Watching America from Islamabad

by Nina Ellis



On Inauguration Day, my boyfriend and I set up a projector in our living room and invited our COVID bubble to join us. We ate burgers and I wore blue for Biden and Harris. They were sworn in at around 10 p.m. Pakistan time, and we cheered while owls, crows and myna birds filled the night outside with their hoots and screeches. The crescent moon rose, our friends went home, and Tom and I watched the gift-giving ceremony until past midnight. I thought of my parents and sister in New York and Rhode Island, and felt far away from them even though we were watching the same thing at the same time.


I haven’t seen my family since December 2019. That’s the norm for so many of us now: yearning across oceans and travel bans. I’m American — my sister and I grew up in Europe, but she moved back to the States years ago and our parents followed. I stayed in the UK, and now I’m the only one left abroad. At the beginning of the pandemic, I joined Tom in Pakistan, where he is posted as a diplomat. We thought I might get stuck here for a few weeks, but the borders stayed closed and soon I had been here for five months. When the second wave hit the UK, I applied for permission to continue my PhD remotely and officially moved in with him in Islamabad.


The pandemic has done strange things to time. The months since I last saw my family feel heavy and solid between us, but also fluid, because so much has happened. I’ve learned to drive, play tennis, make daal and speak some Urdu. I’ve redrafted my novel and passed my PhD Registration. I’ve visited Rohtas Fort, Taxila and Jahangir’s Tomb (in a mask, of course). Tom and I have grown closer — and yet my parents and sister still haven’t met him in real life.


Plenty of things have happened to my parents and sister too, and as I read about them in the paper I try to imagine how they must feel when they’re not just words on a page — when you’re living through them. Operation Warp Speed. The George Floyd protests. Trump deploying the National Guard. Covid cases rising and rising. The police killings of Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and Walter Wallace Jr. The elections, the lawsuits. Biden and Harris coming through. COVID cases rising again. The assault on the Capitol.


On Zoom last weekend, my mother told me she’d been feeling sad. ‘It’s like a tree,’ she explained. ‘You’re on one branch and we’re on another, and we keep trying to get back to each other in the middle, but the branches keep growing and we get further and further apart.’ I know what she means. I don’t want to grow apart from her, but we’ve each lived the pandemic in such localised ways. I’ll never fully understand how it felt to face Covid in Trump’s America, just as my parents and sister will never fully understand how it felt to move to Pakistan during a pandemic. All we can do is Zoom, and read the paper, and watch each other from afar.


This diary was part of our ‘Global Dispatches’ section in the Summer 2021 Issue.


NINA ELLIS reads for a PhD in American Literature at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. She is haunted by the ghost of Lucia Berlin, in a good way.


Art by Isabella Lill