The scene of the destruction of Dayr al-Bahr that Halim Barakat leaves us with at the end of his novel Six Days returns in The Return of The Bird to the Sea, translated as Days of Dust. The novel takes place during the six day war of 1967, over the course of which we follow Ramzi Safadi and his friends and acquaintances, and listen to his discussions of the war with Pamela, an American woman whose husband returns to the US while she remains in Beirut. The relationship between Pamela and Ramzi is not so much a psychological examination of two individual characters but a symbolic reflection of cultural viewpoints.
Edward Said described the book as “emotion utilized to show humanity’s awareness of tragedy,” and Abd al-Jabber al-Basri called it a novel-poem, having the documentary realism of a novel, and the symbolism and musicality of a poem. Roger Allen described it as “one of the most cogent and realistic pictures of the events of 1967 and of the ways in which they reflect on Arab society in general.”
The story of the Flying Dutchman, mentioned in Six Days, returns in this novel, filtered through Ramzi Safadi, a Palestinian professor at the American university in Beirut. The symbolism is not disguised: Ramzi is Arabic for “my symbol” and he refers to the Flying Dutchman as a symbol of the Palestinians, who like the sailor forever roaming the seas, must roam outside their land:
“The flying Dutchman has now returned to the sea. But he still feels an intense longing for the land. He cannot remain in exile and without roots for ever.”
In the first part, The Threshold, which happens after the war, Ramzi climbs a hill overlooking Amman where he has come with a group of his colleagues and students to investigate the real extent of the disaster. He faces the Jordan river, knowing that “the river has no bridges and crossing is forbidden.” The novel goes back in time to rehearse the six days before, with the final chapter set in the same location, and both the first and final chapters borrow from the Book of Genesis to express the effects of the six day war:
On the seventh day, he did not rest. Sadly his seventh day is not a single day. He has no idea how long into the future it will last…everything that the arab created in the first six days was dust…it is the beginning of creation. But the spirit of god does not move on the face of the waters. The Arab says, “let there be light” but there is none. He cannot distinguish light from darkness… The Arab saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very bad. For that reason he did not rest on the seventh day…the future is all he has (qtd in Allen 154).
As Roger Allen puts it: “These two chapters are…a frame within which the narrative of the fateful 6 days of june 1967 is set…the central narrative with its almost cinematic realism …the first and last chapters with their use of the narrative present show us that after such a total defeat, the future is all the Arab has left.”
Apart from these two framing chapters, the rest of the narrative takes place mainly in in Beirut. It begins with Ramzi watching the demonstrations and listening to the manipulative and deceptive news broadcasts boasting about the great achievements made by the armies. This propaganda during the 67 war which made people believe to the last moment that the war would end with a resounding victory was the target of Syrian writer Zakariya Tamir’s short story al-A’da (The Enemies) in which the Arabic language is given an award for heroism for downing so many planes and immobilizing so many tanks during the war.
Ramzi himself doubts what he hears, but the sense of hope and resurgent optimism among his students moves him, until this rising tide of hope is then totally dashed by the abrupt revelation of the defeat. The novel paints a picture of the impact of this defeat, from which springs a wave of bitterness and anger, spurring attacks on the American and British embassies in Beirut, and a demonstration following Naser’s resignation speech.
Ramzi is in Beirut, both far from the fighting, and near enough to make him feel guilty for not being there, but the novel also follows other characters, such as Taha Kan’an in Jericho, and Azmi Abd al Qadir in Jerusalem, their stories unfolding in shorter pieces which describe attempts to organize resistance amidst the horrors of war, the speed of movement through the scenes does not allow much time for characterization but works to reflect the overwhelming speed of events in a six day war.
On the third day, with the title al-Mawt Haql (death is a field), one of the characters flees and as they are heading to the river, his family is bombed, the chapter lingering on the father’s futile attempts to put out the flames burning his children.
The novel inserts a lot of self-reflexive intertextual material especially in the discussions between Pamela and Ramzi, with the characters drawing analogies from literature. For example, this exchange:
“Do you remember that Meursault kills an Arab without reason?”
“I remember and he doesn’t care that he has killed him.”
“it seems to me that the West isn’t very different from Meursault. It kills Arabs without reason.” (88)
Pamela gives her own literary analogy, with Arabs as the boy in Robinson Crusoe, who rescues Crusoe from slavery but is then inexplicably sold (89).
As this suggests, Barakat deemphasizes characterization to a degree which diminishes the storytelling aspect for a mix of documentary style, with symbolic overtones. Yet despite this, Barakat’s work stands out as one of the most effective commentaries on the 1967 debacle and its implications in Arab literature.
He thinks of his homeland as a ship sailing for a long time aimlessly in a sea of fear and terror and ignorance, prevented from reaching any shore (31).
The voices of the university students in Beirut are loud waves crashing and rising, joyous with the prospect of return (35).
His country is lonely like the flying Dutchman. Again given the chance to reach what she yearns for, it seems that what she yearns for has escaped her and she might have to return again to the sea to live among its waves without hope of death or life (71).
He would hate to spend his life dreaming in front of the map of his country, remembering its gardens and shores. He wants to be in it, part of it (72).
People in caves learned that their village was occupied, Sheikh Muhi Eldeen told them: don’t escape. Its better for us to return. The Israeli rule might not be worse than the English or the Turkish. We endured the Turks and the English rule and their rule ended and we remained. And the Israeli rule will doubtless end and we remain (77).
The future is an arrow directed at them, and they can’t get out of its way. The arrows of the native American rebound back on him accompanied with bullets so he falls from his white horse. The Vietnamese hermit can do nothing but burn himself in protest. The African does not own his footsteps in his homeland, humiliated as the dust in Rhodesia and South Africa. The Arab Palestinian is as broken down and demolished as his houses (127).
…the westerner always asks the Arab this question, I don’t think you understand its meaning…the westerner wants the Palestinian refugee to melt into the society supposing that this integration will make him forget his country…this is a false supposition, those who do integrate…who are able to improve their material conditions…even more than others become activists (149).
He feels that his land is a heap in a dark corner, the dogs of the world piss on it and move on (151).
In Amman no one demonstrations, like zombies in the street. No one wants to scream or talk or smile or eat or drink. Hundreds of refugees flood the city (167).
He thinks that history is a field of wind. The world is wheat stalks and history a storm. He examines his country eagerly. Azmi Abdel Qader encircled in Jerusalem, Taha cries in the hospital…Maher searching, Abu Daham wishing he had the ruins of a house in Qalqilya, Ramzi looking at the stalks searching for seeds (173).
He feels that history is a storm, he has to obstruct it, plunge into it. He wants to have a shadow (195).
Halim Barakat has noted, “by a search for the meanings and causes of the failure of the Arabs to confront the challenges facing them” (256).