Five Messenger Pigeons

[translated fiction]

Noah sent a pigeon and felt no dissatisfaction,
then she returned to him with good premonition.
“I’ll trust her with messages to my beloved,
and oh, for the letters that a bird’s plumes guide!”
— Ibn Hazm, The Ring of the Dove

Jassim had put a great deal of effort into making his pigeon tower stand out from the dozens of others that had sprung up on the neighboring houses. He visualized his pigeons returning from what he called the “divine unseen” after sailing across thousands of miles of sky. He recollected the Andalusian poet Ibn Hazm’s saying: “I knew well which of the pigeons was best-behaved before I tied a message to its wings.” Soon after Jassim turned ninety, he welcomed his last carrier pigeon and passed on. However, his towering dovecote had grown taller than all the others around it.

One day, before Jassim’s death, Warqa, the dearest of his pigeons, landed above the cote and entered through the tower’s upper entrance, there in the Ashar district in southern Iraq.

It was a bit after three in the afternoon when Jassim glimpsed the two wings beating slowly and descending. It was her, Warqa, returning home three years after she had set out on her journey.

Warqa landed atop the conical tower and moved forward to settle between his hands. With expert fingers, he unfastened the letter that had been tied around one of her legs and read the following:

From the pen of a clerk retiring in the Valley of Birds, beside the highest mountain beyond the river—a clerk who wrote down what was in store for him.

Jassim looked thoughtfully upon the message and looked away. He died soon after.

Jassim realized, before passing, that Warqa’s outgoing message had held clues about his home, which sat high above the rooftops in this shabby building in Ashar. He had secluded himself and his five messenger pigeons in a corner of that building’s roof to raise them with patience, love, and skill.

From the broad range of pigeon varieties, the carriers transported sealed messages across vast distances and to faraway valleys in order to secretly deliver the undisclosed contents and return with answers. Warqa had been the last messenger to depart from Jassim’s tower, after his other four pigeons had headed out on their journeys. They had all returned except Warqa, who came back much later than expected, the dates having been coded into the record of distant messaging that he kept.

Jassim’s carriers relayed letters from mysterious people he had never met. Yet these people replied to his messages only intermittently. His first messenger pigeon, The Baghdadiyah, had set out on her journey on the morning of August 30, 1990. She carried an introductory message that included “obsessions” that swirled around the building where he lived and “horrifying wings swishing aimlessly at every nightfall.”

As Jassim released his fourth pigeon on the first day of November 1990, he had already exhausted the list of his coded obsessions, and the hair on his head flew away with the feathers of his travelling pigeons.

When it was time to send out the most precious of his charges, Warqa, in mid-January 1991, the sky beckoned by ushering in a strong wind. Jassim’s adored Warqa began her flight with only one wish affixed to her leg: “My happiness resides in the return of my messenger before the door to my house is latched.”
Jassim said that his second pigeon, The Roumieh, took flight only days after his first, while the third, The Juwayriyah, followed the pair a month later. The two returned along with the fourth messenger, The Habashiyah, exactly as scheduled by the end of that year.

However, the fifth one, Warqa, lost her way on the return trip to the tower. The lay of the land established in her head was completely shattered, her magnetic compass decalibrated. Loud noises diverted her to the Labyrinth Valley.

By the time Warqa returned three years later, Jassim had already spent his remaining energy on dispatching even more messages. Some of them expressed his concerns that “the wings would wander off forever, and the birds of a feather would cease to flock together.” He also mused that his “tamed pigeons might encounter death in the sky’s labyrinths.”

The four pigeons returned with messages bearing locations and times—similar to the locations and times that Jassim had left in his initial messages. They echoed with the strangest scripts, written by those who corresponded across and through space, and with the aloofness of travel.

One such script mentioned a military garrison from which aid and provision had been discontinued. Another pigeon returned with the supplications of a prisoner who wished for shrubs to grow at the center of a small lit-up space inside his cell. Another message bore a resemblance to what the Indian poet Kālidāsa had sent from his exile atop a cloud, in which he had informed his wife how much he yearned for her.

But it was the note attached to the leg of the fourth pigeon, The Habashiyah, that was truly bizarre. It was one of the love stories recounted by Ibn Hazm in his The Ring of the Dove where he also describes the songs of grove pigeons that blanket the ears of listeners.

In their cooing and repetitive melody lies the art of love that only sensitive souls and smitten hearts can comprehend.

But even eerier was a message Warqa carried on her leg as she crossed the wild vales in her delivery mission to Jassim. He seized the scroll of Warqa’s message tightly. This was how his grandchildren found him, a lifeless body propped up against the pigeon tower that overlooked nearby buildings.

The questions to which Jassim sought answers, to which he had entrusted Warqa’s flight, were about the bewilderment of the Simurgh, the mythical thirty birds in Persian literature. After the Simurgh journeyed up the mountain to meet their god, puzzlingly, they settled on the rocks.

“Was their bafflement a symbol of the perfection of their pilgrimage to the top of the mountain and reaching their God? Or was it a sign of further straying and wandering away? And are ninety years in age different from the number ninety?”

After long travels, Warqa returned with a reply of only a single phrase. It was even stranger than the message the Imam al-Shāfi’s pigeon had once brought him.

“If the ant were a captive in the bottom of a well, how would it climb up to the heights where the Simurgh settled?”

[original text]

خمس حَمامات

جاء في باب “السفير” من كتاب “طوق الحمامة”: “وإنّي لأعرِف مَن كانت بينهما حمامةٌ مؤدَّبة، ويُعقَد الكتابُ في جناحها”. ثم أنشد ابن حزم:
“تخيَّرها نوحٌ فما خاب ظنُّــــه لديها وجاءت نحوه بالبشائرِ
سأودِعها كُتْبي إليكِ فهاكِها رسائلَ تُهدى في قوادمِ طائرِ
ومن باب “كتمان السرّ” إنشاد “حَمامِ الأيك” الذي يستعجِم على الأسماع، وفي نواحها وترجيع صوتها يكمن فنُّ الحبّ الذي لا يُتقِنه إلا ذو حسّ رهيف ولبّ شغوف. وغير ذلك كثير في الوصف والتشبيه. إلا أنّ لنا في اختيار الحَمام غايات بِعاد، نخصُّ منها الزاجلَ المسافر برسائل مُستغلَقة تسافر عبر الأبعاد والأودية لتصِلَ السرَّ بالسرّ، والسؤالَ بالجواب، وهذا أقربُ لمنطق الفلسفة من شعور العاطفة، وإذخار الحكمة من سفور الرغبة. وفي كتب “الطير” من ذلك كثير أيضاً.


حاول جاسم الساير تمييز شكل برج طيوره من عشرات الأبراج المنتصبة فوق البيوت المحيطة، وتصوّر حَماماته قادمةً من حُجُب الغيب، بعد سفرهنّ آلاف الأميال. بلغ الساير التسعين، ومات حال استقباله حمامة الزاجل الأخيرة. تطاولَ برجُهُ على ما حوله من أبراج، وهبطت إليه الحمامةُ “ورقاء” وحطّت في ثقب البرج المنصوب أعلى بناية في العشار.
رأى بعد زوال الظهيرة (الساعة الثالثة زوالية) جناحين يهبطان على مهل، كانت “الورقاء” قد عادت بعد ثلاث سنوات من إطلاقها، وحطّت على قمة البرج المخروطي، قبل أن تدرُج وتمثُل بين يديه. فكّ بأصابع متمرّسة الرسالةَ المعقودة برجلٍ من رجليها وقرأ محتواها: قلمُ نسّاخ عاكفٍ في وادي الطير بأعلى جبلٍ وراء النهر خطَّ ما كان بانتظاره. تأمّلَ كتابة الرسالة ثم هوى ببصرهِ وغاب عن الدنيا.
تذكّر جاسم الساير، قبل الغياب، أنّه ضمّن رسالة الحمامة “الورقاء” معلومات عن موقعه المتعالي على السطوح، في بنايةٍ خرِبة بالعشار، انتبذَ فيها ركناً مع برج حمامات الزاجل التي ربّاها بأناة وحبّ ودربة. كانت آخر زاجل في برجه قد أعقبت سفرَ الحمامات الأربع، عُدنَ جميعهنّ إلا هذه التي جاءت متأخرة عن موعدها المرقوم في سجل الإرسال البعيد.
خمسُ حماماتٍ نقلت اليه رسائلَ غامضة من أشخاص لا يعرفهم، أجابوا على رسائله في مُدَدٍ زمنية متباعدة. كانت الزاجل الأولى “البغدادية” قد ارتحلت في صبيحة الثلاثين من آب ١٩٩٠ برسالة التعريف المتضمنة “وساوس” تحيط ببنايته و”أجنحة مرعبة تتخاطف حولها على غير هدى كلما استجنّ الليل”. ومع إطلاق حمامته الرابعة في اليوم الأول من تشرين الثاني ١٩٩٠ كان قد استنفد قائمة وساوسه المشفَّرة وتطايرت شعرات رأسه مع الريشات المسافرات. حتى إذا حان إطلاق أعزّ ربيباته “الورقاء” في الخامس عشر من كانون الثاني ١٩٩١ كانت السماء قد آذنتْ بريح عاتية. طارت حمامته العزيزة وفي ساقها أمنية ملفوفة واحدة: “سعادتي أن يعود زاجلي قبل تزليج باب بيتي”.
يذكر الساير أنّ حمامته الثانية “الرومية” طارت بعد الأولى بأيام، والثالثة “جويريّة” بشهر، وعُدنَ مع الرابعة “الحبشية” في أزمنتهن مع انتهاء العام، لكن الخامسة ضلّت الطريق الى برجها، وقد أصاب التدمير الشامل خريطة الأرض في رأسها وعطّل بوصلتَها المغناطيسية، فقادتها الأصوات الصاخبة إلى وادي التيه. فلما وصلت بعد ثلاث سنين من موعدها، كان جاسم الساير قد أنفق حشاشةَ رسائلِه، ومنها ما حمل مخاوف أن “تتيه الأجنحة ولا تقع الطيور على أشكالها”. أو: “قد يلقى حَمام البيت حِمام المتاهات”.
عادت الحمامات الأربع بما يناظر رسائله وتعريفات مكانه ووقته، وعلى أغرب ما يبثّه المتراسلون عبر المسافة ووحشة الطريق. فمِن الأجوبة ما يدلّ على مكان حامية عسكرية انقطع عنها المَدَد والتموين، وعادت حمامة بمناجاة سجين يترقب الأعشاش أن تُبنى بجوف كوّة الضوء في زنزانته. ومنها شبيه بما أرسله الشاعر الهندي “كاليطاسا” من منفاه مع غيمة تبلّغ زوجته باشتياقه. ولعل الجواب المحمول بساق الحمامة الرابعة “الحبشية” كان غريباً، إذ حملتْ واحدة من قصص الحبّ المذكورة في كتاب “طوق الحمامة” لابن حزم الأندلسي. بيد أنّ الأغرب منها جميعاً ما حملته “الورقاء” في رِجلها وقطعت الأودية الموحشة لإيصاله إلى جاسم الساير. قبضَ الساير على ملفوفة الحمامة وأصرّها بيده، وعلى هذا الوضع وجده أحفاده، جثة هامدة إلى جوار برج زاجله المرتفع على البنايات.
كان السؤال الذي طلب الساير جواباً له قد حملته الورقاء متضمناً حيرة الطيور الثلاثين المنعكسة في مرآة السَّيمُرغ الكليّة: “أهو تمام الوصول، أم هو انعكاس التيه والضلال؟”. و”هل التسعون غير التسعين عدداً؟”.
بعد سفر طويل، لم تأتِ ورقاءُ الساير بغير عبارة جوابية أشدّ غرابة من ورقاء الشافعي: “إذا كانت النملة أسيرةً في قعر البئر،

Translator’s Statement

I prefer to use a multi-method approach in translating literary texts. Such a flexible method opens up more opportunities for meaning-making and for rendering the translated text from the original. I avoid domestication as a translation method for literary texts because it hinders the reader from experiencing other subjectivities. I believe ultimately that the practice of domestication distances cultures from one another rather than brings them closer together.

In this translation, I have closely followed the original Arabic-language nuances and have attempted as much as possible to retain cultural, linguistic, and metalinguistic associations. My objective is to give the reader the opportunity to enjoy the experience of the original story. In keeping with a non-domestication strategy, I tend to also follow stylistic approaches, in the hope that the translation will bring out cultural differences in a harmonious way.

Thus, the mystical, cultural, and metalinguistic elements in “five pigeons” are intentionally preserved in the “Five Messenger Pigeons.” I have provided enough explications to offer the reader sufficient background information for an authentic response during the reading process. Through my translation strategies and methods, I have striven to maintain the high literariness of the original text.

In the following, I share examples where I stopped and pondered, as a cultural mediator, about the most effective method for negotiating some of the translation challenges.

1. Title
I added a layer to the title of the original story. The original title is khamsu hamamat (five pigeons), which I changed to “Five Messenger Pigeons.” This small change increases the translated story’s chances of “crossing borders.” Beyond the mystical and metalinguistic associations implied by the number “five,” “messenger” subtly signifies deep exotic traditions in Islamic theology, particularly those followed in Sufi practices.

2. Content adjustment
Immediately above the original text is a short section titled “Note” where the author offers a cultural context that he deems necessary to draw associations between the present text and the ancient past. The “Note” introduces to the reader Ibn Hazm’s The Ring of the Dove, a treatise on love and the practice of sending secret messages on the legs of carrier pigeons. Since this section falls outside the main story (Jassim’s story), in consultation with the author, I decided not to retain the same structure in the translation. Instead, I carefully introduced the content of “Note” into the body of the story as explications and additions. For example, Ibn Hazm’s lines of verse before the story begins in the translation is sourced from this section.

3. Quotations
The quoted content (the verse and prose quotations) comes from the two chapters: “The Ambassador” and “Keeping a Secret” in Ibn Hazm’s The Ring of the Dove (ca. 1022, trans. by A. R. Nykl in 1931).

4. References
Prominent in the story are references to fairylike creatures from Persian mythology, a poet from India’s ancient mythology, and to a Sufi figure from the Islamic tradition. In the translation, I have hinted at the sophisticated meanings of these references without directly giving the connotations. I believe this helps maintain the reader’s interest in the story and cultural background.

5. Breaking up the story events into smaller sections
The original version presents the plot in long sections for an Arabic-language reader. Such long paragraphs are most likely unappealing to English-language readers. Therefore, they have been broken down into shorter paragraphs in the translation.

The decision where to break paragraphs was guided by the goal to increase dramatic effects by focusing the reader’s attention on what is likely to follow.

Author Headshot

Muhammad Khudayyir is an Iraqi storywriter, novelist, and literary critic. Khudayyir was born in the southern city of Basra in 1942, and he worked there for thirty years as a primary school teacher. He is best-known for The Black Kingdom (1972), Fy Dārājāt khāmsā wā ārbā’yin Mi’āwi (Under 45 Degrees Celsius, 1978), Ru’ya Khārif (Autumn Vision, 1995), Tāḥnyṭ (Mummification, 1998), Hādā’iq āl Wijūh (Gardens of Faces, 2009), Basrayatha (1994), Aḥlām Bāṣūrā (Dreams of Basora, 2016), and Ma Yūmsek wa ma la Yūmsek (What can be Held and What cannot be Held, 2017). His novels include Kūrrāsāt Kānun (January’s Sketchbook, 2001) and Ṣādā Ṣārkhā (Echo of a Scream, 2016). His books on literary criticism, Āl Ḥikāyā Al Jādydā (The New Tale, 1995) and Āl Sārd wāl Kitāb (The Narrative and the Book, 2010) have widely influenced the Iraqi narrative studies. His Tāryikh Zūqāq (History of an Alley, 2020) celebrates the Iraqi novel as it approaches its centennial anniversary. Khudayyir’s short story collections have been translated into French, English, and Spanish. In 2004, Khudayyir was granted the prestigious Sultan Oweiss Award for his lifetime literary achievements.

Author headshot

Zeena Faulk is an Iraqi-American literary translator and a PhD candidate in Translation Studies at the University of Warwick. Her translations have appeared in Banipal, ArabLit Quarterly, among others. Her previous work includes managing editor positions with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic. She has also worked as an on-site interpreter for criminal courts and medical clinics throughout the United States.