Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the December 2020 issue

Freedom of Flight

Ann El Safi presents a bird’s-eye view of violence and unrequited love.

Words Without Borders · Ann El Safi reads "حرية الطيران" ("Freedom of Flight")

Listen to Ann El Safi read "Freedom of Flight" in the original Arabic.

Your days are swallowed by the road, your feet yearn for freedom.

The smell of absence seeps into the carnage around me. She has left her bedroom window open. The wall it is set in stands in ruins. The clock across is still ticking, its glass cracked in three places. The ceiling is gone. Every corner of the room is ravaged. Her beautiful paintings are debris, a scatter of colors covering the orphan chair in the corner. The small clay figurines, which she used to make when she visited her grandmother, have been blown into dust that settles over everything that surrounded them.

The wooden door, carrying the marks of a great fire, lies flat in the middle of the room. Not much else remains of the home that was.

Not much of the garden either, where once the air was filled with the sounds of oud and reed pipe and drum and conversation.

Her photograph lies in a corner on the floor. I must wipe it to see her face, her adorable long braid, the smile that turns my little heart into an oasis humming for her love, the honey-colored eyes that have filled me with joy and with sorrow time and time again.

Her home is in the village at the top of the valley by the low hill where my family and I reside. This is my first visit since the last brutal attack, three months ago. Nobody knows who the raiders were or what they wanted. Nobody knows why those unarmed people were massacred––women, children, old men, and young people in the prime of life. Could anyone take pleasure in such lawlessness and brutality? How could such atrocious crimes go unpunished?

But what do I care about the crazy world of humans? It has always confounded me. The stories I used to hear from my parents and grandparents! War and destruction, then a truce, a peaceful spell, then war again, and on and on and on.

We have always fed on the best of what the road brings us. Young antelopes and deer. Nothing less excites our hunting instinct. My kind do not eat scraps. Wherever we go, we only catch the finest there is.

She is a woman I have watched for many years, and for as many years she has been unaware of me. She used to leave her window open from morning till night. I watched her grow up, become a mother, a widow, an orphan, a grandmother.

My favorite pastime after a long day of hunting was to stand atop a tree or the wall around her house and watch her. My heart tells me she lives still, even if she’s been gone for a long time.

I hear a herd of camels approaching on the road. Up in the sky there’s a decent number of falcons on one side and vultures on the other, all following the peaceful herd. Right now, I’m not in the mood for hunting.

I step carefully in the grass that covers the garden of her house and lift my head toward the rain clouds gathering in the west. The memory of her brings me comfort. Her life started one year after mine. She was widowed at twenty and cared for her daughter until the daughter married. She lost her parents at thirty, then her daughter moved to the city. She stayed in the house with a woman who helped her with the housework and kept her company. Though age only increased her beauty and poise—her charms seem to flow from an endless mysterious well—she refused to remarry.

There came a point in my life, a threshold between being and non-being. I was getting older, facing a choice only I could make: surrender to death, or cling to life and face the hardships of regenerating my body’s force. For her, I chose life.

My travels carry me twenty to thirty kilometers every day, within the village and around it, in search of her face. Going to the city is a reckless and dangerous thing to do, yet that too I have done. I only have my heart to guide me to her.  

I don’t know how much longer I will be alive, but I have befriended the roads and hope that they take me to her. She doesn’t know that I’m looking for her, nor that I have watched her through the years of her life. Yet she is the reason I’m still holding on to mine.

I breathe absolute freedom on land and in the air. The freedom in my body, in my movements, in my thoughts; I express it however I wish and I fly with it however I wish. Still, inside that which beats in my chest lies a secret that shackles my life to a human woman. I, the fearless one, who is feared by all beasts and beings, am helpless before the very thought of her.

A female of the human race has made me feel like I was made for her alone. I know full well that she would not look twice at someone like me. My slender smooth feet, my red-and-orange rimmed eyes, and my soft coat of grey and white feathers, would fill her with nothing but amusement. In her beautiful eyes, I’m like any other falcon.

I don’t tire of waiting. Every day I comb the roads to her house, and the roads that lead into and out of the city. I decipher the clouds and the passing gusts of air. I ask when she will come and receive no answer.

Now I have decided. I will travel to search for her in every place. I will put my life in danger. Why should it matter? What good is there in my life if she might be in danger while I’m not there to help in any way I can?

My role among the nobles of my tribe requires no more than some brief hours at the end of the day. We meet to discuss issues of import to our council and—primarily—to the congregation who has entrusted us with its affairs. My point of view, as an elder, is accepted by opponents and claimants when they come to us to settle their disputes.

Every now and then I inspect my claws. They are as new, growing like they did in my youth.

I rise to the top of a cliff. The sun is scorching. I smell a carcass being devoured by the vultures behind the rock. I watch one of the entrances to the village. A grey dust cloud raised by a herd of sheep envelops the place, while a man, surrounded by five dogs, yells from behind them.

They all stop in the shade of the tree with the massive hollow trunk in which water is stored from the last rainy season. The villagers pour bucketfuls of water into it whenever they can, so there’s always enough to drink for them and their cattle.

Two hours pass. I feel faint and drowsy from the heat. I should return to my nest. A sudden noise snaps me awake. I hear the screams of children: “They have come! They have come to kill us!”

The killing and plundering and pillaging lasts for an hour of human time. Many lives are lost. Weapons pierce the bodies of unarmed victims with noise and fire and leave them lying in their own blood.

I look at my claws. They are merciful in comparison and have never pierced flesh except to fill my hunger. As the brutes start to leave, I know I will follow them out of this wretched village.

Moments ago, they were committing monstrosities and taking lives. Now they’re heading east. I follow them and within two and a half hours, their convoy arrives at its final destination: A green city. I expect them to be received in some way, celebrated or censured for the carnage they have inflicted on unguarded land.

To my disappointment, they just disperse in the roads of the city. I don’t understand if it’s evil or apathy that makes them seem like lambs in the city, more peaceable than the souls they have extinguished that afternoon!

By sunset I arrive at the city’s central square. It holds enough light to dispel the dark heart of the night sky.

I look around me. To my right there’s an orderly park, in the middle of which stands an impressive towering building. I circle it. Its windows are shut. There’s a pond surrounded by tall trees and a lawn so neatly clipped it looks like the green surface of the water.

I know I can’t be safe in the cities of humans. I have to be mindful of where I walk or fly, and when. I spot a rabbit by one of the trees along the pond and quickly snatch it for nourishment before returning to the treetop, hoping that no human glimpsed me.

A few years ago, my mate ascended to heaven. My offspring inhabit worlds different to my own. I consider my beak and my claws and the air around me. Everything feels hollow. It is she who fills the universe with the spirit of beauty. Some may call me idealistic or delusional. But I find joy in the symbolism of her being, it fills me entirely, intoxicates my very existence.

A familiar perfume pulls me toward a group of people gathered in the park, with food and drink and talk of someone’s birthday. My poor aging heart—you have never quit dancing with the phantom of her. She is here. She is the one being celebrated. It’s close to midnight when the celebration ends and she enters the building accompanied by five people, one of whom I take to be her daughter. An hour passes. A window opens. It is her. My enchantress lies in her bed, talking to a boy of about ten who sits across from her. He kisses her forehead and goes out. She shuts the window.

I settle in a tall tree. I close my eyes and only open them in the morning, to find the humans going about their affairs, moving individually and in groups in every direction, some sitting around in laughter and conversation.

The one I take to be her daughter strolls out of the building in a rose-coloured dress, holding hands with the ten-year-old boy and a man of about her age. She resembles her mother, though her mother’s beauty is unmatched.

My enchantress opens the window. She looks out as she untangles her hair with her fingers. Then she sits in front of the mirror to comb, then braid it. With the magnificent braid draping over her left shoulder, she gets up and looks out of the window again. There is a man with her in the room. I hear his laughter and see her smile, then he comes to her. They kiss. He holds her like a precious doll. She is relaxed in his arms. Their bodies move closer to the window and, together, they close it.

The whistle of a distant train reaches me with the question: What am I doing here?

© Ann El Safi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Nariman Youssef. All rights reserved.

Read more from the December 2020 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.