Notes on isolation, from those who know it well

The window was sealed behind a sheet of solid steel. The door was locked. Thick chains bound one arm and one ankle. The room was bare apart from a thin foam mat for a bed and a plastic bottle to pee into. I was alone.

That was the summer of 1987, when Hizbullah was holding me hostage in Lebanon. They had many other hostages, but I didn’t see them. In fact, I saw no one. When a guard came into the room, I had to put on a blindfold so that I couldn’t identify him. The only conversations I had were a few interrogations, when I was also blindfolded. The questioning involved threats and verbal abuse, but mercifully no torture. As unpleasant as they were, they broke the monotony. The rest of the time left me thinking, remembering, imagining. One way of relieving the loneliness was to pretend that one or another of my children was with me, each on a different day. I made chess pieces out of paper labels on water bottles to play with each one. Sometimes I let them win, or they beat me outright.

Although I never saw daylight, I was acutely aware of time. Every morning when I woke, I reminded myself of the date and thought, “This is day ten (or whatever other number it happened to be) of my captivity – and my last.” The only idea that sustained my morale was that somehow I would escape. After 62 days, I did.

Now, there is no escape. Where would I go? Most of the planet is locked down. I knew in Beirut that if I got out, I would return to the world I left behind. London loomed as a safe haven to be reached at any cost. But I was spending this year in the beautiful resort-cum-fishing-village of Porto Ercole on the Tuscan shore in Italy, working on a book and planning trips to London and Islamabad. So when the Italian government put us in quarantine, like the rest of the country, I was trapped. And, as when I was a hostage in Beirut, I’m on my own.

The regime here is better than it was when I was being held by Hizbullah. I was given so little food I lost 25 pounds. Now I’ll probably gain weight from the pasta and meat I’m cooking. I considered myself lucky in Beirut to have water to drink, but here I’m well stocked with red Chianti from the famed vineyards of Castello Sonnino. I also got five-litre tins of olive oil from the same source, which I now pour generously on my burrata.

Italy tightened its quarantine rules gradually. In the first days I drove to the beach for long walks. That privilege soon ended. Bars and restaurants closed on March 12, ending social life. A few women speak from balcony to balcony, far enough apart to avoid contagion. The tobacconist, butcher, news agent, pharmacy, bakery and grocer open each morning. Only one customer at a time is allowed in, and we queue outside, most people in surgical masks, as far from one another as we can manage. In the afternoon police station themselves along the portside to check we have not wandered more than 200 metres from home, preferably with a dog…

This piece is from 1843, The Economist‘s sister magazine of ideas, lifestyle and culture. If you are a subscriber to the Economist, you can read the full article here.

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