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City of Sparrows
Author: Eva Nour

I

 

 

It wasn’t because they might be diseased, though many of them likely were. No, it was because they lived under the siege, just like you. The cats were as innocent and as thirsty, as emaciated and starving as you. ‘It would be like eating your neighbour,’ you said.

   A cat has seven souls in Arabic. In English cats have nine lives. You probably have both nine lives and seven souls, because otherwise I don’t know how you’ve made it this far.

   What determines whether you survive or not? Chance. But chance doesn’t inspire hope. Instead, you say there are strategies, two strategies to be precise. The first piece of advice came from a friend in the Syrian army, who said that imagined freedom is a kind of freedom.

   ‘When they wake us up in the middle of the night and pour ice water over our naked backs, convince yourself that you are choosing this, that it’s your own choice.’

   The second piece of advice, and you can’t remember who gave you this, is to never look back and never feel regret. Not even about the things you do regret.

   When you tell me about your childhood, I think about the Russian-American author Masha Gessen’s words. ‘Do not be taken in by small signs of normality,’ she writes, on how to survive in totalitarian times. Your childhood was bathed in light and sunshine, in safety and love. All the small signs of normality.

 

 

1


   IT WAS HIS older sister’s idea to fetch a kitchen knife to save the sparrow. The little bird sat stock still, chirping urgently, in the glue their parents had smeared across a couple of flattened cardboard boxes on the roof terrace. The glue was meant to catch mice but the sparrow had got stuck instead. Down below, the streets and square courtyards of Homs shimmered in the heat. The air was thick with exhaust fumes and the sweet fragrance of jasmine, which climbed over stone walls and iron gates, but the occasional refreshing breeze reached seven-year-old Sami and his nine-year-old sister.

   They leaned over the bird. Hiba gently cut away the glue from under its claws as though she were a top surgeon from Damascus and not a schoolgirl with a short attention span. But they soon realized there was glue in the bird’s feathers and it wouldn’t be able to fly. Sami carried it in cupped hands down the stairs to the bathroom, careful not to trip – take it slow, his sister told him – and they rinsed and washed the sparrow in the sink, making sure the water was neither too hot nor too cold, the jet neither too powerful nor too gentle. The light brown ball of fluff rested in his hands while Hiba softly dabbed the trembling body with the green towel.

   ‘What are you doing?’ their mum asked from the kitchen.

   Their parents, Samira and Nabil, would sit in there on the weekends, discussing matters relating to the children and the house, listening to Fairuz’ soft songs on the radio. Sami heard the clinking of their cups, black coffee in which cardamom pods rose and sank, and the sound of his father clearing his throat as he wiped crumbs out of his moustache, the part of his appearance he was proudest of.

   ‘Saving a bird,’ Sami replied.

   ‘No more animals,’ Nabil said.

   ‘No, we’re going to release it now,’ Hiba promised, in the same tone she used to tell her teacher she hadn’t glanced at her classmate’s answers on the test.

   They reached the top of the stairs and opened the terrace door. The sun loomed high above their heads like a mirage, impossible to look straight at. Hiba took the sparrow and held her hands up. Fly, little bird, fly! But the bird sat still, curled up and without emitting so much as a peep.

   ‘It’s because its wings aren’t dry yet,’ his sister said.

   So they sat down on the sun-warmed roof, under a sky as blue as the pools in Latakia, to wait for the last of the moisture to evaporate. The kitchen knife glinted. Hiba held up the newly sharpened edge and the light that bounced off it blinded the two chickens and drove them clucking back into their coop.

   The heat made Sami drowsy and happy at the same time. It reminded him of a similar day the week before, which, in spite of its simplicity and unpredictability – or maybe because of the randomness of the moment – made him feel warm inside. Sami had lost his balance on a bicycle. Perhaps there had been a small rock in his path. Whatever the reason, he had taken a tumble. For a split second, he had been weightless, alone and insignificant, like a cloud of dust swirling through the white morning light. Nothing could stop him. No one knew where he was. No one except for Hiba, who ran inside and told on him, saying he had borrowed the bike, even though he wasn’t allowed, and ridden it out on the main road, even though there were cars there. Then the moment had ended and everything returned to normal. But for an instant, he was sure of it, he had experienced absolute freedom.

   The guilt he felt at taking the bike without asking made him keep quiet about his little finger. It hurt more than anything he had ever felt before, and stuck straight out like a bent feather on an injured bird. He tried to hold back his tears but Grandma Fatima noticed. She noticed the scrape on his right knee, where blood was beading, and him trying to hide his hand behind his back.

   ‘Let me see,’ Fatima said, and closed her wrinkled hand around his little finger.

   She recited an elaborate chant, a monotonous half-singing that breathed tenderness and solemnity. Words that ran like a red thread through his childhood.

   ‘There,’ his grandma said and opened her hand. ‘It will be fine tomorrow.’

   He went to bed and tried to think of the pain as a cloud hovering above him. The cloud was still there in the morning, now edged with rain. His sheets were wet too. When Samira found out, her face changed colour and she scolded both her son and her mother.

   ‘Why didn’t you go to the doctor? Your finger’s broken.’

   His chest burned again. Because he had fallen on the bike, because he had wet his bed, because he had believed in his grandmother’s stupid chants. If her words of wisdom couldn’t be trusted, what was safe and unchanging? Nothing seemed to last for ever. Soon even their sparrow would leave them.

   Their sparrow. That was how Sami thought of it, even though it had only been in their possession for a short while. For an hour or two, their rescue operation had been so exhilarating they’d lost track of time. He felt a bond with the bird, as though a connection had been created simply by watching its dark pinhead eyes. By touching its downy feather coat. Feeling its light weight in his hand. He felt responsibility and love for it; no, he didn’t think those words were too big. He would miss it when it spread its wings and disappeared across the sky.

   His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of inane whistling and he felt a shudder run down his spine, despite the heat. When he looked over the roof ridge, he saw the neighbour’s daughter ambling about their courtyard.

   ‘Don’t worry, I’ll protect you, little sparrow,’ Sami whispered.

   The girl always popped up when you least expected it. Behind the bins or in a doorway, or she would drop out of a tree. She wore glasses and had two stiff plaits and was a head taller than him. Why did she pick on him? Possibly because he offered no resistance. There was a methodical stubbornness about the blows. He lay on the ground and tried to curl up and protect his face. It was widely known the girl’s mother was a secret drinker and that her daughter probably took as many beatings as she handed out. But in that moment, he felt no compassion. Such injustice, that someone could lay into a body so small and insignificant without God, fate, a passing neighbour or the world at large intervening.

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