When I hear Nazem al-Ghazali singing “The Mousayyab Bridge,” I hear echoes of Umm Farhan's pure voice. A stocky woman dressed in black, she lived in a hovel near the Jewish neighborhood. She used to sit in the courtyard of the ruins, strewn with rocks and pigeon-droppings, and light a fire beneath a charred pot. Her face was round, tattooed, her big eyes accentuated by thick black kohl. I never saw her outside her house, which was nothing more than a tall mound of rocks, with an opening covered by a piece of faded fabric. Behind that fabric a tiny room survived, the remainder of the collapsed dwelling, in which she lived with her son Farhan or, as everyone called him, the Pigeon-Flyer. A flock of pigeons of all colors inhabited the hovel with them and Farhan used to climb to the top of the mound to fly them with a long stick. The stick was a palm branch with the leaves plucked off and a rag tied to one end. The flock would fly over the hovel and respond to Farhan's stick. It would fly all the way to the fields on the other side of the river, turn to the little gate at the end of town, then glide over the neighborhoods of Hithaween, Ta'is, Mahdiya and Jibareen, and every time it approached the hovel Farhan would gesture with his stick and the flock would continue flying through the blue, the setting sun illuminating their flapping wings in a spectacular gleam. Each day, at a set time, just before the muezzin's call for evening prayers, Farhan would mount the mound as the pigeons responded to the clicks of his tongue and soared off in a great clamor. Their flight went on only as long as Farhan stood atop the ruin; once he threw his stick down, the pigeons knew it was a sign to end their run and they would land all at once in the yard where Umm Farhan fed them seeds.
The ruin had an aura of mystery. Umm Farhan and her son were not natives of al-Hilla and I don't remember ever being told where they came from or when they settled in that hovel. They were alien in their surroundings, secluded in their own world, and the life of the town passed them by without touching them. Neighbors never visited and, in the Jewish neighborhood, the mothers used Umm Farhan to scare their children. “Umm Farhan will kidnap you if you don't...” My mother didn't threaten me with Umm Farhan, but she always warned me never to go in to their place; like all the other kids, I was drawn there to look at the beautiful pigeons. She's a dangerous woman, they told us, who talks to ghosts and demons. Farhan wasn't popular either, and mentioning his nick name was enough to make heads nod and faces grimace. Someone who tended pigeons was considered a deviant; in those days, it was almost like being a brigand or a pimp. And yet, no one harmed them, and everyone always marveled at Farhan's pigeons. Some folks would stop work when they saw the colorful flock fluttering overhead and get ready for prayers even before hearing the call of the muezzin; everyone knew Farhan performed his daily ritual with astounding punctuality. Wearing a white dishdasha with black stripes that reached down to almost cover his bare feet and wrapped in a thick camel-hide belt, Farhan would stand at the top of the mound and utter guttural exclamations that only the pigeons understood. He produced other sounds too: whistles and snorts and slurps and a choking noise, while the pigeons answered with all sorts of gurgles and hums, flapping their wings, landing on his shoulders, and putting their beaks in his mouth. Like King Solomon, Farhan could talk to the pigeons, and this remained a wonder to the kids who felt drawn to him as if he were bewitched.
But it wasn't only the pigeons that drew us to Farhan, it was the kites he built in a rickety shed behind the mound of rocks, not visible from the entrance to the hovel. There we found him immersed in his craft, looking serious, and he ignored our presence. He never reproached us or ran us out, but we were awestruck by his silence and watched him mutely, afraid to interrupt the magical silence. He built two kinds of kites, small light ones that he sold us for two bits, and big decorated kites that he refused to sell and wouldn't even let us touch. The big ones, known as Umm al-Sinatir , were made of thick paper, usually conical, with variegated pipes and paper chains, and a long tail that branched out into ribbons and had minuscule bells attached to it. He'd fly these kites himself, when he went up to the top of the mound, and they'd soar to the heart of the skies, spreading their wings like doves and waving to the entire town from their majestic heights. At times he tied the string to a wooden post, and the kite would remain stable, unleashing its delectable tinkling into the quiet night.
The pigeons' breathtaking flight, the kites' distant chime, and Umm Farhan's pure voice singing “The Mousayyab Bridge” adorn my most beautiful memories of the city of my birth with a dim and pleasing pain:
The town sleeps quietly and
My eye knows not slumber so
I ask a star in the night so deep,
Oh why, oh why won't
my love come back ,
Rescue me, oh merciful folk,
From the menacing scorners
Who left me alone
on the Mousayyab Bridge
A song that grew in the fertile valley of the Euphrates, by the banks of the river and in the palm groves, in the wheat fields and Bedouin tent encampments, a song of sorrow that infuses the heart with infinite yearning. The Great War carried Farhan away in its storm. The Turkish governor laid a heavy hand on the populace, his troops raided homes, handcuffed the men and dragged them into long lines, like cattle to the draft. Farhan disappeared. Some said he escaped and was never caught, others said he was drafted and died in the war. The uprising against the Turks spread all along the middle Euphrates, and in spite of the cruel oppression and public hangings, the flame of rebellion did not die out until the Turks left. Those were days of fear, and Umm Farhan was left all alone in the ruins, her voice no longer pure and piercing to the quick but rent by sighs and soaked in tears, the voice of a desperate elegy. Umm al-Sinatir no longer flew in the sky, and her chime no longer carried a lullaby to those sleeping on the rooftops. The pigeons no longer flew in their festive circles and the men no longer matched their prayer time with Farhan's climb to the top of the mound. We moved to another house, outside the Jewish neighborhood, and shortly after that I myself moved to Baghdad to continue my schooling. On one of my visits I found the ruin all empty, with only cats slinking among the rubble. No one could tell me what had become of Umm Farhan.
The wheel of destiny never tires of turning. In the mean time, a second World War broke out, and many peoples were washed away by its rumbling waves. I remember that in 1944 I visited one of the local cafes on the Karkh bank of the river, to meet the poet Mula ‘Abud al Karkhi, near the Karkh newspaper building. Mula ‘Abud owned the paper and was the editor in chief. Al-Karkh played an important role in the struggle against British rule in the twenties and thirties, thanks to the editor's poems, in colloquial Arabic, that covered the front page. His tongue was sharp, and no word, no matter how crude, was too low for him to attack someone who aroused his rage. Many maintained an air of caution toward him, trying to ingratiate themselves by giving him all kinds of gifts just to avoid his poisonous arrows. When I met him, he'd already closed al-Karkh, due to old age and ailing health, but he kept publishing poems in other newspapers. And it was in one those that he happened to come out with a poem of mockery against the Mayor, full of obvious hints and insinuations of corruption. The Mayor's cronies advised him not to sue the man, but to try and shut him up by other means. And since the poet's ire was the result of a construction permit denied to one of his relatives, I was asked, as the chief engineer, to negotiate with him and propose some minor changes in the building plan so it could be approved. I didn't embark upon this mission willingly, but to my surprise I found a pleasant conversationalist who liked to tell jokes. The disagreement was settled easily and, the following week, al-Karkhi published a eulogy for the Mayor, arguing that one of his noblest traits was his sense of humor!
I only came to tell of al-Karkhi and his mischief in order to finish the portrait of Farhan that I began. I was distracted from my conversation with the poet when I heard the proprietor of the café call one of the waiters Farhan. I looked at the tall thin man, dressed in a striped dishdasha and a camel-hide belt. He and no other, as if he'd stepped out of the underworld and begun walking among the cafe guests in his bare feet, a serious look on his now meager and wrinkled face. I called to him, and asked if he was Farhan the pigeon-flyer and kite-maker, and he stared at me indifferently without replying. And when I went on to remind him of his days of glory, a dim spark came to his eyes, and he muttered: “Let me be, god have mercy on your father.”
That was my last meeting with Farhan. A lonely introvert washed off his command post atop the mound by the ebb and tide to spend the rest of his days in a noisy, filthy cafe. What remains? The memories remain: The marvelous flight of the pigeons, the chime of Umm al-Sinatir, and Umm Farhan's elegy still making the heart strings tremble.
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