Arts·Pandemic Diaries

'We are in Tragedy.' Reckoning with the deep fear of dissolving into nothing during these times

Artist and activist Makram Ayache dives deep into the darkness of COVID-19 to try and find some light.

Artist and activist Makram Ayache dives deep into the darkness of COVID-19 to try and find some light

Makram Ayache in his play "Harun" at the 2018 Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. (Layla Dart)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a seminar led by Canadian theatre director Peter Hinton, and we came to the topic of tragedy vs. hope. Peter was instructing on the strength of tragedy, the narrative genre that always concludes in total death and decay. I wasn't having it: Hope, capital H Hope, is the necessary antidote in a decaying world, I thought. Only hope — not tragedy. What use is there in submitting to utter defeat?

Engendered in my playwriting is Hope. Certainly, my characters confront the viciousness we see reflected in our world, but I feel I am doing a disservice if I am not planting a seed of hope in each narrative I cast onto the stage. And I don't mean a naive and uncritical hope. Hope, the capital H kind, is rigorous, disciplined, and activated. This is, by no doubt, informed by my work as an LGBTQ2+ inclusion educator.

Week six of the quarantine and let me tell you: hope, discipline, rigour, and activation have been thrown off the balcony into a rolling dumpster fire on its way to the sewers.

We are in Tragedy.

At home. (Makram Ayache)

Waking up to the devastating news of the terrorist attack in Nova Scotia during a global pandemic fractals uncertainty into uncertainty. As an artist and activist, I feel beckoned to work; now is the necessary time for the Hope I advocate. But instead, I sit with an inability to process the pressure of spending this time mobilizing art and activism in fruitful ways.

My bandwidth for creativity has been reduced to little more than slathering peanut butter onto a banana and claiming that as my baking practice for the day. I wake up with a brick in my stomach. Come on, Makram, do something! Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague! Newton came up with the law of universal gravitation! — so we're told by the internet.

A capitalist sensibility of artistic creation only exacerbates this defeat. The desire to have our work consistently activated is draining in the best of times. Walking the tightrope of finding purpose and healing through art vs. contorting to the demands of capitalist productivity is where I find myself spiralling into defeat. It compounds into paralyzing questions: have I only ever been doing this to feed the capitalist machine? Do I have the grit to make it? Who am I beyond my work? Do I need to answer these questions right now? Just write a page. Did I eat today? I should shower.

At the root of this, what I'm wrestling with is a deep fear of dissolving into nothing — of course in my art practice, but perhaps also in my sense of self.

Left to right: Liana B'dewi, Navtej Sandhu, Makram Ayache, and Maher Sinno in Ayache's "The Green Line" at the 2019 Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. (© Marc J Chalifoux Photography)

I recognize there's a huge privilege that comes with this. Self-actualization is a privilege in a world that feeds on the labour of marginalized bodies. My family in the Middle East is much more emotionally equipped at handling this time of uncertainty than I am. And I know this is nothing in comparison to those facing loss in Nova Scotia, or others trapped with a violent partner, or the closeted queers with their unloving families, or even the ones taking care of children while remedying their own emotional exhaustion. But the dread is all the more dreadful when naming these truths doesn't dislocate my anxiety but inflames it instead.

I feel hopeless and I can't deny myself that feeling right now.

Minimizing my own pain is different than putting it in perspective. Certainly, no one feels better being told someone's got it worse, even though that's a truth we need to remember in this age of COVID. But emotions have a logic of their own and perspective is the end of their journey, not the process. Right now, I'm deep in the process.

It's as if we're all in suspension together — some of us with parachutes and goggles, others violently whipping against the fall. But all of us have become loose, weightless, and our faces are deforming against the wind. I can't even recognize myself. I have no perspective, no gravity, and no energy. I've lost sense of where my body ends and the air begins.

And I know there will be a landing.

Jack Layton's statue, newly outfitted for COVID times, at Jack Layton Ferry Terminal in Toronto. (Makram Ayache)

I suppose the anxiety is born out of the uncertainty of the landing: will it be a gentle drifting to the earth or a craterous plummet into oblivion? Probably somewhere in the middle. I wish I had words of comfort or inspiration.

But I don't today.

I look back to that directing seminar and I hope Hinton is right. I hope that reckoning with defeat is the necessary step to revolution. Because that's all I'm capable of doing right now. So I sit in this defeat, in submission, and I'm reminded of the same lesson I keep returning to: we were never promised certainty to begin with.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Makram Ayache is a community-engaged, Lebanese-Canadian writer, performer, director, educator, and activist. His work currently explores meaningful representation of queer Arab voices. He creates culturally specific works that speak into a Canadian context. Additionally, he is a LGBTQ2S+ inclusion educator with the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Find him at makramayache.com and on Instagram at @makramrayache.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now