The Birds of Aleppo

by Paul Raworth Bennett

~~~ a tale of hope, for the people of Aleppo ~~~

Before the summer of 2011, hundreds of species of songbirds such as swallows, warblers, wrens, chickadees, and nuthatches would serenade and sooth the citizens of Aleppo, a Syrian city of almost 5 million. Twice daily, when the sun painted the sandy hills orange and yellow, they would flit and sing amongst the fragrant oak, eucalyptus, tamarind, and chestnut trees that filled the many parks and lined streets full of people, many of them dressed in elegant cotton thawbs.

But over the past 5 months – since the sky began raining mortar shells – the birds and bustling crowds had disappeared. The fighting had become especially violent as Bashar Assad’s Alawites, having conquered Aleppo’s western half, tightened a noose around the neighborhoods to the east.

Intermittent radio broadcasts blared Alawite songs, propaganda, and Assad’s reviled voice reassuring them that soon the rebel menace would be routed and the motherland made peaceful at last.

Their asphalt broken everywhere, the streets had become inundated by muddy creeks – occasionally streaked with red – that swept garbage and bullet casings around mounds of earth and piles of shattered concrete. Except for military vehicles and speeding ambulances, their sirens hushed to elude the crosshairs of rooftop Army snipers, traffic was almost nonexistent.

In the district of Bab Antakia, roughly half the buildings – their fronts completely destroyed – were inhabited by families who retreated, desperately and repeatedly, further inside to shelter from December’s bitter winds and pelting rains.

Most of the time, Aleppans would huddle at home. But when the food ran out, they would carefully hurry to the nearest market’s emptying shelves, sticking to well-worn paths because despite the efforts of rebel explosive specialists, every few days someone would lose a body part to an unexploded projectile. Young rebel fighters, brandishing rifles and wearing heavy loops of bullets while darting between overturned vehicles and abandoned buildings, were usually the only ones courageous enough to venture outside.

When not filled with explosions, the air was eerily quiet and funereal. It had been months since anyone had heard the birds of Aleppo.

*********************

In the Bab Antakia neighbourhood, Nooda and her professor-turned-rebel fighter husband, Houman, lived with their two-year-old, pint-sized, dark-eyed chatterbox daughter Nafisa in one of the few apartment blocks that had survived the constant shellings. The anxious couple had savored every moment with their toddler since the Army had dumped the body of Karam, their 17-year-old son, upon their doorstep.

Amena lived in the same block with her husband Farhan, who was an emergency room doctor. She was Nooda’s soulmate, and the two had been inseparable since their long-ago madrassa schoolyard shenanigans. Now that Amena was in her second trimester, their bond had deepened.

Seeking refuge from the mayhem, the young mothers would share tea and baskwyt biscuits while Nafisa, singing lullabies, played with her dolls on the ornate woolen rugs.

Yesterday Farhan had rushed Amena to the hospital after the couple awoke to blood on the sheets, so Nooda was determined that she and Nafisa would pay her a visit. And because Houman’s objections were no match for his plucky, long-sequestered wife’s resolve, the rebel fighter had insisted on escorting them.

Fresh flowers, usually available year-round, hadn’t been seen in Bab Antakia for months; baskwyt would have to do.

The trio embarked at dawn on a half-hour journey that was formerly a ten-minute walk. Fortunately, no shells had exploded nearby overnight and despite a light rainfall, the rivers of mud had abated. From the east, golden sunrays painted the devastation with a surrealistic optimism.

His eagle eyes constantly searching, Houman guided them as Nooda clutched Nafisa, bundled in a woollen blanket, to her breast. Soon they were joined by Fatima, an elderly grandmother friend whom Nooda quietly greeted with a weary smile.

Halfway to the hospital, dark clouds swallowed the golden rays.

Nooda lost consciousness as her body launched through space, bounced off the side of an abandoned water truck, and landed roadside. Five seconds later, she opened her eyes wide to see Nafisa lying silently, facing away from her mother, just out of reach. The child’s shoeless, bloodied feet were slowly moving.

Struggling to her feet, Nooda reached for her thigh. Clutching a mass of shredded muscle and shattered bone she tumbled, screaming, back to the hard ground. Raising her soaked hand to her face, she was overwhelmed by the smell of iron.

Falling to her knees, Fatima prayed while Houman hoisted his wife and daughter onto his broad shoulders and ran, stumbling frequently, towards the hospital.

*********************

Nooda opened her eyes again. Lying flat on her back, she looked up to a white ceiling, shivering at the sensation of cold steel scissors urgently slicing her blood-soaked clothes. Nurses and trauma physicians were moving swiftly and calmly around her, their silence broken only by the rhythmical beeping of a heart monitor and the sparse dialogue of a crack medical team.

“Blood, four units! Morphine, two units! Hurry!”

A familiar man’s face smiled down at her. After a few seconds she recognized Farhan, wearing surgical scrubs. Nooda’s frightened gaze met his watery eyes.

“Nafisa!” she cried. “Farhan, where’s my baby?”

“Hush Nooda!” implored the surgeon. “You must relax!”

Then she felt the hard plastic of an oxygen mask covering her face and the gentle squeeze of Houman’s weathered, familiar hand.

“Breathe, Nooda!”, her husband urged. The hospital’s drug supply was almost exhausted, but at least they had oxygen – for now.

The ceiling rained plaster as an explosion rocked the building, and Nooda heard distant shouting and staccato gunfire as a needle pierced her wrist.

The noises of the operating theatre receded. She noticed the whine of a bone saw and the acrid smoke of cauterizing electrodes, but there was no pain.

Amena’s blurry face appeared. “Amena! How are you? Are you healing well?” asked Nooda. “Is your baby alright? I brought baskwyt… Houman and Nafisa came too…”

“I’m fine, dear. The hemorrhaging has stopped and my baby is okay.” Amena smiled awkwardly and then, gasping and quickly covering her mouth with her hand, looked away.

“Amena, where is Nafisa?”

“Nafisa is resting and we will bring her to sleep alongside you. Now please, lie still for Farhan.”

“Bring her to me, Amena. And the baskwyt, it is fresh!”

“You’re so thoughtful, my dear. Now, rest!”

Nooda closed her eyes. Soon she dreamed of drifting on a rubber raft, floating downstream on a warm summer’s day. Then she noticed a soft cloth bundle tucked along her side. It felt heavy, dense, familiar.

Her eyes leapt open. “Nafisa! My sweet! Come to mother, darling!” Grasping at the bundle, Nooda tried to sit up as a bolt of pain tore through the opiate haze.

“She’s sleeping” urged Amena. “Please, lie flat.” As she gently pushed Nooda down, Amena had to again look away from her girlfriend’s pleading eyes.

“Nafisa, wake up!” Nooda screamed.

“Sshhh!” admonished Amena. “Trust me, she feels your love! Lie down!”

Nooda slipped back into the morphine’s velvet embrace. “Come with me, baby” she whispered, “there’s room in this raft for us both!” And she unknowingly caressed her lifeless daughter while mother and daughter floated further down the stream.

Farhan looked up from the saw. The heart monitor had exploded into chaos. “Defibrillator!” he yelled. Seconds later, giant waves pummelled Nooda’s rubber raft as electric shocks convulsed her body.

A rocket-propelled grenade shattered the steel-reinforced window of the emergency generator room. In the darkened theatre the saw, cauterizer, and defibrillator stopped, and strong hands began their urgent compressions.

Nooda heard Farhan’s distant plea. “Allah help us! We’re losing her!” Nooda misunderstood the surgeon’s fading cries – but it didn’t matter, because she was content to have Nafisa sleeping peacefully at her side.

Nooda opened her eyes again to a stygian blackness. She smelled Amena’s citrus perfume and heard her reciting long-forgotten madrassa prayers. She heard the wail of a wolf but then recognized it as Houman crying “Dear Allah, take my wife into your loving arms!” Oddly, this didn’t alarm her either.

Then she felt herself being whisked out of the raft by what felt like a giant invisible hand.

A few seconds later, Nooda found herself floating in space, looking down. Below her were several white-clothed people huddling over a stone-faced woman lying flat and motionless on a long, narrow table. The woman’s unblinking eyes looked straight up at Nooda’s, she wore torn, bloody clothing, and she had one arm draped over a rolled-up cloth bundle. At her head sat a distantly-familiar young lady who rested her head on the motionless woman’s chest.

Two middle-aged men were embracing nearby, one sobbing into the other’s shoulder. A young man and a little girl stood holding hands, smiling up at Nooda. The young man lifted a pomegranate towards her, and everything faded to white.

*********************

After a time, she heard water tumbling musically over stones, and then the warbling and whistling of countless songbirds. Nooda opened her eyes to puffy clouds adorning a clear blue sky and a warm breeze caressing her face.

She was on her back in a grassy meadow. Turning her head to one side, Nooda noticed a row of pines and cottonwoods leading down to a sparkling lake ringed by dusty hills and snow-capped peaks. Beside a nearby pond, the young man and little girl she’d spied from above were playing tag, laughing and gently tackling each other. He was in a pure white thawb, and she wore a frilly white dress.

Noticing she was in similar garb, Nooda called out “Hello! What a beautiful day!”

The man ran over and kneeled, throwing his sinewy arms around Nooda’s neck. It was Karam! He carried the scent of courage and humility.

“Dear Mother… welcome to Paradise! Where’ve you been? You’re finally here! Nafisa just arrived, and we’ve been waiting for you!”

“Mommy!” The breathless toddler hurried over and jumped into Nooda’s arms. Mother gazed into daughter’s amber eyes, recalling when they first opened a very long time ago.

Then Nooda remembered. “Where’s your father? And Amena, and Farhan?”

“I’m not sure, Mother” replied Karam. “I know they’ll be here soon.”

Nooda felt a beautiful but unfamiliar sense of peace. Besides happy memories, she recalled nothing. Karam helped his mother up, the family embraced, and in the trees sang the birds of Aleppo.

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