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"Picking and Pecking"
Long ago, the Persian Empire
had cast itself over the Middle East and
covered cultures of as many colors as Joseph's coat.
The Jews had been there from the beginning,
and those who would become Christians,
and those who would become Muslims,
and many others besides --
for it had never been wholly a restful place,
never all one thing to anybody alone,
always touched by skittering wind
and the dry scrape of sand
over lovely landscapes.
Birds there were in the Fertile Crescent,
flocking along the rich riverbanks
called Tigrā and Ufrātu
by the Persians
and over in Egypt
the long black land of the Nile
with the delicate, spreading fan of its delta.
When the Fledging came,
history unfurled itself in feathers:
along with the glossy ibis of the Cohanim
and the pallid swift of the common Jews
came the brown wings and gold-tipped tail
of the Persian wheatear, soaring far and wide
over all that had once lain within that great empire
and the pale brown wings of the Egyptian goose
shared between Jews and Egyptians alike
in memory of when they lived together
and the pink-tinted tan of the Sinai rosefinch
shared between Jews and Bedouins
in the shadow of a lost mountain
and most damning of all, the Palestine sunbird
shared between Jews and Palestinians
stripping away false divisions.
There were eagles, too,
or at least there had been --
but the lesser spotted eagle of Hungary
and the eastern imperial eagle of Austria
and especially the white-tailed eagle of Germany
shared between Ashkenazim and Germanic folk
fared poorly in the land of Israel.
Even the Iberian Imperial Eagle
shared between Sephardim and Spaniards
made people feel uneasy.
Loud peacock plumes intruded,
dragging the Jews of Iraq into the long dispute
between the Yazidi and the Muslims.
It was worst in Palestine, though,
with the Gaza Strip pinned between
Israel and the deep blue Mediterranean Sea,
the West Bank crowded against the River Jordan,
Israel itself feeling hemmed in from all sides,
and the border slicing through the holy city
like a knife through a fine tapestry.
They built walls --
they, who of all people,
should have known better
than to bring that bitter memory
back to life in their own land.
The Palestinians too
fought over every inch of land,
fought with rocks and fists
when the guns were gone.
There was no thought of sharing.
If anyone spoke of it --
aside from the nervous Germans
and appalled Americans
and other desperate diplomats --
they were quickly silenced by their neighbors.
Yet the wings
were not so easy to will away,
G-d's indelible hint hung on each human back.
Everywhere you could see them,
just as common as pigeons in Britain,
the nagging plumage of the Palestine sunbird:
the dark feathers sheened with metallic blue and green,
and hidden just where the wings joined the shoulders,
a prick of vermillion like sunlit blood
spilled by a secret blow.
People on both sides
refused to believe
that their ancestors
had ever been one flesh.
They turned on each other first,
with feather pecking learned from birds,
tearing out first the tailfeathers, then the pinions,
and on to coverts, pinfeathers, down.
In birds it was associated with stress from
poor diet and overcrowding, with hints of dominance.
In humans, there was no doubt of connection with aggression:
they were ruthless with each other, relishing the screams.
They took up feather-picking next
and tore the plumage from their own skin,
hoping to deny what they saw in themselves
or to hide from the sight of others who might see
in their wings a reason to attack.
In birds it was associated with stress from
small cage size, barren environment, or solitary housing.
People looked around the Middle East,
then looked away again,
It was compared to trichotillomania,
an impulse control disorder in humans.
Rockets. Rifles. Bottles and rags.
Glance away in silent shame.
It was like child abuse, some suggested,
the way Jews had been mistreated for so long
by other nations that they had perhaps forgotten
there was any other way to behave; and too,
the families torn apart by wars in Europe
raised up a legacy of dragon's teeth.
How could they not?
It was hard, so very hard,
to learn what one had never been taught.
So the politicians and
psychologists talked while
in the streets of Yerushaláyim
the feathers blew like multicolored snow.
They pecked at each other
and picked at themselves,
Jews and Palestinians,
Muslims and Christians,
others caught in the flurry
No matter what they did,
they could not tear out the connection
between themselves and others.
On some there was nothing left
but nicked and dimpled skin
on thin wings and stubby tails.
Others found themselves
clad in a different kind of skin,
with the leathery black wings
and broad tail flap of the
Egyptian slit-nosed bat.
"Fledermäuse," people whispered,
harsh rasp of German amidst warm Hebrew,
snagging ears and attention alike.
If evil walked among them
in the streets of the cities men made,
it was because they brought it upon themselves,
but they refused to see it so.
Those who retained the wings of birds
(with or without feathers)
tried to drive out
all the fledermäuse
with sticks and stones,
but they did not understand
how much malice loved missiles.
Picking and pecking
had done the Devil's work:
somehow the will to serve had gone out of them.
Even when G-d moved among them
and gave the gift of angels,
they would have it not.
They did not wish to see
what was written within them,
could not abide a touch
of the Truth made flesh.
So because G-d gave also
the gift of free will to mankind
the numinous, fluid currents of grace
parted around them as they passed by
like the waters of the River Jordan around a stone
only to close again behind them
and flow onward undisturbed.
whether near or very far indeed,
someone would go to the ocean with a cup.
* * *
The Persian Empire once covered much of the Middle East.
Joseph's coat is part of a famous story.
Jewish, Christian, and Muslim histories intertwine in complex and often violent ways.
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Fertile Crescent figure large in human history.
Egypt and the Nile River have many birds and other wildlife.
For this poem I researched birds of Iran, common birds of the Jordan River, the Sinai Bird Survey list, sacred and unclean birds.
In the Fledgling Grace setting, the glossy ibis correlates to the Cohanim, while the plumage of the pallid swift appears among other Jews.
The Persian wheatear lends its feathers to people from the broad expanse of the old Persian Empire.
The Egyptian goose matches with Egyptians and other people from that area.
The Sinai rosefinch correlates to Bedouins and some Jews. Mt. Sinai itself is a mystery. Some maps place it on the Sinai Peninsula, or in Arabia with supporting arguments.
The Palestine sunbird spans Palestinian and Jewish populations. It has been suggested as the national bird of Palestine. See the distinctive sunspots, the male's iridescent cape of feathers, and the female's drab plumage.
Read about the Palestinian territories and see a map of Israel and Palestine. Palestinian territory has shrunk as Israeli territory has expanded.
The Sephardim are the descendants of Jews from Spain, with a long conflicted history.
The West Bank Barrier has been compared to the Berlin Wall, the Warsaw Ghetto Wall, and other historic examples.
The Yazidi are a Kurdish religious group.
[To be continued ...]