28 March 2022

A Collective Healing of the Emotional and Psychological Traumas of Social Distancing

28 March 2022 - Written by PhMuseum

Becoming attentive to the silence experienced during the first lockdown in his hometown Cairo, photographer Mahmoud Khattab reflects on physical restrictions and their impact on social and familiar daily lives during a time when birds take over the empty towns and become part of a shared experience. 

I am not sure if it is because there were fewer 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 the 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 the 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 entered the 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 that COVID-19 prevention measures have affected the physical bond between families. Seeing how these physical restrinctions have affected the bonds with my own, making me want to explore it through birds, a poetic symbol of natural freedom that is ever more apparent during the quietness of lockdown. 

I explore the effects 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?

Words and Pictures by Mahmoud Khattab


Mahmoud Khattab is a photographer and a writer based in Cairo, Egypt. Mahmoud’s stories span years of observing change and reminiscence of hills and himself in stills and writings. His works have been exhibited in Finland, Turkey, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, and others. Mahmoud is a member of Everyday Africa and Everyday Middle East. Follow him on Instagram and PhMuseum


This feature is part of Story of the Week, a selection of relevant projects from our community handpicked by the PhMuseum curators.

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