‘Where the Bird Disappeared’ by Ghassan Zaqtan: An Excerpt
This lyrical novel, set in the surroundings of the Palestinian village of Zakariyya, weaves a narrative rich in sensory detail yet troubled by the porousness of memory. It tells the story of the relationship between two figures of deep mythical resonance in the region, Yahya and Zakariyya, figures who live in the present but bear the names—and many traits—of two saints. Ranging from today back to pre-1948 Palestine, the book presents both a compelling portrait of a contemporary village and a sacred geography that lies beyond and beneath the present state of the world. Sensual, rich in allusion, yet at the same time focused on the struggles of today, Where the Bird Disappeared is a powerful novel of both connection and dispossession.
Translated from the Arabic by Samuel Wilder
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A defiant desire seized Yahya and led him to the ruins in the countryside, to caves and ancient graves carved in the hills, to valleys, woods and pathways branching out into the great hill.
It was a desire whose source he never knew that woke him from sleep and carried him away from the houses of the village and its four shrines, chanting like a moving tree.
His father could see no reason for this, even after so many attempts at understanding, so many consultations, so much pleading and argument. Ultimately, he had to accept that he was touched by the jinn. Everyone agreed to this with the same simplicity by which they accepted the appearance of the Tree of Yusif and its transmigration from the Bulis Valley to the eastern entrance of the village, the brides of the jinn that coursed through the shrine of the prophet Zakariyya, and the ambulations of Persian soldiers in the cave of Our Wandering Lady which they protect from the dervishes that rise towards Jerusalem. They attributed a touch of sacredness to the tall boy, whose walk was crooked slightly with some slight inborn lameness. They accepted as part of life in the village that they might meet him sleeping in the woods covered in thorns, or wet with dew before the dawn prayer, or sitting before the great hill on a cold night with a black snake wrapping his arm and an anxious lizard in his palm, or letting a strange bird peck at thorns on his shoulder. It was simply part of the life of the village, like the light that appears on the Night of Power in the cave of Our Wandering Lady, the wailing that reaches from the monastery ruins on winter nights and the calls heard around the Salihi Shrine on feast-day mornings and the birthday of the Prophet.
He once confessed to him:
‘When it starts, I cannot stop, Zakariyya. It’s as if someone is calling me, leading me to the mountain trails, guiding the creatures to me. It goes ahead of me and takes me. Someone who looks like you, Zakariyya. I can almost touch him and see him. I can almost remember his voice.
‘I cannot stop, Zakariyya, and no one believes me.’
‘I believe you, Yahya.’
He widened the places known to him without any goal in mind, met him in every direction and led him out alone. The cactus hideaway remained their secret. But he was filled with pride the first time Sara crept out, in her first appointment with Yahya.
He thought about Sara now, about how she insisted that first night that he swear on the holy book and the prophets Muhammad, Jesus and Moses, and then swear on all his dead, that he would never tell anyone. He thought about her enduring grief, her life that became a deep fissure of bad fortune.
The passage was narrow, barely wide enough for the two of them. Their bodies cleaved together. He felt her small breasts press against the length of his body. He was trying to leave the hideaway, to leave the place to the two of them. She had stretched into the passage and started crawling inside. Their eyes met for a moment, and a breach of regret grew instantly between them. The breach grew deeper and more obscure as she breathed, as her eyes, nose and lips touched him. She breathed heavily, and her scent covered his body. They then moved again. Her breasts had touched his chest and belly and thighs.