—By Sohair Wastawy
In my social and physical isolation my mind has been wandering to a time when I was 13 years old, in Egypt. Then, we had to shelter in place for a totally different reason: a war. It wasn’t only a military battle but also a psychological war of the first order, bestowed on us by a false official narrative told by a single source of information: the state-owned TV and radio.
I vividly remember how the evenings were such scary times, as we huddled together listening to the news. All homes in my town had to stay dark. My mother painted the glass windows deep blue and added a layer of cardboard so not a ray of light could escape should Israel’s planes try to bomb our town.
This memory is seared in my brain as it was my very first adult-like feeling of fear for others. There was another personal haunting fear I had: fear for my dad, who was overseas and unable to get back because of airport closures. My uncle, who lived with us then, taught me to hunt for overseas radio stations on the shortwave so we could hear a different point of view. The contradictions between the foreign broadcasts and that of the state radio were galling. The state media claimed that the Egyptian troops had reached Tel Aviv, that they had pounded the Israeli air and armed forces out of existence, winning the war with minimum casualities, all while they suffered a crushing defeat in six short days.
As a young girl, I wanted to believe the national account as it was less scary, and I desperately wanted my dad back safe. Believing any other scenario seemed a betrayal of his safety.
Collective public fear grips us every now and then. Wars, conflicts, earthquakes, terrorism, gun violence, and now a pandemic: all come at the start with visceral feelings, then we resort to logic and whatever resources we can access to find truth.
While my living conditions today haven’t changed drastically from those I experienced when living in the comfort of my parents’ home, as an older adult—even older than my parents were during the wars—the fear feels new. It’s mostly a fear for others, whether family members, neighbors, strangers, or even for the animals imprisoned in zoos like those at the Bronx Zoo who fell ill with the COVID 19 virus. But unlike the old days, we now have access to a plethora of information sources. We now have the experience, tools, and the capacity to analyze and examine the information we receive. We no longer have to accept an official narrative.
Social isolation is tough but what is tougher is being in the dark without a voice, without a different narrative, and without the technology that puts a million points of view and the world’s images in our palms for us to judge.
Sohair Wastawy (@Wastawy) is president of The Information Guild and CLIR Board member. In 2019, she retired from her position as executive director of the Qatar National Library.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth piece in COVID (Re)Collections, a new series exploring responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by library, cultural heritage, and information professionals. Stories are proposed by the authors/contributors and reflect their personal experiences and perspectives at the time of submission. Learn more about the series and share your own story here.