As dawn feigned, the sky was still pitch black. Overflowing dumpsters on the street were haunted by men in long robes with dark eyes. Unable to lay down for some 40 hours I was unsure if I had fallen back asleep or had failed to wake at all. Nothing was clear. The distressing scenery and torturous journey suggested I may have slipped into the tumbling well of an unfolding nightmare. A hallowed voice echoed from beyond the ether.
The man at the wheel interjected, “Do you hear the music? That’s the call to prayer.”
The familiar chant had been much fainter several minutes earlier, before we turned onto the cluttered and bumpy street. I’d heard it a number of times in another world, and knew its source must be from the nearby mosque that Tijae had mentioned.
“When do I get my passport . . .”
“Sunday,” came the abrupt reply, uninterpreted by my ears foggy with fatigue.
“I had some groceries delivered for you. I know you don’t eat meat, so I requested plenty of fresh produce.”
I was too disoriented for perception. No fear. No wonder. No resistance. I could not even fall back onto gratitude. I was spinning in suspended animation without even the ability to succumb.
“This is it.”
We stopped at a clearing in front of a generic masonry building, indistinguishable from those crowded around it. The dumpsters and the men in the shadows seemed to encroach like collapsing walls.
“They need jobs. They come to the street corners looking for construction work.”
“Day laborers,” I uttered more as summary than reply.
Inside, Tijae led me from a narrow elevator into a small, six-room flat, with white walls, white floors, and white ceilings. A fresh bouquet of red and yellow roses graced the simple, black Ikea coffee table.
I collapsed onto the stiff, Ikea couch with my back to the window that overlooked the quiet, starlit city. There we sat, together finally for the first time in a month.
The call to prayer again beckoned the rituals of daybreak booming across the city in call-and-response with the more distant mosques in chorus. We turned to watch the red-golden sun creep from behind the cityscape, gradually illuminating rows of ten-story apartment buildings—my first glimpse of sunrise in three days. When dawn glowed thoroughly over the clear, dusty morning Tijae led me to the next room, turned down the white comforter, and waited for me to wilt into bed. I melted into a pure white abyss that absorbed the moment of nothingness.
My strange slumber was less sleep than awakening to the unexpected world that had emerged around me over the previous ten months. In January 2020, I stood in queue at PDX waiting to board a flight to Nairobi as the U.S. president announced that flights originating from China would be prohibited from landing in the U.S. due to the novel Coronavirus. During my visit with friends, none of us could have predicted that I would be their last visitor for the foreseeable future. When I returned to Portland a couple weeks later the world’s epidemiologists were still grappling with the full of extent of the virus’s potential.
The night after my arrival home I attended a large networking event for women in business.
“I think I should start wearing a mask when I fly,” a colleague cautioned herself the night before she flew to New York for a consulting job. I advised her to verify that she had a surgical grade N-95, wisdom I’d learned from a friend who travels with a medically fragile family member, when she provided masks I had worn for my recent trip.
Three weeks later the leaders of Italy ordered residents off the streets and into their homes as morgues overflowed. Within a week, the care homes of New York locked their doors to visitors before the governor closed the doors of nearly all offices and businesses in the state. Soon after, “Shelter-in-place” became the official mantra in California, whose residents are more accustomed to natural disasters that rumble from within the earth itself than the ravages of humans’ own bodies. Oregon’s governor announced schools would close early for an extended spring break, still yet to reopen in person nearly a year later. Like the falling dominos of communism, the novel coronavirus knocked down one nation after the next, one state, one community, one life after the next, after the next, after the next.
By outward appearances I was unaffected. During those first months of COVID-19 quarantine light, I continued working from my home office as I had for the previous decade, finishing work for what I had hoped would be my last consulting client while I looked for a job with health insurance. My daily walks became more pleasant and more hopeful as the skies cleared and streets quieted when offices around the metropolitan area vacated unexpectedly and employees went to work in their homes or were laid off altogether.
But not even I was untouched by the falling dominos. With my good sense and health intact, the strike of the dotted tile swept me into a parallel universe I’d been orbiting my entire life.
Arousing me from the abyss, the call to prayer again welcomed me into my new existence. I awoke on a Friday into a cocoon of blank, white walls where I stayed for 14-days, unable to leave my new home. My transitional life incubated in six rooms with a view of the southeast quarter of Hawally, Kuwait, and a minaret peering back through the window, announcing its presence in my new world five times each day.
My new life had begun unfurling through Zoom while I was yet in Portland. Over the course of one weekend I accompanied Tijae to the airport to wish him well on his own journey to Hawally, said goodby to the cat and helped him move to a coastal retirement home, and logged in for my first faculty meeting with my new colleagues in Kuwait, where I saw Tijae safely in quarantine. I’d only learned days before that I would be able to join Tijae at all. That I would do so as a co-worker seemed the work of a cosmic seamstress cutting and stitching the fabric of the universe into a colorful quilt with artistry and handcrafted precision.
During the ensuing weeks her shears sliced me open wide. By night, I logged into work to prepare and teach English classes to Kuwaiti high school students. By day, heroic friends pumped enough life into me to help me pack my bags and distribute my few remaining possessions. During the dawning hours in between, I laid on a mattress on the floor fantasizing about visits from the sandman who hid securely behind the shade of darker hours mocking my strong circadian rhythm.
“Miss, when do you sleep?” the students began asking me during class. I’d hoped to make a more inspirational connection with my students whose education had fallen victim to the cascading path of dominos that swept the virus’s effects into every life around the globe.
The purgatory of functioning both in the Pacific Northwest and the Arabian Gulf while living in neither lasted just three and a half weeks—long enough for me to plead for mercy and pray to any deity who would listen to end it all swiftly in any way possible. Mercy was granted when I received a temporary visa suitable to enter Kuwait until the government’s visa processes could be restored after the devastating effects of the novel coronavirus. My endless nights came to a slow end three days later.
That Wednesday before sunrise, I checked the remaining artifacts of my life at the Alaska ticket counter and took my seat on a southbound airplane for a journey that would last nearly 40 hours through a rift in the space-time continuum. The sun finally rose over a different window into the universe. The calendar read “Friday,” and the melody that lulled me to sleep those weary hours after arrival was the same that resurrected me later again that day. Eight floors below, worshippers streamed into the courtyard across the street. With the sun high in the sky, they aligned their prayer rugs into perfect rows spaced at two-meter intervals, kneeling to the west with their foreheads kissing the earth.
Hawally is just a city, and—located at the edge of the Arabian Desert—a dusty one at that. The Kuwait City Metropolitan area is very small, not unlike Portland that I can cross in a day by the power of my own feet. The beaches and Gulf waters are much warmer than those that birthed me in the Pacific Northwest. My students are quite similar to those in Portland who led me into my work so many years ago, though with more privilege and different challenges that have interfered with their learning. No matter what life has thrown in front of them, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep coming back. They are champions.