I grew up learning to play football on the streets of Abu Dhabi. The city was home to hundreds of immigrants, especially from different countries of the Arab World. We often played barefooted, late into the night when the asphalt was cooler and wouldn’t scald the bottom of our soles. The parking lots, backyards and unattended real-estates would be an opportunity to share a piece of land with all kinds of barefooted individuals over a game that ran deep in our veins.
If we were lucky, we’d find a pitch with grass and goal posts every once in a while, and manage a decent game before it would get too crowded and chaotic, even violent. Official pitches were owned by rich clubs who mostly recruited only local emiratis. As an immigrant you had to find love in the more raw versions of the game.
There was nothing tactical about playing with Arabs, but it was all about style, technique and flair. So, you’ve been at the core of your team’s defence, won all your aerials and managed a close to perfect pass accuracy? Nobody cared. How many dribbles have you done defenders with, or more specifically, how many nutmegs this game? Those earned you respect.
The game is nothing without magic. By those standards, a grass pitch was seldom an opportunity to float some ping balls across the field. It was just an excuse to attempt the revered bicycle volley. In fact attempting a bicycle in a game was an honest representation of where you came from. Pelé once said, ‘The bicycle kick is not easy to do.’
Riga United FC gave me my first taste of football in Europe. Despite being an amateur club playing in the regional division, it was a hub for players from different parts of the continent – Germany, England, France, Spain – who most often grew up learning the game at proper academies back home. The difference in priorities for the same game was evident. It was miles away from the streets, here we played for three points.
The game is nothing without magic.
Yet, in the first game I attended of United, guess who caught my eye? A fellow Arab. His name was Kareem. They called him the ‘Moroccan magician.’ The way he received the ball with his slender legs and moved past players reminded me all about the streets. There was something about his game that seemed to slow down time. It cannot be explained in numbers or actions what exactly it was.
No coincidence, it’s a bit like watching Zidane play among other greats of the game. It was about the stepovers, the roulettes. The magic was in the movement. It’s about the way he danced past opponents who were determined to not make themselves look like they were playing another sport. It was never a lack of respect, but rather a love of magic. His game was an art that transcended pragmatism.
(Kareem Gouglou #7)
You can’t be an Arab and not be a bit crazy in the head. Beneath the veneer of compassion and humility is a congenital affinity for a shot of adrenaline every once in a while. I barely paid notice to it, until I moved out of the Middle East. Only when you come to a complex society like most of Europe, you realise rationality is the reason you don’t drive your 4-wheeler on two wheels or attempt a bicycle kick when your team is really looking for that crucial point.
It was never a lack of respect, but rather a love of magic.
It was outrageous. I think Kareem’s teammates around him frowned after he attempted it. “What was wrong with a simple header?” He completely mishit it, and it was a good opportunity to get ahead in the game. He was totally unmarked. Now he had blown it, going for the spectacular – or even the unthinkable. How many times a week in the Latvian football league do you witness goals scored by bicycle volleys? Especially in the second division, at an amateur club fixture on old generation artificial turf. Not too many.
But this was Kareem. He was there to turn heads. His responsibility as a magician preceded that of a centre forward. Hence he wore the illustrious number 7. If not, he’d have worn any other number to fulfil the protocol. I went and caught him after the game and said, “Salaam aleik, ya akhii.” “Greetings to you, brother. It is a pleasure to meet you. You remind me of home.”
Over the next two years, we’d have a lot of interesting conversations. He spoke beautifully about Essaouira, where he came from in Morocco, about the food and the beaches. Even our teammates, like Josu from Spain who visited him in Morocco, spoke about his home like it was paradise. A paradise where gems like Kareem came from. I once asked him about a striker’s movement after training. I remember him looking at me with his smile that stretched across his eyes, “My friend, in football you have to think geometry, but on the pitch.”
He was on and off at the club, and we all understood that he was probably recovering from an injury. But he was in his early thirties and clearly in his prime. His time away from the pitch did not make him rusty at all. In fact he came back smiling more often, even elegant with his long curly hair that he now needed to set back with a band during games.
“My friend, in football you have to think geometry, but on the pitch.” – Karim
And then came that evening, in a poorly lit public school pitch where United trained and played their home games – School 49, against United’s then most formidable opponents FC Caramba. It was the 8th minute when United won a corner. It didn’t matter where you were watching that game from, it couldn’t be missed:
Not before long, the ball came floating over the penalty spot, between the 6-yard and 18-yard boxes. Surely those are heavily marked zones. But not where you could reach Kareem. That altitude is a zone that belonged to him. He was already six feet in the air, and horizontal. That ‘son of a ..’ He did it! Bloody hell. He pulled it off. What did we just see? It was where Kareem had longed to be, up there far from reach, of any of us mortals. It was a goal, but it was so much more than just that.
My last conversation with Kareem was at our friend Emīls’ birthday evening. We were listening to music by Cheb Khaled and talking about where we learned to play football. Emīls lit a joint and passed it around talking about how once Kareem and him went to an empty pitch to play. Kareem had promised to show him some tricks, but he showed up barefooted. And his technique was twice as good.
There’s a film featuring Zinedine Zidane called Zidane: A 21st century portrait. It’s an art film where a camera focusses on the master for 90 minutes capturing his every action, every emotion during the game, with the music from Mogwai occasionally embellishing the visual. That’s it. But that is more than a treat if you’re a football player. It takes you to another dimension. I told Kareem about it. He was very interested. I told him, ‘Ya akhii, someday we should watch it, over a joint.’ He just smiled.
A couple of months later, I was in a lecture when Emīls texted me that Kareem was no more. “What do you mean, no more? He’s no more crazy?” That would have been harder to believe. In some way he was destined to be a myth among us. I rushed to Josu’s place where we met and reminisced his myth in part disbelief, and part solemnity. He was suffering silently among us, but with an outwardly smile that never gave it away. The magician had disappeared. There was no longer going to be any of his magic, on a football pitch.
Kareem’s legacy represented the values of a club like Riga United, where the world is welcome with all its colour and charm. Where every player holds an additional responsibility, along with playing football, to uphold the beauty of the beautiful game, as Pelé called it. I would never know if Karim did watch that art film on Zidane. But he definitely left vivid images of his own in those who watched him play.
There was no longer going to be any of his magic on a football pitch.
Players like Kareem don’t exist in records or trophies. You won’t find him on the goal records on a Wikipedia page. Players like Kareem need to be experienced, in person. Only then will you believe in magic in the beautiful game.
Kareem Gouglou passed away on 4 Sep 2018 due to cancer. He never told any of his teammates at Riga United about his illness. He just played on with a smile. This article was published on www.rigaunited.fc on 4-Sep-2019 as a tribute to Kareem, my teammate and friend.
Into the early hours of dawn on a Saturday morning, the city of Istanbul dwelled in silence. The pigeons fluttered down the alleys around the Grand Bazaar district as the sunlight began to slowly embrace the city from the Asian side in the East to the European in the West. Istanbul sat at the border of two vast continents since the time it was still called Constantinople. Since then, the Byzantines ruled over these lands and then came the great Ottoman Empire. A beacon of the Silk Road, and a melting pot of ancient cultures, this beautiful city had seen many great battles. Tonight, however, it prepared for another big clash — the European Champions League final of 2021.
The serenity of the dawn was perhaps the calm before the storm. The world was at a greater war — a yearlong pandemic — which hadn’t spared Istanbul either. Amidst all the chaos and tragedy, the old men that sat along the alleys smoking cigarettes and water pipes were immersed in their own battles from dawn to dusk. A constant refill of kahve, straight from the cezve, and a board of Backgammon or Chess was all that they needed.
Further down the alley where it was darker and away from the seats the usual old men occupied, sat two men around their fifties. They were tall and dressed impeccably. One of them was bald and unshaven and his silver stubble glistened in the morning sun as he stared at the chessboard in deep concentration. The other was skinny and slightly taller and brooded over his pieces occasionally running his fingers through his thinning hair. They were riveted to the game in front of them and oblivious to the others around, the city, the pandemic and perhaps even the final that evening.
“Do we really have a final this evening?” asked Thomas ironically, giggling with his conspicuous German accent.
“I don’t know, maybe we decide to settle it here itself!” replied Pep, playing along the light-hearted mood, as the chess game distracted both the men from their hectic schedules, due their inherent nature to focus, compete and win at any game they played.
It was a long season, and the two football managers had endured stressful weeks since the start of the year as the tournament entered its knockout stages. They defeated the big sides of Pochettino and Zidane to reach the final, and tonight they would face each other to decide which of their sides would be crowned the kings of Europe for this year. Pep Guardiola had reached the Champions League final again after ten years and his project at Manchester City was hitting a crescendo in terms of his ideas that he wanted to implement. It had taken almost five years and millions of euros year after year. Thomas Tuchel, on the other hand, reached his second consecutive final. He took Paris St Germain last year in Lisbon only to suffer a 1–0 defeat to Bayern Munich. Since then he took over at Chelsea, and the team’s form skyrocketed, and they looked unstoppable at the moment.
This wasn’t the first time Tuchel and Pep found themselves sharing a friendly banter over board games. Their relationship went back to the days of the Bundesliga in 2014, when Pep was reaching new heights with Bayern Munich and Tuchel had established himself at Mainz but was taking a sabbatical following the footsteps of Pep, who did the same after his glorious years with Barcelona to avoid a burnout. Tuchel was one of the many admirers of Pep’s style of play, but his goal was to improve upon them with his own innovations, much like the quote from Da Vinci: Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.
Between the Odeon Square and the Hofgarten in Munich is a bar called Schumann’s that is open 24 hours a day. Charles Schumann who runs Schumann’s am Hofgarten is an iconic barkeeper who has won the World’s 50 Best Bars award and published various books and released documentaries. He would reserve a special place for Pep and Tuchel who would meet frequently in the winter of 2014–15 and spend long evenings on the creaky oak chairs examining their tactical ideas. They moved saltshakers on the table as if they were players and totally lose track of time to the classic jazz records playing in the background. In Germany it became popularly known as the Battle of the Schumann’s.
Pep’s years at Barcelona were an iconic tactical display for the entire footballing world. The magic he created with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets would echo distinctly for more than a decade and set the standard for young coaches looking for tactical inspiration from the positional play in Spain. In Germany, where the game was dominated in Umschaltspielen or transitions and counter-attacking football was common among the teams in the Bundesliga, Pep held his principles of positional play but made improvisations to balance the transitions like the reinvention of the inverted full back.
If Pep was interested in turning the transitions of attack-defence and defence-attack into the new paradigm, Tuchel opted to redouble the rhythm: the speed and frequency at which each player moves in sync with their teammates. He inherited a Dortmund side in 2015 from Klopp who defeated Pep in the DFB-Supercup. Tuchel combined elements of gegenpressing with positional play using a three-at-the-back system where every player had to fulfil multiple roles in his position. His idea was to gestate the play by generating pass lines that unravel the opposing team and thus reach the final third with more clarity. After a successful stint with Dortmund, Tuchel took up a new challenge at Paris with better quality of players and took them to their most successful run in the European tournament.
Charles Schumann always knew it was going to be a long night when these two were customers at Schumann’s. He used to tell his staff, “Don’t bother about food, they have enough talks about football to feed each other.” Just ask the double bass to turn up the volume, keep their glasses refilled and let them be. The dark walls of Schumann’s, the glass bottles of the finest spirits and the jazz music hosted the most innovative and progressive ideas in contemporary football between Tuchel and Pep.
Once the rage of the battles of the Schumann’s had died out into the late hours of a moonlight night in Munich, and the two coaches met each other at the Allianz Arena as Bayern and Dortmund faced off in Der Klassiker, it almost felt like the viewers were only privileged to see a small snippet of the intricate and complex vision of how these two viewed the game. So, when Tuchel stayed back on the pitch to prolong his ecstasy and enjoy the moment at Stamford Bridge after the game against Real Madrid when he beat Zidane in the second leg to book a place in the final, he thought of sending Pep a text. A European final is the most elite stage in football. Even those who hardly watch the game tune in to this grand showdown before summer. Yet, despite the stakes and the massive ambitions of the two mega-clubs to win a game of football, Tuchel felt that a private meeting with Pep was well deserved to celebrate their journey all along through this season, for one more game before the game.
“Don’t you find chess and football quite similar?” Pep remarked, now breaking a sweat in the Istanbul heat.
“Yes, I think there is a lot to take from it onto the pitch,” concurred Thomas.
“I took great intrigue in it after meeting Garry Kasparov, and his battles against Magnus Carlsen.”
“Yes you mentioned earlier, and I think I read it in Pep Confidential too!”
“So, what are the similarities that you find, Pep?”
“For me it’s the occupation of spaces, the positional play, the use of pawns. I see the diagonal runs that I expect my team to make from wide and along half spaces the crucial work of pawns without which there would be no game.”
“I agree, totally!”
“I actually view some of the pieces like certain positions in football too. For me, the king is the goal. That’s what you protect and what you look to score against your rival. I see the rooks as central defenders, closest to protecting the king, but when they see the space, I want them to charge forward too. The bishops are the playmakers in central midfield capable of opening up the play with their vision and range of diagonal passing.”
“And the knights?”
“Can you take a guess, Thomas?” asked Pep grinning with his wide sparkling eyes.
“Of course! They are your full backs, sometimes inverting, sometimes jumping into attack — so versatile,” answered Tuchel, as they both began laughing. Then Tuchel lifted his chin and narrowed his eyes and asked, “So, who is your queen then? I know you have scrapped the traditional number 10 role since as long as I can remember. You had Messi at Barcelona, which makes sense because there is nothing he can’t do and no space on the pitch he can’t go. But who is your queen now, Pep? Who has the freedom to move anywhere — the most powerful piece in chess?”
“Thomas, the queen in my football has been and always will be: the ball. It’s the most powerful piece in the game and I always find ways to use it well. Is it impossible to play without it? No, but it’s difficult. It’s just not my cup of tea,” he replied, taking the last sip of his kahve.
“Thomas, the queen in my football has been and always will be: the ball.”
As one of the kings fell on the chessboard, Pep picked up the morning newspaper he found at the hotel and rolled it under his arm while standing up. “The journalists write anything these days. I hope there are none who have followed us or are trying to spy on us as we speak,” he commented with a serious tone scanning around the place if there were any suspicious onlookers.
“I feel like the farther we move from the pitch, the more distorted are our impressions of the game. Don’t you think, Pep?”
“I absolutely agree, Thomas. I feel sometimes the decisions that my players make, being closest to the action using their pure instinct, I could have never imagined those solutions. I feel wrong at times to demand so much from them, and I know I have a big list of players who I have disappointed or think I’m crazy. But then there’s the technical area, where we’d like to think we have some control to bring order to the chaos. Further away, up in the stands are the directors and the owners who think they understand the all the decisions. Then the fans in the stadium, the analysts. And finally, those who watch the game on TV, who have the most fun sitting on their couches or cheering their team from the pubs, but who understand the least of what is going on. And with the pandemic, it has just been hard for everybody. We are slowly losing this game.”
“What will you do after the final whistle tonight?”
“I really need a vacation. But I will spend time with my family. It has been such a busy quarter since January, I have barely seen them. We hardly got a break after last season except for the lockdown.”
“I know. We all need some time away from football for a while. This transfer season is going to be hectic. I have a big project to handle during preseason. Perhaps for a month, we can switch off from our jobs and turn on the TV and enjoy the Euros and ponder about this Super League stuff or whatever else the guys on top have been conjuring up in the meanwhile. We are all just chess pieces, aren’t we?”
“Indeed, and after the game we all go into the same box,” remarked Pep solemnly, shaking his head.
The two had a silent pact to not discuss about the club or their players that meeting before the final at the Grand Bazaar. It was better to save that excitement for the bright floodlights of the Atatürk Olympic Stadium that evening, where they would go into a state of hyperfocus for 90 minutes into another chess match against each other — a noisier and more unpredictable one, where the docile 32 wooden pieces would be replaced by professional athletes who would shed blood, sweat and tears for glory.
“Wars come and go but my soldiers stay.”
“No, but close enough — Tupac,” exclaimed Pep as he patted a surprised Tuchel on his shoulder.
“Wars come and go but my soldiers stay.” — Tupac Shakur
The boats ferried back and forth the Bosphoros in the backdrop of the immortal architecture of the Hagia Sofia in this city that represented the crossroads of human civilisation. Istanbul, a mystical city, where Liverpool fans and anyone in football believed after 2005’s upset of AC Milan by Liverpool that in this game, anything was possible. Even miracles.
Tuchel smiled looking at Pep sensing how far both men had come in the game for this big European night final. “It is going to be sensational tonight, Pep. But before we retire back into our hotels in anticipation of his great battle, are you in for one more game?” he smiled and asked, knocking his King on the chessboard.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction using real characters for inspiration from events that are mentioned in the references. The character development was in no way intented to influence the image of the people in the story.
The clock beside his bed turned 4:00. The silence invaded the floor and the ceiling. The only sound was that of the rustling wind outside. He was lying in his bed, his eyes firmly shut. He wasn’t asleep. He was desperately trying to deafen out the silence. Two hours had passed.
The silence had infected people’s lives more than the virus. They called it a pandemic, ten years ago, sounding like an exciting plot twist to their lives. Now it had become a reality. Nobody seemed surprised by lockdowns, quarantines and curfews anymore. Initially, nobody paid attention to the silence either. They tried to evade it by keeping themselves busy. But after a while, it got to them. Especially in the early morning hours, the silence haunted them. Thoughts plagued their neural circuitry. Anxiety followed. Then came frustration. Fear. Pain. Depression.
His grandfather had told him, “It’s a disease, like every other disease. You have to treat it. Close your eyes. Pull the brake on those thoughts. Like your mum used to.”
His mom was the calmest person he’d known. She suffered from an autoimmune condition that caused fluid to build up in her lungs and resulted in difficulty breathing. Despite that, she strived to lead a healthy, active life. Every morning, she spent forty minutes on the yoga mat. Her session would end with her sitting in the lotus. Her eyes closed. Sometimes, he’d be up early and run around the house, only to halt abruptly at the peaceful sight of his mother sitting in deep meditation.
He suddenly opened his eyes, struck by the thought of his mother. She passed away ten years ago due to the virus. Her condition had made her more vulnerable than others. He rose up and sat still on the corner of his bed, staring dead ahead, remembering vividly the scene at the hospital as the doctors like space astronauts in full protection suits, took his mom away on a stretcher into the critical care unit. He never saw her again.
A few months after his mother’s death, he found his father hanging from the ceiling. His father had started drinking heavily, trying to cope with everything that was going on at the time in their lives. But he gave up, while his son was eight years old. He was raised by his grandfather since. The virus changed everyone’s lives forever. Society would never be the same.
His flat looked like a minimalistic prison cell that was kept clean to the tiniest speck of dust. There was an alcohol sanitizer next to every single device, on the dining table, and next to the main door. On a shelf of his wardrobe was a stock of many small sanitizers that he’d slip into the pocket of his jacket before heading out of the house. He mopped the flat twice daily and showered three times, each time after coming back to the flat.
Four months had passed since he moved into this flat in the city. The online classes at the university that he started in fall required a high speed internet for the long, elaborate zoom sessions in the morning and evening. Sometimes the classes were even scheduled into the night when professors were in another time zone. He had lived all this while at his grandfather’s place in the outskirts, where he had a small table set up for his online classes from school. He needed a bigger work place now since he turned eighteen and enrolled into a university.
He slowly rolled out of his bed and turned on his phone and the Wi-Fi. He then made a cup of coffee, sterilized his hands and sat down at his desk. Every night before going to sleep, he used to empty his cache and sign out of all online accounts. He especially turned off the internet. The software companies had recently developed an algorithm to track the amount of REM sleep and dreaming patterns of an individual. This information would help model behaviour profiles of an individual that would subsequently influence advertising patterns that the individual encountered online. As he turned on his laptop, repeating the elaborate process of logging in to all the accounts, he was greeted by half a dozen notifications from a software he had installed to specifically block targeted ads.
“The virus is not the only thing we have to immunize ourselves against,” prophesized his grandfather years ago. “They are coming for us. The virus attacks the body, but the body is built to resist it by nature. But the mind is not resistant. We need to be conscious to try and develop it. You have to train your senses to recognize anything that borders on being bait,” said his grandfather with conviction. “They are seeing what we see. They are listening to us. And they will feed us what they want.”
His mom used to joke about his grandfather’s conspiracy theories before, but since the pandemic, people just didn’t know what to believe in anymore. Truth had indeed become stranger than fiction. Every month was unfolding like a thriller TV series. They were no longer surprised by new developments, a new spikes in deaths, or a new law enforcing restrictions. Nothing startled them anymore. The state had taken over and democracy was no longer existent. People’s rights were secondary to global health safety. Every individual was restricted to their two-meter radius bubble, but nobody was entitled to his or her privacy.
Sometimes, he couldn’t resist the baits. He would find himself on his phone scrolling for hours, sitting on the toilet seat. He would only think about it while lying awake in bed. That’s when he become mindful of the digital addiction that had become widespread in society, which most often needed psychiatric treatment. Sitting on the toilet seat between a break from his online classes, he scrolled to video about a new airborne strain. “Researchers claim that the new mutant strain has a lesser mortality rate but can manifest with vision and hearing deficits that last up to 12 weeks. Pharmacological firms are yet again in a race to find a vaccine.” Since the pandemic began, there had been 268 documented mutations and a hundred others that were probably never discovered.
As he flushed the toilet, stood up and elaborately washed his hands and his face, he noticed a small papule over his left shoulder. It was perhaps a mild allergic reaction to the new vaccine he’d been given two days ago. He needed to get a booster after the weekend again. Every six months a new vaccine rolled out for the new mutations that were rising. He was one of the few, who was lucky to have been regularly vaccinated. In the last ten years, he had had about 20 vaccinations already. Millions around the world were still behind on their vaccination schedule. They had probably developed herd immunity, but without a seal in their vaccine passports their movement was severely restricted. A black market had emerged since a few years that was actually responsible for numerous STDs and infections. Unsterilized needles and probably a second-rate flu shot was being sold illegally as a vaccine. People were desperate. The fear of being locked in like an animal was greater than the virulence of a dangerously mutated strain. He sanitized his hands, and decided to get dressed up. He was feeling dizzy and nauseous. He really needed some air.
Escaping the house was a mission. It wasn’t easy. He was required to wear two FFP medical standard masks that were WHO-grade. The only ones that passed the WHO standards were the ones manufactured and sold by one of the pharma giants. An ingenious move that worked out finely for both parties and shareholders. Aside from the two FFP masks, he also needed to wear a face shield indoors in public places. Random stops and checks for temperature were expected, and those who didn’t comply were first subjected to a rapid viral test, and then arrested and sent for a PCR. Even a false positive result could mean ending up in an isolation camp for at least two weeks, sometimes longer.
As he sanitized his hands for the last time before leaving his apartment and picked up his keys, He heard the neighbour in front unlock the door and step outside. He held himself from opening his door yet. The space in the corridor outside flats was less than two metres, and if the CCTV noticed people getting closer, they could get into unnecessary trouble. He listened closely as the neighbour locked the door and walked towards the stairs across the corridor. As the footsteps grew fainter, he finally opened his door and stepped out. He became aware of his neighbour’s profile across the hallway. It was a blonde girl, roughly about his age, with short hair and a trim waistline. She had headphones plugged into her ears and a leather bag over her shoulder. He couldn’t notice her face behind the masks, before she disappeared down the flight of stairs. He didn’t know who she was, and had never spoken to her.
It was quiet outside despite being the middle of a workday. It was bright and humid too, and he perspired behind his masks. He walked with a brisk pace. He wanted to get to the store early, or else the queue would be long and would extend out onto the streets until the bridge, with each person standing two metres from the other. He cut through a couple of blocks and finally reached the street where the store was, only to find out he needed to wait in queue. He shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes and made it to the back of the line, heaving a deep breath.
He pulled out his phone for entertainment. The only friends people really had during the days were ‘followers’ on social. They often viewed each other’s stories or videos and responded by emojis. The rush of gaining a new follower had replaced the basic human necessity to socialise. People began communicating even more vigorously over social platforms since the lockdowns were enforced even stricter, but he had grown tired of texting. If he wasn’t actively connecting to his followers through chats, they could easily forget that he existed. Initially people video-called each other a lot often, especially their families, but over time they had just become more insensitive and superficial. Mindful of a compulsive scrolling habit again, he locked his phone and slid it back into his pocket. He stared blankly at his shadow on the ground as the queue moved forward at a painfully slow pace.
Under the bridge he noticed some homeless people. Some of them were lying down, some were drinking. They would often ignore the two meter protocol and the police would arrive and take them away. Asocial behaviour had become the norm in society — an unconscious trend for a decade. Socialising was perceived as an activity that people of lower classes indulged in. The capitalistic universe had plenty of ways to keep the middle-class engaged. Connected to the internet, socially networked, psychologically and physically profiled and idiosyncratically fed his or her share of daily feeds to make him or her feel purposeful. The lockdowns and restrictions had become an opportunistic platform to engage the masses in advertising gluttony and keep them sedated.
“Excuse me, are you still in line?”
He was woken from his deep chain of thought by the person behind him in queue. He had forgotten to move forward for a while.
He finally managed to enter after waiting outside for about 25 minutes. There were two security guards in black inspecting the customers for honing proper protection and checking their temperature before entering. Inside the store, he went about looking for supplies in his face shield like everyone else. They hardly paid attention to each other and moved about like robots with their push-karts, each one two metres from the other. Nobody made any eye contact and just went about mechanically picking their supplies from shelves. As he pushed his kart along one of the aisles, he slowed down to a halt. He found himself lost in thought again. His pulse started to rise sharply. He looked around and no one took any notice. Soon, he started to feel dizzy and short of breath. He was gasping for air behind his masks. His chest was pounding and he could feel his heart palpitating. A high pitched monotone began to ring between his ears, and he slowly lowered himself to the ground. The lights of the store began to dim and his vision started to blur. He heard some voices, but they were unrecognisable and incomprehensible. He noticed a tug on his arm and a blurry profile of an individual in front of him in black. He didn’t remember anything after that.
He slowly opened his eyes and sensed some commotion around him. Personnel in full protective suits, similar to the ones who took his mom away, were walking around. As he regained his cognition and awareness, he noticed a police vehicle in front with two officers. He looked around him and realised he was in the back of an ambulance. A nurse came to him with a syringe and grabbed his arm. As she drew his blood, a paramedic came up to him to take a swab and engage him in the first interaction he had made since long.
“How are you feeling?” “You must have experienced a panic attack. Are you on any medication?”
He shook his head.
“Your vitals look perfectly normal. However, by protocol we had to do a rapid test and it was positive.”
He was alarmed. He pulled out his vaccination passport from his pocket to prove that he was up to date with the latest schedule.
“It could be a false positive, but to confirm, we will need to perform a PCR. Until then, the officers will escort you to the closest isolation camp.”
The camp was erected in the middle of the city but it looked more like a temporary detention facility. The officers escorted him through a series of doors and scanning machines that detected heat signatures. They finally reached a large hall where many people, like the homeless ones he had seen under the bridge, were herded in by the officers. They sometimes used force to separate the individuals who stood closer than two metres. It was noisy. He heard a woman scream as her child was taken away, and she was dragged into one of the units. The units were 5 square metre cubicles. Inside each unit was a small mattress on the floor, and a desk and chair. Each unit had a large window to the hall outside. There were 25 units in a block and 20 blocks spread in the entire camp. It was like a big exhibition, for human beings.
One of the workers took down his details and showed him which unit he was assigned. She said to him, “I see that your PCR test has been registered in the system, which means the lab is running it at the moment. You can wait here until we get your results. If you need something, just push the button over the desk.” As she shut the door behind him, he walked slowly to the chair trying to review the dramatic turn of events that had taken him suddenly. He sat on the chair with a hand holding his head.
He could do nothing other than wait for the door to open with the results of the PCR. He posted a story on his social of the cubicle and himself. The uncertainty was terrifying. He began thinking about the situation that he found himself in. What if the result was indeed positive and he would have to be taken away into another dark place like his mother. As he thought longer, he imagined the state of the people on the other side of the walls. How long had they been in there? What was their fate?
Several hours passed. It was late into the evening. He grew more accustomed to the uncertainty. He had 300 views on his story, but not a single reaction. None of his followers really cared. All he was, was entertainment to them, just as they were to him. Everyone out there in the world was probably hooked on to their own bait, feeding onto their digital dosage. Was there anybody actually alive? Or were they all living dead? Bearing the weight of these thoughts for hours, his eyes were moist. He stared coldly at the wall ahead, and a single tear trickled down his cheek.
The door creaked open, finally.
“Your results are negative.”
“The rapid test must have been a false positive indeed. You’re lucky it arrived quicker than usual. You are free to go. Do look out for any symptoms in the following days, though. And you know how to reach us.”
He spent the next weeks locked up in his flat. He was too traumatised to step outside. A recent article claimed that stepping out of the house was riskier than selling drugs during these times. The airborne strain had reinforced state restrictions anyway, yet again. Back in the isolation unit, he endured a wave of emotion as he reflected upon the fate of society, but here, in his flat, the silenced returned to haunt him. He found himself out of ideas, because it was his comfort zone. He didn’t bother to open social. He had lost interest. He felt more disgusted by the idea of indulging in another scrolling session mindlessly for hours. He couldn’t find the purpose in deliberately inflicting a thumb adductor strain. He paced up and down his flat all day, for days. He hadn’t bothered to clean it anymore. He thought about what made his personality so anal-retentive with these habits. Was it just the paranoia of his grandfather and his conspiracy theories, or was it a genuine hygiene ritual for everyone else too? Was this fucking virus even real?
That night he didn’t sleep. Just like the previous night. He stared apathetically at the ceiling, smothered by the silence. The indifference of the officers and everyone in authority who treated people like sheep disturbed him. The docile nature of individuals to accept everything that they were subjected to disappointed him. The absurdity of the behaviour of his followers on social, and the blank screen with names of his fellow colleagues listening to some pedantic professor on zoom classes disgusted him. The helpless screams of the mother at the camp terrified him. The memories of his mother and father tormented him. He questioned his own existence. He wasn’t looking for answers, however; he just wanted to see the light. It was 4:00 in the morning, but he was getting impatient to see the light. A light, so poignant that it sucked the darkest emotion into it. The light that shone behind the image of his mother sitting in peaceful meditation. The light that would instantly end this darkness that he felt he was truly suffering from. The silence had to be put to an end, through permanent silence.
He opened his main door without bothering to wear any mask. He left the door open and stepped outside. He walked towards the stairs, and climbed up, possessed by a singular thought of that light. As he reached the roof of the building, and swung the door open, he saw the light get brighter. His vision was tunnelled. He walked forwards towards the edge, hardly blinking. There was nothing worth leaving behind. He smelt freedom, unrestricted freedom, unlike what had crippled society in the name of the virus. Inside his head echoed a similar monotone that he heard at the store, but a lower pitch — calmer, less ominous. The noise shut out everything outside of him. In the background, he could hear faint sounds of his mom laughing and calling his name, like she did when he was a child. He walked closer and closer to the edge, looking for her face in the light. As he stepped right at the edge, he felt the breeze over the roof sweep his hair, waiting with open arms to carry him out of his hole. He closed his eyes.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
He was startled by a soothing voice that ended his trance. He suddenly opened his eyes.
“I’ve started coming up here too, since they sacked me at work last week. I realised they don’t lock the roof. It’s the only place where you can get some air these days without a mask.”
The monotone ended abruptly, and he felt his feet on the ground again. He turned around. He saw the blonde, with short hair that almost brushed her shoulders. She lit a cigarette.
“Do you want one too?”
He was lost as he looked into her emerald eyes. He noticed the sharp profile of her nose and her round lips. Her cheeks stretched and contracted into fine dimples as she smiled at him.
“Uh… Do you?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, yes — Sorry! It’s still quite early,” he replied, pretending to sound casual, as he reached out for a cigarette. She held the lighter for him. “Cheers.”
“Ha, it’s okay. Have you ever seen the city skyline from up here?”
This was a strange feeling. A few minutes ago he was consumed in pursuit of absolution and freedom and an abstract sensation oblivous to everything, and now he seemed to enjoy a weird pleasure in a real social connection which he didn’t remember when he last had. He took a long drag of the cigarette and set his gaze upon the edge he was walking to earlier. It was a different view he had been moving towards altogether. Behind the masks that had been chained to his face, like everyone else’s, he couldn’t remember the last time he breathed such freedom. He noticed the sky painted violet with a tinge of orange at the horizon. He noticed the birds flying south chirping wildly. The clouds floated close, almost kissing the city’s tallest buildings. Far into the horizon, he noticed the hills on the outskirts of the city. Below the hills was the airport. The planes lined up in the sky in the distance waiting to land. The streets carved out geometrically over the city landscape designed to intricate perfection. The lights from the cars on the streets glistened like jewels, along with some apartments in the tall buildings where the people were already awake. He sensed a deep perspective of life that was still beating through this city. It was fighting through the darkness into the morning sun, and as long as it was fighting, there was hope.
“Yes. It is beautiful,” he concurred.
“I’m Sara. What’s your name? Oh, and by the way, you forgot to close your door downstairs! But, don’t worry, I shut it close before coming up here,” she reassured him, with a polite smile.