Book Review: Pandemic revisited - Anxiety under the microscope

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 6 Apr 2023

“300,000 years of fear – the history of humankind from beginning to monotheism” chronicles personal exchanges between a father and a daughter to understand and deal with the psychological impacts of the coronavirus pandemic in the thick of things three years ago.


In 2020, Egypt underwent a partial lockdown as the first wave of COVID-19 started to hit.

It took over two years, with lots of pain and losses for many, before a worldwide vaccination scheme started to push away the anxiety that afflicted untold millions who suffered from the catastrophic news of the pandemic.

The book, titled in Arabic "300,000 aam min al-khof – qessat albashar min bedayat alkon ila altawahid”, was published by Al-Dar Al-Marsriyah Al-Lebenaniyah,

In the book, Gamal AboulHassan, an Egyptian writer and diplomat, shares intra-family reflections and worries over the pandemic in a very lengthy correspondence between himself, while posted overseas, and his daughter Layla, who was living in Cairo at the time.

The issue of anxiety figures at the core of the father-daughter correspondence.

In her first mail, Layla, who contracted COVID, is asking her father, who is also ill because of COVID, to share a few uplifting thoughts to help her overcome the anxiety that she has been suffering from since she tested positive.

Instead of throwing in some light talk, the father argues to his daughter in lengthy mail that anxiety has been an integral part of the history of humankind from the very beginning.

Anxiety, he argues, is only part of the inherited keenness to live on.

Thinking about the future is the main reason people become anxious, he tells Layla.

“As we look towards the future, we never know what is coming our way. This uncertainty is what makes us anxious…. [for the most part] we live hostage to this uncertainty,” he wrote in the first letter.

‘Fear for the future’ started since people were hunter-gatherers and has continued in the last 300,000 years, he stresses to Layla.

Using a cleverly-knitted mix of basic biology, chemistry and physics, the book argues the case for the inevitable association between the survival instinct and the growing sense of anxiety.

And with an enthralling narration of basic anthropology and history, it argues the case for human compassion as a solid cure to chronic anxiety.

Inevitably, the book addresses the issue of faith – not from a religious perspective but rather from the perspective of the endless pursuit of certainty that humankind has been yearning for right from the beginning.

Then, in one of the more interesting segments in this 400-page work, the letters of father to daughter argue a correlation between faith as a collective state of mind and the evolution of the human body.

The letters argue that the evolution of science as well as the growing capacities for creativity and the changing norms of competition - all is part of the pursuit to defy “this ultimate fear of the unknown."

AboulHassan kept sending letters to Layla until both started to recover from their COVID.

The letters are full of tricks of memory and dreams, and for that matter nightmares, which are all contextualised within the deeply rooted and long battle between humanity and anxiety.

In essence, the book reads like an entertaining version of a concise history of the human civilisaiton - rich in interesting anecdotes quotes.

AboulHassan stresses on his daughter, and the reader, that anxiousness is inevitable but he also argues that it is also at the root of many of the advances achieved in the history of the human kind.

"300,000 years of fear ..." is an excellent read on how some individuals and families dealt with and reflected on a period that impacted our lives for years and will continue to do so for decades to come.

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