Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Will Westerners, not generally well-informed about Chinese cities and provinces to begin with, now forever associate Wuhan and Hubei with the novel coronavirus of 2019?
The thought pains me, as I know it pains many others, not least because my family’s ancestral seat is located in Hubei, just a couple of hours outside Wuhan. Family lore says that in the third year of the reign of the Hongwu Emperor, i.e., 1371, a general of the Ming Dynasty surnamed Han was sent to take up command of a garrison in what is now Hubei. There he put down roots. Over 600 years later, a small town in the area is still named after my family, and it remains substantially populated by people related to me to one degree or another, people who called me “cousin” and “uncle” and “brother” when I visited in 2015.
Thus I would prefer that the outside world think of Hubei and Wuhan not as some diseased hovel (the image that they are rapidly gaining in the Western imagination) but as the storied and fascinating places that they really are. Here are a few things you may wish to know about the province of Hubei and its capital.
Being in UAE and Qatar tends to put things in perspective for me, uncomfortable perspective though it is.
I was barely able to find an actual Emirati in the United Arab Emirates. Similarly, now as I look around Doha, I see only one young boy in Arab clothes who is plausibly Qatari. In fact, foreigners account for almost 90 percent of the population of Qatar. And obvious racial hierarchies obtain.
South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis) besides Filipinos dominate in numbers. On the humbler streets of Doha, it’s easy to wonder whether one has mistakenly landed in Manila or Dhaka. They power Qatar’s service industries, working in the jobs that, one assumes, the Qataris consider beneath them. Without the Filipinos, most of the shops in the malls would have no attendants, restaurants would have no waiters, and hotels would have no maids. Without South Asians, most of the city’s taxis would have to stand idle for lack of drivers.
I have long held a somewhat morbid fascination with plague narratives. Now, with the new coronavirus, it seems that the whole world is collectively living through one.
As a genre, stories of epidemics or pandemics cut across the categories that we normally impose on texts: fiction and nonfiction, highbrow and lowbrow, literature and film and even video games. And they span history from some of the earliest human efforts at storytelling to recent Hollywood blockbusters.
Here’s a distinctly incomplete list: the biblical plague that God sent against Egypt in Exodus; the plague of Athens in History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides; the plague of Justinian as described by Procopius; the Black Death in Italy as told in the framing chapter of Boccaccio’s Decameron; Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year; Samuel Pepys’s diary describing the same plague in 17th century London; Camus’s philosophical novel Le Peste; Blindness by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago; sleek Hollywood productions like Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and entries in the sub-genre of zombie stories like “World War Z,” “The Walking Dead,” and many others. I’m sure that a book or film with a title like “The Year of the Coronavirus” will be out before we know it.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."