Sections Precarious Life in Motion
by way of Brooklyn, by way
of the Bay Area, where
she moved from Kuwait.

A Run in West Mishref

Yasmeen Khaja

April 7

I made my way up the hill, down the other end, and into the track. It was very hot (already) and very sunny, but there seemed to be a faint veil filtering the sun. By the way my inhales had felt—unclear and frictioned—I assume the veil was of dust. It was an unpleasant run. For example, I saw a butterfly but could not really see it, or think about it, or smile at it. I would say that I only saw the butterfly in objective terms, but I fear that I would be dishonest.

Near our house in Mubarak Al-Abdullah, there is a 1.5 kilometer walkway that loops and extends into another half kilometer just over a slight hill. Every few early mornings, before a run on the track, I warm up on the highest point of that hill. Relative to the rest of the track, it’s not so high. But if I’m standing on top of it, and facing west, I see a freeway below me, and a bridge in the middle of massive construction right across from me. Witnessing the scale alone at nearby eye-level elicits a gravitas especially poignant in the dawn of another day, in a slowly spiraling time.

During the past four months, running in this same place, in this loop, has afforded a simple practice of measuring the changes in the landscape around me. My attention was focused. On one run, I counted 14 birds nests high up in the trees that had dried in the summer heat, now snapping onto one another. The bushes lining the track grew wildly onto the tarmac. Construction of the bridge was put on hold—there was a small gap in the middle of it, the bridge, which, if I looked at from a specific point, framed the qubba of a mosque in South Surra. The deceleration brought onto the country’s production processes by the virus was made visible. Yet, virtually everything else around it was disappearing.

Every day, the Ministry of Health’s spokesperson, Dr. Abdullah al-Sanad, came on the local tv channel, KTV1, to chant in soothing intonation a daily briefing of disembodied numbers and statistics. The state gave dizzyingly vague press conferences. The media armed itself with representations of national heroism: military, policemen, and youth volunteers all cloyed our need for something to be done, for action, with the exhausted image of people doing things that were actually far from what ought to be done. There were campaigns quick to warn against viral rumors. The impossible layering of information all but demystified the virus, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the landfills in Kuwait. There was hardly a link between the two, but it was impossible to accept the idea that whatever world we knew was coming to a halt—not when the image of unsorted garbage continuing to pile in the middle of the desert went unaddressed. It seemed only reasonable to want to take into public consideration the parts of life that were still happening, including the stresses being put on the health of the locally deteriorating environment.

May 6

There it was, the heat. It wasn’t so bad. And upon happening a dead pigeon, clearly plummeted to its death by slamming into the pavement face down, I hovered near it, but across the street. If a car came between us it would hurt neither of us. Particularly because the bird was already dead, but precisely because I couldn’t bring myself to go near it. It was lying face down. It was so bright out. The sky was dreadful; it knew no blue. The bird’s dead face was resting exactly on the street.

Instead, the pre-pandemic realities of nationwide consumption grew saturated in the wake of lockdown. So many things, beyond medical and other vital resources, were made deliverable. Advertisements adopted a rhetoric of reassurance. What was once a meal available in a brick and mortar restaurant was now packaged into a series of vacuum-sealed plastics that were newly acquired in the earnest venture of making homebound people feel more at home. I could buy those fresh-frozen- pre-pepared pizzas and recreate a vanishing reality with my family. We could role play our lives. We needed to survive, and businesses needed to survive, yet sometimes both at the expense of accumulating more. We kept unwrapping things. Stillness was simulated. None of us were actually at home, but all at once, our waste was.

On the other hand, the glaring lack of resources was unequally distributed. While the television displayed interstitial drone shots of an unusually carless and cautionary Kuwait, grassroots volunteer efforts pulling together fundraisers and basic–needs boxes were relentless in real action. The disproportionate access to sustain any life at all became more apparent in the total lockdown. Yet between the news cycles and daily briefings that somehow became more obscure over time, my immobility yielded no closure.

I moved back a few months before the virus broke out and after six formative years away from Kuwait. But I only started running in my last year in America, in downtown Brooklyn. My runs were like spells of discovery. Movement did not feel so socially siloed—everything around me was new. I was new; I left new. Now, at night, the only cars I heard drive by were the municipal waste collector trucks driven by municipal waste collector workers. The beeping truck reminded me of New York: a localized sound that articulated life, just outside. The sound of the bins slamming against the vehicle and its fading beep as the workers drove down to empty out the next house’s trash was the only honest call I could make out that revealed the actual state of insecurity. In reality, life in the pandemic has not been put on pause.

April 28

The scary part about living in a small town that you grew up in is that you are tricked into believing that you are bigger than it. There’s an illusion that sustains its smallness. It is a damaging illusion.

My runs were like daydreams, political images conjured in every lap around the track. The first five cases of COVID-19 in Kuwait were announced on February 24, one day before the national and liberation days. Things were already in extranational territory, and the country’s initially proactive response to the virus was a point of celebration. Makeshift processes of utilizing existing structures as hospitals and quarantine residences were achievements announced by often maskless officials. It didn’t make sense to me that most of the local media were telling people what to do instead of showing them. Seeing people with masks pulled down on chins interview other people with masks pulled down on chins about the efforts to control an unknowable virus made no sense to me. But these stubborn juxtapositions were not inevitable. They didn’t have to be. I wanted these images to be more honest, like the beeping waste trucks. I wanted the two people on camera to start pointing at each other’s noses or mouths as they recited coronavirus PSAs. Every time someone didn’t, and a surface was touched, or a face was touched, I wanted the person behind the camera to say, “I saw that too.”

June 12

My favorite joke to tell is that the Ministry of Communications directed the media into Hala Febrayer and never left. We’ve been stuck in nationalism since the second month of this year.

The track became a refuge for me, from a world where the virus was made invisible to discourse fatigue. The exhaustive sameness of running hundreds of kilometers in one place surrendered to me a clarity in which I could think. There were only a few other people on the track getting up before six. We hardly ever exchanged words, but we saw one another every time we were there. In persistent seeing was an acknowledgment I found gapingly absent elsewhere.

Documenting myself in this space is an exercise in preserving relations. Here is the walkway: long, narrow, and looping around an island of date palms. In early April, daisies. In late April, a light rain. Eventually, a devastating, dry, desert heat. Towards the end of June, construction on the bridge resumed. The gap was filled, and when I came to stretch at the top of the hill, I couldn’t see the mosque anymore. I looked for other parts of the bridge to observe, but it was changing too fast. There was material residue laying around the highway, and I imagined it going to one of the unregulated waste sites. I wondered if this bridge will actually go anywhere, if this change is real.

April 22

I think, at one point, I saw a shattered ladybug. It was a red spot on the ground that shunted me off my course. I jogged a step back and bent down close to the ground, assessed that it was, in fact, a shattered ladybug, and jumped back into my run. I think all of this took about 3 seconds. And, if I’m not mistaken about which lap I was in, I almost ran into two chickens running away right then. They were far deeper north in the track than they usually are. It gave me a good laugh, being caught off guard by two running chickens. On this run, I saw birds dancing and chirping across the park. There are so many little ones. My right cheek burned, and so did my eyes. But I was happy with it. I could feel my body, it was there, despite everything else that wasn’t. I went back home, and washed my hands.

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