The world still struggles about a convincing strategy to handle the #coronavirus crisis. The taken measures may have helped to contain the development, but generate also very serious challenges for the longer future of the planet and global solidarity. The award-winning Jordanian author Hisham Bustani has been interviewed to provide his insights, requests and visions.
Some core messages of the interview:
- The panic of the emergency situation eliminates any possibility to conduct the necessary discussions about the major failures, witnessed so far, of a “system” that has been taken for granted, unquestioned, for too long.
- The measures taken in Jordan have succeeded so far to keep the spread of COVID-19 slow and manageable.
- As a remedy to the future, a rapid detachment from the global economy should get underway initiating modes of production aimed at local needs, food security and sufficiency, in place of export-oriented “growth” strategies that serve banks and financial elites, not people.
- The main challenge is to reconsider the “system” that governs human existence on this planet, and put forward, and struggle for, a more just alternative.
- The current experience will be part of my future writing: The destructive presence of humans on Earth is one of the main areas of my literary exploration.
- A sense of doom is very present now, along with eye-opening experiences of solidarity, collectiveness, and modesty in front of nature’s might and immensity.
Hisham Bustani is an award-winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and poetry. His fiction and poetry have been translated into several languages, with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals including The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, The Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, World Literature Today, and The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly. His fiction has been collected in The Best Asian Short Stories, The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human: Tales from Many Muslim Worlds, The Radiance of the Short Story: Fiction From Around the Globe among other anthologies. His book The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015) won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. Hisham is the Arabic fiction editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common and was the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Fellowship for Artists and Writers in 2017.
GLO: The corona crisis has reached Jordan late on March 15 and the intensity of the disease is still low. How much is public life in your country nevertheless affected by the coronavirus debate and how do you judge the situation?
Hisham Bustani: Like everywhere else around the world, nothing is in the discussion and in the news except COVID-19, mainly in the crude form of statistics, more statistics, and even more statistics – the number of infected people, the number of those who died, and to a lesser extent, the number of those cured.
Although this might be a good way to raise awareness about the seriousness of the disease, and the calamity of the situation (thus stressing the importance of personal preventive measures and social distancing), the fever of numbers and the panic of the emergency situation eliminates any possibility to conduct the necessary discussions about the major failures, witnessed so far, of a “system” that has been taken for granted, unquestioned, for too long.
One can observe that the “free market”, “capitalist globalization”, and the reign of corporations and financial institutions was not just ineffective in dealing with the pandemic (among many other things), but costs tremendous human lives and suffering. This “system” is incapable of functioning in emergencies and is continuously in need of being bailed out with taxpayer’s money instead of bailing out the people themselves. As matters get worse, they get contained with intensive “socialist” remedies, imposed through government-led measures, and intensive government intervention, the exact opposite of the neoliberal doctrines vigorously promoted around the world since the 1980s.
One can observe that the most important people around the world today are not the CEOs of transnational corporations and their incompetent politicians, but the massive army of underpaid public health professionals and other low-paid laborers who are maintaining the necessities of life and survival.
One can observe that what really matters are not useless, valueless, glamor commodities but food essentials, ventilators, and a universal health system for all.
One can observe that the reversal of catastrophic pollution levels is attainable, and desirable results can be achieved in extremely short periods.
One can observe that “collaborative” institutions (like the European Union) have failed their “internal” test as each member state scrambled to contain its own situation, leaving other deeply-affected countries (like Spain and Italy) without help; the only efficiency they can claim is mediating and concentrating power, while during a pandemic: allies are no longer allies but cutthroat competitors for the acquisition of medical supplies and test kits.
While a curfew situation is being imposed in Jordan, as well as in many countries around the world, and while health carers are on the frontlines of confronting the pandemic, doing whatever they can to save lives in haphazard field hospitals erected in boulevards and piazzas; these are the observations that should provide food for thought, the material for a deep public discussion, possibly contributing to initiating another future for us humans, our ways and governing systems, after the disease.
GLO: How did your country initially reacted to the new threat, beyond the many others you already have: development, conflict and peace, and refugees?
Hisham Bustani: In Jordan, the governmental response was rapid and radical. A strict lockdown was imposed for a number of days starting March 21, eased later to a 6pm-10am curfew period while allowing people to go out during the day to purchase necessary items. Cars and not allowed to move except with special permits. The twelve governorates that comprise Jordan are isolated from each other and movement between them is banned. Flights in and out of the country were stopped, all borders closed down, and the last group of people who entered the country (more than 5000) were quarantined in hotels for two weeks.
These measures have succeeded so far at keeping the spread of COVID-19 slow and manageable. The country’s resources, and its political and societal composition cannot bear the consequences of the sort of health sector collapses witnessed in countries like Italy. The majority of Jordanians have been cooperative and collaborative. Except for a massive wave of shopping craze on March 20, just before the lockdown, things quickly returned to a quasi-normal state: grocery shops, bakeries and pharmacies reopened, shortly followed by banks, but all under strict conditions of social distancing and infection control. There are investigation teams that promptly identify and test people who were in contact with any infected person. The only missing element is wide scale testing, simply because test kits are not available, and the limited global supply is snatched by bigger, more powerful countries, sometimes through crooked ways.
There has been an upside to this lockdown situation: in addition to the extended calm and quite, the slowed-down pace of life, the cleaner air, and the reintroduction of walking as a daily routine, a rapid reorientation towards producing for local needs and necessities got under way, signalling that models of need-based self-sufficiency are more important than export-oriented models of massive consumption.
I am not sure what the future holds since many of the more-vulnerable segments of the population received a direct blow: daily workers ended up with no income at all, many employees were, or will be, laid off, and as the lockdown continues, people will become short of money needed to buy food and necessities as they spend their meagre savings.
However, the economic collapse and its effects will be global rather than local, it will happen either way, and I am happy that Jordanian decision makers (so far, and in a rare occurrence) have chosen people over the economy. As a remedy to the future situation, a rapid detachment from the global economy should get underway (there is an excellent window of opportunity to do this), initiating modes of production aimed at local needs, food security and sufficiency, in place of export-oriented “growth” strategies that serve banks and financial elites, not people.
GLO: It seems that the virus has crowded out currently most other major challenges in the world. Rightly or wrongly, there is debate about how large the virus threat really is; but the substantial lockdowns of the economies in most countries will reduce the possibilities to deal with the old challenges when they come back to the table soon. How will your society perceive this challenge?
Hisham Bustani: The main challenge in my society, and probably all other societies around the world, is to reconsider the “system” that governs human existence on this planet, and put forward, and struggle for, a more just alternative.
The COVID-19 experience illuminated for us what is necessary for life, and how destructive those unnecessary elements can be.
The COVID-19 experience showed us how economic concepts based on profit are unable to deal with global human emergencies.
The COVID-19 experience taught us that economic considerations should never come before people-nature nexus, and that the former can be easily compelled to serve the well-being of the latter.
The challenge is to maintain and develop those insights after everything goes back to “normal”.
GLO: War refugees in particular will receive in the future even lower support of the world to fight sources and misery. Countries like Jordan will have to expect further challenges. What do you think is our role as scientists, writers and poets in the corona crisis?
Hisham Bustani: The main role is to expose the hypocrisy and double standards of what goes on in the world today. Example: colonialist Europe has plundered the wealth of the global south, leaving their societies crippled and poor, and then unleashed upon them interventionist wars, interventionist politics and interventionist economics, burying them further into debt, corruption and tyranny, and once people started fleeing this doomed fate to that same Europe, now self-designated as “the bastion of human rights”, they were faced (in most, but not all instances) with barbwires, teargas, truncheons, and racism, left to drown in the Mediterranean.
It is quite revealing that a country like Jordan, with an area of 89,000 square kilometres, of which 75% is a desert, and a population of 9 million, has taken in what is estimated to be 1.3 million Syrian refugees as from 2011 alone, and that is not taking into consideration previous waves of Iraqi, Syrian and Palestinian refugees from 1948 onwards, mostly caused by Euro-US-supported settler-colonialism (in Palestine) and Euro-US invasion and/or interventionism (in Iraq and Syria).
On top of that, Europe offers pennies as “assistance packages” for countries like Jordan to “keep the refugees put”, not allow them to move. What kind of “free world” is that? I will tell you: one that sells aggressive regimes fighter planes for billions of dollars, then sends in their “international aid agency” to finance prosthetic limbs for the victims of its raids for a fraction of a fraction of the profit.
The corona crisis has moved this “divide”, that blockade, that hypocrisy, further up north towards US-Europe itself, in the same sense that (as Sven Lindqvist explains in his book A History of Bombing) massive bombings of native communities in the colonies finally found its way into Europe in WWI and WWII.
Is it not eye opening how the US blocked the export of facemasks to Europe, or how the US, UK and many EU countries failed to take sever measures in the favour of people’s health for the sake of “maintaining the economy” and “business as usual” which basically pours profit in the pockets of the few who flew their private jets to special disaster bunkers? All this happened after neoliberalism has robbed the public sector (in the previous rampage of privatization) of its capacity act efficiently in favour of the public, leaving doctors and nurses struggling with an ever-increasing number of sick people who can’t find a hospital bed, making tough decisions on who lives and who dies because of the lack of social resources created by neoliberalism.
In response to the corona crisis, scientists, writers and poets should think about all this, think about its opposite: an egalitarian future, and the means to achieve it.
GLO: Your work as a poet and a fiction writer has been inspired by the many realities you observe. Will you soon write about the bad and good sides of humans revealed by the crisis?
Hisham Bustani: Two weeks ago, I was invited to contribute to “The Quarantine Chronicles” series, curated by Carol Sansour for The Sultan’s Seal literary e-zine, I obliged by writing “Eyes Without a Face”, a literary text that explores the manifestations created by, and the consequences left behind, the compulsory quarantine: its tragedies, catastrophes, farces, and hopes. The title is inspired by a Billy Idol song with the same name that was playing in the background, the singer making a special appearance in the piece, telling me (from yet another of his songs): “There is nothin’ fair in this world, nothin’ safe, nothin’ sure, nothin’ pure. Look for something left in this world.” “I think about those long held in an indefinite quarantine in refugee camps, prisons and shantytowns,” I wrote in response.
I am sure this experience will be part of my future writing, especially that the destructive presence of humans on Earth is one of the main areas of my literary exploration; examples of this can be found, for example, in my book: The Perception of Meaning.
I’ve written about war and its deeper effect on sanity (as in the short stories: “One Moment Before the End” and “Skybar”), about human’s violence against nature, his selfishness and lack of consideration (as in the poem: “Mirror, Mirror”), the effect of urban enclosures and their continuity within an internal isolation of individuals (as in the prose/poem hybrid piece: “Voices Within”), the reproduction of enslavement in societies that uphold selfish individualism, competitiveness, and consumption as key principal values (as in: “Starddust”), all of this leading to a general sense of doom (as represented in the poem: “Apocalypse Now”, after Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the same name, which is based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).
This sense of doom is very present now, along with eye-opening experiences of solidarity, collectiveness, and modesty in front of nature’s might and immensity. This makes my literary work more relevant than any other time before. It makes art (as juxtaposed to “entertainment”) more relevant than before, since art is all about diving deep, contemplating, and opening up questions: the unleashing of creative possibilities within the recipient, things that entertainment has killed and replaced with passivity and idleness, undermining the “human condition” even more.
With Hisham Bustani spoke Klaus F. Zimmermann, GLO President on April 9, 2020. Both have been Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellows in 2017.
Further activities and reports of the GLO Research Cluster on the coronavirus.