The Bohemian and The Bulbul: Journeys in the Middle East (and further east), by Mira Baz

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Posted on March 18, 2012 - by

How do you pack your life into a suitcase?

“If I know a song of Africa,
of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,
of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,
does Africa know a song of me?”

-Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

How do you pack your life into a suitcase?

One year ago, I left Yemen. It was long overdue.

While I was on the plane, scores of Yemenis lost their lives in what was to be the bloodiest and most tragic day so far since the beginning of their uprising of 2011. The instability had been building up countrywide. Where a few weeks earlier my life had permanence, now instead was replaced by dug-up memories of civil unrest that I knew all too well, and did not want an encore.

It was long overdue, but I still wasn’t ready to leave.

The house and garden had quickly become my home, where in the mornings I fed my regular guests the Bulbuls and Serins, and found serenity when, through watching them, I meditated on existence, on cycles, on life, on everything and nothingness. Out there was Yemen. Within the garden walls, and all the walls, was me, inside my head.

How do you pack your life into a suitcase? How do you sift through every piece of your life and decide which memories to discard and which to keep?

In this corner were the stored decorations from the last Christmas dinner. And over here in this spot was the scattered dust from when I stood on the roof and surveyed sunset after surreal sunset in the Sanaa sky. I’d look from up here at the street below to see, near where the boisterous neighborhood kids played, the gaping hole in the asphalt, a reminder of the incident. (One day that mark, too, will be paved over.) This view offered me perspective, so that sights seen day after day did not grow too familiar, and, seen from above, acquired new meaning. A traveler’s worst enemy is familiarity. But nothing is more difficult than leaving.

And what of all the faces of those near and far that I will never encounter again? If I visited them, would I recognize the spaces where I had once been? Would they, revisited, recognize me?

All around me were shadows. They walked alongside, while I picked up piece after piece. They clung to me. Their existence depended on me staying. Had I not depended on them so often? They were everywhere, in every detail and shades of detail. As I walked the entire city walked with me, the old city. The past lay heavy on the buildings and in between the spaces. The future has no place here. Final mementos, like grasping at shadows, like a last breath. No time for souvenirs, no time for remembrance. The city at last let me go.

Gone like a dream. Did it all happen? Who has been feeding the birds?

When it was all over, the house was nothing but walls; the garden, never mine. What was left of my life was now in suitcases on the floor, the shadows in storage boxes. I was a newborn who had just been pushed out of the womb; naked, interrupted – but hopeful.

Sometimes, wherever I am, Sanaa quietly walks alongside me. Sometimes.

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