From Palestinian poet-novelist Ghassan Zaqtan comes this lyrical novella about the long-lasting trauma induced by the displacement of Palestinians from their native villages following the Israeli invasion in 1948.
A series of vignettes spanning decades, Where the Bird Disappeared begins in the 1930s and 1940s by sketching the childhood friendship between protagonists Yahya and Zakariyya, two Palestinian males whose personalities recall those of their Quranic namesakes. Yahya, based on the saint known to Christians as John the Baptist, enjoys wandering around the surroundings of the pair’s local village, also named Zakariyya. By contrast, Zakariyya’s love of contemplation recalls that of John the Baptist’s father Zechariah. The allusive names at once anticipate each character’s fate in the novel and tie them to the setting’s distant past; they remind readers that the history of the region is inescapable and all encompassing for those living in the present. The beginning features many ethereal scenes in which the boys traverse their town’s ruins together:
Then Yahya showed Zakariyya to the monastery hideaway in Nuba Karam, in the ruins east of town. He took him by the hand after school to the edge of the houses, then went off running and shouting, gesturing with his hands to the falling arches and tunnels, the floor mosaics covered in dust and the grasses growing up through their cracks. (6)
The idyllic start of the storyline pairs well with Zaqtan’s minimalist style of writing, making Where the Bird Disappeared read at first as a kind of transhistorical fable about the power of friendship and faith. All that shatters when modern history descends upon the plot in full force about twenty pages into the book. The Israelis invade the region, and the people of the boys’ village flee into the wilderness as refugees. Shortly thereafter Yahya is captured by Israeli forces and, like his namesake, beheaded, when he treks back to his village as one of the Palestinian “creepers,” those who “returned to their villages to take small pieces of furniture or measures of wheat from the stores of their houses, things like this” (96). As the book goes on, the juxtaposition between Zaqtan’s sparse style and the increasingly traumatic events he recounts makes his work read not as mesmerizing in its simplicity but as powerful in its emotional restraint.
The novella ends in the present with an elderly Zakariyya returning to his hometown to visit the grave of Yahya, whose execution and burial he witnessed as a young man from a distant vantage point. The contemplative Zakariyya has spent his adulthood enduring hard labor as a salt mine worker near the Dead Sea, traumatized by the death of his closest childhood friend, and his return to Yahya’s grave is the book’s emotional climax. The end recalls the pair’s shared childhood, overviewed at the novella’s start, and it returns the story to the realm of the past:
Zakariyya thought of sound moving in the labyrinth of tunnels in the ruin, touching the gathering walls in darkness, multiplying, repeating, as if many voices were longing to grow, to rise from a long sleep, to mix with everything—wet grass and buried icons, blind snakes and statues, and the images and stones that breathed in the cold of the tunnels. (103-4)
If the 104-page book’s circular narrative sounds simple, it is. Zaqtan is less interested in orchestrating a sweeping historical epic than in crafting an intimate story about what it meant for the first displaced members of Palestine to have entered exile and been forced to wander a land turned hostile. Acknowledging the untraversable distance between past and present, the author gestures toward the pain of that experience, but never attempts to represent it directly. The novella reads as an ethical and moving meditation on the burden of memory in times of exile, and is best approached in a single sitting.
Ghassan Zaqtan is the author of nearly a dozen volumes of poetry as well as several novels. This is the second prose work of his to be released in English; the first was Describing the Past, also translated by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books. Also available in English are two volumes of Zaqtan’s poetry: The Silence That Remains: Selected Poems, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017, and Like the Straw Bird It Follows Me and Other Poems, published by Yale University Press in 2012. The latter translates in full the poet’s tenth collection as well as selected early poems, while the former features some of his best work from the past two decades.