Free As a Bird: Searching For The Sirdah Twins

In order for me to write poetry that isn’t political,
I must listen to the birds
and in order to hear the birds
the warplanes must be silent

– Marwan Makhoul

Before we moved to our new office, a man named Mister would visit regularly, checking in on us to make sure we were doing good (not well, good). Every once in a while he’d ask if he could use our phone to make a call, carrying his old rusted bike and smiling under black sunglasses. Other times he’d ask for me personally, just to chat and catch up as if we’d been old friends who’d lost touch. One day he stopped by and asked me how I ended up working for a bird organization. I told him how I was trained in journalism, was interested in doing communications work, and that birds were a mystery to me — something I knew nothing about. 

As I said this, I remember he paused and looked up in the direction of our office door. The only thing our old office had going for it was its beautiful hand-painted door by Bay Area muralist STEFEN, featuring a shoreline landscape and several different bird species. To the left of the door a sequence of birds appeared in flight against the wall ascending just above the top of the door frame.  

“Freedom,” Mister said. “Just look at them.” 

I remember thinking of all the things I had learned about birds since starting with the organization and yet, this symbolic projection, this equation of birds as an embodiment of freedom, felt so intuitive. Even knowing all of the challenges and threats birds faced, from human-caused habitat loss to climate change to natural predation, birds for so many have always felt like symbols of hope and freedom. And, ever since my conversation with Mister, I haven’t stopped thinking about their symbolism. 

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across an article titled “How Trapped Palestinians Fell in Love with Birdwatching” written in April by independent journalist Marta Vidal. This is how I learned of Mandy and Lara Sirdah. Forty-seven-year-old twin sisters who live in Gaza City and have been documenting birds and other wildlife there since 2005. Sisters who helped create the first checklist of birds in Gaza which was published last March. Sisters who are quoted in the article saying “Our movement is very restricted, we wish we were birds so we could move freely.” and “The birds help us deal with the pressures of our daily lives. They make us forget everything,”. 

After reading about the sisters’ story, I couldn’t help but remember my conversation with Mister. “Freedom. Just look at them.” 

It wasn’t long before I found the Sirdah sisters’ instagram account, an extremely active, almost daily stream of some flora and a lot of fauna, mainly birds. 7,132 posts of incredible wildlife photography. After October 6, there were no new posts for almost two months.

For a full week upon learning about the Sirdah twins I nervously thought about freedom, hope, and birds — checking every day to see if there were any new posts, a sign, a fieldmark to identify whether they were safe.

When nothing new showed up, I scrolled through their older posts; a Black Kite with its wings fully spread, a Spotted Crake wading in its own reflection, a Palestine Sunbird perched between barbed-wire teeth. I found myself using the “see translation” button, watching Arabic break into broken English. “Don’t let thinking destroy you…” begins one of the captions underneath a small passerine of unknown species (to me).

My heart was breaking.

I knew that if I saw a new bird, or at least a new photo of a bird in the account, it would mean something, something like hope. I was looking for activity, any sign of movement. 

I was reminded by a colleague about the history of Harriett Tubman as a naturalist. How she used an owl call to signal refugees and freedom fighters to come out of hiding and continue on their journey toward freedom on the Underground Railroad. I wondered if there were owls in Palestine. I checked the Birds of the Gaza Strip-Palestine Checklist. There are five different species of owls observed in Palestine; Barn Owl, European Scops-Owl, Little Owl, Long-eared Owl and Eurasian Eagle-Owl. I wondered if knowing this would bring me any kind of comfort. One sleepless night, I thought I was nocturnal. 

On Friday, December 1, a photo of a flowering cactus appeared on my feed and I immediately translated the Arabic caption. “The beginning of a new month, O Allah, make it the beginning of relief and the end of all worries. Have a good and blessed Friday.”

I stared at the cactus for a long, long time. The Sirdah sisters are alive.

I know because I’m looking at a cactus. I also know, I’m not looking at a bird. Instead, I stumbled upon a different symbol. When I looked up the plant to know its name, I learned in English, it’s called a Prickly Pear, and in Arabic, Sabr, meaning, patience.

In another article, this one by Atlas Obscura titled The Prickly Symbolism of Cactus Fruit in Israel and Palestine, Palestinian artist Ahmen Yasin is quoted saying “[The cactus plant] lives in the hardest environmental conditions. It lives in the desert. It resists drought. It endures the weather conditions. In the end, the product is the fruit.” The plant is apparently so common in Palestine that “For generations, Palestinians had used the hardy plants to form fences around their land.” 

I am thinking about the land. I am thinking about Prickly Pear outlines of a town where people used to live, before checkpoints, illegal settlements, displacement. I am thinking of resilience. I am thinking of the Sirdah twins.  I am thinking of birds. I am thinking of Mister. I am thinking of freedom, again. And what is freedom if not self-determination. And what is freedom if not a door with wings. Before we moved to our new office, we took a photo of the door, if only to prove it exists. I should find it. The door, that is. I want to remember the weight of it when held open. 

P.S. While we’re renaming birds, we should consider renaming one of the birds, Cease Fire. Maybe then I will keep a life list. I haven’t really seen it yet, I’ve heard it, but I haven’t seen it. I’m not sure if that counts. Can anyone tell me what it looks like? I read it might be threatened, endangered even. I am told it is not a permanent resident. When they see me with binoculars, and they ask what I am looking for, I will tell them, the elusive Cease Fire. I will ask them if they are also looking for it. I will suggest we look for it together. 

Ryan Nakano is the current Communications Director for Golden Gate Bird Alliance, a freelance journalist, amateur birder, and the author of poetry chapbook I Am Minor published by Nomadic Press. 

Blog Photo: Palestine Sunbird by محمد البدارين (Mohammed Badarin) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons