Absence and Presence in the Time of Corona

By Everyday Bahrain Editorial team
Translation by: Kawthar Alarab

“I do not know of anyone, who has seen Coronavirus visibly or discretely, however, I have known, as many others, its attributes and doings, its traces and the trails it took; our lives’ transformation in its presence has been the best evidence of its existence.”

Atheer Al Sada (2020). Diaries of Home Quarantine 16. Facebook page.

In a small country like Bahrain, where the distance from its east cost to the west does not exceed 20 kilometres, social relations are a vital part of life. For people of Bahrain, presence in space and time, for various social, religious, national and other occasions is at the core of being who they are. The weekly family gatherings sit on top of the social customs pyramid in Bahrain, where families meet, tirelessly, at the home of their grandparents, including extended family members and cousins. And when it comes to weddings and funerals, attendance and participation is a duty! Although, they are excused if absent.

We have all witnessed how the Coronavirus pandemic has imposed pivotal changes to life patterns globally, and Bahrain was not isolated from that. Ever since Coronavirus arrived in Bahrain, it immediately paralysed life as we know it, imposing absence, where presence was prevalent in Bahrain’s society. The drivers behind human connection; of love, care, passion, responsibility towards others, are the very same that are pushing us today to stay apart from loved ones, and absent from events we care about.

In the midst of people’s fixation on daily statistics of current and discharged cases, as if we are in a race against time to see who will overcome this pandemic first, a number of photographers have been working on documenting scenes of absence and presence in daily life. Their works have ranged to shed light on family; a mother who is close and far at the same time, holding a long-absent loved one, to the silence of city streets, and cafes and majlis’ vacant of their usual occupants.

Mohamed Dhaif

Saar, Bahrain. March 2020.

My wife, Dr Ejlal Al Alawi, has been heading the Coronavirus Testing Clinic for Contact Cases inside Bahrain, since the outbreak started. Like the rest of the medical crew, she spends her day at the clinic from the early hours of the morning till late in the evening. Naturally, this has taken a toll on our family, as we constantly worry for her every day, being in a vulnerable position to be infected, which if it happens (God forbid), the disease will easily spread to the rest of the family. Not to mention, the effect this is leaving on the children being away from their mother, especially with their academic achievements. I am trying to fill the gap, but there are parts that I still feel unable to do as good as her, especially with getting them committed to virtual learning.

On her part, my wife is gladly taking her role, and even finds joy in supporting her country in such a critical time, where sacrifice is needed from everyone. We welcome her every night once we hear her coming through the door, especially that she cannot take our calls during the day due to the workload. She keeps a safe distance upon arriving, despite longing to hold Yusuf and Moayed after a very tough day. Soon after, she is back on her phone to check on lab results and case updates, and then the calls to her team start planning the next day.

Yusuf and Moayed wait every night to welcome their mother late in the evening, as the first days of operating the Coronavirus Testing Clinic required long working hours and huge efforts from the medical staff. © Mohamed Dhaif
© Mohamed Dhaif
© Mohamed Dhaif

Her energy when she is back home usually doesn’t last longer than an hour, until exhaustion gets the best of her and she surrenders to sleep. She needs this rest to be able to continue to give the next day. On the rare occasion that she is able to spend more time with us, I try to get her to open up and talk about her feelings and concerns. I even started reading on virology, to make the conversation more interesting.

On 17 March 2020, I went to the clinic to be tested, because I had a light cough. My wife’s exceptional leadership really caught my eye, and I felt extremely proud of her. I wished that I could photograph or document what is happening there, because the efforts of the medical crew are truly praiseworthy.

Since she is unable to take our calls during the day, I usually send her WhatsApp messages, expressing our pride in and love for her. She says they make her very happy, and that she goes back to read them whenever she has time, because they lift her spirits and help with weariness she feels. 

Following the suspension of schools and universities, schools started implementing virtual classes, despite varying capacities and readiness. Our children, Yusuf and Moayed, start their day by logging onto their school’s electronic learning portal, and working on their homework and assignments. The process is not without flaws, especially with their tendency to slack and play, using their mother’s absence, as children do.

© Mohamed Dhaif
Yusuf (ninth grade) takes the matter more seriously than Moayed (third grade), as the latter tends to enjoy other distractions and also has a more rebellious personality, which I find hard to control. © Mohamed Dhaif
This year, were unable to celebrate Mothers’ Day together, as my wife spent most of her time at the Coronavirus Testing Clinic. However, she did receive gifts from her team at work and from the family when she came home. © Mohamed Dhaif

Zainab Al Zain

Karzakkan, Bahrain. 17 March 2020 – 8:00 pm.

Despite the many official warnings against gatherings, to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the gathering around our house formed rapidly, like a rebellion of passion. 
My father informed us that we received a call regarding the release of my brother, following the Royal Pardon, and in less than 10 minutes, people have gathered around the house to welcome my brother, who has been in prison for 3 years. This pardon coincided with the outbreak of Coronavirus in Bahrain, and over the past three days, up to 900 prisoners have been released.
A leaflet of instructions on the door, instructed everyone to avoid shaking hands, hugs, and urged them to wash their hands and use sanitizers, however, emotions broke through all the instructions and recommendations. Overwhelming joy took the crowd, tearful laughter, the scent of Mashmoom (sweet basil) mixed with the smell of sanitizer, in the midst of the ladies abayas, all wrapped around my brother, surrounded by celebratory songs.

I watched my mother embrace my brother, barely summoning the strength to stand, with love larger than life, joy beyond the skies, and immense longing mixed with fear and anticipation. She embraced him with bliss and gratitude. © Zainab Al Zain
© Zainab Al Zain

Dimistan, Bahrain. 20 March 2020 – 11:00 am.

The local vegetable and fish market in Dimistan is crowded, and the streets around it full of cars, following a viral video of one of the vendors, urging people to go before the market is closed as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.

The traffic was abnormal, it took me 10 minutes to pass a few metres through the market. People’s faces were scared and anxious, whilst the vendors maintained their smiles and usual lively and humorous demeanour. Despite that, the general atmosphere was uneasy. One of the vendors told me, with a content tone: “we don’t know what tomorrow holds, perhaps we will have to deliver fish from our homes to the people.”

What is noteworthy, is that the market remained open, and vendors were allowed to continue their usual work and activity.

© Zainab Al Zain

Hasan Al Nasheet

Manama, Bahrain. 20 March 2020.

© Hasan Al Nasheet

Manama Souq (market), exudes liveliness through its ancient cafes, spread across the edges of the old market and in its depths. These cafes have become the ideal spot for many Bahrainis; families or individuals, as well as residents and visitors, who have formed an affinity with the place, and found joy in it, and a feel they had sought. I would go during the weekend to take photos in Manama Souq, of crowded cafes, the ringing of stirring spoons against glass cups, clinking sounds of plates and tableware, loud conversations, and occasionally, bickering with café owners over tables’ availability and long waiting time. The hustle of workers and people’s sounds, all disappeared in a moment on Friday, 20 March 2020.

© Hasan Al Nasheet
© Hasan Al Nasheet

Hajji Café, usually brings together a lot of families, youth and elderly, and barely closes, as they open with the first light and don’t close till around 8:30 in the evening. All its doors are closed now, the family section and other sections. Zuhair Hajji is there alone today, with a small number of employees, who were sitting on the chairs. “Today is a long break”, Zuhair said, “as you can see, no one! No customers, no movement, nothing till now”. He proclaimed with a tone of sadness. He is not used to this, perhaps, never even imagined it, and if he did, it wasn’t this way. I took a photo of him, and another of his employees, and of the place. I had never seen the café empty, except for late at night, when everyone had left the Souq.

© Hasan Al Nasheet
© Hasan Al Nasheet
© Hasan Al Nasheet

There is no bigger hit to a street photographer than empty places. What do they capture now, when they are seeking the human element that breathes life into their photographs? That livens up the place and gives a deeper meaning to their work? It seems that the truth of the time of Corona is too real. Which makes the photo impactful, even if after a while.

Hussain Al Kumaish

Al Markh, Bahrain. 20 March 2020.

© Hussain Al Kumaish

In response to the directions from the official authorities around suspending all gatherings to prevent the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19), the Shia sect has suspended all activities in mosques and Matam’s. They began organising religious activities and lectures online, live streamed or recorded on social media platforms in an attempt to continue their religious, social and cultural activism, giving access to people who are used to attending these ceremonies and celebrations, as well as providing options for productive quarantine activities. 

The photo is from the commemoration of Imam Mousa Al Kadhem, the seventh Shia Imam, showing the empty matam, in striking contrast to what would have been a fully crowded scene, now with no more than 10 people setting up the live stream. The photo shows the techniques that these young volunteers are using, to transmit the sermon, which was viewed by over 800 people at one time from inside and outside Bahrain.

© Hussain Al Kumaish
© Hussain Al Kumaish
© Hussain Al Kumaish
© Hussain Al Kumaish

Hussain Almosawi

Al Malikiyah, Bahrain. 20 March 2020.

© Hussain Almosawi

Chaos fills our house in the early morning, following my niece and nephew’s sleepover with their grandmother (my mother). My sister works at Salmaniya Medical Complex, which keeps her from staying with her children following the suspension of schools in Bahrain.

Their presence always brings a lot of joy and great chaos. Their morning starts with breakfast, made by my mother, and then they spend the rest of the day playing on their iPad or PlayStation. Between their endless requests and bickering, my mother tries to occupy them with different activities, like helping her clean around the house, or plant the small patch outside the front door. 

As the weekend draws closer, exhaustion takes its toll on my mother, and looking after them becomes quite a weary task. This is what she proclaims, after she reprimands them. Luckily, the beach is only 700 metres away from our house, which allows me to take them to the beach, and have some quiet time, nonetheless. 

Al Hamala, Bahrain. 24 March 2020.

© Hussain Almosawi

The Ministry of Health announced the third Coronavirus (COVID-19) death. The deceased was a 65-year-old Bahraini male citizen. I happened to be passing through Hamala that night, when I witnessed, from a distance, the burial procedure of Mr Isa Al Haddar, by a specialised medical team and under increased security measures, to ensure people’s safety. 

In the dark of night, this pandemic imposed such harsh lonesomeness in the face of this tragedy, where the traditional burial customs, and funeral ceremonies were not permitted. People sufficed with conveying condolences through social media platforms. 

© Hussain Almosawi

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