One Year of Lockdown – A Day of Reflection

No matter how tough your year has been, remember someone else’s will have been tougher

It’s hard to believe that 12 months ago, I was sat in my living room, glued to the news channels as if aliens had arrived on earth. We were watching the Chinese spraying whole cities with disinfectant and the Italian health system collapsing with bodies in hospital corridors. The words Covid and lockdown had entered our vocabulary although house arrest might have been more appropriate. Only a few weeks earlier I had arrived at Karachi airport and was welcomed by a temperature check. We were somewhat nonchalant about this and there were no such measures at the British checkpoints on our return to Heathrow airport two weeks later. 

I was one of the fortunate ones. When the lockdown was announced, I had my family around me and they stayed with me for the next couple of months. Life would have been very different if I had been a single parent having to cope with children and no contact with another adult, day in, day out. But it certainly did feel, in those early days, like we had entered some sort of strange apocalyptic world, more at home on our television screens. It was surreal leaving the house, wearing facemask and gloves for a trip to the supermarket, only to find shelves practically empty and people stock piling everything from paracetamols to toilet paper. I can remember doing a calculation – is it worth risking my life for a trip to get cat food? In fact, shopping for bare essentials such as fruit and vegetables, flour, bread and milk did become nothing short of a military manoeuvre – from leaving the house, to wiping down and putting away the shopping.

The last 12 months have been a period of immense change, pain and sadness for us as a nation. The pressures on the NHS, our doctors, nurses, and health care providers, have been enormous, but our NHS, staffed by the best in the world, has done us all proud. And we also need to remember the other essential workers, the teachers working online to keep children in education, supermarket workers stocking the shelves, refuse collectors, postal workers, delivery drivers, the police and other emergency services, those supporting the homeless and victims of domestic violence, the list is endless but it is these individuals that have kept us going through a very difficult period and for that we should all be grateful.

Predictably, everything we were being told about the virus fell on some deaf ears and unfortunately dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories abounded. These including blaming 5G for the pandemic, with others calling it a deliberate use of a biological weapon. The conspiracies continued with the arrival of the vaccine with some claiming this was a plot by Bill Gates to vaccinate the world, others accusing him of testing it on children in Africa and India, leading to thousands of deaths, whilst others claimed the vaccine was being used to forcibly implant microchips into people.

Over the last 12 months communities have celebrated birthdays in lockdown as well as Ramadan, Eid, Pesach, Hannukah, Diwali, Christmas and Easter. Weddings had to be postponed, holidays cancelled and at one point it did seem like there was no end in sight. 12 months later, we have started taking small steps to get back to the new normal, with a roadmap that I certainly look at every couple of days.

Above all, the last 12 months can be described in one word. Loss. Of all the things we lost, the ability to move around freely, physical contact, or coffee with friends, it is the massive loss of life in such a short space of time that has affected us all. Everyone knows someone who has lost their life to Covid with 126,000 deaths in one year and it is important to remember those who have left this world, but also those who have been bereaved and may not have had the chance to say their final goodbyes to loved ones, or even attend funerals.

In remembering all those who have lost their lives in the pandemic, we should also remember those who have lost their lives because of violence, poverty and hunger, situations undoubtedly made worse because of the pandemic. This last year we saw 2.7 million deaths across the world, related to Covid and 9 million deaths due to hunger and hunger related causes; 3.1 million of that number being children.

As a first world nation, we have managed to find a vaccine for Covid, I just wish we could do the same for poverty.

23rd March 2021

Salaam Shalom The Feast of Pesach

Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?  
How is this night different from all other nights?

Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin chametz umatzah, halailah hazeh, kuloh matzah.
On all other nights, we eat chameitz and matzah. Why on this night, only matzah?

Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin sh’ar y’rakot, halailah hazeh, maror.
On all other nights, we eat all vegetables. Why, on this night, maror?

Sheb’chol haleilot ein anu matbilin afilu pa’am echat; halailah hazeh, sh’tei f’amim.
On all other nights, we don’t dip even once. Why on this night do we dip twice?

Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin bein yoshvin uvein m’subin; halailah hazeh, kulanu m’subin.
On all other nights, we eat either sitting upright or reclining. Why on this night do we all recline?”

 

So I spent yesterday evening in the company of eleven amazing women – five Muslim and six Jewish, to celebrate the arrival of Pesach and take part in my fifth Seder. But this one was different from any of the other Seder meals I’d had. This was in the home of my dear friend Laura Marks and it was an all woman gathering. Laura Marks is the Jewish co-chair of Nisa-Nisham, a Jewish Muslim Women’s network that aims to bring our communities together and promote ways in which Jewish and Muslim women can understand that our similarities are far greater than our differences. It does this by bringing the Jewish and Muslim communities in Britain closer together by setting up groups of women who build personal friendships, grow as leaders and benefit wider society through a variety of programmes and initiatives. All of us around the table were in some way linked to Nisa-Nisham either as trustees, co-chairs, or just friends and family of Laura’s.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Jewish faith and celebrations, Pesach (or Passover) celebrates the Exodus, when the Children of Israel were finally freed by Pharaoh in Egypt, following the 10 plagues (more about that later). Ultimately it’s a story about persecution, bondage and finally freedom. So whilst it may appear to be a time of celebration, there is an element of sadness and reflection. 

As with any major festival, there has to be a festive meal and the Passover is no different. During the celebrations that last 8 days, a ‘Seder’ or often two, will be held at which the story of the Exodus will be told in prose, songs and prayers. The book that is followed is the Haggadah and follows a set pattern. There are many different versions but all follow the same basic format and prayers. The version that was used this evening was from the Movement for Reform Judaism with interpretations and perspectives that encourage us to think about the modern world. The service includes a number of symbolic foods being eaten and wine (or for the Muslims grape juice) being drunk (whilst leaning to the left to symbolise freedom from slavery) interspersed with readings and prayers.

The Seder plate includes a variety of key items. Bitter herbs, to remind Jews of the bitterness of slavery and the tears that were shed in slavery are symbolised by the addition of salt water on the table. Jews are reminded of how they built the pyramids and the mortar is symbolised by the sweet charoset made from nuts and fruits. A hard boiled eggs reminds them of the beginning of a new life and a green vegetable such as parsley or lettuce symbolises hope and redemption. The humble matzah or unleavened bread is a central part of the seder and for all Passover meals, anything that has yeast and risen is not permitted. A lamb shank is also placed in the Seder plate and remembers the sacrificial lamb whose blood was used to mark out the homes of Israelites, so that when the Angel of Death came to claim the souls of the first born, they would “pass over” the homes of the Jews. There was one addition to this Seder plate I had not come across at previous Seders. A glass of water, or more accurately Miriam’s  Cup. Miriam was the sister of Moses and tradition suggests she carried with her a well that was the main source of water for the Israelites in the desert. Miriam’s Cup is also a reminder that women played a vital role in the Exodus and must not be overlooked, though this is a relatively new innovation and not adopted by everyone. 

No Seder would be complete without recalling the ten plagues and spotting the plate with red wine / grape juice; blood, frogs, lice, child beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and slaying of the first born. And I suspect most young children love this bit of the service! But this year, our seder plates had ten additional spots as we included ten modern day plagues; inequality, poverty, bloodshed,  torture, persecution, abuse,  violence, hunger, prejudice and indifference. I wanted to add an eleventh – Donald Trump. But then realised I should also then add Bashar Al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung-On, Aung San Suu Kyi – the list would be endless. Because sadly whilst the Israelites may have been freed by Moses 3000 years ago, there are still many examples of modern day slavery, dictatorship, oppression and sheer brutality across the world. This last week alone we have seen almost 100 killed and over 500 still suffering the effects of a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria. We have seen the devastation caused by a lone individual who drove his truck into innocent bystanders in Stockholm. The Westminster attacker claimed his fifth victim last friday. Suicide bombers attacked two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, killing at least 40 worshipers and police officers. Twenty people were tortured and murdered at a Sufi shrine in Sarghoda, Pakistan. And in the first 3 months of 2017 there have been 3,664 gun deaths, 77 mass shootings and 900 children/ teenagers shot or killed in America. 

There is still much wrong with the world that needs to be fixed. But there are plenty of good people still around with the will to do something and work towards making the only world we have, a better place. Twelve women sat around a dinner table this evening. Jewish and Muslim. Enemies according to some, sisters as far as we were concerned. We shared food, compared the Judaic and Islamic versions of the Exodus, shared recipes and at times I wanted to shed a tear remembering those who were not quite so fortunate as the Israelites and are still very much prisoners to the system. And we talked, as only Jewish and Muslim women can.  Whilst today is the beginning of Pesach, yesterday was Palm Sunday marking the beginning of Holy Week; the day when according to Christian tradition Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, an animal symbolic of peace. Perhaps this week, whatever our faiths, whatever our traditions, we must focus on the things that are important, the things that unite us, the things that can make a difference and ultimately free everyone from slavery and oppression in whatever form it comes. 

Chag Pesach Sameach

 

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