Askuni-Askuni / Dafna Feldman
In Bedouin culture, it is believed that after the death of a murdered man, a strange bird called the Hama comes out of the man’s head, after the burial and shouts over the grave: “Askuni – Askuni” revenge me, revenge me!
In the morning, hikers found Asmahan in the gorge at the bottom of the large cliff. An army helicopter was called to rescue her. Towards noon Mother noticed that Asmahan had not returned from school and only after midnight did Th'aher, his father and his uncle, Fadi set out to fetch her.
They drove fast so they could bring back Ismail’s minibus before 4AM. That's when he picks up workers and drives them to work. Asmahan lay in a black bag between the benches. The bag bounced and moved during the turns. This frightened Th'aher and he moved and sat on the back bench. The policeman who met them at the Abu Kabir morgue informed them that in light of the forensics at the site, the death of the deceased was declared a suicide and the case is closed. He handed uncle Fadi a transparent plastic bag containing a hijab and a pink flip-flop, which they found at the edge of the cliff. In Th'aher's hands he placed a white envelope after noticing that he was the only one who could read Hebrew. He gestured and patted him on his shoulder after he told him that he was an 11th grader. “Stay in school” he said “Do something with yourself”. Th'aher was to confused and sad to respond.
Uncle Fadi was driving the minibus and dad was sitting next to him, wiping his runny nose and tears into his keffiyeh all the way to Umm Butain. In the small light above the back bench, Th'aher opened the envelope. On the signed pages of the Abu Kabir Department of Forensic Medicine was written:
“Based on the autopsy findings in the body ____ it is my opinion that her death was caused by severe damage to the central nervous system. The traumatic damage found in the brain stem indicates that consciousness was lost immediately. In addition the numerous broken bones and trauma to internal organs with little internal hemorrhaging in internal cavities it can be deduced that her death was caused shortly after the trauma was caused. The totality of the trauma and fracturing concurs with trauma from blunt objects with great relative force and coincides with the circumstances given (fall from a height)”. There was another note that Th'aher had to read several times to understand: “Tears were observed in the posterior fourchette at the lower junction of the labia and a suspicious substance was sampled as sperm cells in the vaginal mucosa.” He put the page in the envelope and shoved it into an inside pocket of his coat. Asmahan was only 11 years old.
Mother found no solace in the dozens of visitors who came to the women's tent and sat, detached and indifferent to the mourning cries of the mourner who was brought from the nearby village of Bir Hadaj. Aunt Instasar took matters into her own hands and implored the little brothers to hurry up and distribute the trays of dates and trays of kahwa mara (bitter coffee) at the men's tent. Th'aher sat most of the day on a mattress between dad and uncle Fadi. Only in the late afternoon, and only after the 'Tzalah' (prayer) was he allowed to go out and stretch his aching body from the long sitting.
Ever since he was little he had been running away to the big cliff. He loved watching the last rays of light of the setting sun. How they move between the crevices and folds of the mountains and give way to darkness. Sometimes Asmahan would manage to dodge the house chores of and join him. She would press against his slender body, suck her right thumb, and with the her left palm gather a handful of grains of sand and scatter them to the wind in the fading sunlight. “You see?” smiling with sparkling eyes “gold powder”! Th'aher knew how rare were the moments when she could just be a kid, and swore he would forever protect his little sister. The one who came, Al-Hamdu-Alallah, after four sons, and immediately captured his heart.
Th'aher stood at the end of the large cliff, and like a possessed demon, began to descend from the cliff quickly, clutching the nooks in his hands and feet, rolling stones, determined to find the other flip-flop. After a few meters he found it perched in a cavernous opening of a hyrax. He collapsed and hugged the flip-flop. And for the first time since the trip to Abu Kabir he dared to burst into tears over his beloved sister Asmahan.
At night she came to him in a dream. She lay, as was the custom of the place, on her right side, wrapped in five layers of Akphan (shrouds). The Hama sat on her head and shouted “Askuni-Askuni, Askuni-Askuni.” Th'aher woke up drenched in cold sweat. He reached under the mattress, where he hid the pink flip flop and the report from Abu Kabir. He opened it and read it: “Tears were observed in the posterior fourchette at the lower junction of the labia and a suspicious substance was sampled as sperm cells in the vaginal mucosa.” He repeatedly read it again and again, and again.
At the six-year Ort regional school in Bir Hadaj, rumors spread over the circumstances that led to the death of the sixth grader, Asmahan Abu Zakut,. The majority revolved around a twelfth-grade student, Fa'athi Al-'Azizma. Rumor had it that Asmahan fancied him, but he did not care to her. Disappointed and heartbroken, she plunged to her death. At the end of the three days of mourning, Th'aher was obliged, despite his objections, to return to class. In his mind the vicious whispers mingled with the screams of the Hama. He sat in class, pretending to listen. During class breaks, he continued to stay in the classroom to avoid the slanderers, the consolers and the indifferent.
“Allah Yerachmu. Salamat Rasak” (God have mercy – be healthy for me) a voice murmured.
Th'aher raised his head and for a moment their eyes met. Ayisha hurried away. Fa'athi, her brother, did not express condolences and continued to strut around school with a smug smile on his face, apathetic to the rumors that linked him to her death.
The wrath of Al-Thar permeates like the venom of a yellow scorpion. It begins in the nervous system, from where it seeps into the cardiovascular and blood systems. It begins with difficulty breathing, suffocation, and restlessness. Then comes the paralysis. The venom of the Al-Thar dripped in Th'aher, leaving him helpless to the screams of the Hama. In great distress, he decided to turn to Sheikh Abu Nihad whom he had known since childhood and who was a regular guest at their home.
The sheikh's house was an extension of the mosque built in the center of the village. It was, like most of the village houses, a hut with a roof made of solar panels. On one side it rests on the wall of the mosque, and on the other side is an impressive vine arbor that shields a seating area laden with mattresses. In it the sheikh received those who sought his blessing or advice.
Abu Nihad welcomed him with open arms and invited him to sit down. Th'aher sat down and the sheikh took his hands and said:
"Ina lila veina ilayhe Ra'jeun" – (We are in the hand of God and to him we return in our end).
One of his wives approached with a tray of refreshments for the guest. Recognizing Th'aher, she hastened to say, “Allah Yerachmu. Salamat Rasak”
Th'aher shook his head in gratitude and she hurried back into the house.
Abu Nihad took out a pack of “Gauloises”and offered Th'aher a cigarette but he declined. The Sheikh lit a cigarette for himself and they both silently drank the bitter sweet coffee.
"So tell me, how can I help you?"
Th'aher took the coroner's report out of his shirt. He handed it to the Sheikh and let him read. When he had finished reading, he took a long drag from his cigarette, looked up from the page and gave Th'aher a serious look.
"What are you asking for Th'aher?"
Th'aher pointed to the last line, making sure the Sheikh had read it. Abu Nihad nodded.
"So what are you asking for?"
Abu Nihad immediately got up and shoved the report into Th'aher's hands
“Il mut velah il dul. Il mut vela il daliyeh” (death is better than humiliation) declared
“Your sister chose to die and not desecrate the honor of the family. Do you understand? No al-Thar and no nothing!Understand”?
Th'aher was surprised by the Sheikh's angry reaction. He now realized that rumors of a connection between her and Fa'athi had reached him as well and Asmahan's death was worthy, sacred and honorable. Tears of pain and rage escaped his eyes. He tried his best to stop the crying but to no avail.
"Every night the Hama appears to me in a dream and shouts: Ascuni, Ascuni” She does not leave me” he said crying. “I must avenge her death, please tell me it's okay”
The Sheikh rose in rage, knocking over the coffee pot on his way. Its boiling contents spilled on the carpet which quickly absorbed the dark liquid.
"Neither Thar nor Hama in Islam" (there is no bird and no Hama in Islam) he screamed as he was flailing his arms, “Thus said our blessed Prophet Muhamed”. Th'aher looked into his eyes and he noticed fear. The Sheik feared the Al Azizma clan. They were the dominant clan in Bir Hadaj. Al-Th'ar between the Abu Zakut clan from Umm Butain and the Al Azizma clan from Bir Hadaj will shatter the peace that the elders have maintained for over 40 years. Except for a few incidents, the clans have managed to maintain a serene coexistence alongside each other. Abu Nihad, the Sheik, did not intend to let the death of an 11-year-old girl destroy that balance. Th'ahers blood boiled. He rose from his place and stood in the center of the dark stain formed on the carpet.
“I will not take anyone's life,” he said in a decisive tone. Perhaps to reassure the Sheikh, perhaps to assure himself aloud that he would not kill anyone. Then he turned and walked outside the arbor.
"Asmahan has maintained the dignity of the family," Sheikh Abu Nihad called after him.
Th'aher turned and looked at him with bloodshot eyes.
"El-Ein in El-Ein and El-Sin in El-Sin." ( An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth)
In the dead of night, Th'aher walked up the hills leading from Umm Bhutin to Bir Hadaj. He carried with him a bottle of water and the knife his father used by to slaughter sheep. He knew the house of the Al-'Azizma family. Fa'athi's mother was a pediatric nurse in the village and more than once he accompanied his mother with a child who had diarrhea or suddenly got a fever in the middle of the night. His shirt was drenched in sweat, and his rapid heartbeat was the only sound he heard in the darkness of the desert. When he got to the house, he quietly moved the hut hinges straight to the kids' bedroom. In the orange burning light scattered by the oil stove in the center of the room, he noticed Ayisha in bed at the end of the room. Apart from her there were three more cribs scattered along to the walls. Th'aher approached her. The pounding of the heartbeat sounded so loud in his head that he feared it would wake the occupants of the house. The thought of having to do what he needed to do was frightening and excited him alike and he felt his groin area waking up towards revenge on his sister. He knew that he was obliged, according to tradition, to wake her. He leaned over her, covered her mouth with the palm of his hand and pressed the knife to her neck. Ayisha woke up in a panic and looked at him with a terrified look.
"Shhhhhhhh" he whispered, pressing the knife blade to her neck. “If you keep quiet I'll let you say the 'Shahada'. But if you try to shout …” he added pressure to her neck. Ayisha nodded and tears began to flow from her eyes. Th'aher removed the blanket and revealed her body which was tucked into a yellow nightgown, several sizes larger than her slender body. Ayisha looked at him with horror and terrified eyes, like an animal in a trap, but kept quiet and did not try to resist. Th'aher lifted her nightgown and exposed her thighs, then spread her legs and pulled off her panties. Her pubic area was visible to him, adorned with thin, dark pubic hair buds. For a moment he wondered if that was what his sister's looked like, but hurried to get rid of that thought and unbuttoned his pants. His penis burned and stood like a pillar of fire.
“Start” he commanded in a whisper.
Ayisha began to recite the verses in a trembling voice.
“Ashhadu an la ilaha illa 'llah "Lā ʾIlāha ʾIllā Allah, Muḥammadun Rasūl Allah” (I testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah)
“Again. Say it again”
“Ashhadu an la ilaha… please Th'aher,” Ayisha pleaded.
“Continue” he felt his hand, that was holding the handle of the knife, tremble and the fire burning in his limb fade.
“Allah, Muḥammadun Rasūl Allah…” she continued, staring at him all the time.
“Again, say it again” he rebuked her more firmly, hoping that his masculinity be awakened if only he would be more angry. But when she began to mumble the verses for the third time, he realized that nothing was from the truth. The knife fell out of his hand, and when she reached the words 'Rasulul Allah', he felt his limb contract and his body frozen. Th'aher got up, and hurried to cover her thighs with a blanket. A gut feeling rose in him and he put a hand over his mouth and hurried out of the opening through which he entered. When he left, he ran away from the Azizma family's house, away from Bir HaDaj. And to the darkness of the mountains. Th'aher stopped, bent over and vomited his guts. To his dismay, he realized the absence of his fathers slaughter knife and burst into tears. That night the howls of the jackals mingled with the moans and sobs of a man who realized that his fate is doomed.
“The arab mythology speaks of a sand bird, the Phoenix, that lives in the desert and once in a thousand years prepares' creating for itself a nest made of myrrh and cinnamon branches, and burns itself. From the ashes it is re-created and therefore symbolizes immortality."
Th'aher sat on the cliff of his and Asmahan's, hugging his feet and watching the first rays of the sun climb between the crevices and dark folds of the mountains, giving way to the fresh soft light of dawn. The time has come for the 'Al-Fajr' (morning prayer) and Th'aher did the custom of purifying and cleansing when there is no water. He dipped and rubbed his hands in the deep sand and knelt on his knees facing east.
A black plastic bag landed next to him. Th'aher rose in panic. Ayisha stood there at a safe distance, hesitant to approach. He opened the bag, inside which was his fathers knife, the one used to slaughter sheep. Th'aher shook his head at her in gratitude, placed the bag away from him and motioned for her to come closer. Ayisha, wearing a hijab, walked hesitantly in her pink flip-flops. She sat down next to him and began to draw lines in the sand. They sat in silence for a few minutes watching the rising sun. Th'aher collected a handful of grains of sand in his hand and brought it closer to Ayisha.
“Do you know what this is?”
No, Ayisha nodded
“It's golden sand” he smiled and blew on the grains of sand that flew through the air and fell down the cliff. Ayisha giggled shyly
An easterly wind blew, carrying with it the scents of myrrh and cinnamon that enveloped and filled them with excitement. They stared, enchanted, at the glowing orange and yellow ball approaching them.
“Phoenix” cried Th'aher enthusiastically as they watched the giant bird, passing over them in a mighty flap of wings.
“Alta” (mistake) said Ayisha with shining eyes “Listen closely”.
Above them were the loud cries of the 'Hama'.Hadi Hadi -, Hadi – Hadi (it is over – it is over)