“No, you are better than me, Yahya”: Where the Bird Disappeared by Ghassan Zaqtan

He felt he was walking inside a book, stumbling inside stories that had circulated in these hills since his birth. Journeys and names kept repeating themselves in succession without end.

The enclosures were always building themselves in processes to which everything contributed. Everything gave birth to everything. Time, places, names, women, trees, men. He felt he was traversing the book, word by word.

Memory, for Palestinian poet and writer Ghassan Zaqtan, is a troubled quantity, shaken and shaped by the past, near and distant. His work is rooted in the land and the lives of his people, disrupted and dislodged by the forces of history. The losses cross generations. The tremors run deep.

His first work of prose to be translated into English, Describing the Past, was set in a refugee camp east of the River Jordan, a location based on the settlement where Zaqtan grew up after the Israeli invasion of 1948 forced his family out of their home village. The first part of a trilogy, this dream-like coming-of-age story is a tale of loss—the loss of childhood friend and of childhood innocence itself. The narrative, shared by three voices, has a gently circular flow. The young man at the centre, continually eludes to the future yet is sensitive to the ongoing presence of the past, to the ghosts that continue to have a tangible existence in the community.

With the second installment, Where the Bird Disappeared, Zaqtan takes a somewhat different approach, but one that is likewise weighted with lyrical beauty and sorrow. The narrative begins in the years just prior to the invasion and extends to the present day, while its echoes with the past go much farther back in history. Set in the Palestinian village of Zakariyya, the central character is a youth also named Zakariyya. He and his best friend, Yahya not only share their names with two prophets so strongly associated with the region—known to Christian tradition as Zechariah and his son, John the Baptist—but bear distant imitations of their personalities and fates. Other characters and images also shadow figures from the shared Biblical and Koranic traditions.

This novella adopts a narrative style with more of a mythic feel than Describing the Past. The tone is still dream-like, spare and poetic. However, the disruption and violence of the invasion is much more explicitly portrayed in this tale which unfolds in a series of short, intimate vignettes. As adolescents, Yahya is a restless spirit, given to wandering alone in the countryside around the village. Zakariyya is the more reflective of the two, intuitive and sensitive to place. Together with the other boys of their village, they have their own visions and dreams for the future. Until the military arrive.

With the sudden forced migration, as families flee into the hills, all of the young men are thrown into dangerous new roles. They are drawn back to their villages, to try to protect their homes against impossible odds. There are casualties, including Yahya who is captured, and shackled inside the citadel outside Zakariyya. His friends keep vigil for three days and nights until he is finally killed:

Yahya knew that they were listening to him from the cactus field. His voice was full of testimonial. The pain had stopped and the fear had stopped with it. Only the testimonials remained, running through his voice and pouring into the air. They gathered them in the cactus field.

Zakariyya’s own journey commences with the death of his friend. He sets off to find Sara, who had loved Yahya, drawn by his own attractions as much as the need to bring her the difficult news. Along the way, he takes refuge at the Monastery of Saint Saba carved into the mountain side overlooking the Kidron Valley, halfway between Old Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. His short stay is a time of mystical suspension and release from the burdens weighing him down. He is attuned to the presence of the thousands of monks who passed through the complex over the previous fifteen centuries:

Saints, and pious men at the edges of sainthood, rose up, their chanting lingered as the living met the dead in the vestibules and halls of the monastery, sharing bread from nightfall to dawn.

He listened to their talk and their steps, he distinguished between the weightless steps of the dead and the empty stammerings of language. He arrested the movement of his body and left the air entirely to them.

Gathering the peace afforded him by his time at Mar Saba, Zakariyya sets off again to find Sara. He joins a refugee camp where she also comes to settle with her family. But once he is in close proximity to her, he comes to realize that he cannot approach her, and that to preserve his memories of both Yahya and Sara as they were all once together, to hold on to what little he has of his own past, he must leave. He returns to pass the night at the monastery before continuing “down the falling road” to the Dead Sea.

Zakariyya will settle to work the salt mines, in a land yet again bound to the far-reaching named and remembered history within which he is half aware that he exists. As the years pass, and age bends his back, he finds himself haunted by the strange notion that he was born a father. It’s a sensation that increasingly troubles him. He does not understand it, knowing only that it is bound to a name and that it is becoming more oppressive, leading down a road carved through memory. A road that will ultimately lead him back to Zakariyya. The place. His home.

Rich with allusions, but never forced or heavy-handed, Ghassan Zaqtan weaves a delicately devastating fable that illustrates that the connection of the Palestinian people to their land is not simply geographical, political and economic, but bound through mystical and psychological ties that are enduring. And not easily severed.

Where the Bird Disappeared is translated from the Arabic by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books. The final part of the trilogy will be published in Spring of 2019.

Ever returning: Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan

She is my loss and she knows this. She is my absence and knows this too.

From the earliest passages, there is an abiding transience to the narrative flow of Ghassan Zaqtan’s novella, Describing the Past. The language is delicate, the imagery fragile and dream-like. The world his characters inhabit has an eerie timelessness. The past—immediate or distant—is tangible. Ghosts wander the streets, and memories are brought into being as ethereal images or objects that hold a vital presence in the room, breathe, come alive at night. We are among people who have been uprooted once and will be uprooted again; their dreams and recollections sustain them, give them something to hold on to.

ghassan_zaqtanZaqtan, a Palestinian poet, was born a refugee. In 1961, at the age of seven, his family was relocated (for the second time since 1948) from Beit Jala, in the West Bank, to the Karameh refugee camp across from Jericho, in the Jordan River Valley. But, as Fady Joudah indicates in his Foreword, the camp would be burned with the Israeli invasion in 1968. Zaqtan’s tale is set in this community, yet re-imagined and filtered through the chimerical memory of a place, like childhood itself, that no longer exists.

The narrative is carried by three separate voices—designated I, He, and She—each speaking in first person. The central narrator is nicknamed Christian (his mother was Christian, his father Muslim), and his friend, the other young man, is known as the Iraqi’s son after an uncle who identified himself as Iraqi due to his brief role helping the Iraqi Army at the end of the 1948 war, an experience he built into a sustaining myth that coloured his entire family’s identity. The young woman who holds their attention is, at the outset, married to an elderly man who takes her and her mother into his home. When he dies, she will marry the Iraqi’s son and bear him a child before he drowns, leaving her alone. As such, the outline of the plot is simple, much of it alluded to in the first chapter. However, the story is unwrapped slowly, moving back and forth in time, and relying on poetic imagery and the vagaries of memory to sketch out the spaces that exist between these three individuals.

And that is where the magic lies. In the opening section Christian inadvertently chances to see “her”, the young wife of the old man, naked in her room. He had come seeking some tea leaves for his mother and had not realized she was home. Transfixed by the sight of her body he watches her in hiding until she begins to sob and he runs away, terrified and exhilarated by what he has seen. Of course he must tell his friend, who beautifully describes the vividness of the account:

At first I didn’t believe it, it was not his voice. There was a strand of fantasy that glimmered in his words, some current of rash hunger and desire, of fear and fraud. Little by little, like dust growing slowly and insistently into heaps, she started to gather there in the voice toward the point of completion. She became clear and close. I saw her in his voice reclining nude and whole. Her knee flashed at a distance. At the centre of her figure a dark spot of light amassed, turning and breathing. I was there. I saw her in his voice with a clarity that did not exist for him; she was clearer and more complete in his voice than anything he had looked at and beheld.

The narrative glances forward and retreats in time. The voice of the Iraqi’s son who meets an early demise, disappears from the discourse about halfway through. But the dead are never gone. They are greeted in the street. They emerge from photographs. One has the sense of a world crowded with memories, individuals weighed down by what they have lost. The level, steadily-paced poetry of the language enhances this sensation. This novella, only 84 pages long, is best if savoured slowly, allowing the words to be absorbed.

As each of the narrators picks up the pieces of their own stories, the temporal distortion, shifting from chapter to chapter, can be disorienting. “Here” and “now” are terms without a fixed frame of reference. This is intensified because Christian, as the central narrator, rather than providing structure, is the most abstract and philosophical in his manner of being in the world. He is most sensitive to a past that extends beyond his experience. To ghosts. At one point his father had crept into forbidden territory in search of his village, only to find it in ruins, home now to a curtain of cacti and one remaining pomegranate tree. Stuffing his pockets with pomegranates he arrived home covered in juice, clutching one whole fruit:

He placed it on our only table, and the fruit stayed there. We were unable to wound it. We were afraid to cause it, or him, pain. It was in front of us—breathing and remembering—on that squat table, next the knife that my youngest sister had brought and about which we quickly forgot. It was impossible for us to go beyond that. The fruit was completely alive and necessary for him, his only means to make us believe him, to make us believe all those stories he had brought to us—of his house, his village and his land.

Our house, our village, our land.

There is a sense that the three young characters at the centre of Describing the Past are trapped, suspended in lives they cannot control. It is not clear how much time passes. Hopes and ambitions are fleeting when you face an uncertain future in a refugee camp—when the land you live on is shared with ghosts, haunted by memories, and liable to turn to dust without warning. Yet, circular, the dream-like narrative returns, in the end, to complete the fragmentary images that the set up by central narrator in the opening passages. The mood is gently haunting, beautiful and sad.

And it leaves you with chills.

Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan is translated by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books.