How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The first time my family self-isolated, I was eight years old. The impetus was not a viral outbreak but the start of heavy fighting in west Beirut. The combatants wore black balaclavas, not medical masks, and they toted machine guns rather than reams of toilet paper.
The threat I failed to see back then was a lethal tribalism. The one we face today is less cantankerous, conspicuously crouched in our midst, waiting for that kairotic moment to strike and possibly kill. In 1975, holed up in Beirut, I did what any sensible second grader would do. I enlisted the help of two comic book characters to resist the growing uncertainty around me. They were Obelix and Gaston Lagaffe, and they bore little resemblance to their North American analogs, those slick paladins like Spiderman and Captain America who fought Manichaean battles against nefarious scientists, aliens, and robots.
Gaston Lagaffe, as his surname suggests, was prone to blunders. Obelix, the indomitable, plump Gaul in the French comic series Asterix, feasted on boars and thrashed thousands of invading Romans. I read them, obsessively, in our isolation at the start of the Lebanese civil war. The summer holidays had ended, and one day, my parents rushed us out of our third-floor city apartment, down the stairs, to seek refuge in a dimly lit underground garage. We could hear the relentless rat-tat-tat of automatic gunfire, the shelling outside punctuating the call to prayer from a muezzin. The sectarian clashes were background to the real adventures lurking in our comic books, which my siblings and I traded with glee among ourselves and with the other children in our neighborhood.
The sectarian clashes were background to the real adventures lurking in our comic books.
During the war, underground garages were convenient hiding places. The one we went to was part of a white, multistoried residential building next to ours. Several of our relatives lived there, too, on a fistular street called Zokak el-blat, which means “the cobbled alley,” except that it was covered with asphalt. That autumn, my school was shut, just as schools are closed today, and just as my family was 45 years ago, my wife and I are now in self-isolation, in the company of Obelix and Gaston, as well as two children of our own. Veb is ten, and Menua is seven.
Home, it is said, is neither nation nor state, but family. Home is where we practice our togetherness and collective solitude with our boys. We are a diasporic family, having lived in and in between frontiers from Lebanon to the United States, Canada, France, and again Canada, before moving to Armenia five years ago. The virus has wreaked havoc, but it has also elevated the family as a geographic space, so much so that for now at least, it rivals the country and the nation-state. The virus does not recognize borders. Has it helped seal the victory of family values over nationalist ones?
We are inextricably attached every minute of the day. We ask ourselves if this is finally the end of exile. Did we need a pandemic to stand still in one place? Anchored at home, our reading has also gone viral. What my wife reads today will likely end up with me a few days later, and it might make its way to our boys, so we have to be doubly mindful of what we read. We are all literary vectors.
We are not strict parents, although we might occasionally rebuke Veb for reading his manga during class. At first, he read his Osamu Tezuka during English and French class, with Zoom’s video icon set to off, but he has gotten more brazen in recent days. Three weeks into lockdown, he reads Astro Boy with the camera on, mostly during Russian class.
The virus has wreaked havoc, but it has also elevated the family as a geographic space.
When a fracas breaks out between the boys, we diffuse the tension with the promise of an outing. We apply a garlic-based ointment into our nostrils and slip on medical masks. We then lug our totes, weighed down with books and bottles of alcohol. The boys carry their scooters as we prepare to step into the zone, into the still world outside. “A screaming comes across the sky,” Thomas Pynchon famously wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow. Here, there is no screaming, just an extended lull, city as nature morte. Yet how shambolic everything is under the seeming order.
After 25 minutes, we, the parents, are ready to head back. Just a little longer, pleads Menua. Okay, we say, but stay away from that bundled babushka. She coughed. Then Veb walks over to a bush and plucks a tactile leaf. Don’t do that, I say, can’t you see, there is a stray dog next to it? That dog could be a vector. A what, asks, Menua? A vector, I say, a transmitter of disease and parasites. Dad, just calm down, says Veb, dogs are not vectors. They’re just dogs. Come here, says my wife, let me wipe your hands with alcohol. Don’t worry, Menua, assures everyone, nothing is going to happen. Can we stay out a little longer? No, we can’t. You have your Armenian class and then math. Okay, says the first grader, but can you make me a peanut butter sandwich like last time? I’ll put the camera on off.
After class, we turn to Obelix and Gaston for answers. When he was a child, Obelix fell into a cauldron full of a magic potion prepared by the village druid. The elixir made the corpulent Gaul invincible. In our chastened solitude, we are all waiting for a similar concoction to defeat the evil virus, which seems infinitely better prepared than the Romans Obelix trounced with a Paf! It will, of course, take more than one druid to make such stuff, more than one Obelix to undertake the Herculean task. We offer our boys zinc gummy bears and a cup of mint tea, and we ask them to be patient. Before their nighttime reading, we tell them to be unafraid of blunders because there will be many, just like in Gaston.
Accidents will happen. Just look at me. The other day I smashed my toe against our bed frame. I was a limping dad in lockdown. I feel especially close to Gaston, and I pine for that cauldron that Obelix fell into and for the day when we will ride our bicycles into the deepest of nature, without our gloves and facemasks.
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