of the most marginalized members of society. These measures produce a de facto curfew, even in cases of emergency, and impose added transportation costs to and from work especially. 

The supermarket, mundane before the virus, has become an essential place outside the house — in addition to public spaces and streets — for engaging in consumerist activity and meeting others. Our lives now also depend on the supermarket. During limited operating hours, and often with little money in hands of consumers, supermarkets, vegetable and meat shops are sources to obtain life-sustaining basics in the current system we are living under. 

During confinement, the death of the mall enabled the resplendent emergence of other places and spaces, revealing their true value and importance for individuals and communities alike.

Additionally, the challenge of spending a long time in the different aisles is not only a condition caused by rising food prices, but also by the need to reduce moments of proximity between shoppers and to disinfect a chosen item, as if it were an alien object. Overnight, our lives became akin to life in a science fiction movie premised on the daily possibility of entering in contact with alien life; masks and gloves have become the equivalent of the suit of an astronaut on a complex space mission. The virus has transformed shared places – supermarkets, grocery, and other stores –  into an outer space filled with deadly possibilities. In this sense, Earth became just like any other planet in the solar system hostile to human life.

As the state shut down malls and shopping centers, we discovered our need for public spaces, especially in Beirut and other cities. In this prevalent consumerist culture that is centered around shopping malls and structures our social practices – supported by a state policy to open our areas to mall invasion – the mall was unable to replace the need to access public gardens, the seaside corniche, our forests, and the public domain. This has been the moment when we found ourselves standing before our villages and the hills to climb, without an entry fee, the forests and reserves we had only heard about, and the rivers and beaches we have long forgotten. During confinement, the death of the mall enabled the resplendent emergence of other places and spaces, revealing their true value and importance for individuals and communities alike.

Bodies

From a different angle, “proxemics,” or the study of human use of space, deals with the space we need between our bodies and those of others. This space expands and contracts based on cultural determinants and the closeness of our relationships with others be they strangers, acquaintances, friends, kins, or people with whom we are intimate. 

Due to the virus, we have become more conscious about what we touch and what could touch us, whether we are moving or standing still. Before the virus, this had been a learned gendered experience that women often practiced in public, fearing an uncomfortable bodily proximity or contact that could be sexually exploited, or a bodily presence that could inconvenience others. Men’s existence in public spaces, however, was never questioned, forceful like a statement of power. Today the feeling of self-awareness that was previously gendered is magnified and finds men abiding by it too. Our relationship to bodies have changed; now we all worry about what might touch us while in public. We have changed the acceptable distance between us and it has become wider than ever before.

Due to the virus, we have become more conscious about what we touch and what could touch us... Before the virus, this had been a learned gendered experience that women often practiced in public, fearing an uncomfortable bodily proximity or contact that could be sexually exploited, or a bodily presence that could inconvenience others.

Confinement has also put a strain on less settled relationships, resulting in the absence of physical contact, lack of intimacy, and forms of sexual relations. In general terms, confinement has broadened the distance between people, directly impacting physical closeness and causing the disappearance even of non-sexual forms of intimacy, including touching, kissing and embrace.

Home

As the virus imprisoned us at home, it created a wall between what is inside the house and outside it. Anything or anyone that enters the house automatically becomes a possible enemy carrying the virus, a source of fear that requires disinfection. In this manner confinement turned private and public into opposing spheres that must never meet, a dynamic comparable to the haremlik and selamlik of the traditional Ottoman house, separating daily vulgarity from the forbiddingly intimate. Haremlik is the part of the house that provides privacy for family members to be in comfortable ease, while selamlik is the part where visitors are received, especially men. The virus, then, has revived this hard duality between private and public, rendering the public not only an “other” but also an “other” capable of causing death.

The home, supposedly a place of safety and health, became, at the same time, the arena for all activities. As if it suddenly became ever more narrow to hold not only daily domestic practices but also sports and work-related activities. In some instances even, the home also became a place of social gathering, replacing the workplace, cafes, gyms, and others.  

It became especially tight for working-class and marginalized households now that family members have to stay home at all times. Women especially experience a shrinking of the space they held at home with the bulk of their time now spent on added housework in the service of homebound men. Cleaning during the pandemic has become more arduous and time-consuming with the constant need to disinfect everything that enters the house, but also furniture surfaces, hands, etc. Thus, the impact of confinement has been harshest on women living with their families, especially those living with the constant threat of abuse by violent partners and men in the household. The house is not only meant to be a shelter but should have been the possibility of safety from the virus.

This moment, however, also presents the possibility to rethink the notion of safe space and its relevance, importance, and necessity for individual and collective bodies, especially in times of crisis.

In addition to the small and limited living spaces under confinement, especially in overcrowded neighborhoods, working-class and marginalized communities have felt the weight of confinement heavier than others as they also live in the constant fear of eviction. As more and more people are behind on rent payments, homeowners have been increasingly evicting tenants. Meanwhile, the state has been absent in fulfilling its role of banning evictions, enabling the expulsion of many into the streets. There are three identifiable patterns of movement in relation to confinement: first, an increase of houseless communities, which results in further physical and psychological harm to the more precarious among us; second, an imposed return to the villages far away from the workplace or educational institution; and third, a mass relocation to less secure housing and new environments that lack the stability of familiar support networks, which also results in even more crowded poverty belts. Meanwhile, those who do not live with their families for personal, political or social reasons have faced a return to the familial household and the possibility of enduring myriad psychological, if not physical, violence. 

It seems clear that the virus is staying, and not for a brief moment; therefore, we must consider the behavioral effects it will bear on us and our relationship to space in the long run. Physical greetings, social visits, weddings, gatherings centering children, and even funerals are almost extinct. Faced with these rapid transformations, it is worth asking, which social practices will escape the pandemic and which will disappear in its wake? 

Through the cautionary approach that the virus conditions towards others, be they people or objects, lies a delineation of new boundaries and a redefinition of tools and spaces shared in public. This moment, however, also presents the possibility to rethink the notion of safe space and its relevance, importance, and necessity for individual and collective bodies, especially in times of crisis. Neither the home should be a luxury, and nor should private space and the distance between us mean safety.