One would be at stretch to find another place on earth where the mining of history evokes as much controversy as Palestine. You would struggle even further to name a political movement more successful than Zionism in its ability to excavate history and string together a political narrative connecting three thousand years of history to defend their rogue state’s regular violation of international laws and conventions.
Where the Bird Disappeared, a short novel by Palestinian poet and writer Ghassan Zaqtan, paints a different portrait to the exclusivist claims of the Zionist movement whose vision of a Jewish state only took concrete form through the violent interruption of history. In looking at Palestine’s past, the book stretches back to the time of the prophets who walked the land; Zaqtan weaves characters to create an inclusive narrative that could have laid the foundation of a story to bind a modern state under which Jews, Christians and Muslims, and other minorities lived as equals.
Zaqtan’s novel, translated by Samuel Wilder, is inspired by stories from the Old and New Testaments and fuses them with the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the last of the three holy books. It is set in the Palestinian village of Zakariyya, a reference to the biblical patriarch who also appears in the Qur’an as a prophet. Zakariyya is also the main character of the book along with his best friend, Yahya, a reference to the Biblical John the Baptist. In the religious texts of the Abrahamic faiths, Zakariyya is the father of Yahya, who is also depicted as a prophet in the Qur’anic narrative.
The book begins by sketching the childhood friendship between Yahya and Zakariyya during the 1930s and transports readers to the hideaway monasteries and ruins within the village. They are the place of solitude for the two Muslim protagonists whose identity, one senses, is being shaped as much by Saint George slaying the dragon, images of Mary the mother of Jesus and the telling of their story in the Qur’an. Zakariyya, who is the more contemplative of the two, reflects how the Chapter of Mary in the Qur’an is the story of his village, enveloped by the “heavenly bodies” mentioned in Islam’s sacred text.
Zakariyya and Yahya’s childhood is disrupted violently in 1948 during what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe). Almost three-quarters of the Palestinian population was expelled from the land that became the State of Israel. Very early in the book, readers realise that like the tragic fate of the Biblical Yayha who was beheaded by King Herod, the Yahya of the novel will suffer a brutal end during the Jewish paramilitary groups’ expansionist war.
The idyllic beginning of the novel is shattered when modern history descends upon the pair in full flow. Yahya is captured by Israeli forces and, like his namesake in the religious texts, is 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.”
Zakariyya saw his friend die, and like so many Palestinians was made a refugee. The experience of this collective trauma is told powerfully by Zaqtan through Zakariyya’s displacement. The Nakba had taken him too far and “heaved him onto mountain roads and across Jerusalem and Bethlehem like birds seeking a cage. It shoved him without mercy into mountain passes and declivities and ravines.” Separated from his home he endures hard labour in a salt mine near the Dead Sea, traumatised by the death of his childhood friend. The book captures the pain of memory, the sorrow of life violently interrupted and the struggle to make sense of the shattered pieces of one’s past.
Through the tragedy of Zakariyya’s life, Ghassan Zaqtan presents an intimate story about what it meant for the first wave of displaced inhabitants of Palestine to go into exile and be forced to leave the land that once they called home.