This is an incredible (as in, literally not credible) story from the UAE.
Please take the time to read it.
When his widowed mother died during childbirth, there was never any question that the team at Dubai’s Al-Shabbas Private Hospital would take care of little Ata. In this strange, overwhelming, futuristic city, sometimes the personal touch can be forgotten, and the staff at Al-Shabbas probably knew that without their shared care, baby Ata – his name means ‘Gift from Allah’ – might fall through the cracks in the UAE’s social service system.
It’s been a strange life for Ata, now almost three years old. He has many mothers and fathers in the hospital and has become a favourite with staff and patients alike. He lives, plays, learns and sleeps in the hospital unit in which he was born and which he has never left. The staff – from the porters and cleaners, through to some of the most celebrated consultants in the world – are each happy to take time out from their daily schedule to do their bit to look after Ata: whether it’s sitting with him during breakfast or lunch in the hospital canteen, or reading him a bedtime story before he settles down to sleep in the on-call bunk room that has become his home.
“He’s our child – all of us are his parents,” says Australian Ward Clerk Sandy Johnson, her voice slightly muffled behind her surgical mask. “He’s got an international family!”
Indeed, an astonishing total of 18 different nationalities currently work in the unit that Ata calls home, and all of them have their own story to tell about the little boy.
One could argue that such an unusual upbringing might be detrimental to a child, but Ata seems to relish being cared for by so many individuals. In fact, you would never know that he doesn’t live the normal life of a three year old were it not for one striking feature: he cannot talk.
Despite being just two weeks away from his third birthday, Ata can only communicate via various basic vowel sounds and some form of rudimentary sign language. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t seem to affect his happiness at all, but despite months of speech therapy (on the house – this is a hospital community, after all!), he cannot utter a single word.
“At first, we thought it was maybe because he was experiencing many different mother tongues,” comments Registrar, Dr Iqbal Ahmed. “But that wouldn’t explain why he literally can’t make the sounds that make up the words of any language. It was only recently that we worked out what the actual problem was: our masks. Ata’s speech is handicapped because he almost never sees a mouth due to everyone wearing a mask, and can’t look at the lips moving. I’m surprised more people working at this Dubai hospital haven’t told their friends overseas about this.”
“It’s the same reason that visually impaired people can’t talk,” explains Speech Therapist Noora Koram, plainly ignoring reality. “When we are learning how to speak, we look at the lips of the person speaking and we make the same shape with our lips and that’s how we learn to talk. Ata can’t see any lips because of his weird upbringing in a hospital, where everyone wears masks all the time and never ever takes them off, even when eating, so he never sees their mouth and their lips moving and so he can’t speak. I don’t think he’ll ever learn to whistle either. Or play the clarinet.”
Sandy Johnson agrees: “Yeah, it’s definitely the mask thing. Well, either that or he doesn’t actually have any lips either. We don’t know because he wears a mask all the time too. Everyone wears masks here all the time because it’s a hospital and that’s what people do in a hospital, even when they’re raising a fictional child in a fantasy parenting collective situation.”
“To be honest, I’m not sure if Ata even knows that humans have mouths,” says Koram. “He’s never ever been outside the hospital unit and so everyone he’s ever met has been wearing a mask. Always. We’re not even really sure how he learned to eat, because you use your mouth for that as well and it’s really hard to do that when you’re wearing a mask. Which we all do. All the time. It might actually be terrifying for him to ever see a full human face when all he knows is two eyes and a rectangle of blue pleated paper below them.”
“With hindsight, it might have been better if he had grown up in a regular family environment,” admits Consultant Gynaecologist, Professor Jennifer Hammond. “But it’s too late for that now. Because of the strict government guidelines all over the world, even regular families wear masks all day and night now, and they’re not even living in hospitals where we also wear masks all the time. Twenty-four seven. I’d imagine that we will see many more children whose speech is handicapped because they almost never see a mouth due to everyone wearing a mask, and can’t look at the lips moving. Of course, those children also never watch TV or watch videos on the internet or live in the real world, because otherwise this would be less of a problem. But almost never seeing a mouth due to everyone wearing a mask is going to be a real issue in our near future. I’m even concerned that I will forget what a mouth looks like and lose the ability to talk, due to everyone wearing a mask.”
It’s a frightening prospect, but as I leave Professor Hammond’s office, there is Ata in the corridor outside: carefree and happy – a smile in his eyes (and possibly lower down his face as well – I can’t see), and just for a moment the world seems a better place. I give him a grin – which he can’t see either – and bid him farewell.
Ata grunts contentedly and goes back to playing with his teddy bear, which I can’t help but notice, also has a mask on.
As we all do. All the time.