Back in the days when I knew you in Syria, my mother was beloved by everyone. Both the village midwife and dresser of the dead, she walked hand in hand with the shadow world, and the otherworldly became my constant companion. I played by myself in the fields, tracing the golden line of the steppe. Beyond were the ancient pillars and temples of Tadmor, the Bride of the Desert. It was on this desert road that the Bedouins sometimes approached our village to sell wool or livestock, though they came less often in those days than when I was small. On the day I began to bleed, I thought I’d grown beyond the age when magic approaches from the corner of one’s eye.
There, at the edge of the world I knew, I met a woman from my village who loved winged creatures more than people. To my mind there wasn’t anything strange about this, though our neighbors regarded her as quite the oddity. I came to learn her name was Hawa, like the first woman, and that she was building a flying machine.
Amongst themselves, our neighbors whispered about her and called her Majnouna. My mother’s friends gossiped about her flying machine as they picked pebbles from the freekeh one afternoon. I began to watch her while my mother was out delivering babies. Those who saw me returning to the village laughed and warned me away, but day after day, I went out into the fields to watch Hawa gather her materials. She built the double wings and the body of the machine first, then added the two wheels and the two rows of fabric draped across its back.
I never spoke to her until after her fateful flight. That was the day of the blood. Though my mother would have been ecstatic, I hid it. I didn’t want to tell her, maybe for fear she’d keep me home that day; or maybe it was the fear of what else it would mean, the new things I’d have to learn as a woman, the vague fear I had of marriage, the feeling that something was ending and would never come again.
The whole village came out to watch the spectacle of Hawa’s flight—all but my mother, who had been called away a few hours earlier by a neighbor whose wife had gone into labor with her first child. Though the baby shouldn’t come until after sundown, my mother said, the woman was nervous, and her husband insisted she come.
For my part, I was thrilled. I rushed out to the edge of the village. A crowd had gathered, a circle with Hawa at its center. Her flying machine was an ungainly contraption with pedals and wheels and adjustable wings, little more than linen stretched over wooden broom handles. People whispered that it was a strange amalgamation of a bird and a bicycle. I was the only one who believed she could fly. To me, Hawa’s linen wings looked like God’s angels.
Hawa pedaled hard, gaining ground and speed. As her path diverged from the crowd, I lost sight of her. I ran along behind her until I escaped the crush of people. By the time I caught sight of her again, she had reached the crest of a small ridge, and then she was airborne. The crowd went silent and stopped their taunting. No one followed her. The village whispered prayers and murmured fearful things.
Only I followed. I tracked Hawa overhead, into the fields. When I looked back, the crowd and the village were far behind us, nearly out of sight. Hawa’s wings held; I held my breath. Her shadow rushed over me. She hadn’t gained much height, but she was in the air, and that, I thought, counted as a miracle.
Because of my faith in her, I was the only one to witness her death. It began with an upward gust of air. Her wings wobbled, then dipped. The linen tore and separated from the wood. She didn’t cry out as she fell, only angled her body toward the earth, smiling as though she were going to meet an old friend.
I rushed to her, but I didn’t have my mother’s skill at dressing wounds and setting bones. I cried out for help. We were too far for anyone to hear.
Before I could rise and run to get someone, Hawa gripped my wrist. “Allah calls to his daughter,” she told me, “and soon I must go to Him.” These are the only words of hers I can remember now. Time has reduced the rest to the mist of dreams. Hawa pressed my hand to her chest and related to me startling things, visions that had been revealed to her before she hit the earth, wonderful and monstrous events that were to come: dark clouds, rippling flocks of shadows, winged flashes of light.
“But madame,” I said, for what she had told me had disturbed me, and I was afraid, “are these visions of blessing, or a curse?”
Hawa did not answer. Above us, the gray kites drifted into the south. Hawa’s eyes fixed themselves on the sky. I closed them each with a finger.
I treasured up her words as I returned home. My mother met me along the way, coming from her delivery. She was early, but I kept my curiosity to myself. I told her Hawa’s flight had ended in tragedy, but kept quiet about the visions she’d related. I was sure she’d be sorely angry with me for following Hawa into the fields, but she said nothing. At first I was relieved that she was too tired to chastise me. But as the first shadows fell over our faces, the fading light caught my mother’s skirts, marred with blood. Then I began to fear her silence. I asked her, as I was accustomed after a delivery, whether the baby was a little boy or a little girl. My mother bit her lip.
“Ya ‘albi.” She called me “her heart” only when she was overjoyed or gravely sad, and I knew then without having to ask that neither mother nor baby had survived. “The night falls over all of us the same,” she said, “but also the light, praise God.”
When I was born, my mother named me Laila so I would not fear the night. “Allah, in His infinite wisdom,” she used to say, “has created the darkness to remind us that He has given us the light.”
But in truth, I have always been afraid of the night and the doubt it brings. When we arrived in Amrika and I picked up a paintbrush for the first time, I was sick with terror, and more than terror, guilt. Who was I to pick up a brush and freeze the soul of something, knowing the world was ever-changing and nothing would appear this way again? Even a piece of fruit ages and dies, and there I was, trying to capture a robin or a hummingbird, seizing time in one hand.
Months have passed since I wrote here about Hawa. I sketch more birds than I write these days, maybe because I’ve never been one to raise my voice or speak my mind. But if I fill this book with drawings and say nothing of myself, I fear I won’t recognize my own hand when the colors have dried. So as I set out with my paints and these pages, I will write down where I come from. And to keep the fear at bay, I will imagine you here again before me, little wing, and this time I will tell you everything.
Let me start over. I was born on a sunny day in early March of 1920, the day Emir Faysal declared Syria to be an independent Arab state, in a village not far from Homs. You never knew my birthday, did you? My mother tells me my grandmother took all the flour and oil and clarified butter in the pantry, went down to the butcher, and had a lamb slaughtered. She gathered all the women of the village together—for in the bilad my mother and her family knew everyone; my mother had delivered every last one of their children—and together they baked bread and kibbeh and prepared huge trays of kunafeh while the men drank ara’ and danced the dabke as though it were a wedding. All this celebration was for Syria, not for my birth, though my mother always says the rejoicing and zagharit went to my head.
The French saw to it that the young kingdom didn’t last six months. When the French army took Damascus in July of that same year after a ten-day siege, my father’s textile business took a sharp downward turn. My mother’s milk dried up. But I was the kind of child who struggles, and my mother had already birthed two other children, twins who would have been my older brothers. George had died of pneumonia in childhood, but God had spared my brother Issa. I grew up to be a skinny, scab-kneed girl with teeth too large for my mouth, and for years Issa would tease me that I had gnawed my way out of death’s grasp, until well into adolescence when my features had balanced themselves and I had gained some plumpness in my cheeks.
You knew my mother as a wise woman, the kind of woman who would listen to anyone with a problem, who always had coffee in the house to serve a grieving family who had lost a loved one in the night and enough flour and ghee to make a tray of bitlawah for the celebration of a birth. She was the keeper of life and death. Her face, creased by years and by the sun, was the first thing most people had ever seen—and the last. People recognized her at once, even children who met her for the first time. The elderly and ailing, those who had lost the ability to recognize even their own loved ones, still knew her. Perhaps it was this mystical power that set her apart from the other women; perhaps it was this that separated her from me. For as long as I have been her daughter, my mother has been the loneliest woman I have ever known.
My mother used to say her loneliness arrived with the locusts. She said they came as a dark storm from the heavens, descending upon the crops until they had eaten every fig to its stem, devoured the bark from every olive tree, and reduced the fields of wheat to dust and a fearful hum. This was during the Great War, before my parents met; you would not have been born yet, ya ayni. The Ottoman armies had begun conscripting Christian men in those days, stocking their ranks with my mother’s brother and father, with uncles and husbands and neighbors’ sons. Throughout the province of Syria, particularly in Mount Lebanon, people suffered from the taxes and from the famine that followed the locusts. In those days families had little, and what little they had stored up for hard times was quickly depleted. My grandfather, already ancient, stopped eating so that his remaining children would not go hungry.
The way my mother tells the story, she had only just started out on her own as a midwife when the famine began. In those dark days, weeks went by with more miscarriages than births. Those who had been ill when disaster struck succumbed to their illnesses. Friends and relatives began to disappear, either leaving for Beirut or Tripoli or vanishing into their hunger. At first the women mourned their dead, wailing as the funeral processions went by. But as time went on, all became too weak with hunger and too crushed by loss to wail.
The war had taken more from my mother’s village than it could bear. And so when news arrived of an Arab uprising against the Ottomans, the village rejoiced. Some of the young men spoke of joining the revolt. If you ask my mother, she will tell you that my father, then a scrawny young man prone to philosophizing, declared one day that he was going to join the fighting. They barely knew each other then, though my father had a reputation for lofty political ideas and larger-than-life stories. He was laughed at by the other boys his age, and my mother, too, scoffed at his outlandish promises. But when he vanished one morning, the mothers murmured that he had finally made good on his promise.
He didn’t make it out of the province before the sound of warplanes sent him running down a hill to hide in the brush of the nearest orchard. The planes passed overhead without incident, but my young father tripped on a root and went sprawling head over knees down the hill, breaking his leg. He was promptly returned to the village by a passerby, where word spread that he had survived an air raid, though this was only partially true. Soon, the story became more and more embellished by the village youth, who quickly claimed—despite my father’s halfhearted protestations—that he had been attacked by a dozen or more men and fought them off himself, that he had popped out one of their eyes with a branch, that he kept the dried eyeball like a desiccated persimmon under his bed. By the time the Arabs took Dera’a and then Damascus, my father had become a local hero without ever lifting a weapon, and because my mother had taken a liking to teasing him about the absurd tales of his misadventure, when he asked her to marry him, she said yes.
But despite the promises of the Allied powers and Emir Faysal’s declaration, France and Britain divided up our land according to their whims, and my father grew sullen and jaded. The failure of independence had broken something in him, my mother used to say, and he was never the same hopeful, rambling intellectual after that, with his big plans and uncompromising ideals. He settled into my grandfather’s textile business and became resentful of the revolution that had failed his hopes, resentful of the world that had disappointed him.
Five years later, the smallpox came. The epidemic arrived in the spring and was followed by an ill-timed drought. My mother buried many infants and children who succumbed to the disease, and she quarantined me to the house for most of the spring and summer, healthy and forlorn. Our neighbors began to flee disease and lack of water, until it was clear there would not be enough people to harvest even a meager crop.
I had just turned five. The scent of lightning was thick in the air when we received word from the Bedu elders that Sultan Pasha al-Atrash had declared revolution against France in Jebel ad-Druze. The Druze revolt grew in strength, until many cities were in open rebellion, and sympathy for the rebel cause began to grow in Homs and Hama and, finally, in our village.
Do you have any memory of those years, little wing? Perhaps you were too young to remember them. We were lucky; our village was of little importance to the French, so we were spared the violence France rained on Hama from the air. The aerial bombardment reached us when my father’s business suffered, though, and when the French cut back Abu Rayan’s orchards to prevent ambushes.
On the first of October of that year, my father set down a bite of bread and lentils at supper and announced that he intended to join his kin in Hama in the fight against the French. My mother told him he was a lunatic, that he had two small children to support, that we would starve if he were lost. My father accused my mother of her disbelief in his ideals, and she accused him of being naive. To this day, this was the bitterest fight my parents have ever had.
My father left that night, dissolving into the dark with only a goat-hair jacket and a bag of bread and dates. We would not hear from him for eight days. The fighting lasted only four, but it was dire. The French, who had few troops in Syria, brought in additional forces from Morocco and Senegal to quell the uprising, and surprised the rebels. The revolt in Hama was over. Preparations were made to bury the dead.
When we did not hear from my father after six days, my mother began to fear the worst. She became frantic, searching the orchards at night for survivors who had been missed. Still, there was nothing. After a week, Imm Rayan, who lived next door, tried to console my mother with herbal teas and the revolutionary songs my father loved to sing, but my mother was in too tight a knot. My mother opened her mouth to scream in frustration when, to everyone’s shock, the door opened and my father fell into the foyer.
After we had cleaned the scratches on his legs and arms and given him a little ara’ against the pain, my mother spread old linens on the good couch and set him down in the sitting room, demanding he tell her what had happened.
My father had cheated death a second time. Senegalese mercenaries under French command had surprised them in the orchards, and the Hamawi forces had run this way and that, afraid to fire on their countrymen amid the trees and the dark. Two bullets grazed my father in the confusion, impossible to say whose. One bullet had torn a line of flesh from his back, and another had taken a chunk of his ear. Bleeding and stunned, he had stumbled in the dark and struck his head on a stone. He’d lain in the brush like a dead man for the remainder of the battle, too weak and confused to rise. When he finally came to, the fighting was over, and he’d crawled his way to the closest house, where a sympathetic widow had cleaned and dressed the wound on his ear. The damage to his spine was harder to remedy. He had lost the use of one of his legs, to which most of the nerves had been severed, and would walk with the aid of a cane for the rest of his life.
The season of my father’s political idealism was over, and with it, Hama’s revolt. Merchants stopped coming to our village for a time, and trade nearly ceased. A pervasive sadness filled the streets and the homes of my neighbors, a hopelessness that made people whisper again about leaving. They spoke of relatives who had gone to Amrika and come back to build houses, sons who sent good money home, a cousin here or there who had decided to stay and make a life where there was a good living to be made. Why were we here when our sons were reaping their harvests elsewhere? Though Amrika had begun to close her doors to immigrants from outside Europe the year before, children were occasionally able to bring their parents or their siblings to join them, and hopes were high that the measure would be reversed. Perhaps there was a way, they said, and even my father spoke of such things when he thought my brother and I weren’t listening. When he began to talk of abandoning not only his business and his village but also his country, I knew my father had lost all hope.
Years went by like this, my father withdrawing into himself, business dwindling, the young and the strong being drained from the villages to find work elsewhere. On one particular evening, I lay awake as my mother mended clothing by the window. We’d gone to bed hungry again; my father hadn’t sold anything in weeks, and my mother had served us the same watery lentil soup from the night before. An owl had come to roost in the tree in our garden, and it called out into the falling evening. Beyond the window, the orchards outside of Hama were visible against the sky. My father shut the window; he could not take the owl’s cries. He used to say they were the spirits of those who had died unjustly, haunting the living.
“Come now,” my mother said to my father. “Do you believe such things?”
“I’ve seen many things I would not have once believed.”
My mother set down her sewing and scolded my father that he was lucky to be alive. Though she raised her voice, I pretended to sleep.
“You have your life and two healthy children. Can’t you be happy with that?”
My father breathed in through his nose. The night lay still, uninterrupted by the usual sounds of evening, the happy noises I’d once heard: the neighbors in their gardens, telling stories, laughing over glasses of ara’ or cups of coffee. There were no such sounds from our neighbors now. Imm Rayan and her husband had left to join their son in Amrika, leaving the house to a cousin in Aleppo. The village had taken on a brooding quiet.
The owl sent its mourning cries into the dark. My father looked up from his account books. He fixed his gaze out the window on the empty house next door and said nothing, and I knew then that there was more than one way to imprison a man.
Excerpted from The Thirty Names of Night, copyright 2020 by Zeyn Joukhadar and published by Atria/Simon & Schuster, November 2020