A mask is an object normally worn on the face, typically for protection, disguise, performance, or entertainment.
With sirens wailing and the crumps of incoming missiles clearly heard, I tell the grandchildren not to be scared, there’s nothing to worry about.
I have to mask my own feelings; they mustn’t see that I am scared too.
At least the panic with coronavirus seems to be over, or perhaps it’s just been forgotten. We should spare a thought for the U.S. companies that turned all their production lines to making face masks and are now stuck with uncountable millions of unwanted masks.
Masks have a very long history.
In China, masks may have originated as part of religious ceremonies. There are rock paintings, with images of people wearing masks, along the Yangtze River. Closer to home, in the necropolises of Egypt and in the tombs of Greece’s Mycenae, a mask consisting of a piece of gold leaf was placed on the face of the dead. This, it was hoped, kept the dead’s features intact.
In the Middle Ages, doctors treating bubonic plague patients wore masks shaped like beaks that were filled with herbs. A little later, Leonardo da Vinci, always ready with a new idea, suggested using a mask made from a cloth soaked in water to protect sailors from chemical attacks.
On a somewhat lighter note, Giuseppe Verdi’s 1859 opera, Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) has the usual complicated plot, with the hero dying at the end, as all good heroes do.
Masks became an important part of a soldier’s life in the First World War. A wide range of toxic materials, from irritating but otherwise harmless tear gas to deadly suffocating gases like chlorine, became battlefield weapons. In 1915, German forces surprised Allied soldiers with more than 150 tons of chlorine gas at Ypres, Belgium. The unprepared Allies were devastated by this first major gas attack by the Germans; more than 1,100 soldiers lost their lives.
We in Israel became all too familiar with masks during the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had threatened gas attacks and we were all issued with rather clumsy masks to wear in our sealed rooms. With their long tubes, we ended up looking like a herd of elephants.
Sometimes the mask slips. Each evening we watch television news interviewers goading some politician, hoping to see the real person behind the public image. Sometimes we realise that what we see is not what we are going to get.