In Spain, where deaths from the Coronavirus have now surpassed those in China, the government has ordered: ¡Quédate en casa! In German, we call it Kontaktverbot in der Öffentlichkeit; in French, mesures de confinement. The Arabic word, ḥajaz, evokes the panoply of restrictions associated with military occupation. Whichever language we use, “shelter in place” is the order of the day, although it is not always followed in the U.S. where the number of infections is the highest.
In the 300 square foot garage apartment where I have lived for the past year in Austin, Texas, my main activities are sitting in front of my computer and trying to keep up with the latest on a pandemic that is swiftly and certainly spreading around the sphere. My smart phone is never far away, and its multiple chat functions are in constant use with family and friends fretting about their lives in their respective abodes, spread out across five continents.
The East sees the sun rise first. It is also the East that experienced the outset of the pandemic, with the first-ever human cases identified in Asia and, subsequently, in Europe. Glued to my screen, I ploddingly followed the news cycle, day in, day out, listening closely to cautionary commentaries. Initially, they came from Europe, where I was born and partly grew up, and from the Middle East, where I lived for many years teaching and conducting research. Soon after, they came from Latin America, a continent I discovered when I was twenty and that has remained for me a place of wonder and ceaseless longing. It was only six weeks ago that the tone of my daily conversations with my German mother, my Swiss sister, my French-Algerian cousin, and the rest of the family, as well as numerous friends and acquaintances, started to shift from a general qualified concern to a slowly materializing and unequivocal anxiety. My family, my friends and acquaintances, and thus my very existence as a feeling being, are spread around the Earth and living in such disparate places as Germany, Switzerland, France, Algeria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Mexico, and Argentina.
Speaking in different tongues, one word is recurrent in all of these places, and that’s the word “virus,” independent of the various intonations brought about by the manifold beauty of human pronunciations. The numbers of those infected started quickly to rise, and so did those of the dying. Abstract at first, emergency measures were implemented. Yet in my province of America, a state where political bigotry is rampant, and where social injustice proliferates on its streets, what I’m currently experiencing is authorities doing little but offer a disavowed version of reality.
While shameless profit-mongering is present in most countries, here in the U.S. heartland, it constitutes the centerpiece for a blissfully unthinking community made busy rallying around a hollow platitude about “greatness.” It is an idea set against a dire reality where millions of Americans are without any viable medical care, regardless of whether they carry any kind of insurance. In the absence of sufficient equipment and personnel, I can wave around my insurance card as much as I want; it won’t do me much good if there are no supplies or physicians left to treat me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about insurance cards lately, about identification cards, about official papers such as passports, about access, and thus about rights and privilege and, possibly, entitlement. In mid-March, I was scheduled to give a keynote address at a symposium on gender and sexuality in Tunis. The five-day event had been meticulously prepared by Maghrebi academics, activists, and artists, to bring older scholars together with university students from Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to partake in a debate around gender, feminisms, and postcolonialism. Aside from my lecture on “the ambivalence of urban anonymity, its spaces of possibilities and impossibilities” (a topic I had planned to address much before I had even heard of “social distancing;” the irony of my word choice rather painful now), my intention was to discuss with local students a section of the iconic text written by Gloria Anzaldúa on the “new mestiza,” a critical citizen so to speak, with a “new higher consciousness” aimed at breaking down barriers and dismantling the male/female dualistic norms of gender and gender oppression. I had thought that there was no better way to honor my North African hosts than by conducting a discussion in Arabic on a French translation from the original text, written in English and Spanish, by a fellow Texan whose queer Chicana identity I view as the perfect bridge for a concerted effort at cross-cultural dialogue.
Two days before I was to cross the Atlantic eastwards, flights from the U.S. to most of Europe were severed, and the Tunis symposium was cancelled. A country that has been struggling economically in the aftermath of its 2011 revolution, Tunisia was forced to close its borders and stop all air and ferry connections with its neighbors, in particular adjacent Italy and France. Now, Tunisians are stuck, first, with the virus and, second, with a medical uncertainty that transforms the political and economic hopes some had for the future into an enduring anguish and despair.
But here in my little Austin garage apartment, when I think about access, privilege, and entitlement, I also think about the autonomy with which I have pursued my professional career. I have taken countless research trips, traveling all over the world on my German passport to endless transnational conferences. Already arranged was a visit to the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos at the beginning of the summer. There, in the middle of the so-called “hot spots” (the name given by the media to the local refugee camps), I had plans to facilitate workshops for Syrian refugees and international NGO workers on sensitive issues pertaining to LGBTQ+ identity formations. Like everything else, this has been cancelled, mostly because of the conditions present in the camps, which have created a catastrophically fertile ground for the virus.
“Shelter-in-place”? In a world bursting with inequality and abject poverty and precarity, I dare ask the following: Regardless of the tongues we use, what shelter and what place are we exactly talking about?