I was anxious to see my family when I recently arrived back in Gaza. It had been several months since I moved to Cairo and in that time I had only seen my wife and children on the screens of my mobile phone and computer.
The COVID-19 pandemic ruled out an immediate reunion. Public health rules meant that I had to enter quarantine for 21 days.
As soon as I returned through the Rafah crossing, which separates Gaza and Egypt, I was handed a mask and directed to a waiting area. It was in the open air, though covered, making it feel like a large tent.
Those of us who had traveled into Gaza were given bottles of water. We were told to sit down and keep a distance between one another.
Then we were instructed to enter the reception hall – one by one. From there, we were brought into a new room, staffed by medical workers wearing protective equipment.
After each of us underwent a blood test, we were fed a meal.
We had to stay a few hours at the crossing before we boarded a 25-seat bus. It brought us to the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital in Gaza City.
Time to contemplate
The room I was assigned at the hospital was tidy and clean.
It had a comfortable bed, air conditioning and a bathroom en suite. Plus, there was internet access.
Once I had been there for around 12 hours, a man knocked on the door and handed over two boxes.
In one of them, I found a towel, some liquid soap, a toothbrush, a shaving kit, coffee, tea and maramiyeh herbs. The other box contained bottles of mineral water.
The three weeks I spent in this quarantine center were not enjoyable. How could it be fun to be away from the people I love?
But they did provide me with plenty of time for contemplation. I had a chance to reflect on many things, particularly the importance of being healthy.
Every morning I ate breakfast, then switched on my laptop to catch up with the latest news. I kept myself occupied reading articles or watching videos on the internet until lunch.
Following a siesta, I usually spent the afternoons communicating with my family and with our friends in Maghazi refugee camp.
While I was in the hospital, the Gaza authorities announced that the first cases of COVID-19 infections had been detected beyond quarantine centers.
The confirmed cases were all in Maghazi in central Gaza. They were in the same family but everyone surmised that it would only be a matter of time until more people would test positive.
Within 48 hours, another two cases – outside that family – were confirmed in Gaza.
I was anxious to learn about how the coronavirus was spreading and the effect it was having on my neighborhood. Maghazi – like the rest of Gaza – was now under lockdown.
As night fell, I often wrote poetry.
Composing poems is cathartic for me.
I pour my emotions into verse. Every line I craft is influenced by what I have witnessed over the years and decades.
Almost every day while I was in the hospital, I suffered from toothaches.
I had been getting toothaches before I returned to Gaza and brought painkillers with me in my luggage. When my medicine ran out, I asked Ahmad, a nurse, if he could get more for me.
Unfortunately stocks of the painkillers I needed – paracetamol and ibuprofen – were low in the hospital. Ahmad gave me some other tablets that reduced my pain to a certain extent.
Ahmad tried hard to relieve the stress of people under quarantine. Although he was busy, he always found time to chat with patients.
He liked to entertain people with songs. His voice is beautiful.
Each time I heard him break into song, my spirits were raised a little. I would sing along with him.
My toothaches were a nuisance but there were people in quarantine with bigger issues.
One man kept telling the staff that his pregnant wife – also in quarantine – needed special attention. Another man complained of high blood pressure.
Others had new-born babies under quarantine and wanted a doctor to see them.
Eventually, a doctor came along. The doctor promised to sort out all the problems raised.
During my first few days under quarantine, I took a test for COVID-19. The results were negative and I was told that I am healthy. Thank God.
Israel bombed Gaza repeatedly while I was in the hospital.
In the early hours of one morning, I heard a very loud explosion. The whole building seemed to shake.
It felt a little strange to be under quarantine while Israel was attacking Gaza once again – this time citing the excuse that Palestinian youth had launched incendiary balloons.
Fortunately, I am now back home with my wife and children. I just hope that the coronavirus will not overwhelm Maghazi and Gaza more generally.
Being under quarantine is something I will never forget.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.