Pandemic Journal: #2


By 2020 humankind was fully virtual, and a bit more robotic and a lot less human. They were too busy fighting each other, to notice that nature was lurking around the corner ready to aggress against them. Nature chooses its own moments, it does not ask for permission, neither does it knock on one’s door before obliterating it. There are no grand announcements of Nature’s arrival, it simply attacks. It chose this moment to aggress against man, again, and it did not do so lazily. This is not the first time modern, virtual, robotic humanity, practicing the scientific method expertly, would confront nature. However, it may just be the first time in living memory, humankind would confront nature in its fullest rage.

For a virus to cause a pandemic that could potentially kill millions, it needs to maintain a delicate balance between contagiousness and deadliness. Deadly viruses like Ebola for example, are unable to cause pandemics, because patients get severely ill that they are immediately hospitalized and isolated; more often than not ending up dead within days.

In the 1918 influenza pandemic, the virus managed to maintain this balance, killing many, yet doing it at a rate that allowed it to be passed from one individual to the other spreading widely across the globe. In 2002 SARS broke out; it was deadly and it was contagious. However SARS is only contagious after the patient becomes symptomatic laying gasping for life in a hospital bed. 

COVID-19 mastered the balance between deadliness and contagiousness artfully.  What started as a generally mild virus, deadly to the elderly and those with chronic health conditions, or so we thought, has now raged on for a full year and is promising with its new mutants to continue its spread.  It is contagious even in asymptomatic patients, allowing the virus to move from one patient to the other without becoming symptomatically visible. It is smart and devious in that sense; it does not ask permission, it moves swiftly. It enters homes and spreads amongst families, at first giving a sense of false security, only to hit  loved ones viciously. 

In Palestine, there was a sense that the viral copy we had most of last year was  a mild one.  Today it is safe to say that this sense is no longer true.  As I write this, we can no longer pretend that the virus is life threatening to the elderly and the sick. Additionally, reports of symptoms rendering the young ill for weeks further confirms that no one is safe.   

One thing for sure, the lock down failed, at flattening the curve.  A year of on again off again lock downs and we find ourselves in face of a climbing curve, the higher it climbs the less concerned people seem.  It is not that lock downs are ineffective.  If history is the greatest teacher then there are many lessons to learn from the Spanish Influenza Pandemic. In fact epidemiologists rely on historical knowledge to inform their present day responses.  So by all accounts lock downs when community infections hit a high should have been effective and should have flattened the curve and stopped the virological spread.  But, we were never in real lock down, where we?  While the lock down seemed to apply on specific neighbourhoods and the center of one particular city, Ramallah, life proceeded business as usual elsewhere. Weddings, large gatherings, shopping sprees continued with no one to stop them.  

 While it is easy for leaders to turn and say this is an example of bad citizenship, that somehow the people have failed to act responsibly, this kind of rhetoric is inaccurate and seems to only relieve leaders from their own responsibilities. Those responsibilities being, planning, decision making and implementation. 

Starting with the lack of a serious set of measures for those who do not wear a mask, who do not adhere to social distancing, and continue to hold social gatherings with no precautionary health measures,  people will continue to not take heed of any decisions.  In addition to the selective implementation of rules and regulations, so this cafe/restaurant or bar (you fill the blank)  is open beyond curfew with no questioning, allowing its patrons a prolonged social gathering, while the falafel stand belonging to the old man and his sons whose only source of income is the number of five shekel sandwiches sold that day, gets shut down right at curfew, or maybe even five minutes before.  And the lack of a clear plan on how  the government will take care of its people, how will they compensate the daily falafel stand, or nawa’em boy.   And how will they pay off the debts of the restaurant owner and the mortgage of the Maitre Di with four children at one of the most popular restaurants in the city, as  they undulate between closures and openings.  Additionally, the lack of true governance beyond major city boundaries as per Oslo accord agreements and zoning.  Plus the contradictory messages received daily,  like on the eve of announcing that Palestinian hospitals are operating at 100% plus bed capacity, only to announce that all stores are open leading to the piling up of people like sardines no social distancing and a negligible number of masks in markets.  All of this have lead to a lack of trust in leadership that is unfortunately trickling down throughout society, and leading to one inevitable outcome…disaster. 

Death will lurk around the corner of every street, every harah and every family.  If illness is the nightside of life, then night has definitely fallen on Palestine and it may be a long time before the sun shines again. 

Yes, pandemics go beyond borders and pose a threat to humanity as a whole, however, rarely has a disease not been politicized with marginalized groups, and cultures paying the highest price. Palestinians are no different. And the pandemic has exacerbated our plight and has been a rude reminder of how low we place in the world order in terms of access to resources. The state of Palestine is a state under occupation after all. One can wonder if it is even a state these days.  In the coming few months we will be disabused of  our delusions of grandeur that plague us as a nation, as we cower in front of nature and roll into the night of life. 

We managed in the last year to corner ourselves into a health vs economy vs education (do not even get me started on schools) debate.   That is not the debate we should be having.  We should be having a serious conversation on how to open? how to implement regulations?  how to push onwards without paying the highest price…human life. 

We should have been having conversations on how to increase hospital capacities, how to support and protect our overworked and underpaid heath workers, our best and brightest.  The conversation should have also been about what relief can be offered to families who rely on per diem pay, should a lock down become inevitable. 

Instead document upon document of regulations for every single sector was put out, and shared widely with no real follow up.  The only sector that operated like there is a pandemic, outside the health sector, and in my opinion did so like a champion, is the educational sector.  

We hung our hopes on immunization.  But in Palestine the vaccine remains elusive.  Not only because we are a country rich in dignity, and poor in resources, but also because we failed to have the right conversation, the right debate.  Who will pay for the vaccine?  Should we act like an independent state and perhaps bite more than we can chew, or should we ask the occupying force to take its legal responsibilities and vaccinate the nation it has oppressed for decades?  And should the vaccine become available, how, and when, and who will get vaccinated first?  And who will make sure that the process is transparent, equitable and fair? But we did not have this conversation, and we remain looking down a dark tunnel. 

Life will go back to what it is, there is life after a pandemic. The world today is living proof of life after the Spanish Influenza. But the road of return is long, arduous, and heavily priced. 

For my conspiracy theorist friends, I pray this is all a conspiracy, not nature in its fullest rage, and biological history repeating itself…

“By 1918 humankind was fully modern, and fully scientific, but too busy fighting itself to aggress against nature. Nature, however, chooses its own moments. It chose this moment to aggress against man, and it did not do so prodding languidly. For the first time, modern humanity, a humanity practicing the modern scientific method, would confront nature in its fullest rage.”
The Great Influenza, John M Barry

For Pandemic Journal #1, please click here


There is a particular sadness in cheesecake, a melancholic after taste, flat and blunt.  It is creamy and sweet on the edges, but heavy in the middle.  A sadness that registers on the tongue and releases memories into my synaptic cleft with electric speed.  

Replaced with sadness are memories of my father standing in our kitchen making the cake from a German recipe written in German on a piece of graphing paper.  The operation was carried with surgical precision and scientific accuracy.  My mother found herself demoted in her own kitchen to su chef or second surgeon.  She would eye my father with grave concern, like a mother would eye her toddler dashing straight into a mud puddle, pondering the dreadful aftermath, but giving in to the inevitable mess. 

With her lips sealed thin tight, mother helped.  A few protests would escape her mouth, just as quark came flying off the spatula to land flat on one of the kitchen cabinets. Sometimes the comment would turn into an argument, and other times she would reign in the comment, and continue to stand there watchfully. It looked like Mama was not enjoying any of this, and Baba  loved every minute of it. Now I know that the instantaneous argument was a necessary ingredient that ultimately made the cake taste particularly happy. 

Baba and I on my third birthday

Happy tasted light, creamy with hints of lemon zest, and notes of rum flavor or was it real rum?  Happy had whiffs of sour on the edges, but was perfectly sweet in the center.  It had the laughter of children growing up, the excitement the first slice carried with it as Mama lifted it expertly out of the pan.  It had the seriousness of classical music and the memories of a younger version of Baba that must have lived freely and danced carelessly in what sounded to us a magical and far away place called Dresden.   

I believe Baba was happiest when he was in Dresden; immersed in his books, electrified by the science and carried lightly on melodies of his favorite symphonies.  Baba was a complicated man, Palestinian fallah meets German professor; poverty stricken meets eduationally fed; socialist fighter meets middle class comfort. The fluidity of Arabic language collides with the discipline of German culture. 

Cheesecake was happiness for my father. A piece of his complex soul, a peace offering extended to us, his teenage children. Deafened by our own lives, he must have felt invisible; unheard and unseen.    It was an invitation to get to know him.  It was a concave view of his complexity.  But for us, at least that immediate moment of heightened  consciousness, it was simply delicious, irreplicable cheesecake.  

Baba and the twins

Cheesecake, meant Baba taking over the kitchen for a half a day, and Mama cleaning after him for days.  It was a tasty inconvenience. But it was also a moment of peace, when everyone would grow quiet, the arguing, the laughing and the loudness tethered to children came to a screeching halt.  

The house abandoned its daily noises and listened intently to the signs of brewing coffee, the clicking and clacking of dishes and utensils as the table was set. And as quiet spread its thick blanket, the chairs were drawn and three children with their parents plopped themselves in anticipation.  

The click of the springform pan announced that it was time.  The kitchen smiled broadly, proud it survived another cheesecake adventure. The knife silently slid into the cake, and a hushed swoosh was heard as it traveled down through the filling reaching the crust.  Then my mother pried the first piece out of the pan, careful not to break it apart.  We stared through the arabesque of her arms, cradling our faces with drooling mouths, each hoping  that the first piece made its  way to their plate. 

Dad loved Blackforest too, but that is a different story for a different time.

Eventually we each got  a piece, and coffee gurgled into Mama and Baba’s cups.  Then the competition of who ate slowest ensued.  I watched around the table as I began the swift journey of my fork pressing into the cake , only to be surprised by the crust’s slight resistance before it gave way into crumbly surrender. Then I lifted my fork, slowly, surely to my mouth.   My lips parted; the cake made its way into my mouth. My tongue received the piece  eagerly, and as it sighed its flavors out,  an explosion of thickness, creaminess, light tangues of lemon awakened my taste buds.  The flavors waltzed in my mouth, as I started preparing the next bite. 

There was a particular happiness in cheesecake that I missed.  I was busy being a teenager who was  branding her family annoying, dysfunctional and any other adjective that came rushing to mind. But it is exactly moments like this , when families sit around tables in silence to enjoy a meal, or a piece of dessert that memories are made.  It is the stuff  families are made off. It is what we take for granted as children, the love and safety of parents and the warmth of belonging together. 


I had the same dream again…creamy silky cheesecake, Baba in my kitchen, mixing the ingredients, smiling at me.  Sugar, cream cheese, butter, a dash of rum flavor, or  vanilla, and eggs.  He reminds me  not to forget the juice of a half lemon and grated lemon peel.  I hover around him, trying to register every move.  But when I ask him questions, he does not answer. He just pours the batter into the pan, and opens the oven door. I reach out to help him, suddenly he is gone, he gets sucked into the darkness.  I lose my footing and fall into the oven behind him. He disappears, and I come crashing into my bed…. The dream ends abruptly; I wake up sweaty, panting for air, with a blunt pain in my chest.

Decades after Baba’s cheesecake adventures met its abrupt end at the hands of multiple coronary thrombosis, I was blinded with bottomless grief and found myself in a state of perpetual hunger for hints of him in everything.  I became acutely aware of all the similarities I share with him but never admitted to. So I embarked on a journey to recreate his cake in a desperate search for a hint of him in a bite. 

My journey is ornate with endless failures.  In my notebook, I enter one failed attempt after the other.  One time the quark was too salty, another time, not enough sugar, the third time the consistency was all wrong, not dense enough, not creamy enough, too light, too airy, not enough vanilla, and the list goes on and on.  My notebook reads like the hall of fame of failures and the disappointed looks on my siblings’ faces are trophies shining on its walls lustrously.  

I regret not translating the recipe into English or Arabic. A continued pang of pain throbs against my heart that I never made the cake with him.  He spent so much time with the children, yet we could never squeeze an afternoon to bake.  Life always interrupted with a meeting or a phone call, or a sick child.  I desperately wished I filmed him making it. Although my memories were as crystal clear as a glass ornament, they were devoid of color and sound.  They receded into foggy compartments, there and not really there. 

Baba and I sometime in 2009 or 2010

Many times I find  myself remembering his wrinkled dark hands, opening the quark/labneh  and pouring it into the food processor bowl. I imagine I am standing right beside him taking notes, talking to him.  I see him smiling, answering my questions with scientific rigour.  I think he would have loved this rare moment  of attention from his eldest daughter.  The. busy one, who resided comfortably in the distant Sunday dinners, occasional birthdays, Christmas Eves and Eid gatherings.  Always busy, always on the run…

Often the images in my head are vivid that memory and imagination mix together, and become indiscernible.  But one thing remains and perseveres, the cheesecake.  The finer details of its flavors, the happiness it once brought and the particular sadness it now brings.  

There is a particular sadness to cheesecake these days.  One that persistently comes up in every attempt to recreate dad’s version and in the realization that to die means to not live.  A painful recognition to come to is the mortality of our parents, the mortality of ourselves. 

Kasekuchen Ohn Boden: bottomless cheesecake

It is hard to imagine Baba not enjoying cheesecake. How fragile life is! How flimsy are its pleasures! We take them for granted, casting them aside as mundane and worldly, and only when death takes our loved ones, do we understand their preciousness.

My dad lived a full life with a successful career, a vibrant family with a wife who was equal parts homemaker and intellectual partner.  A father who raised the bar high for his children, and never took any excuses. It is the fullness of his life that leaves behind an array of pain and memory. The more one lives, the more love there is to mourn. 

All faiths and cultures believe that death leads to a better place. Does it?  Or is this what mortals tell themselves to ease the pain of loss.  On the eve of what would have been Baba’s 87th birthday, I can only pray that he is indeed in a better place where eternal peace and happiness envelope him warmly. 

You are missed, Rest In Peace Baba 

Baba, my sister, brother and I