Okay, so we’re at risk. Our loved ones are at risk. We’re all at risk. That fact is slowly sinking in. Some of us are self-isolating, but some are refusing to. Some were compelled to stay home, while others have no choice but to go out in order to make ends meet.
The coronavirus is forcing us to learn about prevention, and about being economical — not just with money, but with touch and movement. We’re trying to adjust to physical distancing, and finding different ways of being together. Suddenly, our lives are not the same.
In today’s edition, we welcome you to our safe house, consisting of three isolated, well-sanitized rooms. You’ve just entered the front door, and now you’re in the parlor. Make yourselves at home. We’re providing surface disinfectants, rubbing alcohol and chlorine mixed with water. We urge you to keep your distance, but also to remember that you’re not alone.
The first room has countless shelves full of reading material. We’ll likely still be enjoying it even after the weekend is over, as it looks like we’ll be spending some time inside after all. Perhaps now is the time to bring down some of those books we never got around to reading. Here are some titles we picked off of our shelves:
Ahmed Wael recalls a few verses from Mahmoud Darwish’s Mural, where the poet muses on the notion of death:
“Will one book be enough for me
to kill no-time, or will I need a full library?
What language do they speak there,
common colloquial or classical Arabic?”
Darwish’s question reminds Fathy Al Sheikh of a book about chess that was the sole companion of the protagonist in Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story (1942), who spent years in solitary confinement. Fathy also remembers another story of isolation, that of a man at sea, with no land in sight: In Alessandro Baricco’s 1900: The Pianist on the Ocean (initially written for the stage in 1994 and adapted into a film by Guiseppe Tornatore in 1998), the titular pianist is born on a ship that sails the Atlantic between Europe and America, and he decides to never leave it.
Meanwhile, Karoline Kamel takes us all the way to Uruguay with Mario Benedetti’s The Truce (1960), another novel about personal isolation, which she plans on reading this weekend. She also plans to revisit Virginia Woolf’s iconic 1929 manifesto A Room of One’s Own (1929), for obvious reasons. In the same vein, she also plans to read Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) in the coming weeks, and on the fiction front, she will be exploring the 2009 novel Frog by Chinese Nobel Laureate Mo Yan.
And as the world draws to a standstill, Lina Attalah finds herself reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1929). Perhaps during these days of distancing, exchanging letters can be a form of introspection as well as staying social, Lina reflects: “Besides being sites of rich exchanges of experiences and reflections in ways our rushed communication doesn’t normally allow, letters are also performative sites for the self, a crossroads of the inward and the outward. In Rilke’s textual performance, he tells the young poet Xaver Kappus who has been in correspondence with him about the ‘birthing of clarity’ from the patient maturing of impressions inside the self. A nice nudge, again, as we self isolate and perform ourselves in letters.”
Lina also plans to read The Administration of Fear, a long interview with philosopher Paul Virilio, an easy choice during such a moment, she says, as it is a reflection on the life of fear that we have come to live under wars, famines and pandemics: “Examining the management of the state of such fear, Virilio tells us about the real-time and speedy mediation of crisis, facilitated by technology, as a main vector of terror, and as a replacement of real space.”
On his Kindle, Mohamed Hamama will continue reading Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, a book about global destruction, the fear it unleashes, and the possibility of surviving Armageddon.
And as he attempts to self-isolate, Mostafa Mohie is turning to books dealing with places and spaces: He begins with Alaa Khaled’s I Am Writing to You from a Far-off Country, inspired by Henri Michaux’s poem of the same name. Then he will move on to Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy (1987), as he flips through the latest edition of Amkena, a publication focused on “the culture of spaces.” And if this period of social distancing lingers, he says, he might turn to Istanbul: Memories and the City (2003), by Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. In a time of airports closing and cities undergoing major lockdowns, traveling through literature does seem like a resourceful thing to do.
In this room, we watch films.
The rise of streaming services and the subsequent changes to the film industry across the world have caused much controversy. Many are afraid of what this change in film-viewing patterns means for the cherished ritual of going to the movies — watching a film for the first time in a dark room full of strangers is an experience hardly matched by any other, no matter how crisp the image on your TV or how powerful your sound system is. In this unforeseen moment of self-isolation, however, we find ourselves — even the most skeptical of us — immensely grateful for the limitless collection of films and TV series available to us at home, accessible at the mere push of a button.
We have the usual suspects: Netflix, Wavo (where you can find a large collection of Youssef Chahine’s recently restored films), and Amazon Prime. You can also turn to Shahid if you’re a fan of Arabic series (it also has a large selection of dubbed Disney films, super useful if you’re looking for ways to entertain your little ones at home). If you have a smart TV, all these applications will appear on its main menu. If not, you can simply download these apps on your phone or access their websites on your computer and connect either device to the TV.
In today’s edition, however, we’re recommending a specific platform, one we haven’t mentioned before: The Criterion Channel, a streaming service launched by The Criterion Collection, a distribution company that licenses classic and contemporary films from across the world and makes them available on DVDs and Blu-rays for home viewing. Their editions are coveted for the extra features they include: exclusive interviews with filmmakers, critics and scholars; behind the scenes ‘making-of’ segments; and audio commentaries from the director or other members of the cast and crew discussing their choices in each scene. The DVDs/Blu-rays also come with a pamphlet including an in-depth essay about the film at hand, and a cover boasting special artwork that often surpasses the film’s original poster.
Launched last year, the Criterion Channel offers the majority of the company’s releases for instant viewing. And while their DVDs or Blu-Rays cost $25 on average — not to mention they aren’t available in Egypt — the monthly subscription for the service is $11 ($1 more than Netflix). It is also important to mention that, like most platforms, the service offers a 14-day free trial.
But what sets the Criterion Channel apart is the curated programming: retrospectives of directors and film stars from around the globe; a weekly double-bill showing two films that share a theme; a narrative feature paired with an experimental short that create a certain discourse when viewed together; a program centering around one topic and featuring films that tackle it from different angles, where you can easily find a film by Japanese icon Yasujirō Ozu alongside a contemporary production by American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and a classic by Soviet pioneer Larisa Shepitko, for instance.
It is a rich and highly engaging substitute to the now-closed cinemas which provided similar programming in Cairo: Zawya and Cimatheque: Alternative Film Centre. The channel also provides an antidote to the stress created by too many choices; its programming creates the organized viewing experience we miss about regular TV while also giving the viewer the ability to choose whatever they want from its library if they feel like it.
Here, you can take a look at this month’s line-up, which includes an Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective, a selection of films scored by music producer and composer Quincy Jones, as well as tributes to Hollywood star Rita Hayworth and French legend Catherine Deneuve. It also features a program for the films of prominent independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, and another for the cinematic work of African-American poet and Civil Rights activist Kathleen Collins (in addition to an archival interview).
To prepare our Watch room for Criterion, we need a VPN subscription, since the service is so far only available in the United States and Canada. We also need an HDMI cable to connect our laptops to the TV screen, since the app isn’t available here either. Here are some trusted VPN providers if you’re interested in exploring the option, and as for the cable, we suggest you add it to the list of items you intend to buy this weekend in preparation for your time at home.
We hope the films you watch somehow ease the pains of social distancing. We may be unable to experience the magic of going to a movie theatre right now, but the truth is, cinema was made for moments like this — so, happy viewing!
We’re now in our listening room, with thick walls soundproofed with cork and foam. Some of us come here to relax, others come to scream because, yes, what’s going on beyond these walls is a little terrifying.
Here, it’s relatively calm:
But we still catch some sounds from outside, reminding us that life is still happening — people chatting on the ahwa with their shishas, joking about the virus, and, yes, the occasional sneeze or cough:
Because the city keeps on going:
And we can hear the clamor as people rush to run errands and panic-shop before they’re forced to stay inside:
What else is happening out there in the street, we wonder:
The streets are filled with stories, as we know:
And from Youssef Chahine’s The Sixth Day, a film about a cholera epidemic hitting Egypt, another song about stories and streets:
But then we try to shun all outside noises from our minds, and urge ourselves to “Stay Home” as Fairouz sings:
And, if you’re staying home and you’re in love with the girl next door, like Hassan Shakoush here is, you’re in luck. (Boy, do we miss those days when this song and the ensuing Hany Shaker drama were the talk of the hour.)
We can also read Engels in bed and ponder the end of capitalism:
And (for those of us sharing the room with partners who show no symptoms so far) we could kiss as real people do:
Perhaps dance each other through the panic:
But for some the fear could be intolerable:
Listening to Chopin might help:
So could imagining what lies at the end of this tunnel, when we get through it all:
In the end, we’d like to highlight Room Art Space’s initiative to live stream concerts daily at 10 pm on their Facebook page, in an attempt to help everyone stay sane.
Strangely enough, as cultural spaces close across the world, art is somehow finding new ways of being accessible, with films being released online instead of in theaters, live performances being streamed, and museums offering virtual tours. Today, we invite you to take this tour of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and will be sharing similar options in the weeks to come.