The Birds of Aleppo

by Paul Raworth Bennett

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

Before the summer of 2011, thousands of different songbirds – swallows, warblers, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches – would soothe and serenade the citizens of Aleppo, a Syrian city of almost 5 million. And while the sun twice daily splashed yellow and orange across the sandy hills, the avian sprites would flit and sing throughout the fragrant oak, eucalyptus, tamarind, and chestnut groves that filled city parks and lined streets packed with Aleppans, many of them dressed in elegant cotton thawbs.

But by late 2011, after the sky began raining mortar shells and smoke, the delightful 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 Eastern neighborhoods.

Intermittent radio broadcasts blared Alawite songs, propaganda, and Assad’s reviled voice reassuring that soon “the rebel menace” would be routed decisively and the motherland pacified at last.

The streets, jumbled rivers of broken asphalt, 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 ambulances, their sirens hushed to elude the crosshairs of rooftop Army snipers, traffic was almost nonexistent.

In the Bab Antakia district 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’d 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 – funereal – and it had been months since anyone had been serenaded by the birds of Aleppo.

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

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

In the same block lived Amena and her emergency room doctor husband, Farhan. Inseparable since their long-ago madrassa schoolyard shenanigans, the two women had become soulmates – and 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 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 overnight nearby and despite a light rainfall, the rivers of mud had abated. From the east, golden rays painted a surrealistic optimism across the devastation.

His narrowed 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 sun.

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 a few metres away, facing away from her mother, her shoeless, bloodied feet 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.

Fatima fell to her knees in prayer.  Houman hoisted his wife and daughter onto his strong, broad shoulders and ran, stumbling and cursing, towards the hospital.

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

Nooda opened her eyes again. Lying flat on her back, she looked up to a white ceiling and shivered from the sensation of cold steel scissors urgently slicing her blood-soaked clothes. Moving swiftly and calmly around her were nurses and trauma physicians, 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!”

Then Nooda noticed a familiar face smiling down at her.  After a few seconds she recognized Farhan, fully masked and wearing surgical scrubs, and her frightened gaze met his watery eyes.

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

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

Then she felt the roughness of an oxygen mask thrust upon her face, and the gentle squeeze of Houman’s unseen, 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 while a needle pierced her wrist Nooda could hear distant sounds of men shouting and staccato gunfire.

The noisy clamor 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, so Nooda continued her upward gaze.

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,” said Nooda’s closest girlfriend. “The hemorrhaging has stopped and my baby is okay.” Amena smiled awkwardly and then, quickly raising her hand to cover her mouth, had to look away.

“Amena, where is little 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. Thanks to the morphine she was soon dreaming of drifting on a rubber raft, floating downstream on a warm summer’s day. And she noticed a soft cloth bundle, tucked along her side, that 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.

“Nooda! Don’t disturb Nafisa, she’s sleeping!” urged Amena. “Please, lie flat and rest!” As she gently pushed Nooda down, Amena had to again look away from her girlfriend’s pleading eyes.

“Nafisa, baby, wake up! We have to go see Amena!” Nooda screamed.

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

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

Farhan looked up from the bone saw; the heart monitor signal 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. “Loving Allah, help us! We’re losing her!” Fortunately, she misunderstood the surgeon’s fading cries – but it didn’t matter, because she was at peace; after all, she had little Nafisa sleeping peacefully at her side.

Nooda opened her eyes again to a stygian blackness that carried the scent of Amena’s citrus perfume and the sound of madrassa prayers. Then she heard what she first thought was a wolf’s howl but then recognized as Houman crying “Dear Allah, take my sweet wife into your loving arms!” And oddly, this didn’t alarm her either.

Some time later, after being whisked out of her raft by a giant invisible hand, Nooda found herself floating high up in the operating room, 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 patient’s unblinking eyes bore straight into Nooda’s, she wore torn, bloody clothing, and she had one arm draped over a cloth-bundled toddler.  And at her head sat a young lady, somehow familiar, who rested her head on the patient’s chest.

Nearby two middle-aged men embraced, one sobbing into the other’s shoulder. And a young man and a little girl stood holding hands, smiling up at Nooda. Then the man lifted a pomegranate towards her, and everything faded to black.

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

After a time, Nooda heard the musical tumble of water over stones and the warbling and whistling of songbirds. She opened her eyes.  Puffy cumulus adorned a clear blue sky and a warm breeze caressed her face.

She was supine 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 sawtooth peaks. Beside a nearby pond, the young man and little girl she’d spied from above in the operating room were playing tag, gently tackling each other and laughing. 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.  Kneeling, he threw his strong, sinewy arms around Nooda’s neck. It was Karam! He carried the scent of courage and humility.

“Dearest 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 and recalled their first opening, ages ago.

Then Nooda remembered. “Where’s your father? And our friends 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 and the trio embraced, while in the trees sang the birds of Aleppo.

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