By SAMIRA AZZAM
Translated by RANYA ABDELRAHMAN
Slowly, we raised our heads as hellish cries echoed in our ears, and we looked up in awe and fear. The sky was a summery blue with no trace of a cloud, and the sun had spread out, occupying every corner. We lowered our gazes, licking our bluish lips as we exchanged panicked glances. Our cracked feet were rooted to the furrowed mud, as if our slightest movement might stir up the screeching. We chewed over our terror for a few minutes, our parted lips emitting silence. Our mounts were as terrified as we were, and they scattered around the courtyard at the inn, fear spurring them to shake off the torpor of the midday heat.
The men began to pour in, forgetting to hold up the muddy hems of their robes as they edged into the courtyard. They gathered in silence, stealing furtive looks at each other, waiting for one among them to muster the courage to find his voice.
Finally, Abbas cleared his throat. His voice seemed huge in the blistering stillness.
“Why have you suddenly lost your tongues? He said it before he died, and he said it while he was dying, and he died with the same words on his lips: ‘It was bigger than a roc bird, and its cries drove the town into a panic.’
“Aren’t any of you man enough to say something—not even behind the so-called Sheikh’s back?
“Come on, show me now, which one of you is a real man? You, Razzouq? You, who laid into him with a cane? And what about you, who lifted him up—as a corpse?
“Speak up! Move! Or is the Sheikh’s spittle stinging your tongues?
“God rest your soul, Radi. You died a man, while these chickenshits live on.”
I didn’t find my voice, but I found my tears. I found them reflected in my aunt’s eyes when I caught sight of her ancient face under the cowl of her black abaya. My father’s sister was too proud to wail, and her expression seemed prescient—of what, I didn’t know. She held onto the hand of her daughter, who, after hearing Abbas, had begun to beat her chest and bite down on the corner of her abaya. Before, my aunt had held back her tears for Radi until his return. And she held them back again now, even though he had died in her arms, as if she refused to believe that someone like Radi could die. In the days between the two bouts of silent weeping, she had laughed until her back teeth showed, until it seemed she wasn’t at all the aunt I knew. Her face looked like a stranger’s to me, and especially so on the night he came home. He’d been almost a ghost then, trying to find his way through the dense clouds of palm smoke from ovens baking the evening bread, and knocking on the broken-down door of his home, which was roofed with heavy palm trunks. Radi had knocked on a single door, but the exciting news had knocked on all ears. And in less time than it took for Radi to convince his family that he was their son, we were walking to the courtyard, stepping over the blood of the animal slaughtered in celebration.
That night, my aunt laughed and gave out all her coffee, pouring it into cups for us boys to serve to the men. Her voice—it was like I was hearing it for the first time—interrupted Radi as he told his strange story: “Oh, my heart and soul. Can I really believe my eyes?” It was hard for my aunt to believe her eyes, and it was hard for us to believe our eyes, too. Radi had been dead until an hour earlier, along with all the other Arab soldiers the Turks had sent off to the Caucasus. All we’d heard of them had been stories that reached us with a heavy dose of exaggeration. People said that whoever didn’t die from the cold was murdered by one of his comrades who wanted to steal his coat to ward off the sting of the freezing snow. And whoever didn’t die from the cold, or as a victim of someone else who was feeling cold, died from hunger or hardship. We couldn’t decide which of those deaths to choose for Radi, and—as for him—he had chosen not to die. And because he didn’t want to die murdered, or from hunger or the cold, he remembered he had two feet and hung onto the tail end of a caravan that carried him, in disguise, from Tbilisi to Tabriz, then followed another from Tabriz to Tehran. He waited on the mounts and those who rode them until, two years later, after crossing a succession of borders, he was able to return to Iraq.
“Hammouda, light of my eyes,” my aunt called out to me as she loaded me up with coffee cups, “can I believe it? Have I truly lived to see Radi, right here in front of me?”
Believe it, Aunt, and hush now, I thought. Let me listen to this, which is even stranger than the story of soldiers fighting each other to death over a coat. Can’t you hear them asking, “And what did you see there, Radi?”
“What did I see? I saw plenty… marvels and more… things that were beyond marvelous.” With long, dark fingers, he picked up his second cup of coffee, nodding in every direction and swallowing another “I saw plenty” with every sip.
“By God, is that so? You don’t say.”
“Yes, I’m…” And he went quiet, like someone collecting his scattered thoughts, or thinking about where to begin, or holding back from saying things the others could only deny. “I saw iron coaches, each gripping the one in front of it. The leader pulled the others and moved them along on two shining straight hairs, like the straight and narrow path.”
Eyes went round and opened their widest, the wonder in them spreading like pollen from one to the next. Radi’s voice grew muffled as he took another sip, from yet another cup of coffee.
“… and that’s not all. There were other things, even more marvelous! Small coaches that travel on every road, with eyes that light up and go dark, and room to carry five or six people. They race along, calling out, ‘Baalek, baalek.’”
The thought that there might be any truth to these strange tales was too much for my aunt. Holding the coffee pot, she called out, “Radi, dear, I worry you were imagining things.”
“No, I swear on my love for you, Umi. And it wasn’t just those—there was this big bird, bigger than a roc! Its screams drove the whole town into such a panic, you’d think the sky had collapsed onto the earth.”
Our ears couldn’t bear to hear about the sky collapsing onto the earth, and our pupils darted back and forth, giving away our unvoiced doubts—doubts that my aunt voiced in her own way.
“Be careful, light of my eyes—the Sheikh might hear you and say you’ve gone mad.”
It was as if my aunt, by nature, had an incredible ability to perceive things, for the very next night, more than one of the Sheikh’s followers crept in to sit with the group—each holding a cup of coffee and listening hard enough for ten ears. They said nothing, but their lips moved in constant low muttering. They kept asking God’s forgiveness, until they got up to leave, and we thought they’d formed a judgment about Radi to take back to the Sheikh. It didn’t matter what their conclusion was, be it blasphemy or madness—this Sheikh would have a cure. Yes, there was no affliction too great for the Sheikh, for his work was abundant and his blessings many and various. These were known by our sick, over whose heads he would read an invocation, which could be long or short, depending on the remedy. They were known by our barren women, who came back from visiting him with a cure that made their wombs fertile, and by the mad among us, whose medicine was delivered with pomegranate-wood canes to drive away the ifrits. They were also known by our zealots, whom he anointed as followers by spitting in the backs of their throats.
But who could have known what this Sheikh had in store for Radi? Sometimes his methods involved more than just invocations, talismans, and canes, since some ifrits can’t be cured with sticks. This type of spiritual possession rebels against violence and submits only to a gentle approach. Recently, we had seen the case of one of Abbas’s sisters, a simpleminded girl who was neither beaten nor flogged. The Sheikh had a different manner of dealing with her ifrits…. But before the whispers in the village gained traction, Abbas found a way to silence them, and he came out to us carrying a dripping red knife that had put an end to both possessor and possessed.
That was the Sheikh’s verdict, and his head had seemed to shrink under his green turban as he listened to tales of the blasphemous creation that moved along on two hairs like the straight and narrow path, and of the iron coach calling “Baalek, baalek,” and of the roc whose cries drove the town into a panic.
A madman raving with words the ifrits put on his lips.
And Razzouq brought them—the canes made from branches of a pomegranate tree, soaked in water to make them supple. Four of the Sheikh’s men came forward and tied Radi up, and then blows from the sticks rained down without delay.
“Twenty, then twenty more, and twenty more again.”
But the ifrits were undeterred, and there was no lull in their ravings.
“They move along two hairs like the straight and narrow path? Twenty more.
“It calls, ‘Baalek’? Twenty.
“And bigger—you say—bigger than a roc? Twenty for this one. No, forty…”
The sticks continued to follow their orders, and the truth continued to roar out through the man’s mouth until he stopped being a madman or an infidel.
They carried him to my aunt, a corpse.
Barely a week later, the news reports started up, and hardly an hour went by without one. The Turkish garrison had withdrawn from the outskirts of Shahraban, and we heard, at gatherings in the local inns, that the British were advancing north. One night, someone came to us saying that, about a five-hour walk to the south, he saw two hairs, yes, two hairs shining like vipers. A little later, he remembered the Sheikh’s sticks and denied what he’d said. The next morning, we heard another man say the same. And, in the evening, there was someone who swore he saw iron coaches crawling along the ground. Yesterday, we all saw them, circling the town and spewing out dark-skinned Indians and red-faced soldiers. And today, before we finally believed we weren’t dreaming, the town was driven into a panic by the roc birds filling our skies and tearing our ears apart with a sound like thunder.
Our muddy group swelled with townspeople—furtive, silent, and despondent. In the absence of speech, words hammered into our minds: it was as if the idea flowed from head to head through wires made of silence. Abbas’s eyes burned red as coals. Under her abaya, my aunt’s eyes poured out pure hate, and her daughter bit down on the corner of her own abaya to silence the wails that wanted to escape her mouth. The palm trees above us shook as if rocked by a soundless howling, and our lips went stiff as we struggled against our choking emotions. Except where people clustered tightly, our shadows lay long on the ground.
Abbas took a single step forward and signaled to me, so I started walking, too.
We walked without looking back, but I sensed a shadow behind me—following my own—then a third, a fourth, and a fifth.
Bare feet shuffled forward on the furrowed mud, and shadows chased each other as the group crammed in together.
We formed a caravan that knew its route, and we made our way toward him, bearing a certain judgement—a judgement borne even by the followers of that Sheikh, those anointed with spit in the backs of their throats.
“The Roc Flew over Shahraban” is from ALQ Books’ forthcoming collection of short stories by the Palestinian author Samira Azzam (1927-1967). The collection—being translated from Arabic into English by Ranya Abdelrahman—will draw from several of Azzam’s published collections and will be available in Summer 2022.
Samira Azzam (1927–1967) was born in Acre, Palestine. After completing her basic education, she found work as a schoolteacher at sixteen and was later appointed headmistress of a girls’ school. She was still in her teens when her stories began to appear in the journal Falastin under the pen name Fatat al-Sahel, meaning “Girl of the Coast.” When Azzam and her family were forced to flee Palestine in 1948, they went first to Lebanon, and Azzam worked as a journalist around the region. Azzam was also an acclaimed translator, bringing English-language classics into Arabic.
Ranya Abdelrahman is the former head of education and publishing at the Emirates Literature Foundation. After more than sixteen years in the technology industry, she changed careers to pursue her passion for books, translation and promoting reading. She has published translations in ArabLit Quarterly.