Fiction from Web Del Sol


Excerpt from novel "Memories of Birth"

Diana Abu-Jaber

I was a baby at the time, maybe five years old. I remember walking and walking, movement without rest. We were crossing land whose name and nature were changing under our feet, part of a mosaic: the nakbeh, tragedy. I don't know how it was that we and the few women with us broke from the others, but we found ourselves following the boundary of the Jordan River, as if to delay our real departure--from native soil--as long as possible. I believe now that we were trapped in our own flight, as any species may be when they are dying: the raptors that refuse to mate, the American buffalo that lay down and will not eat. We might have been the last of our people for all we knew. We waded the hip-high grass of the riverbanks. Then, after perhaps a week of this wandering we came to cut away escarpments, shining bands of salt rimming the Dead Sea and freezing the earth.
      At that place we crossed a wooden bridge that people would tell me later was not there, that it had been destroyed by Romans or Turks. They tell me, impossible, there has never been a bridge there. But it rises from memory in perfect clarity: stone joints, planked floor, grass stuffed between the cracks. We crossed from desolation into desolation, and when I turned to see where we had just come from, the bridge disappeared back into the landscape, and I felt the salt air fill my throat and mouth and etch into my heart.
      We were not lost; that implies there was a way to go, a place to be lost from. We were homeless. We wandered at times in great circles. We tore the leaves from the trees to eat, and sometimes peeled the tender bark. I ate grass and dirt and winged beetles. As we walked away from the river we moved toward the desert, until the day we woke and it glittered under us in a plain of light, crystal white as the ocean.
      That was the day the men found us. There were three of them on camels, swords tilted carelessly toward the sky, their animals drifting long, delicate legs under fur and rugs. The men were also wrapped up, heads bound in red and white. The desert stretched behind them, tufted with sparse grass, rock rising straight up in places like towers. They looked at us for what felt like a long time. I remember that long watching, their silence, that opal land, the white desert. A place that has never left my nights since then without some twist of dream.
      "Here's some more," one man said.
      The others nodded, as if they already knew us. In town we had called these sorts of men the ruhhal, wanderers.
      The man touched his eyes then offered my mother his hand. "We ask respectfully that you come to live with us."
      We followed them; sometimes I walked, other times I was carried upon a camel's undulating back. The land opened to us in cliffs and valleys, blue nooks and canyons. Their camp was hard to see through the yellow slant of sun. Light reflected from their sheep and the tents made of goat hairs; everything beaten to yellow. A black burro grazed by the edge of the grounds. Beyond that, we saw the shoulders of the jebels rising into the distance, folding mountains.
      Sitti, matriarch of the tribe, emerged wreathed in black. Her face was tattooed over the chin, cheeks, and brow, and the eyes of the baby she held were blacked with kohl for the visitors. The other women came and their arms were filled with leaves and flowers, as if they had known, perhaps even before we did, that we were coming, as if the desert floor murmured to them, bringing our footsteps over the land. They came, white veils lifting from their hair, arms filled, telling us, "Welcome, welcome, assalamu alaikum, you are home, at last, you are home again."
      We lived with the Huwyatat bedouins for a month. It was a time that my mother would later say was the happiest in her life, as if she had lived all her previous life with a chord tied about her waist. In the desert, the knot had broken and she went free.
      "We know about the wanderings of marked men," said Sitti Jasmine. "For whom no land is home and against whom all hands are turned. Then there are nomads like us, who make the earth their home."
      Jeneva, a woman who had come with us and had seen her home burned down, said, "You say that as if this desert was the whole world. You don't know what you're talking about. You don't know there are people out there, somewhere on the other side of the river right now, who will name your desert after their grandfathers, tell you that you never lived here, that the centuries were hallucinations, and that you will certainly never live here again."
      One little girl said, "I'll take my daddy's pistol and shoot them!"
      Sitti hushed her, gathering the child into her lap, and said to Jeneva, "If white-eyes come from all around to my desert, doesn't that prove my point? That this is land like any other on earth? When a man puts a name and draws his lines down on any piece of land, what foolishness. Those lines and words are invisible. Only in men's minds do these things exist. The bedouin understand this. We walk and we know the joy in movement, in following the natural inclinations of the territory. We're content because the earth confirms that we're alive."

I remember a month of walking, of coming to campsites that dotted the earth, oases of stone walls and fountains, centuries stained. The Huwyatat would draw in their camel herds, set the black-haired sheets across the walls and let the smell of coffee and cardamom rise, arabesques of smoke turning in the air. Sometimes we moved alongside an old railway line, where the camels wandered to graze between its tracks. We walked from wadi to wadi, the watering holes of valleys, muddy and flat in a white-scorched land or springing through green-terraced country. We carried embroidery, spun sheets and carpets, and listened to the clink of Roman coins and gold bands around the women's arms.
      I also remember the absence in my mother's eyes as she gave herself to the march. The fact of movement and the company of others, I now believe, was what sustained her. Her eyes changed forever, imprinted with the image of a disappearing landscape, but I know the bedouins gave something inviolable to us. In our first days of travel, I saw an oasis that was like a lake; the water was vast, and as we came closer I saw that its surface was alive, that it moved and formed itself in pieces from the air. Then I realized that these pieces of lake and air were birds. Their wings shattered the air and their cries were layers of song, trebling, croaking, shrilling, musical and ornate, overlaid like the layers of bedouin embroidery. That memory of bird song and flight was to return to me throughout my life.
      The bedouins lived lightly, leaving just the imprint of their feet, their gathering hands, and the camels' soft mouths to mark their passing. They were easy, too, with command, relying upon the elders, especially Sitti Jasmine, her skin brown as a tree stump and traced over. On the rare occasion that we met a visitor--once a falconer, another time, journalists from Britain--the men would cry out, Alan wa sahlan! Be twice welcomed! My tent, they said, is certainly your tent. And coffee, black, crude, and sugary, would be put before them. The falconer showed us how his bird sat on his leather glove, just a thread around the bird's talons and a tasseled hood over the bird's eyes like a too-large turban. The journalists had Sitti Jasmine speak into a whirring box. Their questions went round in circles, like men lost in the desert:
      Where do you travel?
      What do you eat?
      Where will you go next?
      They pushed some buttons and we heard Sitti Jasmine's voice creak forth from under a cloud of whispery noises and repeat her answers. She clapped her hands together then and said in English, "You have jinnis in your boxes!" Then she turned to the rest of us and, grabbing her five year old granddaughter, said in Arabic, "But this one, big-ears, can repeat that trick in clearer voice and with extra commentary added in."
      We came to a place that stretched beyond my mind's outlines: pillars, veined, footed, and engraved, some sunken almost completely in fields of yellow wild flower. There were stone-swept avenues that turned into plazas, stone altars and theaters open to the air. We walked through carved archways, lightshot openings, where the men demonstrated how those before us had positioned weapons or leaned out into the night, charting stars. The Huwyatat unfurled their carpets and moored them between pillars. Among the ruins, the smell of coffee glowed like a mineral from their metal pots.
      From this place we passed single file, along ridges and between mountain crevices barely as wide as a camel's hips, places where the stone was hooked in a thousand places like piles of skulls, down a trail crusted in the earth. At the end of the trail we walked between the sides of two stone faces, set shoulder to shoulder. Siq, our leader's snow-white camel, swung its head back once, then we turned into a brilliant basin. Before us, pink and white, satiny as a girl's thigh, intricate as a heart, a facade emerged from the rockface.
      I and the other children ran up before the riders to the beauty standing out of the rock. Its columns and archways were delicately hued as rose petals, and above those, atop the elaborate portico, there was an urn intricate as Aladdin's lamp. One of the men leveled his rifle at it.
      "There's no gold in there, you fool," the leader said.
      The other man put down his gun, shrugged, and said, "One never knows."
      We walked along the clearing and the leader pointed out other columns and openings, some just tracery along the rocks, sketches of palaces, others opened into rooms cut by shadows or dark and watery, swimming with bands of pink, blue, and ochre. Everything was silent, even the camels' feet seemed to walk in pools of silence. The dust in the air was still. The running children made no sound. Outside an archway, I found a fallen stone man; he had wild waves of hair and beard, empty eyes, and lips parted in silent command.
      Birds skittered across the air, hectoring and wheeling. I stood by the toppled stone head and seemed to see time moving up the weathered stone walk. I ran to look for my mother and found her in the farthest room with her hand on the back of the leader's son, Ibn Abdel, the young man who had first found us. Her other hand was pressed between his shoulder blades as they sank down onto a rushes mat. I quickly walked away.
      We moved on again. One night we saw the silhouettes of riders on a jebel crest just ahead. Their cloaks unfurled like wings and we could see the black strokes of their rifles against the sky. I was terrified and began calling for my mother, only to have another woman to tell me to hush. The children spoke of spirits, but one of the elders whispered, "No ghosts, unfortunately. These are only men."
      Our men had begun shifting on their horses, taking the lead and unsheathing swords. We continued advancing as a group until they gestured for us to hang back. I felt my mother's hands encircle my waist.
      A shot tore the sky from the crest over the length of the valley, then another, illuminating the rifle points. The Huwyatat men spurred their horses, their snake-limbed Arabs charging up the hillside, moonlight catching their flanks. The women stood and cried out, rippling their voices. They set up a ululation of war that rose, full and eerie as a ghost's lament, a ziggurat of sound.
      We could see that our challengers were outnumbered. As the Huwyatat neared the hilltop, only a small band rode forward. The rifles had been used only to announce war, and the men drew swords that shone with the moon, blades clashing as we lost sight of the men in the dark. I remember flashes of metal, hooves, but most of all, I remember that keening song without words or end, with all the courage of a battle dance.
      In the morning, the Huwyatat had taken the bodies of two challengers; the rest had been spared and fled. The men were from the Ahl el-Jabal tribe, enemies in a nearly forgotten blood feud, the women said. Other Huwyatat said the men were not lost but renegades, camel thieves, real criminals. Ibn Abdel came to me with a child's gold ring that he had found on the body of the man he had killed. "Perhaps this will fit you," he said. "This is probably from one of their young victims."
      "Or perhaps it was a keepsake from his own child," another man said.

That night my mother tugged the ring off my finger and flung it into the sky.
      Not long after that night my mother took me away from the other children. I had learned their games as well as their work, and I had learned to speak exactly as they did. My mother went to Ibn Abdel and said, "My daughter is getting to be savage like wild thorns, and this is not the kind of life I had hoped for her."
      Sitti Jasmine, who also sat in the tent said, "It is exactly the kind of life she should have. She has fresh leben every day from the goat's milk, she learns the language of the desert wind and the paths of the stars. She has several grandmothers and grandfathers, many guides and protectors, playmates and cousins. She has daily contact with the beauty and health of animals, an understanding of mirages and visions, of Allah's munificent voice, of the bounty of spirit and the clean warmth of goat-hair blankets. Our life is the most perfect life, the most pleasing to God. So tell me, what sort of life is it that you had in mind for her?"
      My mother squatted on the beaten floor, her brow tipped to her knees. At last she lifted her head and said, "This is not the life that I was born to. I can't keep moving like you. I need a place to stay in, even if it's a strange place. And I'm beginning to feel like I'll never be able to find myself again unless I stay still. I've been cut loose from my home and family. Sometimes I feel like my spirit has been lost over this desert of yours."
      Ibn Abdel said, "I'm sorry, but for all of us. If you leave I will be losing a wife and daughter."
      That week we came to an encampment, a collection of tents, corrugated metal, trash, wire. So different from the tidy camps of the Huwyatat, it looked as if it had been brought in and deposited by a circular wind. The eyes of the inhabitants were drops of lead that fell through me.

"The mish ism," the Huwyatat women murmured, no names."
      We gave them skins full of yoghurt, pistachios, figs, pressed apricot, and thyme, layer upon layer of the crackling leaves.
      Ahlan, ahlan, they said, eyes lowered, peace be upon you, God bless you, bless your hand.
      Through it all the bedouins held their faces averted. The Huwyatat women made gestures against the evil eye and fingered the charms that dangled from their necks.
      "We found them here last Ramadan," Ibn Abdel said. "Like you, wandering like baby goats, blind to the signs of the earth, sand and stars. These people were also separated the way you were. They were our first sign of the new white-eyes. But I talk too much. It is written, it is better to bless than to curse."
      My mother held my hand and we walked through the camp, through scraps of metal, a torn doll, the husks of food. Men squatted at their coffeepots over curds of black coffee, their clothes in tatters looking as if they'd shredded them with their own fingers. Their Arabic was shredded, the words flew into fragments of thought. I remembered the migratory birds at the first oasis we'd traveled to. I saw the torn wing of a ibis as it rose, low and uneven along the reeds, the movement of longing, dispersal, its cry the cry of dead souls.
      The women clustered around us and talked about the taking of their village: soldiers marching in, doors and windows slamming open, bullets pinning corpses against buildings, men cut down at the knees, the sound of tanks. Those my mother and I saw at the camp had run for their lives, grabbing small possessions and running, and had come to this place, to Beit el Sala'am, they called it, to contemplate misery.

"Children died too?" I asked.
      An old woman with the face of Sitti Jasmine grabbed my hand with both of hers. She was hurting me, but I couldn't pull away. "I had fourteen children!" she said. "Now they spin around the air above my head, trying to reenter my womb. I call to them, come back! They try to enter my ears and eyes and mouth, but there isn't room."
      That night I slept in Sitti Jasmine's bed and I dreamed of a man who looked familiar. He was calling my name which broke into three parts.
      This was how we began our like at Beit el Sala'am camp, and how I ended my life out of time with the Huwyatat bedouin. I begged them not to leave us. And when it was time for them to go, Sitti Jasmine tried to hide me in one of the camels' back pouches. But Ibn Abdel came and returned me to my mother. For the short time I lived among the bedou, I was lifted out of the stream of things and I saw how the earth, sky, and all things in it functioned together, each part of the world a part of the movement through and into it, and the movement of the bedouin was the movement of the world, intrepid, caught in the winding tails of the spirits, the white, whipped edge of a sheet in the wind.