For the four years I attended Berkeley, twice a year I would lose nine hours of my life and twice a year I would gain them back. The 22 hours of transit needed to cross nine time zones, on airplanes and waiting in airports, renders time as simultaneously structured and suspended. Life under Covid-19 feels a lot like being buckled into my window seat, but now I’m expected to travel in place. From my window seat, far away from my previous reality, time moves simultaneously terribly slowly and painfully quickly.
In the foreign imagination, Egypt is timeless. The pandemic has given that adjective quite a different meaning. News from around the world about lockdowns in China, Italy and the United States prompted a self-enforced quarantine when I developed a slight fever in the beginning of March. When #Stayhome began to circulate on Egyptian social media, it appeared that I was one of the very few actually taking it seriously. I did so partially out of a sense of social responsibility, but also because after a series of personal traumas I had been desperately yearning for time, space, and isolation. I sought a temporary retreat, a cave where I could reconstruct some semblance of my former self. With all social and work commitments dissolved in a flash, I pulled out the paints and brushes from under my bed, dusted off book covers, reinvented recipes, reopened old movie lists, revisited portfolios, and guitar tutorials, coding courses, yoga, workouts, walks — all markers of a previous time, of a previous me.
Soon, the rest of Egypt got more serious and time changed. The government enforced a 6 pm to 6 am curfew and more workplaces started closing down, including my mother’s clinic and my father’s office. Since moving back home in September 2018, I’ve been living in our family house as a temporary guest, never getting too comfortable. This has been a hiatus, a time set aside, strangely like a quarantine. Being unemployed and living with my parents, creating personal and private spaces has been essential. By the fourth week at home, my bedroom walls were fully decorated and I was spending more hours alone with the door closed or outside in the garden. But even then, my space didn’t feel personal or private enough, and claustrophobia and anxiety came in waves. Trapped inside the country, the compound, the house, these three levels of confinement begin to restrict spontaneity. Time blurred, and my inspiration and motivation evaporated. But it’s with the fourth level of confinement, that of the restless mind, where my world became increasingly abstract and confusing. I’ve been finding it very hard to write — or create anything — in this limbo where time pulls in all directions, and none.
But soon came some structure. The 6 pm curfew became 7 pm. I escaped to the Red Sea with some friends to create a quarantine community. Would a place apart offer a more hospitable time? Personal productivity gave way to beer, games, conversation, swimming, and deliciously watching time pass. Away from CNN and the physical reminders of confinement, our new reality was very distant from Covid-19. I felt as if we were survivors of a post-apocalyptic world that had found each other. Yet being with friends after being isolated for six weeks made me feel even more alone. Overwhelmed, I went home, back to my cave.
Then a very different regime of time arrived. With the start of Ramadan, the curfew was extended further to 9 pm, enabling families and friends to eat Iftar together and make it home in time — that word again! With cases in Egypt still increasing, the extension didn’t make a lot of sense, but no one has the authority to question the government, and certainly no one has the authority to question religion. So instead, I questioned my relationship to caffeine as I found myself entirely useless for the first weeks of fasting. Suddenly the days slowed down and the weeks accelerated, in lockstep with the spread of Covid-19. My days are reduced to one or two relatively “productive” things, usually painting and yoga. After breaking fast, time is spent walking around aimlessly.
Being confined for hours on an airplane can feel strangely liberating — you can watch four movies back to back without feeling like you are “wasting” time. But perhaps that is because to be on an airplane is to have a certain and final destination, a time bracket. The same cannot be said for Covid-time, which is maddeningly malleable and ambiguous. Open-ended time is a mingling of mystery, possibility, and nostalgia – a collision of past and future forming a disorienting present. For years I have intentionally worn an old watch that doesn’t work. Modern time is an arrow and my watch blunted its point. But there is no easy defense against the time zone we’ve all entered.
— Farida Radwan, ’18, El Gouna, Egypt