“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Amman, Jordan” by Heather Surls

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Heather Surls

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If someone is caught in the street, he or she (though I suppose all the shes are staying in) could be arrested and imprisoned for up to a year. The first day of our quarantine, nearly 400 people were arrested; the second, 700. Both those two days—cloudy, drizzly, cold—little sound came from the streets (one must now have a special permit to drive), save the sound of sirens: police and soldiers patrolling in plain cars, ambulances delivering dialysis patients and emergency cases to hospitals. Soldiers guard the entrances and exits to the Kingdom’s cities, protecting 10 million residents from an invisible enemy.

Day three, and the sun has come out. The gas delivery truck passes, playing its tinny tune, and stops at the building across from ours. The young guy heaves a gas canister to his shoulder and takes it to the ground-level door on the left. From the doorway, an older woman hands a tray of coffee in blue flowered espresso cups and a packet of biscuits to her tubby husband in cap and jogging suit, who walks to it to the truck and serves the driver.

Sheltered from the eyes of the police, neighbors get even bolder. Back porches, rooftops, and courtyards are mushrooming with activity. I’ve learned the word for curfew in Arabic—tjawul—and I practice using with my Iraqi neighbor, whose balcony adjoins ours at a right angle.

“This curfew is fine,” she tells me in Arabic, fidgeting with the wooden clothespins on her laundry line. “In Iraq during the wars, we didn’t have electricity and had to bake our bread at home.”

This neighbor, a widow in her early  sixties, always wears black—long-sleeved cotton tops, slacks, a knit vest with buttons. She arrived here from Baghdad almost two years ago with her daughter and son-in-law and twin grandchildren. Just before the quarantine began and the airport closed, they had completed their paperwork and medical examinations to immigrate to Canada.

We chat about how tomorrow the government is supposed to reveal the “mechanism” for us to procure necessities—the listed necessities being bread, water, infant formula, gas, diesel, and kerosene. Meanwhile, our downstairs neighbor, a Jordanian tour guide, rounds the corner carrying a wooden ladder. He sets it up below his family’s satellite dish and begins tinkering with the parts. This pandemic has not been good for his business. With ISIS defeated and the conflict in Syria dwindling, this should have been a bustling season. He usually guides Chinese Muslims coming to see Petra, along with South American groups. Everyone has cancelled.

On the rooftop across from our building, a few young people roam under the open sky. Those four apartments house one extended family, Palestinians from Nablus, and I don’t doubt they are doing this quarantine as a pack. When I see the oldest daughter, a special education teacher in her mid-twenties, I call out a greeting. She’s dressed in a sweatshirt and sweats, smoking a cigarette with a distant look in her eyes. Though our bedroom windows face each other—from my room I can see a bunk bed, jewelry and bottles of perfume and cosmetics crowding a desk—I’ve not had a conversation with her in years.

“Do you still have to teach online?” I ask.

“I was supposed to get married on Thursday,” she says, only briefly making eye contact. She shrugs, tilts her head, and closes her eyes. “We had to postpone until September.”

I don’t know what to say. Arabs don’t overuse the word “sorry” like English speakers. Around us birds flaunt their freedom with songs. The miniature pomegranate tree on my balcony blooms red and green. Someone fries peppers and onions in oil. Upstairs toddlers squall, and above them a mother shouts, patience fraying.

“It was supposed to be Thursday,” she repeats, flicking the cigarette. “It’s gone.”

–March 23, 2020

heather surls

Heather M. Surls‘ non-fiction and short stories have appeared in places such as River Teeth, Cordella, Ruminate, EthnoTraveler, Silk Road, and Nowhere, and she regularly contributes to Anthrow Circus, a mixed media site exploring culture and society. She lives in Amman with her husband, a college professor, and two sons.