I can’t stop thinking about this twisted, transformative hell hole of a year…
It started with waking up to the news that Trump had authorized airstrikes on Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhendis—two top commanders in the Iran-backed Hashed al-Shaabi militia, arguably the two most powerful people in the Middle East. My husband Salem, who usually is completely dysfunctional until he has had at least three cigarettes and half of the coffee bolted out of bed, and started furiously checking the news—convinced that balance of power was finally changing, in his eyes—and many others in the Middle East—for good. Meanwhile those who protest intervention in the Middle East resurrected their “no blood for oil” signs—this time about Iran, and not Iraq—and kids on TikTok posted about their anxieties that they would be drafted for World War III.
Everyone was afraid, and nothing was nuanced—it felt impossible to understand the whole story for all of its twists, turns and possible implications and it was just the first month of 2020. If only we knew…
My beloved grandfather passed away in February and I was on the next plane to San Francisco—a privilege I knew I had, but one I did not know could be so quickly taken away due to unforeseen circumstances. My family came together in a way that it hadn’t in years—maybe decades—and it was the most amazing, soul-nourishing feeling to see how bonded we are in spite of time, and oceans apart from each other. It could never have happened if he had died one month, or even just a few weeks later.
Hug your family :)
I flew back to London and almost immediately got sick—all the while the top story on the BBC was the symptoms of the then-novel Coronavirus. I tried not to be a hypochondriac and marveled at the way that a slice of bread tasted the same as an egg, and got hooked on spicy soups which were the only thing that could nudge my sense of smell. Hindsight is 2020.
I recovered from what I was calling “the mutant flu” just in time for the Coronavirus to start being taken seriously around Europe, as Italy and Spain were forced into a national lockdown. Boris Johnson proposed “herd immunity” to save the economy, and then got the virus himself—which felt like a sweet stroke of karmic retribution. Britain was forced to follow suit with a national lockdown, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how suddenly western countries and privileged passport holders were experiencing a taste of what refugees and asylum-seekers have to deal with, what with navigating global crises around closed borders, living in uncertainty, often separated from family.
Of course, for actual refugees and asylum-seekers it was a lot worse. My wonderful CNN Editor Yaffa Frederick let me write about Jorge and Danilo, a Cuban couple who were separated by ICE as the pandemic raged through the detention center where Danilo was being held. One day before the article was supposed to be published, I got news that Danilo was being released—and that the two were going to be able to reunite. Sharing their joy was one of the best moments of 2020.
Summer came, and with it lower numbers and a gradual easing of lockdown. The government encouraged people to go to pubs and take vacations, and while some people did exactly that without so much as second thought, hundreds of thousands of others took to the streets protesting the murder of George Floyd. Maybe it was all of the weeks of pacing my living room in my sweatpants and throwing work-life balance out the window, but it felt revolutionary and unprecedented. Were people finally waking up to the realities of structural racism, and ready to make meaningful change? At my job at the Media Diversity Institute, I doubled down creating and commissioning content to drive the conversation forward in the journalism world—which at times is soul-crushingly white and even at its most diverse is tokenistic and shallow at best. I commissioned op-eds, made videos and organized panels to explore how to move forward to create accurate, inclusive media that reports on these issues. For a moment, it felt as if people might be ready to change.
I thought August might be a bit of reprieve—what, with summer holiday and all, but it was not. I was interviewing Ruth, a magnificent and fascinating Holocaust survivor, in her West Hampstead garden when my phone started buzzing and it seemed like everyone I know was telling me that an explosion had just happened in Beirut—a city that I called home for many years and will always be a bit spiritually my home due to my Lebanese heritage.
I thought it was one of the suicide or car bombs that unfortunately rocks the city from time to time. I came home to learn that it was the largest non-nuclear explosion in history, and that many of my friends homes and our shared stomping grounds for many years had been blown to smithereens.
It felt as if my soul had been excavated as well.
For me, that was the moment that the darkness of 2020 took over—consumed with a sorrow and survivor’s guilt shared by many others of Lebanese heritage, confused and perplexed at how some people in the world could bitch about lockdowns or being bored by COVID and others were rebuilding their homes with money they didn’t have, longing to embrace one another and remembering that there was still a pandemic. I tried to engage, writing about disinformation and accountability, trying to professionally muster up the right words about the importance of journalism in these times—it was nearly impossible. Meanwhile, many of my Lebanese colleagues were doing incredible work on the ground. They’re all fucking heroes.
My birthday is in September and I asked God (who I have a very casual relationship, yet special in its own kind of a way) relationship to please let the month be extremely boring. So I got a group of friends together in a park, and it was truly wonderful—although one week later it would have been illegal.
But this time around, people were tired of the rules—and it made sense. The Coronavirus was no longer the novel Coronavirus, and it felt like one more thing bubbling on the back burner, particularly with wildfires in California and the upcoming presidential election and the myriad of other things happening around the world.
The election. Fuck! Polls told us that Biden was going to win by a landslide, but when we started watching, I realized that we had again, been duped. I fell asleep on the sofa surrounded by junk food and doom with a CBS correspondent breaking the news that it was still too close to call. I channeled my frustrations into making a video that made so many people that I love laugh that it might be the thing that I am the proudest of this year (shout out to my hot live-in cameraman, Salem, who is so not also my husband).
It was so fun that we started a YouTube channel (yes, this is a subtle hint to subscribe).
I cried—like, ugly cried—tears of relief when Biden won (and immortalized the moment with another video), but of course, quickly started thinking of all the work that needs to be done. I also started thinking about how Americans (and everyone for that matter) has gotten so bad at talking to people that don’t think like they do, and how if we don’t put aside our differences or try to understand them, we’re frankly screwed.
We moved house, I finished my book proposal (a project that you will get to learn more about if you subscribe to this newsletter, subtle, I know) and suddenly we are back in lockdown—which frankly isn’t that bizarre for an introverted journalist who cancels plans and writes excessively from her living room in even the best of circumstances, but feels alarming given the new strain of Coronavirus (the newly novel, anyone?) making the rounds, and the people who, even after this hell hole of a year, are still ignoring the guidelines and putting themselves first and don’t seem to care that it is fucking everyone else. I’m wondering whether the changes we’ve been forced to make over the past year will make us better or worse as humans (contrary to popular belief, I choose to be an optimist) and whether the vaccine will alleviate or entrench our inequalities (this one I’m not so sure about). I wonder if people will reflect on the past year (and frankly, the years before it) in a way that makes them shift their values, or if they will eagerly put this year to bed, counting down until we go back to “normal.” I wonder how this will change the world going forward.
If you want more of these reflections, you know what to do. (Hint: subscribe)