With virus, cherished Mideast traditions come to abrupt halt

BAGHDAD (AP) — 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, 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.

No more evenings spent mostly by men in traditional coffee shops across the region.

In a region where life is often organised around large families, communal meals and tribal rules, social distancing can be difficult.

Two labourers walk near a sign warning people to maintain a distance from each other over the outbreak of the new coronavirus in front of the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab luxury hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. PHOTO: AP
A worker cleans the window of a barbershop that posts a warning sign referring to the coronavirus, with Arabic that reads, ‘Please greet only and don’t kiss, due to the difficult circumstances in the current situation’, in Baghdad
An empty restaurant in Beirut, Lebanon

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 parlour, 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 went to 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 sterilisation, 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 neighbourhood, Najm Abdullah Saad, 70, said the curfew was wreaking havoc on his marital life. “Going out every night was my escape,” he said. In the north, which is controlled by Houthi rebels, authorities said they plan to 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. 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 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 jewellery 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 cancelled.

“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.