The Birds of Aleppo

by Paul Raworth Bennett

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

The four-year war had become especially violent during the Fall.  Now the Army was closing in, choking much of eastern Aleppo.  Intermittent radio broadcasts featured Alawite songs, propaganda, and Assad’s reviled voice reassuring them that soon the rebel menace would be routed and the motherland returned to peace.

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.

When not hurrying to the nearest market’s emptying shelves, Aleppans would typically huddle at home.  Pedestrians carefully watched their step, 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, funereal; it had been months since anyone had heard the birds of Aleppo.

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

Nooda and her professor-turned-rebel fighter husband, Houman, lived in a four-storey Bab Antakia apartment block that, despite several shellings, was remarkably intact.  Two-year-old Nafisa – a pint-sized, dark-eyed chatterbox of a girl – was their second child.  For more than a year they’d savored every moment with her, ever since the Army dumped the body of Karam, their 17-year-old son, upon their doorstep.

Amena, a young woman living in the same block, was Nooda’s soulmate.  Ever since their long-ago madrassa shenanigans, the two had been inseparable; now that Amena was in her second trimester, their bond had deepened.  Her husband, Farhan, was a trauma physician at a nearby hospital.

Seeking refuge from the mayhem, Amena and Nooda would share tea and baskwyt as 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 bedsheets, so Nooda was determined that she and Nafisa would visit her.  Fresh flowers, usually available year-round, hadn’t been seen in Bab Antakia for months; baskwyt would have to do.

Houman’s objections were no match for his plucky wife’s resolve.  Because she hadn’t ventured outside for almost four days, he agreed to escort them.

The trio embarked at dawn on a half-hour journey that was formerly a ten-minute walk.  Fortunately, overnight they’d heard only three distant explosions and despite a light rainfall, the rivers of mud had abated.  From the east, golden sunrays painted the devastation with a surrealistic optimism.

Nooda clutched Nafisa, bundled in a woollen blanket, to her breast as Houman guided her, his eyes searching constantly.  Fatima, a hunchbacked friend who lived alone nearby, joined them on her way to the market.  Nooda smiled wearily.

Halfway to the hospital, clouds swallowed the golden rays.

Nooda heard and felt nothing.  Her body launched through space, bounced off the side of an abandoned water truck, and landed roadside.  Just beyond reach, she spied Nafisa lying silently, facing away from her.  The child’s shoeless, bloody feet were slowly moving.

Struggling to her feet, Nooda reached for her thigh and grabbed 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 Nooda over his shoulder and started running.

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

Lying flat, Nooda looked up to a white ceiling.

Cold steel scissors sliced her clothing as nurses and trauma physicians moved 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!”

Farhan, in scrubs, leaned tearfully over her.

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

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

A nurse applied an oxygen mask as Houman’s weathered, familiar hand squeezed Nooda’s.  “Breathe, Nooda!” he urged.  The hospital’s drug supply was almost exhausted, but at least they had oxygen – for now.

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

The sounds of the operating theatre receded.  She heard the whine of a bone saw and smelled 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.  “How’s your baby?  I brought baskwyt… Houman and Nafisa came too…”

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

“Amena, where is Nafisa?”

“Nafisa is sleeping and needs her rest.  Lie still while Farhan cares for you.  Please, relax.”

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

“You’re so thoughtful, my dear.  I’ll ask Farhan and Houman about Nafisa.  Now, rest!”

Closing her eyes, Nooda imagined she was drifting, on a rubber raft, downstream on a summer’s day.  Soon 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 that Houman had laid beside her, Nooda tried to sit up as a bolt of pain tore through her opiate haze.

“She’s sleeping” said Amena.  “Please, lie flat.”  As she gently pushed Nooda down, Amena couldn’t face 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 they 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 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.

Mother and daughter continued drifting down the stream, and 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 Nafisa was in her arms.

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 to be Houman crying  “Dear Allah, take my wife into your loving arms!”  Oddly, this didn’t alarm her.

Then Nooda felt herself being whisked out of the raft by a giant invisible hand.

Looking down, she saw several white-clothed people huddling over an expressionless woman lying – in torn, bloody clothing and holding a swaddled child – on a long narrow table.  At the woman’s head was a pink-gowned young lady.

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

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

Hearing the percussive rhythms of a nearby brook and smelling the sweet fragrance of pine, Nooda looked up once again.  Puffy clouds adorned a clear blue sky, and a warm breeze caressed her face.

She was lying in a grassy meadow.  A row of pines and cottonwoods led down to a sparkling lake ringed by dusty hills and snow-capped peaks.

Beside a nearby pond, a handsome young man and a lively little girl – he in a white thawb, and she in a beautiful white dress – played tag, laughing and gently tackling one another.

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!  Where’ve you been?  You’re finally here!  Nafisa just arrived.  We’ve been waiting for you!”

“Mommy!”  The breathless toddler hurried over, jumping 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!”

Relaxing, Nooda felt very peaceful.  Besides happy memories, she could recall nothing.  Karam helped his mother up, the family embraced, and in the trees sang the birds of Aleppo.

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