The following is adapted from my book, the City on the Heights (CityontheHeights.com). It is set in northern Iraq, where Maryam has fled with her injured brother Ibrahim.
The empty village on the border of the mountainous regions of Kurdistan had only twelve houses. Tiny shards of those mountains seemed to thrust out of the landscape, while deep wadis sliced through it, created by the seasonal waters that rushed down to the nearby river. The fields themselves were shaped within this landscape – custom-formed to whatever flat terrain could be found between the shards and the crevices. There were no right angles. The houses themselves followed no clear pattern. They looked like they had been placed like children’s blocks, scattered almost randomly at the center of the farms themselves. The two features of the village, the fields and houses seemed to compete with one another in their apparent randomness.
This land was not important or valuable. It was so marginal that some who lived on it were forced to spend their winters in the warmer climates downriver; the harvests weren’t substantial enough to support them year-round. But this was not winter time, and the partially harvested wheat and the leftover food spoke to the urgency of their flight.
It felt odd to seek refuge in a place they had sought refuge from.
But there was no better place for us to go.
The fields weren’t large, but for two orphans, they could be an almost endless resource. So long as we could harvest it.
I set off in search of equipment and before long I came to a large shed. Opening it, I found what we would need. There was no combine there, of course. Nearer to Mosul, it was combines which dominated the harvest. A single machine would cut the wheat, beat the grains off the sheaves and then separate the grains from the chaff. But not here. The fields were large or square or rich enough. Instead, laying in a tool shed, we found scythes. They had long blades at sharp angles to the sticks that held them. You would hold and sweep the sticks in broad motions and the blades at the bottom – parallel to the ground – would mow the grain. These tools would not make the job easy, but they would enable us to rescue to this harvest. We could collect the grain and leave it for them, in safekeeping. We’d eat some – of course. But we’d leave the villagers better off for having granted us their unwilling hospitality.
I chose a scythe and we headed into the fields. There were no child sizes for my brother.
When I came to the first of the crops, I extended the scythe and pulled it along the bottoms of the first rank of the wheat. Some of it fell, but I was stopped long before I’d completed a full sweep. It required an enormous amount of force to pull the scythe through the grain – far more than I’d imagined.
I brought the scythe back and tried again, pulling harder. I almost made a complete sweep before being brought to a reluctant stop. I tested the blade, it was sharp. This was just incredibly difficult work.
So, I made another sweep and finally brought down the first row of the stalks.
I called my brother over and we used some of the grain to tie the rest. It was our very first sheave.
As I’d worked, I’d showed my brother what to do, and he seemed to be following. So, I was surprised when I made another sweep and he just stood there, watching.
“Gather it up,” I said.
He looked at me, pleasantly, and said, “How?”
He had always been a kid who could concentrate. He could always remember. He would remember conversations over months. And yet here he was, forgetting something as simple as tying grain.
“You know how,” I said, “I just showed you.”
He looked at me blankly. Then he said, “What?”
I surprised myself when I shouted, “JUST DO IT!”
I felt like he was being intentionally slow.
But when he looked at me blankly, and then he started to cry, I finally knew that something was fundamentally wrong.
I calmed myself and showed him again. And then I scythed another row of the grain. And then I showed him again. I realized I was doing both jobs, but I hoped, somehow, that he’d learn what he needed to learn. I kept scything, pushing myself as hard as I physically could. My progress was slow. I was harvesting grain, but I was also fighting, helplessly, against whatever was wrong with my wounded brother. The work was hard, and I removed my niqab from on top of my cotton pants and shirt. There were no men nearby.
We took a break in the early afternoon. We went down to the river and filled our water bottles – then chlorinated and drank. I had found some sesame flour that morning, and I mixed it into a paste. We ate it. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was nutritious.
And then we got back to work.
It became almost routine. I would cut, putting all of my meager force into the action. Then I would stop and help Ibrahim gather and tie the grain. We repeated it, again and again. By the end of the day, we had covered an area of 100 feet by 5 feet. The rest of fields, which had looked so manageable earlier in the day, now seemed overwhelming. But we had made progress. We had harvested something. In the place of the even field, there were now little towers made up of the sheaves we had cut and tied.
We slept for the night. In the morning, I decided to try my hand at baking. My mother had never really taught me how to cook. I mixed some of the flour in one of the houses with water and kneaded it as I imagined it ought to be done, and then I baked it in a charcoal-powered stove. The result was somehow both lumpy and flat. But it was food. The effort of baking had taken all morning. In the afternoon, my tired muscles didn’t feel like scything – it seemed like every thrust demanded all the energy I had at that moment. And each pass needed to be followed by another. I’d never done anything so exhausting.
Luckily, there were other things to do, so I headed for the fields once again. This time we were in search of sheaves for threshing.
There was a threshing machine in the far rear of the shed. It was small – and in place of a gas engine on the side, it had a single pedal at its front. It looked like it hadn’t been used in a dozen years.
We wheeled it out of the shed, together. I found oil and some tools and set to fixing the old contraption up. This machine’s mechanical elements were obvious. The rollers would thrash the grain together, a manual fan would gently blow away the chaff, and the grain itself would fall through a grate in the bottom. All of it would be driven by the pedals.
It was already near the end of the day when I had the machine running smoothly. I would push the pedal and everything would move in unison, and then as the crush-blow-collection cycle was completed, the pedal would rise to be pushed again. The motion was almost like biking, one-legged.
I stood in front of the machine, pushed the pedal, and lay the dry grain against the top of the machine. It worked beautifully and quietly. The grains were ripped off the ends of the stalks. The chaff blew out the back of the machine in a gentle cloud and – almost like mechanical magic – the grain itself emerged out of the chute. It was perfect.
Over the next week, we alternated harvesting and gathering dry grain for threshing. My legs, torso and arms began to ripple with newfound strength. It felt both exhausting and physically exhilarating. Sometimes, I could even complete entire sweeps of the scythe in a single pass. Best of all, Ibrahim learned. He learned to gather the fallen stalks and tie them by himself. He figured out how to help me carry it. And he understood how to lay the grains against the rotors of the machine as they were thrashed. He couldn’t plan – multiple steps were beyond him. But, with enough practice, he could repeat.
We were steadily consuming the village’s meager food stocks. While I wanted to keep harvesting, we did need to eat. We needed to make flour out of the grain. This challenge was a very different one from extracting the grain itself. While farms like these would have equipment for threshing and winnowing, grinding was another matter. Grinding was an industrial process. There were only a few silos in the entire region. Farmers would sell their grain to the central government – at inflated prices – and the government would grind it into flour and sell it onwards at a lower, market, rate. It was one way in which Baghdad kept its influence in the north. But given the price of that grain – and the attention given to the subsidies behind that price – I couldn’t imagine individual farmers would keep much of their product for themselves. It wouldn’t have made any sense for them to do their own grinding. My exploration of the kitchens bore that out. We had used flour, but it had all come in bags with the flag proudly displayed on it. The farmers had sold the grain at inflated prices and then bought back the flour at a cheaper price.
Of course, the central government hadn’t always subsidized the farms in this way. I thought that there must be some equipment left from an earlier era – just as the manual thresher had been. I dug through the shed, and then house after house, looking for something to grind the grain with. I needed, somehow, to make flour.
Finally, I found something that might work. It was a small hand mill. It had two stone rollers, both of which were connected to a single wheel with a crank. A hopper rose above them. Crank the wheel, and the stone rollers would rub against each other. Pour grain into the hopper, and it would fall to the point at which the rollers met. Keep cranking the wheel, and the grain would be pulled between the rollers, crushed and transformed into flour. The remarkable thing about the small device – after so much searching – was that it was in plain sight. It was mounted on a wall in the kitchen area of one of the small village houses. It was in excellent condition, and hadn’t been used that long ago; only a small patina of dust had gathered on its surfaces. I wondered why it had been in use, before the villagers had fled. And then I smelled it and I understood. It smelled of sesame. The people who lived here used it to make sesame flour from seeds. It wasn’t intended for wheat.
I was worried it wouldn’t work for wheat, but I had few other options. To my delight, it functioned perfectly. So, Ibrahim and I brought some grain to that kitchen and we ground it. Like every other part of the process, it was hard work. Rather than working my legs or my torso, it worked my arms. Around and around they went, pulling the crank and grinding the flour. After an hour – and after seeing the rough quality of the result – I understood why this was an industrial process.
But we needed to eat. So, Ibrahim slowly poured the grain into the hopper, and I ground the wheel.
As the grain flowed out the side of the small mill, a sudden euphoria came over me. My brother and I had accomplished something tremendous. We had taken grain – standing in the fields. We had harvested and threshed and winnowed it. And now, we were grinding it into flour. It was our flour. We had produced it.
I wanted to complete that process. So, I baked bread, with our flour. It was coarse, and there were a few rocks in it. But it was edible. And it was ours.
We kept on that way, for week after week under the hot sun, harvesting and threshing and, as we needed to, grinding and baking. My body grew strong. I hadn’t been sedentary in Mosul, but short bursts of municipal repair were easy in comparison to weeks of manual harvesting. Now, I was far stronger than I ever had been before. And my endurance had also increased exponentially.
As the weeks progressed, I found yeast, and we learned to pick the rocks out from the grain before baking it. And, just as Ibrahim slowly got better at his tasks, I got better at baking the bread itself. We actually began to look forward to our evening meals. We would sit outside and eat, admiring our progress as more and more of the fields were harvested and processed.
We – just the two of us – were accomplishing something remarkably tangible.
I wasn’t alone in my happiness. Ibrahim was delighted. He couldn’t keep the history of what we’d done straight; he couldn’t keep the whole process in his head. But when he saw the gathered stalks or the buckets of grain or small containers of flour – or even the bread emerging from the oven – he glowed with joy. He was accomplishing something – and, somehow, he knew it.
Every morning, Ibrahim would ask about our parents. And every day, I would give him the same answer, “Ibrahim, they aren’t here.” He always, somehow, seemed satisfied with it. One evening, as we sat there eating our evening meal, I found myself hoping that somehow, our parents could see us. And then I felt that they were. I can’t explain it, but I could feel that they were proud.
I turned to my little brother. “Ibrahim,” I said, “They’re here.”
Just that once, just like before the bomb, he knew what conversation I was continuing.
He smiled, joyfully. “Yes,” he said, “They are.”
Of course, the grain, and even my parents’ pride, weren’t the only development of those weeks in the village. All-h had answered my prayers as we’d run from Mosul. It was when my brother woke up, on the low hills overlooking Kalak, that the nature of those prayers changed. Before, I had prayed for help – out of desperation. I had prayed out of a kind of greed. I had prayed on my schedule and around my desires. But when he woke up, I began to pray to glorify All-h. I prayed on His schedule, and in the way He and His prophet commanded. I prayed to connect to Him and to bring Him into my life. And I prayed because I was overwhelmed by the responsibility of who I needed to be.
I needed His guidance and the reassurance of His path.
Ibrahim and I had grown up secular. Even after the Americans came, my father seemed to cling to a vestige of Baathist philosophy. But the world of Mosul was a religious one. I couldn’t not know the call to prayer, the opening verses of the Koran, and the rituals connected to them. And I couldn’t not know the times of prayer. For my entire life, the muezzins’ loudspeakers had proclaimed the dominance of Islam in the city. At dawn, sunrise, midday, midafternoon, sunset and nightfall, their voices rang against the walls of every neighborhood – proclaiming the times of prayer and dominating those who were not Muslim. I had never paid much attention to those loudspeakers – like many of the less religious, I learned to sleep through them from a very young age. But now, I would rise at dawn each day and recite the Al-Fatiha, and I would close each night with my head bowed to the floor, and the words “Glory be to my Lord, the most High Most Praiseworthy” on my lips.
As we worked, Ibrahim and I lost track of the days of the week. I didn’t know which day was Friday – a day for special prayers. But I knew that the next month was Ramadan. And I knew the new moon would herald that month. When the moon dwindled and finally disappeared, we began our holy month.
We would still work each day. And, despite the practice of Ramadan forbidding it, we would drink what we needed – our level of manual labor made that essential. But we would only eat and drink to satisfaction after sunset. We imitated the cycle in the city of Mosul. Mosul would be dormant during the day. But it would come to life at night with families and even neighborhoods sharing in daily feasts. The joy, in those days, was palpable.
Somehow, alone in the village, the cycle seemed even more beautiful to me. We would create the entire day. And then we would use our creations for our own little Ramadan feasts. Although I didn’t say the prayers over food (because I didn’t know them), the work we poured into those celebratory meals seemed to amplify our understanding of All-h’s glory and His peace. Our labor seemed to be invested in something timeless, in something greater than our lives. All-h created for six days and rested on the seventh. In a way, we were imitating His path – the straight path – and we were drawing closer to Him as a result.
We didn’t manage to harvest all the grain. By the middle of the month of Ramadan, some of the grain had started rotting after having been left on the stalk too long. We cut it anyway, but left the stalks in the fields. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I was worried the fallen stalks might block some natural processes, but I guessed that they were more likely to help the land fallow effectively. I never did find out which was correct.
And then, one afternoon, we were done. The work in the fields was complete, the collection of barrels in the storehouse were full of grain – and we had everything we needed to last us through the year. That evening, we both went down to the river and bathed and washed our clothes. They dried quickly in the sun. I felt strong and accomplished and deeply satisfied, and I could see Ibrahim felt the same. I was still Maryam Al-Mosuli – but I had also discovered something beyond that heritage.
The next morning felt luxurious. I woke up for my prayers. But then, I just wandered around the village. For the first time since we’d left Mosul, my brother didn’t follow me. He was comfortable in the village, and we weren’t working together – not that day. When we’d first come to this place, I’d found a left-behind book in one of the houses. I hadn’t opened it before, but I did now. I had time to read. It was a children’s book: the tales of Ali Baba. The fantastic old stories didn’t fill me with as much excitement as they once had, but somehow I could understand them more. In my own way, I had embarked on a dangerous journey, and All-h had rewarded me with great riches.
In the mid-afternoon, I laid out my prayer rug for the Zuhr prayer. I recited the opening verses. I touched my forehead to the prayer rug. And I breathed deeply. I thought of my brother and I thought of my parents and I thought of how much we had accomplished. I prayed for All-h’s mercy and His forgiveness for my faults and shortcomings. And then I uttered the verse:
Glory be to my Lord, the most High Most Praiseworthy.
I kept my head bowed to the ground, intent on my joy in the service of All-h.
And then, in the distance, I heard engines.
Fear ripped through me.
And then, in a sudden panic, I realized that I didn’t know where Ibrahim had gone.
I wrote this chapter thinking of Parshat Vayikra. In Vayikra, we learn of the cycle of offerings. We bring offerings to Hashem. But they are not simply things we acquire, they are things we have had a hand in creating. We do not bring fruit or wild animals, but only domesticated animals and the product of our labor. We do not bring bread, which has been leavened by bacteria, except on Shavuot. This cycle, or creation and dedication, plays such a critical role in the cycle of divine fulfillment.
We Jews work for six days and rest on the seventh, using the product of our efforts to connect with G-d. To me, Maryam experience captures this sort of fundamental connection to G-d.
Image: CC Image from Ackels007 on Flikr