When Birds Sang Again

Mahmoud Khattab

2020 - 2021

Egypt; Cairo, Muḩāfaz̧at al Qāhirah, Egypt

I am not sure if it is because there were less people on the streets or that we started paying more attention from our windows; It was a collective feeling. My brother who lives in Germany messaged me. He asked me to listen to unusual sounds of birds in the early hours of day. He said it was a sign. Neither of us fathomed what it meant.

When Birds Sang Again is public and personal. I have seen and documented the emptiness of streets of my home city Cairo during the COVID-19 pandemic and my personal reflection that came with it. Seeing my beloved, wary city in lockdown. Taking refuge in my home. Looking out the window at the same time as my friend Emma, who lives in Italy when both Cairo and Turin became in lockdown. Keeping the same distance from strangers and friends alike – anyone who doesn’t live and eat with me, including my uncle Mustafa, who taught me everything about Mathematics, and Eslam, whose hugs comforted me.

I see through COVID-19 prevention measures that have affected the physical bond between families. Seeing how these physical distancing measures have affected my bond with my own makes me want to explore it more through birds, a poetic symbol of natural freedom that is ever more apparent during the quiet of lockdown.

I explore the effect of social distancing on my culture that exhibits physical affection to family members as a show of bond and respect, especially to elders. I hope that this story will be part of a collective healing of the emotional and psychological traumas of social distancing in an ever social species.


Our elders were kept

in separate rooms

when birds sang.

we see the clear sky now and long uncut grass.


When birds sang

and streets emptied

and gatherings were banned do you hear them now?

with their warnings

and public announcements

and daily counts and rooftop prayers


A few days ago, he asked me why I no longer kiss his hand.

When I come home, I would kiss my mother’s right hand, then swiftly lean on it with my forehead.

I would do the same to my father. It’s a tradition I grew up with

to show respect to my elders.


My father feels cages inside the house. I tried everything else but I am too sensitive to shake sense into him.

Why won't he listen?

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