With virus, cherished Mideast traditions come to abrupt halt

Lebanese men sit at an old cafe in Beirut's Nueiri neighbourhood. (File/AFP/Joseph Eid)
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Updated 28 March 2020

With virus, cherished Mideast traditions come to abrupt halt

  • In a region where life is often organized around large families, communal meals and tribal rules, social distancing can be difficult
  • The virus has also upended plans for weddings — often extravagant affairs in the region, with hundreds of invitees

BAGHDAD: Under the sign “Take out only” and a tall bottle of antiseptic by his side, Mazin Hashim, 54, rearranged the coals heating a water pipe outside his famed cafe in Baghdad.
He put up the placard to satisfy recent government restrictions on movement and gatherings that are aimed at slowing the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Once inside, however, thick white plumes of fragrant smoke choked the air as over a dozen young men whiled away the hours in defiance of the directives.
As the pandemic continues to spread, governments across the Middle East are clamping down on the region’s cherished traditions: No more massive weddings and celebrations. Restrictions on sales of qat, a mild plant narcotic chewed in groups in Yemen. No more evenings spent mostly by men in traditional coffee shops across the region. And most importantly, no more smoking of the beloved shisha, or water pipe, in public places.
In a region where life is often organized around large families, communal meals and tribal rules, social distancing can be difficult.
In Iraq, clarion calls sound twice a day to remind people to adhere to the ban on public gatherings. But that has little impact at Hashim’s shisha parlor, second home to 29-year-old Mustafa Ahmed who comes every day to meet friends and seek solace from the monotony of domestic life.
Not even at the height of Iraq’s sectarian wars was he made to spend seven straight days at home. He and his friends smoked shisha at Hashim’s instead.
“It’s normal for us to come here during times of crisis,” said Ahmed. “The only difference this time is we are hiding from the police.”
Safety tips being traded by many in Iraq often fly in the face of global appeals by experts to avoid physical contact and keep a safe distance from others.
Iraq’s revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, whose opinion is sought by many, said it was necessary to avoid shaking hands, hugging and kissing except when the “necessary precautions” were taken, including sterilization, masks and gloves.
But Hashim said his acquaintances routinely ignore even such warnings. In Iraq, the custom is to plant one kiss on each cheek. That is why he keeps the bottle of antiseptic nearby.
“Whenever someone greets me I quickly wipe my hands and face with it,” he said.
Down the street from Hashim, Tony Paulis, 60, said he tried to promote social distancing with a poster outside his barbershop door. It has an “X” over an image of two men leaning in for a greeting, and a warning message: “Please limit yourselves to handshakes and do not kiss given the current difficult situation.”
The attempt was futile. “Iraqis aren’t scared of coronavirus, but they should be,” he said.
At least 40 people have died in Iraq from the coronavirus, which causes mild or moderate symptoms in the majority of people but can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.
Checking out with a kilo (two pounds) of oranges from the local grocer in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood, Najm Abdullah Saad, 70, said the curfew was wreaking havoc on his marital life.
“Going out to smoke shisha every night was my escape,” he said.
Shisha-smoking isn’t the only public pastime affected.
In Yemen, which has already endured five years of civil war, the chewing of qat is a daily activity that brings groups together to exchange gossip and debate.
Authorities in Yemen’s southern city of Aden have banned qat markets to prevent the spread of the virus. However vendors have found ways to keep selling it, either with help from armed factions controlling the city, or in the outskirts.
In the north, which is controlled by the Houthi militia, authorities said they plan to move crowded qat markets to open areas and ban gatherings of more than eight people.
The measures might be hard to implement as the country has busy markets in almost every city and town. At around noon every day some 90% of Yemeni men converge on local markets to buy qat, according to Houthi health ministry spokesman Youssef Al-Hadhri. He said markets will remain open since they become crowded only a couple of hours a day.
“It’s not dangerous,” he insisted, despite growing fears that an outbreak could prove devastating to the Arab world’s poorest country.
The Lebanese port city of Sidon, south of the capital Beirut, is mostly deserted. It once bustled with people flocking to its traditional coffee shops where elderly men gathered to smoke cigarettes and play cards and backgammon. Those closed after the Lebanese government ordered a lockdown last week.
Qassem Bdeir, a fisherman, sat with a group of friends near a hidden segment of the port, discussing the situation, each seated a meter away from the other.
“We used to meet at the coffee shop after a day’s work to talk and play cards. Now there’s no work, and we steal these few moments to talk and commiserate sitting away from each other before we go home to lock ourselves up,” he said.
The virus has also upended plans for weddings — often extravagant affairs in the region, with hundreds of invitees.
In Beirut, Bassam Makki, the 42-year-old owner of a jewelry shop had been in the final stages of planning his wedding when the pandemic started. He and his fiance took out a loan and planned a celebration for 130 people at a four-star hotel in Beirut. The party, which had been scheduled for April 10, has been canceled.
“I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” he said, trying to offer a smile.
Others pressed ahead with weddings.
Rawan Mohammed found an open tract of agricultural land outside the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk for his wedding after the Kurdistan Regional Government closed wedding halls as part of preventive measures.
“We told everyone at the beginning, they can come by to tell us congratulations and take pictures, but without handshaking or hugging,” he said.

Related


WHO denies Houthi ‘faulty testing kit’ claims

Updated 11 min 21 sec ago

WHO denies Houthi ‘faulty testing kit’ claims

  • The batch of almost 7,000 COVID-19 test kits provided to Yemen by the WHO are the same PCR test kits provided to over 120 countries
  • Yemeni Prime Minister says the Houthis have suppressed information about the pandemic

AL-MUKALLA: The World Health Organization (WHO) office in Yemen has rejected a claim by Iran-backed Houthis that COVID-19 test kits provided by the organization are faulty and hampered their efforts to declare an accurate number of infections in their territories.

In a statement seen by Arab News, the WHO said that the kits were made in Germany and have been used in 120 countries.

“The batch of almost 7,000 COVID-19 test kits provided to Yemen by the WHO are the same PCR test kits provided to over 120 countries. An estimated 2 million of these kits were manufactured by TIB Molbiol, a company based in Germany,” the statement said.

Under local and international pressure to disclose accurate information about the pandemic in their territories, Houthi Health Minister Taha Al-Mutwakel said in a press conference on May 30 that one reason they did not reveal the number of infections in areas under their control was faulty testing kits that returned false positive results on non-human samples.

The WHO said: “The PCR test kits manufactured by TIB Molbiol met ISO standards for quality manufacturing. The kits were tested and validated by three external laboratories, and the validation results were published in a peer-reviewed journal.”

Despite ruling the most densely populated areas in Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, the Houthis have reported only two deaths and two recoveries.

In less-populated liberated provinces, the Aden-based National Coronavirus Committee reported on Tuesday 45 new coronavirus cases, including three deaths, bringing the total number of cases to 399, including 86 deaths and 15 recoveries.

Speaking at the virtual donors conference hosted by Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed said the Houthis have suppressed information about the pandemic, and intimidated Yemeni doctors and relatives of coronavirus patients who might speak out about their ordeal.

“The Houthis have rejected and disregarded all our initiatives for working together to fight the pandemic,” Saeed said.  

In Aden, Dr. Ishraq Al-Subaee, a spokesman for the National Coronavirus Committee, told Arab News on Wednesday that there is no direct communication between the committee and Houthi health authorities.

“There is indirect cooperation through international agencies. There is great secrecy about the scale of the pandemic inside Houthi-controlled areas,” she said.

Suppression

Ironically, when the Houthi health chief was boasting about the health-care facilities and accusing the WHO of wrongdoing, a Houthi militia official was using social media to appeal for help after developing symptoms of COVID-19.

Ahmed Al-Hubaishi, a media adviser to the Houthi Supreme Political Council, wrote on Twitter, urging Houthi officials to send a medical team to his house. “I suffer from acute and intermittent fever, dry and severe coughing, and difficulty breathing,” he said.

Al-Hubaishi died on Wednesday of the virus. But instead of saying his father died of coronavirus based on his post, Al-Hubaishi’s son deleted his father’s old posts about his illness and said that he had died of diabetes, another indication of pressure on the families of infected people, experts said.

At the same time, new amateur videos posted on social media showed health workers in white protective clothing burying victims of COVID-19 in Sanaa and other northern provinces.

Confirmed images also show a notice from Houthis outside a closed cemetery in Sanaa, saying the cemetery was full.

Experts in Yemen believe that the health situation in Sanaa and other areas under Houthi control is dire, despite their efforts to suppress information about deaths and infections.

Ali Al-Fakih, editor of Al-Masdar Online, whose news site extensively covered COVID-19 deaths in Houthi areas, told Arab News that he had documented the deaths of at least 30 doctors since early May. 

“They suppress information about the pandemic because they want life to continue as it is. The disruption of life would have an impact on their mobilization and recruitment efforts,” he said, adding that many COVID-19 patients prefer to isolate themselves at home to avoid Houthi harassment.

Al-Subaee said that her colleagues in different health facilities in Sanaa told her they receive more than 100 new virus cases every day. 

“The infection has spread through society. Doctors in our Whatsapp group say that Kuwait hospital alone receives 90 coronavirus patients in 24 hours,” she said.