As I closed my eyes, I began to see brilliant flashes of that dream again, the one members of my clan carry like shrapnel, cultural shrapnel buried, in our racial memory, each of us with a shattered story that the others have lost and are looking for.
A dream quest for water—or nightmare of drought—binds me to my kin, motivates each and every one of my clan, guiding us out of dry and dangerous zones, moving us towards a momentary sense of peace, sometimes bringing us fully into sanctuary. Even with my eyes closed, I did not see it all at once.
Our dream fragments shared the same totem animal and the same sacred place: the locust flying over once verdant wetlands, where springs are now desiccated and fish are dead in the mud.
The days of locust plague and drought remain in my family’s memory and in the collective memory of the Syrian people writ large. Segments of the locusts’ snake-like trail curved around and reared up like a cobra dancing to the sound of a magical flute in the imagination of each Syrian refugee and every one of their descendants in a distinctive manner.
Each told his or her unique version of what had happened that day. And they agreed to listen to one another’s tellings. Each version became a piece in some larger puzzle that never seemed to be completed:
A gangly, mannish boy craned his head, looking straight up at the dry sky, and pointing at something above his head. He pointed upward for the benefit of an infant whose legs are clutching his neck. He could not decide whether the altostratus clouds looked like a flock of sheep, or something else more ominous coming from the southwest.
At first, it seemed he was merely drawing the little girl’s attention to the clouds. Everyone in the desert grows up as a bit of a sky-watcher, hoping to perfect that art to become a prophet of precipitation. But he was only talking to himself to figure something out, not caring of whether anyone else was listening or not.
“I gotta keep on walking so we can find out what that cloud is, whether it is good or evil. Make sure a bad cloud doesn’t engulf us,” the boy shouted in Arabic to the little girl, and to his godfather as well.
“This little girl… She needs me to be her long and strong legs, to carry her away from… from these clouds of, of …”
His sentence was never completed, never reached the ears of another human, for the cacophony of locusts drowned out his boyish voice.
They were trekking across the Bekaa, the broad valley between Damascus and Beirut that typically enjoyed clear, dry, sunny skies. This day, as they glanced at the heavens and the land around them, there was nothing “normal” or “typical” about what they saw. The heavens seem disturbed. The land had succumbed to a long-standing drought.
The skies were shrouded by fast-moving clouds. Oddly shaped, oddly colored clouds. Pink and yellow clouds of flying, falling and fallen bodies.
The flying locusts did not hamper the overgrown boy from trudging along through the wind-drifts of the dead ones. Ibrahim Abou Rjeily simply followed his godfather and namesake, Ibrahim Shahini. His godfather was on a mission: to complete a twenty-mile trek across the Bekaa to meet a train that would take its passengers westward, toward the sea.
The locusts were coming in from the southwest, perhaps from the Sahara in northern Africa. The three Syrians were moving against the current koif the coming plague. It was not just the weight of the burdens they were carrying, but the heavier burden of a world in chaos. Their faces were wet and glistening. They were grimacing.
“Walad, lookie!” The little girl cried out to the boy. “Those big clouds are pouring out hoppers. Hoppers, sky hoppers! Look, one’s landed on me!”
The boy could not see the particular locust that had landed on her nose, but he could see thousands all around her. They swarmed as they flew but were also gregarious whenever they landed and milled around. As another landed in the girl’s hair, she tried to brush that away too. The locusts bolted, dropped to the ground, then huddled together, searching to find enough food to further propel them on their peregrination across the deserts. Their rustling, rattling, raining noise muted any human voice within earshot.
The three travelers had been awakened the morning before to the distant sound of the locusts and fell asleep hearing that same sound within their own heads, gnawing away at their sanity. The locusts had eaten their way across the valley, denuding every leaf, tendril, flower and fruit in their path.
Small gatherings of elderly women nicknamed the “skywatchers” were the first to somehow see and smell in the air the coming changes. Their heads covered with hijabs of various colors and designs, they look up at this omen as they sat out on a tiled patio one morning. They were mixing their yoghurt-like lubna with bulgur wheat, kneading the one into the other before the desert sun dried it all into hard nodules of survival food. They were already preparing for any disaster during the coming months and coming years. But now, the need somehow was imminent.
When these elders first glimpsed a few solitary locusts, they guessed that the insects were traveling incognito to surprise their town. Soon the skies darkened as more and more of them aggregated, and the locusts threw off their dull brown disguise to show their true colors: blazing yellows and burning pinks.
Long before the men had glanced up at the skies to see the hordes of desert locusts about to engulf them, it was the women who released their ululating shrieks, which echoed off the hard stone surfaces of the house, sheds and stables lining their narrow streets. The locusts’ cacophonous sounds and the women’s keening echoed upward, eastward, into the steep canyons and crags of the rugged Anti-Lebanon mountain range. The echoes traveled out further, like ripples of water from a skipping stone. They spilled over the mountains that broke Bilad al-Sham —Greater Syria— into two dissimilar landscapes.
One of those landscapes was perched up in the cool verdure of Jabal Lubnan- Mount Lebanon—where the highlands of the Chouf and Metn towered above their arid valley. The other landscape was the valley itself—the Bekaa— which was far drier, with a scatter of stunted orchards, overgrazed pastures and withered wheat fields surrounded by barren, buff-colored limestone hills.
There walked the old man, and the tall boy carrying the little girl, passing drought-stricken fields and pasturelands. They stayed within the mottled shade made by hedgerows, where they could hardly be seen. They followed paths that connected a few springs and wetlands edged by dying palms, willows and sycamores, the dying trees still offering cover to those taking flight.
On both sides of the Anti-Lebanon range, the once prodigious landscape of Greater Syria was being drained of its wild plant bounty, its food-producing capacity, and its many peoples.
Emptied. Emptied out. The members of the many cultures of the Bekaa were all becoming climate refugees.
For the moment, the three pilgrims were feeling overwhelmed by the locusts above them and the dryness in their throats. The two men prayed for relief from the plague and drought. The little girl seemed more puzzled than pestered by it all. Was she still too young to see an omen? Like a fingerling fish suddenly dumped into a pool of water, she was already immersed in something she could not name.
Both of the Ibrahims were Syrian Orthodox. They regularly made the sign of the cross from right to left over their hearts whenever a pesky locust, wasp or bee flew across their paths. They devoutly cried out “Yeshua Msheekha, Hallelu!” in their ancient Syriac dialect, hoping that the grace of Jesus Christ would shield them from any affront.
The locusts were now heading due east, the very direction from which the train would soon be coming; the three of them were headed to the south to intersect its path.
The pilgrims trudged along against the grain. Ibrahim Abou Rjeily’s godfather was bent over from bearing the weight of a duffel bag filled with most of his worldly possessions, and clothes of the little girl. He had needed the boy’s help carrying a few more of his possessions that would not fit into the big camelhair duffel bag.
If he had been alone, he would not be able to get all of his cargo to the railroad line linking Damascus with Beirut.
His most precious “possessions” was that little girl, the toddler they called Maryam. Ibrahim Shahini had placed her in the giant hands of the youthful Abou Rjeily.
“Do everything you can not to stumble or fall, for she might tumble out of your grasp.”
He took a hard look at how hopelessly lanky and out of proportion his godson was. He felt he must say something more to the boy, something cautionary but still encouraging:
“Of all my godsons, you are the one I love the most. I could not bear to see you or the little girl get hurt. Whatever we encounter, keep little Maryam in your embrace, for we do not want her to slip away from us…”
The boy stopped walking for a moment, puzzled by this admonition. He glanced over at his godfather, waiting for instructions that might be easier to understand.
“Just help me take good care of this little girl, my son, and someday you shall be rewarded.”
“Rewarded?” the boy smiled, intrigued by the notion. He relaxed and began walking again, smiling from ear to ear.
Rewarded with what, he did not know. With gold? With a flock of sheep? With an artesian spring, flowing once again with water? With the hand of this toddler when she became a woman who was old enough to marry?
He had seen this pretty little girl before, as she sat out with her grandmother and their flock just above the village. He now turned toward his godfather and namesake, wondering what the older Ibrahim had meant.
No one ever called the boy by his real name. His godfather Ibrahim Shahini was the only one who ever called him “son,” now that his parents and godmother were dead; they were caught, then killed, in a skirmish along the Damascus Road the year before.
Most everyone in the village called him “Giant Boy,” or referred to him as the overgrown orphan. He already dwarfed his godfather and most other grown men. His large size was a consequence of a pituitary gland disorder suffered when he was an infant. His feet were unusually large; his fingers excessively long; his forehead jutted out from his face at a height of six foot five feet above the ground.
There was something about his height, his baggy sherwal pants, and the breeze that made him look like a long loopy balloon, blowing in the wind. He was only nine years old.
Orphaned a year ago, he had moved like a nomad, camping out and moving from home to hovel to sheep camp hut of many welcoming kin.
He had taken to staying with his godfather and namesake more than the others, for the older Ibrahim offered the boy a reassuring form of affection even when he could not offer him much food.
But without a mother to look after him, Giant Boy’s clothes had become rag-tag, dust-covered and sweat-soaked. On that particular day, the only clean piece of cloth he wore was wrapped around his head, to hold down his wild hair; it was a gift from his godfather, identical to the one the older man wore.
The army boots that Giant Boy was wearing were borrowed from a maternal uncle who wanted him to accomplish this trek without suffering too many blisters.
Giant Boy was undaunted by most minor adversities. And it seemed to others that he was always smiling, always lending a hand to one villager or another.
Today, he gently held this pretty baby upon his shoulders, her knees and hands brushing up against his enormous ears. She had a thin but solid little body under her long brown dress, and shiny black hair that trailed down her neck in a single braid.
He is grateful for her tender touch, her humming, grunting and gasping, her little voice that whispers like a gentle wind:
“Lookie, Giant Boy, more hoppers!” she says. “No more sunshine today! Dark night coming. Goodbye sun!”
He is grateful to have Maryam’s body wrapped around his neck, for her knees that shielded his ears from the droning of the locusts.
No more sunshine? Giant Boy struggled to say something to the little girl to reassure her that everything will be ok soon.
A few yards ahead, the older Ibrahim glanced back at his niece, his godson, and the village of Za’atar Zabad that has been his only home. He had been sagging under the weight of their luggage, even though he is just twenty-six years of age. His sun-burnt face was furrowed by his dozen years of laboring in his family’s vineyards and his two years in the Ottoman Army, from which he defected.
During a short rest, the older Ibrahim looked up at the branches above him and shook his head. Decades before, their grandfathers had taken most of their farmlands out of wheat and sesame, fava beans and zucchini, to plant nothing but mulberry trees. Across the landscape, orchards and fencerows of mulberries had replaced just about every other crop on the valley’s farms.
His neighbors were not cultivating the trees for the little berries protruding from the canopies, but for the leaves beneath them. Silkworms for sericulture, at least before the bottom fell out of the once lucrative silk market.
Silk cloth for dresses, sashes and undergarments.
Silk trade with the French, who treated the farmers of the Bekaa like sharecroppers, like tenant farmers.
Recently, Ibrahim had seen the strange diseases that ravaged the silk production in the valley. One killed the leaf-eating, silk-spinning caterpillars; the other killed the trees themselves.
The older Ibrahim caught his godson’s attention and pointed to the dead branches covered with locusts. He then offered a brief lecture, one his godfather intended for himself as much as for the boy and the little girl:
“Our fathers chose to give all of our lands over to silk-making worms. Why then, were they surprised when it all slithered away? That’s why we must now leave, or else we will die like the silkworms died.”
He had a tightness in his throat and his eyes were tearing up. The day before, doctor confided in him that the death toll was higher than the government wanted anyone to know: nearly a third of neighbors had died during the last few years of war, drought, disease and pestilence.
How many more had escaped, only God could count. But they were scattered to the dry wind, off to who-knows-where.
He found himself a sad-eyed man, full of grief from the murder of his wife on the Damascus Road.
His face was creased and covered with stubble. He had not shaved for days. His white head wrap barely hid his receding hairline. A muscular neck and arms bulged out of his tattered undershirt. He wore a simple linen short of and a threadbare long coat, along with the baggy sherwal pants. They were held in place by a charcoal-colored sash wrapped tightly around his waist.
Despite the hardships he had suffered, Ibrahim was still a man with a strong will and even stronger opinions. He read the coming of the locusts as a harbinger of far worse things to come.
“The whole earth is groaning… isn’t that what the Holy Book says? Did it have to get this loud for us to hear it?”
The day before, he had lingered, working, before coming out of the winemaking cavern, unaware of the arrival of the locusts. They had already infested the very vineyard he had worked in all of his life.
The older “skywatcher” women had teased him that he was among the last to learn the plague had arrived. The locusts plundered every leaf and tendril on the vines. The drought had made the vine leaves shrivel, but because of the desiccation, each surviving leaf was more loaded with nitrogen, the nutrient that triggered the locusts’ feeding frenzies.
Ibrahim couldn’t stand the sight of them. So when locusts would occasionally land on him, he would cross himself, then and swat at them or grab one and pinch its short-horned head between his fingers, knowing that his slaughter would make no difference.
Ibrahim’s swatting at the locusts only slowed his pace across the valley, making him more worried that they might miss the only train of the day.
He was desperate to get there as soon as possible, hoping to avoid the Turkish battalion that guarded the nearest train station in Riyaq. It was the same battalion from which he had defected a few days earlier.
It was nearly four hours after they had begun their trek down the pock marked wagon ruts and sheep trails that led away from Za’atar Zabad. He had decided to sneak his little entourage down past the drained-down wetlands fed from the now-declining spring of Ayn Chamsine, where a denser thicket edging the waters might conceal their pathway from any soldiers in the area.
These were the marshes, the riparian woodlands and lagoons of turquoise water that lured their ancestors to the Bekaa, and that their descendants would later see in their dreams, unsure of where these images had come from.
The once-abundant cattails had been burnt down to ashes, their mud dried down to dust. The stench of dead and rotting fish was everywhere in the air.
Their progeny would someday dream of oases in the midst of the drought-stricken desert, as if they had taken shelter in such a haven once. Attempting to describe these dream places to lovers and friends, they would try out words like paradise, refuge and sanctuary, all the while feeling that such terms could never fully describe their bonds to such places of the heart.
Once the pilgrims ascended from the sorry shelter of dead trees edging the drained lagoons, they found themselves out in the open, close to the only major passageway through the mountain range from Damascus.
They spotted their destination on the horizon, marked by a water tower standing high alongside iron rails and wooden ties.
Who knows if it still held any water?
It would have been a shorter walk to the train station at Riyaq, and then a ride to the city of Zahleh, but people would know them there, including the soldiers. That’s why Ibrahim chose to hop onto the train at a remote watering stop further from their home.
There it was at last, the railroad line that paralleled the road from Damascus. They aimed to intersect it where this metal water tank was perched atop a wobbly tower. The tank was fed by an iron pipe running all the way down the slopes of a canyon from the ancient spring of Ayn Aanjar.
He remembered that the spring had been named by ancient Aramaic speakers, who had dubbed it “the risen source.”
Had it, like other springs, fallen into ruin, allowing only a trickle of water where streams once gushed out of the ground?
On his first glimpse at Ayn Anjar in months, Ibrahim bit his lip. Artesian spring water no longer flowed out of the ground, to rise with the vitality he had known as a boy. Its pool had dramatically shrunk since his last visit.
A mat of algae and duckweed now covered the surface of the spring. There were the carcasses of about thirsty ewes that had come there to drink but had gotten stuck in the mud and died. Thousands of dead fish lay beneath a swarm of flies, stinking on the edge of the spring-fed reservoir.
“Ayn Aanjar—look at it. It has become as dead and foul-smelling as poor Lazarus once was,” he moaned. He remembered how the spring gushed forth, drenching his face when he visited it as a child.
”May Yeshua himself find a way to resurrect it back to life someday, as he did for his old friend Lazarus,” he moaned.
To be sure, Ibrahim himself would not be waiting around to see whether the spring would flow again, or whether the valley would become green.
“Yakfy!” Enough is enough.
He had promised his cousin Ferhat that he would personally carry Maryam out to be reunited with him and his wife Julia as soon as the sickly girl was well enough to endure such a journey. After her parents left for Amrika, she had remained ill and too weak to travel for months.
Rather recently, she seemed to have recovered some of her energy and much of her feistiness.
And that was when the “sky-watcher” women in the village urged him to make a run for it. To take the girl to meet her parents.
He needed time to close up his shop, he argued. And yet, the women remained firm. He and the girl must take flight as birds do, without lingering another day, they commanded him. The shop could wait.
Here, then, was the very place where the Swiss-made Iron Horse that had “galloped” all the way from Damascus. Here was where it came down from the mountain pass and into the open, having shaken any bandits who rode their Arabian horses in pursuit of it. The eight iron wheels of steam locomotive would stay still for less than five minutes, long enough for the train to be provisioned with both water and firewood.
Here then was the train they could hide in, among boxes of dried fruits from Damascus, among bags of grains and anise seeds from Jabal al-Shayk, and among bundles of sheepskins, goat hides and camel hair spools purchased from the Kurdish tribes on the far side of the mountains.
Here then was the moment when the older Ibrahim would stop and lift his niece up out of that locust hell.
“Up you go, Maryam!”
He turned and grabbed the girl from his godson, then handed her up to the waiting conductor.
He turned again to hug his godson, to kiss him on both cheeks one last time.
He dropped a few coins into Giant Boy’s pocket. He climbed up the stairs into the railroad car, with the conductor offering him a hand at the last step.
From the cinder-covered, locust-littered, oil-stained ground, Giant Boy reached up to hand his godfather the three bags of luggage.
Maryam jumped from the conductor’s hip into her uncle’s arms as soon as he put the bags down.
Suddenly, the engineer blew the whistle and the entire train screeched into action. It quivered for a moment, then began to gyrate above them like a belching, jerking, squealing, bleating monster, spewing out smoke and steam every which-way.
Little Maryam broke into tears of fear and awe at the sight of the engine and its eight cars, only one of them suited for accommodating human passengers. He helped the little girl get settled, so she could look out the doorway and wave goodbye to Giant Boy.
As the train lurched away from the station, Giant Boy grew smaller and smaller to Maryam, then he disappeared altogether. This made her weep and whimper even more.
“No! Don’t leave him. He with me!” She screamed.
Giant Boy waved furiously to Maryam as the train rolled away. Then he sat down and beat the hard-packed ground before with his fists, convulsing.
What had just happened? It made no sense at all to the bewildered boy. Why is she not on my shoulders, touching my ears? Why did they go away without me? Where are they going? Why did they not tell me they would leave me behind?
He vomited up the only food he had eaten that day, his sorrow spilling out over the dry earth.
It had never occurred to Giant Boy that they would be departing, and he would not be with them anymore! Now, he had no place to take refuge. He could not assuage his sorrow.
The steam engine began to chug and churn, boil and burn, smoke and thrust itself ahead, moving faster and faster, heading for the last town in the valley, Chtaura. It slowly climbed up a long barren slope toward the highlands of the Jabal Lubnan range.
It climbed higher and higher, over the pass at Deir el Baidar, and toward the steeper ridges above. By the time it reached Saofar, Ibrahim could no longer see anything recognizable as Mount Sannine, the peak above Zahleh that had fixed itself on his western horizon his entire life.
He caught glimpses of the highest summits of el Metn to the north and the legendary Chouf mountains. The railroad cars streamed around curves and down through the canyons and tunnels to reach the seaward-draining slopes of Mount Lebanon itself. The train then descended into the metropolis of Beirut and rolled to a stop at the Bourj Hammoud Station on the Mediterranean coast.
In the valley, Giant Boy remained frozen at the side of the tracks, glued to the very earth. He had watched, dumbfounded, as the locomotive sped away and the cowcatcher on the front of it sliced through swarm after swarm of locusts. He threw handfuls of cinder at the tracks, at the water tower and at any locusts that came near him as tears streaked his dusty face. Every motion he had ever known was pouring out of him like so many drops of soapy water from a tattered rag.
Spent, Giant Boy suddenly got up and brushed the cinders and the locust carcasses off his pant legs. He lumbered away from the open and unforgiving ground and disappeared into the cane breaks and heavy cover of the wetlands.
In another four hours, he finished the twenty-mile walk back to Za’atar Zabad. He had walked back all alone, something unimaginable to him before this day. His neck and back and heart had been freed of “the burden” of the little girl who hours before had sat on his shoulders, cuddling his head. He was so weary, so inconsolable, that he lay down on the straw in his uncle’s stable and fell fast asleep.
Written by Gary Paul Nabhan, first posted on the Michigan Quarterly Review