surah for the birds

by Rana Tahir

Yesterday I heard the birds alight into the blossoming trees of the neighborhood feeding and mating, entwined from the beginning with the rising line of dawn ۝ Though I’ve spent the season planting a garden on the balcony, I have not seen their delicate heads among the bee balms and lupines, nor the lilies, bleeding hearts, or honeysuckle ۝ The aster, pinched back to make room for color, stared upward for them through the day—a loneliness built on echoes ۝

From my phone, the muezzin sounds and I shroud my head in a cloth of threaded petals to recite the words and prostrate in their direction ۝ They keep their distance, singing to each other the joining call, a plea for coupling ۝ They search as I do to fill a longing, a honeyed dark deep in their breasts ۝ I have been close to birds only in cages or dead lined up according to size, round heads tucked into their soft bodies ۝ The chickadee, limp in my palm, stared sideways at me, my reflection a wisp on its new glass eye ۝ Like those birds, delicately preserved, I have been provided for — my garden blooms; inside the apartment there is fresh pita, wet dates, and the blackest olives; my life in bloom; inside there is the weed, it coils tightly around my lungs weaving through my ribs ۝ It was not enough to hold it dead and count its feathers, to hold it dead and feel its stuffed weight, to hold it dead and press its beak into my thumb, to hold it dead mistaking a bird for when it ceased to be a bird ۝ This is just an approximation ۝

I know the truth of birds through sound ۝ I know they live in the trees I can see from my balcony, so close and determined to stay away, hidden in the leaves from me ۝ I love that which leaves me easily, that which I try to draw back ۝ The moon fades into the morning, a faint outline in the sky as azure gives way to periwinkle ۝ Still they sing, still I am alone ۝ I always pray alone, when I do pray which is not often anymore ۝ The moves are mechanical, the words I know only through translation—if I do not concentrate, the raka’as will blend together, I will skip whole lines of a surah ۝ In sajdah, I press my forehead to the ground, touching it from the bridge of my nose to the tip in one straight line and sing the call, a plea for closeness ۝ I have never prayed properly, each year I learn something more I was missing: how my toes should line up on the prayer mat, how to say How perfect is my Lord, the highest, when I used to say, God, how perfect you are, please come to me, mistaking the words for their roots ۝

In dua, I beg ۝ There is no other way to say this ۝ When I was six, I knelt next to the body of a dead sparrow on the playground, and thought this might be the only chance I’ll ever have to hold what had never been caged ۝ The religion teacher said to keep my distance from something unclean ۝ I cannot say what killed it—no blood, no cut, no broken wing—only that it died alone, its smooth eye reflecting clouds and my shadow against them, ants in neat lines to gather what was left ۝ Someone picked up the body and threw it away ۝ Someone picked up my faith and threw it away ۝

Did He not say He would keep some of us blind, did He not say some would try to find their way only to be led further astray? ۝ I turn to each shoulder in salaam and still no creature draws near, no wings flutter in the corners of my sight ۝ The world still with the colored blue, still with this chirping homily, still with this distance ۝ After the sparrow, I told my father I was afraid to die and he told me to go to bed ۝ I begged and he yelled at me confirming what I knew to be true ۝ If the sparrow and I are the same, what do I make of the flowers in my garden, the scent of jasmine reminding me of all the homes I have left? ۝ They wait for rain and sun and unfurl themselves ۝ I put the prayer mat and the cloth my grandmother embroidered away, provide tap water for my garden, cast off their dead leaves to make room for new growth ۝ The birds stay in their trees out of reach from my unclean hands ۝ In small dishes I leave gifts for them, flesh of the fruit and its seeds, tangles of my hair for nesting ۝

Rana Tahir is an author and educator in Portland, OR. She is the current treasurer for the Oregon Poetry Association, a Kundiman Fellow, and a member of the Radius of Arab-American Writers, RAWI. In addition to her two books, including a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, her work has appeared in several publications. See more: