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The Swallow Tree
Sabria sings as she works the dough. It is a slow lament of her own. These songs, with their rambling verses of half–formed thoughts and sad, swooping melodies, come to her every morning as she moves about the house. Her hair, thick, black, and straight, swings from side to side in the early–morning sunlight as the melody dies to a hum and is reborn a minute later, inspired by figures from the world of myth and legend, perhaps her last pilgrimage to Karbala, her sister Makkya’s troubles in love, the cool water she has drawn from the well in the courtyard, or, as on this morning, her two older sisters, who died during the cholera outbreak in the year she was born.
Leaving the dough to rise, she goes to the well and draws two large tin buckets of water. As she walks back, she feels the baby twist inside her. She sings louder, directing her voice at her belly. This baby likes her singing, she is sure. Unlike Yasin, her husband. He listens as she waddles about the house, occasionally wincing and clicking his tongue until he can hold back no longer. “Wife! In all the time we have been married I have not once heard you sing a happy song. Not once. Why must everything be so sad?”
She sets down the buckets and spins round to face him. “Do I tell you what to sing?” she hisses. “What you choose to sing when you are working is your own business. What I sing is my choice. If you do not care for my sadness, you should go out. Anyway, you know that all Iraqi songs are sad—it’s traditional.”
Yasin raises his eyebrows and smiles at her. She scowls back. “Go and leave me in peace,” she says, and nods toward the front door.
The domestic routine has played itself out regularly over the fifteen years they have been married. Whenever Yasin is at home and not out laying track in the deserts to the south and west of Baghdad, Sabria knows she must get him out of the house as early as she can. Otherwise he becomes restless and wanders aimlessly about the house, distracting her from her chores. Since he is not in the habit of eating breakfast, or no more than fruit and yesterday’s bread, he's best out of the way.
“Buy some onions,” she calls to him as he pulls on his outdoor shoes. “If you go to the market late, they will be cheaper. I need two bobbins and some white cotton too. Don’t forget, or the boys will have no trousers fit for school. And before you ask, no, I cannot go myself, and Bibi is not here to go for me. Go to al–Shawwaka market, to the haberdasher’s at the back.”
“Yes, yes, my wife.” Yasin sighs, wrapping a fresh white cloth over his patterned skullcap. He waves, and she watches him disappear across the sandy courtyard and out through the battered tin gate. She knows exactly where he will go, the route he will take, and for how long he will be out. A creature of habit, he will wander across the cultivated fields of Karradat Mariam to the little coffee shop at the river’s edge. He will meet with the other men of the neighborhood—the old, those on leave, professional and military men, and others driven from their homes by their irritated wives—and while away a few hours playing dominoes and sipping cardamom coffee, which he loves. He often stops to see it made, watching as the thick mixture rises slowly to the top of the tall aluminum jug and is poured, hot and syrupy, into long rows of glasses. Its smell is enough to distract him from whatever task he has undertaken.
He will settle himself at his favorite lucky domino table, one ear trained to the old Philips radio behind the counter, and wait for friends to arrive. Soon the room will echo with conversation and laughter, the gentle click–clack of misbaha beads and the news from Radio Baghdad. Yasin will be occupied blissfully for hours.
Now Sabria prepares the bread oven. She lays sticks and brushwood in the large bronze grate, then fans the flames with a frond until the embers set the new kindling alight. The fire will do now for her bread, then later for tea, coffee, and a fish stew. It is a delicate balance: too much wood early in the day and the domed bread oven, which Yasin built against the back wall of the compound on the day they moved in, will smoke for hours. Too little and the fire will die. In the many years that she has performed this morning ritual, she has failed only a handful of times. Now such things are second nature.
Sighing, Sabria finds herself caught off–guard and momentarily unable to move. She is already exhausted and the sun is not even halfway up the sky. The baby inside her has robbed her of energy and she can only get about with considerable effort and slow, deliberate movements. Standing beside the oven, she offers a small prayer that the baby will come soon. In the meantime she must try to rest. The housework can wait. With Jafar and Juma’a, her teenagers, at school and Yasin out, she might relax a little.
Bibi, her ever–vigilant mother, had scolded her roundly just the day before: “You do too much. They don’t lift a finger to help because you won’t let them. They should look after themselves for a week or two until the baby comes. Three demanding children and a house to keep—that’s too much for anyone.”
Sabria knows Bibi is right but she cannot hope to change anything now. It is easier for her to continue doing all the work herself than to instruct her men how to cook, clean, and wash. If she can get the sewing done, perhaps she will put her feet up for a few hours.
Sabria has come to treasure the brief moments of calm when the house is empty. She can think, imagine, plan, and even sing without fear of upsetting anyone. When they come home and the tiny compound is filled again with chaotic comings and goings, her time will no longer be her own.
Besides, Bibi and Sabria’s sister, Makkya, will be here soon. They will help. They are spending the morning shopping at the market and promised to be back before noon. Sabria knows they will come much later. It is to be expected. Her mother has probably been accosted and is, at this moment, crouching on someone’s floor with her stick and her bags of herbs dispensing advice. A seer, a wise woman, and an herbalist, Bibi makes herself available to anyone who asks. It is an obligation, a duty bestowed by the gift itself.
“What should I do, Bibi? My wife, she cannot sleep and she has terrible pains in her shoulders…”
“My husband is sick, it is his stomach. Can you give me something for him?”
Above the wide cliffs of her cheekbones Bibi’s eyes look deep into those of her patient until the truth is revealed. As she listens and looks, never blinking, holding their gaze, she is reaching into the bag at her feet and pulling out a sprig or two with instructions to boil and drink it or to keep it about the person. For as long as Sabria can remember her mother has carried herbs and special powders with her in the folds and cuffs of her robe and fota, the black cloth headscarf she wraps about her face. And while the gift itself has not been passed on, Sabria knows she has inherited some of her mother’s insight.
After checking that the yeast is doing its work, she discards her house slippers, pads to the washstand, and splashes her face with cooling flower water. Her youngest son, Nabeel, tugs at her skirt and, momentarily irritated, she shoos him away. “Leave me alone, Nabeel. Go and play.” Half in a daze she makes her way to the shade of her room, unease blossoming inside her. “I am tired,” she says to the child, “and I have a lot of sewing to do. But if you are good, I will tell you a story when Bibi comes back.” She sits in the wicker chair in front of the old Singer sewing machine, with a half–completed shirt and material for three pairs of trousers at her side, then stares out to the swallow—sununu—tree in the yard.
Little Nabeel knows that his mother is not quite herself. It has troubled him for days. He can feel that something big is about to happen but no one will say what it is. He scratches shapes and letters into the sand with the stick his mother uses to check for snakes hidden in the grass. He has always been good at entertaining himself.
Sabria watches him from the window as she cuts trousers from the gray cotton and pins them in place for sewing. Nabeel is four and about to be joined by another brother or sister. How rapidly time has passed. He is no longer her miracle baby but a little boy, full of his own opinions and such a strong, willful spirit. She smiles as she watches him run round the well, singing one of his own songs.
“Nabeel,” she calls.
“Nabeel,” she repeats the name to herself, almost as if she is hearing it for the first time. No one in the family has been called Nabeel before, and it isn’t common in Iraq. Such looks she had from everyone the day she announced it to the family. Even now it is strange to think that her son was named after her brother Rashid’s favorite brand of cigarette. But it had been the only possible name for him.
“Sister, if you have another boy you must call him Napoleon,” Rashid had said emphatically, waving a ticket for the Napoleon cigarette lottery at his sister, who lay resting on a mattress.
“Why ever would I do such a ridiculous thing, brother?” she had said, astonished.
Rashid spoke as if his reasoning was flawless and obvious to even the dim–witted: “Because this ticket is for a prize draw set to take place on the day your baby is due. And, sister, I have a strong feeling that if the baby is born on that day and it is a boy, I will win.”
“A lifetime supply of Napoleon cigarettes! I feel it is a most auspicious name, sister.”
“To be named after a cigarette is not, in any way, auspicious, Rashid,” she had said, dismissing the notion with a flick of her fingers. “How could I ever face my child knowing I named him after a French leader or a cigarette?”
It wasn’t until the baby was born, and Rashid called in to tell her he had won first prize, that she knew her brother would not let the matter be. “What did I tell you, sister? One thousand cartons of high–quality cigarettes. Thank you very much, Mr. Napoleon,” he had crowed triumphantly. “It would be unwise to ignore such good fortune, don’t you think?”
“It seems so,” Sabria admitted reluctantly. “But I can’t call him Napoleon, can I?” Rashid had raised his eyebrows and waved a lighted cigarette at her and the infant.
Encouraged by her brother’s good fortune, Sabria had settled on the Arabic form of Napoleon’s name, announcing to Yasin that they would call their third son Nabeel. She knew her husband would not protest: in the years they had been married she could not recall him objecting to anything of any importance.
Now that baby boy is an opinionated, garrulous four–year–old, with a seemingly inexhaustible desire to know about everything. He follows his mother everywhere, enthralled by her stories and explanations of the world. Unlike her other two sons, who are growing away from her, Nabeel loves nothing more than to curl up in the shadow of the hissing paraffin lamp, his head against her knee, listening to the legends of old Iraq that Sabria tells him. His favorites are tales of the current king, Faisal II, of his youth, his impetuousness, his travels to faraway countries, and of the enormous blue-domed palace he built on the outskirts of Karradat Mariam. In her imagination, this palace, a new home for the monarch, was a wondrous place, worthy of fairy tales about the powerful emperors, cruel monsters, and spoiled dynasties who dwelled within.
Soon the bread oven is hot enough to begin baking. The smoke has all but died away and only the white–hot embers remain. Leaving the sewing machine, Sabria fetches a raffia basket from the kitchen and walks to the oven with the soft dough patties. As she turns to close the screen door a spasm grips her and she sinks to the ground, sending them rolling into the sand. She knows the feeling: the baby is getting ready to come. The pain passes slowly and she looks up. From the corner of her eye, she sees Nabeel throw the snake stick at the well and jump for the forbidden sununu nest. She has lost count of the times she has told him and his friends to leave the hatchlings and the swallows’ eggs alone. But the more she warns him away, the more intrigued he becomes by it. All of the neighborhood children have been after them that spring, and it has taken extraordinary vigilance on her part to stop them plundering the nest.
Sabria knows she must ensure the birds’ safety. Swallows are an omen of good fortune. They fly in from the south, returning to the same nest each spring, and lay their eggs. Man must not interfere with them—the scriptures are emphatic. The sununu are one of Allah’s holy creatures, to be protected. She rises to her feet and is about to scold her son when she checks herself. Pausing to watch his agile frame arch upward into the branches toward the wall, she wonders if he will stop short of the nest or reach for the eggs. With his bare feet gripping the trunk and one arm coiled round a branch, she watches his small hand reach expertly into the nest and feel for an egg. From overhead the mother bird darts about distractedly, sending out urgent alarm calls.
“Nabeel! Nabeel!” Sabria shouts, clapping her hands angrily. The sound bounces off the brown mud walls of the compound. “Get down! You are in so much trouble, my son, that I don’t know where to begin with you.”
Startled, Nabeel loses his footing and falls to the ground in a cloud of dust. Breathless though she is with the onset of labor, Sabria goes to the tree, grabs him by the ear, and drags him into the house. “How many times have I told you? Sununu are sacred, and stealing eggs is bad luck—for all of us. Don’t you understand? I want good luck for my new baby.” She twists his ear hard. “I know what you would have done with those eggs. Probably smashed them against the wall or rolled them along the road with your friends until they broke. You are a cruel, wicked little boy. Don’t ever think of trying that again. I am your mother—I always know what you’re doing. I have eyes in the back of my head.”
Nabeel runs crying back into the yard and hides in the crack between the compound wall and the house. Sabria picks up the dough patties, dusts them off as best she can, and puts them into the oven. Then she wedges herself behind her sewing machine and begins to stitch again. The baby will come soon and there is no one but Nabeel to help her.