Memory and metaphor intertwine in Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Where the Bird Disappeared” (Seagull Books, 2018), to the point that, at times, seeking to distinguish one from the other is akin to lacerating an insoluble bond.
There is barely enough time to ponder the existence of Yahya and Zakariyya before the Nakba permanently alters the lives of both protagonists. Hovering between the ethereal and the tangible, Zaqtan begins his narrative with showing the Palestinian attachment to land and the associated memories. For Yahya and Zakariyya, the land in question is a cactus field and a hideaway, both of which are construed as sites of memory.
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It is Yahya who shows the hideaway to Zakariyya. Before the Nakba, the latter’s recollection of the place is a memory of his encounter with Sara, who, we are told, loved Yahya. Yet there is a transient moment between Sara and Zakariyya that eclipses the reality and remains with Zakariyya as an inscription that beckons him to follow its trajectory in the aftermath of the Nakba.
Zaqtan shatters the idyllic introduction swiftly, to the point that there is little time for chronicled recollection. As Zionist paramilitary gangs start their ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the narratives of displacement emerge. Yahya and Zakariyya are among the displaced, “walking through the day, with no goal and idea, only to keep going.” Yet, the intention, all along, is to return.
From village to village, the group, led by Idris who is described as a leader on “ways of return” due to his knowledge of Zionist patrols and surveillance, lives a surreal existence hovering between slivers of routine and encountering the macabre, which also becomes a routine in itself. Of the displaced, Zaqtan writes: “They crossed abandoned marriage halls and slept in houses whose inhabitants had left without finishing dinner… and buried the dead they found in houses, vegetable gardens, village squares and fields.”
Zakariyya and Yahya’s return takes them to the cactus field, after which the characters are separated for varying reasons central to the plot, so I shall not go into them in too much detail here. Zakariyya’s memory is imbued with thoughts of Yahya, while his recollections of Sara clamour for attention. He ponders various forms of absence that are now competing in his consciousness. What leads his internal dialogue, once again, is memory, as what is finite and what remained unfinished collide.
For Zakariyya’s reflective character, the termination of his friendship with Yahya was the unravelling of a multitude of obligations. Zaqtan writes: “Yahya knew that they were listening to him from the cactus field. His voice was full of testimonial. The pain had stopped and the fear had stopped with it. Only the testimonials remained, running through his voice and pouring into the air. They gathered them in the cactus field.”
Displacement and travel become part of the same itinerary. Before the Nakba, Zakariyya had plans to travel – the Nakba forced travels and distances which nevertheless nurtured the yearning to return to his village; also his namesake. Travelling through loss is different from embarking upon a desired voyage. As Zakariyya reflects, “The Nakba had taken him too far, much further than it should have, much further than he wanted.” As Nakba narratives continue to make their appearances in the book, Zakariyya’s travels also compel him to bring news about Yahya to Sara.
Yet, Zakariyya is forced to contemplate several changes. Upon seeing Sara, there is an absence that is in direct contradiction with his memory. She is different, her individuality marred by need, like other forcibly displaced Palestinians. This external manifestation collides with his remembrance of her in the cactus field, described thus by Zaqtan: “She remained as an eternal event in his body.” It is both memory and the present which prevent Zakariyya from performing his duty to Yahya.
The novel is rich in metaphor and allusions. Zaqtan touches upon tradition, religion, history and memory in ways that allow the reader to visualise Palestine as a complete entity, despite the colonial process that fragmented territory and people. Between permanence and transience rests a very fine line that can only be understood by whoever acquaints themselves with both realms. Palestinians have retained both as a result of the Nakba. What was believed to have been a temporary migration became perpetual displacement and, as a result, return became a fixed destination for Palestinian memory.
To what does one return to? In historic Palestine, and in his old age, Zakariyya’s return is a contemplation of absence as Israel’s colonial project altered the remembered landscape to conceal all possible testimony. Memory, therefore, has become a personal experience which necessitates a life that is not dependent upon visual remembrance or landmarks. It is love that makes a memory. For Palestinians, faced with the depletion of territory and obstacles to their narratives, building upon the metaphor to reach the heart through feeling is imperative. With the land almost gone, it is love for the land that remains, which must be preserved and nurtured for return to become a personal, political and collective experience.