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Ghassan Zaqtan: حيث اختفى الطائر : رواية (Where the Bird Disappeared)

This is the second book in a loose trilogy. I have already read and reviewed the first one and the third one, both of which were superb poetical works about memory and loss, obviously a key topic for Palestinian. writers.This one is much shorter, a novella rather than a novel, but still a superb work in Zaqtan’s inimitable style.

We start with two boys. One is called Yahya. The name Yahya is the Arabic version of John the Baptist. The other is Zakariyya. Zakariyya is the Arabic for Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. While this is not mentioned in the novel, it is presumably not accidental.

Yahya is the adventurous one. 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. He tells Zakariyya 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.

yahya finds a hiding place deep in an old monastery with religious symbols, including a statue of Khidr, who is equated with Saint George of dragon-slaying fame. Yahya gives Zakariyya the hiding place and Zakariyya spends time there reading and day-dreaming. Two other characters also appear:Yasin and Yunus. They tell stories about the various features of Zakariyya (the village where they all live is called Zakariyya) but their stories conflict. Yunus tells one version, Yasin another.

Just as we are learning about the people and features of Zakariyya, it is suddenly, without warning Nakba time and the Jews are driving the Palestinians out. We learn what is happening when we are suddenly told Yasin disappeared. It happened when the locals put up only limited resistance to the Jewish attack as they only had basic arms, and were forced to flee. The two friends set out, with no idea of where they are going. We follow events as various locals are killed while some return to the village to release animals and bury their dead. More particularly Yahya is captured.

Zakariyya has no choice but to flee and he goes to a monastery and then to the Al-Arroub camp. But he needs to leave and wanders round the country, ending up at the Dead Sea where he works drying salt. But eventually, much, much later he will return to Zakariyya, as he does in النقل القديم مع الستائر، (An Old Carriage with Curtains). What he wants to know is what happened to Yahya and where he might be buried. He meets an old man, who has a Moroccan accent who tells his story, concluding White people will rule everything here.

This may be a short book but Zaqtan packs a lot into it. The Nakba with all its horrors is key and, as in his other books, so is memory as he always carries his memories with him wherever he travels. These are of Yahya, his village and the whole ethos of Palestine and its culture pre-Nakba. But it will not go away. No ending can be found any more..As with the other two novels of the trilogy, this is a superb poetical evocation of the Nakba, what it has meant for Palestinians and what it has cost them and how they will not and cannot ever forget the horrors they witnessed and were and still are victims of.

First published in 2015 byṬabʿah al-ūlá
First published in English in 2018 by Seagull Books
Translated by Samuel Wilder