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A short story
Translated by Becki Maddock
He was standing at the side of the road, atop a pile of gravel, between the asphalt and the rocky mountainside. Frozen in place, with a fixed gaze, like a wax doll, his black eye gleaming at me. His serious stance, like a miniature knight on a chess board, caught my eye. I bent over and picked him up as if he were a piece of carbonised sand. His other eye appeared to be closed. The eyelid was swollen, covering it. Between his eyes was a red scar, evidence of a blow, below which his feathers had been plucked out.
His injury suggested that a predator had pecked him between his eyes but had not succeeded in killing him. One of our group speculated that a passing car had hit the reckless bird, being able to avoid it, as birds do not recognise potential danger posed by moving vehicles. Another commented that a bird of prey must have attacked him to inflict such a severe injury.
I picked him up immediately and wrapped him in the white, silky shawl that still retained a blue mark in the form of the gold brooch that fastens the fabric of the traditional Tunisian sefseri cloak. I thanked God that the changeable spring weather had compelled me to bring what I had wrapped around my neck, so that I could use it to lift the injured bird from the dust without causing it to panic.
Cradling the small bird, I resumed walking towards the grassy slope, above which a patch of blue sky appeared. I hugged him close to my chest, hoping that the beating of my heart would transmit some warmth into his tiny, exhausted body. It seemed to me that the bird’s fragility in the face of the random blows was at odds with the strength of his wings that carried him above the laws of earthly gravity. How much stronger than us he was, and yet immeasurably more fragile!
We carried on towards the slope. Above us shone the fresh spring sky, the brightness of which we had not known since the cold days of winter.
We proceed at a vigorous pace, leaving behind us a temporary construction for the curfew, following a month and a half of confinement by the tanks and armoured vehicles that had devastated the city. The soles of our feet enjoy the feel of the solid earth despite the large amount of gravel scattered on it. The features of our faces relax, after having stiffened from compulsory listening to the babble of the political programmes on the satellite television stations, which discuss our situation in a style no different to the entertainment programmes.
Our senses are shaken by the noise of the loudspeakers fixed to the Israeli Jeeps, which multiply around us like dangerous viruses as they recite their orders at us. We walk with all our determination, escaping, albeit temporarily, from the smells of poisonous gas bombs, and the garbage and waste, which has not been collected because of the curfew. Attempting to flee, if only for a moment, from our houses that have become our prisons. Expending most of our energy through our steps placed in the direction of the open air, so that we might forget how many incessant announcements are repeated around us at all hours of the night or day. Trying to ensure that, despite everything, our fundamental dreams of a different life are not shaken from our souls. As if that excursion of ours were no more than a break from all the instructions and orders that have been instilled in us and imposed upon us, like cages of chain mail.
Merely perhaps . . . in order that we peek out between the solid bars of our prison, between one prohibition and another, at another blue patch of the sky of Palestine.
A sky that looks down on mountainous lands encircled by the ancient dry-stone walls that have prevented the earth from crumbling and collapsing since the times of the Romans and Phoenicians. A vast expanse, and over its hills spread the stone huts, like miniature fortresses, their rough stones forming houses to protect the crops and sheep of farmers since times long past, and forgotten by subsequent generations.
Under the shadows of the clouds, ceaselessly wandering above the eternally recurring summits, emerge from time to time the fortifications of Israeli military positions surrounded by barbed wire, ready to assume their roles in the conversion of our agricultural land into colonial settlements.
Looking from the West, these occupation positions surrounded by searchlights and barbed wire, with their immoral nature, are bathed in the splendour transmitted by these hills over which advance infinite clusters of olive trees. Converging in turn with the streamlined peaks stretching to the distant sea. Above its bright, shimmering waters another sky gently touches that iridescent, red copper twilight of the evening.
A sea, whose shimmering shadows we only glimpse from afar, because it remains hidden in the direction of the beach, which we are forbidden from reaching. Yet we never tire of gazing towards it whenever possible, making walking to it evidence of nostalgia. We use as a pretext the search for the flowers which the desert bears at this time of year. Scarlet anemones and rosy-lilac gazelles’ horns, or yellow aspalathus. We search for various types of small lilies, with rippling, rose-like sheen, our tense gazes like closed petals, bursting towards their ripeness, as if we are redrawing the freedom of release from the closed borders imposed upon us.
We complete our tour, and the small bird with the closed eye is wrapped in the shawl against my chest, and we took him along with us.
At home, I named him Robin, based on the assurances of our bird-loving neighbour. When I expressed my doubt about the name due to the incomplete red ruff on his neck feathers, he told me: “This is a young bird. The full red has not yet appeared on his feathers.”
At home, I put him under a sieve made of metal wire and left him some water and seeds. The first day passed and he was rigid and motionless. He stood frozen, as if he had been glued in place. He could not be seen clearly between the thin metal wires, as his dark colouring blended with the metal. He was unmoving and did not budge. I recalled the day a canary froze in my house, when his cage accidentally fell from the window ledge while I was out. The shock had caused it to stand frozen in place for two days without eating or drinking. Thus, I assessed that Robin would get better after a day or two.
It seemed to me then that however small birds are they have expressions and we can understand how they feel from their appearance. Movement is a sign of happiness. I put down some seeds and water for him and at night I felt pleased because he was in a safe place. He did not move the next day either, but a few seeds were missing from the handful that I had put in the dish.
I had to wait, listening to the Israeli loudspeakers circulating with the Jeeps for three more days until they announced the lifting of the curfew. During that time Robin did not move and he did not make a sound. There was nothing to indicate that he was getting better except his closed eye, which began to open little by little, although it remained smaller than his main, healthy eye.
I asked our neighbour, the bird breeder, whether I should keep him or release him. He assured me that Robin was a wild bird and could not endure captivity if he lived in a cage inside the house and that the best thing was definitely to return him to the wild as soon as possible before he became depressed and stopped eating and drinking.
I tossed and turned for a long time in bed, lying, as I did every night, in an impromptu position, in fear of the thundering clashes during the night. I battled unsuccessfully that premature, early-morning wakefulness that embitters my day, like the punishment of prisons. For no matter how securely the windows are closed, the reverberation of the loudspeakers penetrates the walls bringing us the voice of the Israeli officer, who in his poor, grammatically incorrect Arabic, filled with linguistic errors, orders us to stay in our houses that day, or informs us of the required time we must return home in the event that the curfew is lifted for a few hours.
It was an unpleasant morning, its disquiet relieved only by my preparations for the pleasing idea of returning Robin to his original habitat, to that spot where we had walked on that radiant day.
I did not have enough time because the curfew would soon be lifted and I had to return him to his original place, then go to stand in the long queue at the bakery, and afterwards scour the few shops for some vegetables.
My friend and I went by car to the western side of the city. In my hands was the metal sieve, which covered the dish in which Robin stood. The place was not beautiful, as we had thought it last time. There was a housing development occupying its edges turning it into a pit with newly-built flats multiplying in it, lined up in haphazard, random rows, with scrap metal, piles of earth and building materials in front of them.
We looked for a tree near where we had found him but were unsuccessful. We found only a small pine tree that had been accidentally left behind, far from the excavations of the building sites. We walked over the small rocks, and the snatching thorns, and homes of wild brambles, their thorns tugging at our clothes, until we reached that tree, standing at almost the highest point among the hills.
The tree did not look like a safe refuge but there was no alternative except the low thorns entwined around the rocks. Robin would surely know how to handle himself because a few days in the house would not be enough to eliminate his wild instinct. I approached the tree and placed him on one of its short branches. To my great surprise, he fell to the ground and did not hold onto the branch. I rushed to him, picked him up, and placed him on another branch of the tree. It seemed as if there was some impediment to his attachment to the place, because he was falling off the tree immediately. Perhaps he was still suffering from dizziness and loss of balance!
Nevertheless, there was no alternative. So I ran after him when he flew at a low altitude, immediately afterwards falling near a smooth rock, and I picked him up again so as to put him back on the tree branch. He restrained himself a little this time but it was not long before he lost his balance and fell once more.
There was no possibility of giving up, and time was running out. I had to return with my friend before it became dangerously late. He showed a little improvement at keeping his balance, trying to fly again each time. I could not take him back with me, and he had to hurry up and fly before he was finished off by the cats in the neighbouring residential district.
The seventh time he flew several metres horizontally then fell.
And the eighth . . . and after more than ten attempts, he flew.
Not high enough, but enough to take him away from that place and towards another.
He flew! And he disappeared!
And I have not seen him again since that moment.
Not long after his departure, at the end of that spring, I was again walking in that area when I noticed something that I had always seen before but that had not entered my field of vision. One of the birds of prey was circling high above like a helicopter. Staring, searching for prey, that might be a small bird like Robin. After that I began to realise that that bird was spending his days constantly circling there above the high mountain, directly above that small tree.
A high mountain, under a blue sky looking down on hills and ancient olive trees, and mountains overlooking a captivating sea, invaded by colonising settlements advancing from the histories of ancient wars. Vines still encircle the ruins of the farmers’ stone huts of long ago, and beside the sea nestle cities, whose inhabitants have left and others have taken over, after wars that have continued for decades.
All that under one sky!
Is that why Robin flew far away and I have not seen him again since that moment?
Translated from the author’s collection Sama’a Waahida (One Sky),
published by Dar al-Saqi, 2007
Published in Banipal 57 – Syria in the Heart (Autumn/Winter 2016)
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