Amman, my life among birds
In my rush to present my urban upgrade to Amman, Jordan as sizzle, snap and pop, which it is by the way, (even after one month, I love it here all the more) I did leave out one itsy bitsy detail: I live in a birdcage.
Okay, okay, so I don’t live in a birdcage, ignore that for the moment, but I do live among the birds of Amman. I’m completely surrounded. From my top floor apartment, there are pigeons practicing yoga on the rooftops, crows gossiping on my windowsills, and some variety of tiny songbirds, can’t tell what they are, flying around the balcony each morning singing happy tunes. They’re in Arabic, I can’t decipher them, yet. And of course, the English sparrows.
There’s also a wily rooster living directly below me. Yeah, you know, a cock. That’s right, gallus gallus domesticus. Et pullus. Chickens, too. He, The Flamboyant One, (not his real name) lives in the birdcage, a.k.a. the chicken coop, pictured right, with bread sacks atop it. He’s rather large in size, weighs at least 3 kilos, and solid black. From my fieldwork investigations I’d say he’s a Spanish Black Castellana, they’ve been selectively bred and are well known for their motto: no ducor, duco, “I am not led, I lead.” The Flamboyant One is usually one beat ahead of Adhan, the sunrise chant that calls all Muslims to pray, sent out from the nearby Minaret by a Muezzin.
A month ago when I moved into the apartment in the late afternoon, I was charmed by the rooster’s crowing routine. How delightfully quaint. But when he started up the next morning at 4:39 a.m., I jumped straight up out of bed. Egads, he’s crowing at 4:39 in the freaking morning! The screeching reverberated off the limestone walls of the adjacent apartment buildings and continued every 30 seconds until 10 a.m. when he took a brief respite. At 10:15, The Flamboyant One was back on the job until he stopped for lunch at 1 p.m. Afterwards he disappeared into his modest abode for a very long nap rousing occasionally to step outside, sniff the breeze, stretch his wings, showoff his fancy wattles and flashy red comb, pick at a piece of bread, or potato peel, whatever is left for him by his devoted caregivers. Last rooster crow, sunset.
Don’t ask me how I know all this: endless note taking, fact checking and rechecking, jotting down the rooster’s hourly behaviors, interpreting meaning out of each flap of the wing, and worst of all — taking samples. Surely it must be obvious what’s happened to me. I’ve become a fowl anthropologist. Bioarchaeologist, whatever. To be a legit bioarchaeologist though, I’ll have to get a look-see at his bones before I leave. . .more on that later.
Anyway, you get the point. It’s been the same every day for over a month. Endless crowing, and the reason I say to passersby on the streets, I live in a birdcage. Of course now that the sunrise is later, I can sleep until 6:40-ish. I’ve tried to remedy the situation: I turn on a fan and put it by my head to muffle the screeching. I’ve shut the windows and suffocated in the heat all September. Lately, I’ve simply given up, or given in to the bondage of birdcalls.
Once before I’d witnessed this kind of behavior from a rooster. It was when I was visiting a friend in San Francisco. This particular gallus gallus domesticus acted in similar fashion — crowing to wake the dead. The renters on the first floor apartment near Golden Gate Park kept chickens penned up in the back of the apartment. With each crack of dawn that California bird would give it his all. Repeatedly. However in San Francisco, unlike Amman, one can just shut the windows to blot out the clamor of farm animals. Not so in Amman. All the windows should remain open at night to allow in the desert winds to cool down the houses, apartments, unless you want to wake up completely covered in sweat. I have.
Yet, it’s easy to understand why people are raising chickens these days. They need the eggs. It’s much healthier to raise our own chickens – just like our ancestors/relatives used to do in “the good ole days.” My tongue is in my cheek. But check out this article http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/22/business/22eggs.html that ran in the NYT this past summer on the “Salmonella Enteritidis King” Austin J. DeCoster, one of the biggest egg producers in America. DeCoster’s egg operations are located in Iowa, so Iowans be warned: get your bird flu shots early and often!
Back to my life in a birdcage:
Normally, I’m not like this. Birds are very important messengers to American Indians. The eagle is a powerful symbol of protection and valor in warfare, and highly revered, and there are hawks, ravens, also beloved for their variety of interactions with native peoples. Even the owl is a special kind of messenger. I should also mention that our tribal newspaper at the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is called, Biskinik, meaning the newsbird. And I do love all birds and wildlife. In fact, I’m quite partial to shooting, grilling, and eating doves. “Grain feeders” as we Okies like to call them in the parlance of our homelands. Doves are cousins of pigeons in the group known as Columbidae within the order of Columbiforms. Doves are superior in all ways. Sacred in some cultures. Who can forget Mourning Dove, the Salish author who wrote Cogewea, the Half-Blood. No one names themselves, or his or her kid, “Mourning Pigeon.” And nowadays city pigeons are inedible. Trash eaters. Believe you me up close and personal as I see them every morning on the windowsills, looking around for a morsel of garbage, I must report — pigeons are downright disgusting.
But chickens are a different breed of fowl. They don’t go all to pieces when trapped in a small city garden. In fact, they thrive in cities just waiting for a chance to have a go at their captors. And really, who can blame them?
Once when I was two and a half, maybe three, I accidently wandered inside my mother’s chicken pen. She kept chickens. We were living in Bethany and while our house was only a block from the Wiley Post Airport, we had a large vegetable garden, a cement cellar, and two dogs named Skippy and Tex, plus some chickens and a rooster from hell.
I don’t know how I got into the chicken pen, but I did. Before I knew what was happening our big black rooster, most likely a distant Spanish ancestor of The Flamboyant One had jumped on my back. What I do remember clearly was trying to run away as he was pecking at my hair, clawing my back and face. It was like that scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s, movie The Birds. You know the one where the kids are running down the street, screaming with blackbirds pecking their ears. I still have a faint scar that our rooster gave me under my right eye. Mom said he was trying to peck out my eye. Awesome.
Chickens, purportedly are one more damn thing that the Spanish brought to American Indians. That’s why I think it’s ironic that the two roosters I’ve had dealings with are Spanish Black Castellanas. Recently though, a new archaeological survey suggests that radiocarbon dating coupled with DNA analysis of a chicken bone in far west South America points to our friends the Polynesians as the true culprits for bringing chickens to the New World. All I can say is fight it out amongst yourselves, whether Polynesian or Spanish, either brand will wind up in the frying pan at my house.
After Mom cleaned me up and doctored my eye, all those years ago, she grabbed a large butcher knife and went outside. Our rooster became dinner. “Tough old bird,” she’d say, laughing softly, whenever she’d retell the story. The rest of that day for me is totally blank. Trauma usually affects me that way.
Of course I have other childhood recollections of birds. My grandmother kept many varieties of songbirds in birdcages on the back porch of her house in Ada. Each morning, she’d talk to them, and they would apparently talk to her. She used to scare me to death with stories of birds turning into beings, and how she herself once flew over my hospital bed as a large bird. I’ve written about Grandmother’s life with mysterious birds in “The Story of America: A Tribalography,” and in several other memoir-like stories. And there was my character in Shell Shaker, Grandmother of Birds.
Like most women of her era, my grandmother kept chickens. One Sunday when we were staying at her house, she asked me to help clean a fat hen after she’d killed it. ”You should learn how to do this,” she said. I was probably six or seven and hadn’t yet understood what “you should learn this,” really meant. She used a big knife. Then she put the hen in a hot washtub of boiling water. After a few minutes, she brought it out of the water and we pulled all the feathers off. A big smelly messy job. It seemed to take hours, but I’m sure it didn’t. She then cut up the hen, floured it, fried it, made cream gravy and mashed potatoes covered in creamery butter. By the time we sat down for dinner, I’d completely forgotten where the meat came from. To this day, I still remember how her southern fried chicken tasted cooked in a cast iron skillet.
Here in Amman, I’ve noticed that the frozen chickens in the markets are called “Grillers” and on the packaging it says they are killed in the Islamic tradition, halal, “by the hand with a large knife.” This sounds right to me, given my history. While Choctaws and Cherokees weren’t replicating Islamic traditions, we always used large knives to kill and butcher our meats. If you think it’s cruel and unusual treatment for the chickens, you haven’t been keeping up with current events. Take a look at this news report about how chicken is being processed these days for fast food restaurants?
Whew, what a way to go! Much worse than anything I could imagine. In the few hours left to me during the night, I’ve dreamt that The Flamboyant One dies in a horrible accident, mowed down by one of Amman’s fast maneuvering yellow taxis. I admit zipping in, around, and through six or seven lanes of Amman traffic in a tiny hybrid car punctuates the central nervous system like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, save psychedelic drugs. More on driving fast in the Middle East while playing with my Arabizi . . . in the next blog. Suffice to say that seeing the Spanish Black Castellana rubbed out on the payment right in front of my eyes seems like an accident waiting to happen . . . gate left open, time of night. You get the picture. Of course in the same pre-dawn dream, I’m being interviewed by the Muhaberat asking me about the cause of death of the neighbor’s pet rooster. Smiling devilishly as if I’ve got a secret like one of the female vamps in the TV commercials for True Blood, I shrug and say, “Maabarif.” I don’t know.
In another of my crazy dreams, The Flamboyant One is ripped wing-by-feather, thrown to the four winds by a blast from a particularly nasty dust devil, (desert tornado) along with the crows, pigeons, and hens.
So okay, okay, enough of counting crows and killing cocks. After re-reading the report about the smushed-up chickens in an industrial sieve, all pink goo and everything, I’ve had fitful dreams. Listen, the food here in Amman is fabulous. So are the fresh eggs. And given my snootiness about food, I don’t think I’ll be eating that pink stuff any time soon. Regardless, this morning I woke up half worried that something might have happened to the poor rooster downstairs. I was sick at heart, feeling guilty especially after all the disasters I’d wished would befall him. Within seconds though, I heard his familiar obnoxious voice, and I grabbed my camera to get his picture, as well as the other birds I live among.
Pictured above, The Flamboyant One, alive and well and living in a beautiful garden in Amman, filled with fig trees, a grape arbor, flanked by a rose garden, and a row of enormous cactus plants.
Oh by the way, this evening I bought a griller and cooked dinner for myself. Southern fried chicken, potatoes and peas, and cream gravy. It was the least I could do.
Allah yatiki al-aafi.