By an Expat in the Gulf
The phone rang at 7 a.m. I wondered why on earth my husband was calling me so early from downstairs on a vacation day. It was February 26 and we were enjoying a week's holiday in a neighboring country from our expatriate home in the Persian Gulf. I answered in monosyllables so as not to wake my daughter, sleeping at my side. My husband's voice sounded anxious although he was clearly trying to sound calm: We had to leave the hotel in an hour. Still half asleep I didn't understand what was going on, so I just followed his plan like a robot: Go down to eat breakfast and then we would all come back to the room to pack.
I woke my daughter, trying to hide my anxiety. In less than five minutes we were ready. But overnight the hotel had become another place. The tourists, whom we had seen so relaxed in the days before, were now eating breakfast in silence, as though it were a chore, their already packed bags at their sides. The hotel staff went around checking everything like flight attendants preparing for departure.
While we ate a little fruit, my husband brought me up to speed. He had awakened to find a letter in the door of our room ordering us to leave the hotel at 8 in the morning. Confused, he went down to the lobby to ask if there had been an error with his reservation. He found a long line of equally perplexed guests who were being attended to by two even more confused clerks. The explanation they were given—a bit unlikely even in an authoritarian regime—was that the hotel had to be emptied as soon as possible to accommodate some VIP guests. The rumor circulating was something else: they had relocated us to prepare the place as a quarantine area for citizens who were returning that day from countries infected with COVID-19, that same virus that just two months ago we thought of as a disaster in some remote city in the Far East.
We ate with little appetite and told our daughter that we were about to have an adventure in a new hotel. While we tried to pack our vacation clothes in the small suitcase with shaking fingers, she made plans for another day in the sun, and the front desk kept calling us to hurry. As we left our room, two hotel guards escorted us and another tourist couple to the elevator. When we got to the lobby to await the transfer to another hotel, we saw two police cars waiting at the door of the hotel along with four officials talking on hand-held radios. We had entered an unknown dimension, and little did we dream that this was going to be the new normal over the coming weeks.
Our vacation in this tiny Persian Gulf country would end the next day and we would have to make a decision. In addition to the forced exit from the hotel, we got further news: My daughter's school was closed until further notice and our jobs had both announced a two-week extension to our vacations. What to do now? Stay a few more days in the new hotel while the situation returned to normal? Go back to our own country, Colombia, a 20-hour flight away? Take refuge in Europe—a midpoint between the Middle East and South America—for at least a week to assess the extent of the situation? Go back to our house in the other Persian Gulf country where we were living and working? In the end, we opted for the latter, which seemed the easiest and least radical step.
We arrived at what has been our home for a couple of years with a sense of normality that began to slowly unravel. That Sunday, March 1, was the start of our gradual confinement. My husband decided to go to his office for a few hours each day, while my daughter and I did home schooling with another little girl who lived near us. We enjoyed the unexpected pause in our daily routine and in less than a week we had adapted to the new rhythm. We incorporated yoga practice, music making and reading all the books that had been waiting for weeks on our nightstands. We took up online activities we'd never had the time for before. During our downtime we were able to rekindle relations with friends with whom we hadn't been in touch with during the busy semester and we met up with people we hadn't seen for a decade via Zoom. It all seemed like a good lesson in living, to learn to carry on with discipline and a positive outlook.
The days of false calm didn't last long. In less than two weeks we understood, finally, the magnitude of the calamity that had befallen us. It wasn't just a problem of the people most at risk, nor was it so far away, nor would it vanish in the heat. No. The apocalyptic images began knocking at our gate; they were just next door in our neighbor, Iran. The celebrations of Nouruz, the Persian New Year, in addition to an election that had been approved despite the risk, caused the incidence of the disease to skyrocket in Iran and now it had spread throughout the Gulf. Countermeasures soon began to escalate.
This is not a place known for transparent transmission of information and everyone sought facts wherever they could. The news reached us, it changed, it disappeared. And this only heightened the anxiety which was already high enough. The news came in bits and pieces. First, in rumors on social media, then in contradictory versions that were then corrected in the few English-language newspapers in the country; and finally in the Instagram pages of some of the embassies. From our home country came a soulless e-mail that neither informed nor consoled us. We got more support from the online Spanish-speaking expatriate community that was afire with memes, jokes, prayer chains and even strident debates. That source became the companion of many.
Around mid-March an order came to shut down all air travel until further notice. That was the second time in my life that I had had to live through this kind of thing. The first was almost 20 years ago when I was a student in Boston. Logan Airport was closed as a result of the attack on the Twin Towers. The sensation of strangling is always disturbing: two iron gates close off the skies and you are completely trapped. Then came messages about massive and obligatory medical examinations, under penalty of fines and imprisonment, of all of those who had arrived from Egypt, England, Iran and so forth, for a week that seemed like a century. The rest of the people were to remain confined in their homes, a restriction that was only lifted to get provisions in the supermarkets and that carried the fear of future shortages, since this is a country that subsists almost entirely on imported goods. By the end of the month a partial curfew was decreed from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. The city was completely paralyzed and we were in a state of panic.
On top of all the worry that the disease itself brought, there was yet more to come: The virus was following its dizzying course westward. After a devastating swing through Europe, it was reaching Latin America, where our families lived. By the end of March, Colombia was in a total quarantine without air travel. We were living in the space between the news here and the news there, with the feeling that we were trapped in limbo. With no air travel in either place, there was no way out. We drowned in the silence of the air above us. Our loved ones were an ocean away while we were feeling like guests—already less welcome—in a country that would never be ours.
Living through this crisis as an expatriate, that horrible word that makes you an orphan, is a whole other story. In the Gulf there are no immigrants: we're all in transit, whether highly trained professionals or construction workers. Each visa is connected to your job and sometimes it feels like we're all in a huge labor camp where you come to work and to sleep. There is no belonging here; we're all replaceable and we know it. During normal times, the transitory nature of our lives is bothersome but can be buried in the daily grind. In times of crisis, it's frightening. Just reading the news makes you feel vulnerable. The expat and the nationals are treated as two different categories of human beings. And the rules, of course, are different for both groups. A perhaps banal example illustrates it well: As a result of this crisis, entrance to the cooperatives, the government-owned stores, is now regulated. If you're an expat, you have to wait in line; if you're a national citizen, you don't. This makes you wonder, will we have the right to food? Will they expel us if we get the virus? Will there be respirators for us?
I think about the other expats, the hundreds of thousands that have to share their space with eight or ten other people, those that can't stop working because the country would fall apart, who deliver goods to the homes of others, or collect the garbage, those who aren't even expats but illegals who scrounge work while they elude the police, victims of an unjust system and the trafficking of visas, those who go along with an amnesty that lets them be deported without paying fines. I see how buildings are shut down because there's been an outbreak of virus there, how overnight whole neighborhoods are blocked off with wire fences and police cars, leaving them at the mercy of what the government or charities can provide. We all see it. We know they are there and we can do nothing, except perhaps donate some food or write an anonymous complaint to a magazine in a distant country. I've come to understand that there is something worse about being an expat: it's to have no voice at all. You are the other, the lesser one, the one who has lost dignity.
COVID-19 has revealed the very obvious imperfections of the world we have built. And not just in these authoritarian regimes, as we prefer to think, or in the developing countries in Latin America, with its painful inequities. I'm bombarded with images of the refugee camps in France and of the boats of exiles returning to Africa as they depart from a hostile Spain, or from my undocumented cousin in New York, hidden, fearful, and unable to work for weeks. My concerns are minuscule compared to the human drama that this pandemic has revealed. The problem isn't just being stuck at home from fear of the disease. The horrible pictures of the world we have made both here and there won't let me sleep. I hope to awake from the nightmare in a better world, in which we don't have to support ourselves through the charity of others, in which equality is the norm and solidarity is the religion. Then it will all have been worth it, for we will have overcome the disease.
A expat in the Gulf is a pseudonym for a Colombian expatriate living in the Persian Gulf with her husband and daughter. This article was translated into English by Lois Grossman.