By Arpan Roy
I arrived in Madrid after a year and a half of fieldwork in Palestine just in time for quarantine. Not much in Elias’s apartment indicated that I had ever left Palestine. His library, a relic of his days as a PhD student in economics, must be one of the most extensive in Spain on the topic of Israel/ Palestine—The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, the works of Edward Said, the literary theory of Salma Jayyusi, works of Arabic fiction in translation: Kanafani, Khoury, Habibi, obviously Mahmoud Darwish. Over the toilet, of all places, hangs tatreez. I find a stack of pink stickers explaining pinkwashing in Spanish. Elias was born in Canada but his Palestinian parents met in Damascus. He is a child of two diasporas, and I am perhaps of at least three, but it is not a competition and, anyway, that is another story. Elias had practically moved in with his boyfriend, so he rented me his apartment.
It is April and around a thousand people are dying each day in Spain, half of them in Madrid. At first it is denial and conspiracy theories, then it is the paranoia of being infected yourself, then you begin hearing about people you know whose elderly parents are passing away. I can’t sleep, so I open one of Elias’s books—Sleeping on a Wire, by the Israeli writer David Grossman. He is driving around the Galilee, speaking to Palestinian citizens of Israel, trying to understand the intifada. He admits to being afraid of Azmi Bishara’s* mustache. I am about to fall asleep and I am bombarded with Arabic memes from Palestine.
I am addicted to Trump’s daily briefings to the press. Behind him his team of experts look like a Greek chorus in the American tragedy. America seems so far away, and, like Ginsberg, I am sick of its insane demands. In Spain the quarantine is one of the strictest in the world. For two months the quarantine bars people from the streets, and even now, as I write three months later, it has not entirely been lifted. The Spanish are a people who love to hug and kiss, and they are suffering. When people meet in Spain they plant two kisses on either cheek, and, if it is a special greeting, then only one kiss but also a hug. The average Spaniard must plant hundreds of kisses each day. I am reminded of what the think tanks polemically say about the Arabs; that they need a “heavy hand”, that they need authoritarian paternal figures like Saddam, Gaddafi, Asad, Mubarak. The Arab Spring showed this theory to be nonsense, but maybe the Spaniards really do need a heavy hand to keep them from hugging and kissing one another during a pandemic. One of the theories as to why the virus spread so rapidly in Spain is precisely that the Spaniards hug and kiss, that their humanity is infectious.
Barred from meeting, hugging, kissing, some of the neighbors are rehearsing a play from across their balconies. It is a play from Spain’s Siglo de Oro “Golden Age”, the “golden” period of Spain’s plunder of the Americas that was followed by the gayer España de charanga y pandereta “Spain of the brass band & tambourine”, also known as the Spain of Bizet, referring, of course, to Bizet’s Carmen. I have always mistrusted the literary glories of the Spanish Golden Age. I suspect that the whole enterprise was a last-minute coverup to repress the memory of Spain’s true golden age: Arab Spain, unfortunately Arab Spain, misunderstood Arab Spain, grossly under-researched Arab Spain.
Lavapiés, Elias’s neighborhood (and mine) in Madrid, was the Jewish quarter during the Arab period. One can deduce from the current street names that something is up—Calle de Jesus y María “Jesus and Mary Street”, Calle de la Fe “Faith Street”, and so forth.
Elisheba comes to see me. She is working in a nursing home where seniors have miraculously survived Covid-19. Their families are not allowed to visit for fear of infection. They survived the virus but are now dying from abandonment. Elisheba is not a nurse, but she needs the money, and this job grants her a permit to move across the city during quarantine. Even here life becomes determined by permits. Elisheba, despite her name, is not Jewish. She is Peruvian with a genealogy that is scarred by a German great-grandfather; a diplomat for the National Socialist party stationed in South America, who left his infant daughter, Elisheba’s grandmother, to a monastery in Lima.
Elisheba, “the abundance of God”, was a name chosen by her hippie father. The responsibility of being a descendant of Nazis with a Jewish name is not lost on Elisheba. The first time we met she told me that she would never visit Israel, that she would never cross the picket-line on BDS. But how, I ask Elisheba, is one supposed to witness Palestine under these conditions?
Elias tells me that after the quarantine ends, his landlord will sell the apartment to developers. Lavapiés, the last affordable neighborhood in central Madrid, itself the last affordable European capital, is quickly gentrifying. I am the last tenant in what had been Elias’s apartment for ten years. He will move in permanently with his boyfriend, and here is the greatest irony of all. Of all the biblical names one finds in Spain, his boyfriend was christened this one—Israel.
*Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian politician and intellectual from Nazareth. Apparently physically imposing, he was President of Al-Quds University at the time of Grossman's writing.
Arpan Roy (email@example.com) is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He is currently finishing his dissertation on the relationship between kinship and ethics in the Dom Romani community in Palestine and Jordan. He has published articles in Anthropological Theory, Social Anthropology, CITY, and Jerusalem Quarterly. He is also collaborating with the Palestinian Museum on a project on Sufi shrines in Palestine.
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